Last year I had a great time speaking at Lean Agile Scotland, held in the fantastic Our Dynamic Earth venue here in Edinburgh. This year I’m really happy to be back speaking on a new topic – how to build products that your customers love but can’t articulate. It’s going to be a great couple of days in Edinburgh!
May 12 was the Caledonian Etape, an 81 mile sportive race which is billed as the largest cycling event in Scotland. Roughly 5,000 riders arrive in the town of Pitlochry every year to ride the very scenic route which winds around two lochs and climbs over part of Schiehallion, a famous mountain in Scotland. The Etape series has partnered with the Marie Curie charity and raises money via each rider which is processed for free through Virgin Money’s excellent donations engine. I’d really like to thank everyone that supported me and the charity – it was a very motivating experience and your contribution will make a difference.
Contrary to my original plans of taking the train, I ended up driving up with my teammate Craig on Saturday afternoon, which put us into the town around two in the afternoon. There were cyclists, cycle racks, and expensive bikes everywhere! Pitlochry is a popular tourist destination for those wanting to see the scenery of the highlands, and was a favoured spot of Queen Victoria’s, which increased the town’s popularity during her reign. It’s picturesque, with many buildings dating from the 1800s, yet still very small, like most towns in the highlands, with a population of roughly 2,500. The Etape starts and finishes on the main street (Atholl Road) which follows the River Tummel, and when we arrived Etape HQ was already set up and rocking. There were registration tents, booths setup by sponsors selling various cycling gear, and a mobile bike shop with mechanics giving cyclists free checkups. Techno music was blasting, and we were pumped as we met up with our other team members, Brian and Eugene.
Training, Preparations, and The Team
Here’s a quick rundown of the team members:
- Craig – Australian, extremely fit, completed a marathon the previous year, spent time as a Mount Everest mountain guide, fairly seasoned cyclist.
- Eugene – Irish, very fit, preparing for several sprint triathlons, toying with the idea of doing an iron man, new to cycling.
- Brian – Irish, very fit, works out regularly (over the last several months with a personal trainer), does quite a bit of climbing, new to cycling.
- Myself – American, overweight, never exercises, not fit at all, new to cycling.
I think it’s safe to say that none of the above is an exaggeration or in any way inaccurate, but if you walked up to our group and asked us if we were in shape the other three members would all spend quite a bit of time telling you how weak they were, how they’ve lapsed on their fitness, etc. This led to myself almost getting killed on the first couple of rides as I was cold-starting my body from years of devoted neglect. The first few training rides saw the group “drop me” (in cycling this apparently means “leave me behind) so badly that I couldn’t even see them. Eventually Craig would get concerned, turn around, cycle back towards me for quite some time, upon finding me he would crawl alongside me at my pathetic pace. It was humiliating. I was determined to catch up.
We cycled 460 miles across 18 different rides to prepare for this race, but that doesn’t include at least 1-2 gym trips every week and probably a half dozen spin classes. It’s difficult to ride on weekdays in Scotland during the winter, as the daylight hours are so short you’d be riding in the dark, so a lot of the training we logged was in the gym.
All this to say that there was great concern in January on my part over whether I could finish either the Etape or our previous event the Tour o’the Borders. We didn’t have much time to train, and further review of the Borders race indicated that it could be significantly tougher than the Etape. Having survived the Borders race a month earlier in what many seasoned participants proclaimed was the worst weather they’d ever ridden in, I felt like I had a huge psychological edge on this event. Still, this race was 10 miles longer with a thousand more feet of elevation, albeit essentially all packed into one massive climb.
Registration and Recon
Upon arrival we registered and proceeded to look for somewhere to eat. All of us were already carb loading, and I’d eaten two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, but it was important to keep stuffing down the carbs. Carb loading helps build up stores of glycogen in your muscles and can be the energy difference you need in an endurance event, particularly at the end. Every restaurant in Pitlochry had pasta on their menu as a special, no matter what they normally served, and after a plate of lasagna and chips, it was time to head out and preview the route.
Driving along the route for me was a demoralising experience. It took us an hour and a half to drive 60 miles of the 81 mile route. We were hoping to cycle the complete route in roughly six hours, and from the car the distance was looking a bit intimidating. There was also quite a bit more elevation in some areas than I’d anticipated, particularly at the start, and I was reminded of the gruelling long initial climb from the Tour O’the Borders.
Still, it’s always an incredible experience being in the country in Scotland. The Scottish scenery is absolutely stunning and the scenery we get to experience on each ride is one of my favourite aspects of the sport. We cruised along, stopping every now and then to take some pictures, and marvelled at the mountains, glens, and lochs that we’d be heading through in just a few hours.
Reconnaissance finished, we drove back to the accommodations we’d booked, which were a few miles out from Pitlochry in the town of Blair Atholl. Wikipedia says that the town is “small”, and I couldn’t find an official population figure, but one newspaper article I came across mentioned it contains roughly 260 households. Like almost every little Scottish town, Blair Atholl has its historical curiosities. The town was a refuelling stop (water) for steam locomotives and since 1911, the railway companies were on the hook to provide the town’s water supply. This unusual legal arrangement ceased only recently in 2006 when the railway paid millions to connect the town to Scottish Water, one of the main water companies in the area.
Carb Loading and Carb Overloading
We were staying in a prefabricated lodge (3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, living room, kitchen, deck) located on the grounds of Blair Castle, which is the ancestral home to clan Murray and the last castle to fall under siege in the British Isles. It’s also the home of Europe’s only remaining legal private army, the Atholl highlanders. Every year the Duke of Atholl, who currently resides in South Africa, returns to view his private army of roughly one hundred men (membership is only available upon invitation by the Duke and the member has passed the necessary standard of foot and arms drill).
We arrived back to find a huge (and carb heavy) dinner waiting: a kilo of pasta and a huge portion of pork stuffed with plumbs. Prepared for us by Brian’s Brazilian wife and Eugene’s Italian/English girlfriend, each focused on their specialty: pasta from Italy and meat from Brazil. It was a fantastic meal. I ate two massive plates of spaghetti and a large portion of pork, but Eugene proceeded to methodically put away the most pasta I’ve ever seen someone consume.
