Thursday, 22 November 2012

Victim Blaming

What is victim blaming? It's a not very nice phenomenon in the world in which we live, and broadly takes the form of referring to the victim of criminal behaviour with the thoughtful and considerate words"they had it coming". It has been detrimental to criminalisation of minority groups the world over, women, black people, latinos, and depends crucially on the out-group status of those minorities - because they are not part of the norm in society, they are responsible for their own misfortunes. Put in this way, it is clear that victim blaming is a pretty disgusting, pretty cowardly way of dealing with social problems. I'm a man, white and i guess middle class, so beyond my bleeding heart liberalism, why does this bother me on such a personal level? One simple reason, i ride a bike to work.

Now to be clear, i'm not out to compare rape to being cut up by a taxi on Tottenham Court Road, but let's not forget that the number of cyclist deaths in London has now hit 13, and has only dipped below double figures once between 1992 and the present day (in 2004, eight people died on the roads of the capital). If being crushed beneath the wheels of a lorry is not a life-changing experience, i don't know what is. So what's got me all hot and bothered about this?

Well, it comes down to a concerted campaign by TFL, aimed squarely at cyclists. I am sure that TFL do have their hearts in the right place, and that they are trying in the most effective way available to them to reduce cyclist deaths, but their campaign just looks like a massive, publicly-funded exercise in victim-blaming.

Take these stickers:

Or this video that has been going viral on my facebook, reposted by smart cycling friends of mine who have unfortunately bought into the "i am the problem" mentality.

I'm afraid that, based on my own personal experience, the drivers of lorries bearing the TFL stickers seem to be the worst offenders, often not bothering to indicate at junctions, or worse choosing to drive at speeds totally inappropriate to the clogged conditions of central London's roads. It's almost as if they view the stickers as a catch-all excuse - a pre-emptive "sorry i didn't see you mate" in case they should carelessly wander across a junction and squeeze some poor unsuspecting cyclist into the railings. "It doesn't matter that i forgot to indicate your honour, because you see, i got a sticker on the back of my lorry".

The film is even more worrying, not for what it shows, but for what it doesn't show. How exactly did a lorry that was turning left end up straddling two lanes alongside a group of cyclists waiting at a stop line? The reality, again from my own experience, would be that the lorry driver, rather than choosing to wait in the left hand lane to turn left, would have decided to go in the right hand lane, alongside the cyclists whilst they were already stopped at red. He would have then indicated, once already stopped, and used the natural selection "i'm bigger than you, get out of my way" approach to make sure he got a clear run at his turn. If any poor cyclist failed to notice what was going on, well, they're a lot smaller than him, so does it really matter? After all, everyone knows thanks to the concerted efforts of TFL and other road safety organisations that the way cyclists get killed is by going up the inside of good, law abiding, always indicating, never speeding lorries. So really, they only had themselves to blame.

Herein lies the problem with this well-meant, and well-run campaign. It gives people who should know better an out, an excuse. You wouldn't dream of standing in front of a judge and saying "he was annoying me, so i decided to swing my chainsaw at him, and then he died" and not at least be charged with murder, but do the same with a truck (or any other vehicle for that matter), and okay, that's fine, 6 points and a £150 fine will do.

If you look at the TFL website there is good and sensible advice for both cyclists and drivers of HGVs. Unfortunately, the reality is that HGV drivers are professionals - they do it for a living, whereas very few cyclists, even including the couriers, are cycling for a living - they cycle as a means of commuting to and from work, or to get to the shops. The practical reality is therefore that cyclists are disproportionately more likely to go to the website for advice, whereas professional HGV drivers will either assume that they will have covered everything they need to know in their training (if they're new to the job) or that their many years of experience on the roads is better preparation than any crappy website!

The question we should all ask straight away when we watch that TFL video is "How the hell do we think it's a good idea to have such poorly-equipped vehicles on the roads at all? Who allowed this?!"Until that is the reaction of every person, cyclist, driver, pedestrian, whatever, then the victim-blaming will continue, and cyclists will be viewed as second class citizens...

Monday, 5 November 2012

Cyclocross – A True Sport?

This blog post comes out of a series of conversations Rachel and I had with friends over the weekend of the Ally Pally supercross. Given that all these friends are in their own right very into ‘cross, maybe the whole pretext of what i am going to write is dubious, but nevertheless i found it an interesting take on things.      

So the question i want to ask is, as a mountain biker do you benefit more from cyclocross than a ‘cross rider would benefit from racing mountain bikes. As you might have guess from the title, my thesis is that ‘cross teaches mtbers more than mtb teaches cyclocross racers.

