Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Burning all your matches

In September last year I rode Haute Route Dolomites – by the end of it I was in, if not the shape of my life, then pretty bloody close.

This year was meant to be about getting back to basics after making continental jaunts the centre-pieces of my past three years - some British sportives, social rides with friends and commuting. Then I decided to move house, the road bike and the turbo went to live with my parents and I've barely pedalled at all.

Until this weekend – when I somehow ended up in a 24-hour race around Brands Hatch as part of the Sportive.com team.

It was, to put it mildly, a rude awakening.

Fat lad at the back

It's been years since I've been slow. I mean, I've never been that FAST on a bike either, but slow is something that hasn't been true for a long time.

After Haute Route I rode a 7:29 time up Box Hill – putting me in the top 15% of the 66,000 people who've logged that climb on Strava. That's faster than the best times of five of the six other people on my team – with the seventh member not having a time logged.

This weekend I was by far and away the slowest person on the track.

There were some things I could still do – my bike handling was fine. My descending OK. But with no power in my legs and carrying 6kgs more than last year, I wasn't taking enough speed INTO the descents, or able to keep any speed that I did built up going on the flat.

I also had no endurance.

We were (mostly) running half-hour shifts, but the one time I extended that to an hour my times collapsed – I bonked after 35 minutes, putting in lap times an astonishing 3:30 slower than my fastest one as I lost the ability to push the pedals.

Last year the thought of a 100-mile ride barely registered, I rode the London-Surrey 100 as base miles. Now I couldn't do 40 minutes.

But while I'd lost fitness, power, endurance and leg speed – and gained weight – I hadn't quite lost everything.

In my final stint of the 24-hours I was determined to do better. To see if I could do what everyone else had been doing all day, and get a timed lap that started with a 7 (mine were split between 8s and 9s, with a couple of 10s thrown in).

That would mean laking a full minute off my average time, and knocking quite a few seconds off my best time so far (when I was towed round three different sections of the course by faster riders, before using them to slingshot into descents).

Blowtorching the matchbook

Any rider can push themselves too deep for it to be sustainable – what cyclists and coaches sometimes call burning a match.

When you start each ride you have a specific number of matches with you, the theory goes, each time you push beyond your limit one goes up in flames. You can train yourself to make them burn brighter, to need them less often and to carry more at the start of a ride. But when they're gone, they're gone.

I threw my matchbook into the bonfire.

Every Single Hill saw me go harder than I thought I could. Then, once it was finished, I went harder than I thought I could on the flat. Then pushed again on the descent.

My heart was thumping in my ears, my breath coming in frantic gasps... and then I pushed again, pushed harder, and drove on into the next hill, along the next flat.

Every corner was taken at the best line I could, as fast as I could, my body hunched over the bars – chin to stem – to eke out every fraction of a kph I could from my effort.

As the line approached I dug again, pushed again, forced my legs round faster and my chin lower. I had no clue if it was enough.

I rode into the pit garage at the end of my stint with nothing left – and asked if the times were in yet. They were – I'd ridden my last full lap in 7 minutes, 55 seconds.

A terrible time for most of the team, but enough for me to beam from ear to ear (and faster than three of Jason Kenny's 60-odd laps).

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Wyldsson Bar Mix Original review: Can you really make your own energy bars at home? One idiot tries

I can’t bake. Almost any form of cooking is beyond me. In fact, I once managed to mess up a frozen pizza (I somehow made it melt through the oven shelf) I’m banned from cooking at home for a reason.

So when I was given the assurance I WOULD be able to make my own energy bars - at a cost of less than 50p each - I was intrigued.

Firstly, that’s seriously cheap. Secondly, they were all natural, nutritionally balanced and customisable to your own tastes. Thirdly - the recipe had just 4 ingredients. I had to try.

Step one - assemble ingredients:

For this you need a banana, an egg, some nut butter (almond recommended) and a bag of bar mix. 

It’s the third one of these that is the super-power, as your typical “make your own energy bar” recipe has upwards of 10 ingredients, including hard to find things like “organic, virgin coconut”, “pear and apricot or prune spread” and “hemp seeds”.

I do not know what many of these things are, let alone where to find them. If I did get them all, there would also then be the issue of wastage (would I really use an ENTIRE packet of hemp seeds? Do they go off? etc etc).

The mix bag has this all sorted for you, costs £3.49, and even has a nutritional breakdown per 100g (two bars) on the back. One bag makes 500g of finished bars when the other ingredients are added.

So, after sending the flatmate to pick up a banana and an egg from the shops (he was going anyway) and grabbing the bar mix - along with the specially designed baking tray (you can buy it with the bar mix, adding about a fiver to the initial cost, but meaning your bars will be the right thickness) - I set about beginning.

Spot anything wrong? Yup. I'd forgotten the nut butter.

The eagle-eyed among you will notice there are two bananas here. That’s because you need two, not one. Fortunately my flatmate is cleverer than me, and bought a spare in case I did something this stupid. Crisis averted.

Step 2 - mash the bananas

So, after a couple of false starts, I started in earnest. Bananas peeled, loosely chopped I dropped them into a bowl to start mashing with a fork.

This took a long time.

A really long time. I put some coffee on

Eventually, I’d mashed the bananas. The consistency was… odd. Like very thick cream or very creamy porridge.

Step 3 - add more things and mix

Next came three tablespoons of nut butter (I used the recommend almond butter - which I got some at the same times as the tray and bar mix - but any nut butter will do, with peanut butter costing a lot less) and an egg.

I combined them, removed all (probably) the bits of shell I’d dropped in while cracking the egg  to make this attractive concoction.

Then simply mix together - which took a lot less time than mashing the bananas and produced gloop.

Next bit was easy, add the bag of bar mix to the gloop. This was where I discovered my next error. 

The bar mix was NOT going to fit in the same bowl as the gloop. I decided to mix them together in the baking tray (as it was all going to end up there eventually anyway).

This was not ideal. Trying to make it even and get all the gloop out of the first bowl proved somewhat tricky. I persevered

Step 4 - bake

Eventually I was happy with the mix, so patted it down to make it even and dropped it in the oven.