After dinner we headed for bed, but due to nerves and the prefab walls being paper thin, it wasn’t until after midnight that I got to sleep. With our 5AM wakeup, this meant we would spend less time sleeping than we’d be out on the bike, which definitely hadn’t been part of the plan.
Upon waking, I was still massively full from dinner the night before, but I attempted to choke down some oatmeal and ate about half a bowel. Eugene ate three servings of oatmeal. We’re unsure of Brian’s food intake. As we pulled out into the driveway, we noticed our neighbours cycling to the start of the race, eight miles away.
Pitlochry was in full frenzy when we arrived. Eugene managed to find a great parking spot and we quickly headed up to the high street on our bikes to find our starting wave. There were thousands of cyclists crammed into the starting area, and we quickly realised there was no chance we’d be able to manoeuvre into our proper wave. Slowly we inched closer to the start, but it was at this point that Eugene’s dinner and breakfast began to…make its presence known. He needed a bathroom. Quickly.
While funny for the first five minutes it became apparent that if Eugene didn’t find a bathroom soon, it could be a messy and unpleasant first stage. Brian and I weren’t too thrilled about the idea of riding next to Eugene if something happened. He dashed into nearby ice cream shop, but the owner was ready for him, and rebuffed his pleas for a bathroom. Back in the group, he began to despair, quite verbally, and I noticed that we were now good entertainment for other cyclists around us. One gave us his best tips for holding it. Another suggested some bushes over by a church bordering the road. Everyone was in high spirits except for Eugene. Finally as we got closer to the start, he shouted that he couldn’t take it anymore and that he was “going to solve this” and ran away and off the street, leaving Brian and I holding his bike. Five minutes passed. Then a few more. Finally a much more relaxed Eugene returned to cheers and congratulations from our neighbouring cyclists. And then we were at the start and ready to ride.
We gained elevation along a wooded road that was heading west towards the first loch. There was some decent climbing but nothing too remarkable, and it was great being on closed roads riding with other cyclists in decent weather. Brian, Eugene and I were together most of the way, but I fell behind a bit on some of the hills as I was keen to make sure I paced myself. This race would include just as much elevation as The Borders, but was also 10 miles longer and I really wanted to avoid running out of gas at the end.
I felt great coming into the first of four feed stations. We were twenty miles in, but I wasn’t at all tired, and it was a far cry from the previous sportive where the first thirty miles had been pure hell. Plus, the weather was looking like it would hold. Bananas consumed and water bottles refilled, we needed to wait for another bathroom stop. Carbs that go down must come out.
The second leg I rode quite a bit of a the way with Brian, while Eugene blitzed on ahead. I caught up again at the second feed station which was located prior to the main climb over Schiehallion. There was more carb offloading to be done from Brian. Just before the feed station, we passed the 40 mile marker and I remarked to an older rider close by me that we were over halfway! He turned to me, spat once, and said, “Och! That was the easy part!” then put his eyes back on the road. Nothing beats the motivational cheeriness of the Scots!
Then we were upon the summit, and as I rolled through the marker that signalled the beginning of the timed “King of the Mountains” segment, I heard the loud beep that confirmed my time was being recorded. Starting with a gradual incline, the climb only gets truly brutal for a couple hundred meters, but plenty of riders had dismounted or needed to stop. Unlike the previous sportive I’d ridden, I didn’t need to stop once on the way up the hill and before I knew it, I was hearing the beep that signalled the end of the climb. Except that there was still another third of the climb to go. Sigh. I dug in and gutted it out.
Because it’s such a large event and the roads are closed, one of the great things about the Caledonian Etape is that there are tons of supporters out on the course cheering you on. In contrast to The Borders where I rode more than 50 miles without seeing a single person, on almost every bend there were spectators cheering us on, waving signs, clapping, shouting encouragement, and ringing cow bells. Children would run alongside us, there were words of encouragement spray painted on the road, and every time we’d see a group of supporters I’d feel a rush of encouragement and wave back, giving them the thumbs up. It was great.
Once I reached the legitimate top of the summit, it began to lightly rain. I stopped to grab a banana from the third feed station was alarmed to see the sweeper car pull in just a few minutes behind me. Behind the sweeper, the roads were open and if the car caught up to you, you were required to stop, turn your chip in, and would be classified as a DNF. Because we’d missed our start time, we were an hour behind where we should have been (they put the slower riders in the front), and now it was going to be a race against time and the car! I decided I’d surrender my timing chip over my dead body, and proceeded to descend as quickly as I could, which was fairly difficult now that it was raining.
At the bottom of the mountain the route veers West around one last loch, and this was where the wind became a problem. It was blowing directly against us, albeit not too badly, but it was enough to make things more much more difficult than normal. I managed to tuck in behind another rider and we made pretty good time, averaging roughly 25kph until we finally turned and headed back on the other side of the loch with the wind at our backs.
This was truly the home stretch now – only 15 miles to go, but I was starting to feel tired and wanted to get to the finish. The last miles felt like they went on forever as we rode up and down an undulating stretch of road that included one more feed station. I decided to ride through it to avoid the sweeper car, and as we got closer to the finish, I was concentrating on the last major challenge ahead: The Sting in the Tail.
This is the last major climb of the route, but the sting that’s being referenced is a section where the road feels like it goes straight up. Strava reports this as a 12 percent gradient, which doesn’t sound so bad, until you realise you’re climbing 70 feet in a tenth of a mile. The hill is right after a descent and is a very narrow road as well (about the width of a single car lane). As we approached the turn onto the Sting they had wardens out waving flags shouting “Shift into your highest gear NOW”. Those who didn’t promptly fell off their bikes as it was impossible to shift quickly enough while keeping forward momentum up the incline, and a clipped in rider needs time to unclip from the pedals. Halfway up, as I was standing in my highest gear, I felt my legs begin to cramp up halfway. Nearby it felt really chaotic. Two cyclists had fallen over on the left, a warden on a motorcycle was on my right, more cyclists were behind me, there were dismounted cyclists ahead, and I began to fear that all of this would combine to be some kind of epic disaster. In just a few more minutes it was over without anything more than a few close calls, and I felt incredible elation and relief to be beyond the worst parts.
