Friday, April 23, 2010

Creating a new normal

I often think of training as being a process that shifts my idea of what's normal. At the moment, going out and doing 70-100 mile rides every weekend seems normal. "Normally", that's not normal.

The new normal I'm going for now is doing the same rides, but on a loaded bike. I'm working towards getting my Tour Divide setup ready and it's now close enough to be riding with the full weight every time. My plan this time is to use a big drybag under the handlebars and an Epic Designs saddlebag out back. And that's it - no hefty pannier racks, no frame bag.

It's been worrying me a lot that I won't have the legs to singlespeed a loaded bike with a reasonable gear ratio. For the Alaska Ultrasport, I had a 22t ring up front. That's OK for snow, but it's not going to get you anywhere on the Tour Divide. And I might be able to do 100 miles without being too trashed on my 32:18 XC bike, but what if it weighs twice as much?

Today (swapping work days around since I have to work Saturday... boo!), I found out. With 12 kg of extra stuff on my bike, I set off into the Chilterns again. I tried not to put any pressure on myself - I expected it to be slow and difficult. I expected descending to be sketchy. So I thought I'd have a go at 6 hours, maybe 8 tops.

Throughout the whole ride, though, I felt that burden. If I couldn't do this, the Tour Divide was a pipedream. I had to keep deliberately relaxing my upper body - not letting tension sap my energy or cause injury. The sun shone and the first hour and a half passed incredibly quickly. I was eating up the miles way faster than expected, averaging over 11 mph in hilly terrain. I was winching up climbs when I would usually try to dash up them, but that wasn't a problem. The top is the top, and the GPS wasn't lying about my speed.

It's a funny thing riding with a big saddlebag. It feels like being a dog with a massive wagging tail. Occasionally, it can get too excited and the tail starts to wag you. Then you're in trouble. But part of the point was to learn these things. Climbs were steady, keeping any side-to-side movement out of the equation. Descents were interesting until I learned to keep the saddle pressing gently on my thigh. This seemed to dampen the wagging and keep me where I wanted to go.

By the end of the ride, I'd reached 30 mph on a descent and felt comfortable with the handling. I'd carried all the food and water I'd needed for the day. And most importantly, I wasn't broken. Maybe this Tour Divide thing will work out...

Monday, April 19, 2010

What to eat?

Food is pretty vital to riding. In the Alaska Ultrasport last year, I made a bit of a mess of it. As people pointed out (too late for me, unfortunately!), I had gone too far down the path of the spreadsheet. I calculated calories per gram, and stocked up with large bulks of the foods I thought best fit that criteria. Taste was a factor, but I got lazy and just bought a limited range of food.

On the trail, that sucked. I didn't want to eat my high calorie food. I wanted someone else's high calorie food (luckily I could trade with other racers now and then). So the lesson was learned. Variety! I spent lots of time reading the backs of packets of food that could work on the trail. I'll take all kinds of stuff next time.

Back in the "real" world, training in normal temperatures still needs a lot of food. I had always avoided energy products: they were expensive and, somehow, just as suspect as using gears. Like I wrote before, though, things changed and I started using powders.

Initially just Maxim, since we had some from Emily's swims. Then, Torq, since it's tasty and well-regarded among cycling people. Suddenly, I could get a lot more energy into me during a ride and felt a lot less soreness on the long ones. I could keep pounding out miles with less deterioration on the bike and quicker recovery afterwards. So energy drinks are effective, but are they expensive?

This calls for a table!

Calories/g p/calorie normalised p/calorie %fat
Malt loaf (large BOGOF) 3.1 0.07 1.43 2
Torq Energy (1.5kg) 3.6 0.29 5.86 0
9-bar (3 pack) 5.5 0.14 2.79 40
Torq Recovery (1.5 kg) 3.48 0.59 11.8 1.1
Panda licorice comfits (132g) 3.7 0.27 5.49 0.2
Mars bar (3 pack) 4.46 0.13 2.6 17.4
Hovis Granary Bread (2 for£2) 2.5 0.05 1 2.4
Nairns Oat Cakes (250g) 4.18 0.09 1.7 16.3
Beer (average) 0.43 0.88 17.58 0

So, Torq Energy is nearly 6x as expensive as bread and Torq Recovery is 12x. But while this table is interesting (hmm) it doesn't tell anything like the whole story. The energy products are easy to get in you, and well balanced to have their positive effects. I can say quite categorically from my experience that they help. I'd just suspected that they weren't so much more expensive than normal food. It turns out I was kind of wrong on that point (unless you drink beer as your recovery drink - that makes Torq seem cheap).