I’d even remembered to pre-heat the oven. At the right temperature (this is not a given, I once spent an hour wondering why something wasn’t cooking before realising the oven was set to 10 degrees, not 190 - it was the first time I’d ever cooked for my girlfriend).

The next step is simple, leave it alone for 20 minutes and drink the coffee you made when you got bored mashing the bananas (coffee not essential). 

Then check to see if it’s golden brown.

It wasn’t. I put it on for another two minutes. It still wasn’t “golden brown”. Another two minutes later I was starting to panic that it would never go golden brown and I’d burn it/ruin it in some other way so out it came.

My magnificent, home-made energy slab.

There’s very little left to do from here on in. The silicon baking tray means no need to grease or oil the tray before cooking and it’s easy to get the energy slab out.

This then goes on a cooling tray (I didn’t have one, so it went on the grill tray instead) for 15 minutes.

After that, just cut it into bars and you’re done.

The science bit

Cyclists care about numbers. Calories, protein, grams of carbs, fat, sugar etc. 7g of carbs processed per hour per 10 KG of body weight. 4:1 carb-protein ratio for managing energy vs muscle damage. That’s before we get into salt supplements and the rest of it.

I, more or less accidentally, cut the slab into 10, 50g ‘bars’. Which, was handy as the nutritional information is broken into 100g segments.

So, per bar, I had 154 calories, 20g of carbs and 3.65g of protein.

The recipe points out if you want more protein you can add a scoop (or more) of whey powder.

Once the bars are made, simply wrap in cling film or foil and they’re good to go in a jersey pocket to eat mid-ride.

I’d cut them a bit smaller than most bars, but then you can easily cut them to a different size, I was mostly guessing after all.

The taste

Fundamentally though, four things matter to most of the cyclists I know (more or less in this order). 

1 - Does it have the energy I need
2 - Will it mess up my stomach
3 - How much does it cost
4 - What does it taste like

I am lucky in my stomach - having eaten everything from random French breakfast jelly sweets to cheese when riding abroad (along with a host of odd local energy gels and bars and anything else the feed stations/Carrefour has to offer) without suffering for it.

But taste does matter to me and I’ll spend more to get something better tasting.

These taste great - more like a dense banana bread than a traditional bar or flap jack. The dried fruit, whole nuts and bran all make for a pleasant (and easy to chew) texture.

I actually prefer them to a fair few commercial bars I’ve tried, and found myself snaking on them far away from the bike after they were finished.

The cost

They’re a lot cheaper too -  coming in at £4.09 per 500g with peanut butter or £4.77 with the almond butter. That's compared with £5.35 per 500g of Hi5 energy bars (at 46% off), £8.85 for ZipVit bars (25% off), £5.54 for Cliff bars on the best deal I’ve found and £11.16 for Mule Bars (22% off)

So the question is whether the convenience of just buying them outweighs the inconvenience of baking them.

The answer is that I’m not sure. Flapjacks would be cheaper to make and probably as simple - but wouldn’t have the same balance of nutrients. Bars are a lot easier, but more expensive and not as nice.

So let me put it this way - while I’m not 100% sold on the virtues of making your own bars, I’m really keen to try the coffee mix.  

Monday, August 11, 2014

Roads closed, heavens opened - riding the 2014 Prudential RideLondonSurrey(not quite)100

Waiting to start in the Olympic Park

Another sportive, another "extreme weather warning" from the organisers. But while the Etape was hit withyour common-or-garden variety low cloud, cold and mountain rain, Sunday's LondonSurrey100 was in the direct path of Hurricane Bertha.

But that was almost the only similarity between the two closed road rides. While the Etape was about learning a little of the reality of riding roads previously only glimpsed on television as the Tour climbed and descended them, RideLondon was about transforming the mundane into fantasy.

Because I knew these roads, trained on them, grew up with them in fact, but on Sunday I owned them. The buses, cars, HGVs and pedestrians were gone. There were bikes and only bikes, and only going one way - the way I was riding.

Prudential's RideLondonSurrey100 is in its second year. Incredibly popular (24,000 signed up), this ride cashes in on road cycling's rising popularity in the UK to try and replicate the success of the London Marathon for bikes.

Leaving 2012's Olympic park, cycling by the Velodrome where Laura Trott et all won gold two years ago, it takes off through central London - spinning through the heart of the city then along the Thames before heading down and out through Richmond Park, Kingston and then into Surrey to find some hills.

These were the first of my out-of-body experiences. I've been through or around Richmond Park on a bike more than 70 times in the last couple of years - it's my go to training ride. More, I was brought up a few minutes' walk from Kingston gate - this is where I learnt to ride a bike as a child, walked the dog and kicked a ball around with friends.

Today it was nothing but cyclists, there wasn't even the risk of a stray deer crossing the road as barriers protected us. I flew. These were my roads, and there was nothing to stop me. Apart from the other cyclists, of course.

I averaged almost 35kph in the Park - setting new personal records on Sawyers' Hill, scything through the gaps other cyclists left. We exited the park and spun along Queen's road, past the house of an old family friend, past my primary school, past red lights and not stopping at junctions.

Screaming down Kingston Hill - at one point past actual cheerleaders, with pompoms and everything - at more than 40kmh average.

I was going hard at the start, 20 miles in I was averaging more than 36kph, heat rate generally around 160, driving up 3% hills at 32kph and finding almost no wheels to follow.

Coming out of Kingston and running down to Hampton Court a group of five riders came by at around 40kph, I latched onto the back. We stayed together for five or six kilometres, while my average speed rose to 38kph and my effort reduced. I came onto the front to do my turn, they stayed with me, then I lost them as I tried to drift back and regain my place in the train as we hit a junction.

At this point the rain hadn't started.

But it was coming - and soon. We'd been warned, but not really believed - Saturday was sunny and warm and the morning, while overcast, had been benign. But the organisers were so worried about it they'd cut two of the three hills (and more importantly their descents) from the route for safety reasons. So no Box Hill, no Leith Hill and no 100-mile ride. It had been cut to 86.

