Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Burning all your matches

In September last year I rode Haute Route Dolomites – by the end of it I was in, if not the shape of my life, then pretty bloody close.

This year was meant to be about getting back to basics after making continental jaunts the centre-pieces of my past three years - some British sportives, social rides with friends and commuting. Then I decided to move house, the road bike and the turbo went to live with my parents and I've barely pedalled at all.

Until this weekend – when I somehow ended up in a 24-hour race around Brands Hatch as part of the Sportive.com team.

It was, to put it mildly, a rude awakening.

Fat lad at the back

It's been years since I've been slow. I mean, I've never been that FAST on a bike either, but slow is something that hasn't been true for a long time.

After Haute Route I rode a 7:29 time up Box Hill – putting me in the top 15% of the 66,000 people who've logged that climb on Strava. That's faster than the best times of five of the six other people on my team – with the seventh member not having a time logged.

This weekend I was by far and away the slowest person on the track.

There were some things I could still do – my bike handling was fine. My descending OK. But with no power in my legs and carrying 6kgs more than last year, I wasn't taking enough speed INTO the descents, or able to keep any speed that I did built up going on the flat.

I also had no endurance.

We were (mostly) running half-hour shifts, but the one time I extended that to an hour my times collapsed – I bonked after 35 minutes, putting in lap times an astonishing 3:30 slower than my fastest one as I lost the ability to push the pedals.

Last year the thought of a 100-mile ride barely registered, I rode the London-Surrey 100 as base miles. Now I couldn't do 40 minutes.

But while I'd lost fitness, power, endurance and leg speed – and gained weight – I hadn't quite lost everything.

In my final stint of the 24-hours I was determined to do better. To see if I could do what everyone else had been doing all day, and get a timed lap that started with a 7 (mine were split between 8s and 9s, with a couple of 10s thrown in).

That would mean laking a full minute off my average time, and knocking quite a few seconds off my best time so far (when I was towed round three different sections of the course by faster riders, before using them to slingshot into descents).

Blowtorching the matchbook

Any rider can push themselves too deep for it to be sustainable – what cyclists and coaches sometimes call burning a match.

When you start each ride you have a specific number of matches with you, the theory goes, each time you push beyond your limit one goes up in flames. You can train yourself to make them burn brighter, to need them less often and to carry more at the start of a ride. But when they're gone, they're gone.

I threw my matchbook into the bonfire.

Every Single Hill saw me go harder than I thought I could. Then, once it was finished, I went harder than I thought I could on the flat. Then pushed again on the descent.

My heart was thumping in my ears, my breath coming in frantic gasps... and then I pushed again, pushed harder, and drove on into the next hill, along the next flat.

Every corner was taken at the best line I could, as fast as I could, my body hunched over the bars – chin to stem – to eke out every fraction of a kph I could from my effort.

As the line approached I dug again, pushed again, forced my legs round faster and my chin lower. I had no clue if it was enough.

I rode into the pit garage at the end of my stint with nothing left – and asked if the times were in yet. They were – I'd ridden my last full lap in 7 minutes, 55 seconds.

A terrible time for most of the team, but enough for me to beam from ear to ear (and faster than three of Jason Kenny's 60-odd laps).

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Wyldsson Bar Mix Original review: Can you really make your own energy bars at home? One idiot tries

I can’t bake. Almost any form of cooking is beyond me. In fact, I once managed to mess up a frozen pizza (I somehow made it melt through the oven shelf) I’m banned from cooking at home for a reason.

So when I was given the assurance I WOULD be able to make my own energy bars - at a cost of less than 50p each - I was intrigued.

Firstly, that’s seriously cheap. Secondly, they were all natural, nutritionally balanced and customisable to your own tastes. Thirdly - the recipe had just 4 ingredients. I had to try.

Step one - assemble ingredients:

For this you need a banana, an egg, some nut butter (almond recommended) and a bag of bar mix. 

It’s the third one of these that is the super-power, as your typical “make your own energy bar” recipe has upwards of 10 ingredients, including hard to find things like “organic, virgin coconut”, “pear and apricot or prune spread” and “hemp seeds”.

I do not know what many of these things are, let alone where to find them. If I did get them all, there would also then be the issue of wastage (would I really use an ENTIRE packet of hemp seeds? Do they go off? etc etc).

The mix bag has this all sorted for you, costs £3.49, and even has a nutritional breakdown per 100g (two bars) on the back. One bag makes 500g of finished bars when the other ingredients are added.

So, after sending the flatmate to pick up a banana and an egg from the shops (he was going anyway) and grabbing the bar mix - along with the specially designed baking tray (you can buy it with the bar mix, adding about a fiver to the initial cost, but meaning your bars will be the right thickness) - I set about beginning.

