Filling the Tank

In my short but fairly intense experience of road riding I have found that most riders can be separated into two different categories. In the first camp you have those riders who actively want to ride up hills, easily identifiable as they tend to look like mountain goats wrapped in Castelli branded lycra. You can generally find them in hilly areas uttering phrases like “hurt locker”, “V02 threshold” and “Shut up Legs!”. Then you have the second camp of riders, the ones who view going up hills as a necessary evil. I am mainly in the second camp. I say mainly because I would love to be a more proficient climber for no other reason than I love descending at speed on a road bike. Up until now I have only really climbed big hills for the reward of the descent, or if they were very rudely found in the way of where I wanted to go. The reason I do not class myself as a hill seeker is a very simple one – physics!

At 6ft tall and 16st 10lbs I have a ‘sprinters physique’ (a classic cycling term for ‘I am 2 stone over weight’). I am also a casual smoker. These are not characteristics you would naturally associate with the Polka Dot Jersey owner. Before you completely give up on me I used to be 20st and a heavy smoker so there is progress being made here! When I first started to become seriously interested in road cycling I had a major issue with gradients. I had tried to go up a few modest hills as a novice and this had resulted, half way up, in a complete evacuation of my stomach. It started to feel like the only attack I would put in up a hill would be of the coronary variety. I was understandably put off by this failure and my riding as a beginner was largely conducted on pancake flat routes. It was only when I deciding to take on LeJog, and started my route planning, that It quickly dawned on me that I was going to have to be significantly better at going up(without throwing up).

The classic cycling quote on climbing hills rolled out to beginners is; “Climbing hills never gets easier, you just get better at it!”. I do not buy this. It is perfectly possible to do many hours of training on a bike and see no tangible increase in hill climbing performance. I know this because I have done it. I am taking on ‘CTC in a Day 2015’ next year which includes 4500ft of going up hill over 150 miles of riding. I HAVE to improve my climbing or things are going to be very ugly for me come next June. The good news is that after a year and a half of road riding, and heavy consumption of cycling blogs, podcasts, books, documentaries and internet forums I think I am in a good position to make real improvements in my ability to climb. I thought it might be worth blogging some of the wisdom I have picked up during my journey across Britain on a bike, and also about my plan of attack for the months to come.

1. Weight (or more importantly – fat). It is pretty obvious that losing fat is going to be the biggest single factor in improving my climbing ability. It is by far the cheapest way to make your bike lighter! From my 18 months training before LeJog I know that I find it hard to lose weight while putting in big miles on a bike. I personally find it difficult to be in a calorie deficit if I have to cycle 50 miles plus over the course of 3 hours in that day. I need decent fuel in me to ride long and I feel incredibly bad if I don’t eat properly afterwards. This is the reason why people often do not report much weight loss while training for a marathon or similar endurance event. So this time I am not going to do that kind of endurance, steady state riding as often. I know from last year that my best time of year to lose weight is over the winter months when I have less going on socially and can regularly put in shorter, harder gym and hill rep workouts. I plan to lose one stone between October and January, then another stone between February and June. That gives me the chance to lose around 1lb per week, and have a few stable or gaining weeks which I consider to be a sensible and achievable way to shift fat while still training hard.

2. Focus. The biggest mistake I think beginners can make is to get fixated on miles covered and hours in the saddle. I found myself getting sucked into this trap and being more worried about the miles covered statistic on my training diary and less worried about any form of real progression. Strava is guilty of encouraging this kind of behaviour by mainly rating its riders in terms of miles covered. I find it astonishing looking at the mileage statistics of some of the strava stat junkies. We are talking 80 miles in the morning followed by 50 miles in the evening every single day. Professionals are not training like that, day in day out so why on earth would it be effective for anyone else to do that? I am not mocking those riders as they are clearly super fit but if you are putting that much time into a sport why not use it more effectively than just covering ground? Base miles are clearly important, but so is actually training for the event you are taking on. During my preparation for LeJog it was important to factor in long rides for building endurance, but I wasted many valuable hours of training by spinning out a flat 30 mile ride over a couple of hours rather than doing a much shorter ride that had real purpose to it. As a result of that I would often get disappointed with a lack of progression despite devoting many hours of my week to riding. I was also guilty of rewarding myself with too much food after what in reality was a long, but pretty low effort ride. CTC2015 is going to require me to climb big gradients, multiple times in(hopefully) a 12-15 hour period. So my training needs to reflect this. I need to be get up 30% hills, and climb 5-10% gradients at a good pace throughout the day if I want to make it before midnight. During Lejog I was never in danger of not getting my miles in before the daylight ran out. Yes it was physically and mentally tough, but I could take my time to gently spin up climbs and could stop when I liked. My touring speed with stops on LeJog was about 10mph, that alone would be 15 hours of riding to complete CTC and that is really the maximum I would want to take. I have become more efficient at climbing hills by working on my technique and riding position but I still struggle with being quick up hills, I struggle with recovery and I really struggle with climbing anything over 15%. Riding a flat 30 miles at 17mph average is not going to address those weaknesses – I need to use my time on the bike smarter

