Best bicycle mountpoint for action camera

Lockdown, maturing technologies and dropping prices have nudged me into an unexpected new diversion: filming bike routes. I’ve always found virtual trainers and on-line cycling simulators vaguely interesting. But not that interesting. I was into Zwift for a long time, then one morning I woke up and discovered I wasn’t.

Nowadays for the time being Rouvy is my virtual cycling world. It suits me fine. Rouvy is real life video and real life routes, some user submitted and the quality can be variable. Having said that, there is a certain quirky charm in some of the amateur videos that is missing from the professionally shot official routes. I fancied giving it a go for my tri club‘s local routes. With cameras coming down in price, it was worth a punt.

There’s loads of good information out there on how to film from your bike, but I couldn’t find much on the best way to attach the camera to your frame. I’ve tried filming from under the handlebars on a quadlock mount, and that works ok but the bike movement is noticeable, especially out the saddle.

So I decided to try an experiment. I chose to film a 5km out and back run along the Broom Park railway lines just outside Durham. Rouvy allows you to create run routes too and I thought this might make a good test (even though I don’t have a treadmill).

I have two Apeman action cameras, an A77 and an A100. The A77 was an impulse buy and is a bit cranky. I lost the battery cover while trying it out in the Tweed Valley Tunnel run in 2019 and haven’t done much with it since. The battery cover loss isn’t actually such a big deal after all since a bit of old cut-to-fit credit card does a surprisingly decent job.

I’ve just bought the A100 as it was cheap, and has image stabilisation. So here was my setup:

A77 on handlebars and A100 on headtube

The A77 (top) is easy to fit on the quadlock mount. Fastening a camera to the headtube of a modern frame on a gravel bike with a chunky headtube was far trickier than I expected. The diameter of the headtube is close to 60mm and most brackets or clamps are not designed for this size. I wasn’t averse to putting the big chunky clamp for my DSLR on the headtube but it was just beyond its limits and didn’t really work. So in the end I chose the universal solution: A couple of plastic cable ties and a basic bolt. Seems ok.

Results were mixed. Exasperatingly, the A100 was tilted slightly upwards, and gave a nausea-inducing view of the just-above the path. The A77 view was much cleaner. The difference was less conclusive than I thought; I was expecting the headtube mounted camera to be much more stable, but in reality I’m finding it difficult to be objective about how much difference there really is. The A100 is a fraction of the price of a GoPro so I expect some differences, although the basic spec (4K and image stabilisation) is what I’m really interested in.

The main question I have about the A100 at the moment is what FOV to choose: Narrow, Medium or Wide. What’s best for a Rouvy film? I suspect Wide but I need to do a few tests to compare the differences. Annoyingly, the A100 seems to forget changes to its defaults between power cycles so everytime I switch it on, I have to change the FOV to whatever I want. I don’t know if the default setting can be changed.

The video below shows my handlebar/headset comparison. I have to say I’m pretty disappointed. The uptilt on the A100 makes the comparison very difficult. The video has about 4 or 5 clips of the same section of railway path. The brake leavers on the A100 are a frequent intrusion, and I’m going to scratch my head on getting the camera further out front. Attaching a broom handle to the top tube (cable-ties!) was one thought. Always interested in others.

The Saris M2 trainer – 6 months later

Six months down the line and my slightly scary Saris M2 seems to have settled down. A query on my August 2020 post where I noted the spectacular demise of my tacx trainer tyre prompted me to have a quick recap.

I replaced my tacx trainer tyre with a Zaffiro pro trainer tyre and have now done about 800km on it.

Vittoria Zaffiro pro trainer tyre

I did another ‘turn test’ – something I hadn’t done for a while. It now takes 4 or 5 full turns to get to the click, compared to the 6 to 8 back in July 2020.

The only other observation I might make is the importance of tyre pressure. I usually have the tyre at 110-120 psi, and any underinflation tends to noticeably increased noise. Wear seems very slightly off-centre on mine but it seems to be of no consequence.

Vittoria trainer tyre on Saris M2

the tacx tyre and the Saris M2

Tacx trainer tyre

So there I was, plodding up some pass in the Czech republic, slogging steadily through the middle of a Rouvy server, minding my own business, when BANG! A mechanical! On a smart trainer. A blowout.

I hopped off my bike and moved to the side of the road. Fished out the tyre levers, which had conveniently appeared on a nearby workbench, and had a look at the problem.