But this time there wasn't a mountain todescend in 5-degree temperatures (excl wind-chill) with no visibility. It was wet, but warm. I almost entirely disregarded the "wear waterproofs" advice - in the end pulling on a weather resistant gilet, wearing a cap to keep as much of the rain from my sunglasses as possible and leaving it at that.

When it hit there was no escape. The rain fell so hard it stung any exposed skin. Your face, your arms, your legs. It felt like angry hail.

The wind turned flats into climbs. My speed dropped. Water pooled on the roads and drafting became an exercise in eating spray from other riders' tyres - crossing a man-hole cover on a corner meant road rash.

Puddles became ponds, then small lakes. Entire sections of roads under a foot of water - climbing Coombe Hill late in the ride the drains on the road became geysers: spouting water into the air as they failed to handle the quantity of water falling from the sky. A warning cone floated gently across the water under a rail bridge in Esher.

I got wet, then wetter, then wet through. But I wasn't cold. I stopped carefully coasting through puddles (it wouldn't keep me drier) and started riding through. Corners were taken as straight as possible, often hindered by other riders being far more cautious than me.

My mission was to get this over with as fast as possible - but I was starting to hurt. I'd gone off too hard and not drunk enough. My legs were feeling it and I couldn't find a wheel I was happy following. I took Newlands Corner – the only thing left on the course that could be described as a hill - easy, really easy, and stopped at the ‘hub’ at the top for a few minutes to eat, drink, rest my back and - er - relieve myself.

This helped, but my average speed was dropping. From 36.1kph after 40km, I was down to 33.5kph as we buzzed back into London.

Adding in the break stop (which was only a few minutes, but I hadn't timed) I was at serious risk of missing a 20mph average time. I've never had a long ride with a 20mph (32.2kph) average. I would rarely get a better opportunity.

I dialled it back up. Speed less than 35kph? Push harder. Heart rate under 155, push harder. Flat road? Push harder. Descent? Push. People beside the road handing out gels and water like it was a feeding zone in a pro race? I went by without pulling over.
(so much rain - keep pushing...)
At some point in the final 10 miles I passed my flatmate. I've no clue when. At another I was drafting then pushing when I heard someone talking to my left, it was Laura Trott riding with and her sister and father. I almost entirely missed them too, catching only the word "Trott" as I rode by then frantically glancing back to confirm the pretty blonde was wearing Wiggle Honda kit.

I was eating as much as I could to sustain the effort, I was almost done and I was damned if I was going to miss out by seconds.

The ride briefly coincided with my commute to work as we approached the Mall and the finish, I wanted to take the time to relish a road with no cars, but was busy pushing.

How tired was I at this point? Well, with a clear run up, no cars, busses or lights and on a road bike, I didn't top my best time when commuting with a backpack on a single speed. Not even close. But I was still running above 36kph. We hit “1 mile to go” sign by Big Ben - I left the saddle with a battle cry and pushed harder again.

Finally rounding Trafalgar Square and running down the Mall I pushed to 40kph, slip streamed another rider and sprinted for the line... I got the sprint wrong, leaving it too late and only hitting 45kph before the clock cut me off.

It rained – a lot – it was 14 miles shy of a century, but as I pulled into the finishing zone and the sun came out, I'd done it. 86 miles in 4:13:24 - a 20.2mph average. I collected my medal, goody bag (containing vitamins for the over-50s) and started the ride home.

Because that's another thing different between this ride and the Etape - rather than a two hour coach ride to the hotel, packing my bike and clothes away, two more hours to the airport in another coach, checking in, flight, waiting for luggage, and hour-long taxi to get home; today I was just 4 miles from a shower, warm clothes, beer and my own bed to collapse in if I chose.

Not me, but a good example of rain at the finish - Image: Surrey County Council News https://www.flickr.com/photos/surreynews/

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Wet, cold and hard - Riding the 2014 Etape du Tour


Warning, Sunday 20th of July, the weather forecast is not good:
- wind
- rain
- cold températures

It was July 18, 2014, and I was sitting in Pau having dinner when those words reached me from ASO, the Etape du Tour event organisers. They recommended warm clothes, long fingered gloves and rain gear. I was hundreds of miles from home and had already packed. I'd forgotten long fingered gloves.

There was more than a day until we set out to ride the 150 kilometres from Pau to the top of the Hautacam, by way of the Tourmalet, and I was already in trouble. At dinner the night before kit options were discussed, dissected, rejected and proposed anew as we consumed monstrous amounts of pasta. By the morning of the race the weather had overtaken the two HC climbs to be the major source of concern for riders.

But even that took second place to the buzz of anticipation as we rode from the hotel into our starting pens.

I love the feeling in the pens before the Etape. Thousands and thousands of riders itching to get going, but a bit scared of the ride. Checking out the different kit, the ideas on show from others. One man with gels taped to his top tube, people with print outs of the key climbs laminated and taped to their stems. The bikes - from vintage steel to cutting edge carbon aero (for a mountain stage?). The chat as you tried to evaluate who to ride with, who to stick to and who to let go. How much the skinny blond kid from Essex who loved climbing was going to beat you by....

The air was humid, the sky overcast but mercifully dry, we rolled out.

Overcast but dry in pen 7
Flying start
And I went for it. There are two categorised climbs in the first 75k of the 2014 Etape. Both would be feature climbs on any English sportive – 2km at 7% averages - but they barely held me up. My plan was to ride, try and find a group doing at least 35kmh on the flat, stop as little as possible and get to the foot of the Tourmalet fast.

It more or less worked. Starting in pen 7, there were at least a couple of thousand people behind me on the road, where last year there was almost no one behind going faster than me on my own (they'd all uncatchably ridden off ahead of my starting place in the 11,000s), this year there were wheels going by me at realistic speeds.

Well, some. Because my body had decided to ride hard. I was tapping along at 35kph for most of it, often over 37kph. My legs were just pushing out power at a rhythm that felt like I could do it all day. On the Montgaillard descent I averaged 51.4kmh over 2km, just 29 secs behind the pro times over the segment, I was flying.