Historically, the bible of mountain bike training (“The Mountain Bikers Training Bible” – Joe Friel) dispenses with the idea that “serious” mountain bike racers can also race cross through the winter as anything  other than an occasional break from “long, steady distance” (LSD). The fundamental tenet of this book is that to reach a good racing peak in the summer time, you must do many many hours of long, slow rides in winter to accustom your body to stress of training you face later in the season. I would argue that this viewpoint is both outmoded (the book itself was published first in 1998, so nearly 15 years of development have occurred since then, and many coaches and sports scientists were already questioning the LSD model even back then), and that it is entirely possible for even elite level athletes to perform well in both the winter ‘cross season and the summer mtb season. This is all the more true with the (re-)appearance of “reverse periodisation” as a training method, whereby one adds intensity to training loads before then building duration – an approach used very successfully by the Sky pro cycling team over the last 12 months.

 Practicing what i preach at the Ally Pally round of the Rapha Supercross (thanks to D P B Harrison for the picture - )

The question i want to address is who benefits more – do summer xc races help you to ride a good cyclocross season, or is a good winter spent mud-plugging more useful to a mountain bike racer?
So, let’s examine the evidence. The first and most tricky problem we face is where we should look to see a good reflection of the true capabilities of both groups.  This summer we saw a definite cyclocross specialist in Nicki Harris crowned as national MTB champion, whilst men’s national ‘cross champ Ian Field finished just out of the medals at the national XC champs. So it’s looking good for the skinny-tyred brigade crossing over. In the past, we have seen multi-national XC champs Liam Killeen & Oli Beckingsale duking it out at the front of national trophy cross races, so maybe that evens the score somewhat. The reality is, we shouldn’t look to these people as a first approach – they are gifted athletes, they have ridden both disciplines many times, and they would do well in any arena of cyclesport they turned their attention to.

So where do we look? Well, perhaps the natural place to look is to watch people who are new to the crossover. If we look to racers who have stuck with one discipline for several years, and then switched we see a more interesting phenomenon. Without mentioning names and embarrassing friends, it certainly seems to be true that cross racers switch over to XC much more naturally than the other way around. With a pattern in mind, it is now interesting to try to examine why!

So why would it be easier to move from skinny tyres, crap brakes and drop handlebars to fat tyres, good brakes and flat bars? Surely the answer is in the question – to be good at cross, you have to be smooth as well as fit – the bikes are very unforgiving, and if you don’t treat them well, they buck and throw you off. Put someone with those skills on a more forgiving, more appropriate bike, and they will quickly adapt – all it takes is braking a little later, and a little less, cornering a little harder. As cyclists we are used to pushing limits, and learning to push them a little further as we develop skills. Faced with the opposite predicament, the XC racer is forced to back off, to brake sooner than they want, to be more gentle and more accommodating of the bike when they cross over (excuse the pun).  It’s a more difficult transition to make, because it requires you first go slower to go faster.

It’s for these reasons that i would encourage you, if your interests lie in racing well in summer, you spend some time getting muddy in the winter – it’ll make you a more rounded, more complete, and smoother rider. And whatever people might tell you, it’s a lot of fun too!

Five training sessions to change your life

The last two years, i have spent some time getting to know myself. Prior to that i farmed out all the hard work and scientific aspect of my training to a coach, with the intention of freeing myself to just do the easy part of actually riding a bike. It worked, i ended up fitter than i had been previously, but being an incorrigible tinkerer, it left me unfulfilled – i spent a lot of time wondering whether things would be better if i tried a different tack. Unfortunately, thoughts like this are really quite unhelpful and disquieting. It became clear that i would have to take charge of my own training plans for my own peace of mind, and also for that of Rachel who was subjected to late-night musings on the subject of sports science more often than i care to think about.

So it was that i started 2011 with the intention of trying something new. In January, we moved up to Scotland, and i started working as a postdoc in the physics department in St Andrews (i am reliably informed that St Andrews is “only just” a Scottish town). I was acutely aware that starting an academic post in a new subject area would leave me with precious little time to train, but at the same time i badly wanted to be able to race the SXC series which are renowned for their excellent courses. It was high time things became more time efficient!

Armed with a copy of the “Time Crunched Cyclist” by the man who painted himself as the architect of Lance Armstrong’s success  (a title he may now be more than happy to relinquish) Chris Carmichael, i was ready to start over. For 8 weeks, i religiously followed the “Experienced Competitor” plan in the book, and to my surprise with basically zero base miles (i.e. long, slow rides that are so in favour with a particular breed of coach) i was amazed when i made significant, measurable gains in fitness, and didn’t get ill, injured or both (one of the main arguments for base training is that it prepares your body for more intense training). In doing the program, though, i realised that even within the 8hrs a week it takes, there’s quite a lot you can cut out, and that the strict format is actually much more open to alteration.

Armed with some confidence that i wouldn’t die of overtraining doing just shorter, intense sessions, i started to fool around with the sessions i had planned. I cut out over-unders (sessions where you cross your lactate threshold repeatedly) and the peak-to-fade power intervals which i could never get right, and discovered that their loss made very little difference to my profile as a rider. A move south upset things rather, but again i planned a similar approach to 2012, this time using just the sessions i decided i liked – there are five of them, and they’re detailed below:

1 – 2*20m (“Base Training” – FTP training)
Best done using a power meter, warm up for 10m, hold 95-100% of your FTP for 20m, have 2m recovery, repeat.

