Monday 11 August 2014

Spin to Win? Using a Spin Class to Train

I'm not a fair weather cyclist. I rather enjoy riding in the rain. In fact, I much prefer racing in the rain, as many others don't seem to like it as much. I guess this is what comes of hailing from Rochdale! However, yesterday I shamelessly avoided riding in the rain. There were a combination of factors: 13C weather with rain and gales courtesy of Hurricane Bertha after returning on Saturday from a fortnight in 33C sun, with no waterproof or baselayer to boot, I elected to give riding a miss. Instead, I decided to go to a spinning class to get the legs moving. 

I've done spinning classes periodically - usually when the weather is similarly terrible, or it's too dark - with varied satisfaction. Usually I've found them to be very dependent on the instructor, with one proper interval session in maybe 30 classes. It seems the classes are either based on random music tracks, or follow a 'ride' with climbs, flats and sprints etc. I realise that spinning isn't designed to be a training session for a competitive cyclist, and is in fact designed to keep the fitness enthusiast (or un-enthusiast in some/many cases...) entertained. Any fitness is good fitness sort of mentality.

Of course there is no problem with this, as it suits the purpose, and indeed my purpose in the instances of wanting to spin the legs and earn some cake! However, this is the first class I've done since becoming interested in/researching the science of cycling/physiology/training, so I thought I would examine it from this perspective. As a brief caveat, I am referring to general spinning classes one may find in a gym, rather than some of the specialist studios that have begun to spring up.

Most people see spinning as interval training, and to some extent it is, as there are intervals of harder work interspersed with lighter recovery. However, they may not be the kind of useful intervals that competitive cyclists are used to. I realise there are many, if not infinite variations of interval training, but all seek to train one part of the physiology specifically. For example, 2 x 20 is a popular variation, whereby after a warm up, 2 x 20 minutes are ridden around a threshold* intensity with a low intensity recovery between. This helps to train aerobic fitness. On the other end of the scale are sprint type intervals, which train the anaerobic system. Examples of this include 20 seconds of maximum effort followed by 20 seconds recovery, with a set number of blocks, and a set number of repeats per block.

One of the 'problems' I have with spin classes is the lack of specification within them. Take, for example, a class whereby the activity type is based on song choice, be this at random or planned. It is feasible, and likely, that 4 minutes of sprinting may be followed by 4 minutes of low cadence, high resistance, and then 4 minutes out of the saddle. Instead of training a specific area, this is essentially a sure fire way to fatigue all aspects without making particular gains for any of them. The only instance in which I could possibly imagine a training session is on a highly specialised training camp, such as a pro tour team, with the variety thrown in over 4 or so hours with long periods in between.

Also, there is not enough structure within the sessions. I appreciate that a 45 minute session is not a lot of time, but more structure is more efficient and effective. For example, below is my heart rate trace from the session. The first point is the lack of warm up included in the session. In my case it wasn't a problem, as I had been playing squash previously, but for those starting, there was little to behold. This isn't the main issue I have though; it is the lack of peaks and troughs. It is clear that although my heart rate raises and falls, it very rarely falls below 170BPM, which would maybe count as recovery in a crit race, it in inadequate for an interval session with frequent forays into 190BPM+ territory.

In fact I estimate my average HR to be about 182-184BPM warm up and cool down excluded! To put it into perspective, this is the kind of HR I would expect to achieve over a similar length of TT, circa. 20 miles in my case. For these I would aim to average 180, with a realistic average of just over. The point being, to get this average from intervals, either the intervals have been prolonged and off the scale, the recovery inadequate - non-existent, or - as I suspect - a combination of all.

In summary, there is no way you can possibly carry out each interval with maximum effort, as there is simply not enough time to recover before the next. It's a sure fire way to burn out within minutes, as the body simply cannot process the lactate in that time frame. If you persist, it's also a sure fire way to throw up... The answer may seem obvious - go easy to fit the period of recovery. However, in terms of training this is useless, as you don't get the stimulus required for improvement. It's like a hybrid bike: whereas marketing says it's a bike for all terrains, really it's crap at both.

All is not lost though. It is possible to make the most of the benefits of the spin class (warmth, company etc.) whilst still getting a good training session. It will become clear rather quickly how the instructor will run the session. Once you figure this out, you can adapt their idea to your own. For example, for a sprint session, you could take twice the recovery time, doing every other interval. Or, for the spinning class favourite of constant alternation between standing and sitting, imagine a stream of attacks whereby you sit for 2 or 3 X (X = time or revolutions), and stand for 1 X, i.e. chasing the attack. 

From a practical point of view, there are also several considerations when using spinning for training:

- Spin bikes vary greatly in adjustability from the best part of nothing to very little. Ok, pessimistic view, but it's not easy. Regardless, it's almost impossible to replicate your position on your bike, especially in the 5 minutes or so you have to do it pre-class, so be careful. Be wary of training slightly different muscles, or worst case scenario, picking up an injury.

- On a similar note, the Q-factor (width between pedals) tends to be larger than on a regular bike, and has the potential to cause a little knee irritation if you are prone to it. That said, I've never had too much of a problem, and I'm most certainly prone to knee issues!

