Thursday, 20 June 2013

Alpentour Packing

In a bizarre, self-referential way, writing about packing for a stage race is very much like the activity itself- it can be difficult know where to begin! I’ve done a few of these crazy European raids now, snatched between busy times at work, and I still feel like a beginner. So, where to begin?
Well, with the advent of cheap flights, there’s an obvious enemy to fight. No, not the grumpy man outsize luggage dealing with his tenth bike bag plastered in “Precious Cargo” stickers, but the weight of the bag itself. Most low-cost airlines limit you to “sports equipment” weighing a maximum of 23kg – possibly a little over-generous for a pair of skis, or even a set of golf clubs, but an altogether thornier problem for cyclists. Assuming you’ve done all that you can to minimise the weight of your bike (and if you haven’t i can send you far along the path to weight-weeniedom with a single weblink ) then it’s all about being smart in packing what you need.

I generally strip my bike a couple of days before the flight to give me plenty of time to do the shuffle onto the bathroom scales with an oversize piece of luggage, curse, take out something that was “vital” five minutes ago, repeat cycle until i reach the magic number. The toolkit generally being in disarray (the dangers of cohabiting and sharing a single toolkit – “I can’t find X, YOU must have done something with it!”), i plonk all the tools i have used to deconstruct to one side to go in with the bike. Cassettes (esp the bigger 36t ones, which can be easily bent – best not to ask how!), rotors, quick releases, pedals all stripped, it’s then time to bubble wrap the key bits – big ring, controls, wheel axles (so they don’t damage your frame). Then everything goes into the bike bag – i use a soft-sided one in the vague hope that baggage handlers will be more careful with it, and again to save weight.

Then it’s time to think about spares. I’m currently mid-pack for the AlpenTour, and it’s no secret, with snow clearly visible on the Planai webcams, it’s likely to be cold and wet. Spare snakeskin Schwalbe Nobby Nic is ready to go – anything easy to tubeless, hard to puncture is always a good mixture for long races, where the last thing you want to have to do is fix a flat when cold! Spare bottle cage is a good idea (stage racing can be rough on them – big bottles + rough trails = limited lifespan!), likewise a patch kit for tubes just in case you do flat more than once on the same wheel. I also take a spare rotor, chainrings, cassette, bolts various, brake pads, gear inner, chain & quicklink (these are great taped to your top tube with a bit of electrical tape!)

For maintenance of body, it’s worth taking energy food you’re used to (i swear by Torq, but experiment and try what works). Take two more pieces of food (energy gel/bar) for each stage than you think you might need, you can really only live to regret going alpine style, especially in a stage race! Recovery drink is also a good idea, try to get it in you within 30 mins of finishing the stage. Finally, there are the unfortunate realities of racing of many days. With every extra day, the chances you’ll have to deal with something unexpected increase, be that a crash, an overuse injury or just a saddle sore. It’s worth taking a road rash kit (hydrocolloid dressings are amazing things, and don’t worry, they’re supposed to smell!), some anti-inflammatories (e.g. ibuprofen, but try not to use them unless you absolutely have to, as they’re quite bad for harming your recovery) and sudocreme for saddle sores.
Finally, pack a good book and a sense of humour. Stage races are all about seeing amazing places, meeting cool people and having fun – some of the best memories you’ll take away will be sitting on a terrace somewhere with a huge ice cream and a bunch of new friends. Oh, and don’t forget your passport...

A handy guide to cheering

It does rather depend on where in the world you are. Head to the cycling heartlands of Italy, Spain, Belgium & France, and increasingly Germany & Austria, and you can guarantee that any bike race that goes through a town will be greeted with encouragement of some description. Local kids, crudely painted (and sometimes crudely designed!) banners, food, water, and if you're very lucky maybe even an oompah band. Go to the hinterlands of the UK, or northern Europe where bikes are primarily a means of transport and not a vocation, and you may very well only be welcomed by local vagrants asking "how much is your bike worth, mate?". With this in mind, I thought I'd write a handy guide for would-be spectators.

How to pick your spot.
Bike races are best watched on TV - I'm afraid this is empirical fact; if you want to know what is going on in a race, you're much better off huddling up on the sofa with a cup of tea than you are braving the sun or rain to watch by the side of the route. However, what you miss by your frankly shocking lack of committment is the experience of a passing race. For a big road race, it will start with a publicity caravan, more free crap than you can shake a stick at, a series of rolling adverts on wheels, and then finally a series of police cars and motorbike outriders before finally you catch a brief glimpse of the patchwork quilt of multicoloured jerseys before the race is gone, out of sight like a multicoloured rumbling, rattling cloud.  If you want to see the riders for the maximum possible time, pick somewhere where the course goes steeply uphill, especially in a multi-lap race, as this will give you a great vantage to watch the race develop. Failing that, try to find some friendly locals who own a vineyard/brewery... Oh, and don't forget a waterproof!

How to encourage riders
Never, never, NEVER utter the dreaded words "dig in". Say what you like, give riders time gaps to the next person on the course, tell them they look good, or smooth, or fast. Offer them handy hints of how you think they can make up time or places. Make them laugh and smile; most bike riders are pretty humble and have a good sense of fun, even when racing.  But just saying "dig in" is the lazy spectator's cover-all. I have often wondered, what does it even mean? What am i supposed to be digging into? My suitcase of courage? Please...! A few wise words, or a good juicy pun chalked on the road shows that you care!

How not to encourage riders
You're standing by the side of a climb. A bunch of totally knackered riders are pushing the pedals as hard as they can to ride past at a decent lick. For some reason, especially if you're Spanish, the thought occurs "I know, i'll run alongside them". Just don't even think about it! For one thing, you should be holding a glass of wine, and spilling it would be a sin. Secondly, if you can run easily alongside, it's going to be utterly crushing for the poor sods who're trying as hard as they can, and if you can't you could lose your footing and end up with tyre marks in your face... Some people like to have water poured on them when it's really hot, others not so much, so don't forget to ask. As an aside, probably one of the most pleasant experiences of my cycling life was being soaked by an Italian Nonna somewhere in the Dolomites in 42o heat, when i thought spontaneous combustion was imminent. I did get sunburn because it washed off the suncream though!
Finally, don't push people, it doesn't really help, and it can get us disqualified! Keep it dignified, and there'll be no need for anyone to get Hinault on your ass...

What you can hope to get out of it
If you're watching a road race, you'll see the whole thing pass in about 20 seconds flat, from the lead car to the last guy on the road, unless you're in the Alps and on the last climb of the day. If you choose to watch an MTB marathon race, where there are pros and punters like me racing, you could be there for more than an hour cheering for the first guy and the lanterne rouge. Either way, the main reason for going to spectate isn't really to find out how the race unfolds, you're better off in front of a TV set for that. You should expect to meet a bunch of like-minded people who're fun to hang out with, have a nice picnic, and generally soak up the atmosphere. You might get the odd freebie from the race caravan, you may just get a plastic bag to shelter you from the rain, but you'll end up with good memories of a day in the hills, and stories to tell of the epic ride you saw. And maybe even a glass of vin rouge to dull the ache of making your cyclist legs walk...