My kingdom for a flat road.

Like many Students, I am currently in the midst of a classic end of term burnout. Juggling deadlines, cooking, laundry and all the other features of  University life is just starting to become very hard. My Bike looks like I feel; the cable housing has rotted away in places, the gears are rubbing, the bottom bracket is creaking and the bar tape is beginning to unravel. Both it and I are in need of a break – Christmas cannot come soon enough.
img_0357Devon is a nice place to ride, don’t get me wrong. West of where I live you have Dartmoor, a place that should be on the bucket list of any Cyclist in my opinion. Many miles of quiet and largely unspoiled
landscape can be explored, just be sure to bring plenty of food and a good waterproof. You can of course also go North, if you have the time it’s possible to reach Exmoor and get back before dark (In the summer anyway). To the East you have the Blackdown hills, at this time of year they are particularly spectacular. If none of that takes your fancy, you can just ride down to Exmouth or Sidmouth and sample the jurassic coast. There is however one problem, all this scenery comes at a cost – many many hills.

 

img_0416So far I’ve found a grand total of two flat pieces of road. Both of which carry on for about 5 miles, before coming to a climb. In Devon, there isn’t really such thing as an easy ride – back when I was racing fit this wasn’t so bad, in fact it was very useful for training purposes. Now things are different; carrying a few extra pounds from the off season, wearing heavy winter kit and being generally unfit can make rides a bit of a challenge. Long steady rides are more or less impossible – intensity is a necessity rather than a choice, if you can’t make it up a 20% incline then good luck getting home.

 

img_0473After three months, the novelty is beginning to wear off. I long for the flatter terrain of my native Somerset and Dorset. I made the mistake of popping home for a visit last weekend, I’d forgotten how nice it felt to be-able to ride at a steady pace, without the ever present threat of a leg burning climb around the corner. It was a ride I won’t be forgetting anytime soon, one of those rare pleasant winter mornings; cold, crisp and fresh. I had time to enjoy the sights, not having had to suffer in order to reach them.

 

 

img_0465Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for high intensity training and pushing myself hard. Just not at this time of year and not when I have so many other things on my mind. It is a deeply soothing experience to ride a route you know so well that you could probably make it round with your eyes shut, especially after a long time away. It was made even better by that fact that I was riding my beloved Specialized – lighter, faster and a better size than my Cannondale which serves as a winter bike. It’s rides like this that keep me going in the winter, providing a welcome break from the cloudy and grey conditions that characterise the season.

Suffice to say – I’m truly looking forward to going home for Christmas. It won’t all be plain sailing; mainly due to a planned operation to remove the metal plate from my shoulder and the unfortunate need to revise for exams in January. However; the flat roads, well-known routes, availability of a lighter bike and of course those all important post ride mince pies more than make up for it.

On that it’s goodnight from me – time to prepare myself for another day of lectures and lab reports. Stay tuned.

Training with Power – What I’ve learned.

Before starting the post, just some quick housekeeping. This week I’ve made an effort to get a few more visitors to the site – making it easier to comment, share and follow. If you haven’t yet, check out the facebook page. It would be great if you could share any content that you’ve found particularly helpful. Fellow bloggers, I’m happy to post links to your sites if you’ll do the same for this one.

Secondly – I’m looking for some general feedback on the layout of the site. Is there anything that could be made easier about the navigation, do any pages need a rethink etc? Also, are there any posts that you would like to see on the site? As ever, any constructive comments are always appreciated. Right – boring bit over.

Training with Power – my experience so far

It’s in every training manual. If you really want to get better, buy a power meter. Back in February I was curious as to whether the hype was worth it. I was also in a tricky position, having lost a large amount of fitness through injury and facing the task of getting to Race fitness by April. To that end, I decided to invest in one such device. More specifically a Stages system, one of the more budget friendly options.

One of the first things I noticed was how much easier it was to keep to the right training zone. I’d only ever used RPE before, considering heart rate to be too unreliable. I realised I’d made a classic mistake in my training, making the easy sessions too hard and the hard sessions too easy – reducing the overall quality. It made me push harder as well, seeing your output will make you want to sustain the effort for the full amount of time.

Another was how useful the numbers could be in relation to overtraining, though not after I’d made a mess of things the first time round. Back in late June I set off for a threshold session (classic 2×20), I felt absolutely fine – only when I saw how low my power output was did I begin to question matters. Ordinarily I can sustain about 280W for a 20 minute interval, that day 250 was a struggle. I pressed on, thinking there might be something wrong with power meter itself. Wrong – the next day I was ill, this was the start of a bout of overtraining. In short – the numbers don’t lie.

Making sense of vast amount of data that I was suddenly provided with did prove to be a struggle at first. However, after reading a few books (more on this later) I learnt that the most useful information could be gleaned from a 5 minute post-ride analysis.

My personal favourite metric is that of TSS, which basically quantifies the training impact of the ride – taking into account both volume and intensity. For example, riding for 1 hour at threshold = approximately 100 TSS. I’ve done 4 hour rides that only equated to 150. Many a time, I hadn’t worked as hard as I might have thought, just by looking at the length or average speed of a ride. TSS is a far better number around which to build a training program than training volume (e.g. you might aim for 500 TSS/Week).

It’s motivating to see a positively sloping line on a graph, displaying increased fitness (known as CTL). Your fatigue is also tracked (ATL). The balance between the two is known as TSB – essentially it is a measure of form. Using these numbers, you have a far better chance of coming into form at the right time. It’s a matter of reducing ATL whilst maintaining CTL to as greater extent as possible, reaching an optimum TSB.

Right – geek stuff over. I must admit that it isn’t always plain sailing, it can be frustrating if the numbers don’t improve. You can begin to feel like a slave to the data. Nowadays, for some rides I’ll keep my power meter on but not have any numbers displayed on the Garmin. From time to time it’s good to just go and ride a bike, without any particular objective in mind.