Flying early on
Now and again a wheel would come by, sometimes I'd follow for a while, then I'd generally get bored, go to the front and ride on or lose them in the traffic of other riders. Periodically I'd notice a few people on my wheel behind me.

I felt strong, the weather was good and I reached the foot of the Tourmalet in less than three hours. I idly worked out this pace put me on for a sub 6-hour Etape (hills aside, I inwardly joked).

But there was trouble brewing, I pulled in for my first stop of the day to refill my water bottles and grab a gel or two as the rain began to spit and the mountains were obscured by cloud. "It's lashing down at the top," we were told.

Gilet back on, sunglasses off, red rear light attached, I set out to tackle the Tourmalet. That was the end of the fun.

Bad times coming
The first mountain
The Tourmalet is hard. Hors Categorie according to the Tour de France. 17km at 7%, with an easier start meaning it's at a 9% average for 12 of those kilometres.

It's harder in the rain. Sat, for (in my case) two hours in the driving rain, getting wetter and wetter, knowing that after an hour of this you're still at least an hour from the top - listening to your bike make horrible noises.

And they were horrible noises. The bike had been serviced, lubed, cleaned until even the chain and cassette shone like new (which they almost were), with a new bottom bracket fitted in the run up to the Etape this year. It was riding like a new bike - utterly smooth and with the hum of the tyre on the tarmac the only noise the day before the race.

Then it rained, my dry lube washed off and it started making the most disgusting sounds - so loud almost everyone who passed me or I passed (more of the former than the latter at this point) commented or at least looked across to see what was going on. I began to get worried something was seriously wrong.

I got off to check it. The wheels were running smoothly and the brakes in good order. The cranks were fine. It was the chain - the loud, loud chain - squeaking like a mad thing.

While stopped I also poured out my newly filled back bidon, the 700 gram saving seemed more important. I was getting slower and slower, wetter and wetter, soaked to the skin despite my "No Rain" gear. My feet started squishing as I pushed down for each pedal stroke.

After an eternity of grinding my way up at a horrible speed with my heart rate jammed at 150 and staying there (long, consistent grinds are by far my least favourite sort of hill) I crested the top. It got worse.

Two hours of this + horrible bike noise
Coming down the Tourmalet
It was 5 degrees at the top of that mountain, I was soaked, and I was in the middle of a cloud. Visibility was about 20 metres on a wet Pyrenean descent and while I'd remembered a back light, I think I was the only one.

I'd got a branded bin bag from my tour operators to try and help with the wind, rain and the cold, but I was already soaked through, couldn't see and my hands were getting colder and colder. Being able to brake became a real concern.

I resolved to get out of the rain as fast as possible - which wasn't fast. I averaged 30kmh down the first 10km of the descent – slower than I’d ridden on the flat. On a dry day the pros went down at 60+. From being a few kmhs slower on the Montgaillard, I was now at half their speed.

That said, I was faster than most other people - being passed only once - despite my terrible speed. The majority of other riders seemed to have decided that the right solution to the freezing cold and lack of visibility was to go a lot slower and spend longer on the hill.

By contrast I was hitting the brakes and pedalling at the same time to try and generate some body heat to compensate for the increased wind chill of going faster, but it wasn't enough. I pulled over and got off under a small overhang by the side of the road after about 10km, I ate some food and shivered for a while - sucking on my fingers to try and warm them up faster.

I got back on and continued descending - we were far from done. From the top of the Tourmalet to the foot of the Hautacam it was 40km downhill. It should have been glorious.

The first village we came to on the descent had bikes abandoned outside sporting goods shops (presumably people going for extra layers), bikes abandoned outside bars and cafes and then someone shouted to me something about a thing 500m on my right.

I looked up going by and there was a marquee of sorts set up and hundreds of bikes scattered around, I went and sheltered under the marquee stamping my feet and blowing on my hands. Dry was a bit better. At this point a man came out of a door to a building on my left: "It's warm in there and they have coffee," he shouted to me as he left, I went through the mystery door.

It's hard to describe that room in retrospect. A bit like a Scout hut or community hall about 40m long and 25m wide, few windows and little light, with a small cafeteria window at the back. The heating was on full blast and the air was thick. It had, maybe, 1,000 cyclists in it – shivering in multi-coloured lycra.

The warmth hit my like a wave, I started creeping through the crowd towards the coffee window at the back, my body trembling a bit less now, as others rubbed their hands together over radiators or sat wrapped in thermal blankets. Many of them would not be riding again.

An indeterminate amount of time later I had a tiny coffee in my hands (about a double espresso worth, in a plastic cup, made with half a spoon of instant and sugar as that was all that was left). I drank it and forced myself to get back on and ride - there were only 40kms to the end and I'd almost stopped shivering.

As I descended into the valley the skies cleared, the rain stopped and the air warmed up - although not immediately. I began to feel warm again.

I was almost done and flying again as feeling and blood returned to my legs. I made it a point of honour than no one else with a wind sail/branded bin bag would pass me on the descent. I almost succeeded, then chased down the one man who did pass me.

Bin bag/wind sail man behind me a bit later on
Sting in the tail
Except, of course, I wasn't almost done. There was the small matter of the Hautacam - 13km at an average of 8%. Hors Categorie again. A punishing summit finish to the race – but at least it wasn't raining.

More, as the end slid closer with every kilometre marker I passed, my bike sounded closer to the end too. The noises were getting worse - I was chastised roadside by an elderly French spectator for using the wrong oil on my chain. I politely informed him that his information was very useful... yesterday.

But it was preying on my mind. How badly was this hurting my bike? How much energy was I wasting that could be better used climbing? In fact, what was preying on my mind the most was the thought I had put a mini-tube of wet lube somewhere in my back pocket that morning.

