Sports – Interview with Dominic Irvine about LEJoG on a tandem and the London-Edinburgh-London audax

At the time of writing, Dom Irvine is somewhere in the North of England, having last been spotted heading South from Barnard Castle in County Durham. Dom is currently on the return leg of the epic London-Edinburgh-London audax which is very much underway still.

It’s the endurance cyclist specialist’s first audax, but certainly not his first ‘challenging’ bike ride. We caught up with him just prior to departure last week to see what drives him to take on these slightly bonkers endurance rides.

OT. What first drove you towards these types of endurance cycling challenges?
DI: I spend my life helping other people succeed – it’s immensely rewarding and fulfilling, but I needed to find some challenges that would allow me to experience and practice what I was asking others to do.  Endurance challenges test your discipline to train, your mental reserves, your ability to develop coping strategies, and of course provide an intense exhilaration when you succeed.  It’s been a journey that has been incredibly self revelatory and reinforced my belief that ordinary people like me can do these sorts of extraordinary events – it’s simply a question of deciding you want to and putting in enough hours to make it possible. The biggest hurdle of all is simply making the decision that shifts your thinking from ‘I couldn’t do that’ to “I might be able to do that’ which eventually becomes ‘I can do that’.

Q. Your day job is in the world of motivational speaker and business, and you are perhaps most well known in that field for the concept of ‘maverick thinking’. Can you explain a bit about that and whether the concept has an influence on your attitude to these physical challenges?
DI: Maverick Thinking is simply about finding and challenging the assumptions we have about what can be done or the way it has to be done. More often than not it’s not coming up with new ideas which is challenging, but as Maynard Keynes said, “it’s all about escaping the old ideas.” This profoundly influenced our thinking as a tandem team when we tried to break the record. During every aspect of our ride we asked the question ’why?’  We’d research what evidence there was behind commonly held beliefs and discovered time and time again that there was either no evidence or very little evidence. We decided we had to do this because every record attempt thus far had failed following the perceived wisdom. Ours failed too but we got a lot closer than all recent attempts which given neither of us had a heritage of being an Olympic gold medallist or semi professional cyclist was very rewarding.  For example a commonly held view is the stoker (the person at the back of a tandem) can do no wrong – this is so untrue. They can destroy the racing line by incorrect positioning and they can actively assist super fast cornering through careful distribution of their weight.

OT: What sort of experience of long distance cycling experience did you have before taking on your first challenge?
DI: I came to endurance cycling through racing Ironman distance triathlons. I was a rubbish swimmer, loved running but my knees didn’t which left me cycling. I loved the bike leg, 180km of delightful scenery and countryside before the pain of the marathon. When my knees said ‘enough’ it was an easy choice to drift into endurance cycling. I loved the ‘all day’ nature of Ironman races and wanted to find events that lasted at least as long as Ironman’s were taking me (a shade over 11 hours).  My first cycle race was the Race Across the Alps, a non-stop 525km over 13,500m of climbing in the Alps. A very long day out!

OT: Everything seems to be building towards another attempt on the tandem LEJOG record.  Why the tandem?
DI: I was introduced to tandem riding by John and Ruth Hargreaves at JDTandems. They were so full of enthusiasm – and rightly so. The tandem is a wonderful team activity, two of you learning how to work together to optimise performance.  When one rider is having a bad section the other one can carry them through and vice versa. It is harder to ride endurance distances on a tandem because of the need for two of you to maintain balanced and focused when you are tired, but that’s all part of the challenge.  On the other hand, a tandem hammering down the road at full tilt really flies. The long wheel base and the combined weight of two riders means descents are exhilarating. We regularly go 50mph plus going down hills – it’s a big adrenalin rush.

OT: Can you talk a little bit about how the last attempt went?
DI: It was an amazing mix of euphoria, adrenalin, deep disappointment, fatigue, excitement and camaraderie. We were hampered by a bout of illness during the ride and the wind turning against us during the latter stages. Whilst we haven’t broken the record… yet, we believe we can. We were the first team as far as we can tell that made it all the way to the end since the record was set. We learnt lots of valuable lessons from this attempt that will help us up our game next time.
OT: I understand that you’ve only recently found a new tandem partner to take on the record with you.  How do you go about finding a new partner?  Does it take a special sort of convincing to find someone?
DI: Finding a new tandem partner was very hard. Lots of people were enthusiastic initially, but after having explained what’s involved they decided it wasn’t for them. In the end we conducted a media campaign to find someone – which thankfully worked.  I never wanted to lie or deceive someone about what’s involved in riding a bike non-stop for 50 hours, and as the stoker (the person at the back) during the whole of this time you have no control over the speed, gears, route, decision at road junctions, braking etc.  So whilst the positives are fantastic (team work, exhilarating speed, the chance to break a record, sociable riding etc) it does have some down sides.  Better they understand at the get-go than decide they don’t like it after 6 months of hard training.