2 – 6*3m (Veronique Billat vVO2 session)
Again, best done using a powermeter – warm up for 10-15m, the go straight into 3m at 120% of FTP, 3m recovery, repeat a further 5 times.

3 – 10*1m (Anaerobic fitness)
Hard session, only do when well-rested. Warm up. Do 1m at 150% of FTP, 3m recovery, repeat a total of 10 times.

4 – Tabata (Sprint/lactate tolerance)
True Tabata training lasts 4 minutes. Don’t be fooled, it’s a very hard 4 minutes. Warm up well (20 including some efforts is advisable). Block is 20s full pelt, 10s recovery – repeat 8 times. It is totally impossible to measure this by a powermeter. You should be sprinting every time like a rainbow jersey depends on it. If you can’t see right and feel like being sick at the end, you did it right.

5 – Billat II (VO2 threshold)
An occasional session, only for when you are super-motivated. Warm up, alternate between 30s at 120% FTP and 30s at 50% FTP until you can no longer hit the powers. Aim for 30-40minutes.

All the structured training i have done this year has been a mixture of these  5 sessions, commuting to and from work 4 days a week, and the occasional longer mtb or road ride at the weekend. They will prepare you just as well for a 1.5hr XC race as they will for a 9hr mtb marathon. Go, try them, keep things fresh, have fun!

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Transalp Day 5 & 6 - Scuol - Livigno - Ponte-di-Legno

 Satisfied with our rise up the rankings over the previous days (we were up to 83rd on GC in the men's field, well inside our top-100 aim), we faced day 5 - another longer stage at 68km, and more inkeeping with the "typical" transalp format of big climb early on. Thankfully, Nick was continuing to keep a close eye on the stage profiles, perusing them with great concentration every evening, so he knew every inch of the stage to come. I was taking an approach more suited to my poor memory of sticking a sellotape-laminated profile to my top tube.

First up was an amazing breakfast spread right next door to the camp (sadly not in the town's disused nuclear bunker as in previous years), although the amazing array of muesli didn't make up for the less-than-perfect strength coffee that tasted mostly of milk. I took the only sensible approach, and made up for quality with quantity going back for a second cup with Naomi and Mike, who were by now our regular eating companions.

The morning was tangibly warmer than the first days of the Transalp had got us used to, and i made the mistake (one i would make again) of wearing arm warmers for the start, only to have to peel them of straight away. I had been particularly looking forward to the stage to Livigno, it was one where we got the amazing high-alpine singletrack that had so inspired me six years previously. The start was suitably manic, and took us over a covered bridge out of town, which was thankfully devoid of the post slap bang in the middle that Mike's prescient warning had reminded me of from years gone by. We climbed up into Val Minger (fnar fnar), and continued our ascent, more gently on some stunning narrow meadow tracks that definitely differentiated well between the roadies and the mtbers around us!

Once we had crested the Passo Costainas, a spot of "noodling" was in store for us, as we climbed and descended small rolling hills through some beautiful high valley scenery until the Passo del Gallo, which marked the big singletrack descent of the stage. In the back of my mind as i rode through here was the possibility that i could do it all again in a month's time - the National Park Bike Marathon also uses these trails, and how could you not be impressed by a bike race you can enter in the local Coop! Somewhere down the descent, Nick flatted, and foolishly i failed to notice him - i looked behind me a couple of times on the hairpins, and could see a guy wearing a red helmet. Imagine my dismay when, as i slowed down to allow him to catch up as the trail headed skyward, i realised that Nick had grown rather significantly in stature in the last twenty minutes. Ooops. Cath Williamson and her partner Ischen Stopforth rode past, and told me that Nick had got a puncture "about an hour ago" whilst i sheltered in the shade of a handy tree and waited. Panic ensued in my exercise-addled brain, but just as i was contemplating hiking back up the hill, along came a very understanding and good-humoured Nick!

Off we headed up the gravel climb to the Alpisella pass, the final significant climb and descent of the day, before the mean Ulli Stanciu joke of taking us most of the way into Livigno, then back out and up a hill before allowing us to finally drop into town. We finished the day in baking sunshine, and tucked into the salty salami and cheese at the feed at the end with great abandon.

As soon as we had finished, my mind turned to the following day - the "queen stage" of the race, weighing in at 106km with 3,500m of climbing, including a brutal ascent of the Mortirolo, using the same road as the Giro d'Italia had back in May.  The key to surviving that would be recovery after the day's stage. We ate plenty, lay down and put our legs up, applied the very kindly-supplied urea-based fusscreme and then headed for dinner with our posse, Mike, Naomi, Meg, Pete & Cath - the anglophones united! We got the thrill of the day's presentation, and Cath got yet another trophy for second place on the stage behind the irrepressible Sally Bigham and Milena Landtwing, and then it was time to hit the hay.

