Almost Bust

I knew that a century ride through the southern Lake District would be tough. 110 miles including Wrynose Pass is never going to be an easy ride on a good day, but when the longest ride you’ve done all year is less than 50 miles you know you’re going to struggle before the start. The sensible option would have been to do the 80 mile “Bay Dash” variant, but sometimes you just have to take your medicine.

At least it wasn’t raining. Last year’s cold and miserable Wrynose or Bust sportive took place in horrid conditions and ended ignominiously after 105 miles with a broken chain which I was too frozen to fix. This time the weather looked settled. It wasn’t warm and was fairly windy, but at least I was confident that it would remain dry.

About 110 riders had signed up for the long version of the sportive, which given that it’s a few weeks before the Fred Whitton is a surprisingly low number. The superb route, marshalling and feed stations, not to mention the fantastic hotpot at the finish deserve much more popularity. Perhaps it’s a bit early in the season for a tough century and the Lakeland weather in April for the last two editions might put a few off. This should not prevent you from signing on: cycling up the Duddon Valley is one of the loveliest stretches of road you’re ever likely to encounter on a bike in England.

I set off with a group of fellow COLTs (City of Lancaster Triathlon) but given that one was in training for a double ironman in late May and the others were doing Ironman Lanzarote in a few weeks I knew that they’d be close to peak fitness. I didn’t expect to be dropped definitively on the first climb (within the first mile) but knew that turning myself inside out to stay with them would have serious consequences later so adopted a more conservative approach. Fellow COLT, Danny Rogerson, either out of sympathy or a similar unwillingness to have his legs torn off joined me (I suspect the former).

From the cliff - Explore!

Mariano Mantel via Compfight

The first 50 miles offers little serious challenge apart from the long hill prior to dropping down into Foxfield for the first feed which I briefly paused at for a bottle refill and banana before pressing on (Danny had turned for home some while before, he wasn’t doing the event and had just ridden the first couple of hours for company). Soon after Foxfield the route gets more difficult. There is the steep climb at the start of the Duddon Valley to contend with followed by a series of small climbs up the valley before the route broadens out into the dramatic Esk Valley at Cockley Beck and the level approach to Wrynose Pass. Compared to the other passes on the route of the legendary Fred Whitton, Wrynose is relatively straightforward, but still represents a tough challenge for an out of condition triathlete. At least the wind was a tailwind.Soon after, the route heads southwards via narrow lanes to Hawkshead. From here, the route was supposed to go through Grizedale Forest but the removal of some key signage meant that everyone headed straight south to Newby Bridge. Luckily the excellent marshals were on the case and rerouted folk either west along the A590 to the notorious Bigland Hill or east to the second feed at High Newton. This also necessitated a stretch of about a mile on the awful and scary A590, but missed Bigland Hill. Given the my legs were already protesting loudly it took barely a moment to decide upon which option I’d take.

At the second feed I took longer to allow a little recovery. Cups of tea, egg sandwiches and chocolate cake were consumed in quantity and I bumped into fellow COLT Andy Richardson who seemed to be regretting his decision to follow the A Team on their ride around the route. He’d done Bigland Hill, but his legs were “bollocksed”. Luckily, the last 30 miles are over relatively straightforward terrain, although the climb from Capernwray, so late in the route, is a test of will. It was just after this point last year that my chain snapped and I almost wished that history repeated itself as I turned on to the Kirby Lonsdale to Carnforth road into a demoralisingly strong headwind. The marshal at this point said seven miles to go which confused me as I was sure that it was no more than five. But a sneaky detour which took you into Nether Kellet and one more climb up to the TV mast on Kellet Lane added the extra couple of miles. At least it was a freewheel down to the finish line!

A large plate of Lancashire Hotpot awaited, complete with mushy peas and pickled cabbage (vegetarian option also available). The volunteers from Rotary even brought cups of tea to our table! I just had to muster the energy to roll the last few miles home along a level cycle track with the wind behind me to reflect on a great day out in the saddle.