I'm going to carry on using them, for sure. But now I know I'm paying for the privileged. For the record, my last 10 hour ride took 2 bottles (750ml) of Maxim, 3 bottles of Torq, a malt loaf, a pack of oat cakes, and a 9-bar. Immediately after finishing, I swigged down a dose of Torq recovery. End result? I felt pretty good despite doing nearly 100 miles, having two punctures and one other mechanical. And I took a photo:

Not suitable for motors, definitely suitable for bikes.

Monday, April 12, 2010


The makers of the mountain bike video, Seasons, probably didn't think of me slogging around The Chilterns when they came up with their concept but I did think of them as I photographed the same corner in a succession of seasons. To me, it says a lot about riding in the UK. We go out whatever the conditions, and the conditions give use plenty to get our heads round. The mud and the water grind away at bikes and wear through clothing, but give us beautiful green land to play in. They make stolen late-Autumn dust feel precious and the creep of Spring feel like a blessing. So here's an unremarkable corner of the Chilterns as I keep visiting it...

Friday, April 02, 2010

Big smoke, big ride

When I was asked if I would teach a course in East Ham, it did seem like the ideal opportunity to get some base fitness going again after NZ. The ride over there is 25 miles and gets interesting at Battersea as it ploughs through central London, crossing Tower Bridge, before heading out via Tower Hamlets and Stratford.

Now, I've been regularly commuting by bike for 10 years but never somewhere like central London, and it's a bit of a shock. As you head in, and the traffic starts to clog, there is no point whatsoever in waiting in line. Those cars are going to be nose-to-tail for the next 15 miles. So, you want to duck inside or out and get through. But it's not so easy, the place is swarming with motorbikes, scooters, and other cyclists trying to do the same.

Much looking over the shoulder is required, but it's fun cruising past the cars on the wrong side of the road. The sheer number of cyclists is completely alien to me, but normal to them. There are no nods of acknowledgement. People pull up in front of you at traffic lights (if they stop at all). Riders take offence if you overtake, and ramp up speed to try to hang on behind you. I took away a sense of hostility from the week of riding across London, and most of it came from the cyclists.

Still, it was strange how compelling the dance of the other traffic was every morning. The miles would fly by, the sights would be unnoticed. I would take risks that I could control (overtaking on the right) and shy away from those I couldn't (overtaking moving traffic on the left). It had a kind of buzz, and day-by-day my times for the ride went down.

The evenings were better, though. I left the school by 3.30, so the traffic hadn't hit its peak. I didn't have a deadline to get home (except the increasing debt that I owed my stomach), so I could finally look around. The Gherkin would rise up ahead of me MIND THAT BENDY-BUS! and I would cruise off down a quieter road. The blue supports on Tower Bridge would embrace me and I would watch the tourists spin around, whirring their cameras as I whirred my pedals. Hospitals and hair-dressers, I could glance at little scenes all over the city. Harlequins Rugby Club would always be busy and signal that I was nearly at Kingston and from there, nearly home.

In the middle of it all, there were surprising moments. Cars giving way without need (people outside of London may find that unremarkable, it can make your day down here), and just when I was tired and jaded, another cyclist. He set off up Kingston Hill in front of me, and I tucked in behind. I hoped he wouldn't get annoyed about towing me up the hill, but as he pointed out a pot-hole, I knew he wasn't cursing me. Both being red-light stoppers, we had a good chat about riding. Where we'd been (on the same road for more than 10 miles), and where we were going.

Where I was going was back to ploughing my usual furrows and to speculate on whether more cyclists is really a good thing. In the outer boroughs of London, I see almost no other fast-moving bikes. If we get the change we're trying to bring about, and more people do cycle, I hope the combativeness of the centre doesn't set the tone for all cycling in London.