It is also easy to lose sight of the simple fact that power isn’t everything. My power to weight ratio at FTP was 4.5 W/Kg at the time of my first Race, I recently had a VO2 max that put it at 67. These numbers are about average for a 2nd Cat. I still got dropped within the first five minutes of 4th Cat closed circuit race. Technique and tactics are important too, arguably more so at lower levels.

That’s not to mention the costs, though they are falling all the time. You can pick up a decent one-sided power meter for around £350, still a lot of money. If you don’t compete and just ride for fun, it’s not worth it. Unless you are lucky enough to have a coach, in order to make the most of a power meter you have to put in some effort. The numbers you see whilst out on the bike are only half the story.

If you really want to get faster then buying one will make more of a difference than any piece of aero or lightweight equipment. As we all know, it is the rider that wins the race – not the bike. I am in no doubt that training with power has made me far fitter than I have ever been before.

. If you are interested in investing – here are some useful links.

  • The Power Meter handbook by Joe Friel Provides an excellent introduction to the principles of training with power, it’s a very easy read and easily contains enough information to get you started with the analysis.
  • For something more advanced, try Training and Racing with a Power Meter. To my knowledge, what isn’t in this book probably isn’t worth knowing. I haven’t yet had a question that wasn’t answered somewhere within.
  • For a really quick guide to getting started with power, take a look at this video .

For today, that’s all from me. Stay tuned.

Ps – Would anyone like to see a more detailed post on training with power, any questions that other sources haven’t answered?

 

Base training blues

After three weeks of ‘preparation’ my actual training program began on Monday. Of course it happened to  coincide perfectly with the onset of bad weather. I’ve been hoping against hope that the Autumn sun would hold for that bit longer – long enough to allow me to get into the swing of things again. Sadly it was not to be, upon waking up on Sunday I was greeted with an ominously grey sky that soon gave way to the first real rain of the Winter. Great start.

Fortunately, it cleared up – going from wet, grey and miserable to merely the last two. Monday marked the first real training ride of the 2016/7 season. It wasn’t exactly one to remember; traffic, potholes, puddles and mud – though it was mercifully devoid of punctures and crashes. My mostly white Bike had turned to a murky brown after 4 hours of negotiating the Devon Lanes.

Checking the calendar doesn’t exactly fill me with hope. It’s only November and if past experience is anything to go by, the next three months will be much the same, only darker and wetter. It is at this time of year that I find goal setting to be particularly useful, vital even. The competitive season seems like a very long way off and staying at home often seems like the best option, at least when looking at the forecast. I’ve taken to writing down a series of goals at the beginning of each week. At the moment they are very basic, such as “fill in my training diary everyday”. But it works.

I’ve decided to include some higher intensity sessions in my training plan, following contemporary advice. Unfortunately, limited daylight hours mean they usually have to be performed on the turbo trainer. My pain cave has been well set up – fan, riser block, mat and TV are all being used to try and make the experience more bearable. They do help, but I’ll never look forward to an indoor session.

I have had the opportunity to take part in a study involving some physiological testing. Inspite of having suffered a great deal in my time, I wasn’t quite prepared for the ordeal of a VO2 max test. At the end I was informed that the equipment probably wasn’t working as it should have been – the results having been puzzled over. A power output typical for a VO2 of 65-70, with the actual reading being in the mid 40’s. I either have an efficiency at the very limit of what is physiologically possible, or my mask straps weren’t tightened quite enough. Another test may be on the cards – can’t say I’m especially looking forward to it.

My Gym sessions have recently taken a step up. I’m pleasantly surprised by the progress, my upper body strength still isn’t great but at least my arms no longer resemble those of a stick insect. I have noticed a difference on the bike, I’m climbing well inspite of having ridden little and eaten lots. I still don’t especially enjoy weight training but am fairly convinced that it works, from now on it will always form part of my winter regime.

Long endurance rides have never been my favourite, especially at my current level of fitness they are a real drag. I’ve tried to find ways to make them more interesting, trying new routes and occasionally stopping to take photos. I will admit to the odd unplanned Cafe stop. I’m training by heart rate alone in these long sessions, only looking at power output afterwards. The numbers are not good, high average HR and very low average power. I have to reassure myself that it always the same, year on year. After a couple of months I’ll probably start to see significant improvements, being able to reduce volume and up the intensity.

There is a popular phrase – “winter miles = summer smiles”. I’ve taken to repeating it over and over again in my head – picturing myself standing on a podium again, thinking that this grafting will be worth it. Winter riding is simply a necessary evil.

I have to remember that there are positives to be taken. A cold and crisp winter morning can be the perfect time for a ride, though these clear days are something of a rarity. The low temperature makes it easier to burn a lot of calories, in the past I’ve found this to be the perfect antidote to festive indulgences. Last but not least, there is a great satisfaction that comes along with putting in the hours and miles when conditions are sub-optimal. I am hoping it will make me faster than those more sensible individuals who choose to stay at home and wait out the cold Winter months in relative comfort.

Anyway, thats all for today. Stay tuned for more.

Quick update on project TT

Anyone who read my old blog (that is to say precious few) might remember a post a few weeks back in which I outlined my season goals, click here for it if anyone is interested. My main ambition, is to turn myself into a good time triallist – having decided not to focus on Closed Circuit racing after becoming heartily sick of it by the time the 2016 season drew to a close.

Unfortunately, my build is against me. 62 kg and 5’8 doesn’t exactly put a powerhouse in mind. Back in August, my FTP was 280 Watts (4.5 W/kg) – not bad but could certainly be better. I’m hoping to represent the University in the BUCS 25 mile TT come April. Again, this may be easier said than done, having enrolled in one of the top Sports Universities in the country – with a very prestigious Cycling club, selection is far from certain. In fact I’m hoping that no-one else will want to do the event by virtue of it being a long way away. In short – some work is needed, and fast.

Luckily, I’ve managed to acquire a TT bike. A Cannondale Slice 105, at a heavily discounted price. Of course there is still much equipment on the list – TT helmet, Skinsuit and Deep Section wheels being the main three. Being a student, this will require full use of my well honed bargain hunting skills, fingers crossed for a Black Friday deal.

