Cycling - Road Time Trial

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The victor, who foolishly finished so quickly that he was back before the pub had even opened.

It wasn't terribly in keeping with the shambolic nature of this quest thus far, but I went to bed early (and sober) last night. I wasn't worried about making it around the course today - 30 miles probably sounds like a fair distance if you don't do much cycling, but it's really not that far. This event for the real Olympians is the sprint event. The really hard road race is the other one; you're allowed to draft, your time is generally unimportant and long sections are run at a pedestrian pace. Oh yeah, and it's five times longer than today's effort.

No, I went to bed early because I fancied that with some decent weather (i.e., no wind and no rain) and a course that I'd been promised was "pretty flat" I had a good chance of going under two hours for the 50KM. I woke up refreshed and ready for anything - even more so when I looked outside and saw a clear blue sky and not a breath of wind disturbing anything.

It was all downhill from there - or perhaps in keeping with the topic in hand, I should say it was all uphill.

It wasn't ideal that I had to cycle 10KM to get to the start but at the time I tried to put a positive spin on it and treated it like a warm up, not letting myself push any high gears and just coasting along. I quite enjoyed that bit.

At the start of the race (which was a race for no one but me - for everyone else, it was a leisurely sponsored cycle through the Oxfordshire countryside on a Sunday morning) I set off with intent and (even better) with Gareth (above). I had been slightly worried that this might turn into another 50KM walk scenario where I set off in front and no one came with me, but half a mile in, I realised Gareth was on my back wheel and invited him past so that I could sit on his for a while and conserve some energy.

Or, as it turned out, so that I could fail to find a matching gear and instead watch him disappear into the distance. He very kindly looked back a few times and eased up, waiting for me to join him, but the first hill did for me and he was gone.

The opening was tough, with hill after relentless hill presenting itself. I was vaguely familiar with this bit of the course though and knew I just had to hang in there for a little while and I'd hit a big descent, at the bottom of which was a mile and a half that was relatively flat, or at worst only a little uphill. If I toughed it out, I thought, I might even be able to catch up with, or at least catch sight of, Gareth at the bottom of the drop.

And I did... sort of. I caught a fleeting glimpse of his arse disappearing around a corner about a mile and a half away. I pounded on anyway. Beyond that corner I had no idea what lay ahead, but I dared to hope that the worst of the climbing was over. Hope is a foolish thing and should never be entertained while sport is in progress by anyone other than fans and commentators.

Around that corner lay a quaint little church, followed by one of those tree-lined hills that is so steep you can't see the top of it. All you see in front of you is road, like a mocking grey wall. An entirely involuntary cry of "Bastard!" escaped my lips, rather loudly, and much to the tutting disapproval of a late-comer to the church service.

I soldiered on, but quickly had to drop a gear, and then another, and then another, and then there weren't any more gears left to drop, so I had to stand up out of the saddle, and then I stopped being able to make it go forward at all, so I had to get off and push. All I could think, the whole way to the top (which thankfully wasn't all that far), was that I was glad I was far enough ahead of the rest that they couldn't see me and far enough behind Gareth that he couldn't either. I felt much better about it all later when I found out that he had made it to the top without getting off his bike, but once there had had to stop for a quick tactical puke.

I knew that was going to be my lowest moment. I had seen it on the elevation chart of the course - it's the line that goes virtually vertical at the end of the seventh mile in the picture in the preview - so I knew there was nothing worse to come. What also encouraged me was something I'd overheard at the start.

There was a "Road Closed" coming up sometime soon, but we were to ignore it because we would be turning off before the closure onto something I'd heard described as "a really beautiful piece of road."

And it was - about two and a half miles of newly surfaced black licorice that was all descent. At one point, I was doing close to 40 miles an hour, the climbs forgotten, the wind howling in my ears, and my tyres almost noiseless. By the end of it, I'd nearly reached the halfway mark. I checked my time (as I had been doing every five kilometres) and discovered that the long drop had brought me back bang on two hour pace for 50KM. The course was a little shorter than that. Hope appeared again, and almost as soon as it did, so did another climb.

