Why everyone should ride a Mountain Bike

I’m going to start by saying that this is very much an opinion post, feel free to disagree and we can have a (hopefully civilised) debate in the comments which I can use as an excuse not to go and wash my bike. During the course of a very long and boring car journey home from my favourite trail centre today I had a few thoughts about the benefits of Mountain Biking – being a stereotypical millennial my first thought was to share them on the internet.

Firstly, it’s really good fun. I must admit that long road rides on my own can sometimes be very tedious, on a Mountain Bike getting bored is next to impossible. In fact most of the time you really can’t afford to switch off for fear of falling afoul of a rock, tree stump, root or whatever else the trail might have to throw at you. Today it was a rather bemused looking cow blocking my path that bought this point home. When I’m not feeling particularly motivated to train an MTB ride is always my first port of call, the time passes very quickly.

 

There’s a real sense of adventure that comes along with exploring off-road. GPS can’t always be relied upon and, in the UK at least, bridleways tend to be poorly signposted. The advantage of this is that getting a bit (okay sometimes very) lost is a brilliant way of discovering new places. Yesterday for example I found myself riding alongside a dried up riverbed which I couldn’t help but go down and walk along. It’s strangely satisfying to know where all those obscure tracks that you’ve ridden past lead to.

 

For me another bonus comes with the sense of tranquility that comes along when you’re in the middle of nowhere. After a long day at work there’s nothing quite like riding to my favourite spot, sitting down and switching off for a minute or two. No phone signal, no cars to worry about and no Strava segments to chase, it’s the perfect antidote to a bad race or any other setback be it cycling related or otherwise.

 

 

My second argument for embracing the knobbly tyres is that it’s brilliant training. Off-road riding is the perfect way to get in an interval session for people who don’t like intervals. Generally speaking you’re either coasting or riding very hard, it’s not uncommon to encounter climbs so steep that you can’t make it all the way up them. You’ll make mincemeat of most road climbs once you’ve negotiated a few 25% gradients on a 15kg mountain bike.

Many of the skills Mountain Biking requires also come in very useful for the road. Here’s an example. When it comes to cornering you’ll often be told to look for the exit of the turn and use that to pick your line and judge the speed, always braking before the corner and letting go once you enter it. In practice that’s not always possible, very often you can’t see the exit of the corner which makes judging the correct entrance speed very difficult – in other words unless it’s a familiar bend you have to brake whilst going round it. That braking will force you to take the corner more slowly than you’d otherwise be-able to for fear of the wheels locking up. In the context of a race that means you’ll often end up having to sprint after the corner to catch up with the riders in front. To some people this is probably intuitive but for me it certainly wasn’t until I started riding trails – if you brake before the corner and then release only the front brake you can safely carry more speed whilst maintaining control should it be needed. That piece of wisdom has made me a much, much better descender on the road – to the point where I was actually able to make up some places on the downhill sections in my last road race. Looking back I’d go as far as to say that I wish I’d ridden MTB from day one.

This next point might not be so relevant for riders who are lucky enough to live in places where the weather is good all year round. Riding on UK roads in winter is often a character building experience, you’ll have to deal with mud, debris, well concealed potholes and from time to time black ice. On a rim braked road bike it’s bloody miserable. My Mountain Bike however tackles that terrain with ease, hell I’ve ridden it in deep snow and managed to stay upright – that humble hardtail succeeded where many cars failed spectacularly. I don’t feel guilty about getting that bike dirty and scratched – it’s what the it’s designed for. Put simply that machine makes winter riding safer and more enjoyable.

Another thing I think we roadies could learn a great deal from is the willingness of the mountain bike world to adopt new technologies. Equipment that has only for the most part only recently become relatively commonplace on road bikes all originated in Mountain Biking; 1x drivetrains, disc brakes and thru-axles are the ones that come to mind. Again, this is purely opinion but in a few years time I bet we’ll see road going machines specced with suspension and dropper seat posts.

For what it’s worth here are my two cents. If you’ve never dabbled in Mountain Biking before I’d definitely recommend giving it a try. In my case it’s revolutionised my winter training and lead to a lot of summer fun. I’ve learned useful skills and discovered some amazing places.  Finally it can be done relatively cheaply – my £375 second hand hardtail certainly hasn’t held me back – at least nowhere near as much as my poor off-roading skills.

Thanks for reading.

Close but no nineteen

[Insert sentence here making an excuse for not posting for so long when it’s actually due to pure procrastination]. Welcome back folks. As per usual it’s fair to say these last couple of weeks have involved a few ups and downs.

One realisation that this time has certainly yielded is that I am not designed for closed circuit racing, courtesy of a couple of events that proved to be a waste of time. It’s disheartening to be dropped not because my fitness is poor but instead due to sub-par bike handling skills. Unfortunately I’ve had one severe injury too many and realistically I’m never going to excel in races that often depend upon your ability to go round tight corners at high speed in very close proximity to others. From now on I’ll only be doing Road Races.

That brings us to set of the killer excuses I’ve prepared for the discussion of my rather embarrassing performance last weekend. In hindsight entering a road race in Devon was a questionable decision, having trained mostly for Time Trials and still being at least 3kg above race weight it was always going to be a tough one. A further mistake was made in the form of a long training ride in the heat three days before the race. On paper sixty miles at a medium pace doesn’t sound too tough but add in temperatures in excess of thirty degrees celsius, running out of water ten miles from the end and having time trialled the day before and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

The disaster in question came in the form of what I suspect was mild heatstroke, what should have been a short and easy ride the following day turned into a struggle to get home. I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt that bad on a bike. By raceday my legs certainly felt better but by no means fully recovered, nonetheless I’d paid good money to compete and I was never going to pull out.

Remarkably it started off very well, unusually I’d managed to start in the perfect position, about twelfth wheel if I remember correctly. A few miles later I found myself doing a turn on the front and at that point the first warning sign emerged, already my right leg felt tight and sore which it really shouldn’t have done given that I was taking it as easily as I could get away with. On the first long climb I slipped down about twenty places despite my best efforts.