Spot anything wrong? Yup. I'd forgotten the nut butter.

The eagle-eyed among you will notice there are two bananas here. That’s because you need two, not one. Fortunately my flatmate is cleverer than me, and bought a spare in case I did something this stupid. Crisis averted.

Step 2 - mash the bananas

So, after a couple of false starts, I started in earnest. Bananas peeled, loosely chopped I dropped them into a bowl to start mashing with a fork.

This took a long time.

A really long time. I put some coffee on

Eventually, I’d mashed the bananas. The consistency was… odd. Like very thick cream or very creamy porridge.

Step 3 - add more things and mix

Next came three tablespoons of nut butter (I used the recommend almond butter - which I got some at the same times as the tray and bar mix - but any nut butter will do, with peanut butter costing a lot less) and an egg.

I combined them, removed all (probably) the bits of shell I’d dropped in while cracking the egg  to make this attractive concoction.

Then simply mix together - which took a lot less time than mashing the bananas and produced gloop.

Next bit was easy, add the bag of bar mix to the gloop. This was where I discovered my next error. 

The bar mix was NOT going to fit in the same bowl as the gloop. I decided to mix them together in the baking tray (as it was all going to end up there eventually anyway).

This was not ideal. Trying to make it even and get all the gloop out of the first bowl proved somewhat tricky. I persevered

Step 4 - bake

Eventually I was happy with the mix, so patted it down to make it even and dropped it in the oven.

I’d even remembered to pre-heat the oven. At the right temperature (this is not a given, I once spent an hour wondering why something wasn’t cooking before realising the oven was set to 10 degrees, not 190 - it was the first time I’d ever cooked for my girlfriend).

The next step is simple, leave it alone for 20 minutes and drink the coffee you made when you got bored mashing the bananas (coffee not essential). 

Then check to see if it’s golden brown.

It wasn’t. I put it on for another two minutes. It still wasn’t “golden brown”. Another two minutes later I was starting to panic that it would never go golden brown and I’d burn it/ruin it in some other way so out it came.

My magnificent, home-made energy slab.

There’s very little left to do from here on in. The silicon baking tray means no need to grease or oil the tray before cooking and it’s easy to get the energy slab out.

This then goes on a cooling tray (I didn’t have one, so it went on the grill tray instead) for 15 minutes.

After that, just cut it into bars and you’re done.

The science bit

Cyclists care about numbers. Calories, protein, grams of carbs, fat, sugar etc. 7g of carbs processed per hour per 10 KG of body weight. 4:1 carb-protein ratio for managing energy vs muscle damage. That’s before we get into salt supplements and the rest of it.

I, more or less accidentally, cut the slab into 10, 50g ‘bars’. Which, was handy as the nutritional information is broken into 100g segments.

So, per bar, I had 154 calories, 20g of carbs and 3.65g of protein.

The recipe points out if you want more protein you can add a scoop (or more) of whey powder.

Once the bars are made, simply wrap in cling film or foil and they’re good to go in a jersey pocket to eat mid-ride.

I’d cut them a bit smaller than most bars, but then you can easily cut them to a different size, I was mostly guessing after all.

The taste

Fundamentally though, four things matter to most of the cyclists I know (more or less in this order). 

1 - Does it have the energy I need
2 - Will it mess up my stomach
3 - How much does it cost
4 - What does it taste like

I am lucky in my stomach - having eaten everything from random French breakfast jelly sweets to cheese when riding abroad (along with a host of odd local energy gels and bars and anything else the feed stations/Carrefour has to offer) without suffering for it.

But taste does matter to me and I’ll spend more to get something better tasting.

These taste great - more like a dense banana bread than a traditional bar or flap jack. The dried fruit, whole nuts and bran all make for a pleasant (and easy to chew) texture.

I actually prefer them to a fair few commercial bars I’ve tried, and found myself snaking on them far away from the bike after they were finished.

The cost

They’re a lot cheaper too -  coming in at £4.09 per 500g with peanut butter or £4.77 with the almond butter. That's compared with £5.35 per 500g of Hi5 energy bars (at 46% off), £8.85 for ZipVit bars (25% off), £5.54 for Cliff bars on the best deal I’ve found and £11.16 for Mule Bars (22% off)

So the question is whether the convenience of just buying them outweighs the inconvenience of baking them.

The answer is that I’m not sure. Flapjacks would be cheaper to make and probably as simple - but wouldn’t have the same balance of nutrients. Bars are a lot easier, but more expensive and not as nice.

So let me put it this way - while I’m not 100% sold on the virtues of making your own bars, I’m really keen to try the coffee mix.