Sunday, February 24, 2013

There are no mountains in England - warm weather training for the Etape du Tour

None of these in England (Photo Andy @aj6474 Just-Pedal chef)
Three thousand five hundred and one metres. That's how much climbing there is on the 2013 Etape du Tour.

There are at least two categorised climbs on stage 20 of this year's Tour de France. The stage I've signed up to ride in July.

But there are no real mountains in England and nothing as high as Mont Revard or Annecy Semnoz anywhere in the UK. No way to experience miles and miles of ascent without end. Or to practice a half hour descent.

But France has them, Italy has them, Spain has them and several islands within an easyJet flight of London have them. Also, February in England is cold.

So Pez, Paul and I went to Mallorca.

A week's riding in the favoured winter training resort of Team Sky was on offer by the Just-Pedal team. With great accommodation, meals by an in house chef, support vehicle, in-ride nutrition and guided rides. Fourteen of us were part of the group, along with five ride leaders.

On Sunday I met my first mountain. It didn't go well.

Coll de sa Batalla is 8.3 kilometres long rising 433 metres from the foot of the climb at 5.1% (Strava tells me). It took me 41 minutes and seven seconds. Six minutes more than Pez, who'd never beaten me on a climb before. I was dead last of a group that included several reluctant partners of keener riders (one of whom beat me by more than 12 minutes).

On a climb gentler than Box Hill, I'd averaged more than three kph under my best time there. It. Just. Didn't. Stop.

As an introduction to mountain riding it's fair to say it wasn't the best.

Excuses in early
I'd not ridden for some time, thanks to a bug picked up a week or two before the trip, so I popped off to play football on the Monday before we flew out to try and get some last minute cardio in.

With 20 minutes of the game left I fell - badly. A crunch, roll and muted scream later I sat on the astro-turf desperately checking to see if my ankle was broken or 'just' badly sprained. Thankfully, it didn't seem broken.

The next six days were a frantic race to get it in some condition to ride on - ice packs, compression bandages, ankle supports and elevation whenever possible meant that by Wednesday I could just about walk and by Friday my limp was greatly reduced. My ankle looked awful, but I flew out regardless - scared but hopeful.

Of course, that's no excuse for my performance up the hill on day one.

What goes up...

Once the coll had been, if not vanquished, at least mildly chided, we had to come down again. A real descent.

I've always thought I could descend, but it's never been more than a thought. I can. If not well, then better than anyone else in my group that day.

Spending 25 minutes going down, instead of 2, was another new experience - one I loved as much as I'd hated going up.

Tucking in, letting the bike run, swooping towards a corner, braking softly then harder and harder until I could see the exit, getting instantly on the power. Using as much of the road as I could.


Lessons from the colls

I'd clock 360 kilometres and 4,589 metres of climbing over six rides that week. I learnt a lot, which I'll talk about later to stop this becoming an epic novel rather than a blog post.

The first lesson was fuelling. I hit the bottom of sa Batalla on the back of 60 kilometres of riding having eaten far too little. I didn't make that mistake again.

How long a climb lasts was also something I'd never considered before. There's nothing long enough near me for that to matter.

But knowing exactly how much is left is incredibly important, it means you can pace yourself, set a tempo and really feel you're making progress - one k done, half way there, just two to go, entering the final stretch... Each mental marker makes the mountain less frightening. The progress more palpable.

The next key was pacing. My newly acquired heart rate monitor wasn't plugged in that first climb, it was when I tackled it on Thursday (sadly by a different route so no direct comparison is possible).

Holding a heart rate of between 160 and 170 bpm meant I knew I could handle the pace. If I dropped too low I pushed harder, if I went to hard I eased off. But I knew from turbo sessions at that rate I could definitely keep going for at least an hour.

That certainty, coupled with an absolute knowledge of how far was left, gave me confidence to ride harder.

Completing the Etape is still a long way off, but I understand the route to the finish far better now. And there will be some fabulous descents to look forward to along the way.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Second Sportive - The Wrong Decision

Hello, I’m Pez - a member of Team Etape. This Sunday myself, Paul and James were meant to be “cruising” the 50 mile route of our second sportive. It didn’t quite work out that way.

James ducked out, claiming he was still recovering from a bug, so I and fellow Etaper Paul planned to head off to the Gatwick Ride It Sportive on our own.

This was considered to be a good test of fitness as the 52 mile route only had around 2200ft of climbing so we hoped to finish comfortably in a good time.

The weather had other ideas. For the week leading up to the event the forecast for the Gatwick area was constant light rain from 7am until long into the afternoon. It resolutely refused to change and on the day before we were due to ride a game of chicken ensued where neither I nor Paul wanted to be the first to call it off.

Sunday morning came and the weather where I live (about 40 miles from Gatwick) was ok, scattered showers and 4 degrees, so after a further round of phone chicken I headed off to meet Paul. This was the wrong decision.

As we drove towards the start the weather gradually got worse and talk moved from whether we should do the shorter 33 mile route to whether we should just turn around and go home. The decision was taken that as we had driven so far we would just do the short route and try to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.

The ride started well. It was a lovely route with relatively clear roads – even with the standing water and the deteriorating conditions we managed to get to the top of the first real climb, about 15 miles in, in around an hour. As we hid under a bus shelter with a couple of other people the weather gradually got worse. We sucked it up and continued on to the rest stop after 21 miles.

