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.


  1. Good article.

    I am also looking for a fitting. Back, neck and knee pain on longer rides.

    Where you going?

  2. Learning from your mistakes does this mean I shouldn't put on my new seat and straight away do a 115k charity ride up the Cormet de roselend?

    1. Seat should be fine, as long as it's the same height from the pedals/at the same angle

  3. Btw, croink face is great - it really shows your pain!