Monday, November 11, 2013

Paris-Roubaix weather...

There's an amazing video called "The Faces of Hell" 

...that does a brilliant job of encapsulating the riders' experience of the classic Paris-Roubaix Spring classic, also known as L'Enfer Du Nord.

Check it out:

I thought of it last Saturday; having missed a few rides due to illness & whatnot I was desperate to get a ride in. The weather forecasters promised some drizzle, but it was supposed to be light, and it was supposed to end around 10 am.

Supposed to.

It didn't work out that way. There were only two other Flyers out that morning (this late in the season rides become ad hoc & based on who shows up); nobody wanted to bail, so we all made hopeful noises about it "looking like it was gonna clear up", and rode off along the Lakeshore out to Port Credit, about a 60km loop. Needless to say, the rain didn't let up, it got gradually heavier. By the time we got to the turnaround point we were soaked and cold. 

One of our number decided to take the train back to town. I wasn't feeling that bad; I had a nice new pair of warm gloves and decent cold weather gear, so I was wet, but not unbearably cold, especially once we were moving. (Give it up for the wool socks!)

In the end it wasn't a great ride, and the weather wasn't crappy enough to make it count as heroic, but it was one that you book just for not giving in.

Or as I liked to think of it, a little Paris-Roubaix weather.

après L'Enfer de Toronto

Monday, October 28, 2013

Everything I know about pro bike racing...

I've learned from Cosmo Cattalano.

And his awesome video blog, How the Race Was Won.

Smart, funny, entertaining, and like potato chips: you can't watch just one.

You'll find out about all the amazing European races we never hear about in North America – surprise! there's more than just the Tour de France over there! In fact, you may find the TdeF to be kinda dull compared to craziness of one-day classics like Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders.

Check it out.
You're welcome.

That said, his T de F coverage is pretty great too.
Full site & vid list here.

How Club Rides Improve Your Racing (2)

As I was saying...

Club rides I think can help build certain racing skills. Specifically:

1. Sprints
2. Attacks
3. Bridging
4. Economical riding
5. Peleton confidence
4. Economical riding, in one of the cycling books I came across a quite that basically said in a race, if you ever have to apply the brakes, it means you've pedaled too much. That's a very easy thing to work on in a club ride. Partly because on a group ride you want to avoid anything like sudden braking (or other unexpected manoeuvres), so it's just good and safe form to brake as little as possible.

And as well you can start to figure out how to let hills work for you. There is one particular downhill/uphill combo on one of the Flyers' regular rides that I used to pedal furiously down – to get up speed, right? for the hill at the bottom of it. Inevitably I'd get passed by half the pack going back up. Then I figured out that a few turns at the top and getting as aero as possible going down got me almost as much speed but without the effort. And allowed me to hit the hill going up with lots of gear & cadence to work with. Much better, much easier, much faster.

It's also a good place to informally practice echeloning and staying out of the wind.

5. Peleton confidence, in the end really, does require actual racing. I'm not sure if I'll ever really get there. Scares the shit out of me, actually. But as a starter, group rides do allow you to get comfortable riding in close quarters with a lot of people. Building skills like: bike proprioception; knowing what it looks like to be 10 cm back of the wheel ahead of you without looking at your own front wheel; learning to look through and past the rider ahead of you; moving into open spaces; that sort of thing.

You can train up stuff like your endurance, your power and your lactate threshold on your own, but a lot of the soft skills of racing, I think, can only be practised in a well-organized group ride.

And as a bonus, they are a lot more fun than training alone. IMHO.

Monday, September 30, 2013

How club rides improve your racing (1)

Club rides are great.

I love the social component, the camaraderie, and the flying along at a good clip in a smoothly functioning group. I also love not worrying about where I'm going because somebody else has figured out the route.

I've noticed however that some of the training books (Joe Friel's Cyclist's Training Bible, Chris Carmichael's The Time Crunched Cyclist) are kinda down on club rides, mostly because they don't allow you to dictate what (very precise) thing you want to work on in your training.

I get what they're saying, but in my limited experience so far, I think group rides provide the only way to practice very specific race skills. Like:

1. Sprints
2. Attacks
3. Bridging
4. Economical riding
5. Peleton confidence

I respect both authors (and use both books, they're great) but if you consciously choose to do it, you can adapt your club ride to help develop your race skills. You don't even need to tell anybody.  Mostly.

