Monday, 6 June 2011

Chiltern 100 Race Report

I didn't stop smiling all day!
This past Sunday saw Idai and I take on the beast that was the Chiltern 100 cycle sportive event. This is an event that I have been building up to for months now. In fact in true ultra fashion one of the first things I did when getting my ElliptiGO was to look for an Ultra event. This was fuelled by the desire to become a member of the ElliptiGO Century Club, which before Sunday had just 13 members one of which is ultra-running legend and hero Dean Karnazes! So that has been my motivation to train hard and make it to the start line in tip-top shape and give it my all.

Training had gone very well, as captured in previous blog posts, and I had ridden up to 70 miles, including a 90 mile day (20 + 70). I was familiar with two thirds of the route which really helped on the day to focus on what was coming around the next bend, when to push and when to ease off. The Chiltern 100 route itself is certainly not for the faint hearted, and if you aren’t a huge fan of hills then it certainly isn’t for you with over 2,600 metres of climbing. The description on the Chiltern 100 website sums up the 'Gran Fordo' route quite nicely which reads as follows: "The Gran Fondo is an uncompromising road romp across 177 km (110 miles) of the toughest and most picturesque terrain in the Chilterns. It is relentless in its pursuit of hills, 21 in all, routinely climbing at over 15% grades. From Great Missenden to Dunstable Downs, then SW for the shake down along the scarp slope where the biggest and steepest hills await you. From Watlington return to Great Missenden over the final 6 leg numbing climbs".

So that is what awaited Idai and I as we set off on Sunday morning; separately I might add as Idai was fashionably late and I couldn't hang around because the event cut-off time was a pretty brutal 9 hours with the HQ due to close at 5pm. I think Idai was quite keen to ride separately anyway as an event of this distance really does require one to ride their own race. The emphasis of a sportive event is that it is not a race and hence there was no mass start. Instead 20 riders were released at a time in 2 minute intervals. I was on the start line with friend Dave (riding his Bianchi performance road bike) at 7:45am sharp for a quick getaway. My aim was to complete the event in under 8 hours (14mph average speed) but I didn't want to leave anything to chance hence the early start.

The ElliptiGO was unsurprisingly receiving a lot of attention on the start line. The usual questions from riders included – “What is it?”, “I haven't seen one of those before...”, “You're not doing the full 100 are you?”, to which I would reply 'yes', which was met by a “you’re completely mad”. Yes I am and I love it! And the most asked question throughout the day - "is it harder or easier than a bike?". Let’s look at it this way - These guys had 20+ gears, tyres the width of razor blades, and bikes that weighed as much as can of beans, the ElliptiGO on the other hand had just 8 gears, tyres more at home on a short city commute than 110 miles in the Chilterns, and weighs 40lbs. So most definitely harder! Figures I’ve seen from the manufacturer suggest that it’s about a 30% greater effort level. Nevertheless I wouldn't swap it for anything else, and I'm sure I had the biggest grin on my face of any rider on the course all day!

We were soon on our way from the HQ at Amersham Rugby club (see route map and profile above) and making our way along the first 5 mile flat section towards and down to Chesham. It was soon apparent and came as no surprise that I would not be keeping up with other riders on the flat sections, as they were way faster than me. Instead I set about pacing myself at around 16mph average speed which felt comfortable. The first descent into Chesham was a long blast down into the town centre which set the scene for the rest of the ride, which as the above profile shows would be descent, followed by ascent, followed by descent and so on. My strategy was to make maximum use of the flat sections maintaining a high average speed with minimal effort, whilst blasting the downhills and pacing the uphills as evenly as I could.

From Chesham we headed out and up to the top of Berkhamsted along some quiet picturesque country roads, and another blast down to the town centre. Inevitably followed by a long gradual climb up into the Ashridge Estate at the 15 mile mark. I know the area well and loved every second. Ashridge is a National Trust estate of hundreds of acres in size inhabited by many different deer and wildlife. Unfortunately I have no photos as taking them would be difficult on a bike and is impossible on an ElliptiGO. From Ashridge and into Little Gaddesden village there was a nice long downhill followed by... yes you guessed it another climb. We were then heading out to the northern tip of the route for what was the first serious climb of the day Bison Hill at around the 25 mile mark. I had practiced this climb many times before so knew what gear to be in and when for minimal effort, although at a 10% incline effort was certainly required.

It was on this climb too that the ElliptiGO really showed what a good climber it was as I passed a few other riders hunched over their handlebars grinding the lowest gear. On this hill and others further on in the route many riders even took the time and energy to comment on how well it climbs. And it does however not without putting in the effort, but because the body and legs drive it in such harmony, the whole motion of the ElliptiGO does look effortless as you glide up the hill bolt upright, driving down on the foot plates and still grinning! :-)

Incidentally, Bison Hill is so named because there are actual bison there! And what's more I spotted two of the woolly beasts between getting my breath back and pressing on up the hill. Again no time to play tourist and take photos I'm afraid though.

From here it was a big loop around Dunstable Downs with spectacular views over the valley below and across to Ivinghoe Beacon which would be our next significant climb.

Climb up Ivinghoe Beacon
Once we climbed Ivinghoe we headed back around into the Ashridge Estate for a brief spell, where I took an unscheduled pitstop to relieve the pressure on my bladder. And who said men can't multi-task as I also put the time to good use and consumed an orange GO energy gel as well. The timing was perfect too as we were approaching the two hour mark, and this in effect established my fuelling strategy for the rest of the ride - take an energy gel every 2 hours plus something more substantial at the official feed stations at the 39 and 75 mile marks, whilst also filling my water bottle with my SIS energy drink. In total I estimate that I only spent 10 or so minutes stationary throughout the entire ride, which was extremely pleasing as time spent going nowhere really kills your average speed. My official split at this checkpoint was 2:33 which translates to an average speed of 15.3mph.