The descent following this climb made me realise how much colder you can get when everything is wet. My face was frozen and a lack of proper waterproof gloves meant that it was becoming increasingly difficult to manage the brakes properly. I could also no longer feel my toes, having destroyed my shoe covers mountain biking a few months ago and not got round to buying new ones.

We stopped at the next rest stop, fuelled up on flapjacks and carried on for six more miles. After a final regroup we headed off and despite some hairy downhills I managed to cover the final 7 miles relatively quickly and hurried into the event centre to try and warm up and wait for Paul.

I waited and I waited. 10 minutes in I got concerned and tried phoning him - he is usually a stronger rider than me and the idea I could take that much time out of him in 7 miles made no sense. After 20 minutes he turned up and explained that he was so late because he had to stop for 15 minutes to try and warm his hands up enough to physically squeeze his brakes.

With hands so cold we could barely work the quick release on our front wheels we loaded up the car and then sat in the parking lot for 20 minutes with our hands in front of the heater until Paul felt it was safe for him to drive.

Then we got lost.

After a drive which was an hour longer than it should be Paul finally dropped me off and I grimly rode the last 5 miles home. Putting my hands back in my wet gloves was one of the least pleasant experiences of my life but it was better than having no gloves at all. Upper Tooting Road is among my least favourite places to cycle in good conditions so doing it whilst shivering and wet was a particularly horrible way to end the day.

On reflection we should have trusted the weather forecast and realised that without serious wet weather kit this ride would not have been pleasant. The only positive for me was that after the 33 miles I felt absolutely fine, in terms of legs and lungs, and would happily have done the next 20 to finish the medium Sportive if the weather had been better.

Paul on the other hand described it as ‘the worst day of his life’ which I felt may have been pushing it a little bit but then again he did have a harder time on the ride than me and I didn’t have to drive afterwards.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Eating is cheating - how to not to fuel when Etape training

Fellow Etaper Bobby fancied a ride this weekend. It was cold (maxing out at 5 degrees), clear, dry with intermittent sunshine.

So Pez and I joined him for a much-delayed trip to Box Hill with my new bike.

The bikes seemed unaffected by the climb, unlike their riders

Bobby scares me a bit. The only time I've ridden with him was a jaunt around the Englischer Garten in Munich, on hired city bikes (the incredibly heavy things that brake when you pedal backwards – something like these). No real indication of ability at all.

He's a bit taller than me, a fair bit lighter than me, runs regularly and on a secret training camp in Tenerife (ie he was the only member of Team Underprepared involved) rode from sea level to the rim of the volcano one day - a 2,000m ascent.

That was in December, when I was puffing round a 50-mile UK sportive.

We decided to cruise* until we reached Box Hill, arriving at the foot of the zig-zags 24 miles into the ride (for me, everyone came from different places to meet up).

And up we went.

The climb, always one of the jewels of the South Downs, has become something of a destination over the last couple of years. First the World Championships, then the Olympic men and women’s road race went up it (multiple times).

It was the fifth most popular bit of tarmac to ride on in the world last year. The road still has paint on it urging Cav, Wiggo and Froome Dog to ride like the wind.

Here's the Strava segment for the climb:

Bobby massacred me. On a bike that cost £300 new. With no clip-in shoes. Carrying a back pack weighing a fair few kilos.

Pez crested the hill a few seconds behind me.

At this point I'd had 200 calories of food all day (porridge for breakfast). That was it. Pez and Bobby wandered to the cafe while I minded the bikes at our table.

They came back with cake and espresso (Pez keeping it traditional) and a pasty. I had an energy bar.

Traditional cycling cafe food
Less tradiditonal cycling fare

We chatted, ate, and then Bobby looks up and says "let's do Box Hill again". No. Just no.

He then pointed out we were training for the Etape and needed hill work. He was, of course, right. Bastard.

Pez and Bobby at the Box Hill cafe, he's about to tell us to ride up the hill again

Box hill is 2.5km at 5%, topping out at 11.8% for sections. Mont Revard is 16km at 5.5%, so more than 6 Box Hills. Without a break at a cafe. With mountains behind and ahead.

So down we went and up we rode. I went from 15kph average to 14kph on the second climb. It hurt. Bobby wanted to do it again. We resisted successfully this time.

The view from the top is, to be fair, stunning. But taking off from the viewing point to begin the 25-odd miles home my legs weren't happy. Weren't happy at all.

Box Hill view

And to my right... Another Box Hill view
On the route home I covered a lot of familiar roads, it was embarrassing. Climbs I normally barely notice saw me shift into the small ring. Flats I tap along at 20mph I was averaging 15 on. There wasn't anything in the tank.

I kept in touch with Pez and Bobby by basically nailing my chin to the handlebars on any descent and making up some of the lost time.

47 miles in we stopped at another cafe, at that point, I worked out, I'd had 400 calories of food all day. I'd burnt 1,200 on the ride at that point (according to Strava). I had cake. And a Coke.

I managed the remaining 7 miles home somehow, even accelerating a bit at the end, but I really, really need to learn how to eat properly during a ride.

On the plus side, for all the damage Bobby did to me on the climbs, he got cramp on the ride home. Fast, he certainly is, but fragile.

*this never actually happens