 

 

Cycling to School in Caton

Living in a small village, as we do, means that on most days, weather and work schedule permitting we are able to cycle to school. Me being dad, and Hannah, almost 10 on her bike, and Luke (6) on the tagalong behind me. We have to cross a main road (this morning it took almost 5 minutes to wait for a gap), negotiate a small rise in the road (or large hill if you listen to Hannah) and worry about one or two inconsiderate motorists who use the Quernmore Road as a rat run into Lancaster. The vast majority are patient and give us a wide berth to the extent that this morning, when we all forgot our bike helmets, neither I nor the children felt unduly nervous.

Cycling to school has obvious health benefits for the family, and even though it’s only a 5 minute ride, they get to school smiling and happy, ready to get on with their day. Since we started it’s had a spin-off effect on others. Another family now cycles everyday and several other children are occasional cyclists. On a day with nice weather 15% of the children at Caton Community will cycle to school. This compares very well to the national average of 2% (will be much less for primary) and hopefully will improve further in the summer. The school does its bit by providing Bikeability training (Hannah proudly passed her level 2 last month).

The Guardian cycling blog had a piece this month on a school in Essex that has bucked the 2% trend (15% at Caton is only 8 kids :-) ) and has cycling up at 10%. Yet for every shining example there are more that actually ban cycling to school altogether, often on highly dubious health and safety grounds - here’s an example from Newport that made the national press last year.

While I would readily concede that it’s easier for a small village school to make a big difference to the numbers compared to large urban schools where even a relatively small shift at a large primary would have a big impact on the numbers of cycling journeys made.

So what is the Government doing to promote cycling to school? In short, sweet FA. In the UK over the last four years we have spent £1.34 per head of population on cycling through the provision of local grants. In the Netherlands the figure is £24 per head, and in London, Boris has pledged £11 per head. Even though the figures clearly show that in collisions involving motor vehicles and bikes, in over 2/3s of cases the motorist is solely responsible there is no move to create a law of strict liability (i.e. the motorist would have to prove that it wasn’t their fault) as exists in many European nations. So David Cameron may talk about it being the time for a cycling revolution, he backs up his rhetoric with very little action. Even the president of the AA has backed a call for an annual budget of £10 per head for cycling describing it as a “drop in the ocean.”

I can hear the petrol heads scream, “but you pay no tax!” But what benefits would a big uptake in numbers of children cycling to school have?

  1. Much less congestion from cars on the school run meaning less pollution and increased traffic flow;
  2. Big impact on obesity meaning reduced costs to the NHS, greater productivity and increased well-being.

Far from being a cost to the taxpayer, spending money on cycling in general and promoting children cycling to school in particular will have great economic and health benefits to the nation. So there.

Written after cycling to school today and reading this piece by Kaya Burgess in The TimesDundas aqueduct, Avon UK 070824 (19)
Dana&Ron via Compfight
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Feeling my age

There appears to be a recurring theme developing on this blog at the moment – whingeing about lack of form and lack of progress. The wet winter certainly hasn’t helped. I’ve never been one for cycling in the rain. I don’t mind it starting to rain once I’ve set out but I always hate leaving home when it’s actually raining already. Looking through the diary, this has meant a fair amount of turbo work and a couple of shortish rides during the week. I’m still managing over 4 hours a week on the bike, but for whatever reason I don’t seem to be making progress and every ride is a bit of a struggle.

I recognised this  a while back and decided I needed to change things a bit. I could feel my achilles starting to hurt again while running and I seemed to be getting more aches and pains than usual. I have put this down to the ageing process so I looked into this a little. For athletes over 50 the main issues appear to be:

  • increasing muscles loss
  • decreasing bone density
  • susceptibility to injury
  • susceptibility to weight gain
  • susceptibility to train for endurance rather than intensity

All of these I recognise in myself. I have never been a gym rat, but it seems that the best way to combat the challenge that ageing presents is to do some gym work and to increase the intensity, not duration, of workouts. It’s well established by science that even really old athletes can stimulate bone growth and muscle growth if they do the right exercises so it’s really important to take your body out of the comfort zone of long steady-state bike rides and long slow runs. The problem for me is that to increase the intensity of my running, in particular is to surely provoke injury. So, for the last 4 weeks I have introduced a weekly gym session to my training. It looks like this:

  • 30 mins plyometrics*. For want of a better phrase, this means bouncing, hopping from foot to foot and so on. The increased impact and rebound builds strength, stimulates bone growth and stabilises all those injury prone joints such as knees and ankles. In 4 weeks I have noticed a huge improvement in my ankle.
  • 30 mins core strength. Lots of planks, crunches, back raises etc. This has resolved the lower back pain that has been bothering me at night (here’s my plank routine)
  • 30 mins weights. I’m doing a pretty simple traditional set including chest press, lat pull down, thigh squats and extensions. My right shoulder niggle from driving has gone and my knees feel hugely stronger as a result.