For all those potential seconds shaved, no piece of equipment will make me significantly faster compared to a winter of hard work. I decided to cut the end of season break short by a week so as to start training as early as possible. As is my way, I’ve hit the books – reading up on position optimisation and the training best suited to the distance.

Its also time to start thinking about nutrition again. One area with which I frequently find myself at my wits end. Sadly, I am no longer at race weight, the combination of fewer training hours and cake has not left my waistline wanting. So it’s now back to losing weight, weighing out my food and trying not to think about my love of carbs. I’d like to be down to 61Kg by January, corresponding to the end of the base period. With Christmas fast approaching, this is easier said than done.

I have already discovered a few problems. It turns out the TT position is very uncomfortable and my flexibility is in need of some work. Somewhere during the course the summer I appear to have acquired a dead-spot in my pedal stroke, something that has never been a problem before. My fitness has declined more than expected following a three week break from structured training – I’ve put off doing an FTP test until now but soon the extent of the damage will become apparent.

In short – I have a large mountain to climb before becoming competitive again. Thankfully, my motivation is high enough that this shouldn’t be a problem, though the scheduled 13 training hours during the second week of January is going to be a struggle. Is my goal of breaking the hour and competing at BUCS achievable? Honestly I don’t know – but it’s not going to stop my trying.

One final word, this isn’t a political blog and never will be. Seems like just about everyone has something to say about recent events in the US and I feel as if I’m letting the side down if I don’t join in. In my opinion, the wrong man won – I just hope he doesn’t do too much damage over the course of the next four years. Now time to get out on my bike and forget about it.

Thanks for reading – stay tuned for more.

Ps – If there is enough interest, I’m planning on putting together a post of First Race Stories – just to reassure anyone who didn’t have the best time that they are from alone when it comes to disasters early on in a racing career. Success stories are of course also welcome. Any fellow bloggers, I’m quite happy to provide links to your sites from the post – as an extra incentive. Comment below or get in touch via twitter (@JamesALewis1297).

 

 

 

How I got started in Cycling

I’ve decided to deviate from the norm with this post. Here is the story of how I got started in Cycling – hopefully it might do something to explain why I spend so much time riding a bike and writing about it. Here goes.

As a child, I wasn’t exactly an athlete – very far from it in fact. My preferred hobbies had long been eating and television, I would do almost anything in order to avoid getting out of breath. As you might imagine, I wasn’t exactly on the thin side – I’ll shamefully admit to weighing 80kg at the modest height of 5’7 by the age of 16.

Every class has one – that kid who always gets picked last in PE. I managed to extend this further by simply not participating, after a few years the teacher and I developed an understanding – I’d sit on the sideline pretending to do work and he would look the other way. I was well known for my laziness, in a strange way I was almost proud of it.

Self-deprecating jokes served as a good defence mechanism. Being both short and fat required a good sense of humour if school was to be survived. If I’m honest all the ribbing from my friends didn’t do wonders for my self-esteem, not that I’d have let anyone know it at the time. At around the age of fourteen, I began to feel guilty, both my parents were from a medical background and I had a keen interest in health science.

I had tried a few sports in the past. Swimming from from ages eight to ten and Horse Riding from eleven to fifteen. However, in the end I always went back to what I’d now consider my base programming – doughnuts were simply too good to resist. Thing is I enjoyed exercise – the thought of doing it was far worse than the actual sensation, it was this apathy that proved to be my downfall on many occasions.

Having given up on Horses, oweing to never winning anything and deciding that my lack of coordination meant I’d never be as good as I wanted to be, a change was in order. It was a fortunate coincidence that my Father had just taken up Cycling, having suffered an Achilles tendon injury six months earlier. I suspect he was concerned about my size (can’t exactly blame him), to that end it was decided that I should start accompanying him on rides.

At the time I was extremely reluctant, amongst other things the thought of donning lycra and being unable to conceal the extent of my bulk was a great concern. I was expecting a familiar pattern to reoccur, I’d try it once and might enjoy it – keep going for a few months and then find an excuse to stop.

I will always remember the first time I got on a road bike, specifically a 58cm Giant SCR (at least two sizes too large) sporting a triple chainset. Still, at the time it felt light – I’d only ever ridden Mountain Bikes before and as such didn’t know any better. I was slow, very slow – my excess weight made hills truly torturous, just getting to top and being able to carry on and finish the ride was a major challenge.

However, somewhere along the line during that ten mile introduction, I began to enjoy it. The sensation of travelling under your own power coupled the wind in my hair and the sun on my back – this sport was different. Could I finally have found the means to get me off the sofa and away from the doughnuts?

That first summer, I slowly improved. Losing a bit of weight for the first time in years and seeing a gradual increase in speed was very satisfying – progress, slow but still progress nonetheless. I even rode a couple of Sportives with my Father, the first one being down in Devon where I now live most of the time. Sadly I’d not lost enough weight to be-able to cope with the 20% inclines the route encompassed – I will admit to having to walk up the hills, something I have never done since.

It helped that my first foray into the sport coincided with the 2012 Olympics. Like many others the exploits of team GB’s Cyclists inspired me to carry on. All this talk of marginal gains and pushing yourself to the limit made me try something I’d never done before – ride hard deliberately. I almost began to feel like an athlete.

My Christmas present that year was my first proper bike. A Cannondale SuperSix 105, easily the best seasonal gift I had ever received – it made a huge difference to be riding something light and the right size. As I write this, it’s sitting in pride of place, taking up most of the space in my small Uni room. Really I ought to sell it – as a student it’s tricky to justify owning four bikes, sadly I’ll never be-able to bring myself to say goodbye.

Unfortunately, my riding tailed off during the winter. I’ve spoken before of my aversion to indoor training – the wet, cold and dark conditions did little to persuade me to get out the door. However, the interest was still there and the following summer I got on my bike again.

