Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Cycling in Sydney - Centennial Park

For the cyclist in Sydney there are precious few areas where you can safely ride without feeling as though it's you against the rest of the traffic. There is, however, a gem of a spot perfect for cycling almost in the heart of the city.

Centennial Park is located just a couple of kilometres from the CBD and provides a safe 3.8km circuit for cyclists, runners, rollerbladers, cars and horses.  It achieves this by providing 5 concentric circles around the park - a one way road is marked into two, the outside lane being designated for bikes and rollerbladers, the inner lane for cars.  Inside that is space for parking and then within that is a footpath for walking/running and inside that a track cross country running and then the innermost track for horses.

The route is relatively flat (for Sydney!) with a total climb of 26m around the circuit.

If you head there early in the morning, say before 8.00am, you will be inundated with bunches of cyclists training, more generally the hard core road cyclists and triathletes.  They tend to ride with broken speedos on their bikes, or no speedos at all - there is a 30km/hr speed limit in the park which few of the more serious cyclists seem to adhere to.  Later on in the morning the area will be frequented more by the recreational cyclists and beginners, travelling at a more sedate (and legal!) pace.

Early morning in Centennial Park

A number of triathlon clubs do brick sessions there as it's a perfect spot to do a few laps on the bike followed up by a run.

The only downer is the fact that the course is so short.  It's difficult to imagine doing your 6 hour long flat ride for ironman as laps around Centennial Park - the person who first told me about the ride claimed that he was using it for his flat training in preparation for IM Western Australia.  I personally think I'd be ready to chew my arm off with boredom after about an hour and, in fact, that's about the longest I've managed before getting so bored I had to ride out of the park and go explore some hills in the area!

However for rides of up to an hour it's an ideal spot.

Flat Training Rides in Sydney - Kurnell Loops

Training for an ironman event such as Ironman NZ or Western Australia, which have relatively flat courses, can be a bit of a challenge in Sydney.  The terrain is generally hilly and finding a stretch of road that is relatively safe from traffic and not littered with traffic lights is nigh on impossible.

The answer to this is a circuit out towards Cronulla called Kurnell loops.  If you are reliant on public transport like I am then, no worries, it is easily accessed by train.  Just jump on the Eastern Suburbs and Illawarra line to Cronulla and get off at Caringbah, two stops before Cronulla.  It takes 50 minutes from Town Hall station.

Go up the lift from the platform (or carry your bike up the stairs) and start riding, heading left away from the station.  Veer left at the first lights and you will start heading down a hill.  At the next lights turn left and you will go under a bridge, through another set of lights and then soon after reach a roundabout at Captain Cook Drive.

Turn right at the roundabout onto Captain Cook Drive and you are at the start of your first lap.  The road takes you out to Kurnell, a suburb of Sydney on the edge of Botany Bay and right under the flight path for Sydney International Airport.  Heaven for a plane buff, but reminds me of the opening scene of The Castle!

At Kurnell you will arrive at another roundabout where you can go right or left and do a small loop around the suburb, ending back at Captain Cook Drive at which point you head back out to the start.

The road is relatively flat, with the exception of a couple of small rises, and about 90% of the route has a decent sized bike lane alongside allowing for decent stretches of time trial riding without having to worry too much about the traffic whizzing by.

The full loop is around 20km and there is generally enough two-wheeled company around for any cars to have to take notice of your presence.  After you complete however many laps you need to do it is a relatively easy ride back up the hill to the railway station.

A Year in Review - A Move to Sydney

Wow, what a year.

It's hard to believe I've dropped the reins for so long, as it's been almost 5 months since I last posted an entry here.  But what a 5 months it's been.

I sit typing this in our apartment in Sydney and, as the year draws to a close, I have the opportunity to reflect on the curve ball that got thrown our way in 2011 and the changes it forced upon us.

The February earthquake in Christchurch proved to be a game changer.  By the time I wrote my last blog in August my job was about to be disestablished but, on the upside, I had secured a new role in Sydney, Australia.  So St Pete and I were on the move - belongings packed, car sold and house rented out.  At the beginning of September we were on a flight to Sydney and the start of a new chapter in our lives.

It was a tough decision to leave our home town.  Friends and family were all there, training routines and training partners established and there was a real sense of not wanting to abandon a city that we loved dearly and which was going through a really tough time in the post-earthquake era.  However bills had to be paid and it was as good a time as any to take advantage of the new opportunities presented.  With no children to uproot from schools and friends and a home that was able to be rented out in our absence, we were in the relatively lucky position of being mobile and able to make the move.

While moving to a new country is challenging enough, maintaining ironman training takes on a whole new dimension when you are in a new city.  For instance getting to grips with a new job, finding somewhere to live and a myriad of other issues to deal with.  What follows is a snapshot of the changes we have been dealing with since the move.

North Sydney Olympic Pool
We knew we would have no immediate form of transport so had to work out how to be close to training venues (most importantly a swimming pool).  Public transport in Sydney works really well and so we have committed to not buying a car and using the public transport system as our primary source of transport for the first 12 months.

What this means is that sometimes I need to take the bike on the train in order to get to the start of a training ride.  When looking for apartments to rent, proximity to a swimming pool became a priority - so we are now living in Milsons Point, just 450m away from the North Sydney Olympic Swimming Pool, located in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge.

We have a great little apartment that is close to the city, opposite the train station and just one train stop across the harbour bridge to the CBD.

As far as terrain goes, Sydney is about as different from Christchurch as you can get.  Think hills, hills and more hills.  And what's my achilles heel? Hills!