3. Attitude. Climbing is most definitely a mental game. I have already become better at this aspect of cycling and I am mentally strong after a solo tour and many tough, solo miles. I have decided for the next year to think like one of those weirdo’s who actively seeks out hills. I am going to pretend for a few months that I am a climber and embrace hilly rides and search out bigger and harder gradients. All I need to do is convince myself I want to climb a hill until I get half way up it, at that point things might get painful but you know it will not last forever. For a poor climber the thought of hilly rides is often worse than the reality, and the feeling you get after completing a climb far out ways any misgivings you may have had before it. Whilst climbing I am trying to be relaxed positive and to ‘think light’ and use all those mental tricks that even professional riders use….. Distraction, zoning out, counting rpm, matching breath to cadence ect ect. Anything I can try to distract myself from the pain of climbing I will give a go.

4. Equipment. It is all very well for Eddie Merckx to have said “Ride up grades, don’t buy upgrades”, but not all of us are blessed with the perfect cycling physique and brain, and we are also not all off our tits on amphetamines! Correct equipment does make a difference and maybe even more so for an amateur. There is very little point buying a £300 second hand road bike with gearing so severe that you cannot get it up anything more than a pimple in the road. There is also very little point buying a £6k balls out Carbon racer if what you actually want is something that you can ride all day, with luggage at a touring pace. So I am now pretty clear what I want in any potential new bike. For me, I need a triple ring chain set(and I want shimano 105) I do not care if people like the look of them or not, or if they are unfashionable now you can get compacts. I do not drop down into the granny gear much but when I do, I really need it! My other requirements are that it is comfortable for long rides, and capable of doing some light touring if I want to do this again. For those reasons the frame will be steel or titanium with proper rack and or guard eyelets. My first bike was a good choice but was essentially the cheapest bike I could find that would tick as many boxes as possible. My new bike will only be specified to perform certain tasks that I need it to do. I am also going to take my time purchasing this time around and really find the best equipment for the job in mind.

5. Power. It is widely accepted that doing core resistance weight training is hugely beneficial to bike riding. I also find weight training to be the most effective way to lose fat. It is a complete myth that you have to do hours of cardio to lose fat. It is normally your glutes, back or quads that fail when climbing or when under constant effort for a long duration so it makes sense that if you strengthen those muscles you will be a better rider. I also find that the flexibility and core strength you gain from exercises like dead lifts and squats is massively beneficial to riding position. Over the winter months I plan to spend much less time on a turbo trainer and much more time doing resistance work in the gym. Although the turbo keeps you on a bike I think short outside hill reps backed up by a decent gym programme will be more beneficial for me.

6. ‘Teckers
’. It is pretty surprising how much technique is involved with peddling a bike. I found my climbing improved drastically when I really started to work on good peddling technique, high cadence, correct gearing, pacing myself through the climb ect. I am now finding big improvements from working on my bike positioning through a climb. I alternate between being on the front of the saddle and holding the hoods, then central on the saddle and gripping the edge of the bars, then right on the back of the saddle while holding onto the centre of the bar. This not only engages different muscle groups, effectively giving part of your body a rest, but it also gives you a mental boost and can take you out of pain during a climb. When I start to fail on a climb I am learning to recognise if the failure is from my breathing or from my legs/core. If I am struggling for breath then I will go to a harder gear and grind my legs more – this gives you a chance to catch your breath while your core does the work. If my legs start to fail then I will drop down to the granny ring, and up my cadence. This is harder on me aerobically but it means you give your core a rest before you collapse from a lactate overdose! The failing of this plan is when you cannot work out if it is your Vo2 or your lactate threshold that has just been hit – either way your fucked!

I will be referring back to this post and reporting my progress on these key focuses in my blogs over the coming months and this entry is as much for my own motivation as it is for anyone else to read. I would have found this kind of blog useful when I first started cycling and I would hope some of you do too. I am currently 3 weeks into a new regime of hill rep training, I am back in the gym doing core resistance work and I am actively searching for a new bike. This week I have completed 3 rides, total distance of 33 miles, but total elevation gain of 3300 ft. That is a complete culture change for me in terms of training and I am already feeling the benefits. 100ft of climbing per mile is a figure I am aiming for as much as possible in training and bizarrely I am beginning to enjoy the hill rep work. I am very much treating every foot climbed in training as petrol in the tank for next June. The good news is that I have a pretty big tank to fill up!

