Sunday, July 31, 2011

Les Arcs 1950 Hill Climb Race (Bourg St Maurice, "Cyclocoeur - Cyclosportive)

First Ever Podium Finish!

Started the day full of doubts. Not once in training or competition this year had the limits been pushed as is required in an all out hill climb race. The Les Arcs hill climb is to all extents and purposes a time trial. It is a bit scary because it climbs 3600ft over 25 kilometres and it is an all out push right from the start - as fast as you can go to the top. It's a mass start, but forget slipstreaming - it's you against yourself and the clock all the way. If you are lucky you might find yourself alongside someone who can pace you for a while and vice-versa. It's scary because you know it is going to hurt - badly - and that you are not going to give up. Needless to say there was nothing, not a single clue, to indicate that on this particular day I'd end up on a podium for the first time ever - but that's what happened. It was a goal for this season to get on a podium but a goal already written off to all extents and purposes due to poor results up until now.

The race "sort of came together" with the customary complete disorganisation of Bourg St Maurice. Shortly before the race Chris asked the main organiser the time of the start and he had to ask someone else because he didn't know! Bourg (830m altitude) was hot and sunny - the first time for almost a month as July had been an unusually cold and horrible washout. The bikes were stripped of everything that added weight - no tools, puncture kits, pumps or water bottles. I had a drink prior to warming up and that would be sufficient liquid as the climb would only be between 1hr 20mins and 1hr 30 mins - not long enough for thirst to have a significant impact. Spotting Chris on his bike I joined him for a short warm up climb to get the legs going - arriving back in Bourg centre just in time (not a second to spare) to join the line up for the preliminary processional start in the centre of town. For the real start we would regroup about 500m away just beside the Les Arcs funicular and be sent off with a starting gun. The procession was led by our route control / security motorbike team which consisted of a group of local Hell's Angels - one on a yellow trike with chopper handlebars. Needless to say they were clueless and led us straight past the start line. We all had to come back again to find the proper start place - a painted white line on the road used every year. Their angel's hearts were in the right place though and I'm sure they had not been properly briefed. They did appear to control the traffic well at certain hotspots on the road during the race. Chances are that the motorists were just scared into complying in the absence of any official jackets other than standard Hell's Angels stock. This all left me with just enough time to get my smart-phone running properly and logging data before the real start - but I forgot to switch the GPS on. There's always something! Probably in complete defiance of common sense and security I put on some good strong rhythmic music for climbing - the "Afro Celt Sound System". This is the first time I've ever risked listening to music during a race - but nobody would be talking anyway - it's much too difficult to talk when climbing flat out. Music dulls the pain by taking your mind off it - and it seems to boost morale at times. The dedicated Garmin GPS was doing it's job correctly on the handlebars so no data would be lost regardless of the smart-phone being effectively reduced to an MP3 player and otherwise excess weight. The great thing about wearing earbuds is that you can pretend to look more like a pro in the Tour de France listening to the coach or director sportif. It's unlikely to fool anyone but with the smart-phone app "Endomondo" people really can send you "peptalks" which they type and you hear as a voice - and they can watch your progress real time on the internet!

Setting off from the gun on the flats around the lake at the bottom of the climb I was quickly dropped behind in a slower group and so was forced to break away to try to catch up with the front - apparently pulling several others behind me. Arriving at the first climb Chris was already 100m ahead in a faster group and feeling fresh I decided to close that gap too. Chris probably came close to falling off his bike when he was overtaken at a considerably faster pace than his group right at the steepest part of this section of climb. All season so far my maximum heart rate had not one single time risen above 173 bpm and it had so stubbornly refused to get beyond this mark that it appeared to be set for life now. Looking down at the Garmin now the heart rate was sitting at 181 bpm - without even sprinting. Obviously that was not sustainable so it was necessary to easy off a bit and let the heart rate settle down to something more reasonable. Way back In my early 30s it was possible to sustain a workout of an hour or so at 170 bpm but today it was about to become clear that this has not changed even 20 years later. There was no attempt to work to an actual heart rate but instead to a "perceived effort" level. The heart rate just happened to be around 170 bpm.  Chris caught up and pulled ahead as would have been expected. In the morning the bathroom scales had depressingly read 70kg - still well overweight for a good performance and all the performances so far this year had appeared to be under par - so this was nothing new.

There were quite a few "Macot-La Plagne" jerseys like my own and I'd passed most of them in the group along with Chris during the early manic surge  - just to be embarrassingly swallowed up again by them all shortly afterwards. Still, the effort was going better already than expected. It was a clear decision to fight from the start and deal with the consequences as they unfolded. Reading "Feet in the Clouds" - a book about fell running in the UK, only a day or two earlier, I'd come across a few lines of wisdom which would prove to be valuable for the day. The main one - from a famous fell runner called Billy Bland was "If you go though a bad patch, remember that it will pass." This is so true - but I'd never taken that on board properly before. Today when pain seemed bad and the way ahead daunting I'd remember this fact and not allow morale to be affected or effort reduced. It worked wonders! With heart rate already very high using smaller gears was not an option - all that does is either push the heart rate even higher or slow you down - so the power had to be kept on by using bigger gears and leg strength. Sometimes on arriving at steeper sections after flatter ones it feels almost impossible to take up the strain again with the legs - but just a thought about what Billy Bland said and sure enough the body would get used to it if allowed to go though the pain. This way speed could be kept up. Slowly, one by one the Macot jerseys ahead started to be reeled in. With two down and one to go there was a now a fairly regular gap with one guy in blue about 100m ahead. The next group was almost out of sight on each switchback bend (they are far apart on this climb). Eventually, keeping up the force on the pedals and working on good form - pulling up and using the core muscles - the guy in blue was caught and dropped. Surprisingly however he picked up and got back on my rear wheel then eventually pulled ahead again. This was a good piece of luck because we were able to work off each other this way - never letting up the pressure. I pulled in front the most during the main climbs and he was a bit faster on the flatter sections but this work quickly brought us up to the other group and soon the last visible Macot jersey was now firmly behind - but one junior category rider latched on to us and I ended up pulling them both to the top of the main climb between Arcs 1600 and Arcs 1950. I was actually shocked at how much power was still in my legs, how the lungs, heart and head were all coping fine and was even more surprised to find the others still hanging on at the top. They also let me do most of the work on the undulating route prior to the final climb up to 1950 - but that didn't matter because leaving it up to them would definitely have lost time and time is more important than position in a race like this where you can measure your results year after year. Coming up to the final climb Chris was now not far ahead so the persistence was paying off and the pain was not winning.

On the final climb the younger guy in blue asked how far it was to the top so I told him "not far - push as hard as you can all the way now". He was able to move ahead and work on his own now and I was happy to have helped him get a good result. The battle now was just to continue the output the rest of the way. Junior just hung in with me until the end and darted ahead to grab 3 seconds on me - but that really didn't matter. Chris was rather surprised but pleased to see me pop up just one minute behind him. Last year I'd been 9 minutes behind him.

Chris 6th overall 2nd age cat in 01:19:20
Me     9th overall 3rd age cat in 01:20:26

Chris and I shared our first ever podiums together for 2nd and 3rd respectively in age category. No ideas what the age groups were but as there were only three categories I think our category was from about 40 upwards. There were 25 in our category.

The first junior was the kid who stole 3 seconds from me at the end.

The winner was an ultra skinny elite amateur who appeared to be unable to walk normally - he had apparently mutated into a life form that can only function properly on a bike. Anyway his 01:05:32 was 4 minutes slower than last year and apparently due to the wind this time. Although Chris hadn't improved on his last year time this wind factor probably means that there was an effective improvement of around 3 minutes - which means that my time improvement of 8 minutes was more like 11 minutes in reality.

It took a while for my head to stop spinning after stopping and getting off the bike and that night sleep was almost impossible to come by - with the body rebelling completely after being pushed to such levels. The average heart rate over the whole race was 169 bpm with a max of 181 bpm. Average climb speed was 18.4 kph

Standing on the podium felt weird - but not due to lactic acid or dehydration - it was just a new and unexpected experience as an adult. 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Religious Education

Definitely reached saturation level last week. It's not only that the body feels tired but it becomes almost impossible to focus internally, to remain aware and keep good form.

During the past week it became clear that a good long rest was necessary - not just because of reaching the main goals for the summer - the Marmotte and two Etapes du Tour - but because of being drained. Performance level was not significantly improving, though endurance over very long distances had definitely improved. No more sore bum, sore neck, shoulders etc. and no doubts about going the distance.