Tacx trainer tyre – exhibit A
Tacx trainer tyre – Exhibit B

I have my doubts about the Saris M2. I miss my Tacx Vortex. It’s a pity that it fizzed and sparkled when I tried to fix it. It’s pretty much unfixable now. It’s now a perfectly functioning not-smart trainer though. The Saris M2, with its scary clutch knob, makes me nervous. So much tyre squashing involved.

Moving to a dedicated trainer tyre was definitely a good move. It’s quieter and smoother. Not sure about the battery life though. Is it connected to the trainer? Is it a co-incidence that since changing to the Saris M2 that the cracks have begun to show in my trainer tyre?

On the surface of things I certainly seemed to have a smoking gun. But I’m a bit puzzled. Admittedly the tyre is not looking its best, but I was surprised it had resulted in such a rowdy blowout. I decided that it was just a fluke, and the tyre had a bit of life in it yet.

Tacx trainer tyre

I wasn’t wrong. There was some life yet. Another 12 minutes to be precise. Then there was another loud bang, not dissimilar to the first one. Luckily I had another nearly new tacx trainer tyre, I just had to find it. I was nearly at the top of the pass too. Annoying.

The new tyre is on, and today I managed to complete the ride without a mechanical. But I’m really, really not sure about the Saris M2. Surely a tyre was never designed to be quite so squashy …

Tacx trainer tyre

Adjusting the Clutch Knob tension on the Saris M2 Smart Trainer

Goodbye to the Tacx Vortex

My Tacx Vortex packed up. I was a bit surprised. Five years it’s been turning round and round with various degrees of resistance and I’ve always taken it a bit for granted. Then recently, when trying to pair it to Rouvy, I noticed nothing was happening. No lights, no connection.

I was in denial for a while. When something has worked fine for 5 years then doesn’t, it’s a bit of an adjustment. After changing the power and plug and digging around with a multimeter, it was clear it really was dead.

I lifted the hood, had a google, and it looks like it’s a thing. A thread on reveals a few people with tantalisingly dead Tacx trainers. I don’t fancy prodding the PCB with a soldering iron – my soldering skills were never that good – but I might one day revisit this.

The R64 resistor gets a few mentions and the one on my PCB looks like after 5 years it’s decided to call it a day.

I was discovering how much I’d taken the trainer for granted. The Tacx Vortex is a really simple affair, with a straightforward lever that presses the roller against your back wheel. I liked it a lot. Smart Trainers are hugely variable in price and the Vortex hit a nice entry-level sweet point when I bought it in 2015, and now it was dead.

Or, more precisely, dumb. Clearly I could use it as a dumb trainer, like in olden times. But I was surprised how quickly I’d adjusted to, and taken for granted, having real virtual resistance, or virtually real resistance, as I slogged up an alpine pass in the comfort of my garage. I needed another smart trainer.

Looking for a new Smart Trainer

Time for another shock or two, or three. The Vortex was no longer available. And Smart Trainers are pretty expensive. Even cheap ones are expensive. And as we pedal virtually through the post-Covid apocalypse, they are very hard to find.

I was quite keen on a wheel-on trainer. Mostly because they’re a lot cheaper, but also because you can use it to road-test, or pseudo-road-test, an old bike. During lockdown I’d rebuilt two old steel bikes and learned a lot on the way. Mostly about the joys of trying to adjust a cup and cone Campag bottom bracket. And I was discovering that the best place to discover that you hadn’t adjusted it very well, was not somewhere a long way from home.

I bought the Saris M2 Smart Trainer. I wanted to stick with Tacx, but price and availability were against me. Despite many of the alarming reviews for the M2 I decided to take a risk. It was the only one around my budget, in stock, and available to pick up.

There’s a good review, or non-review, of the M2 by Jeff Whitfield on the website. I have to say my experiences almost exactly reflect his. He mentions adding the bolt action tube was difficult. My experience was identical. Initially I assumed that I was doing something wrong and I kept checking and re-checking the documentation until I was convinced I was right, and eventually it jostled in. It was in the right place but the engineering felt a bit rough.

Same story for the resistance unit. After many “this can’t be right” moments I tentatively tapped the bolt through the frame, having constantly checked the alignment and kept everything lined up. There isn’t a huge amount of thread to be engaged on the bolt and I spent a few minutes fruitlessly using a socket wrench turning a small amount of empty space mistakenly assuming I’d finally managed to get the bolt far enough along to engage the thread.