We began a quick descent down the last hill and then it was around the bend onto the high street of Pitlochry. There were hundreds of spectators lining the sides of the road, music playing, and I wasn’t the last rider coming in! I crossed the finish line and then met up with Brian and Eugene who had finished about fifteen minutes earlier. Craig blew us all away with a sub five hour time!
Upon review of our times and our Strava data, we concluded that our time of just over six hours could have been cut by at least forty minutes if we’d spent less time at the rest areas. However, all of the team would agree that the alternatives weren’t really palatable.
All in all the Caledonian Etape was a fantastic experience. The course was tough but doable, and it was a great weekend spent battling against the course and raising money for the Marie Curie charity. Thanks to the support of friends, family, acquaintances, and some anonymous contributors, together we raised over four hundred pounds! It really meant a lot to me and we’ll certainly be back next year!
Updated on the 25th of April, 2013 to include some more ride reports and videos.
This past weekend was the Tour O’the Borders, a 70 mile sportive race that started and ended in the town of Peebles, Scotland. This was my first ever endurance athletic event, and was quite the experience.
Preparation started in January with the delivery of my Canyon Roadlite AL bike, direct from Germany. My first ever spin on a road bike was a few laps of Arthur’s Seat on the 12th, and our team trained regularly during the week and on weekends since the third weekend of the year. Most weekends we’d be out on the bikes and during the week I’d hit the stationary bike at least twice and sometimes do a spin class. While we weren’t quite as far along as we wanted to be, I found myself comfortably managing 30 mile rides with a couple thousand feet of elevation changes. One week prior to the event, we decided to ride the main loop the route would take in order to get our bearings and make sure we had one last good ride in prior to a week of tapering before the event.
We rode the practice route during a spectacular day and learned an important lesson about nutrition – we had underestimated how critical eating was to our success. All three of us on the ride crashed pretty hard prior to the last major hill and found it and the ensuing flat ride back to the car to be gruelling. We wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
Diet and Carb Loading
A few weeks prior to the event I stopped drinking all alcohol except for red wine, and didn’t drink any at all the week prior to the race. We drew a start time of 8AM in Peebles, and decided to spend the night prior to the event in town as our group had a tendency to, shall we say, struggle with leaving on time. We had been watching the weather all week while enjoying the second straight week of perfect Scottish weather and were excited to see that the temperature, which had been averaging in the 40s for most of the month, looked like it was going to be in the upper 50s for the weekend. Rain was also predicted, but we’d been training in snow and rain plenty and were prepared for the elements. The only concern we had was wind. Wind, more than any other element, is a killer on the bike. Even a slight breeze can really make life difficult, and without a doubt the most difficult training ride of the entire preparation period had been on a day which had seen us battling 15mph gusts of wind for roughly 20 miles. The event is scheduled rain or shine, like everything in Scotland, so there wasn’t much to be done other than to hope.
On Saturday we loaded up our gear and drove down to Peebles, where we checked into the Crown public house, and headed over to register. Because the starting times had been published previously, I knew I was the only rider in the event with the last name Peebles, and as I checked in I informed the attendant that I’d been promised a statue of my likeness to be delivered upon registration. She looked down at her notes and said, “Ah yes, it’s right here in my notes that we’ll have your statue at the end…that is…if you finish.” It was a bit ominous if you asked me.
After asking if I’d come all the way from America for this race they did admit that there was one person who lived in town with the last name Peebles. He was an American. A school teacher. Quite a strange man. I assured them I was at least as strange, admonished them to get my statue ready, and then it was off for supper.
We’d booked a table at the only Italian restaurant in the village. According to the internet, the average male can load over a thousand calories into muscles, stored as glycogen, by eating a high level of carbs prior to an event, and we were on a mission. The race would take over four thousand calories and I was convinced it could be my last meal on earth, so we ordered appropriately. I had two mains: gnocchi and lasagne, and shared a banana split with fellow teammate Eugene. We also ate two peanut butter sandwiches each prior to bed. That evening we spent a couple of hours making PBJs for the ride (two each) and checking our equipment, bikes, and food supplies for the race.
Here’s the gear I had with me:
- Clothing: 2 merino (3 if wet) Icebreaker base layers, cycling jersey, bike shorts, bib tights, lightweight cycling rain jacket, 2 pair (3 if cold) wool socks, cycling shoes, neoprene waterproof overshoes, merino skullcap, glasses, helmet, and waterproof winter rated gloves.
- Bike: cycling computer (odometer and speed), saddle bag, bike hex wrenches, spare tube, puncture repair kit, compact pump, bottle, wallet, waterproof bag with phone, route card, and camelbak with 2.5L reservoir and low calorie cycling specific energy drink.
- Food: 15 Torq isotonic energy gels with guarana (caffeine), 2 granola bars, 1 energy bar, 2 PBJ sandwiches, 1 Snickers bar, and 1 banana.
Most people are surprised at the food. The race was expected to take roughly 6 hours and about 4,000 calories, which means that while riding we’re spending almost two times the normal recommended dietary intake in energy, and missing a meal, and keeping your energy levels up is critical. I planned to supplement the food above with bananas and carb-heavy foods available at the two feed stations set up along the route.
Seasoned cyclists will observe that it’s fairly non-traditional to use a large camelbak, as it adds quite a bit of weight, but I don’t care. I find that it’s much easier to drink from a camelbak than from a cycling bottle, which takes quite a bit of concentration to get out of the cage and use, and when training without a camelback I noticed I drink substantially less. On courses here in Scotland, the hills are steep enough that you can’t drink on the climbs, and they’re frequent enough that you have to manage your drinking on the descents, which is problematic when you’re going down steep hills and need to be braking with both hands.
Seasoned cyclists will also note that I made a critical mistake on the equipment – I didn’t bring a chain tool, tire levers, or a second inner tube. A broken chain could end the ride, the absence of tire levers would make changing a puncture much more difficult, and on long rides two punctures can happen.
We went to bed early and I woke up twice to hear the wind had picked up. It was howling and rattling our windows, and come morning we were greeted with a weather situation that seemed fairly grim. The winds were at an estimated 12mpg (20kph) blowing northeast, and it was drizzling rain. It wasn’t raining especially hard and the temperature was in the 50s. The weather was predicted to improve over the course of the morning.
