Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Turbo trainers - indoor workouts for the Etape

The weather's been rough for the last few days, with torrential rain, floods and worse for a cyclist - massive winds trying to knock you over and turning flats into hills.

This somewhat lengthened the odds of me getting a couple of people together to head out on a long weekend ride.

But with about a week until the first sportive of our training plan, I needed to do something.

Fortunately, I've got a turbo trainer at my disposal. These doowhackies clip onto the rear wheel of your bike and put up resistance so every pedal stroke takes effort. The higher the gear you're in, the harder it is to pedal.
Turbo trainer/Instrument of touture

It's basically torture. I've always hated excersise bikes, there's no respite. When you're out on the road, you can freewheel. You get to stop at lights or road junctions.

The only time you have to put constant effort in is riding up a hill, and then you get the reward of the descent on the other side.

But on the Etape, the hills last for miles and miles and miles. I need to learn to keep riding and pushing for an hour or more, and as  I wasn't going to get out on the road I clipped the Bianchi (I'll sell her eventually) into the turbo trainer, pointed the bike at the telly, put an hour-long show on and started out.

It was easy at the start, without movement it felt I wasn't trying, it didn't stay that way.

Half an hour in I'd drunk most of my bidon. I was sweating freely (it's a known problem with turbo trainers as there's no wind to cool you or evaporate it away, in fact there's a range of covers you can get to potect your bike from corrosive drips when training).

Forty minutes in I couldn't believe I wasn't done yet. The couch was Right There. Then I remembered the broom wagon, the 16km climb up Mont Revard. I'd need to climb and keep climbing, keep working for far longer than just 45 minutes.

I changed up a gear to make it harder. I did it again at 50 minutes and again at 55.

In the end I kept going for a bit longer than an hour, but not much. And being at home, inside, I just had to wander to the shower when I was done. There are definite advantages to using turbo trainers. Although the noise makes them a bad idea when other people are home and I've no idea what that hour on the trainer equates to in miles, calories or meters climbed.

But for a hard burst of constant effort, or when the weather is vile, it's definitely an option and one I'll try and use more.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Three becomes four - another rider joins our Etape adventure

Our group of under-prepared Englishmen heading off to France has now expanded to four people after Bobby - Oktoberfest drinking buddy, cricketer and enthusiastic exponant of lunges - joined out merry band.

He's bought a racing bike and signed on the line to join us in Annecy, but missed out on the hotel the rest of us are staying in. He's only a few minutes walk away, so we should see him out there.

However, this is a concern. Bobby is a bit taller than me and already at my target weight. He's also naturally fit and athletic, and is off on a cycling holiday in December.

He's going to take me apart on the hills and I hate losing.

Gurus - guides to help us complete the Etape

Anyone setting out to do something new, and hard, will clutch at any straw they can find to help drag them on their way. The internet has put a thousand voices at our disposal, generally only a search query away.

This has told me a lot. The importance of "base miles" in the winter, great tales of people who started out with even less experience than me and completed the course, some rough milestones for the 8-month journey to the top of a mountain while hopefully avoiding the broom wagon. But while these help, they can't compare to speaking to someone who knows what they're talking about.

Fortunately, Pez and I both have gurus. Phil - Pez's guru - works in the same office as him and not only completed both stages of the Etape last year, but finished about 300th. He also did the tour of Wessex.

Tom is my guru. By day he's the most respected commentator on the pensions industry in the Britain (he's got awards and everything), by night he's a really rather good cyclist. He also completed the Etape in the top 25% and rode the tour of Wessex last year.

While I've only met Tom once, I have been of some small service to him in the past (including photoshopping an "I love pensions" T-shirt onto a picture of a cycling monkey to accompany his Twitter account) and he's been happy to offer up tips when I ask.

So what words of wisdom have they offered us? "Ride up hills. Lots of hills," seems to cover it.

Those were the exact words Tom gave to me, while Phil told Pez to "find the longest hill you can, then cycle up it 10 times, maybe more".

Thanks guys.

To be honest, the best coach I ever worked with had a simple philosopy. Spot an athelete's weakest point, tell them to work on it, monitor until it's fixed. Repeat.

Right now the biggest problem I have is that I'm not good at climbing and to get to the end of the race I'll need to ride up three catagorised climbs to reach a mountain-top finish. So, fair point lads. I'm off to Box Hill again as soon as I can.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Reality check - still in no condition to ride the Etape

I'd been feeling pretty good about my Etape training, until about 3pm yesterday.

According to most training schedules, I'm meant to be able to ride 50 miles without stopping by the end of January - with long rides once or twice a week meant to be the best thing I can do over winter.