But I got there in the end. And then, the adventure really begins. The Clutch Knob.

The Saris M2 Smart Trainer Clutch Knob

It’s hard to find a review of the M2 that doesn’t mention the Clutch Knob. It is, as they say, a fine idea. In principle, you might add. But it scares me. So much tension in such a delicate looking piece of metal. So much so, that on my first attempt, I lost my nerve. I’d read so many reviews mentioning so many bent frames and so many clutch knobs not clicking, that I really didn’t want to end up with a bent 2-day old trainer. The last one the shop had in stock.

It was very frustrating. After spending a lot more time assembling the frame than I expected, and thinking I was finally getting somewhere, I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk turning, and turning, a yellow piece of plastic hoping, waiting and praying for it to click. What I hadn’t been able to find out from my searches was a ball-park figure for how many turns, how much pressure, would be required to get to the click. How much should the tyre be squashed?

One article suggested 2.5 to 3 turns, but that was for a black knob. The M2 was yellow. Did this matter? Another support article suggested the tyre should be squashed in about a 1/3 to get the required resistance, with the tyre inflated to just a little of maximum. And a thread on shows that I’m not the only one to be uneasy about the level of deformation or turning required.

Having lost my nerve and resigned myself to never knowing, and then discovering the joys of software calibration, I was feeling pretty dejected. Compared to the simple engagement mechanism used by the Vortex to apply pressure to the wheel, I was finding the M2 pretty inelegant. I visited the Saris website, registered the product, and put in a support ticket explaining my sad story.

Waiting for the click

To set things up I was using a 1983 Alan bike with a wheel and tubular of similar age. The tubular is pretty frayed but it would fine to test things out.

Alan Super Record with old tubular

Next after the Alan was to try it with my road bike with a dedicated Tacx trainer tyre inflated to the recommended 120psi.

Tacx dedicated trainer tyre

After my first failed attempts I decided to man-up and try again. But this time I decided to video my attempts so that I had something concrete to show to Saris.

The twenty minute adventure is available for viewing but you might have some paint you need to watch drying somewhere, so here’s my key discoveries.


  • Old tubular at approx 120psi: Start tightening clutch-knob (06:47).
  • Old tubular at approx 120psi: Clicks after 8 and a bit turns (08:27).
  • Deformation in tubular (09:34).
  • Old tubular at approx 130+psi: Start tightening clutch-knob (12:50).
  • Old tubular at approx 130+psi. Clicks after 6 and a bit turns (13:25).
  • Tacx trainer tyre at approx 120psi: Start tightening clutch-knob (17:10).
  • Tacx trainer tyre at approx 120psi: Clicks after 6 and a half (18:00).

So that’s between 6-and-a-bit and 8-and-a-bit turns. To me that feels like a lot of turns, even if the tyres are slightly under-inflated. I get that you need decent thunk of pressure to get that potential 15% of slope, but even so, it doesn’t feel right. Perhaps I could inflate the tyres a smidgen more and it’d bring the number of turns down but I’m not so sure. There feels like a lot of tension in that L-bolt. I’ve had one training session on the M2 and the jury’s out. Time will tell.

Club La Santa Triple

It’s getting hard to be first-timer at any race in Striders nowadays. There are so many far-travelled adventurers competing in so many events that there’s often nothing new under the sun. I’d intended to do the Club La Santa Duathlon/Half-Marathon/Triathlon triple back in 2016 but I’m pretty sure even then that Neil Sleeman had already got the t-shirt.

Mon 9 Sep 2019 – Duathlon

around the lagoon

The duathlon was first. All these events are done and dusted before breakfast before the weather gets too hot so they’re not massively long, but still long enough to wake you up and give you an appetite. I was looking forward this as my previous attempt in 2016 had given me the dubious honour of DNF’ing after the first monster 2.5 km run stage.

Despite being a remote lump of lava just next door to Africa, Club La Santa events definitely have their regulars. The route isn’t complicated but you have to be paying attention to the briefing otherwise a wrong turn may take you into the supermarket or swimming pool rather than on to the running track. I was disappointed to hear that the bike section no longer took a long climb up to Tinajo to turn there with a gleeful descent back to base, but instead went ‘four times round the lagoon’. Well that sounded fun. It wasn’t surprising though, as the previous route was on busier roads with the potential for a high-speed encounter with a speed-bump and a local out to buy their breakfast in the village of La Santa itself.