The next morning dawned a little overcast, but it was clear that as soon as the mist burned off, it was going to be hot. We were pushing from the tax haven enclave of Livigno into "proper" Italy today, and also dropping down to the lowest altitude for quite some time to the town of Grosotto at the foot of the Mortirolo, so more reasons to think it would be toasty. Another frantic, forgettable start, and we were out of the blocks for the queen stage. I had decided, with hindsight possibly unilaterally, that today would be the day that Nick and I would make our move upwards on the GC - i was feeling pretty good, we had both figured out how hard we could push and get away with it, and the teams around us were flagging a little. The all-aslphalt climb of the Mortirolo seemed like a perfect place for it, i could use my strength to give Nick a bit of a hand, and hopefully we'd be able to move ourselves a few places up in the rankings...

First, though, we had to contend with the leg-sapping and tricky alpine singletrack out of Livigno, followed by a fast, flat run on gravel roads through the valleys to the foot of the Passo di Verva. With Mike's wise words "if you're not doing 40k/h here, you're going backwards" ringing in our ears, we hung valiantly onto a fast-moving paceline of riders. A small climb later (still 400m, but your norms get adjusted pretty quickly on the transalp), and we were ready to start the longest descent of the whole race - 1700m straight down to the small town of Grosotto. It was already feeling warm at the top of the climb, so it's perhaps no surprise that we were melting by the time we reached the bottom.

The climb itself started with some amazingly steep ramps of tarmac, that tested mine and Nick's pushing technique to the limit. In the end, we decided that Nick hanging onto a pocket was best, and once we got things dialled, we were motoring. As we climbed past Aussie mates Team Radical Lights, i realised we were on a bit of a flyer, and was determined not to let up. Nick was also digging deep, and I can't lie, it did feel fantastic towing my team mate past other blown teams. At the top of the Mortirolo (but sadly not the top of our ascent) we came across Mike & Naomi, who had had a bit of a nasty mechanical with a seized jockey wheel. We asked if we could help, and then rode on towards to the top of the climb. At the summit was the oasis-in-a-desert sight of a feed zone, where i necked a load of water and gel, and tried to force something down Nick's throat, as i thought he looked a little peaky. A fast, rocky, slightly scary descent took us down to Ponte-di-Legno, where the fun finished for the day. We made it in 6h38, for 57th on the stage, our best result yet.

Unfortunately, when we sat down to eat post-stage, it became clear something was up. Nick wasn't really feeling up to eating much, and when he started to shiver in the 30deg heat, it became clear it was time to call the medics. The race doctor did a fantastic job of looking after Nick, took him over to the medical tent, checked his blood sugar and response and then gave his diagnosis - v low blood sugar from pushing himself too hard! I ran around making sure our bikes were cleaned and worked for the following day, and tried to collect some food to make sure Nick had something to eat when he felt up to it.

Suitably recovered, we had dinner in the presence of the first ever women's olympic champion, Paola Pezzo who lives nearby, and then headed to bed. The following stage, whilst not as long, or with quite as much climbing as day 6, was definitely not to be quibbled with. We need to make sure Nick was ready for it!

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Transalp days 3 & 4 Ischgl-Nauders-Scuol

Having decided that the weather would definitely be kinder the following day, i did the most stupid thing possible just before going to sleep - i checked the crystal ball that is my phone's weather app. It told a rather different story, predicting 8degrees and some rain for the following day. Bumsocks. It was going to be cold.

We were back in block B, ditched our bikes near the front (after spending about five minutes trying to get them to "mate" in such a way that they didn't become a catalyst for bike dominoes through the whole pen), and went for coffee in a nice posh hotel in the centre of town. Mike and Nay had me worried, they were both wearing full arms, full legs, waterproofs, booties, and looked ready for a winter ride in the arctic. By contrast, i'd gone for knee and arm warmers, and Nick just arms and visibly pink knees on display. Were we going to freeze solid on the far side of the Idjoch?

There was a noticeable new layer of snow on the mountains surrounding Imst, which was definitely lower down than the 2800m we were going to climb up to. All i remember of breakfast was Nick coming out with the incredibly prescient statement "After a while, it just becomes posting it in your face, doesn't it?".

9am came all too quick, and before we knew it, the Block A party was off a minute ahead of us schmoes. The poor guy who had the job of removing the tape from the front of our pen almost didn't make it out of the way in time, and i had visions of him appearing for work the following day with tyre tread marks in his face until a graceful leap saw him clear the hard-charging euros at the front. Why you'd be keen for a hard start on a day that went straight into a 1500m climb, i have no idea, but don't underestimate the enthusiasm of these guys!

 We both gurned our way up the Idjoch, whereas previous climbs had been harder surfaced, and slightly more gentle gradient which enabled me to give Nick the occasional push, i'm sure more for encouragement than for actual aid, the Idjoch was so steep and loose that it was every man for himself. As we climbed higher, it was clear that the fresh mountain air coming into my lungs was getting colder and colder, and as we rounded the shoulder of the mountain before the final steep kick to the summit it began to snow. Lightly enough that none of us were quite sure to start with, but it was snow alright. We pushed on to the top of the pass, keen to keep the warmth in us that we had generated on the climb up, and apparently rode past 2m high snowdrifts i have absolutely no recollection of.