I managed to hang on for the remainder of the first lap without incident, not counting the chief commissaire stopping the race to tell a few riders off for crossing white lines. For the most part the first part of lap two was more sedate, I managed to get myself back up to the very front of the race and with ten miles to go I dared myself to think it might go better than expected. By this point the bunch had almost entirely disintegrated, I was third wheel in the leading group of around ten – all I had to do was hang on.

That was when a particularly tough climb came up, at the halfway stage my legs gave up the ghost. It’s hard to describe for anyone who hasn’t had the experience, the weird thing is that it doesn’t hurt – there’s not enough gas left in the tank for you to push yourself that hard. Within seconds it was as if I was riding backwards. At the top of the climb the second group on the road caught me, I tried to hang onto the last wheel but to very little avail. Soon I was simply trying to nurse myself across the finish line, let’s just say I didn’t cross it with my head held high.

There wasn’t much time to reflect on that disappointing performance. In two days time I had another event, a ten mile time trial on a course known for yielding personal bests. A couple of weeks back I managed a respectable 20:09, four seconds short of the club record and tantalisingly close to the magic sub-20. Due to the hilly nature of the local terrain there aren’t any quick courses within easy reach, meaning a two hour drive was on the cards.

It’s fair to say that the journey down proved to be rather eventful. You would think setting off over three hours before my start time would have been ample, sadly I underestimated just how bad the traffic was going to be on a weekday. I had to resort to phoning the organiser and asking him not to give my place away, there was no hope of making it before registration closed. In the end we arrived fifteen minutes before I was due to set off. That was just about enough time to collect my number, change into my skinsuit, drive to the start and get the bike ready. I made it with seconds to spare, 25 to be exact. With no warm up whatsoever this TT was really going to hurt.

First impressions were surprisingly good, I’d made a change to the bike position the week before – adjusting the angle of the extensions to make it easier to get into the aero tuck. If I do say so myself it worked a treat, not needing to focus on keeping my head low made it easier to concentrate on the actual effort. I’m not sure if knowing what was to come made it better or worse, at those speeds everything is exaggerated – a small hill that you might barely notice on a training ride will practically become a mountain.

At the halfway point my average speed was a surprisingly healthy 31.4, I knew however that nothing was set in stone. The outward leg of the course was certainly easier than the return and it was going to be a battle to keep that average from dropping too much before I finally made it to the finish line. Overtaking four other riders in the next two miles provided an invaluable morale boost. With a kilometre to go I was right on the rivet, I know an effort is truly maximal when I start feeling sick and my vision starts to blur and on this occasion both of those lovely sensations manifested themselves.

I crossed the line in the very annoying time of 20:01, two seconds short of my ultimate goal. By no means was I disappointed however, taking another club record and finishing 14th out of 88 was better than I could have expected with the less than ideal run up to the event. After the disaster of Sunday I really needed a good ride and this one did the job perfectly.

Finally I think I’ve found my niche, it’s only taken six years of Cycling to realise that I’m a natural Time Triallist. With a few more events lined up before the season comes to an end I’m hoping I’ll manage to get that pesky 19. For now however I’m focusing on a 25 ten days from now, with another mammoth journey coming up it’s not one to take lightly. As for the long term the ultimate goal is the qualify for the national 10 within the next couple of seasons. Wish me luck for I shall definitely be in need of it.

Thanks for reading.

Round two

I’m back. Apologies for the recent lack of posts, it’s fair to say the last ten days or so have been a bit of a whirlwind and this is the first spare minute I’ve really had during that time. What’s happened (for the 1-2 people who might actually be interested)? Truth be told I’m not quite sure where to start.

Following the triumph of taking the club record for a five mile TT I was on a real high. Six months ago I’d have laughed if you’d told me I’d even be racing, let alone posting PB’s. The confidence boost that ride gave me lead to a slightly (okay, very) impulsive decision. I’ve been thinking about giving Road Racing another go for a while now, surprisingly having missed it. Don’t get me wrong, Time Trialling is definitely my favourite discipline and the one I now plan on prioritising for the rest of the season but there’s a certain thrill that only mass-start events can facilitate.

The sensible thing to have done would have been to enter a local circuit race, something I could use to dip my toe in and gauge my fitness and skill level. That’s exactly what I did, unfortunately I then saw that there happened to be a Road Race taking place two days beforehand. Ever the highly disorganised student I got my entry in about two minutes before the deadline, getting it accepted was something of a miracle. So it was that I soon found myself on the startline again. For the first time ever I was genuinely looking forward to it, I couldn’t tell you exactly what’s fallen into place mentally over these past few weeks but the difference it’s made is unbelievable. I wasn’t afraid of losing, I really wanted to win the thing.

The first three laps were a bit of a learning curve, it’s been a long time since I’ve ridden in a large bunch and my skills were understandably rusty. Nonetheless I managed to stay with the pack, one old gremlin that I was glad to put to rest was that of descending. All the time I’d spent on a Mountain Bike really paid dividends, whilst still being far from the best descender in the bunch I didn’t struggle to keep up. Another thing that struck me was how much easier it was to keep up the pace when compared with a couple of years ago. I  might not be quite as fast on the climbs but riding all of those TT’s has given me a much more powerful engine.

It wasn’t until the fourth lap that things began to get interesting. A steep climb did an excellent job of thinning out the bunch and I saw an opportunity, waiting until the gradient lessened to put in a big effort. I soon found myself right at the business end of the race. Looking back I suspect it was overexcitement that caused me to make a tactical error at that point. I could just about see a breakaway group up ahead and took it upon myself to chase them down.

I was in full on TT mode, focusing exclusively on catching the rider in front and doing my best to ignore what the effort was doing to my legs. There’s always a voice in your head telling you to give up at times like that, the chase can be very demoralising especially if the gap is coming down slowly. A quick glance over my shoulder revealed that only a few fellow riders had stayed with me, if this proved to be a winning break and I could get myself in it there was a real chance.