It’s a good way to start the day and even though it was a short event I was mindful of going off too fast and too early. I enjoyed the bike section more than I expected and just had to concentrate on counting the laps. It had a couple of bumps and troughs enough that it wasn’t a simple single-gear time-trial. The finish as with all of their events is a lap of the running track to finish under the timing tower.

Finish of the duathlon

Tue 10 Sep 2019 – Half Marathon

I did this event in Mar 2016, and quite a bit faster too. Perhaps it was cooler then but it was pretty hot today. The route is a simple three lap out-and-back to La Santa, and I was pretty comfortable for the first two. On the third lap the sun was well and truly out of bed and things were hot. I’m not a good hot weather runner but I have a sound strategy for dealing with the heat. I slow down and ease up. It’s the only way. I’ve learned from experience how small my margin of error is when it comes to pushing the envelope in hot weather.


It meant I wasn’t as fast as I would’ve liked, but, on the plus side, it also meant not having surreal conversations with palm trees and unpredictable physiological responses. Half Marathons are an interesting beast; very easy to under-estimate. Another hot weather race, not really in my comfort zone, hard going, but not in trouble either. Still in control of the race.

Wed 11 Sep 2019 – Triathlon

South Pool

And finally, the fun one. I’m continually fascinated by the fact that I can run ultras, and cycle rather a long way. But try and do a length or two of freestyle and I’m gasping at the pool-side in weary bewilderment. A project.

Although my swimming has improved a little it wasn’t enough for me to have the confidence to venture out of the slow lane. And it was busy. Lots of sign-ups for this event and I got chatting at the start to an Ironman vet. I knew this from the tattoo on her leg, and I suspected she might be reassuringly geeky as it was a tattoo of the periodic table entry rather than the more familiar splodge.

Club La Santa Green Team Triathlon – Sep 2019

She went into one of the faster swim lanes but I bumped into her at transition as she’d had a poor swim. My improvised hybridised breast-stroke-freestyle had worked out quite well and I was feeling fine. I’m also pretty clueless about triathlon dress-code so I just slipped on my shoes and Striders top and off I went, while some people had brought towels and stuff. I’d forgotten a towel so I was relying on the wind-chill drying me off on the bike section. There was no transition policing as such so I just had to imagine Ian Mackenzie shouting about touching the helmet before the bike. My stuff was at the front of the bike (“Everything happens at the front of the bike”) and my practice with the Tri Club Duathlons had helped a lot. There was only one timing mat per transition, but, geek that I am, I was inventing my own. I’d set my Garmin for Triathlon and so I had to be a little creative about where I decided my transitions had begun and ended.

Ironlady caught me after a lap or two, where I sat on her wheel for a bit, which I rationalised was ok because others were sitting on mine. Someone had asked about draughting, and, the response had been that it’s four laps around the lagoon; it’d be impossible to police, so they weren’t going to get excited about it. Which I think meant that it was ok. The bike circuit was windy and in a way that was good as it made it more interesting. There was a modest climb into the wind, then a section back past the centre where it was possible to get some good tempo going.

I’d been carefully counting the laps as ironlady gradually edged away from me. I’m not sure if it was guilt that made me decide to subconsciously drop back, or whether she was just, you know, faster than me. But either way, as I was about to turn into transition, she kept on going for another lap.

I was pretty, pretty sure I was right, and that I’d done four laps, but I wobbled, dangerously close to choosing a line that was neither transition nor another lap. I decided that I was right, and veered away from the line of parked cars that were in the middle position, and headed for transition.


At the finish I was still unsure how many laps I’d done, and she was pretty sure she was right, but, everyone else was pretty sure she wasn’t, and when I checked my garmin later it confirmed  I had been able to count to four. But it just goes to show how easy it is lose count. I mean, four isn’t a very big number.

These events are small but unpredictable. You might be rubbing shoulders with serious athletes who are on some serious training as well as first-timers. A bit like turning up for a fell race and standing on the start line next to a national champion. Great fun, exciting, competitive, and sunny.

Etape Caledonia

Last year I rode this event, as well as other Etapes, on a 30-year old aluminium Alan bike, with 30 year old equipment, including the drive train. I did ok but wondered how much better I would do on a modern bike. So this year I was riding my new Hoy bike, and I had a nice position in a fastish starting pen. Just before the 5-mile marker I was comfortably wooshing along in a very nice peleton where some nice chaps at the front seemed to be happy doing all the heavy lifting. This was great!