- Saddle sores can be more likely from a spin bike for 2 reasons, the first of which is simply that the saddles tend to be on the wide side compared to what us roadies would usually use. The second is slightly more gruesome, and is the simple fact that lots of people use the bike and sweat profusely, meaning many unsavoury bacteria can linger. Some establishments have a disinfectant spray which I recommend use of before the class! Otherwise, antibacterial chamois cream is the way forward.

- Less basic spin bikes have facilities with clipless pedals, but none but the best will have anything other than mountain bike SPD pedals, which can be a disadvantage for roadies. Otherwise it's toe clips, which do the job fine, but try to get them ultra-tight, as it's easy to slip out at 150rpm+!

- Finally, as a courtesy, make sure you give the spin bike a good wipe down afterwards. Although some of your fellow spinners may not sweat - I'm not sure how, but many manage it...- if you're using it to train, you'll accumulate a lovely puddle underneath the bike!

Although this may seem overly critical of spinning, I'm not trying to put anyone off, I'm simply highlighting the issues for a serious cyclist looking to use it as a training session. If it's a case of this or doing nothing, then I highly recommend it! Any riding is better than none at all! 

Thursday 26 June 2014

Ginger Smallwood Memorial Road Race (3/4)

After racing a few circuit races, I decided to try racing on the open road. The Ginger Smallwood Memorial Road Race, organised by Kenton RC was being held locally, so I thought what better opportunity to try. The plan was for a few of us from LBRCC to enter, the theory being if we got dropped, we could either use it as a training session, or ride home easily! However, an email 2 weeks before the race stated that over 150 people had applied for 80 spaces, so entries would be limited to 3 per club...or as it turned out, 1 for our club - me! I can only presume that they accepted all 3rd Cat riders, and then worked down the points for 4ths. I was only 1 point off 3rd at the time, and 3rd by race day so that's why I got in.

Sunday came around and I was feeling good, having had a rest day Saturday after quite a tough week of riding. The weather was great, around 23C (fitting!) and little in the way of wind. Here lay he first debate of the day - 1 or 2 bottles for the race. I elected for one, as I don't tend to drink that much, and I figured as long as a downed a bottle before the start, I would stay hydrated enough. In fact I ended up drinking only half a bottle. I digress.

The race HQ was about 15km away, so I rode down to warm up, tagging onto an LBRCC group ride conveniently heading that way for some company. I got there with about an hour to go, and after signing on and hydrating, I went for a spin. Sign on closed at 9.40am, and as we assembled for the race briefing, I thought that it seemed a bit sparse for 80 riders! It turned out that only 58 bothered to turn up, which was annoying (especially for the organiser) when he'd turned 80 entries down! The race briefing went ahead, during which it was starting to feel really rather warm!

Briefing over, we set off behind the car for a couple of miles in the neutralised zone up to the start, during which brakes had to be slammed on twice, early leading to pile-ups! Not a good omen I thought! Anyway, we got to the start and immediately an attack was launched down the steep descent, followed by an eager pack. Rough roads and some sketchy riding lead to another slamming on of brakes, not ideal travelling at 65ish km/h! The smell of burning rubber was evident, as was the annoyance of many riders at our compatriots crossing the white line with countless blind corners. The first few corners of the race were tricky, with people still figuring out their lines, and a lot of cutting up leading to shouts of annoyance!

8% kick? Eeeaaasy!
The race continued with the 8% kick at the end feeling like a dream in the bunch compared to a windy recce earlier in the week. There were a few more incidents of brakes being slammed on, but I was keeping my usual inside line allowing space to bail if necessary. About 2 or 3 laps in, this happened on a straight, which I thought was odd. It turned out that a couple of horses were travelling the other way had got spooked and bolted, either knocking a racer off, or coming close enough to make him dismount quickly and unexpectedly! We were warned about slowing for horses, so I suspect the front riders may have ignored this. This became a problem twice more, as the horse riders kept on round our route, leading to 3 hairy moments and 3 neutralisations of the race. One thing that really annoyed me was riders behind coming past when we were stopped, I really thought this was rather unsportsmanlike.

Being my first race, I was wary about keeping to the rules, more specifically staying on the left hand side of the road. However, it became evident that this was not the norm - every time I gained ground up the inside, a stream of riders would pass on the right (wrong!) side of the road, with no consequences. About 5 or 6 laps in I moved towards the white line, gaining a little ground as we came up to the crossroads turn, where marshals were at least warning traffic.

As we turned, I heard an angry voice behind me, which soon became an angry voice next to me - 'Is there any reason you wouldn't let me in back there?!'. 'Excuse me?' I replied. 'Back there, why didn't you let me back in?! You let him in, but didn't let me in!'. I didn't recognise being near him, or the person I'd supposedly let in, which I told him, but he carried on his tirade. I did feel like pointing out that if he hadn't been across the white line, he wouldn't have had a problem but I resisted.

Throughout the race I saw him screaming at at least 5 people for similar, and I'm pretty sure he wasn't being victimised. I guess you get a*******s every so often. In fact I'm pretty sure he got me confused with rider 46 (I was 47) who also had a lime green kit, and who's riding was little sketchy; although not anything a rational person would be annoyed at.

A little thrown by this, I was a little defensive, staying on my favoured inside line, but subsequently losing places. Around lap 6 of 9, people were clearly beginning to tire, and I got caught behind people slowing on the hill - including the moron who had screamed at me - leading to a frantic push to get back with main bunch, which I managed due to 75kph down the hill!