So it went for the rest of the ride. I would climb, swearing my way to the top of the rises through the freshening wind (which was maybe more demoralising than the gradient) and in doing so would lose all hope of making it home in under two hours. Then I would descend, smiling and (once) even yelping with childlike delight at the speed of it all, and in doing so would build hope again.

Each repetition of this cycle however saw me climbing more slowly, taking longer at the top to catch my breath, and less in control on the way down as my whole body - legs first - turned progressively to jelly. I began to accept that I wasn't going to make it.

In the end, I appeared back on a familiar road much closer to the end than I had anticipated and suddenly thought I might still have a chance to beat my target. I hammered at the pedals rather pathetically, but it was all in vain. As I arrived at the finish, my onboard clock clicked over to 12:07. It had taken me two hours and two minutes.

It was amazing how soon after getting off my bike I felt much better.

Gareth had finished in about one hour and fifty-six minutes - a fine effort for which I rewarded him with complex carbohydrate energy drink (you probably know it as Carlsberg).

In 1920, the result was decided late when it turned out that one of the competitors had been held up for four minutes at a level crossing. There were three of them on our course, and I approached each one praying for a four minute breather, but all to no avail.

I also thought at one point that I might have to take a diversion when I saw a sign that said no vehicles weighing in excess of 7.5 tonnes were permitted to pass. My legs felt at least twice as heavy as that by then.

I also got attacked by a dragonfly, which spent what I'm sure was a very unpleasant half a mile trying to get out from between my shirt and my jacket. It could have been worse. Marie got stung by a wasp that tried to annex her shoe.

All in all, I feel like I achieved something this morning - or at least more than I usually do on a Sunday morning - and on top of that, I now have less than a hundred events left to do. At my current rate of event completion, I should finish in time for the games in 2020. Unless I get injured.

The average speed of the winner of the time trial in Sydney in 2000 was 48.75KM per hour. My average speed was 23.6KM per hour. I make that 48% Olympian. Not bad for a warm up. The main road race is 150 miles long - or five laps of the circuit I did this morning. I may have to build my fitness a bit more before I take that on.

Result of Cycling - Road Time Trial - 48KM in 2 hrs 2 minutes - 48% Olympian

Cycling - Road Time Trial Preview

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The individual road time trial is contested at the Olympics over a course that can vary in length from 45 to 55 km. Riders start at 90 second intervals and the fastest time wins. Simple really.

Tomorrow, I’ll be cycling a little over 48km to raise money for Sobell House and to tick another event off the list.

The road time trial was first staged in the Olympics of 1912 in Stockholm over a slightly longer course (196 miles, no less) around a lake. The first riders had to be set off at two o’clock in the morning in order to get everyone round the course. There was no shortage of mishap in that first race. A few hundred yards from the start line, a Swedish rider was hit by a motor-wagon. Further round the course, a Russian rider fell into a ditch and lay there unconscious until he was discovered some time later by a passing farmer.

I’ve been known to fall of my bike from time to time, but as yet not into a ditch. I’m hoping I can keep that record going tomorrow.

In 1920, in Antwerp, the course was intersected by six railway crossings. Officials were placed at each one to record any enforced delay to the riders. Initially, it appeared that the South African Henry Kaltenburn had won, but it later turned out that Harry Stenqvist from Sweden had been held up for four minutes at a level crossing and when that delay had been accounted for, he was declared the winner.

There was a 60 year hiatus during which no road time trial was staged at an Olympic games, but it was reintroduced in Atlanta in 1996, where professionals were permitted to compete in cycling events for the first time.

Having won the Tour de France 5 times in a row between 1991 and 1995, Miguel Indurain was finally dethroned in 1996 and managed to finish only 11th. Exhausted, and no doubt slightly demoralised, he seriously thought about dropping out of the Olympics (which had already started on the other side of the Atlantic). It took a personal appeal from his close friend (and president of the IOC at the time) Juan Antonio Samaranch to persuade him to compete.