I got off, flipped my bike upside down roadside and proceeded to empty every single pocket along with my saddle bag before - maybe three hours too late - finding the tiny tube of Muc Off Wet that I was given in a goody bag after some sportive or other and had with me both in France and on the ride for no reason I could think of. I carefully applied it to my chain link by link, checked my hubs and cranks were spinning smoothly, the brakes were positioned correctly, ran through my gears and downed a caffeine gel.

Race face - driving up the Hautacam
Bike running silent again and full of sugar I went harder. I liked the Hautacam - well, I liked it a lot more than the Tourmalet. The climb rocks up and down in percentages, there's less grind, more power climbing in shorter bursts. A British sportive rider is, almost by default, a "rouler" or a "puncheur" in French terms - accustomed to shorter climbs with higher gradients, happy out of the saddle. I'm more puncheur, if a not very good one. The Hautacam suited me fine.

Two kilometres and I upped my cadence. One kilometre and I pushed again. I clicked through the gears, up one at 500m, up another at 400, again at 300 - I shifted into the big ring at 200 and tried to sprint out of the saddle over the line. I got it wrong, of course, over gearing and grinding not sprinting those final metres – someone I overtook earlier on the climb re-passed me at this point – but that was it. Done.

Despite the rain, the fog, the cold, the shivering, the wrong clothes, a squeaky bike and the wrong lube I'd finished the 2014 Etape du Tour – 150km long and 3,700m up from Pau to the top of the Hautacam. An awful lot of people didn't.

View from the top of the Hautacam - somehow I'd done it
A few thoughts to add:
I've just been reminded of the massive crowds at the foot of the Hautacam. I'd forgotten them, but they were so supportive I effectively missed the first 2km of the climb while riding with a big stupid grin on my face.

There was great support throughout - with people cheering far up the side of mountains despite the rain. One couple dressed in brown rain ponchos that made them look a lot like Jedis.

Lying kilometer markers. So. The official Etape kilometre markers (for the climbs) disagreed with the permanent roadside ones ones, quite a lot, about percentages. Also distance to the summit. And why, WHY IN GOD'S NAME would you have an inflatable "1km to go" sign/arch in a different place (500m back) from the "1km to finish" sign. I actually stood on my pedals and shouted "LIES" at it.

Stories were told, in hushed tones, of a man on a Raleigh Chopper who completed the race (some say he cheated and had some hub gears added). I can confirm the presence on the Hautacam of a man with one leg. Cheat. Saving all that below-the-knee leg weight. I was passed by at least one couple on a tandem.

My Garmin died in the clouds on the Tourmalet, and recorded my top speed as something like 270kmh. I feel this might not be true. It came back to life a few km from the top of the Hautacam, but it means I couldn't really compare segments to see if I beat anyone (at all) that I know.

I took a packable shoulder bag with spare food and water for the wait in the pen this time around - the spare stuff could be binned and it meant I could eat until the last minute. Worked well.

Not a single vendor at the start village where we signed on had "gants long", despite the ASO warning - I would have paid many, many euros for them. They did have ASSOS gloves for €10 though.

Magic blue tape!  My right knee had been hurting since Yorkshire, three weeks previously, it was getting worse, with me pedaling one-legged by the end of a ride in Surrey. So I went to the Sports Tours physios in the Etape sign-on village and spent €10 getting kesio taped - that's the blue stuff you see professional athletes (including Tony Martin in his solo victory on stage 9) use. It's magic. My knee was 100% fine for the Etape and it stayed on for four more days while I was riding in the Pyrenees, also keeping me pain free. Amazing. The second it came off, the knee started hurting a bit again.

And in case you care - I finished in a shade under 9 hours, with a bit less than 8 hours riding time. The gave me an overall rank of c6,700 (of the 9,800 that started) and a climbing rank a bit higher at 6,600.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Etape 2014 - ridden

I'll get you a full write up when I'm back in the UK and have access to my laptop and photos, but in the meantime...

Christ that was hard - the weather as much as the roads.

Massive congrats to any of you that finished (Pez informs me, having met people on the day, a fair few of you did). Many, many people abandoned.

I got round with a riding time of a bit under eight hours, and an hour spent stationary in a variety of places doing things like trying to fix my bike, pouring out a bidon, visiting the local shrubbery and sheltering from the cold trying to regain feeling in my hands and stop shivering.

Here are some shots of me suffering (and enjoying the first half) to give you an idea of the bad http://www.maindruphoto.com/en/photos/l-etape-du-tour-2014-pau-hautacam/2279764/7063.html

Chapeau to one and all, and hopefully see you on the road at some point.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Are we nearly there yet? Fear and packing for the 2014 Etape du Tour

There's nothing left to do but pack.

My last minute crash diet is more or less over (and I cheated on it a lot). I've ridden more miles and climbed more metres this year than last. Had a bike fit and fitted new wheels since the last Etape. I'm also 2kg heavier, making the weight-saving new wheels somewhat pointless.

There's no time to ride except to check out the bike in Pau. Beetroot loading starts tomorrow.

The flight leaves on Friday morning - so the last big big question is what to bring?

The bike has been cleaned, greased and packed in its travel box - along with frame pump.

I've selected shorts, shirt, gloves and socks for the day. I've added water-resistant gilet, arm and leg warmers. I think a full waterproof/softshell will be too much (although the weather at the top of the Tourmalet doesn't look great... http://www.meteoblue.com/en/france/weather-col-du-tourmalet).

Chamois cream, along with shoes (cleats in pretty good nick) and pedals. Sun glasses and helmet too.

A spare tube and tool in my saddle bag, along with a spare chain link. Another spare tube, levers, ibuprophen and CO2 for my jersey back pocket.

All that goes into my hand luggage - along with the Garmin and heart rate monitor - so if my bike goes missing - again - all I need on the day is to hire a one. Maybe take the CO2 out.

Lots of gels (two caffeine). And bottles. And bottle mix. Some casual clothes might be handy. And a pedal wrench. That's pretty darn important.

The convocation and the medical certificate are vital too. Oh! Chargers for my phone and Garmin. And French plug adapters.

And then...

And then...

What have I forgotten!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Oh dear lord what have I done... Gear ratios for the Etape du Tour

Not enough teeth!
When I bought my first road bike I fitted a new cassette - a 13:29 - because I'm rubbish at climbing.

