Monday, November 18, 2013

25 things that are trying to kill you as a cyclist in London

Nine separate categories of thing in the photo could be about to kill these cyclists

Here follows a list of the things that are constantly trying to kill anyone on a bike in London, in alphabetical order, because dying one way is generally as serious as dying any other. Cyclists of London, know your enemy.

Buses (moving) - large, red, slow to accelerate, easy to spot, and experienced at driving in London - buses should be fine. Two problems - first, buses and bikes share rights to bus lanes (frequently the safest place to ride - apart from the buses). Second, massive blind spots. Buses don't want to kill you, and they'll feel sad if they do, but they will kill you none the less.

Buses (stopped) - bus stops are in the middle of cycle lanes. So they pull into them, stop in them, then pull out of them. Blocking them. You're back in the traffic. Playing with the other things that want to kill you. Be especially careful passing stopped buses, whether they're signalling left or not (See above for blind spots).

Cars (moving) - cars don't always look, do turn without signalling (especially left), change lanes without looking, pass too close, pull away without signalling, shock you silly by beeping their horns because you dare to use the same road space as them, speed, stop far more rapidly than you can and a hundred other things that can see you dead. Frequently this is not their fault (when swerving or braking after a dog runs into the road, for example). Never trust them.

Cars (parked) - arguably more dangerous than Cars (moving). Cars park illegally, frequently. The one time I hit a moving car it was because a parked one had blocked my view round a corner and we both (coming in opposite directions) had moved to the middle of the road to see better (we also both slowed down because we couldn't see so no damage was done to either me, the bike or the car as a result). Parking in bike lanes or where you can't see them well in advance means pulling into the stream of traffic. And then, of course, there is "dooring". There is nothing, at all, you can do to stop yourself smashing into a door opened in front of you - apart from cycle in the middle of the road all the time - which greatly annoys other road users. Slowing down when within dooring range helps, but will not save you.

Casual cyclists – Boris Johnson has a lot to answer for. The crippling cost of public transport combined with congestion on the roads mean more and more people are taking to bikes without knowing what they’re doing, and his handy cycle-hire scheme is responsible for an awful lot of them. Boris bikers are frequently tourists, not only unused to cycling, but unfamiliar with the roads and highway code. Others are used by business men getting to and from meetings, with a sense of entitlement and belief that they are more important than every other road user and that the rules don’t apply to them. Not forgetting the drunks deciding to cycle rather than wait for a night bus or use the Tube. All of them are slow, unpredictable, in the way and to be feared. Treat them like horses, give a wide berth and expect them to do all manner of things that could result in your untimely demise.

Cycle lanes – these would be lovely if they had been build into the road design from the off. They weren’t, and as a result they mostly look like someone’s slapped some paint on a condemned house and claimed it’s fixed now. And about as effective. They start without warning, wander onto the pavement on the inside of pedestrian crossings (where, you know, pedestrians cross and wait to cross) pass roads on the left (where cars have to block them to see) throw you back into the traffic just after lights and before a bus stop then disappear – and that’s just riding the first 500m from Vauxhall to Stockwell. Don’t even get me started on CS2. In fact, I don’t need to – see for yourself. Then you get blamed for not using them by drivers. And worse, people relax in them then see them interrupted or cut off and dumped in traffic just as the most dangerous part of the riding (generally junctions) begins.  Far too many people are killed on or just after cycle lanes, if that doesn’t tell you there’s a problem, nothing will.

Drain covers - see paint, with the added risk your front wheel slips between the grating and they become de-facto pot holes too.

Green lights - people don't stop for the red ones, so don't trust the green ones. They are the smiling assassins of London cycling.

HGVs – nothing, and I mean nothing, scares me more on the roads than HGVs. They are responsible for as many cyclists’ deaths as everything else combined despite making up a tiny fraction of the traffic on the capital’s roads. In the last two weeks alone at least five people have been killed by large vehicles. Why? Massive blind spots and wheels that once you go under you’re gone. People have been hit by them turning left, at junctions as well as run down from behind (they have a blind spot in front of them as well as at the sides). Basically, if you see one take your usual level of fear, and quintuple it.

