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.