Self-Medication

Having read a number of Lands End to John O’Groats books and journals during my own preparation I was very aware of a condition that affected many cyclists in the aftermath of the ride.    Some cyclists seem to have come down with this affliction as they barrelled towards the end of the ride.   For others it developed at the finish line or in the immediate aftermath of the journey.   A few weeks after I had my photo taken at that freezing and desolate John O’Groats signpost I had no sign of this condition others had documented and I thought I had been one of the lucky ones that had come through unscathed.   I was wrong.    My saddle sores healed and my recollection of the tough hours during that ride were replaced with the lasting memories of the happy, sunny ones spent spinning across gasp-inducing landscapes.    It had taken a month or two but I started to get a bad case of the conditions other ‘End to Enders’ had spoken of – Anitclimaxitus.

The 18 months prior to my LeJog had been spent turning myself from a seriously chubby, non cyclist with no idea about bikes or solo touring into a moderately chubby, serious cyclist who could reluctantly change an inner tube, break a chain and grind out 70-100 miles a day for a couple of weeks, while simultaneously consuming his own bodyweight in cakes and pastry.    Arriving at that Cornish start line was the peak of a massive learning and development curve that demanded a huge commitment with my time, my emotions, my physique and from those that were close to me.   

 The first few months were spent learning the basics, increasing rides from 10 miles towards the 30 mile mark and contemplating changing my hybrid bike for a full fat road bike.   Then I found my local club(Abingdon Freewheeling) and I was compelled towards longer and harder rides throughout the summer of 2014.   There was the route planning, the route mapping, the internet research, the purchasing of equipment and clothes, the gym work, the evening rides, the weekend rides, the club rides, the booking of accommodation, the sheer logistics of getting the bike to the start and from the finish line.    There was the difficulty of maintaining training over the winter for an April LeJog, something I had not even considered when conceiving the trip.    I had an action packed January and February including skiing stag dos, weddings and a complete melt down as my lack of organisation and fear reached a crescendo.   I had not lost the weight I had planned on shifting, I was very concerned about not completing the trip and I was not much fun to be around at that time.   I had not finished the route planning, had not booked any accommodation and was not anywhere near as fit or ready as I had planned to be.   I struggled to think about the ride for a few weeks without a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach and I also was completely ineffective in being able to think about anything else.   During March I became very apprehensive and anxious about the whole thing.    Sponsorship was flying in while most of the southern parts of my route were under several foot of flood water.    I was completely bricking it.   Then the month before the event when everyone around me started panicking and I dealt with this by putting on a brave face, deciding I was going to do this thing and that I might as well bloody enjoy it!   

By the start of April I had brain washed myself that it would be ok and was actually looking forward to it.   The bike was ready to go, I was as prepared as I was going to get, everything was booked, sponsorship was beyond belief and even the weather forecast was looking promising.    Then someone kindly fused there VW Golf into the back of my Clio, writing off both cars and leaving me with a fairly nasty case of whiplash.   

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 The month before the ride was mainly spent off the bike, with a nasty headache, soft tissue scarring in my back and fairly nasty muscle damage in my neck.   I began a course of sports physio and had realignment on my back a week before the ride.    Then before I knew it I was driving to Lands End at 2am on a Saturday morning, eating a McDonalds breakfast and crossing the start line.

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Then two weeks later it all ended.

I did not get any feelings of anticlimax at this point.   I loved finishing the ride, I loved getting all the well done messages, seeing my friends and family on my return, looking at my Justgiving page growing and having a month off the bike healing and relaxing.    I was still pretty busy at this point with loads of real life stuff that I had put on hold in the past year.    I was changing jobs, buying a house as a renovation project, starting a new bowls season, replacing my written off car and I was still basking in the completion of LeJog.   What did start to grow was a general malaise.   I did not have the motivation to go to the gym, or get out on the bike by myself.   I was still enjoying the club runs but would go home for a roast dinner after rather than doing some solo hill reps.   When I get like this I start to drift, then I get down on myself.   

It was very easy for me to see how this situation was going to pan out.    LeJog was not going to be a one off event.  It was supposed to be an 18 month personal challenge to raise a load of money for Cancer Research and commemorate the 10th anniversary of a good friends passing at a tragically young age.    I knew half way into the training that I was hooked on road cycling and that I would continue to attend group rides, but in the hangover from LeJog it became evident that I was going to need more than a Sunday social ride with a coffee stop.    Thoughts turned to what kind of ride or challenge I might take up next?   