Since then I haven’t really looked back. Of course I’ve gotten faster, lost a large amount of weight (20kg to be precise) and ridden competitively. Yet the basic reason why I chose to ride my bike is the same, I bloody love it.

Cycling has made more of a difference in my life than I ever would have expected. It’s taught me how to push myself, be self disciplined and to go the extra mile to achieve a goal. At times, I can even say no to a doughnut. In fact, the sport has made such an impression that I have completely changed my chosen career path. For years it was the same – “I want to be a scientist, work for a big company and make lots of money”. Luckily, I’ve long since realised that wouldn’t have worked for me. As such, I’ve changed to a different degree – with the ambition of becoming a Cycling Coach or Sports Scientist working with a professional team.

I’ll keep riding for as long as I physically can, the 100+ hour record is a long term goal. I can cope with anything life chooses to throw at me, as long as I can get out on my bike afterwards. Of course there are drawbacks; being tired from training, never managing to save any money and frequent dealings with incompetent drivers just to name a few. Happily – they are easily outweighed by the substantial increase in sanity that Cycling brings.

Just to finish with. If you are a thinking of getting into Cycling, or even if you’re not – give it a try. You never know what good could come of it. Bye all.

 

 

 

Why I really ride a bike

After the high of Sunday, the week took a turn for the worse. Unusually, it wasn’t my fault – the reality of summers end dawned on the family as September approached, the difficulties of life began to sink in. A new job for my Mother, the beginning of college for my younger Brother and a new University course for me. Off topic – you might think, hang on.

It was during an especially long form filling session that my patience finally cracked. I slammed the computer shut, strongly wishing to never open it up again and subject myself to the dozen or so tabs I had been forced to open. It was stunning weather, surely a day to be savoured before the inevitable turning of the weather. I hadn’t originally intended it, but it was with a feeling of great satisfaction that I set off for a long ride.

These days going out for a ride typically involves some kind of structured training, intervals and the like. However, today I simply couldn’t face it – off with the power meter and away with the garmin (that is to say I wasn’t looking at it – couldn’t quite bring myself to have nothing to show for my efforts on Strava). Rather than opting for my race machine, I went for my trusty Specialized – a bike that, if it could speak, would have many tales of mud, crashes, punctures, rain and even in one case a freak snowstorm. Most of my kit was packed for the upcoming Alps trip, I was only left with my 4-year old shorts and a jersey at least one size too large, incidentally the first piece of cycling kit I can remember buying.

The route was an old favourite, one which have many fond memories of – the first time I rode over 100 kilometres (aged 16), and the first time I averaged over 16 mph. Some are not quite so fond – in january last year, having been overenthusiastic and forgotten to eat, I suffered what cyclists refer to as ‘the bonk’ whilst riding this particular course. I could probably ride it with my eyes shut and the handlebars removed.

Setting off from East Coker, turning left to pass the local reservoir on the way to a neighbouring village, Halstock. I first rode this short section on a Mountain Bike aged 11, having been forced to go out for a ride with my Father. Just past the village shop, theres a sharp left turn which leads to a short, steep climb – the imaginatively named Halstock Hill, it formed a big part of my introduction to suffering – during my first summer on the bike, I was somewhat larger then and simply getting to the top was a major challenge.

A right turn at the top, takes you along an exposed, winding country road. Right past the farm where our Horses used to be kept (pre-cycling I was involved in equestrian sports). Keep going, and you end up having to cross a dual carriageway in order to continue. This I did, having waited the inevitable ten minutes for the midday traffic to clear. Up another steep hill, and I soon found myself riding through the village of Yetminster. This was where the family lived during my early childhood, the highlight of my week in those days was cycling up to my Grandparents house for Sunday lunch.

Ok, that’s enough of the nostalgia – you probably get the picture, its a nice route passing through places of personal significance. Today, it truly reminded me of why I became hooked on cycling in the first place. Without ‘training’ to worry about I could simply concentrate on the riding, plain and simple.

There is nothing quite like it, the wind in your hair, the sun on your back and the sensation of speed under your own power. Riding a bike gives a taste of freedom unlike anything else I have experienced. Being able to forget about responsibilities and deadlines, no calls to take and no emails to sift through. For the first time in what felt like weeks, I had time to pause and think. Just the occasional passing car for company, the sounds of nature providing the backing track and the steady, dependable rhythm of my legs all made for a nice change having just emerged from a chaotic family household. The gears were out of adjustment, the saddle uncomfortable and the brakes a tad spongy but today it just didn’t matter.

Looking back at that ride – in terms of training it was pure junk. I rode at a very steady pace, the route included no intervals or even especially challenging hills and at no point was there anything resembling a headwind (I might have just been going too slowly to notice of course). It won’t have made me any fitter, or helped me win races – its done something much more important, kept me sane.

Its now that I begin to understand what makes this sport so unique among others. The simple joy of riding a bike is something we can all experience in equal measure – from occasional charity rider right the way through to grand tour winner. I am reminded of the importance of keeping this joy alive – structured training is all well and good but from time to time its good to take a step back and simply enjoy the experience.

Chaos, has of course, since returned with a vengeance. My suitcase is only half full, most of my University forms aren’t finished, the dishwasher needs emptying and the cat is giving me a spiteful look, reminding me of the need to provide him with some evening ham. All I can do is thank heaven that I have a means of escape and wonder how on earth non-cyclists can cope with life in general.

With that I’ll leave it.

Ruminations on the rain

It’s a sad truth when it comes to cycling in the UK or anywhere in the world for that matter, there is simply no way to escape the ever present menace of bad weather. Yesterday I had a tough decision to make – “to ride or not to ride?”, I thought to myself whilst looking out the window in a state of hopelessness. As is all too familiar, the rain poured down, the wind howled and my training motivation took something of a nose dive.

Yet this time, there was no escape – after all I have important events coming up. The previous day I had been foolish enough not to check the forecast and as such decided to take a rest, leaving me fresh for the weekly interval session. You might recall my mention, in an earlier post, of my undying hatred for the turbo trainer – short of a hurricane or blizzard, nothing would make me resort to that option. Therefore after much procrastination and the donning of waterproof kit that I had previously packed away in an optimistic mood a week earlier, I set out into the great damp unknown.

