Celtic Challenge – Day 1 – 23rd May 2012

Well – it’s been a long time coming  – I’ve been so busy since my return from the Celtic Challenge that its taken me ages to get the time too sit and write a quick summary.

Well, it started as a quick summary anyway…… and I gave up trying to write it concisely as I ran out of superlatives in the course of writing it.

So here goes ….CELTIC CHALLENGE DAY 1!!!!!




Day 1 

The run-up to the event

I was sooooo excited – I was getting away on my road cycle  for another adventure!

What was more …I was getting to take along my nephew, Andy – who had started off in cycling 3-4 months ago because I’d enthused at him by Facebook, email, on the phone, by chat and during face to face discussions SOOO much that he’d got into road cycling himself and had been bitten by the bug – hard. I’d been looking forward to this morning so much it was hard to credit that it had finally arrived at last.

1st there had been the training ( see previous blogs)

2nd there had been the corresponding with Andy Watson, my nephew, about equipment lists, his travel plans, concerns etc.

3rd there had been the booking with St Columba’s Cancer Care Hospice and various emails to and from Michael Bauld and Martin Laylor.

4th there head been a frenzy of sponsorship pleading, web page design, graphics, emailing, facebooking, blogging, nagging, cajoling, worrying about and etc and…..

FINALLY there had been the picking up of Andy at the Waverley train station on Tuesday evening 22nd May, getting out for a family meal together and the opening of birthday presents….firstly my son – now 17, then my own ….now 40 something (again).


Didn’t I mention that it was my birthday?

Really…I didn’t?   Thats not like me…..;-)

Funnily enough a trip to Evans Cycles – newly opened in Edinburgh – and the Decathlon store in Hermitage Gait – secured a few nice things for my birthday list and the up and coming Celtic Challenge Charity ride. (yes most of my presents were cycling related – well what else could you have expected?)

Things like the Velo-works Workshop stand and the Ice Toolz Essential Tool Kit for Home Mechanics were a welcome addition to my workshop stable, as well as a number of inner tubes, brake blocks and shoes and Gore Gloves.  Hmmmmm..mmmm Lovely.

Velo Workshop Stand

Ice Toolz Essential Tool Kit

Movie Night

We had a lovely meal at the Beijing Banquet. and then we retired back home to my place and had birthday cake and watched a movie.

Not just any movie obviously ….Chasing Legends…a classic documentary of the Team Columbia HTC / Mark Cavandish efforts in the Tour de France 2009.

Just the sort of thing you want to watch before a 4 day cycle ride.

It’s full of the pain, the suffering, the intensity, the team tactics, the sheer brute physicality  of what it takes to cycle 200km and scale 3 mountains in a day.

Getting Going

6am and I’m up checking my packing of the night before – we needed to be on site at St Columba’s Hospice downtown by 7.45 for breakfast and the briefing. I had stuffed the larger of my two rucksacks with the base equipment and clothes – stuff you only need at the end of the day’s ride. I had crammed the smaller day bag rucksack with anything I might need during each stage and couldn’t carry on me – more spare tubes, more CO2 cylinders for my compressed gas pump, spare tyres, my cycle tools (over and above the multi-tool I had on the bike itself), Bike food or High 5 powders and gels etc etc etc. Yes I had travel insurance. Yes, I had bike insurance. As it turns out, the weather was really really good – blue skies and sunshine and 23 degree temperatures expected. At 6am, it still felt a bit frosty so I kept my lightweight jacket to hand and wanted to make sure that I kept my hands and feet warm.

We packed our gear into the car and got the bikes onto the bike carrier to go. Moira, my wife came down with us, so she could wave us off and get the car back.

Me on the left, Andy on the right.

Andy was clearly unsure about the bike carrier – he kept eying it before we set off and was checking it in the mirror as we drove. I think he was feeing very protective of his bike and was slightly nervous as he didn’t know what to expect.

He had every right to be nervous. We were taking on a route that carved it’s way across Scotland, through hills and glens. I had had some  previous experience of 2No. charity cycle runs where I had cycled across the north of England from Whitehaven to Newcastle and a cycle run from London to Amsterdam passing through 4 countries in 3 days. The latter ride in particular had covered 100miles every day and it had been important to keep tucked into the pelaton and take your turn at the front, when required, as most riders (but not all) were experienced road riders.