The other sign of over-training is "injury". My left foot has started to have tendinitis in the "peroneus brevis" a tendon running down from the calves to the outside of the foot near the middle. It appears to be the cycling causing it but the barefoot running then aggravates it. Consequently I'm forced to wear low profile Mizumo running shoes with cushioning at the moment to help it to heal. I'd have been certain that the problem came from cycling if it wasn't for Christiane - who did three 10k barefoot runs in three days - developing exactly the same problem on the same foot! It's not a debilitating injury but it's slowing things down at the moment. 

On my normal 40k (1k climb) training ride early in the week I still had no enthusiasm, but nevertheless managed to reduce my best time by over a minute. That's definitely physical fitness improvement. Today however - after a few more days rest - I was able to attack the ride better and felt good - taking another 2 min 18 secs off the time. The difference was that this time it was possible to maintain a good level of focus and mental engagement throughout the workout. It's almost like the real limit isn't physical fatigue but mental fatigue. It's as if the tiredness is not either in the body or the brain but something to do with the connection between the two - a process instead of a condition. Today felt good and enjoyable, reigniting my enthusiasm for training - but somehow I'm more acutely aware of how the limits are more mental than physical. The unconscious mind is setting targets all the time - telling you the pace to go at- and it's annoying because who the heck gave it permission to do that? It's about as easy to override as it is to get someone to change their religion. That's probably not a coincidence because both reside in the unconscious mind. That does however indicate that hypnosis and visualisation might be useful here for squeezing out some improvement. I like the idea of training "religiously", educating my body not to ever get fat again. Perhaps this is why so many of the Tour de France Spanish and French (obviously catholic) riders visibly made the sign of the cross to protect themselves against vampires and the official blood sample collectors - or something like that.

Today was the first time this year that I was able to sustain a high force on the pedals and use a higher gear (4th) for most of the climbs. This is a deliberate effort to switch from endurance to strength, power and speed for a while. The feeling was good during the session but it left me wiped out and with aching quads later on - not a bad thing!

Went swimming to compensate for being in the saddle and all the leg work - though now that I focus on core muscle use there is a much greater cross-over between the sports. It was hard to focus on any effort in swimming - the unconscious brain was definitely playing its own game again. It's been a long time coming but I really feel the action is becoming natural with the crawl now. All the bits seem to add up and make sense whereas before it was all disjointed. It was the core muscles that brought it all together. Instead of thinking that something has to be done with the hands or arms - it's the core that dictates and the rest follows - it just doesn't work the other way around - and that's the same in running and cycling.

Here's a relevant quote from a "Total Immersion" forum...
Swimming's main propulsion is the pulling arm, assisted somewhat by kicking. As you said, spearing hands don't propel, hips don't propel, corkscrew torsos don't propel.

The thing is that the body ultimately moves forward by the laws of physics but the way to get your body to work the most effectively does not necessarily involve visualizing the physics correctlly.

When our brain thinks of using our arms obeying the laws of physics, we tend to use the small muscles of our arms. Arm muscles are small, weak, and tire quickly. We need to trick our minds into using the much stronger, high-endurance core muscles. So we come up with these frankly physics-violating visualizations of spearing, hip-drive, torso-twisting.

Those actions end up propelling the arm just the same, but different muscle groups are used. It is a trick of the mind, and many of us find it to be a rewarding challenge.

There can be some value to investigating the physics of the hands, body and feet and how they may move to generate better streamlining and more efficient leverage. But it is a completely different story than how to engage our brain to generate that movement.

John Carey
Madison, Wisconsin

Friday, July 22, 2011

First 17k Barefoot Run

In the past 6 weeks I've done 6 big bike rides including 5 of the toughest cyclosportive races in France - so it's time to have a small break from that and try to recover a bit. Each ride varied from 3800m to 5000m climbing. I don't know if I succeeded in improving my performance - it didn't seem to happen at all - but my other goal of rapidly losing weight has certainly worked - losing about 4kg and significantly changing body shape over that time. The last two races were in the same week and that kind of took it out of me - especially with the bad weather on the last one. In between the two races I ran my first barefoot 10k and was very pleased with the speed that came naturally. This is partly what motivated me to get out and run again yesterday despite a general feeling of tiredness.

Since the last race I'd been eating non stop but somehow didn't put on any weight. Another reason to go out running was to stop the eating - the two being relatively incompatible. I decided to increase the distance to 15k and run a bit slower. This is a big jump up from 10k and being barefoot I sort of expected a few complications. Progress in running has been so good though that I expected it to be achievable. Only a few months ago I couldn't run a couple of kilometres barefoot without serious recovery pain later on. 

The run started with high expectations of feeling fresh and "woken up" after the first few steps - but it didn't happen. The legs were dead. Every stride was an effort and it only got worse. I thought that I'd stopped and turned around at 7.5k but it seems like it was 8.5k so the run would end up as 17k. My feet were still sore from the cycling shoes and perhaps just general tiredness caused them to be over-sensitive.  The outside of the left foot hurt on contact with the ground and at times this was very painful. It was swollen from some kind of constriction in the cycling shoes - not from a problem with barefoot running. The Achilles tendon on the right leg felt sore right from the start - so that must have come from the cycling too - it is apparently common with a high saddle and "toes-down" position. Because neither of those problems came from running I figured that they could be tolerated without stopping. By the end of the run - despite its shortness it felt like the end of a marathon. It was hard to move the legs and I was almost reduced to walking involuntarily. I actually felt worse than after the "Etape out of Hell" on Sunday. Incredible, since only a week earlier I'd been flying over 10k. That last race must have really drained my system out.

In the morning I woke up feeling terrible - everything hurt, could hardly walk and had a bad headache. Throughout the day this all improved, the headache going first and the Achilles easing up. The only pain that remained was the outside of the left foot. Both are undergoing icing at the moment. Near the end of the run I was wishing that I had padded shoes so that I could just be lazy and not focus so much of form and avoiding pains. It will be interesting to see what the next 17k is like, with a properly recovered body. There is no damage done even with all that tiredness and fragility so the technique seems to be working. There was no trace of plantar fasciitis pain that had dogged me for two years and was even present in the Spring this year when I tentatively started running again. Coming back from plantar fasciitis it's amazing! I just ran a 17k barefoot and deeply tired, on tarmac with no plantar fasciitis. So much for stupid pronation control running shoes and stupid podiatrists- who's expertise almost wrecked my running permanently.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Etape out of Hell

Well, I never imagined in a million years that I'd ever be congratulated by Bradley Wiggins - sporting superstar, Olympic champion, World champion and World record holder! Yesterday however it happened. His congratulations went out to all of those who finished the Étape du Tour from Issoire to Saint-Four in the most horrendous conditions.

"Dantesque" is the word French journalists have used to describle the second Étape du Tour 2011 in the Auvergne region of France.
Dante's "Inferno" (Italian for "Hell") doesn't loom large in the English language culture so we might describe it more appropriately as the "Étape out of Hell". The attrition on the field of participants throughout the day was spectacular. 6500 People had paid anything from 75€ to 500€ to participate and had travelled from all over the world - with only 4056 making it to the start line. The horrendous weather had completely discouraged many from even starting - and those who did get this far were soaked in a torrential downpour at 06:20am before even arriving at the start line. Of those starting over 2000 would abandon with only 1982 making it to the finish line, some 211km (131 miles) and 3800m climbing (12,467feet) away over the Massif Central mountain range in the middle of France. This is the same Tour de France stage that saw carnage last week with a television car knocking two riders off the road and one being stopped at high speed by a lacerating barbed wire fence. Alexandre Vinokourov fell on a descent and smashed the top of his femur in a career ending accident. That all happened in good conditions but today it was the most violent weather that nature could manage to throw at us. With the first turn of the pedals at the start nobody imagined what they were heading into. For those who finished there were tears of relief from some as exhaustion and cold had stretched them to their limits with an average finishing time for the survivors of around 09:40h.

General ambiance...

Open for larger images...
Course map and Mountains

Auvergne is a large administrative region of France and we would enter 3 of its 4 departmental areas - starting in Puy-de-Dome(63) then Haute-Loire(43) and ending in Cantal(15). Mainland France has 22 administrative regions and 101 departments. People living in France come to recognise the departmental numbers. Val d'Isère, Tignes, Les Arcs, La Plagne, Courchevel, Meribel are all in Savoie - department 73.