The bell rang for the final lap, and I tried to make up a few positions, which I did to some success. However, it became evident that there was no way to realistically get into the top 10/15 I would need to be for the sprint. It was a sham really, as I wasn't tired at all, and looking at the sprint from behind, I think I could certainly have competed. As it was, I rolled in with the bunch, not risking sprinting from further back on packed roads. All in all I was pleased to stay with the bunch, and to do it comfortably was a bonus.

 It was a good learning curve, and I'll take away the following:
- Like at the Bowl, positioning is everything, but whereas at the bowl it's easy to nip round at the end, a road race with 60 - 80 people is lot more crowded.
- Holding position is vital, as to get up near the front is tricky, so I wouldn't want to do it repeatedly.
- Sportsmanship goes out the window, as does safety, with people overtaking during neutralisation's and over the white line.
- Make sure your brakes are damn good!!!
- Don't take abuse from has-beens desperately trying to hang on too seriously!

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Return to Racing Part 2 - Success!

22nd May - 3rd!
If you read my previous entry, you'll remember that I was a little disillusioned with racing after the previous week, finding it a little frustrating and tempted to take a break. However, as LBRCC was marshalling, I figured I would be there anyway so I would race. Plus, there would be a fair few clubmates to watch, which would be great. The weather was back to it's usual tricks, with the course having to be swept for washed off debris from nearby construction work. However, after the dry race the week before, I decided I prefer racing in the rain; I guess coming from Rochdale you learn to love the rain!

With 3 races experience in the bag, I was determined to try and be more assertive this week, getting onto the wheels I wanted, and keeping near the front. I decided to follow the wheels of the Abingdon based Outdoor Traders club, as there is always a few of them, and they work well as a team. Despite a few slips I managed to stay with them near the front, ending up on the front at one point but refusing to go hard enough to tyre myself out.

The 5 laps to go sign went up and I was still up around 5th, a good start but this is when the jostling for position really starts! Determined to stay up there, I worked hard to keep on the wheels of the OTCC riders at the front and did so until the bell went for the final lap. Adrenaline flowing, I could hear my heart pumping in my ears! The rider in front of me made a break as we passed the bell, and as second man I was in position to chase him down. I resisted the urge, and the shouts from others. Why should I chase him down so that everyone else could go past?! Good, I thought, assertiveness is the key! I was happy to keep my chances of a placing rather than lead everyone out again! A few riders went past in my hesitance but I was wary of this and accelerated to stay top 5.

As we approached the final climb and the sprint, I locked on to the OTCC rider I'd earmarked. The sprint started and we went for it! My legs nearly locked up with  the adrenaline but I forced myself to go. I had to idea where everyone else was, just the rider in front. The line approached quickly, and I expected the bunch to come past at any point. However, they didn't, and I crossed the line a few inches behind the OTCC rider for 3rd! My first placing and subsequent points! I couldn't believe it, in front of LBRCC clubmates too, a great time to do so!

29th May - 6th
My confidence was much higher after the previous week's success, and I was looking forward to racing again. The weather was possibly even worse for this race, but i was relishing the fact! There was quite a large field for the race, so I knew I needed to stay near the front, and I had the confidence to do so now.

From the off there were breaks, with some strong riders in attendance. There was a vet racing who marshalled us together and allowed us to chase them down efficiently, although a Twenty3c rider kept attacking relentlessly! I earmarked the vet to follow, as he was obviously strong, and not racing for points I figured he must have raced at a higher level.

Throughout the race my legs didn't feel brilliant, so I knew to finish anywhere  had to be in the perfect position. Fortunately my plan worked, and despite a crappy sprint, I finished directly behind the vet, taking 6th place and another 4 valuable points. It was a slight shame I didn't finish higher, as 1 more point would have put me into the 3rd Category, but I also figured more practice would be a good thing. Overall, I was pleased with the day.

12th June - 2nd! Promotion!
I took a week off racing at the bowl for the June 5th race, electing to do a Time Trial (see other post) just for a change. Last Thursday I was back with a vengeance, eager to get more points but a little nervous that anything other than top 10 would be disappointing after the previous success!

Being a dry night, the field was larger, which I'd struggled with a little last time, but I figured I had much more confidence now. There was a high pace from the start, but I managed to stay in the top 5ish, chasing down a few early breaks to get the legs going. After a few laps I messed up a corner, and found myself boxed in, Fool! I thought. I was a little worried I wasn't going to be able to get out and near the front again due to the number of riders, but I calmed down, saved my energy for a few laps then sprinted up the outside to get back into contention.

There was some really sketchy riding going on throughout the race, people veering around all over the place. One older racer lambasted another rider for about 2 laps, getting worked up and swerving in front of me at one point - pot, kettle! Another issue was the bottom corner, where for about the last 10 laps those on the outside kept taking the racing line, cutting those taking an inside line off completely. Cue a few instances of sharp braking! Not particularly sportsmanlike!

Anyway, the final 5 laps were signalled and the race pushed on. I tried hard to keep near the front despite lots of pressure, doing so until the final lap. A rider in front of me slowed up and I had to go around him on the inside, whereas the best line is the outside for the finale. This wasn't a disaster as such, but soon became one when I got cut off on the fore-mentioned corner, seeing any chance of a placing and promotion quickly slipping as the bunch sprinted away.