After 4 weeks of doing this routine I feel stronger and much healthier than before: no aching knees going up and down stairs and so on, but it hasn’t really translated yet into performance on the bike. So the next step is to introduce intensity to running and cycling through reps and hill efforts. Lovely.

The excellent Joe Friel has written a very good summary of the impact of ageing on an athlete.

Raindrops on calm water cosmonautirussi via Compfight

*A search of Youtube will find no end of different videos showing plyometric routines, however the combination of speed, impact and rebound means that these are tough workouts where the potential of injury is high. I would recommend talking to a coach about introducing such routines before implementing them. In my case I spoke to Richard Mason who tailored a routine for me and took me through it prior to me incorporating it into my training.

Perception of Risk

If you have read any media in the last few months you will have been struck by the huge attention given to the rash of deaths of cyclists on London’s roads this winter. It doesn’t really help to point out that cycling on roads (and driving) have become progressively safer over the years (see this article in the New Scientist). It’s quite clear that, no matter how tragic, the spate of deaths are a statistical aberration from the normal pattern, and although there has been an upturn in the overall number of deaths it’s not yet apparent if the increase seen last year is a new trend.

Yet, if you followed the media commentary you would be entirely justified in taking the view that cycling in our cities was a virtually suicidal game of roulette where it is only a matter of time before your number is up. This kind of thinking seems to be embedding ever deeper into our national psyche. Witness the number of letters to the editor raging about cyclists not wearing helmets, not wearing hi-viz, not cycling on cycle paths, cycling on pavements, jumping traffic lights and so on. In other words, these deaths and injuries are the cyclists’ own fault despite all the statistics that show that it is driver who are primarily at fault in collisions involving cars and bikes (68% of collisions were primarily the fault of the motor vehicle, and 21% the fault of the cyclist). These arguments pander to the high-risk, victim blaming approach that many people take towards cyclists (“It was his own fault, he wasn’t wearing a helmet”). No discussion of road design, infrastructure, driver behaviour etc, just blame the cyclist.

Putting cycling into a wider context, however, might change our views. A recent study in Auckland of urban cycling showed that, statistically, riding to work is 35 times safer than playing rugby and 15 times safer than going skiing. How many parents would happily take their children on the annual family ski trip yet never consider allowing them to cycle the half-mile to school? I’m sure the stats would be slightly different for the UK (although it seems that NZ has a similar anti-cycling sub-culture to over here). Nevertheless it does point to a serious issue for the growth of cycling as a serious mode of urban transport: unless we can make an impact on the perception that cycling is a high risk activity then we will be placing significant barriers for its growth.

And do we want it to grow?

  • Cycling reduces congestion and increases urban traffic flow although the effect might not be as strong as some like to suggest: counter argument;
  • Cycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions – a car emits on average 142g/km of CO2 (it’s 271g/km if you build in urban driving and the production of the car etc). A cyclist’s figure is more than ten x less, and most of that comes from the carbon emissions of food production, which the driver will also consume;
  • Cycling reduces toxic emissions benefitting urban asthma sufferers and others with respiratory problems;
  • Cycling provides significant health benefits to the cyclist and cuts down obesity costs to the NHS;
  • Cyclists benefit the economy by having fewer days off work than car drivers.

Lastly, a quick thought on the morons (and I choose my words carefully) at the Advertising Standards Authority who chose to issue a ban on an advert showing a woman cycling down a road in full accordance with the Highway Code. They dubbed the ad, “…socially irresponsible…” Luckily, this perverse decision received over 3000 complaints and the ASA have agreed to review their decision (not rescind, note). How on earth are we going to make progress when public bodies succumb to the victim blaming, anti cycling zeitgeist?

 

Struggling for form

Form. It’s a beautiful feeling when we have it. Suddenly the hills flatten, the headwinds dissipate, the gaps close. We learn to cherish those fleeting days when we have it and make excuses when we haven’t.

