On Sunday, I took part in the 2018 Tour o the Borders, a fabulous sportive taking in some of the most stunning (and steep) scenery in southern Scotland.
It was my first chance to use the M5 CHR in anger, which had been through a month of intensive fettling from almost the moment I received it right up until the day before the ride. It’s currently sporting the Sram Force 22 groupset taken off the now sold Cruzbike (50-34, 11-32), and the Pacenti Forza / DT Swiss wheels as well. I put the Nazca lifting tiller stem on to make it more beginner friendly although I kept the tiny M5 bars for the aero benefit. The rear wheel was rebuilt with a rim brake rim to fit the M5 frame (you can fit discs but you will be asked for silly money extra to put disc tabs on the back so I declined).
Up at 4 a.m. to eat and get ready for the day, and down to Peebles before 6. I was off in wave 1 so in the start pen for 6.20 am. Definitely not a late start!
At 6.50 sharp we were off. 100 odd riders in the first wave. Being on a recumbent I pretty much kept out of any groups and ploughed my own furrow. The rolling terrain out of Peebles and up towards Talla meant I was constantly being overtaken on the climbs and then regaining ground on the flats and descents. I held my speed around 19 mph along with many of the other small groups in front and behind.
Coming along Talla reservoir, the climb that awaits at the far end loomed into view, the so-called ‘Talla Wall’. I could see lots of little coloured dots moving up it so slowly they were almost stationary. On a recumbent, it’s an intimidating climb with 2 sections at 20%. I had tried the climb 4 times in the previous month since receiving the CHR. On my first attempt, newbie mistakes abounded and my foot hit the front wheel half way up and I fell. On the second, I kept the bike tracking straight but went out too hard and blew up near the top. On the third attempt, I felt I was going to make it but my glasses steamed up and I couldn’t see where I was going, so I had to stop (no chance of riding one handed at 4 mph, putting out 350-400W and pedalling at 50 RPM!). On my fourth attempt I finally made it. It really isn’t fun on a recumbent when you can’t stand up and mash – complete torture on the quads. You’re down to a very low cadence and you have to concentrate hard to make sure you keep the bike straight to avoid heel strike on the front wheel.
So I hit Talla knowing that the strategy I had to follow was to 1) take the glasses off before the climb, 2) put out the bare minimum wattage necessary to keep the bike moving on the slightly less steep sections and 3) completely cane it on the two 20% stretches, whilst 4) simultaneously focussing on keeping the bike tracking straight and above 4 mph, all at a cadence of around 50 RPM which does not suit me at all. This all sounded great but on the day there was a roadie in front of me who looked like he was trying to get up in a 39-28 gear or something similar. In any case he was going slower than me so I had to overtake him whilst also being passed by some faster riders, all while negotiating the bumps on the poor road surface near the top. It was nerve wracking but I made it to the top without stopping or crashing – phew!
The good thing about riding recumbents up Talla is that you are so focussed on not crashing (and forever discrediting recumbency in full view of loads of roadies) that you don’t notice how much you are going into the red until you reach the top! Puggled I was.
The descent off Talla is fast, twisty with small blind summits. I nearly crashed a month earlier descending it for the first time, as there is one blind summit where the road sweeps right on the other side without warning, so I was keeping a good distance from the roadie in front of me, who turned out to be an excellent descender and I made it up to 51.9 mph following him down. A new recumbent speed record for me although I know the CHR will go a lot faster if I could find a road to blast it down.
From there, the next section is super fast all the way to the Gordon Arms. I was feeling a bit tired after Talla and didn’t make as much of it as I should have, and before I knew it I was grinding up the long ascent to the top of Berry Bush and then down into the Ettrick Valley. By this point I was feeling better again and I reeled in a lot of riders in the 7 miles down the valley before hitting the third big climb of the day – Witcheyknowe. I tried to stick to medium/upper zone 3 at around 240-250W all the way up the climb, although my legs were starting to feel it by this point.
The descent off Witcheyknowe is very steep and dangerous if you’re not careful. I passed a rider sitting in a foil blanket and saw his bike crashed off the road just beyond. I hope he was ok. There is a lot of loose gravel and again it is very thin and twisty. I kept things pretty reined in until I reached the Yarrow valley, then it was full gas back along to the Gordon arms, where I hit the last big climb of the day – Paddy Slacks. I felt like I had some energy still to give so I hit it as hard as I could, reeling in a lot of the riders who had rejoined from the shorter loop at the Gordon arms. Down Paddy Slacks at ludicrous speed, and then there is a 2 mile section of recumbent bliss where you can crank out the power on a gentle descent and leave everybody else in the dust with the superior aerodynamics of a 20 degree seat and high bottom bracket on the M5. The bike was fabulous here, I was passing people like they weren’t moving. Quite a few oohs and aahs from people as I passed them. The last section from Traquair back to Peebles has many similar fast sections, and I was putting out a steady threshold effort knowing that it would be over within 20 minutes or so. I was nervously looking at the clock, having set myself the goal of finishing in under 4 hours and it was looking like a close run thing, but in the end I crossed the finish line with a time of 3:55:07. Not earth shattering by the standards of the fastest riders who were a half hour ahead of me, but for me this marked the achievement of what had been a rather ambitious stretch goal a few months earlier, and next year maybe I can get closer to the 3:30.
The M5 was phenomenal to ride throughout. It’s a great bike. I will be writing more about that soon!