It did occur to me that the sprint had started early, enthusiasm taking over! I quickly got on a wheel and spun sitting down, passing those faltering on the uphill. As the wheel slowed, I screamed 'On the inside!', and stood up, opening the taps. I'd soon gone from about 20 back on the corner to passing those who started earlier, but no time to think about that. I followed the red skinsuit of 45RC rider who had a good line on the inside, oblivious to the position of the rest of the bunch. Maybe I could scrape a point for promotion?!

Finish line in sight beyond the 45RC rider, I had a quick look round to see how swamped I was. To my surprise, there was about 10m of air between us two and the bunch! I couldn't believe it, and crossed the line in 2nd behind the rider in red. We'd managed to go through the field and leave them! It took a minute to sink in, but I'd done it! Another 8 points meaning a comfortable promotion to Category 3!

Time to move up a race next time, which means going out of the gates on the longer circuit, which terrify's me! Still, no pressure means I'll take the time to learn the course, practice and devise a new strategy! No race this week due to a concert at the bowl, but I've got my first on road race on Sunday, the Ginger Smallwood Memorial race, which should be a challenge, but interesting!

Return to racing Part 1 - Learning Curve

I've returned!

It's been a busy 6 weeks or so work wise, so unfortunately I haven't been able to write any updates on here. I have been racing however, so here's a summary of what I can remember based on the scribbled reports in my notebook! I've just been racing the Corley Cycles/Abbeygate Developments Summer Series at the MK Bowl, the first 3 were reasonably uneventful, the last 3

1st May - 14th
Very Damp, but we survived!
I climbed back onto a bike after 3 months of injury 2 days before this race! Needless to say it was pretty tough, with torrential rain not helping, however, I did manage to stay with the bunch. Being my first completed race, I didn't want to be involved in the sprint, as I'd heard it was dangerous, so I launched a few attacks off the front. These were to no avail, but at least I felt the race wasn't wasted.

8th May - 15th
The weather was similar for this race, with torrents of water running around the track. After another few rides I felt my body was starting to remember how to ride a bike again, and after seeing that the sprint wasn't as bad as people made out, I thought I'd have a go.
I managed to get in the perfect position with 1 lap to go, about 5 riders back, but in one foul swoop, or pedal, I ended up on the front with half a lap to go. Inexperience kicked in and I paniced, launching a sprint with about 400m to go! As I floundered like a fish with 150m to go, the bunch came storming past, leaving me with the longest 100m I've ever ridden. On the plus side, the winner said I'd led him out for the sprint perfectly...Great!

15th May - 13th
The weather was finally dry for this race, and as a result the field was a little bigger. This meant it was hard to get a position, every time I got near the front I'd lose it on a corner and struggle to get back. This wasn't helped by some dodgy riding, with people suddenly slowing or cutting lines. It wasn't quite to a dangerous extent, but very annoying! As the last lap loomed, I was in a terrible position, launching a sprint led me to gain a few positions, but nowhere near enough.

I was a little disillusioned after the last of these races. I knew I had the fitness, and I knew I had the sprint, and I knew where I had to be when. I just didn't seem to have the confidence to assert myself to get into the right position to launch the sprint. I guessed it would come with practice, but I thought maybe a week off racing would do me good. Eventually I elected not to, as the club were Marshalling, so there would actually be clubmates watching. As it turned out, this was a good idea, which you'll see in my next post!

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Review - 'Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists' - Michael Hutchinson

As soon as I heard about multiple National Time Trial champion Michael Hutchinson's new book, I was eager to get a hold of it. I am a huge fan of his columns in Cycling Weekly, and of cycling science, so the two together were a highly appetising concept. I planned to save Faster... to read on holiday over Easter, but I read the first few pages and ended up devouring it in a single afternoon.

The overall aim of the book is, as the title suggests, to examine all of the factors behind the speed and success of the world's best cyclists. It is not written as a training manual, such as The Obree Way, but the investigative side is interlaced with Hutchinson's (highly successful) personal story.

For example, we are told about his personal history with Team GB (which I'll speak more of later) and his brush with professionalism. I think the 'obsession' part is mostly contained within this section, at least personally, disclosing that he has slept in an altitude tent for the past 10 years!

Hutchinson reels off his personal stats, which are for want of a better word - superhuman. Although he still manages to apply his characteristic self depreciating humour, stating that despite this, he still manages to be inefficient, both physiologically and due to his un-aerodynamic huge calves! These enable comparisons between himself, as a rider on the cusp of professional riding, professionals such as Alex Dowsett, and ourselves. Hutchinson's recovery rides are above 200 watts, a figure I'm quite happy to achieve for any non-race ride!

Much of the book focuses on British Cycling/Team GB and their phenomenal success over the past 8-10 years or so. Hutchinson gets unprecedented access to the British Cycling system, the science and the techniques behind their success, presumably due to his close connections and history with the establishment. This comes to a head when he finds himself in an unwelcome situation during product testing, stating the 'No Admittance' signs were directed at absolutely everybody!