We had our meal of porridge, then suited up, ate a banana and rode over to the starting line, making it with about 10 minutes to spare. Unfortunately, the weather had worsened considerably. It was now blowing steadily and raining heavily. Scotland normally doesn’t get very much heavy rain, it tends to drizzle, but it was raining hard and getting worse by the minute. The organisers were starting us in groups of 50 but as the first group got ready to depart, the wind gusted so hard a rider was knocked off his bike. In case that’s not clear, I’ll reiterate: he went from standing with his bike to laying on the ground due to the wind. After that, the starting groups were pared down to 25 riders. We were slotted into the second group and then we were off.
20 Miles of Horror
As headed out we turned to follow the River Tweed and I noticed for the first time how high the water level was. We’d visited Peebles a year prior and the river had been 10 feet below the banks at that time. It was now level and moving very swiftly. It began to rain very hard now, but I was concentrating on riding with the growing peloton of riders, many of whom were intent on passing and moving up in position. The first leg of the course was mainly flat, but we soon turned off and headed for the hills, and began a brutal category four, six hundred feet climb that lasts for roughly 4 miles. We were in extreme rain at this point, and the wind was blowing at least twenty miles an hour in the exact opposite direction. The conditions were what could only be described as apocalyptic – it was very dark, I saw two riders blown off of their bikes due to gusts of wind, the rain was horizontal and pelting us very hard. The surrounding hills which had been covered with snow just seven days earlier were now bare and the rain was washing down rock and debris that was causing a lot of punctures. I counted at least six punctures on riders’ bikes in the first twenty minutes. Experienced riders would later comment to teammates that they’d never seen this many flats.
I had stupidly left behind my clear cycling glasses as they tend to fog up in rain, particularly on climbs, and I didn’t think the wind would be a problem. Now we were out in horrible wind and the rain was pelting us so hard that it was hurting exposed skin, particularly the eyes. I was riding with my head down, the eye towards the wind closed, head turned away from the wind, one eye barely open, and switching eyes when the one would starting stinging too badly. The racket from the rain hitting our helmets was so loud it made me think at one point there could be some hail involved. The wind was so loud it made it impossible to talk to other riders.
The pace was gruelling – I was struggling up the hill at roughly six miles per hour, which is less than what you’d expect to achieve walking a mile, and exerting a huge amount of energy. Halfway up the hill I stopped to catch my breath, and I realised that finishing the race at all was in jeopardy as I was burning valuable energy fighting the wind, and unable to eat or drink due to the heavy exertion required. As I restarted my ascent, I heard a word of encouragement shouted by another approaching rider. He was a white haired, overweight Scot in his mid-fifties, riding a decrepit bike with fenders, sporting cargo shorts and sneakers with no clipons.
“Cmon lad, we’ll do it together!” he roared.
I tucked in behind him and we settled into a routine where he’d shield me from the wind for a few minutes, and then I’d get in front and repay the favor. As we neared the halfway point of the first climb, I was confused to see four riders speeding down the hill in the opposite direction. They were bailing out, giving up. My new partner turned and bellowed at the top of his lungs, “THAT’S FOUR SCALPS FOR US, MATE!” and began laughing hysterically, “WE’LL SEE THOSE MOTHERFUCKERS AT THE FINISH LINE! YEAAAAAAAH!” As we reached the summit he peddled off into the maelstrom ahead and I never saw him again.
More and more riders were quitting. I counted twenty, and then stopped counting. Many were clearly experienced, sporting Rapha jerseys, three thousand pound bikes, and lean physiques. I didn’t really know what to do, so I pressed on.
Downhill and Decisions
As we ended the first serious climb, I was really looking forward to the first major downhill which would lead to the pub that we’d started our loop from the week earlier. Except the wind was blowing against us so hard that we had to pedal to go downhill. Riders were standing up to pedal downhill into the wind on what should have been a 20mph freewheeling descent.
It was quite a miserable bunch that huddled in the lee side of the pub when I finally arrived. Many riders were turning back and several commented it was the worst weather they’d ever experienced. I ate a granola bar, got back on the bike, and headed for the second major climb – five hundred feet of elevation over four miles. The wind and rain had picked up from before, and again I could barely average six miles per hour. Finally, I reached the summit and began heading down, and that was when I saw the decision point. I could head left and ride the shorter route, which would lop off two climbs and roughly twenty miles, or I could head for the longer course and do the full 70 miles. I’m still not sure why I headed right, but I think it had a to do with the fact that I genuinely believed I wouldn’t be able to finish the short course, let alone the longer one. In my mind, it would be better to fail attempting the long course than not make it on the short course.
As I descended the hill towards the first feed station, I was still fighting the wind – I trying to get as close to a full race position as possible with my hands on the bottom bars, head down, and in a full racing tuck. When riding like this it’s not very comfortable, and it can be hard to see far in front of you. I looked up for a minute and was astonished to see the wide valley that I’d ridden through just seven days prior completely flooded. The road disappeared for about a quarter mile underneath a swift moving body of water that seemed to be a couple feet deep.
Some cyclists had dismounted and were walking through the river. Tree branches, grass, and other debris were in the very muddy water. If I turned back, I’d have to ride back up the hill, so I forged ahead and rode through. You had to aim about 45 degrees to the right in order to get pushed back towards the centre and not be washed away and the water was over the crank shaft of my bike, maybe two feet deep. Emerging from the river on the other side I picked off branches, grass, and quite a bit of miscellaneous plant matter, and headed into another climb.
Finally I made it to the first rest stop. A teammate later commented that it looked like a campsite after a drone attack. There were two caravans parked in a flooded lot, and the remaining skeleton of a tent which had been torn to pieces. Furniture was overturned, and the camper doors were open and banging loudly in the wind. Bikes were strewn all over the grass, and I headed in to see what there was to eat. There wasn’t much room in the camper so I scarfed down a piece of cake with butter, then it was back to work.
My hope was that as we navigated around the course counter-clockwise, we’d have the aid of the wind at our backs at some point, and the last major climb situated between 3 and 12 o’clock on the course would hopefully be sheltered from the wind. A couple more miles of really hard work into the wind, and then all of a sudden, the wind was at my back.