What is wrong with this picture?

Around a sharp corner, down the gears, and attack the hill. Woops – a bit of a crunchy gear change – but I don’t think anyone noticed. I’d geared down into what appeared to be a phenomenally low granny gear and was spinning against nothing. Nothing, indeed, was what I was spinning against. My chain was lying like an angry malevolent metallic snake in the middle of the busy road and I only just managed to coast to the roadside before grinding to a halt. Huddling in to the roadside for dear life as the steady stream of riders flew round the blind corner I had the more immediate problem of getting across the busy road on my cleats to a place of relative safety. The marshall took his life in his hands and dashed over to retrieve my chain.

Two hammers. Always a good sign.

Not a great start. I chatted to another cyclist who, surprise surprise, had also got a snapped chain. “You put in all the training”, he said, “and then this”. The marshall had a toolkit but the chain-fixing-tool was playing up. And the cool Mavic guys on motorbikes were ahead of us so couldn’t come back ‘upstream’. “I’m afraid it’s just a waiting game”, the marshall said. The reality began to sink in. I’d been looking forward to this for months, and here I was, under 5 miles in, and it wasn’t looking good. If I couldn’t get moving before the sweep vehicle came through, it wasn’t going to be worth restarting, and I was beginning to get cold.

And the race goes on …

But a guardian angel appeared in the form of a spectator who had a look at my bike, then had a brief conversation with the marshall, then disappeared. When he came back he was carrying two hammers. This was looking promising. The ultimate tool of desperation – a big bloody hammer! And he had two, so double the hope. He gave me an inquiring look and said, “I’m not insured to do this you know”. I invited him to go ahead, and hit it as hard as he liked while I averted my gaze. I’m not sure what happened next, some sort of black magic I reckon, but when I looked again they were giving a satisfied “good as new” nod, and my chain was back. I thanked the guy with the hammers and joked with him that I would be giving that Chris Hoy a piece of my mind, to which he replied, without a trace of irony, “Who’s he then – is he the guy that serviced your bike?”. Well in a way, I guess he was.

Etape Caledonia – May 2014

25 minutes after crunching to a halt, I was back in the race. But my heart really wasn’t in it. Not for a while anyway. I gave myself a bit of a talking to and got down to business. Soon the timed Scott sprint appeared and I gave it a go, only to be thwarted again by the slowcoaches who ride 4 abreast across the road chatting to each other. What bit of the word ‘sprint’ is it that they don’t understand? I put my head down and gave it my best shot, aware of a thumping in my tummy. That’d be my thighs saying howdy to my tummy. Too much beer and chocolate! Damn. I thought I’d solved that problem the previous evening by putting my saddle up. Not exactly the same as losing a bit of weight, but it relieves the symptoms, if not the cause. Schiehallion came and went and unexpectedly dry roads meant an awesomely fun descent. Then a steady brisk ride in calm conditions back to Pitlochry.

I compared my times to the previous year and was chuffed to find I was faster on the King of the Mountains, and, surprisingly, the Scott Sprint, thanks due to fine, calm conditions, but mostly thanks to the marshall and unnamed hero with the hammers who gave my bike a bit of a talking to. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude and a few pints of heavy. If it wasn’t for them my race would’ve been a washout.

Download file for GPS

The Beast

The alarm went off but I kept my eyes closed. I wiggled one leg, then the other. Ow. They still felt as if they’d been kicked by a horse that hadn’t removed its shoes first. I could just stay in bed. Curse this good weather and ideal conditions. Oh well, it had to be done. The Beast had to be tamed.

The Beast – Sep 2013

I drove the enormous distance from Durham to Sniperley Park & Ride because, well, I’m pretty sure I’d formulated some pretty convincing self-justification for driving this massive journey, but if I was going to tackle 50 miles of beastly County Durham hills I wasn’t going to add an extra one just to get to the start. Into the car park and I spotted the tell-tale purple of a Strider hoodie from some way off and pulled in to park beside Jamie Steel. We were both a bit uncertain of what lay ahead so we got our numbers sorted and went for a warm-up around the car park. As the clock ticked down to 9AM riders began to assemble at the start and it was good to see such a wondrous variety of weird and wonderful machines about to embark on the adventure.