Invulnerable/oblivious commuters – no lights, or lights so powerful they blind you (and cars) utterly. Cycling in a bubble of either perceived invulnerability or utterly oblivious to what’s going on around them. They don’t stop for lights or junctions or zebra crossings or respect one way streets. One shoulder barged by me shouting “excuse me!” because I’d stopped at a red light at a cross-junction. They do often wear fluorescent clothing and have reflective trouser clips. This might be the secret to their special power to defy the law. And physics. Remember the footage of the girl who almost died trying to keep going at a level crossing – well that, all the time. They don’t plan to kill you, but the traffic accident they cause could.

Lycra louts/messengers – anyone wearing lycra on London’s streets is basically either lost, tying to prove something to themselves or has more money than sense. On a sportive, in a race, even on a long weekend ride it’s wonderful stuff – comfortable, low wind resistance, warm or cool depending on the gear and with practically placed pockets. During rush hour none of these things are relevant. You’re not in the saddle long enough to need the padding, going fast enough to care about the wind resistance and you almost certainly have a bag to stow things in with you (it's possibly, maybe acceptable at the end of a very long commute). One thing they do often have is an insane sense of entitlement, a need to prove they’re the real cyclists. They have to be at the front, they will pass you on the inside at 25mph, or on the outside as you’re trying to negotiate a bus that’s stopped in the cycle lane, or as you’re turning a corner (inside or outside). All of it can put you (both) down and under the wheels of an HGV. Take this lack of patience, replace the road bike with a fixie and the lycra with skinny jeans and you have messengers. They do all of the above but add in zipping through gaps too small for you to consider at full speed and a contempt for almost every rule of the road – especially red lights. They’ve already accepted their own deaths, don’t let them take you with them.

Motorcyclists/scooters – imagine something that exists in the same space as a cyclist but can travel at three times the speed. Well, yes, that does describe Boris bikes and everyone else, but it also applies to motorcyclists. They’re hard to see (similar size to a cyclist) and far, far faster. They also use bus lanes and ride between traffic lanes. They kill you when you think you’re safe.

Paint - I like cycling on the paint - it's smoother than most tarmac. Unless it's wet, when it may as well be ice. Going over road paint when braking or turning in the wet – even just a stripe - can see you off. Paint also wants you dead.

Pedestrians - fact* (*probably not a fact) many more cyclists have been killed by pedestrians than vice versa. Why, because they don't look, have music on, step into the road with no warning wearing dark clothing at night, trail luggage behind them and offspring and pets in front of them, are utterly unpredictable (especially the little ones), and sometimes look you in the eye then intentionally walk in front of you in some sort of crazed power trip ("Glad to see you've got good brakes" one actually said to me after doing this). They step out from behind stationary buses, vans and lorries with no warning when you are riding in a clear patch of road. As the only road users potentially more vulnerable than cyclists, you'd think they'd be more careful but, no, they're not. They are, instead, the kamikaze pilots of London's streets.

Pot-holes - you can break a wheel, somersault forward over the bars or even just lurch into traffic thanks to pot holes. Pot holes are also frequently found in places where cars brake heavily, meaning poor visibility and turnings, and on the left of the road - where cyclists tend to ride. Road users in front of you can mean you don't see them until really, really late, meaning you take the pain and the risk of damage, or swerve hard around them (which brings other potential murderers into play).

Rain - rain not only makes the road more slippery and reduces your grip, turns otherwise benign things like paint against you and soaks you - rain makes you blind. If you have glasses, they will be covered in spray and you don't have windscreen wipers. If you don't you will have to squint or risk blindness. Road spray from other road users (cyclists, be kind to your brothers and sisters and Get A Fucking Proper Mud Guard on your rear wheel - and I mean a proper one that covers half way down not just one that keeps the spray off you) gets into your face even after it stops raining and is probably worse than the rain as it includes mud and grit. Perhaps worse, it reduces visibility for everyone else, especially out of wing mirrors. Make no mistake, rain wants you dead.