The next section took us down a steep sharp incline into Aldbury village which was followed by a series of long, winding, undulating country roads with the occassional bigger bump (e.g. 10-12% inclines) but these climbs were short lived and just a taster of what was still to come. The first feed station at 39 miles was on this section and as stated I didn't spend a whole lot of time at these, which is a shame in some respects because what they had on offer was an abundance of calorific sugary treats! But I resisted the urge to graze quickly filling my bottle, grabbing one energy bar, which I scoffed whilst fielding questions from inquisitive riders about the GO. Refuelled and feeling great I pushed on and enjoyed a long winding descent down into Tring town centre. The next section was quite compact with riders in closer proximity on narrower single track roads. I was no longer riding alone and had company, which was nice, as the hills started to come thicker and faster.

The next town on route was Wendover which signalled the start of what I considered to be the toughest part of the route in terms of steepness and length of the climbs. However I was very familiar with this section too which allowed me to relax and take it each climb in my stride (which being quite a long stride must help to drive the ElliptiGO forward with greater efficiency especially uphill!). This was put to the test on consecutive climbs of Butlers Cross, Pulpitt Hill and the brutal Whiteleaf hill which was over a mile long from the bottom. It was in this section of climbs that a game of cat and mouse started between myself and the other riders around me. They would pull out in front on the flat sections between the climbs but I would reel them back in on the climbs. I remember one guy well who was I think amazed that he couldn’t shake me off, and laughed each time I passed him on the climb. On Pulpitt Hill he commented that the sound of the ElliptiGO was like the theme music to Jaws! Scary stuff indeed!

The reward for reaching the top of Whiteleaf Hill was a massive downhill section on Kop Hill where I hit my top speed of the entire course, and top speed ever of the ElliptiGO – 41.4mph!! Pretty crazy stuff and I can tell you that I was holding on pretty tight. What a rush though! One rider I spoke to after the event said he hit over 50mph on the same hill :-O

From here it was more of the same undulating country roads. Beyond the town of Chinnor at around the 70 mile mark was where I was entering unchartered territory for the first time both in terms of distance covered and the rest of the route which I had not covered in training. However neither aspect changed too much and I continued on riding strong, muttering my new ElliptiGO mantra under my breath to hold good form and push on “Stand Tall, Ride Strong”. What I had perhaps not bargained for was the brutality of the climbs still to come, namely Kingston Wood and Christmas Common! Such splendid names but they do deceive as they sound so innocent! These climbs were enough to get several riders in front of me off their bike and walking, but not the ElliptiGO – she’s like a Duracell bunny and just keeps going! I won’t lie though and say that my legs weren’t starting to grumble. They certainly felt well used, and I could feel that my effort levels were maxed out but it was manageable and I still climbed faster than those of bikes around me.

The second and last feed station was situated at the top of Kingston Wood and it couldn’t have been better placed. I stayed disciplined however and was in and out in less than 3 or 4 minutes. My split here was 4:45 for 73 miles (avg speed upon leaving the station was 14.9mph dropping just below 15mph for the first time).

From here is was a case of head down and go, and the good news was that there was a massive downhill section followed by long flat main road where I could get the miles in and push on. Even the rain that was starting to fall at this point didn’t dampen my spirits although it did make me more careful on when cornering! What followed from here to the finish was a series of seemingly never ending climbs. Six in total which after what had preceded them over the whole day were starting to take their toll, but the finish didn’t seem so far away and the scenery continued to stun and amaze and keep me grinning! Honestly! Or was it grimacing... one of the two... probably both.

Somewhere on route in the latter sections
The last event of any significance was when the heavens opened 3 miles from the end but I didn’t care. It was a flat section and I was flying going at over 20 mph and eager to finish strong. And that was that. Job done. A coveted place in the ElliptiGO Century Club was mine. The first person to finish the Chiltern 100 on an Elliptical bike, and in a time of 7hrs 27 minutes, which I was dead chuffed with and much faster than I had ever anticipated. Incidentally my 100 mile time as measured by my Garmin was 6h46m. I know these times are meaningless as one doesn’t have a point of reference to compare. But hey if I do it again next year then we can! I may also contact ElliptiGO themselves out of pure curiosity and because I’m unashamedly competitive to find out what other 100 mile times have been set. The ElliptiGO Century Club list is here on their website and hopefully my name will appear there soon. The full results of the Chiltern 100 are posted here. No official race day photos yet but I will be keen to see those and will post when they are up.

My last thought 2 days after this all happened relates to my post race recovery. Quite simply the ElliptiGO says what it does on the tin. It is a zero impact high intensity workout which can be proven by the fact that I've just ridden 110 miles with over 2,600m of climbing and felt fine on Monday and was running again today. Yes my legs feel a little used and wearly but if it was a run I would be nursing all sorts of aches and pains for days if not weeks after! That's not to say that I'm stopping running, far from it, but as a cross-training device the ElliptiGO is far far better than running alone. Period.


  1. fantastic report and congratulations Stu

  2. Awesome adventure Stu. Great report!

  3. Stu-

    Love the write up. Keep standing tall and riding strong. I hope you'll strongly consider coming out for the world championships. I think you have the second fastest 100 mile time I know of - Brent did the first 100 miles of his 204 mile record in closer to 6 hours total. I don't know of anyone else who has gotten under 7 hours. Really glad to have you as an owner and competitor, and again, I think you'd do England proud at the WC this October.