No timing, no chips, just a man with a megaphone and a blast on a horn and presently we were belting down the hill towards Witton Gilbert. Up the long drag out of WG so beloved by Ian MacKenzie for the Durham Tri-Club hill sessions then along past Broom House at which point I found myself alongside Alan Smith on a bike with some awesome tri-bars. We chatted awhile until I was shooed away and I sped ahead to see if I could catch Jamie.

A few miles later and the first real descent. Woohoo! Here we go, head down, bum out, no effort, free time. A few stragglers spreading out and a bit of jinxing required, and, yes, I’m sure there was something important I had to remember … what was it … Oh yes! This isn’t a closed roads event! If you’re a bit of an Etape junkie, as I am, this is an important point. It’s easy to want to hug the shortest and most fun line down a long fast twisty descent, of which there were many, but best to stick to your own side of the road. Jamie and I kept seeing each other, riding together, passing each other, and a lot of the time I couldn’t remember if he was in front of me or behind me. He wasn’t so keen on the fast descents but was strong on the flats and climbs. At the long twisty climb up to Tow Law he pulled away as I paused to take a close interest in some roadside shrubbery.

Never one to work for a living when I can sit on the wheel of a big bloke and draft, I found myself belting past Jamie a few miles later as I tucked into the slipstream of a couple of big jet engines. Jamie was suffering the further indignity of having gear problems that meant his big chainring had become a no go area, something that became pretty frustrating for him as we got ever closer back to Sniperley and the possibility of blasting down some of the descents became a lost opportunity.

After the twisty winding quiet rural lanes it was slightly unreal to finally get back to Durham and join the traffic back into Sniperley. A decent goodie-bag (the ‘Beast’ buff I like!) and a sunny sit down before Jamie arrived a few minutes later. We don’t know if was just me Alan and Jamie that tamed the Beast or whether there were a few more Striders out today. A nice course, a bit lacking in elegance but I admire and respect its functional brutality. It lacks the polish of the Etapes, but it’s also a fraction of the price and parking is a lot more straightforward. I’m certainly glad I got out of bed for it even if I did have a few problems climbing stairs on Monday after my horsie-beastie weekend double.

Download file for GPS

Etape Caledonia

Yes, it’s true, in case you’re wondering. The Etape Caledonia is indeed a walk in the park compared to the Etape Pennines. That’s not to say it’s easy, it’s just not as hard or as brutal as the Pennines.

Better remember to put my shoes on …

We were staying about a mile from the Start. ‘Downstream’ unfortunately, which meant that I wasn’t sure how early to get out of bed and make my way along to the Start. The instructions suggested ‘at least an hour’, which meant there was potentially a lot of hanging around time shivering in a Pitlochry dawn waiting for my time to go.

I’m a bit early …

In the end I could have left things much later and found the pavements pretty clear even with the early starters already well on the way. I turned up with almost an hour to spare and settled down to wait. This was a very smooth operation; some wifie on a big chair they’d borrowed from Wimbledon was barking instructions to riders, while boards were held up indicating which wave should be where.

I’ll just wait over here where it’s nice and quiet.

I was in wave AA and not for the first time I wondered whether I was the only person in the universe who didn’t make something up for their estimated finish time. Looking at some of the generously clad riders who shuffled past in the early waves I did suspect I’d be seeing them again before the finish. Finally it was wave AA’s time to go! The final wave! I clunked into my pedals and felt a tingle of excitement as we followed the mass of riders north out of Pitlochry.

I’d expected to be frustrated by rider congestion but it wasn’t that bad. I’d sit on a wheel for a while, rest, then bridge the gap to the next group. I tried working with riders but nobody was playing. Time and time again I’d follow a wheel, and when the rider peeled away I’d take a session, then move aside to discover they were not in my slipstream. It was a bit frustrating although I did catch the wheels of riders 298 & 299 for a few miles and belted along in their slipstream until Tummel Bridge where I had to let go. Shortly after a rider alerted me that my reading glasses had dropped out my pocket and I decided that the responsible thing would be to go back for them in case they went through a tyre. I pulled over, turned round, faced back down the narrow single-track road at the steady stream of cyclists coming the other way, and thought, nah, the glasses are staying where they are. They’ll go nicely with the tacks and screws.