I’m in the latter camp at the moment, and frankly, I’m fed up with it. Looking through my training diaries I’ve kept up a pretty solid 6 hours a week cycling and running throughout the winter which is better than most years. This, despite the wettest January since records began. Why, then, is everything such a struggle? Small hills feel like the north face of the Eiger at the moment, and when I’m riding into a headwind I’m dropping down the gears faster than a stone thrown off a clifftop. It’s true that quite a bit of my training has been on the turbo courtesy of the weather and work, and that’s never a complete substitute for riding on the road but nevertheless, it’s surely supposed to be better than this?

What to do? Normally I don’t start throwing in interval training until I have at least a decent base fitness, but maybe my turbo work has just been too easy and upping the intensity is what’s needed. Or perhaps the aches and pains are signs that I’ve been overgearing on the turbo and I need to take a break to give my muscles a rest. Should I switch the time I’ve been turbo training into core work and flexibility training? Heck, I could even go for a swim (but that might be too extreme a measure). Whatever, something needs to change as I don’t feel as if I’m making any progress at the moment.

Cycling in Treacle

Cycling in Treacle

photo credit: Sifter via photopin cc

Triathlon and the 5 Rs

My kids are always talking about the 5 Rs that they use to help them in approaching the curriculum at their school with the right attitude. These so called “aptitudes” to learning could be equally applied to triathlon. The 5 Rs that my children learn about at school are:

  • Resilience
  • Risk taking
  • Reciprocity
  • Resourcefulness
  • Reflection

Depending on which particular brand of learning to learn (the buzzphrase that describes teaching people the habits of effective learners) you might also find Reasoning and Responsibilty mentioned as being among the 5 Rs at the expense of others. I’ll stick to the 5 my children understand.

Resilience

This is, perhaps the most prized aptitude for any budding triathlete. At the extreme end of the sport (Ironman) the mantra “Keep moving forward” has sometimes been taken to ridiculous lengths such as the famous finish in the women’s race in 1982 when Julie Moss collapsed within metres of the finish and crawled to the line. Whatever your chosen distance, sprint or Ironman, a great deal of resilience will be required just to get to the start line, let alone finish your first triathlon.

Risk Taking

By their very nature, triathletes are not the kind of folk who like to exist within their comfort zone. Always wanting to push harder, faster and further they appear to be on a never ending quest to find the personal limits of their own performance. Risk taking goes with the territory.

Reciprocity

Usually translated as “teamwork”, reciprocity doesn’t always seem the skill obviously associated with triathlon. Yet, every triathlete will readily acknowledge the support they have given and received from fellow competitors, not only in the race itself, but in the long months of preparation. The old adage of the “loneliness of the long-distance runner” often applies on those long training rides when none of your club mates are available, and, at the heart of it, it is within yourself that you’ll have to look to keep moving forward when your body says “stop.” Yet I recall my second Ironman in which I was accompanied for the last 5 crucial miles with an Italian guy who I’d never met before who sacrificed his own finish time to cajole and encourage me to the finish line.

Resourcefulness

“There’s always a plan B.” In 11 years of racing I can’t think of a single race that has gone perfectly. Sometimes it’s simply a puncture; other times it’s problems with nutrition (not having enough or taking on too much); perhaps unforeseen elements of the course or unexpected weather conditions. Whatever the challenge presented good triathletes are always adaptable.

Reflection

Looking back at every race I’ve ever done I’m always thinking that maybe I could have pushed a bit harder there or should have eased off here. Learning from your racing is a key component of getting faster. It might be a case of choosing the right gears on your bike for the course. Every time I’ve tackled the brutal bike course that is Wimbleball I’ve witnessed riders on expensive time trial bikes walking up the steepest hill. Perhaps they would have gone faster with a compact chainset, or a roadbike instead. Reflection is often mistaken for experience. A genuinely reflective person will get faster much more quickly as they recognise the areas they need to improve and act upon them. Repeating the same mistake is not a characteristic of most triathletes.

What does all this mean? Well, when the next batch of job applicants comes across your desk and under “Other Interests” they have written, “Triathlete” you can be sure that the candidate will stand out from the crowd!