Cutting a long story short the ride was distinctly unpleasant – involving fog, floods, potholes and a host of inconsiderate drivers. Yet I came away with a rare feeling of satisfaction – I had won the battle against my own apathy and survived pretty much everything the day had seen fit to throw at me. It was now that I found myself asking a strange question – “is there a silver lining to the bad weather that we cyclists so often bemoan?”.

Firstly there are considerable bragging rights to be earned – many cyclists I know will never set out upon hearing the mere mention of rain, how gratifying it feels to no longer be amongst them. Of course, rule number 5 must not be forgotten and surely voluntarily getting soaked in the pursuit of greater performance represents strict adherence to it.

Secondly, its inevitable that at some point you will face unfavourable weather of during an event – as I was unfortunate enough to encounter during my last race. I learned that day that there is no substitute for toughening up and training in these conditions, my bike handling being even worse than usual having almost never ridden in the rain before. Those who don’t give in to the lure of an ‘early rest day’ and press on are giving themselves a big advantage over cyclists of the *fair weather variety.

Finally, the purchase of many extra items of kit becomes justifiable. If you decide to ride in the rain, there are many ‘essential’ condiments that must immediately become part of your collection – as can be explained to your family. It even presents the perfect excuse for the purchase of a new bike. Why would anyone choose to ruin expensive components in bad weather? Anyone can see the logic, it will be cheaper in the long term to acquire a machine for this purpose. Taken further – why not convert your current bike into a winter trainer and ‘invest’ in a shiny new one for the better days.

So you see – there are many advantages to rejecting the easy option of a turbo session or early rest day and instead putting on a brave face and facing the elements. So I write as I look out of the window and observe the deluge once again, suddenly the knee pain I very briefly experienced a fortnight ago comes to mind. Getting drenched might somehow cause injury – I should therefore do the responsible thing, listen to my body, have a rest and eat some cake.

Looking forward – eventually

I will cheerfully admit that at the present moment the off season is being thoroughly enjoyed. It’s freed up about 10 hours a week, allowing me to get some work done, and even socialise on occasion. For the first time in a long while I can allow myself to sleep in at the weekends, no training rides to fit in around the Uni work which has inevitably been left in abundance from earlier in the week.

I haven’t stopped exercising (think that one would be a little hypocritical as a Sport Science Student!), its simply become a matter of going our for a ride or run when I feel like it – no analysis and no hard intervals. I’m reminded of the reason why I enjoyed cycling in the first place – getting away from it all, just enjoying the miles with no particular agenda.

However – my mind grows ever more restless. Its almost as if I’ve forgotten how to live life in the absence of sporting goals and the self-discipline etc that they bring about. Its with this in mind that I’ve decided to get down to planning my 2017 season. Being as I am, one of life’s true procrastinators, I waited until February last time round – this meant a late peak and results took a while to pick up. This year I’m determined to be organised for once – time to sit down and think about the next step.

What to do? I ask myself, at a total loss – it hasn’t actually occurred to me beforehand to think about events and goals. One thing I won’t be doing is obsessively chasing points – moving up a category would be nice but not essential. Not to mention unlikely, judging by how long it took to get out of 4th Cat. Besides, I must admit to not particularly enjoying the chaos and crashes that come about with Crit racing. I do enjoy a bit of long distance riding from time to time, yet after a season of racing, targeting Sportives alone feels like a backward step. I could of course take up MTB, Track or Cyclocross – however all of these would necessitate the purchase of yet another bike – something I’m not going to be-able to afford for a very, very long time. That leaves two options – Time Trialling and Road Racing.

At the present moment, its the former discipline that appeals the most. I’ve always been something of an Aero geek, the scientific side very much up my street. I like purity of the event – just you against the clock, nowhere to hide. I’d like to think its easier for the strongest man to win (not that it will be me of course) – no tactics to worry about and no crashes to avoid. It’s also a big incentive to get down to race weight and spend a bit of time in the gym bulking up my legs – nowhere to hide in a skinsuit! That, at least is a start.

That said, I certainly don’t want to stop racing. The thought of my hard earned best bike sitting in the garage all year sends a shiver down my spine. I feel a sense of unfinished business, having only completed two road races so far and not had a good result, that is to say a points finish. My local club puts on a 3/4 race on a yearly basis, I’ll certainly be entering that one – nothing like a home race, if it goes well that is.

Getting somewhere – at the very least I’ll have a reason to start training again in a couple of weeks time. Without some kind of plan, evening turbo sessions and long rides in the wet certainly won’t be happening! For the sake of further motivation – I’ll set out my goals here. Not that I expect anyone to particularly care but at least they’ll be written somewhere, I won’t simply be-able to deny setting them should I fail for whatever reason. Here goes…

1) Ride a 25 mile Time Trial in under an hour
2) Ride 100 miles in under 5 hours
3) Achieve 3 points finishes in 3/4 road races

There we have it. I can already feel the urge to push myself growing again. Now just to come up with the events themselves. For the 25 I’ve decided to put myself out there and see if I can make the BUCS event in April (inter University for anyone who hasn’t heard of it) – this probably won’t be easy, in fact I’m banking on being able to enter because some of the better riders in the University Club won’t fancy it! For the hundred, its got to be the first stage of the Tour of Wessex®, its fairly local for me and a truly spectacular course that holds many fond memories. There are rumours of a dedicated time trial event this year, separate from the sportive – fingers very firmly crossed.

It’s too early to know when most of the road races will be held, to that end I’ve made the decision not to prioritise them until the middle of the season. I’m hoping this will leave just about enough time to get the higher intensity training in so as not to be dropped on the first lap. I’m making a commitment to not hanging around at the back of the bunch anymore, having had any hope of a result in a Road Race this year dashed by being caught behind crashes. I won’t have a metal plate in my shoulder to worry about either, rendering my best excuse (“I just stayed out of trouble to make sure I didn’t crash, because of my bad shoulder ) no longer valid – I’ll begrudgingly take that as a positive.