Interactive course map/satellite views (track recorded from my Garmin GPS unit)

We started off at only 400m altitude and were lulled into a false sense of security by the wet but still clammy weather. The heat from the previous day had not yet completely drained away so it appears that everyone had decided that it would be a typical wet summer day in "middle mountains" - which is tolerable and even enjoyable. How wrong we were! This initial error was only reinforced by the first 40km which didn't climb much in altitude. At this stage the rain and wind were as expected and despite the chill of them on the body there was nothing drastic to deal with. I ended up in a peloton that grew in size and speed as it collected more along the way and eventually came across some of Chris's American "Bethel Cycle" guests basically trying to shelter from the elements in another peloton. I heard the name "Greg" and remembered that he was the organiser of the group - but I was too much in survival mode already to go over and try to remind him of our previous encounter at the top of the Col de la Madeleine a year earlier in much better weather. When we arrived at Massiac just before the first real climb there were a couple of really tricky obstacles to negotiate including lethally slippery railway tracks and an narrow wooden bridge. The marshals (all volunteers) did a great job of slowing everyone down and preventing accidents. The climb up the La Côte de Massiac was still okay because no-one knew what was coming and it only took us up to 753m altitude. We continued upwards entering properly into the nightmare. The climb continued directly into a powerful headwind and sometimes crosswind with torrential lashing rain and at times hail. Even the motorbikes of the organisation reported having trouble staying on two wheels. Reaching the "Plateau du Bru", commune de Charmensac at 1000m altitude conditions had become simply brutal. The temperature had plummeted to 2°C. The only other times in my life I've witnessed such conditions is winter in the middle of the North Sea. I was clearly under-dressed with only a jersey and thin transparent semi-waterproof layer with fingerless gloves, shorts and no hat. Fortunately I'd put on shoe covers - and arm warmers at least - but everything was soaked through and not functioning as insulation. It was really difficult to find a proper group to work with - the hills and troughs causing all sorts of accelerations and braking up any team work. This section was about 16km long and climbing to the Col du Baladour at 1209m altitude. I ended up doing large chunks of it on my own and eventually found myself in a slow massive peloton where everyone was huddling together for shelter. It was disappointing to slow down so much but by this time it was very clear that racing mode had now been swapped for survival mode. In the hour that this hell had been going on my heart rate on strong efforts had dropped from 160 to 140 bpm and although at the time I thought that it was a lactic acid issue it must have been due to the body core temperature dropping too low. Along the Plateau du Bru it had become clear that people were caving in to the conditions in droves. Just about any object or building that could provide shelter from the wind was being used with bikes lined up and people huddled out of the wind. In villages people had been opening their doors to cyclists by the dozen and giving them towels to dry themselves and cover themselves with.  Some cyclists simply stopped at the side of the road holding onto their bikes unable to move - paralysed. The ambulances of the emergency medical team were full and couldn't help them. Others were being helped at the roadside when obviously overcome with hypothermia.

Perhaps the most surprising thing was the large number of people standing at the road side in all the villages cheering everyone on despite the atrocious weather. Really it made a difference. Their shouts of encouragement and appreciation seemed to refocus the positive side of things and help to avoid being engulfed completely by the apocalyptic and seemingly unreasonable conditions. Up until this point I had only to deal with painful wind and rain lashing the body, the legs starting to tie up with the cold and my core temperature dropping to uncomfortable levels. Descending towards the first feeding station at Allanche was to elevate the torture to another level. Already I'd discovered that eating was not an option because I couldn't use any fingers well enough to access anything in the pockets. Drinking wasn't an option either because the water bottle was immediately falling out of my hand due to lack of control. The descent amplified those problems 10 fold. It wasn't a long descent but it was just long enough to hurt. Brakes had to be used the whole way and that starts to become difficult when your whole body spasms violently shaking itself to generate more internal warmth. Concentration is hard when your core temperature is low and you have reached borderline hypothermia. You can't actually feel your brake levers but you can hear and feel that the brakes are working. The French got it right when the put the rear brake on the right - because the left hand fails first. Arriving at the bottom, jaw shaking in tremors and teeth chattering noisily I didn't stop because I knew I wouldn't start again if I did and anyway I still had all my food and liquid on board - practically untouched so why stop? In Allanche there were already several large buses completely full of cyclists who had abandoned and the shops were packed out with them too - over 30 in the butcher's shop apparently! The village hall was opened as an emergency response to shelter cyclists. Some - like those in Chris's group managed to team together in Allanche and find another more direct route to take out of the hills and weather and directly to the finish - in that case using an iPhone navigation that someone had in his pocket.
Just prior to starting in the morning someone next to me said to me "Pas des bidons?" Which means "No water bottles?" and when I looked down I realised that unbelievably the water bottles and energy mixes in them had been left behind! Worse still the first feeding station wasn't until kilometre 70. Handing my bike to someone I jumped over the fence and into an open cafe to buy a small bottle of water and can of Coke - which unfortunately were icy frozen but at least would fit into a pocket. Meanwhile my new companions went on a search and found two people who were discarding extra bottles prior to starting the race and they handed them to me - a real life saver! Thanks guys whoever you were!

Notice the sunglasses in place in the helmet - the eternal optimist! (or just naively unprepared?)

At Allanche we were in a valley and there was some protection from the elements - enough to allow me to drink and eat just a little after warming up by climbing again. Ahead the view was rather disturbing because we still had the high peaks to come  - some 400m higher - and the weather looked even more closed in and worse. I kept in mind that Paul had said the wind would not be directly in our face after 64km (which I'd obviously picked up on wrongly). I hadn't studied the course and actually had no idea that it had 3800m of climbing - but just convincing myself that the conditions would change and the weather forecast was for a steady improvement was an important mental strategy. After Allanche there was a lot of climbing and not much descending so that stopped things from getting any worse but my heart rate dropped down to the low 130s and low 140s even when climbing now - only 3 hours into the race! That was definitely not a lactic acid problem! It was difficult to see how it was going to be possible to finish this race and basically the worst was still to come. 

The Col du Pas de Peyrol at 100 kilometres was the highest point where we were properly buried in the dark clouds. After the Peyrol would be another feeding station but not before a terrible 22 minute descent with the brakes held on all the way. Knowing that this descent had ended Vinokourov's career a week earlier didn't make it more pleasant but it probably helped maintain concentration a little better through the mental fog of mild hypothermia. My left hand was now regularly slipping off the brake involuntarily and I had to work at clamping it back on. The fingers might not be working well but globally the hand could still work. Unfortunately now this hand could no longer manage to change gears so the right hand had to be used to change gears on both sides. There were moments when I wondered if I might just not be able to feel what was going on and just fall off the bike - but that never happened. I saw it happen to someone else when his gears started to slip on a climb and he completely keeled over on his side. The next feeding station was at the bottom of this descent at Mandailles-St-Julien and failing to stop here would have been pure madness. This was another "war zone" where the village decided to open some old school buildings to shelter cyclists who couldn't continue with the race. Early in the morning the volunteer staff had problems of their own when the big tent for the feeding station was blown clean over by the wind as they struggled to prepare for the day ahead.

Despite the scale of all this chaos it wasn't us making the news headlines in France. That honour was reserved for another group of cyclists on the Col du Galibier. Between 150 to 200 had to be rescued and and taken into the fire station in la Grave to be warmed up and then bussed off the mountain. Attention was squarely on them because the Tour de France double crossing of the Galibier is due this week and the weather is expected to stay bad with snow falling at altitude - although not staying on the roads. The cyclists likewise were not blocked by snow they just couldn't manage to descend in the cold. The temperature in the Alps however was a couple of degrees warmer at 4°C despite the higher altitude. Apparently the Massif Central is often one of the coldest areas of France - at least in the winter.

It was now 113km and I was stopping for the first time. Getting off the bike and standing on my left leg the leg partially gave way - not through tiredness but though dysfunction brought on by the cold. I immediately started to stuff myself with food now that my hands could be used without the obstacle of managing the bike. Even drinking a luke warm tea with chattering teeth and shivering body didn't pose too much trouble. Others were simply unable to hold a cup steady enough to drink. The food was appreciated because I was hungry by now and it was much better eating real food than gels and sugary bars. A fresh banana was much appreciated. Although this was already a much longer stop than I'd normally permit it seemed reasonable under the circumstances and so I took the time to go over to an embankment for a pee. First of all my body was not cooperating and the pee seemed to never want to start then by the time it came my core was shivering so violently that the pee was being sprayed all over the place. One guy standing behind me shouted over in French " Careful not to pee on the bike". "What bike." I answered. "The one behind you!" Humour aside there was one moment I was shaking so violently that I appeared to have trouble breathing - but that passed quickly.

