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.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Put me back on my bike (with new shoes)

New shoes!
What have you been doing post-Etape? I've put on two kilos. I've also played football for the first time since February. Oh, and I bought new shoes.

Given I was meant to be commuting on my first road bike, I bought mountain bike shoes. Then much better mountain bike shoes (my first pair were from Sports Direct and cost me £19 if I remember rightly).

When I upgraded to the Felt, I bought better mountain bike pedals and kept the shoes. My thinking was, until I was good enough not to have to walk on a climb, I shouldn't have road shoes.

About a fortnight before the Etape, after getting angry while trying and failing to clip in repeatedly, I promised myself a decent pair of actual road shoes (plus pedals) if I finished without walking. I did.

So the day after the pros rode the Etape stage, when Voigt showed us how you're meant to descend Revard and Quintana showed us how you're meant to climb Semnoz, I took my new shoes and pedals out for a spin.

It was my first ride on the Felt since Annecy, my bike time being limited to commutes on the single-speed in the last couple of weeks, and there were problems.

I hadn't put the handle bars on right. I at first though they were simply at the wrong angle, but it became increasingly clear I just hadn't done them up properly as they angled lower and lower making gear changes and braking an issue. A quick pit stop a few ks from home to adjust and fully tighten fixed that.

My indexing was also off, with the bike slipping in and out of the big gears on the cassette in climbing mode. Not good. But not easily fixable or serious enough for me to try and address it roadside either.

One of my cleats on the new shoes was out of alignment too, seeing my foot angled too far inwards, and my saddle was too low. I increased the saddle height. Which felt wrong for a while, but then right again after a bit.

But the shoes-pedal combination. Wow.

My first experience with road shoe cleats hurt

Now, I'd gone out and bought quite good shoes (the best under £200 according to one survey, which I'd got for a lot less than that thanks to discounts) so it's hard to say if it was the pedals or shoes making the difference.

But the power. The connection to the bike. Out of the saddle it was the best I've felt - letting me stay up longer, more easily. In the saddle was great too. I was poring in power and set a series of new bests (two secs off a top 10 place on one flat stretch - putting me 22nd out of 2,361 people). There was just one problem. Clipping in.

My left shin currently has four rather large bruises on it, from when I missed the clip pushing off. And generally I was pushing off from traffic lights. So not the best time to skid off the top of the pedal.

Mountain bike pedals are double-sided, so they're always the right way up. Mountain bike shoes have a load of grip, so I was quite handy at cycling on them even without being clipped in.

This combination? My foot just skidded off the top of the pedal.

Old shoes - grippy and I was used to them. Also, they got me round the Etape
I was a bit cocky early on, trusting to gravity and not even looking down to clip in and clipping in first time. "This is easy," I thought.

I got that it was a different process. I tended to almost stab my foot into the MTB pedals. With these the plan was to hook the top (a bigger target) then roll my foot into the clip. Worked like a dream.

Until I missed one. It's a lot harder to clip by feel alone when only one side works with the cleats. It's also a lot harder to pedal un-clipped-in. This was the first pedal-shin-thwack moment.

There were four more. I became really rather cautious setting out from stationary. Very cautious indeed. It didn't always help (as the three subsequent shin-pedal interactions show).

I'm guessing it's a learning process, and that I'll get back to a place where I can clip without looking or worrying again. Although perhaps not riding out the saddle un-clipped-in, the way I can on the MTB set up.

But from the feel and the way I could apply power, I also think that's probably worth it.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Unbroomed - riding the 2013 Etape du Tour

So the thing you don't want to hear getting on to a plane flying you out to the Alps to ride a stage of the Tour de France is that your bike didn't make it.

I'd done all the preparation I could. Laid out my kit. My contingency kit. My documents. My spare tubes and multi tool (plus spare multi-tool). Pump, then CO2 + spare gas canister. My food for the ride. Spent an hour checking my gears. Packed sun cream and wet weather gear. Had a haircut and, ahem, shaved my legs.

I was packed and ready and I weighed in at 69.5kgs ahead of my carb loading.

Kit ready
Then my bike didn't make it. Not on my flight and not on the next flight from London either. I filed a report at Geneva Airport and considered the practicalities of bike hire.

How was I feeling? Empty. Not excited, not scared - empty. There was simply nothing I could do between Friday and Sunday that I hadn't already done or failed to do. The Etape was coming - all that was left was to ride it. I went and registered.

Etape village where we had to register (and get a free T-shirt and backpack)
The bike turned up late that evening, thank the almighty. I resolved to also put my helmet, gloves and sunglasses in my hand luggage next time (possibly my saddle too) to go with my pedals, race-day kit and shoes. That way if things went wrong again all I'd need was the bike itself.