Long tour across Europe?   “It’s a selfish way to use up all my holidays and too long to spend alone on a bike away from home”

Another solo End to End?   “It would never go that well again, I don’t want to tarnish the memories of those amazing weeks in April”

Mini credit card tour? “It’s going to cost quite a bit of money, and would again be a solitary journey”

Multi day sportive?  “Maybe, but there isn’t many of these to choose from in the UK”

 One day classic sportive? “It’s hard to know where to start looking there are so many”

The Alps crossed my mind?   ”No way, I can’t climb well enough to survive in mountains”.   

Triathlon?   “I’m too bulky to do the run and swim – plus I HATE running!”

 My requirements soon became clear to me.   I needed a one or two day, long distance event which included epic scenery but would also force me to improve my climbing and power to weight drastically.    I had been able to get through the climbing in LeJog with good peddling efficiency and endurance training.   What I needed now was an event that I probably would not complete unless I lost weight and started a programme of focused, committed hill work.   I wanted an event that would hold my attention for a whole years training, would be impressive and tough enough that I could ask my already hassled Facebook friends for some more sponsorship money.   I also wanted an event that would turn me into a better athlete, one that could lead me on to bigger and better things, a future tour of the Alps for example.

 I was investigating riding in Highland Scotland again, an area that I was blown away with during LeJog.   

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 I was also looking at the Lakes and The Dales, an area of England I had just discovered and was majorly drawn towards.    

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I kept seeing the Coast to Coast route being mentioned as a three day ride and while this ticked many of my boxes it just didn’t look epic enough in terms of difficulty to hold my attention.   Then Open Cycling’s’ ‘C2C in a Day’ popped up in an internet search for “United Kingdoms’ hardest bike rides”.

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150 miles in a day ….. “Hard but achievable with the right preparation”

Whitehaven to Whitby …. “That’s the Lakes and the Dales sorted, check!”

900 spaces available…. “I’m not going to be lonely then”

4 Feed stations along the route ….”Mmmmm Cake”

GPX files and fully signposted route …. “No route planning needed – the GPX file can go straight on my Garmin 810, bonus!”

4500m of climbing ….. “That’s quite a bit of climbing but …..Hang on!   That said metres not feet!”

That’s 15000ft of ascent over 150 miles in one day!    Mental!   To put it in perspective my hardest day on LeJog (and in my life) was 95 miles across Devon and Cornwall featuring a mere 7500ft of climbing.   Oh and it goes over Hardknott Pass!   An iconic climb that I had read much about but had not even dared to associate with my future on 2 wheels.   Then there was talk of the last 30 miles being incredibly tough with a couple of 30% hills to negotiate.    Someone on the events Facebook page described the event as, “A tough but iconic 90 mile ride, bookended by 30 miles of pure hell at each end”

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Then a strange thing happened, I read that there were 900 places available, that they sell out quick and I panicked, grabbed the debit card and it was done.   My Anticlimaxitus was cured instantly.    My focus was instantly trained on June 2015 and I was off and running again.    I had no idea if I was pleased, or even looking forward to it, but it was happening and I was already formulating plans to see me finish the ride.    Lose 2 stone, hill reps, power to weight ratio, 100 mile plus hilly routes, gear ratios for Hardknott, a new bike even?

 It appears ‘anticlimaxitus’ has no cure, but it can be treated.   It is a condition for which I may have to self-medicate for the rest of my life.   C2C in a day 2015 is going to be an epic challenge, but what is even more worrying is what it might open me up to in years to come!   The long term prognosis – guaranteed fun!

 

 

Calshot Track Taster Session

On August 2nd 2014 the world of track cycling changed.

As news of this event filtered through the cycling world Dave Brailsford was shaken out of a system defrag he was running on himself (he had experienced a critical error in his Wiggins drive the month before and had to install a new software update). That’s right – Claridge had taken to the boards for the first time. When I say “taken” what I actually mean is “very gingerly wobbled out around some cones in the center of the track while staring up at a 45 degree wooden hand slap at each end of the room”.

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It really does not look that steep on TV! You can kind of make sense of the physics of riding around the higher parts of the track, the part of it that does not make sense to begin with is how you are going to move the bike from the blue cote d’azur(the flat bit around the inside), to the black racing line and the red sprinters line above(the lowest parts of the track) It looks like the equivalent of riding your bike along the gutter, then trying to ride up the kerb by just steering the bike inside.