My brain was lucid enough to recognise that the violent shivering was to warm up - so as this was getting worse it was obvious that the best solution was to get back on the bike and attack the next hill. The start of the Col du Perthus was steep but the short break had allowed everything to recover to some extend and attacking hard at the start got the body warmed up very quickly and the shivering stopped. This was the turning point for me. There were still four significant climbs ahead but the air was warming a bit and the hands never failed again. My feet and body remained freezing until close to the finish but that was not so important. Despite feeling less endangered there was no great improvement in heart rate which was maxing at 150 on the climbs (my actual max hr is 185) but it was still higher than when the cold was at its worst. One person standing at the roadside had counted every cyclist passing him and was shouting out our placing to us. This was very useful because when he said 938 to me I decided to defend that position and make sure to overtake more people than would overtake me from now on. Anything to generate a positive focus and try to maintain some reasonable level of effort. Physical tiredness was now creeping in and my lower back was complaining although not violently. Apart from a brief period of stomach pain - somewhat like a stitch - there were no digestive or persistent stomach issues like there had been on the two previous races. This is encouraging because digestive problems had been quite significant on those occasions. The final category 2 climb of the Col de Prat de Bouc was at 156.5 km. I had no idea what lay ahead so I asked someone and he assured me that it was the last big climb - which we both agreed was good because our legs were hurting. That gave me a new lease of life and I dropped the other cyclist. All day the same pattern had been evident - I'd lose ground on those around me at the start of each climb and then reel them back in again at the top and often go way past them. It's like the brain would give me permission to go when it knew it was safe. The very top of the col decided to give one final vicious blast of wind  - the worst of the day - before we could turn out of it to head for the finish line.  

The French have a great word to describe "going beyond your perceived limits" it's called "depassement". English doesn't have an equivalent word that can be used in this context - and that's a great shame. This particular day was 100% about "depassement". The beauty of this process is that it isn't about the cold, the heat, the physical discomfort or the effort - it's about recognising that internal dialogue that says "you can't" and turning it into "you can". There's an infinite number of ways, direct or insidious that this negative dialogue creeps up on you - but it's always the same dialogue. It tries to convince you that it is logical, reasonable, objective and reality. The magic is in breaking that spell - and doing it without resorting to amphetamines or any other artificial aid. My own process involves scanning my body and feelings, asking frankly what the level of discomfort really is. Invariably, when you apply your attention directly to your body like that, you realise that it is not nearly so bad. The internal dialogue is led by fear and doubts and it exaggerates things to protect you - but often it goes way too far and leaves too big a margin of security. People being afraid of needles/injections is a good example. We were close to the edge today that's for sure - but that's what makes it memorable and valuable. This race was a success for those reasons despite the overall party being spoiled.

Energy levels seemed to fluctuate during the multiple remaining climbs and descents until eventually I ended up accelerating and catching onto the rear of a passing train. Sticking with this bunch created the drive and motivation to keep on working and pushing hard - lifting me a bit more out of the doldrums. The descents were now drier, warmer and much faster and so more enjoyable.  One village we went through there was an old guy sitting outside a garage who had rigged up some sort of air horn connected to a compressor that sounded like a shockingly loud cow - and he was taking great delight in letting it off each time someone passed. He did manage to raise a laugh inside me and even miles further on you could tell when another cyclist had gone past him. The welcome and encouragement in all the small villages was amazing with a real party atmosphere. They were as determined as we were to overcome the adverse conditions. Eventually some faster people hijacked the peloton and another longish section was spent more or less alone or trying to work with apparently uncooperative individuals. There were many less people on the road than we had anticipated so it meant that it was fairly easy to become isolated. The wind was generally behind now and there was more descending than climbing so working alone wasn't too bad.

The arrival at Saint-Flour was a steep categorised climb up a volcanic plug by the look of it. I had just caught up with someone who was determined not to let me get ahead. When arriving at the 2km to go sign my brain did its trick and let me go again, accelerating from 10 kph to 12.5kph and then 13.5kph for the last kilometre and the climb right to the finish line. Getting off that bike was just great - the best moment of the day. The staggered start in the morning had taken 45 minutes - me being in the 6th group out of the gate - but the finish was over instantly.

I immediately stuck the bike in the security pen and went to look for food. Amazingly a local dish was provided that included hot stodgy cheesy potatoes and a good quality local regional sausage. Hot stodgy food was exactly what was required - for once the organisers had managed to get it right! Although it was still cold the the warm food had a good effect and then the sun came out for the first time - progressively massaging the body back to life with its powerful rays. The finish area was obviously a bit less busy than had been planned but there was still a big screen following a sprint finish stage of the Tour itself and I saw the last five minutes and Mark Cavendish capturing another stage. Luckily for the Tour riders today they were on lower ground and down south near the Mediterranean. I called Paul who was still in the finish area and we met up to decide how to get down to the car parked below. Another small tour and we were at the bottom and safely changing into warm dry clothes at last. Paul described the étape as "Epic!". I think that my choice of words was more graphic but won't repeat that here.

210.5km 3800m Climb, 8 Categorised climbs.
6500 Registered, 4056 Starters, 1928 Finishers.
Tour de France stage winner: 05:27:09
Étape1st place                         06:48:55
Chris Harrop                           08:37:17  overall position 307th, age cat(1952 to 61)  50th
Paul Evans                              08:39:40  overall position 322nd, age cat(1952 to 61)  55th 
Me                                           09:28:13  overall position 858th, age cat(1952 to 61) 177th (474 in cat)
Median Time                           09:40:00
Last                                          11:31:16

Madone Challenge
Over 1000 racers participated in the Madone Challenge - the combination of the two separate amateur Etapes of the Tour de France. Only 314 completed the challenge. 

My placing was       148th in 14:58:02 hrs. 
Chris Harrop             69th at 13:36:19 hrs  

If it takes bad weather to weed out the competition then that's fine by me - bring it on. I'll be even better prepared in future.

I think Paul surprised himself because he wasn't too confident before the start. A combination of good preparation and conditioning brought him a great result and he enjoyed the race. Nobody can ever argue with placing 322nd in an étape let alone overcoming all of the exceptional difficulties of the day. In some ways the conditions perhaps played to Paul's strengths and experience in dealing with training in Scotland - but that's all to his credit.

I was laughing to myself during the day because I know how much Chris hates riding in the rain and how he is affected by the cold - but also to his credit he didn't bail out -  and I wouldn't have expected anything else. Another good time with a consistent distance ahead of me in relation to other recent races.

Me? I'm happy to have stuck it out. There was a lot of learning today and a lot of mistakes made - especially the under-dressing and not studying the course in advance. My low heart rate was weird and I've never seen that before. A recent workout of similar distance and climbing had me able to sustain 155 bpm on all the climbs - so something went wrong here today. Only part of the race and a few moments were enjoyable - the rest was pretty hellish - but that's quickly forgotten. It's hard to draw any specific conclusions except that I need to get fitter. Perhaps not getting sloppy and fat over winter months might help in future. I'm a relative beginner in this field and should probably be very happy with the results, knowing that it takes years to build stamina. No musician masters an instrument or skier develops excellence in such a short time so this shouldn't be any different. Like for today itself - "persistence" - is the message.

Click to enlarge...

Paul was in the area of Issoire for a few days and had spent some time getting to know the course route and enjoying the Massif Central. We met up at Issoire municipal camp-site Saturday afternoon and set up tents on a quiet pitch some distance from the noisy - pet dog populated - caravan and camper van area. The municipal site took advance bookings but that wouldn't have been necessary as the bad weather forecast had scared so many people off. It was definitely the best place to be for convenience, being only a kilometre or two from the race start in the morning. 

Once the tents were up we went to the registration near the race start area where I had to collect my dossard (race number). This étape was better organised than the previous one in Modane and so it was rapid and straight forward.

 We both drove our cars 65km directly to Saint-Flour and dropped mine off there with a key hidden on it - so if I didn't make it to the end of the race Paul would not be stranded. A warm change of clothing and shoes for each of us was left in the car overnight. We then drove back to Issoire and cooked dinner ourselves after visiting the supermarket. Paul made an excellent blue cheese, ham and mushroom sauce and I cooked some épeutre (old type grain) spaghetti - making an excellent and filling meal giving no one a bad stomach. Bikes were prepared for the morning and a peaceful night was had despite the strong wind and rain. My 35 euro pop-up tent was excellent even in those conditions.

Wake up time on race day was 5am - but I was wide awake before that. Breakfast had been cooked the night before and coffee brewed up and kept in a Thermos flask. Despite good organisation there still seemed to be a shortage of time for getting away - though we were at the race start for 06:25am 20 minutes before the deadline. Fortunately it was not raining at breakfast and the morning preparation was very easy - but it was partly this that gave us the false impression of the day about to unfold and led to a few unfortunate choices of clothing.