While I've not ridden that distance more than a handful of times, I have done it. And that was on the old bike.

Add in the new bike, with new gears (we'll come to that later), a slightly slimmer me and more miles under my belt I was starting to feel I could do this.

I can't.

Yesterday I went out for a 30-mile blast round one of my favourite routes. There are a couple of nasty (but really short) hills along the way. The new gears meant I got up them a lot faster than in the past - being able to "sit and spin" even on the steepest parts.

I added 0.5mph to my fastest average time.

Feeling good, I then went out again in the afternoon, with a couple of friends, one on a hybrid.

It was meant to be a Sunday afternoon spin down into Kent and the countryside, a couple of hills, then a pootle back. Just some more time in the saddle really.

Then, 20 miles in, we found a hill.

Now it was steep, yes, but short. Probably not more than a kilometre at very most.

I didn't make it up. Even with my new bike, gears, and better condition. I tried sitting and spinning, but even with the new cassette I couldn’t. I tried standing up on the pedals and powering it up, but couldn’t find the right gear or rhythm, so just sat back down again.

Half way up I was riding at 4.8mph, knackered, had at least another 10 miles to ride home and my legs just decided that that was it.

My hybrid-shod mate made it about 100m further up than me.

I can make excuses. That I hadn't fuelled properly (at all), that I had 50 miles in my legs, that there was no point riding up it just to wait at the top for the other two.

But fundamentally, I wasn't good enough.

50 miles into the Etape is about half-way up Mont Revard, the longest climb on the course - five miles into the climb, 500m up from the bottom with another 500m and five miles to come. 75 miles in is the final killer of Annecy Semnoz, the steepest climb of all: 1,100m of climbing in far too little distance.

I'm no-where near good enough to do that.

I hit the nearest Londis (I'm classy like that), bought Lucozade and chocolate, and slunk home (almost all downhill).

But I made a note of the location of that hill, and I will be back. I've never walked up the same hill twice and I don't intend to.

More on gears
Even in the "not enough chain" gear the bike still runs. I try to keep out of it, but forgot a couple of times (normally approaching traffic lights, when I just shift down a few clicks on the chain ring I'm in). Good to know it doesn't break the chain/derailleur, but I'll try and keep out of it as much as possible.

More worryingly, there's chatter in the highest gear, from either chain ring, and the cassette’s rattling. That probably means the indexing's out and the lock-ring needs adjustment or I'm missing a spacer. So, basically, another fun hour with my tools and Big Book of Bike Maintenance awaits.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

I did a stupid thing - going up hills, cassettes and the right gears for the Etape

After working out that my new bike was actually harder to climb on (ie had a higher lowest gear) than my old one. I bought a new cassette.

For the uninitiated, the bit with the pedals on is the crankset - these have one, two or three gears on them and cost loads - then there is the cassette, which is the block of gears attached to the rear wheel.

Crankset - this has two chainrings, big (la plaque) and little

Cassette and derailleur (upside down as I was working on the bike)

The cassette is a lot cheaper to upgrade or switch - c£40 for most bikes, although being a bike component, you can probably pay several hundred if you so choose.

Now with 10 gears to play with on the back, you can customise pretty well. I had a standard isue 12-25 cassette (ie the smallest gear had 12 cogs and the biggest 25), I was looking for a lower gear to make climbing easier as there will be an awful lot of it on the Etape.

There are nine, ten and eleven speed bike gear set ups. The back gears on a ten-speed (my set up) range from 12-23 (super smooth, not a lot of climbing) to the mammoth range of SRAM's 11-32. I ummed and ahhed about the 11-28 (ie a bit faster at the top end, and easier going up hills than my current set-up) and the 12-30 (same top speed, but even more climbing ability).

Deciding I didn't need to go faster than I currently can, having an extra "pain killer" switch that might be the difference between making it up Annancy-Semonez and riding in the broom wagon saw me plump for the 12-30.

The fallout should be simple - I have less precision in the middle (as there is a bigger spread between gears) but while currently I have 1.44 revolutions of the wheels per revolution of the pedals, I'd get just 1.2 wheel turns per revolution with the new gears - or 17% easier to push up hills.

Slower, true, but no one ever failed to finish a race because their gears were too easy - and I had the same speed at the top end.

So I merrily (well, involving swearing, looking for my Big Book of Bike Maintenance, not finding it, hitting YouTube to check instead, more swearing and a broken nail) swapped cassettes on my rear wheel.

Sadly, I'm an idiot.