The mistake I’d made was not making the others pull through and share the work, it wasn’t till we’d very nearly joined onto the back of the group that I got some help with making the catch. I was almost spent, with no power data from the race it’s impossible to be sure but I’d estimate it to have been the best part of 400 watts for a good four to five minutes. Still, there were reasons to be cheerful. For the first time ever I was in a breakaway in a Road Race, gone were the days of hiding away at the back all day.

Annoyingly the break in question soon proved to be an ineffective one, had I not done all the chasing earlier on I’d have gone to the front and tried to drive the pace up but as it was I had to rely on others to do it, nobody was inclined to. It wasn’t long before the bunch caught up. Technically speaking I was still in a good position but I knew the race would likely be won or lost on the final climb and that I’d struggle to go with any uphill attacks. Bummer.

It finished exactly as I’d predicted, a rider behind me initiated a move on the steepest section of the climb and I didn’t quite have the legs to follow it. I won’t deny it was agonising to see a group break free at that point, my chances of a high placing vanishing along with them. I managed to stick with the bunch and finished in a respectable 31st place out of 80. In hindsight it was still better than I could have reasonably hoped for but nonetheless there’s a big element of disappointment, I had the legs to properly contest that race but I’d let adrenaline get the better of me and used them up too early.

I came away from the race hungry to give it another go and hopefully put the lessons that day taught me to good use. Sadly it wasn’t to be in the circuit race a couple of days later, this time it was a mistake I really shouldn’t have made – starting off at the very back of a 50 strong bunch on an narrow track wasn’t ever going to to well. Cornering has always been a weak spot of mine and it made it next to impossible to gain any places. If I’m honest it was pretty dull, essentially riding round in circles waiting for bell to sound and signify the start of the last lap. Hopefully the next time will yield a better result.

That brings us neatly to last Saturday. A couple of weeks previously I’d entered a ten mile TT on what was known to be a quick course – oddly enough I’d never actually attempted the distance before. I can remember reading a blog post from another Cyclist a couple of years back, marvelling at him being quick enough to ride a ten in under twenty minutes. In order to do so you have to maintain an average of over 30 mph, no mean feat even when riding an aerodynamic TT bike. I set my sights a bit lower, hoping for something close to 21 minutes. My legs felt very flat after the two hour drive it took to get there. I’m not exaggerating when I say it was a struggle to get up a small rise on the way to the start line. This wasn’t going to be fun.

I was pleasantly surprised to glance down at my average speed after the first mile and see it reading 29.5, the course was living up to it’s reputation. The morale boost that gave me was a big factor in what happened next, giving me the mental drive to push my tired legs and set a half-decent time after all. I can honestly say it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, the effect of every tiny hill or gust of headwind was deeply felt.  At the half way point things were looking very hopeful, an average of 30.5. I dared to dream – somehow despite everything that had taken place since the end of last season my fitness had progressed to the point where a sub 20 was a serious possibility. I pushed as hard as I could all the way to the finish line. A surefire sign that I was really giving it my all manifested itself in that dreaded feeling of nausea (I live in fear of throwing up at the finish line one day). My final time was 20:09, agonisingly close.

In short it’s been good. Yes it’s annoying to have had two near misses but it’s important not to lose perspective. I’m faster than I’ve ever been before and hopefully with a bit of luck and some hard training I’ll be-able to go the distance later on in the season. Fingers crossed anyway.

Thanks for reading.

Record

Five, four, three, two, one… GO. I’ve heard those words over and over again during these last few years. They almost always signify that the pain and suffering that inevitably comes with any competitive event is just about to begin. In previous seasons I’ve been scared to hear them, my motivation coming primarily from fear of doing badly as a pose to wanting to do well. Finally I think I’ve managed to turn that mentality around, recently racing has become something I really look forward to.

I’ve long had my eye on one particular feat. Four years ago when I first joined a Cycling Club I can remember looking on the website and chancing across a section devoted to Time Trial distance records. Bearing in mind that in those days a 16 mph average seemed like an unattainable goal I was in awe of some of the times on display. The one that really caught my eye was that of the five mile TT record, a time of 11:01 (that’s an average of approximately 27 mph). Of course over the ensuing years I’ve gotten faster by enlarge, with the exception of a couple of tricky winters that have caused some setbacks. Those records have seemed less and less impossible to break, however before this season there was still no serious chance of me being able to take any of them.

The season before last I attempted a five mile TT for the first time. It’s actually a very rare distance, to my knowledge our local 5 course is the only one within a reasonable range. My time of 12:15 was pretty respectable considering I was riding a road bike and wearing a normal jersey and shorts. I came back a week later and managed to knock seven seconds off due to better pacing and fresher legs. Last year with the benefit of a TT bike, skinsuit and aero helmet I managed to get a bit closer with a season PB of 11:15.

I can remember being absolutely spent following that particular effort, I’d given everything, to the point where I genuinely thought I was going to throw up upon stopping. Whilst it was a big PB I must admit it was disheartening to still be a long way off the prize despite being in good form and having invested a lot of time, energy and money in the attempt. Soon afterwards I began my Triathlon phase, losing a fair bit of Cycling fitness in the process – once again the record was well out of reach.

Recently the form has come back, rather miraculously after a challenging winter and spring which culminated in failing to get round a Marathon . Last Sunday I achieved one of my long term goals, going under the hour for a 25 mile TT – ending a three week block of hard training with a PB of 56:07. Following a rest week it was time to attempt the 5 once again yesterday evening.

My legs often feel sluggish for the first couple of days after a week of recovery for reasons I haven’t yet been able to work out. Yesterday was no exception, my fifteen minute morning commute felt like an effort which did not bode well for the upcoming challenge. Fortunately on the return leg they felt better, a few short sprints did a good job of loosening the muscles up as did an agonising session on the foam roller upon arriving home.