In the evening after the race we looked for a restaurant in Issoire centre. Despite the centre being large and populated there was nothing open other than really skanky kebab and pizza shops and they were very numerous. That's when it hit home how poor this area must really be. It's quite sad that their big Étape du Tour was such a wash out. With no other options open Paul treated me to a skanky kebab shop meal - but it was very enjoyable and appreciated all the same. Neither of us could eat fast - the extreme physical effort clearly affecting the ability to get food into the stomach even hours later.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Complimentary Running and Cycling

My head was still feeling slightly fuzzy today - the second day after the étape. I proved that by driving to Bourg with the intention of a cool relaxing swim and forgetting to take any swimming gear.

After a complete day of vegetating yesterday the first physical thing I attempted today was lying backwards across a Swiss ball to try to stretch out the iliopsoas muscles - much contracted and solicited in cycling. Needless to say they were as tight as well tuned piano wires. It was soon clear that only a partial success was likely and there was no way the body would slink into a relaxed tension free stretch over the ball. Perhaps it's just as well that swimming was off the menu because that might just have tweaked the back. 

The other way to get deeply into the iliospoas muscles is by running - so that they warm up and go though a full range of motion due to the body being upright - only of course if you run barefoot style - with the stride lengthening behind the body and not in front. Bearing in mind that I have the second étape to do on Sunday and this is already Wednesday it was sensible to just do the short 6.2k trail run. Despite feeling a general tiredness in the legs and body I was most surprised to improve my best time once again - by 35 seconds this time. At one point I opened up the stride and increased the cadence to reach over 20 kph and clocked a 3:30 min kilometre which is a first using this barefoot style. It felt completely relaxed and at no point did any injury feel likely. Opening up the stride and letting the leg extend backwards was precisely the job for sorting out the iliopsoas. After showering I tried the Swiss ball again - with warm muscles - the level of stretch and relaxation being of a totally different order. Despite the speed increase there was no calf pain after the run this time.

Running and cycling are so often seen as incompatible but on the contrary they appear to be extremely complimentary.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mondovélo - Étape du Tour - Acte 1, Modane - Val Fréjus to Alpe d'Huez

54 nationalities participating, 9500 registered, 7000 starting, 6443 finishing. 113km 3,500m climbing.

The Étape (Stage) exists so that amateur cyclists can experience the same controlled conditions as in the actual Tour de France - with the roads completely closed. The route is identical to the route used in the actual tour and so there is also an element of measurement against the best pros in the world.

This year there are two Étapes a week apart, the first one being to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the inclusion of the Col du Galibier in the Tour. The actual tour will go over the col in both directions on two stages - the second time (stage 19 of the Tour) being the same route as the Étape. This is the shortest ever Étape 113 km (11th July 2011) and next week will be the longest Étape ever (stage 9 of the Tour) - Issoire to Saint-Flour  208 km (17th July 2011). The distance for the first Étape was published as 109 km but this proposed missing the top of the Galibier and fortunately the route was changed to include it - hence lengthening the course. Unfortunately for me on that last kilometre of the Galibier climb I really started to suffer and slow down so I was wishing they had kept the original route.

7000 people charging together downhill 16.5 km at the start of this race had at least some of us feeling rather nervous. Recent days have seen an unprecedented number of disastrous falls in the Tour de France - often provoked by simple errors of attention within the peloton itself. (I'm blaming the lack of drugs) There's a big difference between a peloton of 200 pros and one of 7000 amateurs. Massive traffic jams of cyclists at bottlenecks was a secondary worry to consider and personally I was worried about the very badly lit tunnels on the descent of the Col du Lautaret after the Galibier.

Surprisingly most of the fears were unfounded. The start was staggered in 12 parts according to race numbers (lowest numbers starting first) - which had been at least partly organised according to ability. I was in the 5th start with race number 3581 and with the wide road being completely traffic free there was no feeling of danger. Likewise, with the structuring of the start order there were no traffic jams during the day. Unfortunately at some point though there was an accident in the worst tunnel and the race was stopped for a while for a helicopter rescue - times being adjusted later. I had LED lamps working on my bike for the tunnels but didn't see anyone else using them. The big problem there is that you can't actually see the rider in front of you - and if he panics and brakes - then a collision is guaranteed.

Race Start
Starting the race there was no plan in place at all. The day before I'd decided to simply go with whatever impulses took hold and to try to enjoy racing - while it lasts. Unconsciously, there appears to have been a decision to attack until implosion - which was a cast iron guarantee going by recent form. Distance might not be a major factor in this course but with 3.5 vertical kilometres of climbing to come there would be no escape.

With the weather being mild there was no need for any additional clothing other than a wind-breaker for descending. I wear a transparent wind-breaker so that the number on my back is visible. The electronically tagged number on the bike should go on the handlebars but it was about the size of a small house so I stuck mine vertically on the seat-post where it couldn't act as a major air-brake. This would also mean that the photographers wouldn't shoot me - quite liberating really.

The start was quite fast and it was hard work to stay with the front peloton though the whole descent. In fact I was a bit lazy right at the start - having had no warm up - so it took a few minutes to wake up and start working - by which time it was a game of catching up with the front runners. There were no incidents on the descent but it was really enjoyable taking all the bends on the "wrong" side of the road! Most people stuck to the normal side of the road but I couldn't resist the thrill of taking corners on the wrong side without risk of sudden death.

Col du Télégraph
Arriving at the Télégraph I felt good and ready to climb - not half dead as is the case when you get to this point in the Marmotte. Feeling good was a signal to attack and I did - reeling in hundreds if not thousands of riders and watching the numbers on their backs getting lower all the time from the 3000s to 2000s to 1000s and lower. There were a couple of impressively fast higher numbers already passing me though - but not many. This was obviously suicidal but at least it was enjoyable. My heart rate was mostly around 162 - which pretty much turns the body into a lactic acid factory. Central to this effort was the efficiency and power re-discovered the previous week though radically raising the saddle height and changing the use of the feet and ankles to a "toes down" style. I wouldn't claim to have felt fully recovered from the Marmotte but good enough to at least try to make a race out of it - and hopefully continue to lose some more unwanted body fat. The 12 km climb took only 52 mins at an average of 13.6 kph - which would be perfect if it was the only climb of the day. On each of the following two major climbs I'd lose 2 kph. The strongest memory however is always the positive one - so that's probably why it's best to go out fighting - and to hell with the consequences. Physical pain is rapidly forgotten. That's probably why criminal dictators have to be so persistently nasty - everyone would forget them otherwise.

Col du Galibier
The Galibier climb is 17.8km long and that's long enough to hurt - especially immediately following the Télégraph. My average speed dropped down to 11.6 kph - which is still pretty reasonable - but it was definitely much slower in the final kilometre than in the first. The last kilometre was starting to become unpleasant. It hadn't been necessary to stop for a refreshments at Valoire between the two climbs as the morning freshness had ensured that water consumption was relatively low. Even at the top of the Galibier it was still not hot -  perhaps due to high altitude (2645m). Despite generally holding my own on the Galibier there were more high numbered bibs flashing past now and at this speed the proportion of riders overtaken was about the same as the number overtaking me. The final 8km of the Galibier is nearly all relatively steep and demoralising because you can see the road high above. It's best to simply not look and just focus on your immediate effort - the "process" instead of the "goal". In fact it's utterly essential to do so or you would easily give up.

Crossing the col I came across another Macot - la Plagne jersey - another nameless colleague belonging to the same useless local club as me - with zero organisation. Stopping to put on the wind-breaker for the massive 42 km descent ahead I let the Macot jersey go by again catching him up about 10 minutes later into the descent. He managed to hang around me until the last part where there was a short 8% climb to negotiate between two tunnels. The descent from the Galibier intersects the top of the Col du Lautaret and then heads down towards the Oisans valley passing the stunning and spectacular glaciers of La Grave ski station. We didn't notice any of that - how can you when you are focussed on staying alive? There was some headwind on the descent but it was not too strong and the air temperature was good. The tunnels were as scary as ever with the broken lighting systems and I felt like a twit switching on my lamps - but it was the right thing to do. I slid my sunglasses down over my nose so that visibility wasn't impaired. The speed was too great to fiddle with removing them and placing them in the helmet vents.

I was monitoring everything though one ear piece with the telephone app "endomondo" but it completely crapped out after only 20km so the ear piece was pulled out and left hanging from the helmet strap. The telephone app system has proven to be too unreliable to use. A dedicated Garmin unit is required to guarantee data at the end of the day - and for that an extra battery pack is required!