Different Strokes

The St. Columba’s group was a much more varied affair – I knew from a previous practice run with  some of the riders that there was a mixed level of skills from older more experienced veterans of many years, some touring cyclists used to covering long miles, some enthusiastic amateurs (including myself and Andy) who were reasonably fit (well…sort of);- as well as people who had only been riding for a number of months, mainly because they had only started cycling as a result of accepting the challenge. Additionally, there was a huge difference in bike type and standards ranging from all carbon frame road racers (some of which I could only drool at) to trusty steel framed older hybrids to top of the range mountains bike with aluminium frames to everyday cycles.

I had gone on various practice runs with Duncan Osler and with Jane Clee, for example, and Jane was training hard to get herself to what she considered a reasonable level of bike confidence from a standing start 3 months earlier – and she was gaining confidence hugely and improving her fitness levels incredibly. I have a huge respect for all her efforts – she had been enormously committed.

Andy too, had a similar story, but he had (as is usual for Andy) jumped in with both feet and had been undertaking a really punishing routine of training runs to ensure that he was a capable cyclist, with experience of pacing himself over longer runs and yet still with a good fitness level to push up the hills without lagging behind. I think Andy was nervous about being  a “tail end charlie”, and had pushed himself to increase his capabilities early in his training runs.

It was definitely going to be a hugely varied cycle trip from ones that I had previously gone on before, and my previous experience in the lake district two years ago (in which I was the tail end charlie for most of the uphill sections) was with a different group of committed cyclists and couldn’t therefore really be readily relied on.

I wasn’t telling Andy of this – he was nervous enough about getting going – and we had both just got to the mental anxiety level of “can we just get going now?” by the time we rolled  up outside the Hospice.

The Graham Team

This was our first encounter with other cyclists there on the day, and with the Graham Construction team in particular. Whilst loads of other cyclists had moved into the Hospice grounds and were milling about inside, there was a noticeable group of about eight cyclists collecting at the gate. This was the guys from Graham Construction, the contractors for the Hospice re-building, who had entered the challenge late-on and who looked in every way to be a serious bunch of committed road racers.

1st – They had their own branded “Graham” cycling shirts (as opposed to the “Celtic Challenge” shirts everyone else had) .

2nd – They had all the right gear – overshoes, carbon bikes, Pinarello’s, Scott’s etc and…

3rd – They looked reasonably fit and lean and were definitely well organised.

Andy’s eyes were like plates and I could tell straight away he was thinking “Is this the level of riders I’ve committed to cycling with?” possibly accompanied with a slight sense of dread. I moved to encourage the man by pulling him indoors to meet all the rest of the cyclists and to be re-assured by the complete mix of bike styles, age range etc. He soon relaxed again as he got speaking with all the rest of the people.

The briefing

Over a bacon roll and breakfast cereal, we were introduced to the Sport Ecosse Events leadership team, who were running the Cycle Challenge on behalf of the Hospice. There was Harri (First support van driver), Chas (2nd support van driver – in the picture with the reflective vest on), Alison (in the picture – cycling shirt and glasses on her head – who would play tail end cyclist throughout the trip to ensure there would be no “tail end charlie” left unaccompanied (this was a really good idea and very welcomed by everybody)) and lastly but by no means least, Kevin. Kevin was team leader, looked incredibly lean, and was to cycle with the group, going up and down the chain of cyclists to get to know everyone’s capabilities, strengths, weaknesses and to assist them as required. Kevin confirmed the 1st leg of the cycle – going across the sea front to the bottom of Crammond, and confirmed that each day would be broken into several legs, with refreshment stops between each leg. Additionally, for the speedier riders, it was mandatory to stop at each breakpoint until ALL of the riders had come in, and had been suitable refreshed so we could have a roll call and make sure we are all together before setting off again. Additionally, Harri would run ahead of the cycling group and would stick up signposts ahead off us at junctions where way finding might not be so obvious. My wife stayed throughout the briefing (she’s in the back corner in the photo) and was re-assured that there was a very good management team and structure in place for the trip. It DOES have to be said that Sports Ecosse had organised the trip very well and this contributed hugely to everyones enjoyment of it. Well done Sports Ecosse!

And we’re off!!

Briefing over – we clambered on to our trusty steeds and were ready for the off. During a noisy din of rousing cheers from Hospice staff and pinging cycle bells  from the riders, we got going.

At last we were moving….!!!  Finally, all of the hours of sponsorship, checking and re-checking, stocking up on bike parts etc was amounting to us getting going at last. The trip down the hill to the water front and cycling along the water front to the River Forth was uneventful, but it made me quite reflective of how fortunate we are to have such a lovely sea front!