That, as they say is that. I think I’ve waffled along enough for one day – apologies to anyone (that is to say most people) who have found this post a little dull. I’ll admit to using it as a means to get my jumbled thoughts in order and actually get something done before the last minute for a change. Stay tuned.

Alpine Adventure

The question that first comes to mind is simple: Where to start? Its been a very busy few days. Last Saturday I embarked for the second time, on a week long cycling holiday to the French Alps. Just to cap it off, the day after returning from holiday it was time to go back to University – yet another adventure. I’m going to try and avoid waffling on too much (though I can’t make any promises) and hope this post provides some mild entertainment.

It’s surprisingly tricky to organise a cycling holiday – simply transporting bikes proved to be a significant challenge. The price of hard bike boxes put them out of our range, for now at least, fortunately a friend lent my Father & I a pair of soft carriers – these would hopefully do a good job. I opted to bring my training bike, its not flashy or expensive and as such I wouldn’t have to worry about it picking up some minor damage in transit. My Father instead went for his best lightweight bike – transporting this was going to be nerve-wracking.

Never before have I seen such an acute case of paranoid overpacking – bubble wrap, industrial quantities of insulation foam, bags of old clothing and even (luckily empty) egg boxes were utilised. In some ways it was actually rather impressive, it would take far more than a careless baggage handler to scuttle our plans.

In addition to the bikes themselves, we had many other essentials to bring – you can probably imagine. Spare tubes, nutrition products, tools and just about every piece of cycling kit that either of us possessed was carefully packed (that is to say thrown into a suitcase that had to be sat on in order to zip it up properly). On our last trip, around a year ago, the food in some of the French Hotels had been questionable in some cases – large quantities of protein snacks were therefore also thrown in.

The flight itself was mercifully uneventful, aside from the inevitable screaming child and sitting next to a rather large gentleman whose shower may have not been used on that particular morning. Upon arrival, we were strongly reminded of the shortcomings of foreign airports – to cut a long story short there was much time lost and frustration levels were high to say the least.

Having escaped the airport, we were introduced to to the other members of our group, with whom we would be riding for the following six days. As is usually the case, we were composed of a wide ranges of ages and abilities, everyone seemed friendly which is always a major bonus. On trips like this, around 75% of the enjoyment is dependent on your riding companions.

It was a long drive to our overnight stop. A small alpine chalet close to the top of the famous Col du Telegraphe. Having unpacked the bikes we all sat down for the first meal of the trip, much like those that were to follow, it was very large and satisfying. One of the great highlights of Cycling trips is that of guilt free eating – its crucial to try and replace the calories you have burnt after a long day on the bike, in order to avoid what cyclists refer to as ‘the bonk’ (running out of energy and having to climb into the van).

The riding over the next few days was truly spectacular, if I tried to paint the full picture I’d be writing for several days – which wouldn’t be conducive to a good first week of Uni work. To that end, I’ll try to keep it to a few highlights.

Day one began with ascending the last 3km of the Telegraphe. It was an early start – the empty road coupled with the sunrise and a fresh pair of legs made for something truly special, made better by the surprising lack of mechanical problems. The first big climb was that of the Col du Galibier, easy for the first few kilometres, then getting steadily harder, culminating in a steep finish. Being unacclimatised to the high altitude, this also worked to make it a tough one – it was disheartening to see how low my power output was, for a very high perceived exertion. If nothing else, this week was set to seriously improve my fitness.

The thrill of descending mountains is difficult to put into words – your life is truly in your own hands, go too fast or get the line wrong going into a technical corner and its a long, steep drop which will at the very least result in serious injury. Couple that with gusts of wind and you have a serious adrenaline rush.

That day also involved two other climbs. Firstly the Col d’izoard (the clue is in the name), with a lunch stop at the summit, followed by another descent. Finally the Col du Vars, not one most people have heard of – yet it turned out to be truly savage, 17km of climbing, much of it steep. The suffering was made greater by an unusually high temperature (around 30 celsius) and the fact it came after two large climbs earlier in the day – the large bowl of pasta for lunch didn’t do much to help either. Cresting the summit bought a real sense of achievement, spurred on by the thought of a recovery drink and hot shower – it wasn’t long before I reached the hotel. For various reasons, I finished the day on my own – ahead of all but one member of our group (more on him later). It made a nice change to be the quick one, on flat UK roads I’m not the most rapid but up in the high mountains my small size gives a useful advantage.

Day two was shorter, only 110km as a pose to 170. Beginning with an ascent of the Col de la Bonette – which was, at one time, the highest paved road in Europe. The scenery was remarkable, above the tree line its possible to see for many miles – though the view consists almost entirely of other forests and mountains. The climb itself was more straightforward, less steep and sporting a few tight hairpins which provided brief moments of rest. Only in the last kilometre, when the gradient rose sharply, did the legs begin to protest.

My riding companion for this day, and as it turned out, the remainder of the week was a Frenchman, an ex-Pro ski racer, this man was seriously fast – I was told he had barely ridden his bike during the summer, truly one of life’s natural athletes. Luckily, he had ridden the same routes during another instalment of the trip earlier in the year – his sense of direction proved very useful on many occasions. In the high mountains, my Garmin regularly lost signal, coupled with poor map reading skills this would have rendered me totally lost!

The day ended with another tough climb I had never heard of, the Col du Cuiolle. Rising through a gorge and passing through a small village set into the mountainside, it made for a fitting end to a spectacular ride. Yet again the temperature was high, it took many energy products and regular water stops in order to make it to the top. At one point I came very close to cracking – the support van would have been unable to reach me and as such this was a big worry. My only choice was to carry on and hope it would cool down towards the top of the climb. Thankfully it did – reaching the Hotel that day was a big relief.