The Wind and a Puncture
I remember laughing in giddy fashion as the wind and I worked together to get over the mountain and push me along a sixteen mile segment that took us across the spine of a range of hills. Compared to earlier I was rocketing across the course, and just before the descent towards the second feed station, I pulled over to take a bathroom break. The wind was blowing extremely hard at this point, and as I started to pee, it was an odd experience watching it rocket up and away at a forty-five degree angle. To any readers that live in France, I apologise for watering your lawn. I was hungry too, so I started eating a banana, solving two problems at once. So there I was, peeing into the stratosphere while eating a banana, and up pulled a female rider behind me. Everyone knew what was going on, but nobody cared, we were that tired, wet and cold. And she had a problem.
“Do you think my tire is punctured?” she asked, squeezing the inner tube until her fingers were touching. Road bikes run their tires between 100psi and 120psi and are rock hard. They don’t flex when squeezed.
“You definitely have a puncture”, I answered.
“Oh,” she said, “I think I’m going to cry.”
If you do that, I explained, the tears will just rocket up and away from you. After all, I had experience.
We set to work, even though I’d never changed a tire before, and neither had she. Two other riders stopped to assist, and together we formed a collection of the four most clueless cyclists ever assembled, as nobody knew what they were doing. It was really, really cold, but twenty minutes later we had the tire changed and pumped up, and I jumped on the bike and headed off.
Down I came into the second feed station, which was located in some kind of Scottish version of a VFW hall. Walking in I was barraged by volunteers asking me what I needed. “Hot soup! Two kinds! Take as much as you want!” I pointed at a few things, then walked over and sat down. I felt like hell. There were three or four other riders across from me at another table. A volunteer walked up to me and stuck his head in my face. “Are you OK?” he asked, as if I was in shock. I probably was. I nodded yes.
While I chewed my sandwich and drank my soup I listened to the organisers talk about the race. Riders were being picked up all across the course, and many were reaching this feed station then leaving their bikes and being bussed back to the finish line. There was a truck leaving outside with a bike trailer that could hold at least twenty bikes, and it was without an empty spot.
I was facing the hardest climb of the day, and after the descent, I’d be heading back into the wind as I closed off the circle at the pub. I decided to just go for it.
Heading out, I couldn’t see any riders ahead or behind me which was much as the race had been all day. I started into the grade and saw a massive Scottish hare about twenty feet in front of me. Bigger than a cat, it was watching me. As I’d pedal closer, it would run ahead for about twenty feet, then turn around and watch me struggle to catch up to it. It was a truly bizarre experience, possibly a hallucination, that lasted halfway up the hill. I had taken three gels throughout the ascent, but I was completely out of gas as I rounded a corner two thirds of the way up. Just as the climb doubled back on itself, I caught the wind and it literally pushed me over the last two hundred feet of the climb and into a very long, very fast descent. With the runoff from the rain and snow covering the road, braking was harder than usual and my hands began cramping up as I struggled to maintain control down the hill, but I had made it. There was a glimmer of hope.
Last Man Standing
However, I turned onto a mostly flat section back towards the pub and the wind hit me full force again. This was a grim stretch. About halfway through, a motorcycle pulled up next to me, and asked me how I was doing. It was a race marshall checking up on riders.
“OK”, I lied, “Am I the last one?”
“Well…” he said, not really answering.
“I’m really the last one?” I asked, quite surprised.
“Yeah…..you’re the last one,” he answered, and then because the truth had been spoken he immediately radioed in.
“Control, I’ve got the last rider out here now.”
I was debating how to ask if I could hang onto the motorcycle and get a pull when he shouted that he’d pull ahead and try to block some of the wind. I nodded in compliance. The trouble was, I was going so slow he was having trouble riding his motorcycle, and the exhaust from the bike was blowing directly back into my face. I wanted to puke.
Finally, we pulled into the pub. We’re going to pause our narrative briefly and leave out a few bits, but lets just say that that if I were you, I would never use the bathroom in the Guilford Arms pub ever again.
Emerging from the pub I saw two race marshals hanging out. Did they think I could make it? I was prepared to give up if they provided any hint of negativity. “You can do it!” they replied enthusiastically, and tossed me a red bull. I hated those guys. Back onto the bike and into the last climb, which was a 2.7 mile 430 foot climb. I’m not really sure how I made it, but once over, the wind was at my back as I sped down the stretch which I’d fought up for the first ten miles, and I realised I was going to finish.
As I joined back up with the River Tweed, the sun was out and I ate a Snickers bar (lovingly sneaked into my bag by my beloved wife), which provided quite the jolt to my system. A car approached from the rear and I waved to signal it to go around. The driver pulled up instead and asked how I was doing. I told him I was doing OK.
“Which course are you coming from?” he asked.
“The long one.” I said
“Brilliant! Well done! Quite a day isn’t it? You’re the last one!”
I agreed, and then he told me he was the event organiser. I told him my last name was Peebles, and I just couldn’t let the town down. Then he told me the best news I’d had all day.
“There’s no more hills from here on in!”
So it was with an escort that I pedalled along the River Tweed, heading towards the village of my namesake, and I fantasized about the welcome I’d receive. My team would be there, and hundreds of other cyclists and their families, enjoying their post-race meals. They would clap for me and cheer, and I would think of something funny to say. It was going to be great.
I headed up the short driveway to Peebles High School and the car behind me began honking as I surveyed the deserted parking lot. The organiser was honking in order to let the timing official know he should record my finish. There wasn’t a soul in sight. I rode past the imaginary line, got off the bike, and collapsed on the ground. I texted Sara that I’d made it, and called my teammates.
“Come on back to the hotel, take a shower, and come to the pub!”
And so I got back on the bike and cycled a quarter mile back to the hotel, and showed up where our team was assembled. It had been a rough day. One teammate’s knee was messed up from the ride. Another had been blown off his bike twice and had a punctured tire, then decided to ride the short course instead.
“On a scale of 1-10, how much did you enjoy that?” I was asked.
It had been the hardest thing I’ve ever physically done in my life. My elapsed time was 7:26, over an hour and a half longer than we’d planned. Only 233 riders finished the long course. 430 completed the short, and the remaining 337 dropped out. Still, the sense of accomplishment was incredible, and now we’re focused for the Caledonian Etape in three weeks.