The descent was long, loose, and slightly terrifying. Nick was in his element descending like a man posessed, and several hairpins ahead of me after only a couple of corners! I was much more timid, and as a result lost a significant amount of time on my partner and more, ahem, confident (or foolhardy) riders.

 The rest of the stage passed in a bit of a blur, and i don't have any recollection whatsoever of the final climb up to the pretty little Tyrolean town of Nauders, but we must have ridden it somehow! We threw caution to the wind a bit more with pacing, and it paid off - we came in 76th on the stage. There was a great deal of disturbing artwork on the walls of the town hall, where we were staying, which frankly did nothing for the "emotional experience" of the camp (see transalp road book for details). On the plus side, we would be showering and breakfasting at a local 4* hotel. I drew the long straw on the shower front, and was treated to an unbelievable 7-jet affair that left me wondering if i'd ever been that clean before!  Dinner was up a ski lift at 2300m in blissful sunshine, although it was pretty chilly when we decided to come back down again. My dodgy right knee was starting to give me problems again, but thankfully a very helpful man behind the bar understood my pidgin German, and gave me a bag of ice for me knee, which then leaked all over me during dinner...

Day 4 was the shortest stage of the race, practically a sprint at just over 50km, and took us from one of the most idyllic places i have stayed in Austria to the only place i have ever stayed in Switzerland, Scuol.  Sadly, there would be no night in a nuclear bunker this time though, with our accommodation decidedly above ground, and mercifully lacking the glacially cold showers of 2006.

The usual morning routine done and done, with the most amazing array of muesli ever thrown into the mix to provide confusion and delight (and possibly dismay from the people who owned the hotel - the Transalp decimated their breakfast buffet!), we were on the line ready. Day 4 was the one i remembered from previous years as being very picturesque, and also the day when the fatigue stops getting any worse. This year was no different.

There was a bit of a chill in the air as we set off up the first climb of the day, but nothing that arm warmers alone couldn't keep off, and by the time we reached the top of the first climb they were off. The weather had improved hugely over the first three days, and with predicted temperatures in the mid-20s, we were altogether happier with the outlook. We had obviously acclimatised to the climbs too, as neither of the main ascents in the day's stage stuck out in my mind as particularly brutal, in spite of there being 1900m of climbing hidden in the profile.

The descent past the Schwarzsee was great, although sadly one section was justifiably marked as black, as Nick and I both attempted and then failed to ride it. What followed was an ever-steepening, loose forest track descent that bottomed out in the valley at 1000m, on the road that took us across the Swiss border. Under the watchful eye of the Swiss border officials, we grouped up with a couple of other riders and began the flat dash into Scuol. Unfortunately, this was the moment my brand new front XTR shift cable chose to split, leaving me stuck in the 28 on the flat. Cue a leg-smarting 5km of spinning 28*11 as fast as i could to keep the pace up, and before we knew it were we into Scuol, with a ride time of just over 3hrs.

Sadly, i only later discovered that a physics friend of mine was living in Scuol and looking out for me - at the time i was too afraid of swiss telecoms charges to switch my phone on! Post stage red wine was had on the balcony of the fabulous youth hostel in town, followed by an Alpenhorn-accompanied dinner up the mountain. What a way to end a day!

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Transalp Day 2 - Imst to Ischgl

Somewhat daunted by our initial skirmish the Marienbergjoch on the first day, we nervously looked over the stage profile for the following day. It was very similar, in fact identical, to the second day of the Transalp 2006 covering the 78km from Imst to the "proper" mountain town of Ischgl. Nick looked carefully over every kilometer over dinner in the tent outside the sports centre in Imst, and we concluded that (a) day 2 was probably harder than day 1 and (b) we should probably treat it with some respect and try to ride a bit more steadily than we had the day before. This reminded me of having exactly the same conversation with my partner of six year previously, Hamish, in much the same spot in Imst. Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose!

The small shaft of light for us was that the weather app on my phone was predicting somewhat better weather for the following day rather than the on-again off-again rain and soaking trails of day 1. We settled down in our makeshift beds (miles from the pasta party, i'm sad to say) to ready ourselves for the following day.

Sunday morning dawned damp. We went for breakfast hoping it was just a shower and that it would brighten up. It didn't brighten up. We discovered the previous day's ride had been good enough to get us into start block B, where the reasonably serious people go (there were two ahead, A1 for the ultra-fast, and A2 for the still pretty damn quick), and so set off to stick our bikes at the front of the block before heading off for what would be the first of many coffees with Mike and Naomi before they got gridded with the big boys and girls. We were joined by Catherine Williamson (bizhub) one half of the second-placed women's team, and who was to become another regular eating companion, all of us nervously looking through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the hope that the rain had stopped. It hadn't.