In Christchurch I was happiest riding on the flat and had an almost pathological hatred of hills.  My loathing had decreased during the time I had been on the ironman journey, however I still wouldn't voluntarily go for a hill ride and nothing had prepared me for the terrain I am now living in.

While I had to go out of my way to find some hill rides in Christchurch, in Sydney I now have to go out of my way to find a flat ride! To do so now involves a one hour train ride south to Caringbah (two stops before Cronulla) and then a series of 20km loops as required out to Kurnell and back.  Alternatively, a semi-flat ride can be found by riding over the harbour bridge, negotiating my way through the traffic in the CBD and riding up to Centennial Park where I can join the hundreds of other cyclists completing various numbers of 4km laps around the park.  It's a great spot to cycle but more undulating rather than flat.

I've written separate blog posts about Kurnell laps and Centennial Park.

Running is the same.  Our immediate surrounds has virtually no flat terrain whatsoever, apart from a one kilometre stretch around the waterfront from Blues Point to Kirribilli.  Any other destination either requires a climb up to North Sydney and further to Crows Nest, or else a climb over the harbour bridge where we can access a longer flat run around the waterfront from Darling Harbour to the Botanic Gardens.  Our regular running route, then, includes heading over the harbour bridge and then various options around Hyde Park, the Opera House and waterfront areas.

Clubs/Training Partners
Ironman training tends to be a very solitary venture.  The non-drafting aspect of the bike means that last summer I found myself doing the bulk of my long rides solo and getting used to the time trial nature of the ride.  The specific nature of the training program also means that unless there is someone else training for the same event as you, it can be difficult to align training sufficiently to regularly head out with someone else.  The exception to that is St Pete, who does most of my run training with me - thank goodness!

However when you move to a new city the best way to make new friends and find training routes is by joining a club.  I've therefore joined the Balmoral Triathlon Club and, while my training has prevented me from getting involved as much as I'd like, the people I have hooked up with have been a great bunch.

My first contact in the club was Bel (aka the Fonginator!), an absolute dynamo and nutcase who welcomed me onto the girls' early Tuesday morning hill rides.  These rides include multiple hill repeats around Taronga Zoo, Bradley Head and Chowder Bay, all while enjoying the sunrise and each other's company.

Through Bel I made contact with Anne who was getting ready to attempt the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge and who, with Mel and Fleur, took me on an epic 4 hour hill ride around Berowa and up to Mt White.  While it was a relatively short 89km, it involved four monster hills with a total of 950m climbing.

Thanks to Bel I also found what appears to be the only reasonable stretch of flat riding suitable for time trial training.  She put me on to Rhona who lives out by Cronulla and who recommended to me the Kurnell loop course.  The joy of being a Sydneysider means that the hour long train journey required to get there is simply accepted and accommodated.

One of the great things about Sydney is the abundance of pools.  With no car, being within walking distance of a pool became a necessity when we were searching for apartments to rent.  Luckily we found a great spot in Milsons Point and are just 450m away from the North Sydney Olympic Pool.  The saltwater pool is an icon in Sydney, opening in 1936 and retaining most of its original art deco features.  It's most glorious feature, though, is the experience of swimming outdoors in the shadow of the harbour bridge - it really enhances the swimming experience.

Best spot in the world

More difficult, however, is open water swimming.  While Sydney is built around a harbour and has a multitude of beaches, I haven't managed to convince myself to get out into the ocean yet...  And the reason for that is the ever-present thought of sharks.  While being fully aware that they're not actually interested in humans, I have no desire to be mistaken for a large fish and having my leg or other bodily part accidentally munched on!  Most of Sydney's swimming beaches have shark nets around them, however most locals will readily tell you how the nets aren't in any way foolproof.

Apparently the best way to avoid the sharks is to avoid swimming early morning or at dusk, as this is when they are most active and this is apparently why Balmoral tri club schedules its open water swims mid afternoon.  However that thought does nothing to appease me and so I have been content to remain within the confines of the pool for the time being.

So with all this upheaval in our lives, how has my training been going?

Good question.

Coach Dave asked me that question a few weeks ago and after a few seconds of careful consideration I really couldn't tell him.  I say that as, until a couple of weeks ago, I had nothing to benchmark against from last year, as I've gone from flat training to sessions dominated by hills.

Sessions have been harder (because of the hills) and it seems to be a real challenge getting enough sleep for recovery.  Because we are walking much more than we did in Christchurch, we are generally being more active, the heat and humidity of Sydney's climate has also taken a bit of getting used to and of course there's been the psychological tiredness that comes from the stress of moving and getting settled into a new job.

Despite the adversity, the hill work does seem to be improving my strength and my running speed has picked up - I have gone from tortoise to old lazy labrador.  My 4 hour flat ride last weekend gave me the first benchmark and I do seem to be riding faster.  However because I hadn't done a long flat ride for several months it was pretty tough!  So it's all a balancing act and as I stare down the barrel of Taupo (in 66 days time!), the next few weeks will be crucial.

In April I set myself the goal of shaving 2 hours off my inaugural ironman time.  It was an ambitious goal but one that Coach Dave and I thought was achievable.  In the meantime life has thrown us a curveball which could have easily thrown that goal completely off the rails.  Given the year we've had, then, who knows if that goal is achievable.  I'm still going to give it my all in Taupo and do everything I can to hit the 13 hour mark.  Getting across the finish line, however, will still be an achievement I will be equally pleased with.