The first problem with having a much larger gear on the back is that it's - duh - physically larger. So the chain has to go further. It doesn't. The bike locks up if I try and get it into the climbingest gear.

Not enough chain

The second problem with a bigger gear is the rear derailleur (the thing that moves the chain between gears) is a specific size too. So it doesn't really reach the biggest gear either.

At some point I also appear to have messed with the alignment of the rear derailleur so for a while it was just pushing the chain off the gears entirely. I sort of fixed that.

But after £50-odd, a fair amount of swearing, looking things up, adjusting, spanners, Allan keys and screwdrivers, I effectively have lost a gear (and it's the big one I wanted to get up hills).

Hopefully all I need to do is work out how to re-align the derailleur, fix the indexing and maybe slacken the chain (or give it to a mechanic who would do this in 2 mins). Worst case, I need a new chain (£40) and rear derailleur (£80). And someone to fit them (probably).

All to go up hills easier...

In the meantime, I think I've got the bike working as a 9-speed (ie the big gear doesn't work, but the rest do), but it might be more sensible just to put the old one back on so I don't end up breaking something (on the bike or me).

UpdateI found my Big Book of Bike Maintenance!

This is good news for two reasons. 1) You can sit it on your lap while working on your bike and 2) I think I've fixed the new gears, sort of.

Derailleur looking good in big
cog and small chain ring
Basically, in my small chain ring (the one attached to the pedals) everything moves perfectly and make no 'wrong' noises. Wrong noises are rubbing sounds of the chain on something or "chatter" from the gears meaning you're not aligned right over a cog.

In my big chainring there is a rubbing noise in my fastest gear that no amount of cable or screw adjustment will get rid of. I can live with this. Not an issue going really fast downhill (ie not pedalling) and I only really need that when trying to push at about 35+mph on the flat.

Bigger problem, I don't have enough chain to be in my big chain ring (sur la plaque!) and my lowest (ie climbiest) gear on the back. It doesn't break it, but it's VERY close to breaking it (see "not enough chain photo above, this still happens).

But then you should never be in that gear. If you need that much climbing, you should be in your small chain ring.

So, hopefully, all is now well. ish. And if it isn't, it looks like the solution is a bigger chain (currently half-price at £20) rather than a new derailleur (£80).


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"When are you going to stop playing football?"

Me, considering playing football
This question from fellow Etaper Pez caught me off guard.

Football helps, surely. A way to boost my cardio, burn fat and indoors too so I can keep going through the depths of winter.

So I told him that. "You'll be terrified of getting injured closer to the time," he replied.

He was right.

I concluded that by the time I started my "taper" in June, I'd probably stop playing.

Not that I've never been seriously hurt playing football. But then I've seen plenty of team-mates break wrists, twist knees, break their feet, pull muscles etc while playing.

And in the very first game after signing up for the Etape, I twisted my ankle.

I actually laughed (it was entirely my own fault, I trod on the ball while trying to pull off a trick I'm not good enough to pull off).

So, I revised my "when I stop playing football" date to Spring.

That way I get to keep exercising in the warm in winter, and when there's enough daylight to start getting rides in before/after work as well as at the weekend, stop risking injury.

Monday, November 5, 2012

We're men, manly men, we're men in tights!

I now own "bib tights". The cold weather, a £10 off voucher for completeing a survey, another 30% discount all combined with my 0% credit card and one click buying to break my resolve.

So, man tights then. Oh, and arm tights too* (for much the same reasons listed above).

On the plus side this means my legs stay warmer and my movement on the bike is pretty much unrestricted. On the downside, well, tights.

Once I get over the fact I am now dressed ankle to wrist in basically a black lycra condom with reflecty bits, these are probably no bad thing.

And, after all, the priority list for cycling gear is function, cost, looks - in that order and no other.

Not counting Rapha, obviously.

*technically arm stockings, as there are two and they don't join together. Or "arm warmers" if you're being all technical

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Plans - Sportives to help with Etape training

Thanks to signing up with a tour group, a lot of the logistics of riding the Etape have been covered. Well, of the three days of the event itself anyway.

Before I get there there are some other issues. How do you go about training for the hardest race of your life when it's eight months away and keep motivated in the interim?

The solution our band of three riders found is sportives. There weren't many of these about a few years back, but on the back of the boom in cycling's popularity, more and more are sprining up all the time.

So far, the only one I've ever tried to do saw me barely get as far as the start line (an easy six-mile ride), before realising that the cold I had wouldn't let me do it. I grabbed a free energy bar and pack of electrolyte tablets, begged a lift back to the station, and went home.