Approaching a feeding station a marshal with a megaphone bellowed clearly, “Feeding to the left; straight through on the right”, which apparently means, stop anywhere and wander about chatting to your mates. Having tetchily negotiated the obstacle course I settled in with a loose bunch and felt eyes upon my bike. A voice said with a hint of incredulity, “Are they tubulars?!”. Not sure whether to be proud or embarrassed, I said they were, the same ones that had done the Pennines, although they’ve roughed it up and down to Gateshead a few times since then. I was given a run-down of the course and the upcoming Schehallion, of which I was a little apprehensive, and then it started to rain.

Etape Caledonia – May 2013

I’d tried to go for a time in the Green Jersey timed section but had been thwarted by people riding four abreast and talking about last night’s telly, but I was up for the King of the Mountains. Schehallion. The red mats appeared and I put the foot down. A minute or so later it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea how long Schehallion was. 1 mile? 3, 5? Perhaps I should’ve done some homework. I tried to pace my effort on where I imagined the finish might be, which in the end came sooner than I expected. Well if that was The Hill, it could have been far worse. A nice fast descent now, although not too fast as it was raining quite heavily now and I wasn’t riding on the grippiest tyres in the world.

On and off solo riding until about 20 miles to go when two riders passed who were clearly working together. I thought, I’m having some of that and leapt on the wheel. Initially I let the working rider in front of me, but after a bit of non-verbal communication I made it clear I was willing to do my bit. They looked at me and the bike and presumably decided to risk letting me mix in and help out, and then followed an absolutely fantastic 5 miles or so of fast riding. It was good old fashioned close-formation chain-gang stuff and we overtook other riders as if they were standing still. I knew I couldn’t keep it up but I intended to work with these guys and beat the clock as long as I could. We charged through a feeding station and during one of my spells at the front I looked ahead and was sure I could see someone driving a Chaise Longue. Sure enough, it was Durham Tri’s Ian Mackenzie, more commonly seen with Allan Seheult trackside on Wednesdays, riding on a recumbent. I managed to shout a few words of encouragement as we flew past at a speed I knew was unsustainable. Another mile or two and I was burnt out. I thanked my chain gang for the lift and took my foot of the throttle.

The final big climb was a cheeky little number in the last 10 miles to Pitlochry. I was pretty tired but encouraged to see my name splashed on the road as I hit the last hill. Soon we were in the outskirts of Pitlochry and a spectator shouted, “800 metres to go. If you’ve anything left, give it all NOW!”. I got very excited. I had something left, and I gave it all! Sadly with 600 metres still to go we turned a corner and there was a long drag to the finish and the waiting crowd. I’d given my all and it had all gone. I was knackered and feeling slightly foolish as I slowed down for a rest at the very time I should have been sprinting for home. But the line came quickly enough and the race was over. As I crossed the line I heard the commentator say that there were just under 1000 riders still to finish. Given that I started in the 27th and final wave I reckon I must’ve passed most of those in the last 5 hours. I thought it was busy.

Overall compared to the Pennines I’d have to say I prefer the Caledonia course. The hills are gentler so it’s possible to get into some sort of rhythm, and you can fly down the descents without having to touch the brakes every few seconds. Despite the big field there was rarely a problem with congestion, although next year I’m going to get into an earlier wave and see if I can sit on a few more wheels.

Etape Pennines

Who would’ve thought that County Durham had so many hills? An endless supply of cruel sniggering climbs. A course recce would have been a very bad idea. It really was just as well I did not know what awaited as I’d surely never have got as far as the start line. The hills were endless, just one nightmare after another – and when you think it’s all over, you turn a corner, and there’s another one. I think that’s why Colin played his Get out of Jail Free card – he lives on the coal face – he knew.

Dusting of the Alan Super Record for an early start

It was Colin’s announcement the day before that he wouldn’t be starting that made me start paying attention. Just as well – I hadn’t realised you had to register on the Saturday, just like a marathon expo. I also made the mistake of having a look at the suggested training plans on the website and thus denting my naivete. I really shouldn’t have. The training plan for people with limited time was 6-8 hours a week. I’d been cycling to work off and on for 2 or 3 months. That was about 3 hours or 30 miles a week. On average, when I wasn’t running between breweries. That should be enough surely? Yeah. And I’ve got all this core fitness stuff from running. Everything would be just fine. Just. Fine. And then there was the ‘minimum average speed’ of 13.1 MPH. I checked my average speed for cycling from Durham to Gateshead and it wasn’t quite 13.1, it wasn’t even close, and it doesn’t even have any 2nd category climbs.