The descent had formed a strong fighting group - which mostly held together during the short 8% climb. Eventually we arrived at the bottom together and immediately went into attacking the long straight flats to Alpe d'Huez. I was happy to sit at the back and be puled along at nearly 40 kph - especially as I'd done a good share of the pulling on the descent against the headwind.

Bourg d'Oisans was an obligatory water stop and it was managed very efficiently. Someone filled the bottles while I dropped Isostar tablets into them. Later on I'd regret not having any pure water because it was really hot - at least 33°C in the shade during the lower parts of the climb - and sticky sugary drinks are not so welcome in intense heat.

Alpe d'Huez
I'd reached the foot of Alpe d'Huez in 4hrs precisely and knew that was a good time for me - but also knew that there was no point kidding myself on that the last climb would be anything like as respectable. The first pitch is around 14% gradient and feeling fine, charged with a fresh supply of fluids, I went on the attack. Half way up the first leg towards the first switchback (hairpin bend) it suddenly started to feel very hard. Looking downwards I could see that the lowest gear was already selected - the largest rear sprocket. It then dawned on me that the large chain-wheel was still being used and so with a great sense of relief I dropped it down to the small one and could turn the legs easily again. The relief didn't last too long. The climb is over 14km with the steepest part being the first two kilometres. Somewhere during those two kilometres I came across the Macot - La Plagne jersey again. Obviously he hadn't stopped at Bourg d'Oisans but now he was climbing pretty slowly so I'd not be seeing him again before the end. 3.5 km into the climb my heart rate started to drop - an irreversible slide that only goes in one direction. That left over 10 km of struggle, pain and generally self-inflicted torture. Going through a check list of the body the legs were powerless, there was bad stomach ache (since the Col du Télégraph), excessive heat that caused everyone to try to find shadows from trees lining the roadside and a sore, fuzzy head with a general inability to think straight. I wanted the head to get worse so that I couldn't even think about that. The climb finally took 01:30hrs - averaging 9.5 kph. Being realistic it could have been worse.

Click on image for full size

The worst part of this climb is that you can see the end towering high above with the road winding up the steep side of the mountain. It's horrible thinking that you still have to get all the way up there. You look at it once and then make a point of not looking again. Eventually at about 1500m altitude the air starts to cool. My shirt was zipped all the way open to the waist in a vain effort to remain cool. The sight of some lucky sods already descending having already finished the race was just plain annoying. This is when the head starts to play games and you doubt your wisdom in punishing yourself to this extent. Why on Earth do this to yourself? Thinking for a few seconds about how large my stomach would be by now if I didn't do this rapidly returns things to another, more positive perspective.

Rising above the tree line about 4km from the finish you can feel that the end is nearing but you are confronted with a long steep gradient that is demoralisingly all too visible. Some locals obviously knew this and so were giving water to passing cyclists - the trouble is they only had one bottle and had to run after the cyclists to get it back each time. I really didn't want to drink from that bottle - but did! The fresh, cool, plain water was great! I probably picked up all sorts of bugs but truly was beyond caring. My stomach was already in a mess and not likely to be worsened by anything else.

The final couple of kilometres in the town were relatively flat - even descending at one point so the impulse to sprint emerged from somewhere. It's like you want to test yourself to see if you will break or explode - but with the safety of knowing that you are definitely going to get over that finish line. I'd pushed to try to ensure getting below the 30 minute mark and succeeded in getting 05:29:49 so the sprint had been worth it. A few minutes later when I bumped into John Thomas and Dave Beattie who had both completed the course in amazingly fast times I noticed that after talking for a couple of minutes I had momentary breathing difficulties - something that had happened at Ventoux after a sprint finish too. I was obviously over-breathing due to the talking so need to watch for that issue in future.

Overall placing: 1655 out of 6443 finishers
Age group placing: 258 out of 1251
Overall time: 05:29:49
First place: 03:39
Last place:  09:22
Chris finished exactly 30 minutes ahead - with most of the gain made on the final climb - pretty much as I would have expected.

Great event - especially with the roads being properly closed. There were some organisational failings which I'll mention later - but the event itself was excellent. For me to improve now I need to lose a lot more excess fat. It's clear that those who do best at this sport are like those who do best at running - they are very light. At some point it's easier to lose fat than build more muscle. Some of those riders an hour ahead of me don't actually do much more training - they are just a heck of a lot lighter.

Gigantic Voiture Balai
Organisation for this event in general is massive. When descending from Alpe d'Huez after our recovery meal and a good rest there were still thousands slowly making their way up the mountain - many walking and all suffering. Some had even prepared for this by bringing a change of shoes for walking. They were all courageous and determined to finish. We had to edge our way very slowly down the road because it was technically closed and dangerous to descend. Ambulances, and motorbikes were in abundance all climbing uphill too - so it left little space to get down the hill. Near the bottom of the descent as the number of riders thinned out we encountered a massive convoy of articulated vehicles and big buses - at least a dozen buses - all behind the famous "voiture balai" - the sweeper up van. We realised to our astonishment that this was one gigantic "voiture balai" collecting the 550 or so who had abandoned. The bikes must have been in the trucks.

Val-Frejus Fiasco
We were a group of six cyclosportive enthusiasts from the Bourg St Maurice and Macot-La Plagne clubs. We had placed all the bikes and baggage in a large van belonging to Jaques which was driven to Modane in the Maurienne valley while four of us went by car. A small van capable of taking six people and six bikes was also placed at Bourg d'Oisans in advance - Betrand having left it there and cycled home a few days earlier. So far - three vehicles for six people. Arriving at Modane the collection of race numbers was at the high altitude ski station of Val- Frejus and the road was closed - obliging us to take a bus. We pretended to have a hotel booking in the village after waiting over 20 minutes without seeing a bus. Failing to name the hotel exposed our scam but they let us through anyway all together if the car. Unfortunately Bertand forgot his racing license which was still in the parked van and so it was an all round carry on and a great waste of time - plus it rained in the ski station. An accident on the closed road caused a serious bus delay and massive queues for people to get back down. This altogether made everyone late.

When we first arrived at Modane a Gendarme came over to the car and was really cheerful, shaking hands with everyone! This is a very unusual experience indeed - it felt very weird. It turns out that he organises the Bourg cycle club and knew everyone. I was genuinely struggling to keep up with events here.

Feeding and Sleeping Logistics
Getting food in the nearby neighbourhood late in the evening was impossible. The typical French reaction to a great business opportunity is to complain about working too much and close early. France still suffers from the 35hr week and impossible enterprise strangling administration. Eventually, after walking and driving for miles we found somewhere to eat and even managed to order pasta. We had only enough time to head back to the house that we would spend the night in and prepare the bikes and clothing for the morning. Fortunately there was enough space indoors for everyone so we didn't have to install tents during the now brilliant lightning display that the evening storm had brought. Sleep was not forthcoming and inflatable mattresses make a lot of noise when you move. Knowing that we would be up again at around 4:40am didn't help anyone relax - except perhaps Jacques who apparently slept like a log in his van.

Getting to the Start
In the morning - after getting out the door all the bikes and riders piled into Jacque's van with everything else piled into the other car. We left for Modane to try to get as close as possible to the start and made it to around 3 km where the van was parked amongst hundreds of other cars at the roadside. From there we would cycle the rest of the way and be there by about 06:15, half an hour before the last deadline for entering the pens.

After Race
When the race was over all I wanted was to find fluids to drink - and to sit down. Finding the reception area I collected a bag of snacks and drinks then found a bench in the shade, bought a coke and sat down. Eating, drinking and resting allowed the headache to subside. After a while I met Bertrand who wisely suggested that I find the free pasta party. There was a good secure bicycle park to leave the bikes so this made life seem much more bearable while recovering. Fortunately I left the pasta party just in time to catch everyone else leaving to go down the valley - and would have been let to wander in eternal confusion if I'd been only a few minutes later. The van had not been stashed in the valley exactly where I had imagined so it was just as well I'd found the others to descend with. Everyone eventually ended up in the van - even Pascal who took over 8 hours for his Étape.

Another  Étape
Deferring to the greater wisdom of collective Anglo/French thought - in other words an international committee decision, I uncomplainingly (there was no energy left for objection or complaints) accepted that we would return by driving back over the Galibier again instead of taking a much easier route by the Col du Glandon, or even just staying in the valleys. Luckily I got the best seat - front passenger side next to the window. The views over La Grave across the valley were stunning. They had been invisible on the bike but now after previously cycling though this valley three times it was possible to actually look at it.