Roundabouts - how do you use a roundabout safely as a cyclist? When no one else is on it or near it. If you stay on the outside lane, people will turn left into you. If you try to get on the inside lane people on the outside might not turn off. People (including cyclists) are awful at signalling at roundabouts, they also panic as they realise they're in the wrong lane and need to correct fast to make the exit they need.  There's no real accepted - or at least widely practised - way for a cyclist to deal with this. Be scared, check to your right every time you go past an exit and repeatedly to your left if you're planning to turn off. Don't trust anyone on the roundabout or roads approaching it. Far too many have died on roundabouts in the last week alone.

Taxis – everything that applies to cars applies to taxis, with the added risks that come from being allowed in bus lanes, swerving to stop to pick up pedestrians, swerving to stop to let off pedestrians and passengers opening road-side doors into your face. They have the advantage of being driven by far better and more cycling-aware drivers though** (**does not apply to Addison Lee or mini-cabs)

The cold - the cold's most obvious method of killing you is through ice on the road surface. This leads to cars skidding into you even if you avoid it yourself. But it is subtle, too. Rain and cold, or even just cold alone, can see your hands freeze up. Those hands you need for things like, well, braking. Cold has the cold heart of a serial pensioner killer, it won't hesitate to kill you too.

The kerb - like parked cars, the kerb also wants you to die. Too close to a high kerb sees your pedal "ground out" lifting the bike briefly into the air and you almost certainly onto the pavement or asphalt shortly afterwards. Clipping a kerb side on with your front wheel can also result in spilling onto the road. The problem is compounded if there are railings or signs (vertical, metal, collar-bone smashing poles) on the pavement to crash into or prevent you getting off the road.

Thieves - I heard a remarkable story of someone whose skewers were stolen while their bike was locked up. They realised coming over a sleeping policeman when their front wheel detached. I now obsessively check mine are in place before cycling off. Thieves care for neither your property nor life.

Things on the road -  pot holes are far from alone in trying to kill you - glass, nails, bits of broken car, flint - any manner of road detritus could see an explosive puncture unseat you. Plastic bags, string and newspaper can foul your gears. Leaves, when wet, will have no grip. Neither does mud. I once wiped out, on a dry day, directly in front of a bus because I hit my brakes at the exact moment a flattened beer can was under my rear wheel and it acted like a skate. Don't trust the road, or anything on it, it wants you dead.

Wind - cycling along, minding your own business, passing between two building and then - wham! Wind's got you, a two foot sideways lurch into traffic and you're gone my friend. On the plus side, it hates people with "aero" bikes and wheels far more than you. Not that you will stop it pushing you into oncoming traffic for larks.

Your bike - of course, you don't need a thief to result in a catastrophic wheel loss mid ride. Sometimes your bike has had enough with you and decides to end you all by itself. Bikes that are routinely abused or neglected (you know who you are) are more likely to suddenly fall apart than those that come from loving homes, but even the best-cared-for chain occasionally snaps, spoke pings, crank falls off, pedal breaks and cable snaps. The bike is not on your side either, watch it closely.

Yourself - let's be honest, you can avoid all of the above and still be killed on a bike. Whether it's pushing on a descent for that Strava KOM, taking in the stunning sunrise over the Thames, missing the clip on your pedals and seeing your foot scoot across them pulling away from lights, or just, well, switching off momentarily. You want you dead too - don't forget it.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

How to beat last year's Etape result: A 7-point plan

The 2013 Etape hurt. A lot. But this year I'll be better prepared.

Firstly, I've got new bike stuff. New shoes and pedals - so more power into the wheel - and I'll try and get some fancy wheels to go with them if I can summon up the cash between now and July.

Secondly, I'm not as fat. Last year I lost 10 kilos to compete, I've put some of it back on (about 3kg), but that means I've got a lot less to lose and should, ideally, be lighter this year.

Thirdly, I'm fundamentally fitter. Right now a 50-mile ride isn't really a thing. Last year it was quite  big deal.

Fourthly, I had a bike fit (full report later on). With a bit of luck (and some physio) this means I'm not only more efficient on the bike, but I won't have to get off to stretch my back as often. Or, ideally, at all. That alone would cut a load of minutes off my 2013 time.