One of the key things that comes across is the attention to detail, and willingness to research every little thing. This took place in the 'secret squirrel club' under the watchful eye of Chris Boardman, a pioneer of aerodynamics in cycling whilst riding and since retirement. A fine example of this comes with highly developed skinsuits, to which Boardman's wife casually remarked, 'but have you tried them wet?!' to deal with inevitable sweaty riders. On the subject of skinsuits, Hutchinson recounts a tale of riding naked round a velodrome in order to determine if bare skin was faster! It wasn't, thankfully.

The riders are also obviously a prevalent area of investment for British Cycling, both in terms of selection and training. Specificity is the key in both of these, with a rigorous selection process for the team, tailored to each event. For example, there was a definitive time of 4:30 for a 4km time trial, with no exceptions no matter how close. The selection of riders went even further than this. For example, Bradley Wiggins was apparently slower than other riders for the team pursuit, yet he was able to put in a longer effort, allowing the quicker riders to recover more.

Once selected, the riders were given specific training plans, focusing predominantly on their weaknesses, with a low percentage of work on their strengths. For example, Rebecca Romero, former Olympic rower, had endurance but not so much speed. Therefore, she was given a training plan of riding on rollers with a low resistance in order to increase leg speed.

Throughout Faster..., it becomes evident that whilst the science is a huge factor in their success, the overall system clearly pays dividends. For example, Team Sky take the riders favourite pillows to the hotel each night during a stage race, and Team GB riders live in the same house behind the velodrome rather than having to travel to train, and enabling them to recover, beating the monotony of rest days together. Soft drinks are also banned, in order to encourage riders to hydrate with meaningful liquids, i.e. protein shakes or fruit juice.

Attention to detail - the now legendary marginal gains policy - is obviously the key in all areas of business.

The style in which Hutchinson writes 'Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World's Fastest Cyclists' is also a huge contributor to my enjoyment of it. His characteristic self depreciating humour comes across constantly, sure to be a hit with fans of his column. I also think the level of detail he goes into is just right. Despite obviously having reams of information from his research, Hutchinson keeps it at a level that will entice both cycling fanatics looking for an edge, and others that have witnessed British cycling's meteoric success, and are curious to find out about it.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book, to cyclists and non-cyclists alike.
Review: 'Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists' - Michael Hutchinson
Review: 'Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists' - Michael Hutchinson
Review: 'Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists' - Michael Hutchinson
Review: 'Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists' - Michael Hutchinson
Review: 'Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists' - Michael Hutchinson

Monday 7 April 2014

Cragg Vale: Review/Tour de France Preview

With the Tour de France visiting Yorkshire (and Rochdale I hasten to add) in less than 100 days, many events are taking place to celebrate is. It's fantastic to see people riding the wave of hysteria (in cycling circles at least!), with activities ranging from Bernard Hinault taking a ride around a couple of weeks ago, yellow bikes hanging from pubs welcoming cyclists, to one of the more abstract ideas: pulling a grand piano up a mountain. Not just any climb, the longest continuous climb in England, Cragg Vale. Click here for the news video from the BBC. Cragg Vale is a climb I know well, so I thought a review/preview hybrid was in order.

The Climb

Welcome to Cragg Vale!
With an elevation gain just shy of 300m over it's 8km distance,  Cragg Vale has an average gradient of roughly 4%. Don't be fooled, there are 1 or 2 steeper sections, 7% possibly, but also gentle ramps for starter and dessert. The route starts just outside Mytholmroyd (which I can't wait for Sean Kelly to try and pronounce during the Tour!), whereby riders are greeted with a sign proclaiming the longest continuous gradient, and the first road marking...8.6km to go, with markings counting down each kilometre from there forth.

From here, the road curves between rows of terraces, betraying the industrial heritage of Caldervale, or the Calder Valley. These soon give out, replaced with sheep, before a slight left signals an increase in gradient, as it meanders through an escort of trees. This carries on, hugging the curves of the valley, with stones houses and smallholdings peppering the steep sides, with plenty to catch the eye, including the terrifying fellow below!

I wouldn't hedge my bets against this guy...!

The steady gradient continues for the next couple of km, with brief straights punctuated with the valley's subtle sweeping corners. Houses start to appear as you reach the village of Cragg Vale, with a long straight followed by an exposed left corner signalling a slight increase in gradient. This continues past Cragg Vale School and the Robin Hood Inn, which has had one of the yellow bikes synonymous with the Grand Depart hanging from its walls for what seems like years!

A final row of terraces and a right corner signify the end of the village, and the emergence of the road from sheltered valley to the barren and exposed top. Emerging out of the valley tunnel, the village has a potentially double barrel way of discouraging an exit. A short, sharp kick in gradient rounds a right hand corner, into what can be a demoralising headwind, or an inspirational tailwind.

The final 3 or 4km climb gradually over an empty land of heather and peat bog, which is somehow a desolate beauty, best seen with ones heart pumping at 180bpm! This section can be punishing, with winds unhindered by any natural windbreak reducing even the most seasoned riders to a near standstill. In fact my last trip up in January came with 84mph gusts, which nearly sent us back downhill! Side winds can also be tricky, again with nothing to provide shelter, but a tailwind can really send you flying to the end. This is signaled by both the final marking on the road and the appearance of the reservoir, at which point the riders will turn left, down towards Ripponden, which is a straightforward descent.

84mph gusts of wind with hail stones can make for a miserable finish!

