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Training for the Tour de Fear

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  • Bike riders will climb three times height of Everest in race
  • TransAlp passes through four countries in eight days
  • Up to 1,100 riders expected to compete for $27,000 in prize money
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By CNN's Barry Neild
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- With six months to train for Europe's toughest mountain bike race, it should have been a simple journey from trembling sack of flab to whittle-thin cycling machine. It wasn't.

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Serious riders tackle the TransAlp, one of the world's toughest endurance cycle races.

And just six days before I join 1,100 riders crossing the Alps from Germany to Italy, unless I resort to the kind of Tour de France hormone shots that risk extra nipple growth, I'm having serious doubts I'll survive the full eight days.

It's not that I haven't quite been exercising until my veins stand out like startled eels, or that I may have -- entirely by accident -- phoned up, ordered and paid for the delivery of several large and delicious pizzas. Although, if you're being picky, these could be issues.

Instead, like the whining unmotivated slob that I am, I intend to point the finger of blame solely at a series of technical misfortunes and the miserable weather that has left most of the British countryside off limits to snorkelers, let alone cyclists.

There has been some progress. Half a year ago, faced with the challenge of completing the Jeantex TransAlp, I decided to contact my brother Paul, a keen mountain biker whose level of fitness would shame a racehorse.

Paul took my TransAlp team mate Pete and I for a ride in the hills of the English Lake District. After the first five minutes of climbing, my waxen face was running with bullet-sized droplets of freezing sweat as accordion lungs played the songs of Jacques Brel.

At the first rest-point, Paul's portable heart monitor showed the pulse rate of a bored librarian. We didn't need technology to read mine, the loud pounding from inside my ribcage was visibly upsetting cattle in a nearby field.

On the plus side, Paul said I was a natural at handling the bike on the tricky downhill stretches. So that was the descents taken care of -- only the climb of roughly four times the height of Mount Kilimanjaro left to worry about. Read more about the TransAlp race

Over coming months I took my bike out for solo trips into the countryside. But if my fitness was improving, I couldn't tell since the mud was growing ever thicker, sucking at my tires and splattering me with so much soil I needed plowing.

I also joined "spin" classes at my local gym -- dungeon-based exercise regimes straight out of Greek mythology where unredeemed sinners must pedal stationary cycles for all eternity, or the duration of a Bonnie Tyler remix. Whichever ends first.

Then, as the weather briefly improved allowing me to finally stretch my legs, disaster struck as my Specialized Stumpjumper mountain bike -- less than four months old -- fell apart on a tricky corner, leaving me with a long, miserable trudge back to the cycle shop.

As the sun-burned fiercely for what may well be its only two week 2007 appearance in the UK, I was grounded as Specialized CSI teams tried to figure out what was wrong. Baffled, they issued me with a new, improved frame, just in time for the next lot of rain.

Eventually, I returned to the Lake District and repeated my original ride with Paul. This time there was no accordion accompaniment and I actually needed a heart monitor rather than a seismograph to measure my gratifyingly reduced pulse rate.

Despite this progress, I'm still having nightmares about the race. Actual physical nightmares where I'm riding my bike and the wheels start to crumble, my legs turn to rubber and my arms turn to, er, fish (that's dreams for you!).

Last minute encouragement comes from Kate Potter, a professional mountain biker who placed second in last year's TransAlp race and reassures me that the pressures at the front of the pack are the same facing those at the back -- apart from being overtaken, obviously.

"I go through so many different emotions.... fear, excitement, pain... but at the end no matter where I have finished I always feel this feeling of immense joy and satisfaction that I managed to get through the race," she says.

"I guess racing is not only a test against other competitors, but also yourself. If you have been slacking in your training then you will soon know about it."

I hate to tell Kate that I already know about the slacking, but armed with the masses of helpful advice she also supplied me with, plus my brother's encouragement and riding partner Pete's endless tips, I might just make it.

•Next report: Surviving (or not) the TransAlp E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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