In the road race, held just ten days after the end of the Tour de France, Indurain finished a disappointing 26th. Three days later, he won the time trial – an event in which he was the defending world champion at the time – by twelve seconds from his fellow Spaniard Abraham Manzano, and by half a minute from Britain’s Chris Boardman.

Also in that race – finishing sixth, nearly two and a half minutes behind Indurain – was a relatively unknown American rider who was to discover just two months later that his body was riddled with cancer.

By the time he turned up in Sydney four years later, Lance Armstrong had undergone surgery and chemotherapy, and then started winning the Tour de France - by the time of the Olympics, he had just won his second of the seven consecutive Tour de France titles he would eventually pick up. A month before the Olympics, he crashed into a car in training, breaking a vertebrae in his neck. Despite that, he still lined up as co-favourite with Jan Ullrich, but in the end finished only third behind the German and Vyacheslav Ekimov, who snuck past them both to claim gold.

Having gained a taste for medals, Ekimov claimed a silver in the event in 2004 (Armstrong by then was focusing purely on winning the Tour de France every year) behind the American Tyler Hamilton.

As the course varies in length each time, there isn’t really a world record for this event, but my target is to break two hours. I’ve been cycling to and from work most days throughout the summer, but that’s a mere 10km a day with only one tiny hill to negotiate, so I might struggle with that.

Kev assures me that tomorrow’s route is quite flat, but I note from the map above that there is more than 1000 feet of elevation to climb over the course, and as anyone who has seen that terrible Hugh Grant film knows, a thousand feet makes a mountain.

[With thanks, as ever to David Wallechinsky's superb The Complete Book of the Olympics for all the historical factoids]

Baseball (well, sort of)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Baseball - In the Spirit of Barry Bonds

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Different photographs, same player. But he didn't take any steroids. No, sir.

When I first started this challenge (almost three years ago) I gathered up a few books to read by way of preparatory research. I would classify them roughly as “men having mid-life crises via the medium of ridiculous challenges”.

I read about Dave Gorman’s efforts to find other people called Dave Gorman, I studied Danny Wallace’s bid to have people join him (without ever telling them why), I examined in great detail Tony Hawks’ travails as he travelled around Ireland with a fridge, and I devoured Tim Moore’s account of his attempt to cycle the route of the Tour de France.

Two common themes emerged: the vital role played by alcohol in the initial conception of the challenge, and the importance of bending the rules of your challenge to accommodate the fact that it was maybe a bit too ambitious (and you were maybe a bit too drunk) when you came up with it in the first instance.

Having mirrored the first theme exactly (and continuously throughout the last three years), it’s now time to tackle the second theme and start bending the rules a little. Appropriately enough, in the week that one of US sport’s most notorious alleged cheats hit his 756th home run [YouTube] to become the new all-time home run leader, it’s with a bit of baseball cheating of my own that I’m going to begin.

As you will know if you’ve been paying attention (or as you can learn of you read the previous entry), I attended a baseball training session with the Oxford Kings several weeks ago. That night I batted, I threw the ball, I caught the ball and I generally ran around a lot chasing the ball. By the end of the session, I felt like I’d done more than enough to get a flavour of the game and to tick it from the list.

Promised an actual game that weekend however, I didn’t tick it off the list but looked forward instead to my first start in a baseball game. In the end, the game was abandoned due to lack of players.

Last night, I got roped into playing softball for the Oxford Angels. Although I’ve played before, I still don’t really know what I’m doing, but last night, I crossed some sort of understanding threshold, if not completely, then enough to realise that the game we were playing was exciting as it came down to the wire.

Despite trailing by several runs going into the bottom of the seventh (the final innings), we won. I displayed what I can only describe as incredibly uncharacteristic restraint twice in the last two innings when I got walked. I stepped up to bat and just watched ball after hittable ball float past me (and past the plate), all the while knowing that if I swung at one and got out Captain Jamie wouldn’t be very pleased.

