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!