Just a reminder that I’m still raising money for the Caledonian Etape, and we’re over halfway there. If you can donate, it would mean a lot for a great cause!
Strava Report from the Ride
Other Rider’s Reports from the Tour o’the Borders
- A Very Wet and Windy Tour o’the Borders
- Destination Bike: The Scottish Borders
- Tour o’ the Borders: sportive EPIC
Media Coverage of the Tour o’the Borders
Since Christmas I’ve embarked on a somewhat unusual journey for me in that I committed to ride in two endurance cycling “sportives”, despite never really doing any kind of serious cycling before. The past few months I’ve spent almost every weekend out on the bike and many sessions in the gym during the week attempting to prepare for these events.
This whole thing began with a great group who in true British fashion all declared that they were “rubbish” and “not at all fit”. After the first outing saw me fall behind by a few miles, the truth came out – all but one had run a marathon within the previous six months, and one was contemplating entering an ironman. Lets just say that we’re not expecting me to stay with the group. The goal is to finish – alive, and in one piece.
The first race is the Tour of the Borders which starts and ends in the town of Peebles, roughly 45 minutes South of Edinburgh. It’s a 70 mile route that includes 4,800 feet of elevation (billed as “big, alpine style climbs”) and should take roughly 5ish hours to complete. You can watch a short video on the route here.
The second race is the Caledonian Etape, an 81 mile race in the Scottish Highlands which includes 6,300 feet of elevation and winds around the banks of Loch Rannoch and Loch Tummel in Perthshire. The goal of this race is to raise money for the Marie Curie Cancer Care charity which exists to provide hospice nursing care to terminal patients in their own homes, often overnight, completely free of charge. They also fund research efforts and work in conjunction with the NHS in their mission to ease the last few weeks of a patient’s life. I’ve been very impressed by their transparency and ethical commitments and will be proud to ride as part of “Team Daffodil”.
One of the things I love about my wife is for several years while we were living in South Florida, she volunteered for the American Cancer Society on their “Road to Recovery” program, driving cancer patients to and from their treatment. Many patients simply didn’t have access to a car or were unable to drive themselves. Even if they could drive, they’d often be woozy or nauseous after their treatment. These kinds of difficulties are often found on the fringes of the battle against cancer and exist beyond the four walls of the hospital environment or medical attention. The work that those involved with programs like Road to Recovery and the Marie Curie Cancer Care hospice nurses do is really difficult – every few months a passenger’s trips would be canceled and wouldn’t resume. Good news was rare in that context and pretty much never occurs for hospice nurses, yet they’re still out there ministering to patient’s needs.
Would you consider helping their mission by donating a few dollars or pounds to the cause? I’ve set up a VirginMoney giving page which ensures that all money goes straight to the charity and is managed in a transparent manner.
Donate Here: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/JohnJPeebles
This last weekend we rode one final preparation ride along the hardest part of the Tour of the Borders, which included 3,700 feet of elevation and four Category Four climbs over 46 miles of stunning Scottish countryside. It was one of the hardest, most physically demanding things I’ve done, but it’s nothing compared to what patients and their caregivers have to go through on a daily basis. Thanks for your support!
The company I work for is fortunate enough to have offices in the Edinburgh TechCube, a technology and startup accelerator/incubator/hub that opened in January of this year. I thought I’d show people what life is like working from the “World Class Startup Space” that we have here in Scotland. The mission of the TechCube is to be a magnet for the area’s technology companies and technologists, help get startups up and running, see them fail or succeed, rinse, and repeat.
For those who have never been, Edinburgh is a breathtaking city, one of the most beautiful in the world. The entire downtown is a UNESCO world heritage site due to the incredible architecture (dating from as early as medieval times) that surrounds the iconic Edinburgh castle which is perched atop a dormant volcano. Known for its festivals and culture, it has the highest resident satisfaction of any city surveyed (by MORI), more restaurants per head of population of any UK city, and a temperate climate that has the same annual rainfall of New York City, Frankfurt, and Rome. Its compact footprint is small enough to walk across, yet it has an excellent public transport system, a great airport, and convenient rail links to other UK cities. (Source)
The TechCube really benefits from being in such an inspiring and historic city that’s just a short flight from most of Europe. Just a couple blocks away is the campus of the University of Edinburgh and its excellent Computer Sciences and Informatics department which provides a steady supply of top graduates each year. There’s a lively tech community that has monthly meetups focused on a variety of technical subjects and several annual conferences that attract technologists from around the world. I can’t think of a better place to live or start up a business.
The Building and Location
The TechCube began life as the Royal Dick College of Veterinary Medicine, and was constructed sometime in the 60s. It’s an incredibly ugly building from the outside, but the key to ugly buildings (if they must exist) is to make sure that you’re on the inside looking out. We have offices on the 1st (2nd floor for Americans) and 4th floors which means we have spectacular views of the Pentlands to the South, Arthur’s Seat to the Northwest, and the Meadows to the East. It’s an amazing sight to see the Scottish weather rolling in from a distance, experience the rain or snow that it brings, then have a crystal clear view of the sun as it breaks through, all within a couple of hours.
The Techcube is just a few steps from the University of Edinburgh, is located on several bus lines, and within walking distance of most of the city centre, the Waverly train station, and airport shuttle. There are also several excellent cafes, sandwich shops, pubs, and eateries within just a few minutes walk of the building.
How many times have you been happy with the landlord of your office? It’s rare enough that it warrants mentioning that one of the things that sets the Techcube apart from other office buildings you might consider is the team that manages the facility. Composed of managing director Jamie Coleman and his intrepid team, they make being a tenant here completely hassle free, really fun, and they’re very aggressive about consistently improving the facilities and public profile of the building. Running a startup can be quite an emotional roller coaster, particularly for early stage, pre-revenue startups that need an environment like the TechCube to get launched from, and my guess is the cheerful words and laughter upon entry and exit of the building from the front desk staff are a special kind of therapy to many founders within the building. It’s really hard to overstate how great the crew behind the TechCube is.