I also had a chance to have a chat with Kevin and was astounded to hear that he was doing the 200mile trip across Scotland with us and then  doing a north coast to south coast cycle trip across Ireland immediately afterward. Phenomanal!

Leaving Cramond by crossing the old Cramond Bridge and heading up over the dual carriageway that leads to the Forth Bridge we were heading west to Kirkliston on the open road. This was a lovely stretch of cycling, the weather was gloriously sunny, the traffic light and Andy and I quickly found that we were at the head of the cycling group just behind the Grahams boys as they sped off over the horizon. This certainly exceeded our expectations, and it was good to think that we were holding our own within such a large and varied group of cyclists. I was really pleased also about how my bike was performing – I’d had various problems over the months preceding and had had niggling doubts about how she would hold up on the cycle run itself . Again – not something I was sharing openly with anybody else – but when you have put together your bike and then have maintained it yourself – you build up  a good picture of how it works, what it can do well, what its inadequacies are etc.

Anatomy of my bike

Basically, a bikes a bike right? Erm…yes …and…no. Depends on how you look at it, and to what depth you look at it too.

Essentially – its about what you want from it.

If all you want is something with two wheels a seat and pedals to get from A to B that you use every now and again then a bike is a bike is a bike. As long as whatever you’ve got it reasonably well maintained then it won’t matter what you’ve got because most bikes will fit the bill in getting you from A to B and you won’t be that bothered if the seat is a bit too low or it’s a bit heavy pulling it up the odd hill from time to time. Chances are you’re only going to use the bike now and again anyways. But if you ask anyone who spends a bit of time on their bike either doing long tours across country, or pulling tricks on a bmx circuit or sprinting in a time trial or club racing or actually using the bike on a reasonable length of commute every single day then they’ll talk at length about hows the set-up and type of the bike is really important. Also, those in the know will also start to talk about the technicalities of which components work best for them in their set-up etc. etc. Now, I’m not going to get hugely technical on you now (email or comment on my blog if you want specific set-up and technical stuff and I’ll indulge) but suffice to say out of all the options that I’d had available for the Celtic Challenge, I’d probably taken a slightly riskier route to my cycling nirvana than I could have.

Eh? you say? What are you on about Phil?

Well….it’s like this. Three years ago, I did the C2C Coast to Coast cycling challenge in 3 days from Whitehaven to Newcastle through the lake district. I’d only been cycling about 3 months, had taken on the Challenge and went for it…and loved every minute. Even if some of the ascents were brutal. I was however tail end charlie a lot because of two things. 1. My fitness was ok but not that great and 2. my Ridgeback Velocity Hybrid bike was a good solid all rounder hybrid bike with a triple set of gears designed to get me around pretty much anywhere. It was however, as a bike, pretty heavy and the gears were pretty close ratio meaning you had to peddle a lot to go a little up the hill. This was actually great for getting up the hills in the lake district and thankfully it had a big ring and good large top gear to go fast for the downhill sections, when we had them. It was also a brand new bike, and had no maintenance issues after bedding in and adjustments were made. It was heavy though. I still use it for getting about town and it’s great for that.

Ridgeback Velocity

Last year, I’d picked up and refurbished a second hand Claud Butler 1969/70 Super Coureur road bike for my London to Amsterdam run. Bought for £70 I’d spent about £300 stripping it back to basics and replaced it’s wheels, brake levers, handlebar tape, saddle, pedals and brakes. The end result was a stripped down touring bike with a solid 531 reynold steel frame that could pound around anywhere at  a good pace, and do it for miles and miles – 300 miles actually – without a single fault. Even when bouncing down the Belgian cobbled streets for several hours meant that I could no longer feel the palms of my hands  and had lost fine motor control of my finger tips, there had not been a single issue arising from the bike. This made me feel really great because it was my bike – built by hand by me for my trip. It’s kinda personal you know? It too, had it’s limitations though. It too was on the heavy side, and whilst great charging across the north of Europe all on the flat and level, put side by side next to the modern bikes it lacked upper level speed because its range of gears was a bit limited. Ok up to 22mph….after that …well…you’d be windmilling really fast just to keep up.

Same bike after a little work 23-05-2011
My Claud Butler …after a little bit of work….