Day three bought a welcome break from the high mountains – 140km consisting of mainly undulating terrain and a few minor climbs. The lunch stop was a big highlight, nothing like a large Pizza as a means to refuel for the coming day! Today did bring up one minor concern, during an ascent of the Cole du Buille (3km at 17% gradient – the one climb during the week that resembled those that can be found in the UK), my right knee began to throb. By the end of the day both knees were hurting – I fond myself hoping the pain would pass and that I would make it to the end of the week. My mistake had been a characteristically stupid one, bringing a bike fitted with a 52-36 chainset coupled to an 11-28 rear cassette (for any non-cyclists, this gearing copes easily with anything in the UK but isn’t the best for European Cols, ideally you want a smaller chains or an 11-32 cassette).

Day four was the one ‘flat’ day of the week. I was initially worried when looking at the road book, seeing that the route involved several main roads – the type that I would avoid at all costs if riding back home. Fortunately my concern was unfounded, French drivers are far kinder to cyclists – giving you a wide birth and often warning you of their approach. We had initially decided to ride as a group – going at a ‘steady pace’. Of course, in practice, this didn’t happen – we Cyclists struggle to resist the temptation to go hard & fast, and as such a three man ‘breakaway’ soon formed. The three of us then began to test eachother, putting in hard turns on the front and occasionally sprinting away from the others when the urge came. By the lunch stop we were already exhausted, with around 60km still to ride we had well and truly paid for our antics. Suffice to say, during the latter part of the day the group stayed firmly together.

It was towards the end of this ride that one member of the group spotted something in the distance – the top of the legendary Mont Ventoux, which we were due to climb later in the week. This was the primary objective of the trip. The mountain seemed to grow larger and larger on the horizon, striking fear into our heart. It has featured in the Tour de France many times – with much triumph, tragedy and just about everything in-between having taken place on its slopes.

That evening we arrived in the small town of Bedoin, close to the base of mountain. The hotel was a real find, off the beaten track yet the perfect place from which to conduct the remaining rides. The rooms were large and cool, the food generous and filling and the bike storage secure. During dinner that night, the conversation grew ever more grim – I doubt there was a single member of our party (aside from our hosts and those who had done the trip before) who didn’t experience degree of apprehension, even fear, regarding the upcoming challenge.

It was with Ventoux in mind that I decided to take the next day off – in order to recover as much as possible. An emergency trip to a local bike shop was also necessary, fitting my bike with easier gearing so as to spare my protesting knees. The remainder of the day was spent eating and resting, attempting to conserve as much energy as possible.

So it was that the big day dawned – I found myself prolonging breakfast for as long as possible, preying that my legs would be up to the task. We set out from the hotel as a group, no early attacks today. Soon after the foot of the climb we all separated – the only way to tackle these long climbs is to ride at your own pace. My French companion and I had soon lost sight of the others.

That first ascent was surprisingly pleasant, the mountain was busy which provided a welcome distraction. The lower slopes were forested, which made for a perfect temperature – the road was littered with graffiti, the names of various TDF riders coupled with the odd political slogan. Once above the tree line the sunlight hit, the surrounding landscape now almost white – the summit now visible, just one long and winding road along which to proceed. I made the mistake of looking down, just being able to make out Bedoin, now seemingly very small. Making it to the top bought a sense of relief, yet there was little time to take in the achievement – after all, it was only a third of the work done.

The next stage involved descending the other side of the mountain, down to the town of Malaucene. Yet another spectacular descent, though not helped by the motorbikes insisting on passing very closely. We soon reached the bottom, turning round and beginning the second climb. It began easily, yet with around 12km to go the gradient increased, remaining between 8 and 12% for the next 6km if memory serves. It was now that I realised a mistake had been made, I’d forgotten to refill my water bottles. This had the potential to be a serious problem, the midday heat could easily have resulted in dehydration which could in turn of lead to abandonment of the climb. Fortunately a Cafe situated 5km from the summit provided the necessary relief. The last section of the second climb was thankfully straightforward, an easy run up to the summit. “Two Down”, I thought – “only the last climb to come.”

Following a longer descent we arrived at the base of the last climb, the small town of Sault. By now the temperature had risen strongly and my legs were beginning to feel fatigued. The third ascent may not have been steep but made up for it by being 27km long (as a pose to 20 for the previous two). The first few kilometres were fully exposed to the heat, making for an uncomfortable 30 minutes or so. Fortunately we soon found ourselves engulfed by forest once again, providing a very welcome break. The gradient was very friendly in comparison to that of the earlier climbs – making for a fast time.

We soon reached the junction that marked the point of 7km to go (that between the road to Bedoin and that to Sault, the final part of the climb is held in common between the two approaches). With the end in sight we pushed on, my legs tiring yet keeping going. I’ll never forget what it felt like to reach the summit for the final time – it was quite crowded, music playing and a few market stalls set up to provide food & drink to the many cyclists giving the famous mountain a go. I had done it – Ventoux 3 ways, in a reasonable time of 6 hours 40 minutes. Photographs were taken and celebratory energy bars eaten (sadly I hadn’t thought to bring anything else with which to mark the occasion).

The descent back to Bedoin is known for being a fast one and today proved not to be an exception. Just as the traffic on the mountain began to decline, it was possible to see for many miles – allowing for some serious fun to be had in order to round off what had been a truly remarkable experience.

Dinner that night was something of a celebration, though not a very lively one oweing to the days efforts. Champagne flowed (all of one glass) and the chocolate cake tasted better than ever. Special mention must be given to one member of our group. In his mid fifties, with little time to train, he had completed the three ascents in around ten hours (thats a very long time to spend on a bike), rarely have I seen such determination and perseverance.

That, as they say, was that. It was time to pack the bikes up and say our goodbyes to France. I have to say it was one of the best, if not the best cycling I have ever experienced. Good food, good hotels, good support and most importantly a friendly group of people to ride with – what more can you ask for? Its even made me consider the option of living and working in France at some point in the future, how could you ever get bored when that kind of cycling is on the doorstep?