For once I managed to follow my nutrition plan to the letter. Porridge for breakfast followed by pasta for lunch, rounded off with eggs on toast two hours before my estimated start time. A double espresso just before I left took provided caffeine boost and finally a gel immediately before starting to warm up took care of ensuring I was as well fuelled as possible. Of course, this being me it didn’t all go to plan. We’re in the middle of a rare heatwave and the resulting sweat made it very tricky to get my skinsuit on. I also realised I had nowhere to put my car key, eventually resorting to taping it to the stem and hoping it didn’t fall off whilst I was riding – a bodge if ever there was one. All of that left me with little time to warm up, the early signs were good but I know from experience that you never really know how the legs are until the real effort begins.

In my opinion mental preparation is of great importance when it comes to time trialling. It’s not like you can sit in the bunch for two hours and take the sprint at the very end. You’ve got to really, really want it and push yourself hard the whole way in order to get the best possible time. Five miles is a surprisingly tough distance to pace, as a mate of mine pointed out yesterday it doesn’t resemble anything you’d do in training. With no power meter fitted to my TT bike I tend to go mostly on perceived exertion with half an eye on heart rate to try and prevent over or underpacing to as greater extent as possible.

Following the usual nervous countdown it was time to go. Within about two hundred meters of starting I felt the burn in my legs, over that distance experience has taught me not to be concerned about that. Pain is always an inevitability, there’s no point living in fear of it – if anything I’ve found it’s best to try and think of it as a positive, a sign that you’re doing it properly. It’s a matter of keeping it to a certain level so as not to blow up too early. That outward leg was relatively easy courtesy of a tailwind, whilst I was deliberately not monitoring my speed it certainly felt quick. Passing a couple of others fairly soon after the start provided a handy morale boost. Mercifully there was no traffic to wait for at the turning point and I took the roundabout at as faster pace as I dared.

As for the return stage it was a different matter. A small rise coupled with a newly found headwind made the first half mile very hard going to the point where my heart rate got within 4 bpm of it’s maximum. In a longer TT the following descent would have been a chance to rein it back and recover but over such a short distance there was no such luxury. Thereafter I rode on feel alone, trying my best to block out everything bar the effort itself. You really have to channel all of your mental energy into keeping your legs going when fatigue sets in at that level. The sight of my minute man was a very welcome one, I knew he was a fast rider so when I overtook just before the finish line I was hopeful of a good time.

I took satisfaction in that the pacing couldn’t have been better. I had enough to keep going right up until the finish but quite genuinely couldn’t have carried on pedalling for any longer. According to my Garmin I’d managed a 10:59, two seconds quicker than the club record. I know that GPS can sometimes be a few seconds out and therefore tried my best not to get too excited before the final results were up. This time round it was in my favour, I’d done a 10:57.

Yes, it was only good enough for 3rd overall and the winner was a fair way ahead but nonetheless it felt pretty incredible. How long it will stand for is anyones guess but for now one of those club records will have my name next to it. It’s rides like that which make all the training worth it; the annoyance that comes with muscle soreness, early starts, late finishes and financial costs of maintaining the bikes pales in comparison to the satisfaction of seeing it all come to fruition.

Thanks for reading

101

Readers, forgive me for I have sinned. For over a year now I’ve been trying to find the courage to unburden myself of this particular incident. What better than to use the 101st post on this blog. I’d love to say it’s something we’ve all done at some point but sadly most people are simply more sensible and not willing to stoop to such a low level for the sake of a small prize.

It was a stunning summers day last year. I’d just gotten back from a very enjoyable steady ride, a few days previously my Uni results had come through and they’d been better than expected, better still I’d just received a brand new TT skin suit in the post. In short life was good. As is so often the case the perfect day was ruined upon opening what was initially an innocent looking email from Strava. The email informed me that a KOM I’d held for a long time had been stolen.

This particular segment had ben very, very hard to take. It had only been right at the very end of the previous summer that I’d managed it with one of those lung busting efforts that makes you feel like you’re going to pass out. I was not happy. To add insult to injury my time had been beaten by a rather impressive twenty seconds.

Oh how I tossed and turned that night, replaying the segment over and over again in my head and trying to come up with ways in which I could take back my title. At that point I really, really should have left it however my competitive nature succeeded in getting the better of me. On my commute to work the following morning I couldn’t help but notice how perfect the direction of the wind was.  The one nice thing that particular boss ever did for me was to let me have that afternoon off due to the shop being quiet. Yes ladies and gentleman, I left work early mainly so as to try and get a Strava KOM. This in itself would have been worthy of confession but sadly there is more to the story.

When I got home I didn’t hesitate to prepare the Foil for an impulsive attempt to reclaim the crown. That is where it starts getting… um… sad. Off went the bottle cages, taking a drink with me would inevitably add weight and compromise aerodynamics. I changed the inner tubes to latex ones and gave the chain a coat of special hydrodynamic lube, honesty more attention to detail than went into preparation for an average race. I know what you’re thinking, this is a bit extreme but not too bad in the great scheme of things. Just wait.

It was sitting there on my bed, still in the packaging and practically begging to used. So it was that without so much as a thought I put on my new skinsuit. A road racing speedsuit might have been acceptable but this was dedicated TT model, long sleeves and no pockets – the works. I came to the conclusion that if I was going to go aero I might as well complete the package. On went my aero helmet and overshoes. To all intents and purposes I was in full TT gear.

I don’t even want to think about how stupid I must have looked heading out in that particular apparel. Such things really, really should only be warn when you have a number pinned to your back. To make maters worse I didn’t even bring the essential spares; if I punctured there would have been no choice but to walk home. Maybe, maybe if I managed to take the segment it would be justified. It was not. It still haunts me to this day that I missed out by a grand total of two seconds, granted I managed to take two other KOM’s in the process but they were consolation prizes at best.