A Delicate Matter

Saddle sores are no laughing matter. Even super tough pro cyclists have dropped out of the Tour de France when afflicted by a particularly bad case. At the very least, a simple little sore can prevent you cycling for days and cause loads of discomfort. As always, prevention is better than cure, so there are lots of ways to stop you getting one in the first place:

  1. Saddle height and fore and aft position is crucial. If your pelvis is steady when you are pedaling then you will have a stable platform upon which to sit and the amount of friction generated by pedaling will be minimised.
  2. Comfy padded cycling shorts worn next to the skin are the single most important garment in a cyclists wardrobe. These reduce friction dramatically and provide a nice soft pad upon which your rear can rest. Most experienced cyclist will tell you that you can’t ever spend too much on a quality pair of shorts (actually, you can: these babies cost £180 a pair!), and if you’re not ready for the full lycra look you can buy padded undershorts that you were under your normal trousers.
  3. Invest in anti-friction cream and coat your tender parts prior to riding. My favourite cream is the Assos brand but you can find stuff costing half the price.
  4. It might seem obvious to say, but wear clean shorts for every ride. There’s nothing like a sweaty,grimy pair of cycling shorts for breeding bacteria that will quickly infect any minor skin abrasion.
  5. Perhaps the most important of all, get out of your cycling kit and shower as quickly as possible after the end of your ride. Again, sitting around in sweaty cycling kit doesn’t allow the skin to breath and any minor abrasions will quickly get much worse. If you’re travelling to a cycle sportive and you’re not sure if there are shower facilities etc then taking a pack of baby wipes can be a godsend.
  6. Finally, if all of the above fails and you do get a saddle sore then keep it clean and dry and treat with a suitable ointment. If you have little ones in the house then you may well have a tup of nappy rash cream such as Sudocrem lying around which you can get from any chemists. However, if you really want to pamper yourself, then a tube of Assos skin repair gel is the absolute business after any long ride. I don’t often plug a product directly, but I do love this stuff.

I’m not sponsored by Assos and I have paid in full for all the creams and gels I use.

2014 – the year of the half

I’ve been thinking long and hard about the 2014 season. Do I want to do another Ironman? How about trying to beat my personal best at Olympic distance? Or try and get an age group podium at a Half Ironman? After two seasons of injury and recovery in which I only finished 2 races, maybe I should just try for an injury free year!

My experience at Challenge Henley last year in which I finished 6th in my age group tells me something that I’ve come to realise over the years: the half-iron distance is my best distance. Although I’ve done 3 full Ironman races, I don’t think I’ve really fulfilled my potential at that distance mostly due to family and work restrictions on training time. I still aspire to competing at iron distance again, but maybe a year of trying to pb at half-ironman will build the long term base that has eroded over the last two seasons?

I’ve put my name down for two races so far: The Beaver Triathlon in May – a race which I’ve done twice, but have never really done myself justice in (mechanical in 2011 and a DNF in 2012 due to injury), and the inaugural Challenge Weymouth. This event replaces Challenge Henley, which despite being an excellent race never managed to overcome local opposition to the road closures that the race brought with it (see my blogpost on this). I’m really excited by this event. Not only will it be a sea swim, a first for me, but the area is beautiful and hopefully the locals will be more accepting of a large triathlon in town. It’s a holiday resort and the 12th September race date offers the opportunity to extend the season a little.

So two races entered so far, but I’m not going to leave it at that. The Beaver is relatively early in the season (end of May) so I’d like to do another half in late June (Ironman 70.3 Luxembourg?) and one at the end of July (maybe the Castles Triathlon at Bamburgh). That would make 4 half ironman races in one season. Sensible? We’ll see.

2014 will be my 12th season of triathlon and having got past the injuries I’m feeling as motivated as I ever have to race this year.

photo credit: slimmer_jimmer via photopin cc

Viva La Revolucion! Viva Clancy!

Whether it’s watching the Tour of Britain, a nocturne* in Salford, a World Championship at the velodrome or one of the Revolution series of track meets, one name you are sure to see on the start sheet is Edward Clancy MBE. With 2 Olympic golds, a bronze, 5 World Championship titles and so many National titles to his name he can rightly be described as a stalwart of the all-conquering British track team. With his black Rapha Condor kit, black shades and British Cycling stealth bike he is the “Mr Cool” of the track.