OT: Are you preparing differently this time for the LEJOG?
DI: Yes, harder, longer, faster, more disciplined and one or two other things I can’t share.  Unlike Lance Armstrong – definitely no drugs beyond caffeine.

OT: It seems a little like you have selected some big key challenges to motivate you on the path to the LEJOG. How did you pick them?
DI: Simple – how would they contribute to maintain specific endurance fitness?  Secondly, do they take in some beautiful scenery?  Thirdly – do they offer a unique challenge in their own right?  If these conditions can be satisfied it’s a no brainer.

OT: Why the London-Edinburgh-London Audax specifically?
DI: It matches the distance from Lands End to John O’Groats (and even takes in some of the same route). Secondly, because it’s an audax the pressure to have to race is off, I can concentrate on practicing keeping going for two to three days with just a few short breaks (about 2 hours max). Finally there is lots of support in the form of controls with food and drink and a well prepared route – so all I have to do is ride my bike.

OT: Have you ever taken on an audax before?  Did the image of steel frames and beards make you think twice?
DI: This will be my first audax and yes, I was put off by the image of bearded cloth capped riders lecturing me on how to ride. Steel bikes are great – I have a couple and love them. But the more I learned about Audax riders through the forums the more respect I have come to have for them.  Like all forms of cycling it has its own unique sub culture parts of which don’t appeal much.  But these guys ride huge distances and have some excellent insights into how to survive these long rides and the kit that works. So my view has changed – I’m really looking forward to riding with them and listening to their stories and experiences learning what I can as we cruise along.

There’s a new cycle clothing company in Yorkshire called ‘Fat lad at the back’ and I have some of their clothing to test – I think the tongue in cheek name of the brand will fit right in with this Audax ride.

OT: Why on a single speed? Was it just to make things more difficult?
DI: Undoubtedly, single speed is more difficult – and has lots of training benefits.  But that’s not the point.  On a geared bike you ride the bike, using gears to maintain a constant effort up-hill, down-dale.  On a single speed you ride the terrain. When the hills come, you feel the mountain through the bike, you work harder.  Going down the hills, your speed is dictated by gravity, so sit back, relax and enjoy the view.  It’s dare I say it, almost a zen like way of riding a bike – very simple, pure and connected. Geared bikes are great – there is a reason why gears were invented, but I love the simplicity of single speed.

OT: How have you prepared for the audax?
DI: Over the winter sessions on the turbo, weights, core body work.  During the spring I introduced longer and longer riders culminating in back to back 350km rides and overnight rides.  For example, I rode from London–Paris–London in one hit via Dieppe. On another occasion I rode overnight from my home near Winchester to my parents house in North Yorkshire. During all these rides I was working out the kit that would work best for the ride.

OT: How do you fit in training around your busy schedule?
DI: When I’m at home I get up at 4:45am to train before work. On the road I do what I can. For example I was in Vietnam so hired a bike and headed out towards the Mekong Delta on a mountain bike – an experience! When I was in Russia I did some running and weights which whilst not directly related to seated riding helps with out of the saddle climbing up hills. In Sweden someone lent me a bike for some delightful long rides around Skane. Basically if you need to train and you want to you will find a way. There is always something you can do.

OT: Has anyone given you any tips?
DI: Yes, the riders on facebook and in the forums have been brilliant offering expert advice. Sometimes over what seems like simple things like choice of bag to carry kit. Like all such sources of information some of the suggestions need to be treated with a pinch of salt!

OT: Are you tempted to try out any other endurance challenges? Does the thought of something like an ultra marathon appeal at all?
DI: If I could still run I would love to do ultra marathons. The Davos marathon being a race that really appeals. However there are lots of cycling endurance challenges to nail. My wife has banned me from RAAM……thus far.

OT: When can we expect to hear about your LEJOG attempt?
DI: Very soon! Once I’m back from London Edinburgh London it’s back to it. We have a brand new model of Orbit Tandem to test. It arrives in the UK in September so we will be road testing it and riding it into the ground – as much as we can. I’m really excited about it – it’s aluminium, light as a feather and super stiff – it should fly.

OT. Good luck with the audax in the meantime.
DI: Thanks.

If you are interested in reading more about Dom’s experience of riding tandem see his article “Out of Control – Lessons from the back”, and read about his record breaking ride here.