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First things first, Calshot is a fantastic set up for a beginner, the facilities there are superb and the coaching throughout was first class. I had been sent to this “death by MDF” by my lovely girlfriend for a very well received Christmas present. Having now made it to the track in August gives you some idea of the current waiting list for these courses. I do however understand that if you live closer to the south coast there are often cancellations you can take advantage of. I had been booked on to the ‘Slipstream’ beginners course. This is a 4 hour, weekend course that can also be split into three x 1.5 hour courses in the evenings for those that do not want to give up a weekend. I had wondered how physically tough it was going to be? I have been telling people for years that I have a ‘sprinters body’ but I was slightly worried about how hard we would be beasted by the instructor. In an effort to maximize the ‘marginal gains’ I had done some sprinting practice leading up to the event and had made a particular effort to ‘carb load’ the night before(something that has long been part of my Friday night routine, even when not cycling the next day!). In reality the course was very well paced. The coach kept us at a safe, controlled pace for the most part of which all of the riders seem to find sustainable for the whole session. In reality the pace you can travel at as a beginner is limited by your lack of talent.

Calshot is an ex Olympic track which has been cut and shut to form shorter straights, which is really good for beginners as you are constantly hitting the corners without wasting much energy inbetween. The track is located in an old helicopter hanger right on the seafront and the rider information warns how cold it can be in winter. You could certainly see how exposed it could get in there in winter but in the summer months I really see no need for the 2 layers of clothes the track recommends on your arms and legs. All of our group was in short bibs and I went a changed into my summer stuff after the first couple of laps. You can take food and drink with you and leave all your stuff to hand in the center of the track. You get regular breaks while the groups are split and can nip out for a comfort break if you need it.

Most of us used our own helmets(you must take the visor off) and we all borrowed the centers shoes. These were of good condition and they even had a number of pairs in the clown sizes that I squeeze on. The shoes were soon locked into the ‘look keo’ pedals on the centers superb selection of Dolan track bikes.

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You get your own bike, they have loads of sizes and they all appeared to be virtually brand new. There were no mechanical issues for anyone throughout the day. I was massively impressed with the facilities in general at Calshot. The viewing area is great and the cafe was decent too.

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We started off in groups of 5 with a big gap between us and were slowly worked up gradually higher around the track. Our group was of a similar ability but pretty soon we were all comfortably riding around the higher parts of the 45 degree banked corners. It does not feel as high when you are actually up on the bank and once you realise the bike will grip it is fairly simple to get yourself up high. The harder part is trying to ride close within a group as most of us were unfamiliar with fixed wheel track bikes with no breaks. Riding at the back of the pack is very difficult as beginners because the front riders are not used to holding a stable speed and you are constantly having to make adjustments at the back of the pack. The coach encouraged us to use the bank to slow down or speed up which soon becomes quite natural. The young lad that guided us through the session was well spoken, very clear, very knowledgeable and without a doubt helped make the whole day more enjoyable. He quickly assessed the standard of our group to be pretty confident and capable and pushed us through exercises quickly so we could progress as much as possible in four hours. I got the impression he would have been equally equipped to deal with riders who were not as confident or fit. Very quickly he was identifying problems with all of our laps and was shouting instructions from the side. He also recognized instantly when we were improving on our faults and shouted his approval. Full compliments to Calshot on the instruction – it really was superb and you formed the impression they were paying the staff a fair wage as they all appeared to be happy and helpful.

We were taken through a number of drills, the most fun of which involved the front rider sprinting off solo and rejoining the back of the group as fast as they wanted to. This was a good opportunity to get some speed up and really gave you an idea how much technique you need(and do not have) to hold a fast pace on the quickest line possible around the corner.

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Track cycling is exhilarating! There is no other way to put it. We all passed the slipstream course and were encouraged to book up for the GAS 3 AND GAS 4 sessions that comes next. These sessions try to evolve the beginner skills and require you to return within 6 months and to have a certain level of fitness. I will most certainly be back and even with an hour and a half journey time it was a fantastic experience that I can not recommend highly enough.

All I need now are a pair of Forstemann thighs!

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Raleigh Chopper vs Mount Ventoux

A madman from these shores has just ridden up Mount Ventoux on a 1970s Raleigh Chopper to raise money for Leuka – a Leukemia research charity.

Stats: 2hr 10m in 1 hit, overtaken by 11 cyclists using these new fangled carbon lightweight bikes, OVERTOOK 41. Video: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10154149061890195

He’s been blogging about it here: http://raleigh-chopper-ventoux.blogspot.co.uk/ and if anyone fancies sponsoring him for his insanity you can here: http://goo.gl/76NSFU

 

 

 

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