The Resources and Facilities
While the building may be ugly, the facilities available are top notch. The entire building was renovated from top to bottom and each floor includes ample meeting room space as well as a kitchen. Access to each floor (as well as 24 hour access) is controlled by RFID proximity cards that make the environment informal yet much more secure than your typical office space. High ceilings and the freedom to paint and decorate as desired is another major plus. While the windows look small from the outside, they provide plenty of light, and all outlets and ethernet ports (of which each room has dozens) are located at desk height. Thanks to a generous donation from Skyscanner, there are free, high quality desks available to tenants to save on office costs. Offices are well lit, well heated, and quiet (you can’t hear other tenants). The offices available range from the very small (2 man teams) to very large with space for 20+ bodies. Electricity is included in your monthly rent and internet is priced at a flat rate per head. Leases are available for periods as short as 6 months, and all leases allow a break with 2 month notice.
Pricing for office space depends on the stage your company is at, with price hikes occurring at important financial milestones such as break-even and profitability. The goal that later stage companies eventually find space elsewhere to make way for newcomers.
The TechCube is part of the larger Summerhall complex that caters to the arts and creative community in Edinburgh and enjoys the benefits of several shared facilities:
- The Summerhall Cafe serves coffees, sandwiches, snacks, and provides a great “offsite but not” meeting location. There’s an outdoor deck for seating during the summer.
- The Royal Dick brewery and pub is located across the way and serves their onsite-brewed Ale along with other bites to eat, and makes a nice place to have a meeting as well.
- Summerhall boasts some extremely unique meeting rooms that can be rented as required for larger or more formal functions.
- There is a theatre in the basement of the TechCube for presentations to audiences up to roughly 150.
- The ground floor of the TechCube includes a just-completed hot-desking environment which can double as a meet up space or be used for hackathons/special events that require desk and network connectivity.
- There’s a massive boardroom/meeting room still under construction also on the ground floor.
Another resource that’s connected to the building is a pool of early stage funding currently being raised by the building to have for those companies that meet their (yet unannounced) criteria. Expect this to be broadly patterned after well known incubators like YCombinator or Techstars.
While the building is still very new, it’s already almost filled with technology companies that range from product companies to consultancies, pre-revenue to post break-even, funded, bootstrapped, and everything else you’d expect from assembling a wide range of tech companies. There are still two floors to be renovated, and as companies succeed and fail, I’d expect the range of companies to always be in flux. There are plenty of opportunities to bump into others in the halls, and everyone operates an open door policy for visitors.
Most accelerates/incubators/hubs really sell themselves on the intangible benefits they provide such as proximity to other likeminded companies, access to the broader technical community, ongoing events, and the possibility of funding. TechCube is no exception as all of these things are squarely on its radar and if not already available, are in the planning stages. Already I’ve been to a few meetups and events held in the TechCube that I normally might not attend as we can just walk down after work, and that is a huge benefit. Even if you’re like me and a bit skeptical of how much an incubator like the TechCube really matters, right now there are more than enough tangible benefits to make the building a no brainer decision, even if the planned items never materialise.
The Bottom Line
Great people, great culture, a great location, great resources, and a cadre of peers who are all at different stages in the startup journey conspire to create a place that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Since moving to Scotland I haven’t done quite as much reading (we’ve had a busy first ten months here). However, I was recommended “And the Land Lay Still” by James Robertson, a Scottish author, in order to better understand Scottish culture, the Scottish psyche, and the context surrounding Scotland’s current drive for independance in 2014.
For the Americans (non-UKers) reading this, Scotland is currently debating seccession from the United Kingdom. It’s a complicated issue spurred along by the Scottish National Party (SNP), a once-fringe political party that started in the thirties. Having succeeded in winning control of Scottish paliament, their attention has now turned to scheduling a referendum in 2014. This will be the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, one of the greatest victories in the First War of Scottish Independence. You’ll remember this battle as the last scene in Braveheart where Robert the Bruce rallies the troops in William Wallace’s memory and charges down the hill.
Braveheart has been labeled one of the most innacurate movies of all time, but this battle was truly epic. The English had assembled a “grand feudal army, one of the last of its kind of leave England in the Middle Ages,” which consisted of 2-3,000 horse, and 16,000 foot soldiers. The Scots had two to three times fewer men. During the battle, “one of the most memorable episodes in Scottish history” occured when a fully armored English knight astride a great war horse saw Robert the Bruce in the field and charged him. The Scottish king was on a small palfrey, unarmored, and had only a battle axe, but he stood his ground against the charge, and hit the knight so hard with his battle axe that he “split his helmet and head in two”. This battlefield event ignited the watching Scot army and spurred them to victory. While the King was rebuked by his commanders for riding out in the thick of battle in such a dangerous fashion, he claimed that his only regret was that he had broken his axe due to the force of the blow. Today the Scottish national anthem “Flower of Scotland” refers to this victory.
Even against this incredible backdrop, and despite current prevailing Scottish attitudes towards the English, were the vote to be held today, a majority would vote for remaining within the United Kingdom. The almost continuous history of conflict between the two nations notwithstanding, there is a deep aversion to independance that prevails, and the SNP now finds itself as the majority party trying to navigate between its demands for a referendum and the realities of current polling data.
Back to the book.
This is a beautifully written book, and it’s no surprise given the author’s background as a poet who studied the literature of Sir Walter Scot at the University of Edinburgh. He paints a surreal cast of characters that are situated against a tapestry of modern Scottish history spanning from the nineteen fifties to present day. His descriptions and prose are well suited to the heavyweight themes that he deals with, and I found myself intrigued that an author of this quality could be a virtual unknown in the States.
This is a difficult book to read, with many difficult characters, plot points, and no real resolution. You’re taken on a trip of exploration through the psyche of a nation that’s been torn by war for thousands of years, (not fully) reconciled for hundreds, and now finds that reconciliation starting to fray around the edges. And yet, if you were to pick this book up with the expectation of it taking you step by step through the arguments, and the background, and the history, you’d be misled – this book is about Scotland and its independence but you have to look through the lens of the characters and the last fifty years, and many questions are left unanswered.