In short, reader, I got involved in the ebb and flow of a baseball-derived game, and frankly, I’m ticking it off the list. Not only that, but I played softball too, which is on the girl’s list!

Baseball is the sort of game I think I could grow to like watching if I was exposed to it for any length of time, but I’ve always said that I didn’t think it belonged in the Olympics (and, along with softball, after Beijing, it won’t be on the programme anymore). For now though, I’m through with this leg of my challenge.


I got called back for more on Thursday night. It was the last game of the season, so the other team turned up in some very innovative fancy dress.

Yes, the catcher does have a pair of wings, but her outfit was fairly tame. There was a tiger in left field.

There was an angel catching, so naturally third base was being covered by...

Satan! Biting her nails.

There's video of the aftermath of this in the next post.

Baseball Preview

Friday, June 22, 2007

I might kill two birds with one stone on Sunday and get the boxing out of the way too.

Last night, I attended a practice session with the Oxford Kings baseball team. On Sunday, I will be making my debut and ticking baseball off the Olympic list.

In 2005, the IOC voted to remove baseball from the Olympic programme for the 2012 Olympics. It remains an Olympic sport though and there will be votes in future that may see it reinstated to the programme. My list was drawn up at the end of the Athens games though, so I need to have a go at it.

Baseball is a bit of an Olympic tart. She turned up to a number of Olympic parties and flirted with everyone before disappearing for years at a time without so much as a word or a phone call.

She first showed up without an invite in 1904 but somehow blagged her way into the St Louis Olympics anyway. She then staggered in again eight years later in Stockholm when an American team played Sweden (and beat them 13-3). In Berlin in 1936, two American teams played each other for no apparent reason (or medal). In Helsinki in 1952, Baseball slipped quietly in the back door dressed as a Finn as two teams from the host nation played a modified version of the sport, which they imaginatively called Finnish Baseball. There was a one game exhibition between the US and Australia in Melbourne in 1956, and the Japanese then took on the yanks in a similar fashion in Tokyo in 1964.

After twenty years away, baseball returned and made an exhibition of herself in the 1984 games when someone got around to arranging a tournament in Los Angeles (Japan beat the US in the final). In 1988, she was upgraded from an “exhibition” to a “demonstration” sport (and the US beat Japan in the final). Finally, in Barcelona in 1992, the Olympic games made an honest woman (or “official sport”) of baseball.

Since the IOC started dishing out medals, Cuba has won three gold and a silver, the US has managed one gold and one bronze, and Japan has managed one silver and two bronze. Australia and Taiwan have each won one silver, while South Korea managed a bronze in 2000.

I’m not sure where I stand on baseball as an Olympic sport. One criterion I broadly apply is that if winning the gold medal at the Olympics isn’t the pinnacle of the sport, then the sport shouldn’t be in the Olympic games. That certainly applies to baseball. You can say what you like about the misnomer, but the World Series is where it’s at if you’re into baseball. The game is played and loved in many other countries of course, but I doubt there are many top class participants in those countries who would turn down the opportunity to play Major League Baseball if it arose.

I doubt any such opportunity will be doing much arising for me. The practice session last night was fine – I can catch the ball most of the time, I can throw the ball roughly where I was meaning to throw it most of the time, and I can hit the ball with the bat now and again - but as with all new sports, it’s hard to do those simple things when you’re also trying to remember which particular simple thing you’re supposed to be doing.

I haven’t played a game of baseball before, but I’ve played a little softball since I’ve lived in Oxford. My abiding memories of doing so involve people shouting at me “Stop running!” at moments when it seemed logical to me to be running very fast indeed, people shouting at me “Hold on to the ball!” at moments when it seemed logical to me to throw the ball as hard as I could to someone standing on a base, and people shouting at me “Run! For the love of Jesus, run!” when it seemed logical to me to just stand and admire the shot I had just hit.