The road surface is pretty good the whole way up the climb, with any potholes being sorted last summer. These have been done rather well in preparation, with proper tarmac patches, rather than useless filling of the hole, which usually lasts about a week. One slight concern is at the very end of the climb, by the reservoir, where the road has started to resemble a ploughed field due to the foundations being washed away by regular flooding. The council may well fix this prior to the day, although it would make for an interesting KOM sprint! Come to think about it, this is in the half a kilometre or so where the race passes out of Yorkshire into Rochdale...the different council in charge may have affected this. I hope they sort it, what an embarrassment for Rochdale if a crash occurred!

Where to Watch

With 8.6km to choose from, there a plenty of options for those wanting to observe the Tour on Cragg Vale. In terms of where the action may be, the steeper sections bookending the village itself may provide a springboard for attack, however, being quite early in the stage this may be unlikely. Of these, a tailwind on the tops could provide a great opportunity for a lone rider if they timed the attack just prior. Other than this, there will likely be a decent sprint at the top for KOM points if the bunch arrive as a whole. I suspect however, that there may be an early breakaway on this stage.

In terms of best places to stand on Cragg Vale, I would suggest avoiding the very bottom, being almost level, all you will probably see is a blur. Some of the route, especially around the village is quite tight in terms of pavement, with  a drop to the valley, but with wide roads, a big crowd shouldn't cause any problems even for the whole bunch. The atmosphere will be best in the village, with two pubs and imagine other hospitality. Otherwise, the tops will provide an unrestricted view, with the potential KOM sprint, and being flat, I suspect that staff with musettes may be present, using the opportunity for a feed stop. Finally, the 90 degree turn down to Ripponden will slow the riders momentarily for a great view, and the nearby White House pub can provide facilities.

Overall, I think the atmosphere around Cragg Vale will be fantastic! I'm not too sure where I'll be watching from yet, but I think I may go for the end, near the turn. Blackstone Edge climb leads to this point, the other side of Cragg Vale, which as my favourite climb may well feature in another review post soon!

Sunday 6 April 2014

Tour of Flanders 2014 - This is Sparta!

Yesterday was the 2014 Ronde van Vlandeeren, or the Tour of Flanders to you and I. It was the 98th incarnation of the race, and despite the lack of traditional rain and rivers of mud, provided much exciting racing.

The Tour of Flanders is one of the Spring Classics of cycling, and one of the monuments. Long gruelling distances circa 230km are raced over cobbles usually flowing with rivers of mud, delightfully named Belgian Toothpaste, for it's unrivalled ability to find it's way into riders mouths. The slippery nature of these, and the overwhelming narrowness of the roads - think singletrack country lane - mean tactics are key, and staying upright even more so.

This year's race was no exception, with numerous crashes including Britain's Geraint Thomas (SKY), who went down for the third time in as many weeks. However, the most spectacular - and not in a good way - was that of Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Sharp). About a quarter of the way through the race, the bunch were chasing a breakaway of 11 riders at high speed when they came upon a traffic island. What happened isn't too clear, but Vansummeren ended up hitting the island, on which several spectator's were standing. An older woman, reported to be in intensive care, took the brunt of the impact, falling to the ground firmly. A press release from the organisers states their sympathy and regret for the crash, as does that from team Garmin-Sharp. Vansummeren himself is reported to have suffered facial lacerations and widespread cuts/bruising.

Racing was fierce, with breakaways being chased down until a group of 11 riders escpaed at about 40km, the last of them reeled in with a mere 50km to go. Any potential attacks were swiftly relled in there forth, until that of Belgians Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quick-Step) launched an ultimately successful attempt with over 20km to go. With just over 20 seconds advantage, the peloton tried to reel the pair in, but the narrow cobbles seemed to negate the bunch advantage, and despite brutal efforts they struggled to reduce the gap. This surge in pace had the unexpected effect of eliminating 2 of the 3 main contenders bids for victory. Overwhelming favourite Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick-Step) were seen struggling to hang on to the back of the bunch, putting them out of contention on the tight roads.

On the other hand, this provided the perfect opportunity for the third of the favourites, and two time champion, Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing). With the two leaders ahead, Cancellara demonstrated his unrivalled tactical mind, and unmatched engine, attacking on the Oude Kwaremont, taking only Sep Vanmarke (Belkin) with him. A punishing pursuit ensued, with a frustrated Cancellara screaming at Vanmarke to work to catch the leading pair, which they did with 10km to go.

With just over half a minute on the bunch, a furious Cancellara powered the quartet forward, with the other reluctant to take turns. As they approached the final few kilometres, a brace of attacks came close to distancing the workhorse Cancellara, but the four came into the final kilometre together. Slowing to nearly a standstill, with 500m to go Cancellara was nestled perfectly at the back of the group, none wanting to lead out the others. At 300m to go, Spartacus wound up, launching an attack, which only the initial escapee Van Avermaet could follow, but to little avail. Cancellara crossed the line elated, a three time champion, joining the legendary ranks including Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen.

Overall a thoroughly exciting race, and scintillating tactics and power from Spartacus himself, Fabian Cancellara. A well deserved victory.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Bikes on Trains - A guide

A matter of great contention, taking bikes on trains has been written about extensively. Policies seem to vary between train operators, and sometimes even within services depending on the time of day. That's not to mention the discretion of train managers, but I won't get in to that! Therefore, I have compiled a concise reference guide for the major train operators policies, or at least my interpretation of what can sometimes be clear as the proverbial muck. 