But that hasn't put me off, so we've gone through every calandar we can and mapped out our plan to ride the Etape in sportives. Here it is:

  • December 2: Dorking RideIt. A choice of 30/50/70 mile courses. "some small climbs, some medium climbs and some iconic climbs". We're planning for the 50-miler, but that might be optimistic. Report here
  • Feb 10: Gatwick RideIt: 30/50/70 mile routes. Hopefully we'll be in a position to cruise the 50-mile course. Possibly we won't.
  • Feb 24: Hell of Ashdown - 64 miles.[Warm weather training instead]
  • March 10: VO2 sportive - 75 mile ride in Kent.
  • April 7: Woking RideIt - by this stage we should be on the 70-mile routes
  • April 28: Ups and Downs Sportive - 95 mile route 
  • May 12: Etape Caledonia - closed roads, 81 miles long, timing chips and 2 kilometers of climbing. Almost perfect training (albeit with a third less climbing and no cut-off time)[wedding interrupted]
  • May 18 & 19: London Revolution - 185 miles circling London over two days, about 2k of climbing. Hopefully both days
  • May 25-27: Tour of Wessex - "the biggest Multi stage cyclosportive in the World". 335-miles over 3 days or you can enter individual days. The big option has a ludicrous 7772m fo climbing. With a cut-off speed of 20kph. Single stages are c112 miles. This might be a tad over-optimistic...
  • And on June 2 a final test - the King of the Downs. 115 miles of the hardest grade of Sportive going in the UK.

All this fitted around general training, obviously. Hey, leave off, it's the only plan we've got.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


There are three things you need to complete the Etape. Fitness to get up the hills, group riding to make life easier on the flat and descending because what goes up must come down - frequently at speeds of 40 miles an hour or faster with hair-pins thrown in.

Fitness and descending are you can work on alone, but group riding is something you can't. On the flat, at any sort of speed, the vast majority of your energy is used pushing air out of the way. By riding in a group poperly you can take turns to do this, meaning an average speed of 25 miles an hour is a realistic goal.

But I have no idea how to do this in practice.

Things that worry are: Riding so close to a lot of other people at speed; getting out of the way once your turn at the front is done; not crashing into the others while you're "resting up" in the group; moving to the front when it's your turn again; trusting the group to see when you can't; telling the group what's coming up when you can see and they can't - basically there's a lot of it.

The peleton from the 2010 Etape du Tour
So, to try and remedy this omission I set off on my first club ride. You get one of these before you're politely asked to sign up or sod off - so I found a club a couple of miles from home and joined them for their "easy" Saturday ride.

The first thing I was told was that I need to ride a lot closer to the wheel in front than I thought - 18 inches aparently. That's worryingly close and means you can't see.

Then there were the signals (for pot holes, drain covers, cars parked in cycle lanes etc). It's embarassing to admit it, but I'm not that  comfortable taking my hands off the bars - especially when riding in town. But it's a core cycling competancy, so it's something else I'm going to have to work on.

Then there are the shouts "Car Back!" if it's behind you and "Car Front!" if it's heading toward you - these become "Carp!" and "Carf!" as the lungs struggle. "Hole!" for pothole and once, memorably, "Poo!" for a large lump of horse manure in the middle of the road.

I also learnt that not wearing mudguardsis basically anti-soical. If people are riding that close to you, without them you're just spraying muck in their face for an entire ride. I didn't actually know you even could fit mud guards to a racing bike, but it turns out you can - and a set weighs only 180 grams.

I often ride at about 20mph on the flat, and the pace we set was a lot slower than that, so I didn't really feel the benefit of the much-vaunted "peleton effect". It felt easy, but then at a few mph slower than I normally go, I expcted it to. A faster group might have changed that.

But going up a long drag to Eden Park, I did really like the little group that formed of me and two other riders - the pace was steady and there were two people other people to keep it that way. Having the yardstick of two other riders helped.

More than that, the whole ride (36.5 miles) was a confidence boost - I handled it comfortably and was stronger than a fair few riders. That said, it was a trial ride for the club, so most people there were as new to group riding (and possibly riding overall) as I was.

The coffee at the top of Cystal Palace (double esspressos all round, of course - gutted I forgot to take a photo of the cafe with about 40 bikes out front filled with lycra-clad men with tiny coffees inside - but a pic of the place is above), chatting about bikey things (gear ratios, Garmins, tyre makes etc) while riding and the general feel of doing something together were all bonuses.

I haven't decided if I'm going to join or not yet - but for £25 a year and the benefits liste above,  I'm rather tempted.