The book takes you from character to character along the last sixty years of Scotland’s history, touching on many different political events and trends that were foreign to me, and I found myself quite often researching the instances. The coal miner’s strike. Closing of the shipyards in Glasgow. The poll tax. The questionable death of an SNP party member. The theft of the Stone of Destiny (Stone of Scone). Council houses. The problem of drugs. Immigration of foreigners. Scottish attitudes towards homsexuality.
This was an extremely moving book for someone with (however remote) Scottish heritage. There was something about the underlying sorrow that runs through the stories, history, and characters that tugged at me while reading, and I finished the book in roughly a week, despite its length.
This is not a book I’d recommend unless you’re ready for a tough time, introspection, uncomfortable topics, dark characters, and a less than clear conclusion.
Ultimately, I feel like this is an important book for those wanting to learn more about what makes up this ancient country and what still influences it today. It hints at what conspires within its people to produce so many great things yet be so self critical and pessimistic. Don’t expect an easy ride – but it will be beautiful, sorrowful, touching, and memorable, if not a little wistful.
Today myself and one of my coworkers attended the WhiskyWeb conference here in Edinburgh, Scotland. This conference is in its first year, organised by a very small team, and was setup and organised from the ashes of a failed conference in just three months. Located in the lovely Hub Conference Center (a converted cathedral) on the Royal Mile just steps from the Edinburgh Castle, it’s in a great location for those who have never been to Scotland before. Most of the hundred or so attendees I met seemed to be from other countries and were really enjoying the city.
The conference technically started last night with a Pub Crawl that started at the bottom of the Royal Mile and worked its way up a series of pubs. This was pretty well attended and all the speakers were in the crowd so it was a nice way to get introduced prior to the event.
Today the two tracks of talks were help in adjacent halls. The ending keynote speaker even had a helium remote controlled shark swimming the air above the audience’s heads. I’ve included some pictures.
Josh Holmes (@joshholmes) on Failure
The opening keynote focused on failure, how to learn from it, and why it’s a good thing. Josh is an American living in Dublin and we got to swap stories about motorcycles and Guiness and life without a car the night before. I even got drafted to taking pictures of him with his own camera. A nice short, inspiring, and positive talk to kick things off that was probably pretty foreign for most of the UK attendees.
Some of his main points:
- You will fail. It’s unavoidable.
- A famous quote by former IBM CEO who had an employee make a 600k (in 1950s dollars) mistake. Instead of firing him, he responded that he “Just spent 600k training him”.
- Talked about a personal failure on a technical choice: SOAP vs. Remoting
- “Losers always lose” – don’t give up and become a loser!
- When times get tough, that’s the time to press on
- Failure is always an option, so respect that.
- Fail fast is a good concept, but doesn’t give you leave to be stupid (referencing a recent Michael Church blog post)
- How to integrate failure into your life in a positive way:
- TDD – fail before writing your code
- Business Development – fail before writing your app or starting your company by doing research on your concept or idea.
A good way to start things off.
Rowan Merewood (@rowan_m) – Estimation: “How to Dig Your Own Grave”
Next up was a talk on estimation and some common pitfalls.
Some Classic Estimation Mistakes
- Sales creating estimates
- One guy creating estimates
- Creating estimates from detailed task lists
- you know it will change
- gives misplaced confidence
- encourages micro management
- Estimating a day as 8 hours
Moving on he talked about some strategies to get around some of these areas. First he talked about how hours are too granular and suggested using half days as an example – “from the start of the day could you finish by lunchtime?” which can bring more clarity.
As a project’s length scales out, scale up the increments to 1, 3, 5, 7 days. Anything over this and you’re not estimating anymore. In response to the tendency of Agile folks not wanting to estimate or developers thinking estimates are useles: fine, stop calling yourself an engineer!
The last bit of the talk was spent talking about some conceptual models used to communicate estimation processes and risks to clients which were pretty interesting:
- Good, Cheap, Fast – choose two
- Triangle with points of Scope, Cost, Time – as you vary them, you vary the area which is the quality of the project
- the MoSCoW model
- the Kano model
- Basic features don’t deliver high customer satisfaction
- As performance improves, customer satisfaction goes up in a linear scale
- “Exciter Features” generate a bigger satisfaction the more of them are added
Sebastian Marek (@proofek) – Ten Commandments for a Software Engineer
It took something like 15 minutes to get the powerpoint working on this talk, so I was annoyed before the talk even started, but Sebastian pulled it out and gave a great talk on software engineering principles important to him.
- Don’t disrupt legacy systems – extract, blackbox, hide behind an interface.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel.
- Commit often and make sure your messages are informative.
- Document early when the problem and your mind is still fresh.
- Don’t fear Q/A – use automated, unit, and functional tests along with a CI server
- Design for simplicitly.
- Don’t kill maintainability.
- Don’t repeat yourself – use copy/paste detection and other tools.
- Speak up early and often.
- Recognise and retain your top talent.
Brian Suda (@briansuda) on Data Visualisation
This was a very interesting (although I’m not sure how practical) talk that was a bit out of the norm for a technical conference. Brian lived in the UK for awhile and is currently living in Iceland, authored a book on data visualisation, and spends his time seeing how we can help visualise various data sources. His very graphically intense presentation was a very refreshing look at some unusual or creative ways to get data in front of users in more practical and memorable ways.
A few points:
- 3D Charts are not advisable (proportion, view obscure)
- Pay attention to your “data to ink ratio” (tufte, 1983)
- reduce visualisation as much as possible e.g. simpler is better, remove unnecessary clutter
- 2 schools of thought (simple, tufte and nigel holms more complex)
- He showed several examples of PHP generated SVG visualisations which were really interesting, these are located here: github.com/briansuda
John Mertic (@mertic) – Lessons Learned from Testing Legacy Code
John is a member of the SugarCRM project, and described coming on board a few years ago when Sugar had zero unit tests and zero functional tests. They’ve spent quite a bit of time changing this, and he discussed some tools to assist on finding bad code.
- phpcpd – copy/paste detection
- phpmd – code quality report
- phpdcd – dead code detection
He also made great points on the following items:
- Don’t be surprised when you see crap
- Better to focus on functional tests first
- Build a culture of testing
- Use CI or else tests are useless
Whisky Web Day Two
Tomorrow is a Hackathon located on the exact opposite end of the Royal Mile. I probably won’t attend but all in all for £50, this conference was a bargain.