When I upgraded to my Felt, it came with an 11:25 on the back, I swapped it almost immediately for a 12:30.

Even with that I still cry out for a compact crankset as the gradient rises above 10%.

"No one ever failed to finish a sportive because their gears were too easy," as the saying goes.

Except I don't have my old ratio any more. Because when my bike came back from its service they'd swapped it for an 11:28.

Now, on one level  I love having an 11 again - but, 28? That's like cutting off my old "help me" gear. I needed that gear. In fact, I probably needed another one some days.

The new cassette has four advantages: 1) the 11 cog give me more speed and control descending (I'm not kidding anyone if I claim I'll be spinning out a 52-11 on the flat). 2) It's lighter. 3) My chain won't be stretched out to breaking point if I accidentally end up in my lowest gear on my big ring. 4) I should probably harden up.

On top of all that, Ian Stannard, one of my favourite riders, rode the Tour of Britain a year or two back with an 11-28 on the back. I don't think anyone in the peleton rides a 12-30.

This weekend, with the new gear ratios on, I rode some of Surrey's hardest hills - it was an education.
Meeting up with fellow Etapers David and Lucy (and their shiny new titanium bikes) we headed out for the ride - loosely following the Legs of Steel route and topping out at 160km with 2km of climbing.

More climbing than I had planned for
The newly serviced bike was a joy to ride - so smooth, so silent, so much easier to spin up faster. My cadence on the flat rocketed up into the 100s, 80s just felt slow with so little resistance from the bottom bracket.

The extra top-end speed was a joy on descents too - I could spin up to 60kmh easily. But the new gears were a mixed bag overall.

Thanks to my slightly odd crankset (52:36, sitting between the 'standard' 53:39 ratio and the 'compact' 50:34 one fitted as standard to most bikes) I had the equivalent of a 26-and-a-bit rear cog on a compact with the new cassette. My old 30-cog being the equivalent of a 28 on a compact.

This wasn't enough to spin my legs on slopes of more than about 6%. 7-11% I could get up without standing on the pedals, but it hurt a lot more than it used to.

I got round without dismounting though, up Barhatch (probably Surrey's hardest climb), Ranmore Hill, Leith Hill, Crocknorth (a steady 11%, so a decent analogy for bits of the Etape), Coombe Bottom with its 25% sections and the ZigZags at Box Hill (among others).

More, I set personal records on all bar Box (where I set my 3rd fastest time).

The harder gears meant I was pushing harder to keep a solid cadence, climbing faster, but it hurt.

I was getting out of breath sooner, but oddly this didn't stop me - I was still operating within my limits, just closer to them. It was an education that, when made to by my gears, I can go harder for longer. My legs felt it but didn't stop, my lungs felt it, but I didn't explode.

I was driving rather than spinning sooner and for longer on slopes. I also needed to be out of the saddle sooner.

I found out going up Holme Moss that I could sit and drive for a long time (more than a kilometre) at 11% with my old gears. I really don't know if I could have managed with my new gears - especially given that my cadence dropped to 40 for a while with my old ones.

Looking in more detail at the Etape, I could probably manage the Tourmalet with the new gears. I might even be faster up it. But the Hautacam? It has sections at 14%. There's a kilometre that AVERAGES above 11%.

I ordered another 30-cassette.

That said, post Etape, with no 30km-long climbs to face - the 11:28 is going straight back on. It should rock on the London100 as well as helping my climbing power overall in the long run.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

T' Tour de Yorkshire - Etape training?

(Warning, this is long, but does have some pictures)

This weekend I got on my bike and tried to ride the first two stages of the 2014 Tour de France back to back.

That's more than 350km, with 6,000 metres of climbing, in two days. I was in no way ready.

The weather was cold and showers were forecast on and off all day, I found myself envying Pez’s knee warmers and wishing I’d packed a softshell.

But even that couldn't dampen the enthusiasm on the morning of Day 1 - exactly a week before Yorkshire hosts the Grand Depart - I got my gear together, packed my pockets with gels and headed to the pre-ride briefing. 

Safety briefing + professional riders
There was a real buzz at the start, three members of the Wiggle Honda team were riding with us and Yorkshire had thoroughly bought into the Tour's visit: The streets, homes, businesses and public spaces were en fete - bunting and decorations everywhere, strings of knitted polka-dot, green and yellow jerseys, roadside decorations, yellow-painted bikes everywhere and signs welcoming the Tour to every village and town the route passed through. It was hard not to be infected by the mood.

And off we rolled.

The Grand Depart - Leeds to Harrogate

Our route cut out the neutralised start from Leeds, leaving from Harrogate instead, and joined the ride when the racing proper starts - the total distance covered was pretty identical to the official ride.

Stage 1 is meant to be a sprinter's stage. "Flat" as the official guide has it. It's not. Well, not to me anyway.

Not flat
I started well, not quite as well as Pez, who found a quick group and pushed ahead of me. I spent 20kms chasing him, and them, down.

Just as I succeeded, passing him on a small descent, my GoPro escaped. I was trying out the camera - fitted to my handle bars - to capture some of the scenery while riding and some footage if possible. 

Chasing Pez, moments before the camera escaped
The plan failed when the clip on the bike mount broke and it skittered away across the road. I stopped to reclaim it and lost Pez, and the group, again.

After the GoPro had been stuffed into my back pocket (a real shame, I was looking forward to getting some footage of the climbs, descents and scenery while riding - and it was working well, as shown above), I re-started - catching up with Paul Adams. I'd never met him before, but in a pleasing symmetry he had No.1 on his bike and I had No.2. "Do you mind me asking your name?" I said riding up next to him, my best guess on how I got such an illustrious number was my alphabetically friendly surname.

We got on, and merrily tapped away together with one of his friends at an average speed a little above 25kph, catching up with Pez (who joined our mini-group) reminiscing about the London Revolution and last year's Etape which he rode as well.