Cycling has had plenty of ‘dudes’ who have liked to look the part, but rarely do they have the style to truly carry it off. Watching Clancy ride, as I did with my family last night from the front row of the velodrome, however, leaves you in no doubt that here’s a man at the top of his game. In the 15km scratch race he toyed with the opposition. One minute at the front easing into a small break or closing a gap, next moment drifting down to the back only to effortlessly reappear at the head of affairs just when a breakaway threatened to become established. So fluid is his pedaling that it’s difficult to discern whether he is cruising or on the rivet.

The raw pace of last night’s scratch left most of the field scattered like sheaves of corn around a red-hot velodrome leaving Clancy to unleash a blistering last lap that no-one could come close to matching. Only Christian Grassman, another true track rider (whose beard leaves you wondering whether he rolls around Manchester’s Northern Quarter on his fixie with his jeans turned upin his spare time), showed any attempt to respond to Ed’s attack – and he still got nowhere near the man-in-black.

But Ed’s real pièce de resistance had come earlier in the evening in the Madison 1km time trial. This, for the uninitiated, is two laps winding up to top pace by a team of two riders followed by 4 laps absolutely flat-out. Each rider does two laps and at the change over the first rider “hand slings” the second into a pell mell final two lap dash for the line. It’s a Revolution favourite and usually the crowd is watching for pairs to duck under the magic minute (that’s an average speed of 60kph). A few years ago at an earlier Revolution Dave and I had the privilege of watching two track legends in the form of Chris Hoy and French sprint rival Arnaud Tournant set a stunning time of 54.549 seconds and given that these were the two fastest sprinters in the world it seemed pretty unlikely that the record would be seriously troubled.

However, last night it was clear that with the World Track Championships coming up riders were coming into serious form and most pairs were well under the 1 minute mark – the track was obviously running quick. What happened next though, was truly unexpected. Ed Clancy has been working at opening laps for the team sprint team apparently and his blistering opening lap set up an incredible 54.537 effort finished off by his team mate, Ollie Wood.

In case you’re thinking that this was all about Clancy, it’s worth remembering that it’s only two years since Dave and I were watching Wood (with the likes of fellow GB Academy rider, Owain Doull) riding in the Revolution Future Stars races. To go from junior races to partnering the likes of Ed Clancy to a world record in such short time is surely a statement of intent, and proof, if any more were needed, that British Cycling’s development program is producing prodigious talent for the future.

I keep writing about Revolution and what a great evening’s entertainment it is. Last night there were World and Olympic Champions wherever you looked. The likes of Jason Kenny, Laura Trott, Lizzie Armitstead and Jo Rowsell all wowed the crowd along with Giro d’Italia stage winner Alex Dowsett of Movistar and Pete Kennaugh of Team Sky. At the end, the crowd headed into the cold Manchester night after almost 3½ hours of breathless racing for the cost of what it would take to buy a ticket for League 2 match from my local team, Morecambe Town. That’s what I call value.

Having said that, tickets are selling out really fast, so if you fancy going you’ll have to get either an unreserved standing ticket or a premium track centre ticket for the next round on 1st Feb. See you there. https://www.quaytickets.com/revolution/Online/default.asp

*A nocturne is a street cycle race run at night lit by floodlight.

photo credit: Sum_of_Marc via photopin cc

Training the core

At this time of year every conceivable type of sport magazine is pushing core strength routines as part of the off-season schedule. They’re dull to do and tough to perform but they’re an essential for anyone trying long distance triathlon in particular. All those repetitive actions in the same plane (cycling and running in particular) can easily mean that some muscles get neglected and prone to injury. Shortened hamstrings from hours of cycling can lead to powerful muscles pulling on your lower back causing pain and discomfort. Luckily a decent core routine doesn’t necessarily take long (even a ten minute plank session is worth doing) and you only need to aim for a couple of times a week.

Here’s what I do:

1 minute rotating plank

Start in the classic plank position, count to 10; switch to a side plank, again count to 10; switch to a side plank on the other side for 10. Now into a raised plank for 10 (straight arms), 5 press-ups and finish for 10 in a reverse plank. Repeat without rest until failure.

Start with as many as you can do (5 is tough) and build up to 10 reps without rest. That’s a 10 minute workout that you’ll really feel!

 

photo credit: suanie via photopin cc