To summarise I made a complete fool of myself in vain. I hope that by reading this you can learn from my mistakes, which is to say the perfect example of what you should never do that I have illustrated above.

Thanks for reading

 

Onwards and Upwards

It’s done. I thought to myself with a great sense of relief upon climbing off my bike today, the stats speak for themselves; 37 hours and 563 miles over these last three weeks. It’s pushed both my physical and mental resilience to the absolute limit but already I can feel my legs getting stronger. Bootcamp, thank you. I’d like to think it ended in style, a 25 mile time trial PB of 56:07 set this morning felt like an ideal way to head into an easier week.

After struggling so much with motivation throughout these last few months I’ve adopted a different approach to training that I think has made that higher volume possible. It’s both an art and a science, finding the balance between the two is a tricky thing and I have no doubt that the right one is something that depends very much on the individual.

I think it’s fair to say I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum at various points. Before I decided to take Cycling that bit more seriously and got round to picking up that very first training manual I’d ride on feel alone. There was never any plan, I’d ride hard if I felt like it and easy if my legs were tired – taking each day as it came. Fast forward eighteen months to my first season of competing and it was the complete opposite, it’s no exaggeration that each and every workout would be planned weeks in advance. If I missed a session or my power output wasn’t where I wanted it to be it would feel like the end of the world.

Approach number one certainly had it’s merits but also some significant drawbacks. Not scheduling rest weeks lead to a long bout of staleness and not working toward any particular goal often made it difficult to motivate myself to get out the door – I’ve only got to look at the Strava to see how inconsistent my riding was, that’s never going to lead to good performances.

Taking the ultra-scientific approach also had it’s pros and cons. I learned some very useful skills in terms of how best to track my fitness level and quantify my training load however for me it soon became dull and repetitive. I forgot how to enjoy riding. Another common trap I managed to fall into was becoming scared of the numbers , as a self coached athlete it’s very difficult to interpret your performances objectively and I’d live in fear of discovering my training plan hadn’t worked as well as I had intended.

I think that finally I’m starting to crack it this year, using a mixture of the two. I’ll schedule four week training cycles, the main advantage of this being that it will allow adequate time for recovery and thus help to prevent overtraining. Power data is undeniably the best way to test progress and therefore I’ll still do an FTP test or something similar from time to time.

However I’ve made a big change in that my aim is now to come up with workouts I’ll enjoy rather than those which would be best on paper. If I want to do a session of zone 5 intervals I’ll find four or five strava segments of 3-5 minutes in length to chase over the course of a ride. If I feel like a mountain bike ride rather than a session on the TT machine that’s exactly what I’ll do. If it’s pouring down with rain I usually won’t ride, at this time of year the weather is reliable enough that usually I can just make the next day’s ride longer and/or harder instead. In order to conquer the pre-competition nerves that have held me back in the past I’ve made a point to get out and race as much as possible. I won’t pass up the local midweek TT just because it’s a short distance and technically speaking I should do a longer session. After all the principle of specificity always applies – the best way to prepare for racing is racing, whatever type that might be.

I’ve made the effort to get out and socialise more outside of Cycling. Of course this is completely anecdotal but I think that’s been a positive step to take, it’s not the end of the world anymore if my form isn’t great – I’ve always got other thinks to think about. It’s reminded me that ultimately it’s my choice to do this sport and for reasons I’m sure a Sports Psychologist would be-able to explain that sense of freedom has made the processes of training and racing far, far more enjoyable than they’ve been for a long time.

Finally I’ve made the decision to suspend my multisport ambitions for the immediate future. Now simply isn’t the right time to train for something as extreme as an Ironman Triathlon. With everything else that’s going on it wouldn’t be possible to make that commitment, far better to take the pressure off and revisit that particular ambition at a later date when other aspects of my life have fallen that bit more into place.

So, what goals for this season now? Time Trialling definitely remains my favourite form of racing; I like the purity of it, pitting yourself in a physical and mental battle against the clock. There are no complex race tactics to worry about, it’s just a matter of trying to pace yourself so as to get round as quickly as possible. To that end most of my training will be TT focused and the plan for the rest of the summer is to try and set good times over a range of distances, all of which can serve as benchmarks upon which to improve in the future.

If today proved anything it’s that I still have a long way to go, despite beating my previous PB by a full five minutes it was only good enough for 11th place, six minutes down on the winner. Having become (slightly) older and wiser by this point I know not to interpret this as a bad thing, I won’t get better by constantly comparing myself to others. Instead it’s a matter of looking at where I am now and putting in the hard work needed to improve so that eventually I can become that guy standing on the top step of the podium.

Thanks for reading.

Bootcamp

What a week. It’s taken a long time to compile this post and get everything that happened in those seven days down on paper. The Strava stats speak for themselves, 13h52m and 202 miles. For some of you reading this that probably doesn’t sound like much but considering that a few weeks back I was struggling both physically and mentally to cope with a six hour week it’s a big victory.

Despite now being two years into a Sports Science degree I can’t explain what’s happened during this last fortnight. My recovery from workouts has dramatically improved to the point where 10+ hours per week now seems very manageable. I put it down to a combination of being at the right weight, sleeping better and being that bit older. All I do know is that it’s bloody awesome, finally I’ve got the capacity to put in the hard miles and hopefully take my performance up a level in the process.

Tuesday certainly provided the highlight. Having had a hard week beforehand I wasn’t expecting much when I decided to do a local TT at the last minute, if anything I was treating it as a training exercise to see how much work I had to do in order to get back up to where I was at this point last year. My course PB was a respectable 21:24. I’d been forced to TT with a distinctly non-aerodymanic saddlebag and succeeded in forgetting my heart rate monitor, leaving pacing to perceived exertion as the only option.

I can’t say that my legs felt especially good. I never have average speed or time displayed on my Garmin during a TT, it’s unhelpful to know in my opinion. I wasn’t surprised to see a time of 22:54 when I paused the device upon crossing the finish line. What I didn’t realise was that I’d turned off autpoause. I was gobsmacked to see 20:18 on the board written next to my name, a massive PB. Initially that put me 2nd, the best result for a long time. I’m not sure if a mistake was made with the original results or the ones posted online but according to the latter it may have in fact been my first ever win.