Pulling into the first, picturesque, break stop 65kms in all was well with the world. I grabbed some food, said hello to the llamas in the field next door (ah, local wildlife) and got ready to leave.

The stunning break stop
The first categorised climb was coming - the Cat 3 Cote de Cray - in a few kms and I wanted to be ready. Pez and I rode out (Paul and his friend left ahead of us) and I blew up. I'd blown up with 120kms still to ride.

How badly? Really badly. Really, really badly. The first minor incline saw Pez drop me, and me get dropped by everyone else on the road.

Paul provides a nice comparison point at this point. We hit that first break stop together, with all four of us helping out on the front of our mini-group on the ride over and me - in Pez's words - being the hardest to follow when on the front.

Paul beat me by one hour 18 minutes on stage one.

The next break stop wasn't for another 60 kilometres, over the top of two categorised climbs, and I just couldn't climb - all the power was gone from my legs. I tried eating a lot of gels and drinking plenty too, with no effect.

I cycled along on my own, chatting occasionally with other riders (two groups other than ours were riding the Grand Depart that day, some planning to keep riding the route a week ahead of the pros until the very end of the race). I used the time to marvel at the truly stunning scenery. 

Seriously, if you haven't been, go. As beautiful as any part of the country I've visited. And take your bike – a lot of the roads have been resurfaced for the Tour and there are some great and challenging hills if you fancy it.

Hills on the ‘flat’ stage
The subject of hills brings me to the second categorised climb of the day - Cote de Buttertubs. It's listed as 4.5km at 6.8%. If only it was.

Because that might be the average, but the gradient is far more punishing. It starts with a 17% ramp, flattens, then ramps to 13% again, then is big-ring flat, throws in another 20% ramp, flattens, up to 20% for a bit again, and then it really punishes you.

About the fourth or fifth time this happens, you hit an evil corner on the back of a non-flat section, curving up and around to the left ramping to 18% for the last bit of the climb and just in front of a cattle grid. The man in front of me got off his bike - punished once too often - I followed him. It was only 50m of walking, but my legs - already in a horrid state - said "no more".

It's a perfect hill for a breakaway to form on. Especially as it's followed by a 2km, 9% descent. Seriously, I averaged 54km/h on this (peaking above 65km/h), and I was on non-closed roads and taking things pretty cautiously. The pros will be flying.

Eventually I made it to the break stop on the other side. Pez had already been there 15 minutes. I crammed more food into me, re-stocked on gels and we set off together again. He dropped me the first time the road even inched up.

There was another Cat 3 hill along the way - the magnificently named Cote de Grint on Moor - but by this stage my brain had switched off so all I can tell you is I got over it. I didn't walk again, I remember that much.

But, while I'd settled into my non-functioning state, there was hope to come. 40kms from the end a nice man in Wiggle kit and a Very Expensive Bike (Carbon, Zipp wheels, electronic groupset etc etc) let me latch on to a group. After explaining the concept of "drafting" to the other riders, and learning and then using everyone's first name a lot in a slightly middle-manager-after-a-training-day manner, we rode on... slowly.

Misery loves company, as the saying goes, and while none of my fellow slow coaches were riding day two, riding with them made me feel a lot better. It wasn't fast, but it was social, and while I was dropped on the hills by everyone even in this slowest of groups, we finished - crossing the line together and posing for a picture.

It took me 9:33:24 in total time with 8:38:59 of that riding - on a sprinter's stage I'd averaged just 22.4kp/h. Pez beat me by another 15 minutes, after once again setting out from the break stop together.

Yorkshire businesses bought into the Tour
One of the draws of this ride for me was the idea that I'd be riding supported for back-to-back stages, making the experience closer to that of a real Tour de France rider.

There was a Team Wiggle Honda mechanic on hand - who took a look at my creaking bike (the hope was that a worn bottom bracket was holding me back on the hills, grinding under pressure, rather than terrible form. He checked the bike and proscribed "lack of chain lube" as the actual problem - which, to be fair, had my drive train running silky smooth the next day).

I bolted down a plate full of carbs (lasagne, plus rice, plus potato salad, plus a bread roll) and headed for a massage - anything to try and get me through the next day and a remarkably relaxing experience.

I showered, ate another big meal in the evening, had a single beer and hit the hay early. It was the best I could manage.

To try and increase my chances I was trialling beetroot shots - loading up for two days before the race and then one on the morning of Day 1. There's increasingly large amounts of research that say they could help, nothing says they hurt and top athletes (including Mark Cavendish) use them.

But they're vile things. Horrible tasting and nasty to drink. I looked at my beetroot shot for today with disgust. I put it back in my bag, unopened. If they help, they clearly didn't help enough on Saturday and I just couldn't face drinking it.

At this point I honestly didn't know how I was going to get back on my bike for the ride to the safety briefing - let alone finish what has been described as the third hardest stage of the race this year.

Day 2 briefing
Day 2: York-Sheffield
Oddly, once on the bike I was feeling better than I was the day before - more comfortable than the end of the ride on Saturday - or perhaps just more accustomed to my pain.

Once again, we altered the route a little for Day 2. Ditching the pan-flat opening 30kms down a major road and picking the ride up just north of Harrogate ahead of the climbing starting.

And there was a lot of climbing. Nine categorised climbs (we missed the final one in the city centre), 3,600m+ up - more climbing than last year's Etape - and effectively no flat. None. 

Much climbing
It should make for a great stage, which is calling out for a breakaway as forming a train to chase one down will be all but impossible. A good day for a hilly classics specialist to win - possibly even Simon Yates - a bloody awful one for me.

But I had a plan. We formed "Team Tortoise"*. 

Pez was struggling towards the end of Saturday too, and had found a couple of other riders  to finish with: Rich-who-is-actually-from-Yorkshire and Nick from near us.

I got together with them early on, and we stuck together with the express purpose of getting each other to the end, no matter how long it took. It took a really long time.

Along the road another rider joined us - Tim - and it was him and Pez competing for who was climbing best of our groupetto, who came next was anyone's guess. 