We went to our bikes and stood in the now more gentle rain, waiting for the strains of AC/DC to 
filter back to our more realistic start block so we could at least get going and warm up a bit. The start of the stage was a little more typical for the Transalp than the previous days 40km/h asphalt-fest - a short section of tarmac before we hit the first big climb of the day, the Venetalm.

After the previous days shock, the Venetalm reassured me that we could get through things, it was much as i remember transalp climbs being a gravelly fire road up at a grade of around 10%, and then a similar descent down the other side. Having crested our first 1000m climb, it was important not to get carried away, however, there were still two more significant climbs to go, and then a nasty sting in the tail in the form of a gradual climb up the valley to Ischgl which was peppered with little 20-50m climbs and descents. We first had master the road climd to the Pillerhohe, and then survive some of the most tricky technical riding of the week down to Landeck. It was mostly rideable, although an unfortunate racing incident involving another rider changing their mind as to whether they would let me ride past as they walked part of the descent left me on the deck. As some point down this descent, the weather decided it would be kind, and the sun came out to give us a magnificent rainbow over the mountains.

Despite my worries, we rode the final 20km still feeling strong, and despite backing off compared to our previous day's pace, still finished 101st in the Men's category in a little under 5.5hrs. Ischgl's camp had fond memories for me, every time i opened my transalp bag from the previous trip, little green rubbery bits of the indoor tennis court in Ischgl that would be our hostel for the night would fall out. The town sits in a magnificent valley with the skyline utterly dominated by the imposing mountains around, including the two peaks on either side of the brutal Idjoch pass that was on the menu for the following day.  A quick wash of the bikes showed i had a more pressing concern, though - my spill had put a scrape along my non-drive side chainstay that had gone through the top layer of carbon! Argh.

Panicking more than a little, i went to talk to Dave Padfield, who now works as a road manager for the Topeak Ergon team, and was mechanic-ing for the top men's and women's teams in the race. He took a calm, collected look at the scrape, and told me not to worry - Trek make their carbon strong, and it'd probably be ok for the race. I should keep riding it, as the alternatives would be to pull out or try to buy a second bike - neither of which were really viable! Reassured, i headed back to camp to the daily chores, leaving my poor mal-treated bike in a multi-storey car park overnight.

Pasta party done, washing up, it was time to put everything ready for the morning and go to sleep. Nick and I made the obligatory check of the following day's profile. Man, the Idjoch was going to be tough. Almost 1500m climbing straight from the gun, and steep. Let's hope the weather improves, and there's no fresh snow on the tops of the mountains tomorrow morning.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Transalp 2012 - Day 1, Oberammergau to Imst

Getting to races that start in the south of Germany. It's always all about the super-efficient Bavarian train system, which can get you from Munich airport to seemingly anywhere, as long as you don't mind two changes (bit of a faff with a bike bag) and 2hrs of very nice scenery out of the window. So it was to Oberammergau. Bikes built, and a first not-too-traumatic night in the Transalp camp, and Nick and I were ready for the first day. It was wet. This was an unpleasant surprise. I warned Nick that i may "accidentally" have ticked the box that said "UCI Elite" team, and that we may end up gridded somewhere towards the front as a result. I don't think either of us were quite ready for being called up individually, and by name to the 3rd row of the grid, however. The line of people we were going to get in the way of behind us seemed endless, and included multiple British champ Sally Bigham and her partner Milena Landtwing. Oh dear.

Thankfully, we had the calming influence of Mike Blewitt and Naomi Hansen (or as the organisers would have it, Hansen Naomi) riding for Mike's team before the build up to the Highway to Hell, a track that even now causes my resting HR to jump by 20bpm.The start was an extended road section that headed slightly uphill towards the start of the first offroad section for the race, the Plansee Trail. I got massively carried away with the "not getting in anyone's way", and ended up riding with the front group. Eventually, the sight of so many high-quality elite riders made me remember i shouldn't be there, and that i should also probably be looking out for my poor teamie who'd never experienced the frightening semi-organised chaos that passes for the start of a Euro marathon race.

I stopped for a pee, and to have a bite to eat, waited a bit and saw Mike and Nay come past. I made a mistake that i would make several more times through the week - i saw a guy in a red helmet, assumed it was Nick and got going again. A few km further on, guy in red helmet passed me on the road - Nick had grown quite a lot in the preceding 45mins! I stopped again, and this time waiting until i could definitely see the real Mr. Herlihy! We rode well together, eating up the miles and taking in the views. We reached the top of the Lermoos freeride trail, a steepish, slightly technical but short descent into the town that had apparently people problems in the TransGermany in 2011. I suggested to Nick that we should probably be in front before the descent so as not to form part of the rolling roadblock. It wasn't to be sadly, we just caught the next group on the way down instead!