So then, I had at the end of 2011, started putting money aside for that next panacea – a modern, up to date road bike that was reasonably light, quite stiff (for acceleration), and had a long range of gears from titchy small (to get up the hills) to really long (for going really fast head down). Yeah, ok ,so you goto your local bike shop and spend at least £1500 and you get just that – right??

Aye fine – except I didn’t have that sort of money lying about did I? I have other commitments that do fine taking my money so I have to prioritise, scrimp and save where I can and look for less expensive options whenever they are available.

The joy of tinkering

This however has inadvertently led me into my greatest passion – the joy of tinkering. No seriously – I mean it. The joy of tinkering. Ask me about sometime, and I’ll be able to wax lyrical for HOURS on the joy that comes from putting something together yourself that you can then adjust, configure, set-up and tinker with until it’s just right. This is an art form all by itself that can help people lose all track of time and waste countless hours of their lives doing trivial bits of twiddling with this or adjust of that just because they can. There is, I’m sure something deeply psychologically settling and calming about getting something sorted out and walking away from the latest project knowing it has been done properly. Sorted. Properly sorted. Mmm.

My Claud Butler for the Holland run had become a “latest project” and it had flown through the countries with ease, and my heart sang with the joy that I had put it together, that it hadn’t fallen apart, that it had been keeping up with the modern carbons and that it had been a great run that I enjoyed immensely. All round a great thing………..except for it’s limitations.

My latest bike  – the Velo Ecosse

So by now you’re getting the picture right? I have 2No. perfectly good bikes for doing what they are good at doing. Eg. riding around town or riding at a reasonable speed on reasonably level ground. Now, however, I’m looking for the next level up – the goal of getting something light that can move fast but not be so bone shattering and jarring that I’ll not enjoy riding it. Oh- and it needs to be very inexpensive ….or maybe even free. Yup – pigs might fly – you’re getting the picture. But a guy can dream can’t he?

Just before entering the Celtic Challenge I had picked up my Velo Ecosse for a great price point on the 2nd hand market from someone who was downsizing and selling several of his 8 bikes. (He was, after all, a cycling mechanic). It is light (hydroformed aluminium frame by Italian manufacturer Columbus), strong and has a great range of Shimano Ultegra gears. From very fast to really really fast. Yes…..just what I wanted….or did I?

Eh! hold on a second – it’s now really really hard to shove it up some of the hills that I normally go sailing up on a heavier bike , so what gives?

Gear ratios that’s what…I’m not used to shoving the bike along with such long gear ratios so it’s quite tiring until I build up the stamina and fitness levels to suit.

Velo Ecosse Training / Winter Bike

Velo Ecosse road bike – very long Ultegra gears.

So……….I’m reflecting on the fact that I’d decided to use the Velo Ecosse on the Celtic Challenge despite the fact that it’s gearing was more up for chasing pelatons then for chasing gradients up the hills of Scotland. Additionally, I’d done my usual bit of tinkering with the bike.

Zen and the art of cycle maintenance.

Sadly I had had to replace the combined Shimano 105 STI gear change / brake levers after I broke one of them  in a bit of a prang. Next the saddle got replaced with a rather fine tan leather Spoon Charge saddle – which reduced the bike weight and made the ride  a little bit firmer but which suited my bike stance and sits bones a bit better. Finally, I plucked up the encourage to tackle the cycle gearing. This was not undertaken lightly – I had maintained things on simpler older bikes before, but I had never taken something like this on before. I did my research, – I looked around on cycle forums, online cycle shops, I talked to the mechanics at The Edinburgh Cycle Cooperative and concluded that I needed to replace the double crankshaft front rings and replace them with a triple ring, which included a smaller ring for climbing up hills more comfortably. This means replacing the double front derailleur with a triple too. I went online and bought the parts  – I installed them and spent a LONG time over several days adjusting the gears settings, pushing and pulling, tensioning, slackening off, setting things up, testing and honing in to a set-up that worked reasonably well. Slight crunching of gears when in changing to the top most gears. Slight rubbing of the chain when in the lowest set of gears.

So…..it was with a slight feeling of trepidation that I had set off…. had I lubricated the new chain sufficiently? Had I cleaned out the rear gear set properly before installing the new rear wheel ? Every little knock, noise, scrape or rattle was scrutinised and was found to be ok – in fact, the longer I rolled on the less anxious I was . And Hey! The sun was shining!

Andy and I were even setting a good pace for each other and beginning to grin at each other like cheshire cats!

Andy and a big grin!!