In short, logic (or at least what passes for logic in my brain) has very little to do with baseball. I think on Sunday I’ll just turn up and try to do exactly what I’m told. It won’t be easy, but there’s a first time for everything I suppose.

I'll be hoping for as little of this kind of outcome as possible.

Happy Birthday, Paavo

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Spookily enough, having mentioned him on Monday, today would have been Paavo Nurmi's 110th birthday*. It feels like an omen, dragging me towards finishing the challenge next year at the Helsinki marathon.

There is an interesting article all about Nurmi and his amazing Olympic career on the IOC website. I highly recommend it, particularly for the video footage at the end [will launch a new media player].

There is also a profile of the Flying Finn here that's worth a read. Inspiring stuff. I might go for a run tonight.

*It's a shame he died in 1973. If he were still alive, he could have looked forward next year to confusing a radio D.J. in Northern Ireland who once infamously read a request on air "This one's for Mary, a hundred and eleven years old today! Amazing! Well done, Mary." He played the song and at the end of it rather sheepishly announced "That one was for Mary who, contrary to initial reports, is actually ill and not 111. Sorry about that, folks. Sorry, Mary."

Olympics 101

Monday, June 11, 2007

This challenge has its roots in being a bit rubbish. In a way, I was inspired to take it up in order to teach myself a lesson – that I’m not as good at all things sporting as I tend to think I am – but as it turns out, it has highlighted many other areas in which I am a bit rubbish.

I’m a bit rubbish at organising myself. I’m a bit rubbish at motivating myself. I’m a bit rubbish at getting on with it.

Strangely though, it’s something a bit rubbish that has inspired me to get back on this Olympic horse; compared to the new Olympic logo – sorry, brand – I feel quite professional, organised, and, let’s face it, not quite so rubbish.

New inspiration aside, I have been quite tempted for quite a while to admit defeat and just knock this all on the head.

The regular reader – or at least, the regular reader who hasn’t completely abandoned hope that I might write something new here (hi, mum) – will no doubt have worked out that my mood tends to swing more often than Tiger Woods on the practice ground. It’s a blessing and a curse. Without such mental highs, it would never have occurred to me to embark on anything quite so ambitious and foolish in the first place; without such mental lows, I would have completed many more events by now.

Today marks the beginning of the 147th week of the challenge. I have completed a mere 27 events so far, which means I am 63.5 events behind schedule and still have 101 events to complete before the next games in China. The opening ceremony in Beijing is scheduled for August 8th 2008, which is less than 60 weeks away.

I may have left myself too much to do – worse still, I might have let myself get boxed-in like some latter day Tom McKean – but all I can do is try, which, if memory serves, is all I ever set out to do in the first place.


There are a few events in the pipeline for the summer months already. On 15th July, I will be riding the 30km time trial with Kev on the roads in and around Oxford (if you want to join us, drop me a mail). On 11th August, Kev and I will be playing in a beach volleyball tournament in Gloucester (Kev can be my wingman anytime), and on 9th September, I will be running in the Anthony Nolan Trust Only Fools Run over the cross country course at Blenheim (instead of doing it on a horse, which, I have been reliably informed, would almost certainly result not only in my death, but quite possibly the death of the horse as well).

I’m also getting ahead of myself and trying to figure out how to finish the challenge in August of next year. The final event of the games is always the marathon, and I think it would make sense for me to do that last as well, not least because it’s the event I will need the most time to recover from. Doing a marathon in the UK in August perhaps isn’t overly wise though, so I’ve been looking at some alternative venues.

The most interesting ones so far are: Stockholm (you get to finish in the 1912 Olympic stadium), Reykjavik (should be nice and cool), Omsk (see Reykjavik), Helsinki (which also features an Olympic stadium finish) and the Isle of Man. A lot will probably depend on the timing of the events, but at the moment, I’m leaning towards Helsinki, not least because of the Paavo Nurmi connection. Any thoughts?