Sunrise at Ushaw College

We couldn’t have wished for better weather and the sun rose as I waited at Ushaw College for my start time. I was in the last zone to go and we pushed off under a clear dawn sky. This was the first road race I’d done for over 25 years and I was a little out of touch. So used to running now I’d forgotten about wind-chill and cold hands. So much so that two miles later I had to stop and pull the gloves from my pocket that I’d thankfully shoved in as a last-minute thought. Fumbling with the Velcro on my mitts and trying to decide whether to pull the gloves over or instead of, I became aware of a motorbike that had stopped and pulled up alongside me. I looked up and knew. Nearly 2000 riders, but I’d still managed it. Just like a fell race. Situation Normal. “You’re the sweeper, aren’t you?” I said miserably. He nodded, and asked me if I was ok. I nodded feebly and began to feel a bit pathetic and sorry for myself. I was cold and at the back of a field of over a thousand riders and this was not going well. I struggled to get my mitts in my back pocket without much success before simply handing them over to a marshall who’d come over to assist, and asked him to do it for me.

It took several miles before I got warmed up and gradually become more confident. I steadily passed people, hopping from wheel to wheel and taking pace whenever possible. I used to race on the steep banks of Meadowbank velodrome and so was at ease riding in close groups and found it a gloriously exhilarating experience riding on closed roads so near to so many other riders. It was nostalgia and excitement rolled into a lovely sunny autumnal Pennine morning. My draughting was parasitic, not deliberately so, it was just that few people seemed willing to work, or simply misunderstood and thought I was trying to get past and moved over to let me through. As it happened the opportunities for sharing the pace were fairly limited to early in the race as pacing works best on flattish stretches into the wind, and when the hills started, both up and down, the advantages of taking pace were negligible.

We passed the 15 mile marker and I was, as Danny once put it, in terra incognita. I hadn’t ridden more than 15 miles in one go in more than 25 years, so I awaited with interest to see which parts of my body would start to hurt first. I was riding the race as I would run a marathon, taking it steady early on and conserving energy as I knew it would get a bit rough towards the end. The hills loomed ahead and I caught Peter Brooks who was chirpilly stoical after having an unfortunately eventful journey to the start. Later, as the King of the Mountains pass lazed into view I took my hands of the bars to scrunch my cape into my pocket. This looked like hot work. A Darlington rider remarked that this was ‘skilled riding for a 2000 number’ and I wasn’t too sure how to take it. I was about to take umbrage until I realised he’d meant it as a genuine compliment

A sunny hill. Smile for the camera.

And then the hills began. And once they started, they simply did not stop. Like an early morning session hunched over the great white telephone after an all-night bender when your body is racked with pain, when you think, surely there’s nothing left, when your body is just a spent, rasping, empty, husk, there’s another bit, then another, then another. Where was it all coming from?

Unlike fell racing, where it’s often quicker and more energy efficient to walk up the hills, the opposite is true with cycling, where walking in cycling shoes, even on level ground, is an achievement in itself. I managed to climb all the hills and made a lot of gains. My bike was also attracting some attention. One of the very first aluminium frames, bought for me for £120 in the early 1980s by my Dad and hand-built with Campagnolo equipment throughout, it is pretty much unchanged to how it was 30 years ago. Apart from the tubs, which I rather sensibly replaced on Saturday before the race, and prayed that the 10 year old tub tape that I’d found in a drawer was still sticky. Or at least, sticky-ish, for those 40MPH+ descents. Climbing slowly past one lady on one climb she commented “that’s a lovely bike”, and one chap at the final feeding station called it “gorgeous”. Perhaps it was a combination of the toughness of the race and the stunning scenery but I was finding these unexpected compliments were making me feel quite melancholy.

I’d remembered from the course map that there was one Category 2 climb, and that it was, as you might expect, in the last 10 miles. On the scale of awfulness it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d feared but I was overtaken by a bloke who was quite simply whimpering a series of shuddering and wholesome profanities that seemed to be directed at no-one in particular, although the hill seemed to be implicated. The last few miles went by quite quickly and then the beautiful sight of the red timing mats of the finish.

The Finish

A few minutes later I was looking down at my medal and thought how you get medals for all sorts of races nowadays, practically giving them away they are, for the most noddy of events. But this one I clutched in my hot sweaty hand and thought, I really earned this one.

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