There was only one significant climb on the whole day's route, the Marienbergjoch. It was a 800m vertical ascent, not too steep and quite tame in the context of the mountains that were waiting for us in the Dolomites. It also had the advantage for me of having been on the route 6 years ago, so i knew that even when slow and crap i could get over it (okay, slower and crapper). We were not ready for it! It was a brute, i was straight into the granny ring, and very soon at the top of the block. The top section was marked on the route profile as "push/carry" (schieben auf Deutsch), but i had confidently predicted that it would be an easy ride, really, it was just the organisers being over-cautious with their gradings for the first day. I kept riding, slower and slower, until it became clear that 3rpm was not the way to go, and got off. I joined the ranks of pushing people, looking across to see Nick looking a little shell shocked. Double oh dear, had this been a really bad idea after all?! We wobbled our way to the top, feeling a little bruised of spirit. The descent to the finish in Imst was a classic Transalp "kitty litter" affair and a good warm-up for things to come. We whizzed along the forest roads in a group of riders, stopping the clock at 4:44 for 82nd place on the stage, comfortably inside the top-100 we decided was a sensible aim in the men's category. I have to admit, the thought of another 7 days, most of them harder, had me more than a little scared!

Transalp 2012 - The routine

It's proving quite difficult to get started on even cataloging the whole 8 days of the TransAlp. It may just be the post-stage race depression talking, but there's just so much that has happened in that time, that it hardly seems possible to commit it to paper and give you a feel of what life is like in an MTB stage race across the alps. But i'll try. If you can't be arsed to read what follows, just imagine it's a fantasy camp where chubbier, less naturally talented people pretend they're Grand Tour riders for a week, and you won't be too far wide of the mark!

The general pattern of each day is pretty similar. You have got to be ready, and have finished digesting in time for the stage start, which is usually 9am. This means you probably set your alarm for 6am, perhaps 6:15 if you're feeling particularly knackered from the day before. Frankly, it's irrelevant, as some very perky northern European will get up at 5 anyway, and either (a) turn the lights on, (b) make an incredibly loud squeaking noise getting off their inflatable mattress (c) fart or (d) subject you, at close quarters, to them applying the first layer of chammy cream pre-breakfast. Welcome to the waking world.

First order of business is to wriggle out of your sleeping bag, pack up your kit, retrieve your phone from wherever it may be charging and head for breakfast. This is usually pretty close to camp, and generally plentiful. Eat. Keep eating. When you reach the uncomfortably full stage, head back for another bowl of muesli. In the words of my partner "It just becomes a matter of posting it in your face". When you're sure you're close to popping, head back to camp, join the unbelievably long line for toilets which will have only one of locks, loo roll and a working flush. You have to embrace the European way!

Finally, put on your kit, drop your bag off with the nice people who more all your crap from stage to stage, remembering to first pack your chammy cream in the bag (i once did a whole stage of the TransGermany with a pot of assos bum cream in my jersey pocket!), and head over to the start for gridding. If you're in the nosebleeds, like we were, the pens open at 8am. Be there at 7:45 if you want a first line spot. If you've got UCI points or are doing particularly well, you get to head up at 8:45. Ditch your bike in the pens, head for  coffee somewhere warm.

Be on the start line at 8:55, just in time for the warm up to "Highway to Hell". Start. Expect that if there's a road section to start with, it'll be carnage and you won't be disappointed. 1100 people all want to be as far forward as possible, and have very good brakes. Be ready for a big climb early on, as there often is, just to make you feel like you might get a second visit from your breakfast. Also be ready for the dash to the finish, the run in is often flat, and people really are racing for 300th place on the stage!

Good job. You made it to the next stage town. Now the housework marathon begins. Eat more, find your bags where you'll be resting your head tonight. Wash yourself first, then your kit, preferably in the same shower. Find a suitable wire fence to hang your kit from - it'll usually be dry by evening, even at 1900m, in July. Lay out your bed. Eat some more. Nap & read until the pasta party starts at 6pm. Try to find a sneaky plug socket to charge your phone/garmin. Curse the people who got there first. Give up.

Go to the pasta party. Meet up with fellow racers, recount the stories of the guy who went over the edge on a fire road trail and had to be hauled back up with a rope, or the girl who got pushed the whole way up a 1000m climb by her partner. Eat more. Get pasta-poisoning, where even the thought of Bolognese is enough to make your stomach do backflips. When your done eating, the entertainment begins - watch the day's winners crowned, see the photos of the day and the video of the day, and then suitably tired, head out for a recovery vino rosso!

When you get back in the evening, try to remember to bring your kit in (i somehow lost a sock in Livigno, although i'm used to sacrificing the odd one to the god of washing machines anyway...), put your stuff ready for the morning, wash out and refill your bottles, and hit the hay, ready for the 5am gas attack. Rinse, repeat. Wax on, wax off.