Nick had a metal plate in his right leg, with pain shooting along the length of it when putting stress through - think climbs above 10%. His biggest cog on the back was a 25, not nearly enough. But he was the heart and soul of the group, keeping spirits up, chatting away and happy to take really long pulls on the front on the flat and pacing us up shallow hills.

Rich had a dodgy right knee, meaning he simply couldn't climb the steep stuff after the first couple of hours. He was also fun, funny and good company.

But patched up, injured and exhausted riders, forming an autobus to beat the clock and finish the stage is as much a tradition of the Tour as polka dots, bunch sprints and breakaways.

We endured. We supported. We survived.

So much climbing
And there was a lot to endure - 20k in was Cote de Blubberhouses, cat 4, with a descent leading straight into a 24% ramp leading onto another long drag up. I made it up out of the saddle. The views from the top were spectacular and there was the reward of a long descent.

36k in was another climb - uncategorised - followed by the longest flat section of the day (for us) - it was only 10km.

Stunning, lots of climbing though
The scenery was spectacular throughout - bridges over rivers leading to rolling woodland, farmland with stone-walled fields - frequently filled with sheep, cows and horses (we only saw llamas once).
In fact, "what about sheep on the descents?" was a serious question in the safety briefing. That said, the baa-ing at one point was almost musical.

The roads on day two were frequently beautiful too - the smoothest I've ever ridden on. In fact, I've never loved a road surface so much while hating the road itself so fiercely.

There was a lot of hating on Sunday. While the first climb (Blubberhouses) was mostly fine, the others weren't. Oxenhope Moor (cat 3) hurt, Cragg Vale (the longest climb in Britain at 8km+) was relentless if uncomplicated and allowing me to burst at the end to try and bridge to Pez and Tim - and at least there was a long descent after. Ripponden (Cat 3) hurt - lots – starting with a really high gradient, then dropping to a mere 10% for the remaining kilometre.

Two kilometres after you crest it you're onto the Cat 3 Cote de Greetland - and this is the one that broke me.

You see, I had attached a route profile to my top tube - but it was lies. After Ripponden it was meant to be flat, downy, a bit uppy, then big downy.

What it actually was was a 6km climb - the Cote de Greetland – when I was expecting a descent. Every time I rounded a corner and saw more climbing a little bit more of my spirit broke.

According to my top tube, the descent started about 95km in and there was no more climbing. In fact, it didn't start until almost 100 and came after an entire, Cat 3, unmarked, climb.

Top tube of lies
I lost the rest of Team Tortoise (after being first to Ripponden), I trudged on. Slower. And slower. And Slower. I rounded a corner to see even more climbing, I'd been climbing for seemingly ever, I looked once more at my Garmin (100km registered) and my top tube (meant to have been descending 4km ago) and got off my bike. 

Fuck it. Fuck the climbing. Fuck the lying route profile. I was promised a descent, I deserve a descent. I'm absolutely not climbing any effing more. I looked up, saw the scenery and took a photo (above). I trudged on.

There was only 60km left, according to the lying route profile, I could walk that. Probably. Maybe I should get back on the bike, the next break stop wasn't for another 20km+, after the Cat 2 Holme Moss.

I got on, rounded a corner, and saw Nick and Pez waiting for me at the summit. I finally got my descent.

Back together
We were still a long way from home, but I was back with the groupetto. Back chatting, back riding and with a Cat 2 (my first) to come.

I'm not saying it wasn't brutal, but it was expected this time. The gradient sat at 11% and stayed there, for about 5kms, you just ground through it.

I unzipped my gilet to my waist. My jersey then got unzipped to my sternum. My cadence dropped to 40, then 35. It was as hard a climb as the early part of Semnoz, if not as long in total. I clicked up a couple of gears and went out of the saddle for a bit, sat down and clicked down again, I ground and ground and ground and this time I knew when it was ending. This time I had road markers telling me how much further there was, letting me know how far I'd come, with 700m left I sprinted.

Top of Holme Moss plus Derbyshire
Still not done - and losing my bottle
I'd passed the highest bit of the course now, with a final break stop mid-way down the descent - I crammed my face with anything I could lay my hands on like a four-year-old on Halloween - but this particularly nasty stage wasn't done yet.

Three more categorised climbs and a few uncategorised ones in a brutal final 40km awaited. There was simply no flat. You were going up, or down, with what felt like a lot more up (although wasn't).

"I can see Sheffield. It's downhill! Why am I climbing?" as one of the other riders put it.

The top tube profile (which inexplicably I still trusted) at least warned me it was going to be tough, we pushed on. We ran out of water. Eventually a support car came by - we hadn't seen another rider or support car for hours - and filled up on water and food, although Pez missed out initially (he was a little ahead of us on the road, when we met him we shared our water with him) he caught up with the van later.

A little later I threw the new water away - literally - near the back of the autobus I reached for a drink, Tim braked in front of me and I was caught with one hand full of bottle and another on the top of my bars and almost no time to react. I hurled the bidon into a bush (a present for the fans) and hit the brakes. Pez, the only man behind me, burst out laughing.

Lantern Rouge
We were officially the last people on the road and still riding at this point.

We kept going. Kept riding. Kept together except when Nick and Rich's knees forced them to walk up some of the steepest parts. The others waited at the top.

Inexplicably, I was first up the final climb - beasting the descent, almost missing the double-left turn into a seriously steep Stephen lane (1.6km at 10% average and starting harder) - and then we were done. Done, done and done. Well, almost, there were a few ks of descending left. But this time it really was all descending.

Team Tortoise rolled to the finish, lined up ahead of the timing mat and crossed together - all five of us – Tim, Pez and I recording times within a second of each other and Nick and Rich a minute slower thanks to a slightly later start time.

Once the day before times were included I finished last.

But that sentence doesn't quite read right. It has one word too many. Because despite blowing up badly on day one, breaking mentally on day two and taking longer than anyone else to complete it, I rode the first two stages of the Tour de France back to back. I finished.  With a little help from my friends.

*this is my name, other members of Team Tortoise might not appreciate the analogy. But, slow and steady seemed the way to go.