1st stage stop

We stopped just along the road at Linlithgow at Strawberry Bank at the Canalside  for our first stop and some water, nuts, fruit, bananas and the like.

Andy with Martin
Milling and chatting…what a great bunch of fellow cyclists!
Kevin revealed to us at the end of this stop that we’d be cycling the rest of the way to Falkirk on the canal path – and I wasn’t overwhelmed at the idea. Yes, it was a nice safe route away from traffic, but I’d ridden this section of the canal path before and I knew it to be a bumpy, fine grit surface that can be quite wet and muddy depending on the weather. But hey! it was a lovely sunny day right!?!
Sadly it would also mean our speeds would drop (this was, in a actual fact, probably beneficial to our whole group for the first days cycling) and that I would have to concentrate quite a bit on steering as the path was narrow. This would also make it difficult to overtake if you got behind some of the slower riders and wanted to catch up on another cyclist in the group up ahead. Here’s a snapshot of the route we took that day:-
As was usual by now, the Graham team leapt ahead setting a cracking pace. It wasn’t too log however before Andy and I were bashing along not too far behind them. My recollection of the the pathway was correct, it’s too narrow and winding to go too fast and as you are cycling next to the canal you do have to watch what you are doing.
Thankfully, no-one got a dunking that day…..and we settled in to cycling along at a reasonable pace, having a chat as best you could to the rider ahead of you or over your shoulder to the rider behind as the path was just a little too narrow for side by side cycling for too long. I did see some cyclists who managed to cycle side by side for a chat but they obviously had far better co-ordination skills than I – the gravel track was quite bumpy and bouncy on my 23c narrow racer tyres.
Just before we got to the Falkirk Wheel there was a long canal tunnel, which was quite spooky and echo-y. It seems to be quite short when you looked through it, but took ages to walk through – especially as I was walking with road cycling cleated shoes. The path was cobbled and quite slippy in parts where it was being dripped on from groundwater dripping through the tunnel ceiling – at one point it looked and sounded more like a waterfall coming through the ceiling!!!!!
Andy at the tunnel
Once you emerged from the tunnel , you arrived at the top of the Falkirk Wheel.
We descended to the lower basin for lunch. Sandwiches, rolls, ham, cheese, fruit, more bananas, yoghurts, more fruit…..and an ice cream from the ice cream van!! Nom nom nom!!
Nom Nom Nom!!!

Me – at the Falkirk Wheel

Andy at the Falkirk Wheel
Andy at the Falkirk Wheel
The briefing before the afternoon was short – follow the canal path until we get to Glasgow. And yes……it gets smoother soon …it changes to a tarmac surface soon…..
Oh hum. Twenty minutes later – after passing many of the cyclists who had left in front of me to get up to just behind the grahams guys – I’m left languishing at the side of the canal path watching everyone else pass me as I face my first tyre change after bumping over a small stone in the lumpy gravel path. May people waved and asked “are you alright” – ” do you need a hand ?” etc which was nice …a good bunch. But I’m well equipped – it’s okay – I’ve done this before.
In a matter of minutes, I was off again.
The afternoon run seemed to go in really fast – the sun was high in the sky – it was very hot and we drank a lot of our liquids whilst riding.
We gathered for one more stop at the canal side and waited for the rest of the, by now, very long string of riders to come in. One disadvantage of riding down a single lane path was that our cyclists could only rarely cycle side by side and had got strung out in a long line, one after the other, depending on their preferred cycling speed. This gave us a chance to stock up on some more bananas, make up some more of our high 5 carbohydrate mix and generally get ready for the last leg. By this time, it was boiling hot, which was fantastic and quite exceptional. I was extremely thankful for the great weather as this was already making the cycling so much easier and more enjoyable.
It really is fantastic to cycle at a good speed with warm air rushing past you blowing away the cobwebs – really helps you feel alive!
Before we knew it, we were in the outskirts of Glasgow and after departing carefully off the canal path and down a few side streets, we had pulled into the Pond Hotel car park.
We had arrived!!
After a quick change, a wee walk around the pond and park adjacent the hotel, and we were ready for our evening meal.
My very thoughtful nephew, Andrew, had been in touch with his sister who lives in Glasgow and, voila, a small cake with candles suddenly appeared to the cheers and happy birthday song from everyone.
A much larger cake then appeared to make sure everyone could get a piece! Thanks Andy!!!!
Birthday Cake for all!!!
Birthday Cake for all!!!









A perfect end to a pretty good days cycling…..

Couldn’t wait for the next days run……