Home at Last
We collected Jacque's van after driving all the way up to Modane, then drove back down to the house where Jacques and Pascal took everything they needed to scoot straight back to Bourg St Maurice. The rest of us went two by two in the car and small van back to Villette near Aime where I live. From there we emptied out the vehicles and Chris and I piled all our stuff into his pick-up truck to get me back to Aime and Chris back to his family at La Planay - so he still had half an hour to drive. What an organisational carry on. This doesn't even count the time each person took to prepare all the equipment and gear before we left - and Christiane driving me to Villette. It's hard to think that this all started on the Saturday afternoon at about 3pm and was over by the following evening. There was no problem sleeping after all that.

Each person had a million details to deal with and the only slip up was Jacques getting a parking fine of 11 Euros. When we got back to his van it was on it's own and sticking out into the road. To our amazement all the other cars were gone - they must all have had drivers and left to go to Bourg d'Oisans. The level of individual and collective organisation required for all 7000 participants in this event was massive.

Saddle Height - perhaps not the cause of back injuries!

There appears to be an awful lot of nonsense written regarding how to determine optimum saddle height. The advice of Canyon - the manufacturers of my bike state that the heel should be able to sit comfortably on the pedal at bottom dead centre (bdc) of the stroke. Of course no reference is made to shoe heel thickness or anything else. This allows both the feet to easily touch the ground when sitting in the saddle - but it doesn't allow you to pedal the bike with anything even remotely resembling efficiency. 

For a while I believed in the magical formula of 109% of in-seam, measured from the pedal spindle centre to the top of the saddle. Like everything else out there this also appears to be founded more on fetish than fact. Perhaps most people do find this height ideal, but then most people unless properly trained, would drown if they fell into a deep pool of water.

Two things happen to me when I raise the saddle significantly - that is - over an inch above this 109% mark.  A. I go a lot faster - especially when climbing and B. My lower back disintegrates.

Sports Science Bulls**t
Lets assume for the moment that nobody really knows anything about this sport. The more I look into sports science and bio-mechanics it would appear to confirm that this really is the case. The scientists seem to get bogged down in scientific method and procedure and don't question whether or not their tests are even relevant. Nobody for example is capable of comparing barefoot running and Nike style mega-cushioned running in a relevant manner through bio-mechanical measurement. Many scientists are truly "educated idiots" and they do not deserve the high level of respect that they are systematically accorded - or the funds that they often gain through crass misrepresentation (ie Anthropogenic Global Warming nonsense). Science is not there to be believed but to be ripped apart - that is how real science works.

Real Sports Science Rule 1 
When something is correct then it naturally crosses over into other activities
From my own athletic and coaching experience I have observed that when something is correct then it naturally crosses over into other activities - opening new doors to perception. When something is seriously wrong then it doesn't.  Let's consider this a basic scientific criterion to go by. A good example of this is how a bicycle is controlled. To turn you simply allow the centre of mass to fall very slightly to one side - the bike changes shape and cuts underneath your new trajectory to bring you back up. This interaction makes a turn. Skiing works exactly the same way - but most people don't realise that. Sports coaches for generations have told skiers to avoid doing just that - so much for sports science! I even met one idiotic engineer who after announcing that he was "...the most famous engineer in the world", then proceeded to state that everything is in equilibrium - the entire universe! So much for Newton's second law - the mechanics of disequilibrium! Newton was right however and despite being difficult to perceive the principles of disequilibrium are correct and common to many physical activities.

Running to Cycling
Where is this leading?  Well lets see if any common points can be connected. In natural running the leg extends behind the body. The foot is lifted off the ground with the ankle extended.  The hamstring flexes the knee bringing the heel up and the iliopsoas and other core muscles pull the leg forward back underneath the body. The leg remains slightly flexed as the foot is posed directly downwards to the ground with the ankle still extended. Shock absorption is due to the foot progressively lowering to the ground from front to back and the calf muscle regulating this with all of the foot muscles and tendons being active. 

A recent photo of myself on the Col du Galibier showed my ankle so flexed that my heel was below the pedal  at the bdc of the stroke. Proprioception (more like propriDeception) did not make me aware of this - only photography did. 
There is a lot of debate in general about whether "heels down" or "toes down" is more efficient. For me the answer is crystal clear - "toes down" is much faster.  At this very moment I'm watching a breakaway group in the Tour de France and they are all pedalling with their toes constantly down. Look at the excellent video in the following link: they all have toes down. The author here "Todd" states that he has analysed thousands of successful elite cyclists and they all pedal "toes down". 
When you look at the video think about the description I gave in the previous paragraph of "natural" running. Not much difference is there? There is no shock absorption required so the foot doesn't need to flatten as in running - if it did it would be absorbing energy. Basically this implies that the toes should naturally be pointing downwards to some degree all the time - a bit like a sprinter (runner) who gets maximum impulse from his tendons and muscles. Basically here the pedal stroke simulates the running stride as closely as possible. 

The Power Sponge
The much higher saddle height permits this permanent pointing downwards of the toes. My personal tendency is to forget and flex the ankle - but I'm also aware that this is because it feels lazy - a sort of "giving in". In reality it's more like sinking the heel into deep sand - a form of power sponge - that slows you down and tires you out progressively. All of the muscles of the feet just become useless jelly.

Skiing to Cycling
Perhaps the greatest fallacy in downhill skiing is the "bend the ankles" doctrine. Beginners are put into boots that permit the ankle to bend and the ski to be twisted into the direction of a turn. Racers are not expected do do any of this and so are put into rigid boots. The beginners are being taught complete nonsense which will later have to be unlearned and forgotten unless they want to be stuck on a learning plateau that will never go anywhere. The have been given a real "power sponge"  in an overwhelming sense. On skis there is a simple way to overcome this issue and that's to get the skier to place the weight directly on the heels - not leaning against the back of the boot - but exactly the same as if standing waiting at a bus stop on in a queue.  Skiers with more awareness can then learn to raise themselves up slightly on the ball of the foot - engaging all the foot muscles and making the arches strong. The feet each have 26 bones (one quarter of the bones of the entire body are in the feet), 33 joints and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. Most people just think of the feet as being uninteresting lumps of meat that only require attention when causing pain. Either supporting the body on the ball of the foot - through the active use of the foot muscles - or standing on the heel will cause the ankle to stiffen and strengthen - working in an "extension" rather than "flexion" manner. The strong ankle then stabilises the skier and allows control and feedback though the boots to the skis. Likewise in cycling the "toes down" position appears to activate the muscles in the feet - especially if you try to keep the feet more or less at the same angle to the pedal. You can feel the strength in the feet being used actively. The ankle in this case still bends - but as in skiing, though a more limited range and with extension. Much of the visible apparent change of angle of the foot to the ground is actually coming from the knee and hip bending - just like in skiing nearly all movement is in the knees and hips. The ankle seems to extend during the push - exactly as it does in skiing as the skier extends through the end of a turn (traditional instruction incorrectly teaches the skier to flex everything at this point). Clearly the listing of comparisons could go on here for a long time - but what counts is understanding the physical feelings involved and the common "door to perception" that we have found.

Since writing this article I have used the high saddle height in a hard race - the Etape du Tour de France - and no back problems were created. Perhaps the back problems were never created by the high saddle but by the flexing ankle instead - also the cause of most skiing injuries.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Saddle Height, Core Muscles and "Toes Down"

Going though the obligatory 3 days of d.o.m.s. after the first 10k "barefoot" run. Not so long ago even a slow 2k run would have given 5 days of d.o.m.s so this isn't a worry any more. 

Jacked the saddle up 3cm on the bike yesterday and did a hill climb. Felt much better. Will check later and see if it conforms to the 109% of inside leg length (centre of pedal spindle bdc to top of saddle). It just feels like you can move from this height on the saddle - to both push and pull. 

My "back protecting" position with a lower saddle height seems to cut off power - the heels even dropping below the pedal and the bottom of the stroke. One description I came across of the ankle bending like this is a "power sponge". It's like two separate pivot points - the pedal and the ankle both rotating and all the energy being soaked up by the ankle in the process - a bit like running in soft sand. 

Interesting article here on the use of core muscles in cycling:
I think this article is accurate in that combining psoas (iliopsoas) and abdominals makes for a complete and safe core muscle use. When I feel the action most efficient there is a sensation in the lower abdomen - which seems to connect the up stroke on one side with the down stroke on the other side. I suspect that although the psoas is the main player that the abdomen help to balance the activity and protect the back. It's clear that each pedal stroke can't feel like a "situp" or that wouldn't last very long. Pulling up with the psoas however is not tiring - very much the opposite - it reduces tiredness in the legs. Regardless of this the core muscles appear to be "felt" though the abdominal area. 