I have used several train services to transport my bike, each of which has varied slightly. My general tips are:

  • Check and check again whether you have to make a reservation, as some operators will outright refuse, even if empty, if you don't have one.
  • Get to the station early so you can assess where on the train you need to stow your bike.
  • Travel outside peak times where possible, as bikes are often outright forbidden, or subject to restrictions.
  • Take a lock. Even on services storing you bike separately; it will ease your mind.
  • It may sound trivial, but be careful walking through stations in cleats, as the floors are often rather slippy!

Virgin Trains
Virgin Trains require a cycle reservation for all cycles, which must be done over the phone, or at a manned station. They have the capacity to carry up to 4 bikes per train, which are kept in a compartment behind the driver. As a result of this, you must contact staff approx. 15 minutes before your train in order for them to let you on, and inform the driver where to let you off. There are no restrictions on peak services, as the bikes are kept in a section of the train closed to passengers.

London Midland
London Midland's cycle policy is more casual, with no reservation needed. Bikes are stored in a designated section of the train, and there is space for 2, or more at the train manager’s discretion on quiet services. I have been told, however, that a wheelchair can use the bike space as well. One final point is that (other than folding) may not be taken on peak time services to London Euston arriving between 07:00 and 09:59, and departing from 16:00 to 18:59, Mondays to Fridays excluding public holidays.

Northern Rail
Northern Rail has a similar policy of 2 bikes per train, with no prior booking needed. Cycle storage space is almost always marked on the outside of the train, so you aren't left puzzled, and usually has a separate compartment with hooks for stability. The policy states that conductors can refuse entry on busy trains, but I have never experienced this, as most trains do have the separate compartments.

First Great Western appears to be reasonably bike friendly, with restrictions applying to commuter trains travelling from/to London Paddington. They do however produce a helpful booklet (link below) detailing the correct procedures. Additionally, spaces must be reserved on high speed trains, about which information is provided in the booklet.

First Transpennine Express
First Transpennine Express has a very informative and friendly cycle policy page, encouraging cycling in general. It provides swathed of information about taking your bike on one of their services, recommending that a reservation is booked 24 hours in advance. There do not appear to be any restrictions regarding peak times, although it does state staff can refuse entry if the train is deemed to be too full.

Southern Railway's is possible the most negative cycle policy I have come across whilst researching. It starts with stipulating that no bikes may be carried on peak services, which is understandable, but then carries on to detail numerous restrictions on various services and times. Even on the off peak/non restricted services, negativity is in abundance, with the opening line: 'Bike space on board our trains is extremely limited and because cycle reservations are not possible on Southern services we cannot guarantee that space will be available'. I'm not sure I would fancy attempting to take a bike on here!

Southeastern Railway's seems to be fairly neutral with regards to passengers with bikes. Reasonable peak time restriction apply, with bikes 'not permitted on peak time services arriving in London from Monday to Friday between 07.00 and 09.59, and leaving London between 16.00 and 18.59'. However, it does allow bikes at anytime on services travelling away from London. Although it doesn't state on the website, I assume it is a hop on policy, no reservation needed.

South West
South West trains also seem relatively happy to accept bikes, albeit on off peak services. They provide plenty of information regarding restrictions due to arrive at London Waterloo between 0715 and 1000 inclusive, or which leave London Waterloo between 1645 and 1900 inclusive. This is provided based on location, with a cycle restrictions map provided. Additionally, journeys between London Waterloo and Salisbury/Exeter/Bristol must have a cycle reservation booked 24 hours before.

East Coast
East Coast seem quite happy to accept bikes, and whilst it doesn't specify maximum number, the policy states that they are to be stowed in the guards van. There does not appear to be any peak time restrictions, but reserving a space (or 2 for a tandem) is necessary. However, this can (sensibly) be done whilst booking a ticket online, as well as through a manned travel centre.

Cross country
Cross Country's cycle policy also appears to be rather welcoming. It advises customers to make a reservation by phone, as trains contain 2 reservable spaces, and one additional non-reservable space. There don't appear to be any peak time restrictions, although staff can refuse entry, and tandems are not permitted. Presumably this doesn't apply to reserved spaces.

Chiltern Railways
Chiltern Railways permit bikes on all weekend or public holiday services, with a total ban during the times of 07:45 to 10:00 (arriving London Marylebone or Birmingham Moor Street) and 16:30 to 19:30 (Leaving London Marylebone or Birmingham Moor Street). Presumably those travelling against the commuter flow are unrestricted.

First Capital Connect  
First Capital Connect seem to welcome bikes on services with no restrictions. However, there are many restrictions, which would take rather a while to summarise, so I have included the link to the information below! Despite their number, the restrictions do not seem unreasonable, as it is not hard to imagine that these services are suitably busy being London based.

Feel free to send any experiences you've had on trains, if I get a few I'll write a post about them. 

This is intended to be a helpful guide, please contact me if there are any inaccuracies/misinterpretations, and I will correct them.

Monday 31 March 2014

Review - Bont Riot Road Shoes

After much deliberation, scouring various Internet forums and the like, I decided to invest in some Bont Riot shoes. The main reason for this was the superior spec, such as a full carbon sole, compared to other shoes around my £100 budget. Additionally, the Bont size guide is a lot clearer than other brands, which seem to vary a lot from my research. I would, of course, have preferred to try and buy them in person, however, the several local shops stock only Shimano and Specialized shoes, which upon trying just didn't feel right.