Sprints: The Dark Horse Flyers have a ride on Tuesday nights that has a number of set sprinting points. Nobody is obliged to go, and the group re-forms at the first convenient spot after the sprint. On other rides some of us will do ad hoc sprints at spots where we have a nice straight stretch. I find these great for figuring out how to get on a lead-out and when to jump; and they also help me get a sense of other riders around me, especially the ones making a charge past me. And they give me a realistic idea of how fast I can go flat out, and for how long I can sustain it. I used that experience to great advantage in my second race, by checking out in advance where the markers were in the last 500m of he course and using them to know where to make my jump.

Attacks: Like sprints, these can be done on an ad hoc basis, especially on longer climbs where the group tends to break up anyway. Take a jump and see how much distance you can put between you and your pack for five minutes, then drift back & re-join. You may get a chaser or two, which adds to the fun. For etiquette's sake you may want to mention that you are going to try this beforehand, just so nobody thinks you're being a dick and trying to drive the pace up.

Bridging: On rides with a larger group of mixed levels of ability there is a tendency for the pack to fragment and re-group. Again, often on longer climbs or hilly sections. Sometimes when I'm back of a group that has broken away I'll pretend I'm in a race and trying to bridge on to a lead group (or, more realistically in my case, catch up to the ass-end of the main peloton). Occasionally one or two others come along too. What I like about this is the psychological struggle: forcing yourself to hold a higher, painful pace as long as it takes to make contact. And there's something about that last 10 or 15 metres. It seems endless, and it's a pig to get over it – but it feels great when you do.

Next: Riding efficiently, and getting comfortable in the pack.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Chris Horner is my hero

That’s one for the old guys.

An incredible win at the Vuelta a Espana for Chris Horner, at 41 the oldest winner – by six years! – of a Grand Tour.

Dude: You Rock.  (photo: Telegraph UK)

Of course he got a lot of raised eyebrows about how he managed to produce such a result, but I prefer to view it as a testimony to the skills of a cagey veteran who finally got his chance and refused to let it slip out of his grasp.

And hey: I'm only 9 years older than he is! Sure, he's been a pro since 1996 and has ridden in 10 Grand Tours, but still. It makes a man think.

And it's a nice added bonus that the Leopard-RadioShack jerseys don't suck.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

What to drink on rides: BioSteel is the shit

Sports drinks are just a necessary evil of endurance sports.

The universal consensus is that on energetic rides of more than an hour, you need water, salt, electrolytes & carbs. And as the rides start to get longer & more intense, inevitably you start fooling around with your drinks.

Like most people, I started out with Gatorade. For a long time I went with one bottle of Gatorade from powder and one bottle of plain water. I was never a big fan of any of its flavours; I found only the orange was bearable. And too much of it started to feel nasty. I was happy to find some alternatives.

Beats Gatorade, good value.
I used Ironman Perform (from the PowerBar people) for a while. It was pretty good;  little more expensive than Gatorade powder ($22, 936 g, 52 servings) but with a much better, milder lemon-lime taste.

Clear winner on taste.
After a couple of tubs of the Ironman I got bored and I tried HoneyMaxx, based on a friend's recommendation. It has a really nice, natural honey flavour, and is easy on the stomach, so you have no problem getting it down for the whole ride. (The Lemon-Lime is better than the orange, IMHO.) It takes a little longer to mix, for what it's worth. Not a big deal. The major downside is it's about twice as expensive as the Ironman ($22; 500g, 20 servings). Apart from that it would be my go-to. And what the hell, you're still paying about a buck a bottle, which isn't bad, and none of it is going to some giant food conglomorate (Nestlés, PepsiCo).