Fifthly, I've actually trained for this before. I know what worked (turbos, hill repeats, sportives) what didn't (taking May off to go to weddings, spraining my ankle playing football 5 days before training camp) and can tailor my training around it.

Sixthly - riding to work. I'm doing that a lot more meaning I'm just getting more time on the bike than I did last year, earlier. I can only get two intervals in on my ride, but it's an incremental gain I'm happy to have.

Finally - I bought an aero shirt. This allegedly saves me 30secs an hour. There's no way I can do worse!

Added bonus point - I'm scared sooner. That's because I'm also riding one of the Spring Classics. Not just any one, the 250km+, 5,000m of climbing, oldest, longest and possibly hardest Spring Classic: Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Fittingly in its 100th edition (as the Tour was last year).

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Oops I Did It Again...

So, I've been thinking about this year's Etape. For a while.

I mean, part of me was saying I'd already done the Etape. That the Marmotte was harder. That there were multi-stage races, one day classics, available too.

But then they announced it. The Tourmalet. The Hautacam. The two most iconic climbs of the Pyrenees. In one race. With the pros riding through four days later.

The Alpe and the Telegraph will be there in the Marmotte next year. Or the Year after. The Ventoux has its own challenge.

So I'm riding the Etape again in 2014. With one or two things to get out of the way first...

I might have signed up to Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the oldest and possibly hardest one day race in cycling and the London Revolution (300km around London in May) and entered the ballot for the London 100 sportive too.

I have my Etape place, and all it took me was €95 and two and a half hours of arguing with the ASO site to sort out.

Anyone else with me?

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Do not adjust your position - croinking on my first post-Etape sportive

Getting your riding position right matters. It helps you avoid injury. Helps you get more power. Helps you, fundamentally, ensure more of your energy goes into the wheels.

Pez and Bobby both went for bike fits ahead of the Etape, in fact, Pez's riding style is now frequently remarked upon as incredibly smooth. It wasn't before the fitting.

But, for the love of god, don't decide to mess with your riding position just before 127k sportive.

Trust me on this.

It was our first post-Etape ride together: seeing Pez, Paul and me rock up in our matching Rapha Etape shirts. And we were going for gold.

Last time we were out we all missed silver times by not much. But this course was a sinch after Annecy. 127k long, with just 1,300 metres of climbing. We only needed a 25kph average to get gold times. Easy.

The course profile

Unfortunately I'm a moron

The week before I'd taken my new shoes and pedals out for a ride and set a string of personal bests. My post-Etape condition combining with better power transfer to through my feet.

But I'd felt a bit low in the saddle - so I moved my seat up. That made the saddle feel a bit wrong, so I moved that too. It felt odd for 10 minutes, then strong, really strong. But I only rode about 10km in the new position before Sunday.

I'd also played a 5-ish hour game of cricket the day before, my first for months, not carb loaded properly, hadn't drunk enough liquid during a long day in the sun and compensated with a couple of beers after the game.

After a bad night's sleep, I was up at 5am, a rode 2 miles to a station, had a 5 mile train journey then a 60-mile car trip to the start.

All in all, perfect preparation.

Feeling strong

After a bit of Etape chat from other riders and the event staff about our matching kit (Paul didn't wear the socks, the loser), we were off.

The mission was simple: 5hrs 9mins, including stops, for a gold time. We needed to average about 25kph (15.5mph) to do it.

I was somehow feeling strong, despite my preparation, and set off accordingly. In a microcosm of the Etape, I rode off the front, although not too far, Paul caught me and passed me earlyish and Pez caught up at the first break stop.

At that point I was averaging more than 27kph. Paul had his indexing tinkered with by a mechanic, Pez and I grabbed some food and some more drink, and even after this period stationary we were averaging 26kph as we set off again as a group.

Losing it

At the half way stage I was still on for a gold time. On a course that was front-loaded with climbing that was good news.

We were all together again briefly at the second break stop - although I'd dropped a bit behind Pez and Paul. I let them go ahead of me while I loaded up on food and relieved myself at the loo there.