General advice when buying cycling shoes is to go half to a full size up, due to swelling of feet on a warm/long ride. The Bont website helped in this area, with an online 'Size Wizard'. One simply enters the length and width (illustrated guide on the site), and it produces a recommended size, in my case 45. I then set out to find the best price, which being relatively new was £89.99, £10 of the RRP.

Bont Riot shoes, mesmerising monochrome
First impressions of the shoes were good, the carbon sole looked great, and the black and white palette complimented it. The material looked a little plastic, but for the price I wasn't expecting kangaroo leather, sail cloth or any other exotic material found on other road shoes. Fit wise the Size Wizard seemed to have worked it's magic, with a little space for the toe, but not so much as to allow slippage, and ample width for foot expansion. The straps weren't the most secure, but the ratchet stopped any unwelcome forward movement. Immediately I could feel a difference just walking in the shoes, the stiff carbon sole feeling completely different to the nylon one on my 7 year old Decathlon ones.

The plastic ratchet feels a little brittle when tightening

After a couple of minutes in the shoes, I took them off to fit my cleats, at which point I started to notice a few quality issues with the shoes. The ratchet is made of what seemed pretty cheap plastic, bending easily, and it actually took a bit of fiddling to release the strap. I was slightly worried I was going to snap it. On to fitting the cleats, the shoe has lines in order to gauge the fore/aft and sideways positioning of the cleats, an improvement over my previous shoes. After moving the cleats around a little, I noticed the white lines were starting to wear. Not such a good sign if the shoes are going to be in use for a while. I also started to notice other imperfections, such as loose stitching where the sole meets the upper, and on the straps.

Stitching of the upper panels isn't brilliant

Cleat placement guide starting to wear off already

Anyway, on to riding. I've had a couple of rides in the shoes so far, admittedly no more than an hour, but intense riding nonetheless. I find it a little difficult to get the forefoot particularly snug with the Z strap, no matter how tight I pull it. Whilst this is mitigated to some extent by the ratchet strap, the ratchet itself feels so fragile, I am a little hesitant to really put force into tightening it. Another slight niggle is that the straps on the left shoe line up with the Velcro, but those on the right shoe are slightly misaligned. Likewise the ratchet strap come to think about it, though that may be due to foot shape. Overall, I can get them tight enough for sprinting or climbing, but it's not smooth like conventional Velcro straps or a BOA system.

Full carbon sole with arch support, efficient power tranfer
Starting to pedal in the shoes was a strange sensation at first, but this soon fades. What replaces it is a grin, as you can genuinely feel the increase in power transferred to the pedals compared to lesser shoes. I'm really impressed with the feel, they are a marked improvement over their predecessors. The Riot's are well ventilated, which was noticeable during Saturday's surprise 16C temperatures for the MK Bowl race! They claim to have more arch support than other shoes, which is evident by looking at the curvature of the sole. I couldn't feel it hugely when riding, but they do feel a little more dynamic than those with none. If you use a footbed, I would probably recommend still using it, but personal preference will dictate this.

The construction of the shoes is a little different to many, with a 'tub' sole, meaning the carbon fibre extends approx. 10mm into the upper, like an elongated U shape. This makes the shoes feels sturdier, but after riding for a while, there is an evident quality issue once again with the edge of the 'tub' being rough, which I found dug into my little toe/end of the 5th metatarsal. Almost like a stone in the shoe, annoying. Another surprise at this point is the ability to heat mould the shoes to your foot shape but heating for 20mins at 70C in the oven and then wearing them. Whilst I haven't tried this yet, and I'm not sure about the effectiveness/risk, I am tempted to try and rid them of this sharp edge. They can be moulded multiple times, which I suppose makes it less risky. I'll update if I choose to do so.

Reading the above, I may give the impression that the shoes are poor and not worth buying. Conversely, I would in fact recommend these, albeit with certain caveats. If you are used to spending a couple of hundred ponds on high end Shimano, SIDI, Specialized, etc. shoes, then I would hesitate in buying these, as sadly it's not a case of getting the same level of quality for substantially less money. If this does apply to you, it may be worth trying the Bont Vaypor shoes, their higher tier model.

However, if you, like me, are buying your second pair of road shoes, your first 'serious' pair, and/or have a £100 budget, I can wholeheartedly recommend them. There are few, if any, other shoes that deliver a full carbon sole for this price, and for me that provides a measurable upgrade. With regards to the 'flaws', I wouldn't be especially surprised if similar quality issues were found with the majority of sub-£100 shoes. My opinion might change if they start to fall apart, but I'm willing to give the Bont Riot's the benefit of the doubt for now.

Overall, they deliver exactly what they profess, a taste of top end road shoe technology, with necessary limitations to make them accessibly priced for many.

Another great review, especially on the support aspects of  the shoe from a physiotherapist, can be found at
Review - Bont Riot Road Shoes
Review - Bont Riot Road Shoes
Review - Bont Riot Road Shoes
Review - Bont Riot Road Shoes
Review - Bont Riot Road Shoes
Review - Bont Riot Road Shoes