We took a 40km tour of Lake Annecy the day before the ride - which was perfect. A bit of climbing, a bit of descending, and a flat spin to check out the bike and my legs - all was working well (although Pez punctured, and two inner tubes later headed to the Mavic stand at the Etape village where the mechanic found a piece of glass lodged in his tyre).

Lake Annecy is pretty
I crammed as much food into me as I could, had a single beer, and went to bed early. Tomorrow was D Day.

Starting out
The pen was packed. Pen 11, the pen of champions. I spent a lot of time looking for idiots. I was hoping for lots of idiots. I really didn't want to think that the hundreds of people who fail each year were the ones that prepared well.

Moody, busy, we prepared to roll out
There were remarkably few idiots. There were remarkably large numbers of incredibly impressive bikes. I mean, I ride a £2,400 carbon bike, and I have never been so comprehensively and consistently out-biked. Bianchi Oltres, Specialised S-Works, Colnago CX Zeros – Dogmas, everywhere. I've never seen so many pro-level bikes outside of a professional peleton.

One person was stretchered out of the pen. Getting that far then not being allowed to start - gutting.

Then off we rolled, if a little delayed. I used my London to Brighton experience to get a jump on Pez and Paul - forcing my way further and further ahead among the packed cyclists. Fewer people in my way when we got rolling or hit squeeze points on the road was high on my agenda.

Pen of champions
And then we were through the timing point and off for real - and I just didn't know why people were going so slowly. The first 7km is the only flat on the course. We should have been in a peleton doing 50kph. They weren't even doing 30. I could need that time later, there was no wind, the roads were closed and there was no reason not to be going faster.

I hit the left of the road - the fast lane - and pushed. Riding solo I was well over 30kph and frequently over 40. I eventually found a wheel going at a decent speed to follow and spent the last couple of ks of flat in a mini-group buzzing past slower cyclists.

A sharp right at a roundabout and then the first climb. The Cat 2 Cote du Puget. 5.4km at 5.8%

Now my plan - if you can call it that - was to use as little energy early as I could get away with, make up time going fast on the descents and on the flat, and keep as much in reserve for Semnoz as possible.

Fighting trim
It turns out I was deeply wrong about my cycling ability.

I cruised up Puget - but I never left the left lane. The overtaking lane. I was cruising in a low gear, spinning my legs and putting in as little effort as I could get away with, and I was passing cyclist after cyclist.

This was repeated on Col de Leschaux (3.6km at 6.2%) - which I rode up chatting amiably to someone in a Sky jersey who laughed when I compared the congestion to Ditchling Beacon at the end of London Brighton. Somewhere around here Paul finally caught up with me and rode by putting in - if anything - less effort than me.

Now I should point out I wasn't going fast, just faster than my pen-mates and the people in the pen ahead. But passing that many cyclists on a hill felt really wrong.

As well as being - incredibly - faster than most of the people around me I was also faster on the rolling country. In many cases a lot faster. My experience on the flat at the start was repeated.

People just seemed happy at 25kph on the flat. Madness. Although this time I didn't find a group to ride with, I did make the effort to remember to look right - at the scenery.

It's stunning. Beautiful. Magnifique, in fact. The blue lake surrounded by mountains. Rolling hills and green meadows filled with sheep and cows. The towns along the way as pretty as you like, and filled with people shouting encouragement.

I skipped the first drinks stop, stopped at the second to grab some food, and headed onwards towards the Cat 3 hills of Côte de Aillons-le-Vieux (6km at 4%) and Col des Prés (3.5km at 6.5%) where the same experience repeated itself. Not pushing but going faster than most, staying in the left lane. Passing people.

Then I learnt I was wrong about another assumption. Descending. It turns out I suck at descending.

Stop posing and get your hands on the goddam drops!
The first descent worth the name was down Pres to a drinks stop at the foot of Revard. Everyone whistled by me. Pez - a self-confessed poor descender - beat my time down that hill.

My climbing experience was reversed, all of a sudden it was me standing still as seemingly the whole of the Etape zoomed by me. It was the people as much as the road - I think - the ones in front, the ones going by, the ones behind shouting at me for trying to take a racing line.

The roads were closed but after almost coming off twice in the last two rides when people stopped in front of me I just didn't trust them. Certainly not when an off could end my day.

After refilling my bottles and downing a gel and most of a bar at the drinks stop at the bottom of Revard, Pez caught up with me. I'd expected it sooner if I'm honest. He's a better climber than me and I didn't get too much of a jump on him at the start, but had somehow managed to stay ahead over the first 65kms. That ended on Revard.

65km - the serious bit begins
The serious bit
Now, the 2013 Etape had two clear parts. The flat-uppy-rolling-uppy-downy bit, where none of the hills are that long or that steep and there's 1,500m of climbing over 65kms. Standard fare for a British rider really, if anything easier as they tend to throw steeper hills into sportives over here.

