Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Yes! Yes! Yes! Next level at long last!

One of the great attractions to living in the mountains is that you have Nature on your doorstep. Step outside and you are there. The years go by and you are drawn more and more in tune with Nature and eventually there is no turning back - there is no way to accept urban existence or the rat race again.

After many years of living in a shoe box in Val d'Isère ski station at 1850m altitude I finally saw sense and moved down the Tarantaise valley to the much more hospitable environment of Aime. Basically even snakes don't seem to survive up in Val - the climate is too rude. There are some bone eating vultures there and other animals living on the edge. Originally Val was a place where criminals were sent as an option between "jail" or "the good life". Now the criminals own and run the place.

In Aime the climate for 7 months of the year is perfect - not too hot and not cold. The other five months is winter and it's like someone one day just switches on a giant fridge - and leaves it running. Of course, that's what makes a perfect winter season too for all the world class ski resorts in the area.

The great thing in Aime is that you step out of the door and can choose a different path into the wilderness in any direction you please. For road cycling it's also ideal because the minor roads linking the villages are very quiet. My favourite workout starts at the doorstep and climbs directly to Granier, 550m higher directly to the North. It's a route best done earlier in the day to guarantee the sun. Later workouts catch the sun on the opposite side of the valley climbing directly to La Plagne - also from the doorstep.

Usually I integrate the Granier climb into a longer overall workout through the Tarantaise valley - but the climb is an inviting challenge to measure your progress against. 5 years ago, unfit and unmotivated after a winter of ski teaching, I started climbing to Granier on my mountain bike and remember the first attempt took 1hr 10minutes and gave me a sore bum. Gradually this time was whittled down over a few years to around 43 minutes. Eventually, last year when I resurrected my steel framed road bike this time was reduced to 35:09 minutes and there it stubbornly remained until this week.

After last summer season it became a long term personal objective to break the 30 minutes barrier for this climb. That's a big difference however and it was no great surprise really to discover this year that I couldn't even match the 35:09 time and the closest I could get was 35:15. Part of the motivation to invest in a modern carbon framed bike - a Canyon "Ultimate CF SLX 9.0 SL" (really excellent bike - ) was to gear up to the challenge of getting up to this next level of performance.

Saturday's climb up to la Plagne had been a breakthrough in understanding pedalling technique - as I reported here the following day, so on Sunday it was tempting to try it out on the Granier route. Sticking to nasal breathing added to the challenge, but with a great sense of satisfaction the clock registered 34:11 at the top. At long last progress was being made. It was with more a sense of relief rather than accomplishment that I completed the rest of the route that day. The trouble was however that 34 minutes was not a ground breaking improvement if the 30 minute target was to be reached. If anything this seemed to show the 30 minute barrier to be well out of reach.

Monday was a rest and recovery day and Tuesday started with heavy rain, plunging barometer and a very bad weather forecast so cycling seemed off the menu for the day. Late in the afternoon there was an unexpected break in the clouds and a surprisingly rapid drying out of the roads so this gave a perfect window to get another ride in. Curiosity had managed to get the better of me however and I decided to really attack the Granier climb - without a warm up and with no breathing constraints - but using the newly found pedalling technique. It was nothing short of amazing to arrive at the top of the climb with a time of 30:55 demolishing the previous personal best only established two days earlier. In one great swoop the doubts have gone and the 30 minute target is well in sight. Silly as it might seem for such a trivial thing - it felt like a major breakthrough - suddenly being propelled up to another level. When you have been fighting like mad to improve physically for years with countless hours of effort, you don't really expect this sort of thing to happen. Needless to say this called for a quiet celebration - so I couldn't resist taking Christiane out for a meal in town later on - but not until I'd pushed her out the door for a 10km run first.


The two graphs are from Sunday's and Tuesday's rides. The legs were not as fresh on Sunday so it's not possible to make a perfect comparison. The nasal breathing on the first one though does appear to limit performance. Unrestricted breathing seems to raise the heart rate a complete training zone - and the speed goes up too. The graphs show the same for the second climb at Macot when the body was warmed up - so it doesn't appear to be a warming up issue. Rather than conclude that nasal breathing is not ideal for intense effort level performance it's probably fairer to conclude that I'm still not very well adapted to nasal breathing. For the moment however it seems best to compromise and use nasal breathing for all sub maximal efforts and to breathe through the mouth for short very intense efforts lasting under an hour.

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