On Wednesday I took it easy, my usual commutes and riding to the gym and back were plenty after the efforts of the day before. The jury is still out in terms of the evidence on active recovery, some say it’s beneficial and others don’t. For me it works wonders, short easy rides do a much better job of rejuvenating the legs than a full rest day most of the time.

Thursday I set out easy, a 50 mile ride with a cafe stop in the middle was planned. That was before I saw the average speed creep up thanks to a tailwind and relatively flat roads. First 18 mph, then 19 and by the time I reached the halfway point it was 19.8. I couldn’t quite resist hammering it on the way home, mentally it proved to be a very good exercise – a matter of keeping the average from significantly dropping until I reached the fastest section of the ride about five miles from home. Once again the numbers were good ones, 20 mph for a half century isn’t something I’ve been able to manage solo before.

Friday was another easy one, just my seven mile round trip commute. That evening was spent nervously prepping for the following day which involved my first ever MTB Marathon. Having only been riding off-road for six months I wasn’t sure how my skill level was going to compare to everyone else – which is to say I was worried about the very serious possibility of falling off and at best humiliating and at worst injuring myself.  In fact I was so on-edge that I misread the timings on pre-event email and turned up an hour earlier than needed, missing out on some much needed sleep. Not even a double espresso was enough to fully reverse that level of drowsiness.

Truth be told the events of that day are probably deserving of a post in their own right. It started out very well, whilst this event was technically non-competitive it was inevitable that some unofficial racing took place especially considering it was a mass start. I was surprised to find myself in the lead group, competitive instincts took over and I decided to go for it. Unfortunately my bike had other ideas, the first chain-drop happened at mile two. I was optimistic initially, hoping it was a one-off I set off to chase down the group I’d initially been part of. I’ll admit I resorted riding my MTB in an aero tuck when a section of road came up (judge me for I deserve it). You can probably guess what happened the minute the other riders came into sight. My chain did it again.

I counted a total of 25 such incidents throughout the ride. I have now discovered it was due to having the wrong chainring fitted, luckily this has since been rectified. Suffice to say I gave up on a fast time and decided to take the shorter of two possible routes. There’s an element of adventure with Mountain Biking that you don’t quite get on the road. I had to tackle rocky descents, shoulder deep grass, prickly undergrowth, insects biting me and unexpectedly deep hidden patches of mud just to name a few. Couple that with the searing temperatures and the exertions of the previous few days and it made for a very hard ride. Twenty miles at under 10 mph doesn’t sound like much but let me tell you it was a killer.

I’m aware that this is probably going to be a controversial comment among the roadies reading this but trust me. If you want to get better on short climbs then there is no better training than ascending on an MTB, the heavy bike coupled with technical terrain and gradients that are often steeper than those you’ll find out on the road make it a very tough exercise. It’s a very, very long time since I’ve had to walk up a climb but a couple on Saturday forced me to do it, the sole consolation is that it was exactly the same for everyone else I saw who attempted them. A 20% incline two miles from the finish finally broke my legs, leading to an agonisingly slow final leg of the ride. I was pleasantly surprised however that I recorded the second fastest time of the day for the shorter loop.

The week ended with the following day’s ride, another that I won’t forget in a hurry. I drove down to Exeter to meet up with a Uni friend and head down to the coast. It was one of those rare days when everything was just perfect for Cycling; blue skies with a light breeze and quiet roads. Add in my favourite route which happens to lead to the best Cafe I know made it a real treat. I truly couldn’t have cared less about the numbers, this was not a day to worry about normalised power or strava PR’s. Instead we simply enjoyed riding our bikes and taking in the beautiful views that East Devon has to offer.

In short, I’m happy to report that after a rough few months everything has gotten back on track. Body and mind are both in a very good place and I’m hoping that’s going to lead to a few more good performances in the coming weeks, maybe even a win or two. It’s inevitable that this run of luck won’t last forever but for the moment I’m happy to sit back and enjoy the moment. Happy riding.

Thanks for reading.

Baptism of Fire

The definition of a truly epic ride is not universally agreed upon. To my mind in order to qualify for the accolade at least two of the following criteria must be met.

  1. Bad weather – Extreme heat, Snow, Rain and/or block headwinds.
  2. Equipment failure – Mechanical problems or GPS going on the blink.
  3. Climbs – At least one thats over 20%
  4. Distance – 1o0 km minimum on a road bike.
  5. Suffering – Preferably conducted whilst tired from a previous ride, or if you really want to push it there’s always the hungover option.

Over the past six years I’ve done a fair few of these, ones that stand out include last years birthday century, the third stage of the 2016 Tour of Wessex and my foolhardy MTB trip in the snow this spring. Last Sunday such a ride unexpectedly took place. Here’s the lowdown.

I think it’s fair to say that it didn’t get off to the best of starts. I’d planned this ride with a Uni friend which meant driving down to Exeter. Despite driving carefully due to having my best bike in the back of the car I succeeded in having a minor collision with a bus about 500 feet from my destination. Attempting to put my left wing mirror back together with gaffer tape in a car park wasn’t my idea of a fun evening.

Not for the first time I cursed the weather forecasters for lying to me the following morning, a cloudy but dry day had been promised. Waking up listening to that telltale sound of raindrops on the window that every Cyclist learns to dread sent a chill down my spine. This wasn’t going to be plain sailing. Matters were further complicated when I managed to get lost on the way to meet my friend at his house, despite having lived in Exeter for the best part of two years I have yet to learn how to successfully navigate it.

Following the obligatory pre-ride coffee we set off. I must admit to having had a few misgivings about planning a ride on Dartmoor. The weather up there is notoriously unpredictable even at the best of times and more often than not there are tricky hazards to negotiate; cattle grids, cows and ponies in the middle of the road, lanes that haven’t been resurfaced in twenty years and some very steep and narrow sections that you can’t afford to switch off on.