"Dude – you on the Pink?"
Last time I ran out I thought I'd try BioSteel, which a few of the Dark Horse Flyers use, including my cycling guru/DHF stalwart Michael. It's a big deal in the pro hockey community at the moment, and clearly it helps to have Steve Stamkos's salary because holy sticker shock! $64 for a 60-scoop tub! That was a bit too big a hit for stuff I hadn't tasted, so I opted for a $20 box of single-serve packets, just in case I hated it. And I did hate it. It has a sort of obnoxious pink berry-gum taste which was making me feel awful deep into the ride. I was ready to write it off, but gave it another shot, this time mixed weaker. I had made it way too strong the first time; this time the taste was much more manageable. Enough, anyway, to at least use up the rest of the pack I had bought. Then I started to notice a big performance jump. Faster & stronger on hills, more jump all the way through the ride; yesterday I took off from our group about halfway in on a hill and did a solo breakaway to our turn-around point and put a shocking amount of distance between us. And it didn't fry me for the rest of the (90 km) ride, either.

Now, it might be coincidence. Maybe given my training this year this is where I was going to get a performance uptick anyway. But even if the value is just psychological (like: equating that obnoxious flavour with being able to do stuff I couldn't do before), there's something there. Possibly it's the fact that it has no carbs helps; you get the hydration & electrolytes without clogging it up with sugar. Anyway, I use other food to get my on-board carb fuel, so there's no real reason to have it in the drink as well. I'll leave it to you to review the science that goes into the stuff.

One suggestion I haven't tried yet: mix the BioSteel with half water & half cocoanut water. I'll give that a go next. (Grace Brand cocoanut water is the best I've tried.)

Bottom line: the sticker shock is worth it. Until I get a better option, I'm going with the BioSteel.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Race #2: 3 Revelations & 1 Dumb Mistake

My second race was the Tour de Terra Cotta.

Much better… except for one little mistake…

Terra Cotta is a big citizen race near Toronto (It's OCA sanctioned but not part of the official race series.) I ended up being off the bike for two weeks while on vacation with my family, so I wasn't sure if I was up for it. But I had a pretty good week in training the week before it, so rather than bail out completely I signed up for the shorter, "Beginner" race, which was only 26km, rather than the intermediate 55k race.

Beginner is a bit of a misnomer. There were a lot of guys in that race who knew what they were doing (including a bunch of guys from one team with a bald European coach berating them at the line before the start). The average speed for the previous years ran around 38 kph, not much slower than the intermediate & elite. So though I felt a bit like I was wimping out, there was clearly gonna be a real race here.

My pal and cycling guru/DHF stalwart Michael also signed up, which was great because he's way more experienced in this sort of thing. It was great to have somebody to talk strategy with. (Of course it would have helped to actually pay attention.)

"Damn! If only we had a bald coach, too."
1. Starting at the front makes a big difference (that's us right on the line for the start of this one);
2. I could ride in a fast group;
3. Staying with the fast group is a lot easier than trying to catch it.

Dumb Mistake:
1. One mis-timed attack on a hill can ruin your whole race.

On lap one coming up to the first hill I was comfortably with the lead group and had a bit of a jump in my legs so I hit it fairly hard and actually found myself in front – of everybody – at the top. (Note the look of surprise on the face of tattoo-sleeve dude.) And for the first lap I stayed in among the front of the pack.
"Dude. Seriously dude. No way you beat me up that hill."

Coming up to the same hill in lap 2 I got a little over-excited and figured I could pull the same trick again. (Note to self: there are no KOM points in a 26 km race.) But I had to burn a match swinging wide to get clear of a couple of people and didn't have the same kick as the first time, and also screwed up my gearing in the approach. Basically died half-way up. By the time I managed to grind my way to the top I had lost the lead group and was on my own. If I had just stayed cool and hung with the pack on that ascent I could have worked with Michael (he came in 19th, 21 seconds back) and we probably both could have been with the lead group  at the end. Rookie mistake.

29th place! Whoo-hoo!
So I ended up in the race for the 3rd group in. Which in the end was pretty fun because it was the same six guys for half the race, trading off spots and trying to claw back on to the lead group. In the end I got some satisfaction because in the last 500m I got nicely positioned for a lead-out behind three of them, and then sprinted at 200m, taking the lead guy at the line by a bike length. That felt very cool. And was totally a result of practising sprints with the Flyers.

All in all, a big improvement from Race #1. And sure, the field was not exactly world-class, but at least I actually felt I was in the race this time.

Result overall: 29th (of 108 starters).
Age group result: 6th.

I'll take that.

Hill Photo ©Sportszone photography
Race finish photo ©John Bachmann