I was pushing it close for a gold time by the time I rolled out. But if I dodged the final food stop I should be able to make it, especially as I was over the worst of the climbing and was still really close to a 25kph average.

A few minutes later I found Pez on the side of the road with the front wheel off his bike. Rule 84 meant I could legitimately stop to help.

I did, we got him up and running in a few minutes (with the aid of one of my spare tubes and his CO2 dispenser) and I set off again.

But gold time was slipping, fast, through my fingers. Oh, and I was hitting an energy low.

My lack of carb loading and not eating everything I could as I rode along was taking its toll. My energy levels were dropping - Pez was feeling it too.

We stopped at the third break stop. Paul - already ahead of us - didn't. I was desperately looking for some salty snacks, there weren't any. There was some more Etape chat from some people who'd been out in Annecy and others who'd done previous editions. Which was rather nice, if I'm honest.

We also faffed for a bit, by this point I was realising there was more wrong with me than a lack of sugar.


After our third break stop - with 30k left to ride - gold times weren't really on the agenda any more. Well, we'd passed the highest point on the course so there was a vague possibility. But not a lot more than that.

And I was in trouble. My ham strings were bad. Really bad. And I had a sugar low.

I was stuck somewhere between cramp and boink - although not a full dose of either. Between them it was enough though. I was croinking.

Pez pulled away from me effortlessly, there wasn't much climbing left, wasn’t' much riding left, but I really didn't know if I was going to make it.

I pulled over, tried to stretch my hams, had an energy bar and a long pull from my carb-drink. It was the best I could do - I had nothing with salt, magnesium or potassium in it for the suspected cramp.

I got back on, rode up a hill - posing for a camera on the way (I was in my Etape shirt after all) - then collapsed at the summit. I tried stretching, ate everything I had left on me, drank a load more carb-drink to wash it down, rested.

I set out again, with no power in my legs, and it slowly dawned on me what had happened.

Croink face

Jacques Anquetil

One of the first really successful cyclists to look outside his sport - and to science - for answers, five-time Tour de France winner Jaques Anquetil took a look at rowing.

Rowing uses similar muscles to cycling and is an endurance sport. There are cross-over success stories even today (Rebecca Romero springs to mind). But the rowing stroke rate is low, much lower than cycling, with more power each pull.

That means muscles are used differently and the position on the bike to make the most of this has to be different too.

Anquetil worked with experts, adjusted his position on the bike, lowered his cadence and upped his power. He set a new world time trial record rocking a much higher gear than the last holder (53:13, rather than 53:15). But it took months of leg-wrecking practice to adjust to this new position. I knew all this.

More, after Bobby's bike fit he said it felt like he'd lost all his climbing power. His new position changed the muscles he used when riding and it took a fair while for his body to adjust.

I had given myself no time at all to adjust to a new riding position. One that clearly took more out of my ham strings than the old one. They were gone.

I was OK out of the saddle, but how long can you ride out of the saddle for? Longer than I thought, as it turns out, but not 20km.

Letting down the jersey

Those last 20 kilometres hurt. I had no power - all hills were climbed in the lowest possible gear.

Everyone passed me. Men pushing their wives up moderate inclines were too quick for me to catch. All of them faster than the Etape jersey on my back.

I still had speed out of the saddle and on the flat I could use this to accelerate then try to hold it after sitting back down, but I was basically toast.

I limped home in 5:43:20. Not only had I missed a gold time, I'd missed silver too - by less than a minute and a half. I was on-pace for gold for three-quarters of the ride.

To put the "croink" into context - with 50k to go I was next to Paul. He beat me by 37 minutes and got a gold time. With 30k to go I was riding with Pez. He beat me by 20 and got a silver time.

By the time I crossed the line they had both collected their medal and goody bag, packed up their bikes, put them in Paul's car, changed and were eating ice cream waiting for me at the finish.

I'm going for that a bike fit. Oh, and checking what the silver time cut off actually is next time - I could have found that 1:20 almost anywhere if I knew I needed it.