Anyway, with this ride long overdue we weren’t going to give up that easily. Getting out of the city was straightforward enough and soon we were heading out on the road to the moor. The B3212 is one of those sections of tarmac that I have something of a love/hate relationship with. It’s good fun on the way out, mild climbs and some wicked descents, yet on the way back on legs that are inevitably tired that road has nearly killed me many a time. On this occasion it was pretty neutral, we rode at talking pace and admired the spectacular Devon scenery that really comes into it’s own at this time of year.

The first stop came 15 miles into the ride at the town of Moretonhampstead. Clouds were looming overhead, ordinarily this wouldn’t have worried me but when it comes to Dartmoor rain showers tend to be accompanied by very high winds. Rather foolishly I’d opted for deep section wheels which can be very tricky in those conditions. With a growing sense of dread that I tried my best to conceal from my companion I broke out the packable waterproof.

Sure enough things soon turned… interesting. Within five miles we were riding along in driving rain accompanied by a relentless headwind. This served to remind me that despite it’s beauty Dartmoor is a place that demands caution and respect. It’s no wonder they built a prison up there. By mile 25 I was seriously considering turning back. Had I been riding alone I probably would have done just that but as it was we soldiered on, preying for the turning that would take us out of the wind.

Fortunately the rain stopped very soon after we’d turned off, the road was more sheltered and we no longer had to fight the wind. My thoughts now turned to the hard climbs that we were soon to encounter, Dartmoor contains four of the top 100 climbs in the UK and this route took in two of them. We started off with Dartmeet, beginning with a brutal 20% section with a bit of a false summit this climb can play some nasty tricks on you. I decided to bend the truth a little at this point, telling my friend that none of the climbs still to come were going to be as bad as this one. I decided not to try for a PR and instead save my strength for the rest of the ride (best excuse ever for setting a really slow time that one).

It was only a few miles later that we encountered Widdecombe. This climb always brings back a few memories, two years ago it came up at mile 70 of a 100 mile ride and I don’t think I’ve ever found a climb so unpleasant as I did on that day. In all fairness this time round it could have been a lot worse, my Scott climbs very well and rarely have I been so grateful for it. I did my best to keep up my “worst is over” charade, knowing full well that the real suffering was yet to come.

After some flattish miles we came back into Moretonhampsted. We treated ourselves to a cafe stop, the caffeine hit a very welcome boost after having survived trial by rain and hills. Unfortunately this resulted in an unexpected problem, my Garmin threw in the towel. Rarely does that device let me down but when it does it’s a serious nuisance. That meant I was going to have to navigate the next few miles by “instinct” which in my case really means “haven’t got a bloody clue”. You won’t be surprised to hear I took a wrong turning and lead us up an unnecessary climb that we then had to come back down before heading up another similarly unpleasant hill to get to the correct turning. It’s a wonder my friend has since agreed to go for another ride.

A few mercifully easy miles followed, if you discount the particularly treacherous lane on the way to Kennik Reservoir, those potholes could swallow a man whole unless carefully avoided. That particular rant is for another day. We soon began to descend, this should have bought joy but I must admit it was bittersweet. The upcoming climb would have been challenging at the very beginning of the ride, eight miles from home it was going to be a killer. And kill us it did. On the flat you can hide from the fatigue to a certain extent, once you’ve built some momentum sustaining it is relatively straightforward. When it comes to steep climbs it’s another matter. This one was especially cruel, going up in short but very steep increments with flat in-between. Three times I thought we’d reached the top, there’s nothing more demoralising than a false dawn.

Finally we reached Haldon forest, the point at which we’d turn for home, it was a mutual decision to go with the slightly more direct route, we’d both had enough pain for one day. Returning to the outskirts of Exeter bought a big sigh of relief, we’d survived. It was then that I decided to deem this ride epic, having met four of the five criteria above it was worthy of the title. I ought to mention here that it was the first properly long ride my friend had ever done, I’m slightly in awe of his level of mental toughness. This was truly a Baptism of fire into the world of Cycling.

Thanks for reading.

 

Time to go

It’s taken a few days of reflection to get out of the inevitable downbeat mood following last Sunday’s somewhat disastrous performance. I’ve decided to forget about running for a couple of weeks and go back to doing what I know best, namely riding my bike. The sole upshot of a bad race is the surge in motivation that tends to come along afterwards. It’s time to redeem myself; get lean, ride hard and eventually get fast again.

I’ve committed to riding at least six days a week and already I’m starting to see a difference. Short commutes do a surprisingly good job of loosening the legs up, making it much easier to persuade myself to get out for training rides after work. Having a summer job I enjoy coupled with no exams and deadlines to worry about has put me in a good mental state, one in which I can really focus on training.

For the first time in a long while I genuinely look forward to the challenge of riding hard, today’s effort has gone some way to convince me that there might yet be some good performances in the pipeline this season. A 21 MPH average with a KOM taken in the process and a normalised power of 297 Watts indicates my legs haven’t forgotten what to do just yet.

Having enjoyed off road riding over these past few months I’ve decided to take the plunge and enter my first MTB event, a local off-road sportive. Nothing particularly challenging but I’m expecting it to be a big learning curve nonetheless. My trail riding skills still leave rather a lot to be desired and getting round without a few cuts and bruises would be something of a miracle.

After a few frustrating afternoons in the garage all the bikes are pretty much up together and ready for the summer ahead. My mechanical skills finally seem to have improved to a point where I no longer have to resort to the bike shop at the first sign of trouble (famous last words?).

My ever faithful Cannondale has been given a very thorough clean and put away until late September. The 50/34 chainset it’s currently sporting is ideal for hilly Devon but the flatter roads of Dorset call for a bike with harder gearing.