Now of course, its back to reality. Time to start thinking about the upcoming year at University, and of course the last road race of the season. Just in case anyone is interested, here is a link to the website of the company that organised the trip, I’d give then a 5 star recommendation: http://www.colconquerors.com/index.php.

On that I’ll leave it.

Looking back

Last weekend my 2016 season finally came to a close, I now find myself at something of a loss. What am I to do? I ask myself, in the three weeks I have before training for the new season begins. There is no bike to clean, no kit to wash and no power data to analyse. For the time being, I must admit it’s rather enjoyable. My first competitive season has, after all, been rather a long one – incorporating ups, downs and just about everything in-between. Time I think, to look back at the last 5 months of cycling – anything to avoid starting on the massive pile of Uni work that is, at this moment, perfectly concealed by the computer on which I’m writing this.

It all started with a rare episode of motivation and resolve – to finally start racing and pit myself against others. Being a highly neurotic individual, the thought of being beaten had long since put me off – not least for the sake of those around me who would inevitibly suffer in the aftermath of a bad performance. I was, at the time, searching for a purpose, something to get me out of bed in the morning (or early afternoon as it often turns out) – for the first time in living memory, exam results no longer mattered – having dropped out of my ill-fated first attempt at University and received an unconditional offer to start a new course in September.

Books were read, equipment bought and something vaguely resembling a training plan was pinned to the wall. For the first time, riding became a truly serious business – evolving very rapidly into more than simply a hobby. My mentality in life does tend to be all or nothing, in this case it was the former – I began looking at diet, mental skills and even strength training (though admittedly, with the last one, looking was as far as it got – I’d much rather be out on the road than stuck in a gym).

The year began with sportives, long distance events to boost my endurance. My big target being the Tour of Wessex, which I managed to complete in a respectable time. It was now time to turn my attention to racing – entering my first road race, now there could be no turning back.

As recounted in my first blog post, my first few close circuit races weren’t exactly a triumph. Illness, mechanical failure, crashes and overtraining added up to a grand total of zero points. I’d set myself the goal of moving up to 3rd Cat by the end of the season – this looked increasingly unlikely. Finally, in early July, I began to see some improvements – taking 6th in a bunch sprint and 10th a week later. Not exactly spectacular, but enough to give my moral a much needed boost.

Finishing my first road race felt like a big deal. The pace was tough and many were dropped on the climbs – I resolved to hang on no matter what, managing to survive a crash & subsequent chase in the first lap. Yet another crash, this time in the last kilometre, put an end to my hopes of a high place – yet I was still pleased with my performance. The hard work had paid off – early nights, salads and riding in the rain truly felt worth it.

Of course, it couldn’t all go smoothly. Soon after the race, I was forced to take a break from training – having managed to make myself ill. I learnt another important lesson – namely how crucial it is to listen to your body and that its ultimately better to miss one or two workouts than succumb to overtraining. In short, I lost fitness and put on some unwanted weight – time to refocus my energies once again. I cheered myself up by purchasing a new bike with my summer wages. Saying goodbye to having spare money at University in the process – yet completely worth it!

It wasn’t until late August that I really began to feel like myself again. I was still a 4th Cat, with five races to go until the end of the season, my chances of moving up were hanging in the balance. Looking back, this had a very positive effect – going into races with nothing to lose helped to change my mental approach. Rather than try not to lose, I had to ride to win.

In the course of ten days, I went through the full rollercoaster of experiences. Starting with defeat, letting myself down by waiting for the final sprint – which I started from the back of the bunch. Two days later, it got better, a top ten in a local time trial – riding my road bike and beating several riders with full on TT rigs. Two days after that – a 6th place finish in a circuit race, this one came with mixed emotions, had I realised where the finish line was, it would probably have been 3rd.

Three more points were needed – I recognised that my chance of getting them in a road race were slim. My hopes rested on the last circuit race of the year – only three days after the previous one. Waking up that morning and looking at the weather, I doubted whether I’d make it to the start line. Thankfully things did improve – I can’t recall ever being so stressed on the start line, ending the season a 4th Cat would have been a massive disappointment. As luck would have it, almost everything went right – a solo attack with 4 laps to go lead to second place. Job done.

The feeling of relief will always stay with me – for the first time in a while I felt able to genuinely relax. Thats another lesson – next season I am determined to enjoy it more, its easy to lose sight of the fact that race results aren’t life or death.

A week after my late season redemption – it was time to take a trip to the French alps. I’ve probably said enough about this already so I’ll keep it short. Lots of climbing, more food, good company and another thing to tick off the bucket list – the Ventoux Cingles challenge.

Thereafter it was time to go back to University – how time had flown. Fortunately, I managed to find some good routes quickly, maintaining my fitness before the season ending race. In that space of time I joined the University cycling club – discovering that I still have a long way to go before I can truly call myself a good rider. Its provided much motivation for next season, nothing like riding with people (much) better than you to bring about rapid improvement!

So it came down to one more race, a chance to finish the season on a high. The legs felt good, the first 20 miles passing by very quickly and without incident. However, my luck soon ran out – caught behind a crash and trying to chase back on, this time I was on my own, by the time others caught up it was already too late. It was a valiant effort but ultimately the bunch got away. It could of course have been much worse, I still managed to finish the race – body and bike unharmed. My Father, competing in his first road race, caught behind the same crash as me, somehow managed to go the wrong way (for anyone who knows him this won’t come as a huge surprise!). This provided a little humour to ease the pain of defeat – he’ll certainly never live it down.

All in all – I’m pleased with the way the season has gone. All the goals I laid out at the very beginning have been achieved, some have even been exceeded. I’ve had enough good results to keep me motivated and enjoying the sport but not so many to warrant complacency. My thoughts turn to 2017 – yet another year of challenge awaits. For now, I’m just grateful for an opportunity to relax, after 12 races, a few TT’s and a couple of very challenging Sportives, both body and mind are in need of a break.

Time I think, to get on with some Uni work – having spend the last two hours writing this. Signing off.