I've somehow made it sounds like a real trial by tedium doing a stage race, but nothing could be further from the truth. You get to ride some fantastic trails, in this case 620km, most of which i had never seen before through fabulous scenery. There are kind people to fill your bottles and ply you with food at the aid stations, others to take your bags from town to town, mechanics a-plenty, bike washes (free and done for you if you're lucky enough to be able to afford a Scott) and local kids to cheer you every turn through every village if the sun is out. Okay, the routine can be a bit tiresome, but there's something so fantastically indulgent about knowing that your aim is to go, ride, have fun, ride fast and that for those 8 days, nothing else comes close in significance. If you're on the fence about trying it, try it, you might just like it!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Why Armstrong Still Matters

It's an often repeated quotation from one of the legends of the sport, but i'm going to repeat it here because i think it summarises perfectly the points i am going to lay out.

"If Armstrong's clean, it's the greatest comeback. And if he's not, then it's the greatest fraud."

Reading people's reactions on Twitter today to the news that four of Armstrong's former team mates, all of whom are approaching the twilight of their respective careers, have accepted 6-month bans for their admitted doping during their time with him and will testify against him, it is clear that people just want this to go away now. The will to deal with a case so inextricably linked to the development of cycling as a mainstream sport during the late 1990s and early 2000s just isn't there. There are probably a multitude of factors behind this, but i would say there are two central problems:

1) People are bored. The rumours have been rumbling on for years about Armstrong, during his time as the dominant keeper of the maillot jaune, through his first retirement and on into his return to the professional peloton. As individuals in a community, we have all come to our own opinions about his guilt or innocence, and no longer feel the need for further evidence one way or the other. 

2) The industry as a whole is scared that the massive growth in cycling built on Armstrong's popularity throughout the world as a dominant champion will wane if one of these rumours is proven to be true, and he is sanctioned or stripped of one or several of his yellow jerseys.

The reasons why we should still care, in spite of these two problems are clear. Firstly, we should not be content with trial by public opinion, regardless of whether public opinion is divided or unanimous. Take Iban Mayo, for instance. He tested positive for EPO during the 2007 Tour de France. He requested, as is the athlete's right in these cases, that his B-sample also be tested. It was tested at a different lab (the AFLD lab in Chatenay-Malbry that had done the original analysis was on summer vacation), and declared negative according to testing standards. According to the WADA rulebook, he should at this point have been declared free of sanctions, but instead his already-opened B-sample was tested again, this time at the same lab as the A-sample, and declared positive, and he was handed a 2-year ban. In spite of the fact that he was widely accepted to be "dodgy" we should have been furious at the infringement of testing protocol; if we don't apply perfect standards to the testing of riders, how can we possibly expect them to behave with the same rigour and care themselves? Instead, we looked on and thought "oh good, another dubious customer removed from the upper echelons of the pro peloton", and moved on to watching the 2007 Vuelta be won by Denis Menchov (oh the urge to comment further here...).

Secondly, when it comes to the current success of cycling as a recreation and competitive sport being built on a foundation of shady svengali doctors, and dubious medical supplements, i would say we should have more pride in our sport. There are people who came into the sport through the amazing success of the USPS team, and the excitement of the fact that a man who suffered from testicular cancer at a very early age in life managed to compete in one of the hardest sporting arenas in the world and win. They might not otherwise have come to ride a bike, it is true. But these people are already out there, riding their bikes, enjoying the countryside around where they live, and perhaps even competing with other likeminded individuals. To assume that they will stop doing these things tomorrow because the idol who inspired their first shaky steps into the sport is absurd. No offence to Lance, but cycling has so much more to offer than 3 weeks in July, "the look" and a blue and white conga line on every mountain stage.

So you might ask then why i want to see people taking this more seriously, after all, it all happened a long time ago. Well, the answer here is based on the sad truth of anti-doping science. The reality is that for the past 30 years, the testers have been consistently behind the riders, and if anything that gap is likely to grow in the future - there is not the political nor the financial will to fund testing to the degree where it will be able to compete with the investment from groups of athletes willing to break the rules to win (if you don't believe me, just think of the sums involved in the BALCO affair). In fact, history suggests that unscrupulous sports scientists charged with producing a tests for banned products may end up funnelling government funding they receive into doping of athletes (e.g. the Conconi affair). Since there will always be a lag between the testers and the athletes, the only real tool that anti-doping experts have in their armoury to level the playing field is time. We should abolish the 7-year statute of limitations, and allow retroactive testing of properly-stored samples for as long as it takes. If athletes know that they may be stripped of their wins 20 years after the fact should they do something illegal, they would doubtless be more circumspect about their actions. It sucks for the guys who are retroactively given awards and jerseys, like poor old Oscar Pereiro or Andy Schleck, but surely  as athletes realise that governing bodies are serious (and there has still been relatively little evidence of a will to pursue all dopers in cycling, regardless of their prominence) these cases will truly become a thing of the past.

Cycling in my view has yet to have its truth and reconciliation moment, a time when people come forward and speak the truth in an effort to put the past truly behind them and learn the lessons of history. We might just be on the brink of that moment. Let's hope we have the collective will to jump, rather than waiting to be pushed...