It is about the bike, and the shoes, and the lycra

Every kilo makes you slower. Slower accelerating, slower climbing and slower braking. GCSE physics tells me that being heavier doesn't make you go downhill faster either. Dieting is hard. But a shiny new bike costs naught but money.

I bought a new bike.

I love my Bianchi*, but it weighs 9.5kg. It's a bit too small for me. It's also aluminium framed and equipped with the lowest Campagnolo groupset available (Mirage). I've been busy upgrading in the year I've had it - new bar tape, new chain, new tyres, new cassette, another new cassette - but there's only so much you can do without serious money being spent.

And if I want a new wheelset and gears, the heaviest things on the bike after the frame and me, I might as well get a new frame to put them on. It's cheaper that way too.

Going against my (borrowed from a colleague who had an almost identical bike to me principal of "no to American Road Bikes, yay to Campagnolo", I bought a new, heavily discounted Felt F4 Ultegra.

It weights 7.3kg. It's made of carbon. With Ultegra RS80 wheels I could get the weight under 7kg (although that would cost another £350, minimum). That's 2.2kg gone instantly, 2.5kg with the new wheels. 2.2kg that I won't have to haul up more than 3,000m in July.

There's another advantage to upgrading, stiffness. To massively over-simplify: The stiffer the frame, the more of your energy goes into moving the bike forward. So more result from the same effort.

On my first timed ride with the new bike I added exactly 1pmh (or 6.6%) to my typical Richmond Park loop. And 1mph could be the  difference between an emotional ride over the summit of Annecy Semnoz to get a medal and sitting, defeated, in the broom wagon. That's 35 minutes from my projected (OK, made up) time of 9 hours. Totally worth it.

That said, my park loop contains a lot of town riding, I might just have got lucky with traffic lights.

Of course, while the bike matters more than anything else, there are a lot of "training substitute" purchases you can make.

I already had clip-in shoes (with added carbon-fibre), I've since bought a racing helmet (my existing one was made for commuting and had built-in flashing lights). Winter riding means I'm warming up my gear too - arm warmers (surprisingly inexpensive for bike kit and easily packable) and "Roubaix lined" bib shorts (they might make you look like the WWE's worst-ever wrestler, but the pros use them, so they must help, right?).

Then there's weight-saving accessories. I mean, why wouldn't you want bottle cages made of carbon-fibre? (saving about 18g each) or pedals that are 80g lighter than your old ones?

I'm forcing myself to step away from the 0% credit card for now - although a Merino wool base layer, shoe (or at least toe) covers and a warm jacket/gillet are sorely tempting my reserve. As is every email Wiggle and Evans send me. And those wheels.

*I haven't managed to sell it yet, it's now sharing a room with the new Felt. I plan to sell it, I just keep finding reasons not to.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Unfit to ride the course

About a year ago I did something I'd been meaning to for years, I bought a road bike.

I'd spent hours, days of my summers watching the Tour de France (and the Vuelta, and the Tour of Britain and... well, you get the picture). But the last time I rode was on a cheap mountain bike to get around at university.

So, convincing myself that a bike would save me money (ha!) on my commute, I took the plunge and bought a second-hand Bianchi.

I spent the next year playing at being a rider, London to Brighton at a terrible speed, a weekend ride to Tunbridge Wells with three friends (staying there overnight), a few laps of Richmond Park and a post-Olympics trip up Box Hill.

I didn't commute, I did steadily buy more kit (better kit is like being a better rider, right?).

I'm not playing any more.

Last night I signed up for the Etape du Tour. I'm going to ride an actual stage of the actual Tour de France a couple of weeks before the pros go through he same road. Closed roads, support cars, fans, categorised mountains, the works.

My flights are booked, so's my accommodation, I've paid for a race entry place. It's actually happening.

One problem: I'm in no shape to do it. I'm at least five kilos too heavy, I'm rubbish at climbing (I was reduced to walking up Ditchling Beacon during London to Brighton), and I've never ridden that far.

And then there's the broom wagon. A van full of gendarmes sweeping up riders that aren't fit to ride the course. There are tales of men who've trained for months, broken themselves on the day, then been swept up 7km from the end. No medal for them. Or just not been fast enough at the start - and been pulled over and placed in the coach with plenty left in their legs.

Training, in earnest, has to start now if I'm to avoid this nightmarish vision of rolling defeat. Oh, and I should probably get a new bike.

The best research I've found on training seems to suggest that by February I need to be able to comfortably ride 60 miles without a break - to do that means long, then slightly longer rides at very least once a week throughout winter and probably some gym and indoor work as well. After that it gets hard.

Wish me luck!