Then there's the Alpine bit. Two thousand-metre climbs. Both more than 10km long. And it was hot. Really hot. With no clouds and very little shade.

I started Col du Mont-Revard (16km at 5.4%). The plan was easy - sit, spin, keep the heart rate down and keep doing that for as long as it took to crest the summit. It took me 1hr 36mins.

Any concept of a fast or slow lane was replaced with a universal hunt for shade. Riders seeking out any scrap of cover they could. I drank a lot. I got hotter.

Eventually sitting for that long made the pain from my back too much, I got off and stretched and popped a couple of ibuprofen I had in my saddle bag. It wasn't my only stop to stretch and rest my back.

Pain from back growing. Scenery nice, mind.

After what felt like a geological epoch had passed I reached the top and a welcome food and drinks station. I grabbed some food, re-filled my water bottles, put my gilet on and headed down the descent. 12kms of it. Being passed constantly by everybody (I think I might have gone by one man on a mountain bike or similar, but that was it).

This should be spectacular in Le Tour - fast, sweeping bends. Even with my wimpy descending I averaged 40kmph down here, the pros will destroy it.

Then, at the bottom, I was off - 19 kilometres of rolling countryside as an aperitif to La Semnoz.

It was as glorious a stretch of road as I've ever ridden. I didn't find a group, although did find a couple of wheels now and again. But cruising along, out of the saddle, in the saddle, through the winding closed roads of France through villages and cheered on by locals (who were fantastic throughout) was a true pleasure.

I forgot I was in the Etape, I was just loving it. Almost done, sun shining and...  wait. What the eff am I doing? Why am I thrashing myself just before the hardest hill I will ever ride? I slowed down. A lot.

And then, Montée finale du Semnoz.

The Semnoz
It's officially 11.5km at 8.3%. It's not. It starts 3km sooner (with this 3km at 8.2%). And the 8.3% masks a multitude of gradients. The first 2km consistently over 12%, then a break, then hard, really hard, again.

I caught up with Pez at the food stop in Gruffy - with a band playing and volunteers spraying hoses over hot riders. I stole one of his super-gels (50g of carbs! Plus caffeine!) filled my water bottles (one with caffeine-carb drink, one with electrolyte) stuffed some cake and dried apricots in my mouth and set off.

It broke me.

Just 11km after the food stop there was another drinks break 8km from the finish. I didn't even make it that far.

In my bottom gear, going slow, the kilometre signs seemed light-years apart. I was weaving. I was the only person weaving. I had no clue why other people weren't weaving. Especially as I kept passing the non-weavers. Plenty were walking.

The heat got worse. It was about 3pm, as hot as it gets. There was no cover. I drank as much as I could stomach. It tasted bitter in my mouth. I wished, wished, I'd had the sense to have plain water in one of my bidons. I would have drenched myself in it.

Every. Pedal. Stroke. Hurt. My arms looked like they were glazed; such was the uniform coating of sweat. My head was getting hotter and hotter, my hands started to shake. I was 500m from the drinks stop and I couldn't keep riding.

I saw some shade by the side of the road, and threw myself and my bike into it.

"Oh. Hello Pez," were the next words out of my mouth.

After an indeterminate period sitting in the shade with Pez trying to cool down. Trying to drink the too sweet, too bitter, brackish liquid I had with me. Mostly not moving. We set out again.

Of course, this is when it got easier, almost downhill to the drinks stop. Obviously.

I learnt from my mistake and poured out the electrolyte drink and filled up on plain water. I also poured most of a bottle of it over my head, arms, neck and back. I absently wondered if this would break my phone. It didn't seem to matter much.

I set off again.

The final eight kilometres were hard. But also the last. Seven months training for eight kilometres. Only an hour more. That's barely even a turbo session.

Six kilometres. I got off and stretched my back. Five kilometres, four. That's half an hour. I can do this. It's not getting easier, but I can do this. Three. A stretch. Back on the bike, my god it's hot. Why isn't it levelling off near the summit!?

Two. Just two. I might only be doing 7kph, but even at that speed it's just over 15 minutes left. One. One kilometre and I'm done.

500m - it's time to kick. I went up through the gears. 200m. I shifted into the big ring. Sur le effing plaque - to paraphrase. I stood on the pedals. I sprinted.

I crossed the line, got a sticker, and promptly threw up. Somehow, I'd just ridden a stage of the Tour de France.

Out of the saddle, big ring, sprinting with the last ounce of energy I had

The best sticker I've ever been given
Our Etape in Numbers:

Rider     Total Time     Ranking (out of 11475 starters)     Climbing time     Climber ranking
Andy     6.12               2848                                               3.39                     2194
Bobby   6.25               3543                                               3.52                     3131
Paul       7.29              6768                                               4.36                     6548
James    8.01              8213                                               4.48                     7335
Pez        8.05              8353                                               4.45                     7167

How did you get on?