Enter the Tarmac. This might not be my fastest steed but it’s very often the one I find myself taking out of the garage. Having gotten round to giving it some long overdue replacement headset bearings I have to say it’s a superb ride. I’ve long tried to replicate the riding position on my other machines but I have yet to manage it.

After the torrid weather we were subjected too over the winter I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have had a few weeks of sun. For me the best part of this has been seeing the condition of the roads improve to the extent where it’s safe to take the Scott out without fear of getting it scratched. I’m itching to use it in anger and target a few local KOM’s during the coming months.

It’s been a long while since I’ve gotten out on the TT bike. Having decided last year that Road Racing wasn’t for me  its the time trial scene that I want to focus on this time round. At the moment I’m sad to admit that a major barrier to this is needing to lose 4-5 Kg so as to be-able to fit into my skinsuit without fear of ripping it.

My MTB has definitely suffered the after effects of being ridden multiple times in blizzard conditions over the spring. It’s needed new brake pads, a bottom bracket replacement and a fresh chain. Having sorted that out the fork is now feeling rather lacklustre and the noise coming from the headset doesn’t fill me with confidence. I’ve admitted defeat and booked it into the local bike shop for a service.

Last but not least project gravel has gotten off the ground. Following a respray it’ll be time to fit the bottom bracket, headset and forks to the frame – soon followed by some wheels. Already this has presented a few challenges but more on that in a future post.

In short I’m looking forward to a Summer of Cycling. I dare say there will be highs, lows, triumphs, disasters and the usual series of funny moments. Stay tuned for more.

Thanks for reading

DNF

There are good events, there are bad events and then there are those events that you’d really like to forget. It’s been a very long time since I last recorded a DNF (that stands for did not finish for anyone who doesn’t know). Unfortunately, for various reasons I ended up adding another one to the list today.

Like so many things I’ve signed up for over the years it seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d managed to get round the Yeovil Half Marathon  and set a new PB for the distance in the process. In the aftermath of that success I made the decision to sign up for the real thing. To a Cyclist 26.2 miles doesn’t sound like a big deal, on a bike I could do that in my sleep. I failed to realise just how much of an ask it is to complete that distance on foot. Error number one.

Looking back at it the timing of my chosen event was far from ideal. Back in March exam season seemed a long way away, in reality the deadlines and revision meant that I had far less time on my hands to train than I would have liked. In training my longest run was a mere ten miles, this would have been fine if I was training for a shorter race but sadly as I later found out there truly is no substitute for getting in the mileage when it comes to the longer ones.

I’ve written plenty about how much of a mare this last winter turned out to be; bad weather, mechanical problems and illness all made it very difficult to maintain let alone increase my fitness. Fortunately these last three months have been far better and I’ve been making steady progress toward getting back to the level I want to be operating at. The one thing I haven’t yet succeeded in doing is getting back down to racing weight, I’m still 5kg heavier when compared to this point last year. While it really doesn’t help with cycling it’s running where that extra baggage has been most evident, with hills being far more taxing than they otherwise would be. Sadly your feet don’t have a granny gear you can use to spin up a steep incline.

Unsurprisingly the psychological side of things also had a big part to play. It might sound very strange if you’re not familiar with the weird world of academia but let me tell you that exam season really takes it’s toll on your mental resilience and it takes some time to recover from it. With the benefit of hindsight I can safely say that taking on such a tough physical and mental challenge that I’d never faced before as a first post-exam event was a bad idea.

You’re not going to be surprised to hear that I did exactly what I’ve advised against doing many, many times on here. Namely letting the ego get in the way of my pacing strategy. I had a target time of 3:30 in mind originally, had I stuck to it I might well have managed to get round. Sadly by mile five I’d decided to stick with the group of runners I’d found myself in, at first the pace was very manageable. With a Half Marathon PB of 1:32 I’d have thought that a pace delivering a first half split of 1:40 wouldn’t have presented any major issues.

For the most part I felt good during those first eight miles; settling into a decent rhythm, sticking to a tried and tested nutrition strategy and not getting any complaints from my feet and ankles. A combination of the various reasons above were responsible for what happened next. At first it was a slight twinge in the my right calf, it wasn’t long before this started to get progressively worse. By mile ten my feet were seriously protesting, I’d have thought nothing of it in a Half Marathon but with 16 miles still to go it was a big worry.

Coming to the end of the first lap and running straight past the site of the finish line was very demoralising. It was at that point that for the first time I properly understood just how difficult running a Marathon actually was. I’ve got a new found respect for anyone who can simply manage to get round a 26.2, let alone run one quickly. By mile 14 my feet were so painful that I was forced to change my footstrike modality, giving my forefeet at rest by heel striking. The relief from this was short lived, almost immediately my ankles began to ache.

At the beginning of mile 15 I began to think it might be game over, unfortunately once that thought gets into your head it’s very difficult to get rid of it. There is nowhere to hide if you overdo it on a run, no option of spinning home at an easy pace. With body and mind telling me in unison that it wasn’t going to happen I did my best to push on, hoping that it would pass and I’d manage to find my feet again. Sadly this was not to be, following a steep hill at the beginning of mile 16 my legs gave up the ghost. I was completely spent.

The relief of stopping soon gave way to disappointment and frustration, getting rescued from the roadside is not the way I’d pictured finishing the event. At the moment with the episode still very fresh in my mind it’s very hard to see the positives. In many ways it could of course have been much worse. I’m hurting but not injured to the point of needing to take a lot of time away from training.  At 21 years of age I think it’s safe to say that there will be plenty of opportunities to redeem myself and tick a Marathon off the bucket list. Next time I’ll know exactly what not to do.

I’m planing on having a couple of weeks off from running. For the latter half of the 2018 season my focus will be on cycling time trials, getting back to something I’m more familiar with and hopefully boosting my morale with some good performances in the process. If nothing else ‘field testing’ a TT setup should lead to reclaiming a few of the KOM’s I’ve lost over the winter. Onwards and upwards.

Thanks for reading.