All of this is leading me to a "toes down" pedal stroke instead of a "heels down" one. Hopefully it's not also leading to another back problem!  Yesterday's trial reduced my climbing time by about 10% - despite the legs still being tired from the Marmotte and running d.o.m.s.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

First 10k "barefoot"

10k, 1100ft climbing, 46:57 mins, barefoot style. (Using Vibram Five Finger minimalist shoes)

Running is a great way to "recover" from monster cycling competitions. Cycling muscles might still be very tired but the moment you start to run you feel good and fresh. It feels right.

Monday 4th July - second day after La Marmotte - I chose to attempt to run my first ever full  "barefoot" 10k. Last week after running a faster than usual 6k there were three days of slightly debilitating d.o.m.s. (delayed onset of muscle soreness) to deal with, not helping to generate top form for the Marmotte. Although d.o.m.s. from running isn't felt as pain on the bike there may be a general tiredness associated. The d.o.m.s. was due to having increased pace considerably  - a natural process now that the coordination had improved and there was a clear awareness of how the movements integrate.

3 Years to Shift Perception
It has taken at least three years to get to this stage - from beginning to investigate alternative running techniques simply out of curiosity - and almost two years since suffering plantar fasciitis which stopped all running for about a year. The plantar fasciitis occurred when doing regular 17k runs with low profile (cushioned) shoes using a heel strike. Most of the difficulty in changing has been from not accessing the best information.  The biggest issue holding up this process was quite simply "perception". I incorrectly assumed that changes would be simple, superficial and direct. They were none of this. This "anyone can run so I have nothing significant to learn" attitude led me to interpret things on a superficial level - so running with a forefoot strike meant staying on the forefoot all the time (as perhaps in sprinting) - which is wrong and caused me a lot of calf muscle pain. Eventually I gave up frustrated and returned to heel striking and eventual injury. Starting the process again this year, when focussed mainly on cycling, gave an opportunity to develop slowly with no pressure to perform as I got all the exercise needed already on the bike. I decided to dig deeper into the understanding of the subject and patiently work through any issues that seemed to create an impenetrable barrier. The first clue was that calf pain - although unpleasant - was never an injury, so the body was adapting - and that is clearly positive.

3 Sources
Several books that I bought on the subject didn't shed much light either. I'd steered away from obviously esoteric titles such as ChiRunning and Pose Method which seemed to be more about marketing than anything else - but some of their information was trickling through anyway - thanks to the internet. Gradually perceptions altered, body awareness altered and the counter-intuitive nature of the required changes sunk in. Three sources counted most. Gordon Pirie's "Running Fast and Injury Free", ChiRunning (the book) and Pose Method (gleaned from the internet). All three sources are packed with incredible insight. You will not figure this stuff out for yourself - ever - but with the right information it is natural and simple - as most counter-intuitive things usually are. It's our brainwashed perception that prevents us from seeing them. 

From the Pose Method I first understood about gravity becoming the source of propulsion. Forefoot landing and elimination of the "push off" both play a critical role in this method, plus the high lifting of the heel and the need to avoid reaching ahead with the leg. This is almost identical to ChiRunning but in ChiRunning there is an emphasis on erect posture and a forward lean of the entire body - which I find to be correct. ChiRunning however focusses on a midfoot landing which I think is wrong - the author wearing wedge soled training shoes himself. Pose Method stipulates forefoot landing. Gordon Pirie is the only one to correctly explain in detail how to execute a forefoot landing and how it connects with the rest of the body. Pose Method is more scientific - but ChiRunning lends more insight and correctly identifies the critical role of the core muscles. From those three sources it has been possible to make physical sense out of the subject - so that it feels amazing when running. Some article I read along the way also clarified that the shock absorption on correct foot landing comes from the calf muscles - thus clarifying why the calves have to adapt to proper "barefoot" running technique.

This 10k was an exercise in increasing distance not pace - so I didn't try to run fast. The relatively fast pace was more due to increased cadence - between 180 and 200 strides per minute - than any attempt to go fast. The high cadence is now becoming "normal" for me - it feels easy, like spinning on a low gear on a bike. The gears however - as explained in ChiRunning - are related to the stride length - which I deliberately kept reasonably short and manageable so as to focus on good form and coordination.  Here is a list of the focusses used on the run:
  • Cadence  Verified with a Garmin footpod I can now recognise a cadence over 180 without the feedback from equipment (Registers as 90 on the Garmin which measures complete cycles) Whenever the cadence was dropping it was easy to bring it back up by shortening the stride (lowering the gear!)
  • Stride Length I only permitted the stride to lengthen behind the body and did so when descending and maintaining speed on the flats.
  • Forward Lean  Using adjustment of forward lean (from the feet not the hips) to alter speed - through adapting stride length and cadence.
  • Core Muscles The muscles I was paying attention to were mainly the psoas muscles - used to pull the bent leg forward from its position behind the body. When this is working correctly it feels strangely like the guy ropes of a tent being tightened and secured in the way it takes hold of the entire posture. The perineum area becomes secure naturally, without having to work at it as is done in Pilates classes. This is the prime area of focus for physical "effort".
  • Eliminating the "Push Off" Along with pulling with the psoas muscles an effort has to be made to avoid pushing off with the feet and claves. There is zero propulsion (push off) required - but it is easy to push without being aware of it. Gravity does all the propulsion.
  • Foot Pick Up Making sure the foot is picked up (instead of pushing off) and that it comes up high so that the lower leg is horizontal or higher. This turns the leg that is being recovered into a much shorter pendulum and so makes it easier to pull forward with the psoas muscles - reducing effort.
  • Relaxed Ankle Relaxing the ankle helps to avoid the push off and allows the forefoot to drop lower helping to ensure a clean forefoot landing. Relaxing the ankle seems to also make it easier to relax other joints including the hips.
  • Forefoot Landing Placing the feet almost in front of one another, landing on the outside of the forefoot and pronating onto the ball of the foot, then continuing to absorb the landing through the calves by sinking down onto the whole foot with the heel just touching the ground. Linking this with a high cadence there is only a brief foot to ground contact and a certain springiness can be felt. Tendons only produce elastic rebound if tension lasts a fraction of a second - beyond that they lose all the stored energy - which is one explanation of why a cadence over 180 strides per minute is optimal.
  • Arm Swing Hands are held curled with thumbs pressed lightly against the side of the forefingers. The arms are bent about 90° at the elbow the the swing doesn't cross the centre line of the body. The push back of the elbow links the upper body - through the core muscles - to the pulling forward of the leg on the same side. If you use a strong arm motion it should be strong on the back swing not the forward swing. Don't lead with the arms being the focus because it causes coordination to disintegrate. Allow the legs and core muscles to dictate the power and rhythm to be used by the arms. Good arm use prevents a side "stitch" because that's caused by the body compensating for the leg activity when the arms are not helping enough or appropriately.
  • Flexed Stance Because the leg is not stretched out in front preparing for a heel strike it remains in a more flexed position when the foot lands below the body. This is part of the natural shock absorption. You don't have to try to flex - just make sure the foot lands below the body. This requires more attention when going downhill because there is a stronger tendency to reach ahead then.
  • Pelvic Rotation  Gordon Pirie suggests that one foot lands almost in front of the other and this certainly makes it easier to land on the outside of the foot, but it also generates more movement of the pelvis - allowing for a longer stride. The core muscles link this pelvic motion with the arm swing. It's a complete global coordinated body movement with the pelvis at the centre. As the right foot goes behind the body (on the ground) the right side of the pelvis should follow it backwards - the right arm going forwards. This engages even more core muscles through the lower and upper abdomen. 
  • Pelvic Tilt It's important to have "neutral" pelvis throughout all of the above. The pelvis must not be tilted either up or down relative to the rest of the body and the natural curvature of the base of the spine must be maintained. Different people have different requirements here to correct for this. There may however be a tendency for problems with people who have hollow backs with the pelvis tilted down at the front. This could be due to the stride opening out behind the body and so pulling the pelvis down at the front. It seems that the best practice is to pull the pelvis up slightly at the front when running - especially for such individuals as mentioned. Normally I have to do the opposite but even though my own back is too flat I'm still having to pull the pelvis up a bit at the front when running this way. Active use of the core muscles probably helps anyway and the correct use of the feet probably activates involuntary postural muscles naturally - this is what I mainly appear to feel instead of any deliberate action.
  • Breathing rapid, shallow breathing dictated by cadence seems to be best. I try to breathe with the diaphragm and the use of the core muscles seems to support this "belly" breathing. But the breathing is not deep. I find that at a moderate pace the in breath is natural on 3 strides and out breath 3 strides. This might switch to 2 strides at higher speed. At lower speeds nasal breathing is preferable - and perhaps even at higher speeds if you can manage to adapt to it.