Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Col de Petit St Bernard– Snow Blocked.

Had stopped training for a week due to the constant bad weather – raining, wind and cold – but on Sunday I decided that, as in skiing, the bad weather would have to be accepted and to just get on with it. Wrapping up in winter cycling gear made it tolerable. Paris saw its coldest temperatures for this time of year since the 19th century – below freezing – so much for the Global Warming hoax! It’s amazing how much fitness you lose in just a week of inactivity! It doesn’t help much either when you have been engaged in championship level eating  binges during the time off. Cycling performance in the mountains appears to be linearly proportional to body weight. When you are heavy you go slow and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Monday – the sun shone through for the first time in weeks. So when Chris called up trying to get me to join up with himself and Justin at midday for a ride up to the Col de Petit St Bernard it was hard to resist. Tired legs from the previous day would make it a hard workout – but somehow I was still able to reach a max heart rate of 173 bpm a few times – which you just can’t do if the body is in recovery mode. It seems like reasonably hard workout like Sunday’s still leaves enough energy for a good hard workout the following day. It’s so hard to gauge those things. This is a long climb though – about 26km non-stop and I was suffering from the start keeping up – red-lining at 168 bpm when Chris was cruising at 145 bpm. Excess weight and not enough fitness! The sun stayed out though so the legs got a bit of colour at last and the body some well needed vitamin D. Near the top when we stopped about 500m before the snowploughs I got breathless when talking to Chris – so I continued. As soon as I started working again the breathlessness disappeared. Seems that this breathing issue has something to do with needing to warm down properly. Stopping suddenly after sustained maximum physical output seems to disagree with my body. On the way up I kept having to fall behind and go at my own pace for a while and then increase the effort on the flatter sections to catch up a bit. Each time it got steep my body weight was like dragging an anchor.


The guys working on top of the snow (to the right) are constructing a jump – over the road!


Some nutter has climbed Mont Pourri and descended to the left of the “Cavalier” (horseman – dark rock on the ridge upper/middle). The descent according to Chris is 50° and convex all the way down the top section. Looks like he was worried too because there is a traverse between each turn.

Someone else had climbed the Aguille Rouge at Les Arcs and skied back down. (Opposite the Col de Petit St Bernard)

Justin regretting using rubbish tyres!

Tuesday: Sun again in the morning so went out for an hour’s recovery ride. Legs now feel like jelly!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Les Trois Cols

Having skied on good transformed Spring snow in Tignes there was an “unreal” feeling about leaving in the same evening  to go to a cycling race. “Les Trois Cols”, west of Lyon, would clearly attract a fairly competitive “early season” bunch of club racers and I’d only managed a handful of very short training rides. Perhaps “unfeasible” is more accurate than “unreal”. My massive winter weight gain would not be much help either – except perhaps for cushioning a fall or acting as a windbreak for somebody else.


What preparation? The weather forecast had been bad all week for race day so we had decided not to go – but at the last minute this changed and a weather window appeared showing that it wouldn’t actually rain during the time of the race. Chris decided to go straight from work without returning home and packing and I – against all sensible reasoning – decided to go too, leaving only a short window to clean the bike and get packed. When you are not in the habit of racing or even training then there are a million and one details that are easily forgotten – so preparation was chaotic. In addition I’d been up early to go skiing and had a full on day on the mountain already. Arriving at Lyon the GPS wouldn’t recognise the exact address of the F1 hotel we were aiming for and Chris was darting around on the roads making assumptions instead of patiently navigating – so we wasted half an hour there. The only way to navigate is to STOP the car and verify accurately against a map. There was a palaver getting into the hotel because Chris had booked and paid by internet earlier in the day but it turns out – for the wrong day! F1 don’t give refunds! Chris was definitely “I’m Mr Stress But I Can Barge My Way Through That”– but then what better reason for going racing? To be honest I have no idea how Chris copes with all the balls he has to juggle in his life – I’d explode.

Chris’s internal navigation system worked the next morning – at least, given 50% odds, we went in the right direction to find the race registration and start. During the pre-race warm up on the bikes he did get us lost again through a wrong turn 5 minutes before the start – but then you get used to this. Perhaps it’s part of a strategy to get wound up before a race. I’ve got it wrong because I like to relax.


There weren’t any legs visible as white as mine at the start so that was a bad sign. I opted for the short 95km (officially) course with 1400m climbing – instead of the long 150km course Chris was doing. Chris has managed a reasonable amount of training and at one point this winter weighed even less than me despite being around 6 inches taller – unless he is shrinking with age. My mind-set was simply to enjoy the route, see some new countryside and finish safely. There was a resigned acceptance that actually “racing” would be impossible. It was hard to spot anyone else who had any fat at all and the standard of equipment was generally impressive. Despite all of this I found myself edging towards the front of the queue for the start. The warm up had worked and literally warmed up my body so I removed the arm protectors. I’d put on a slightly thicker base layer under the T-shirt and put a very thin waterproof in a pocket just in case.

The start was predictably fast as it was downhill and resembled being caught up in a stampede. There must be a strong unconscious element to all of this because herd instinct definitely takes over. My logic however was to avoid dropping out of the back of the pack and getting isolated – so it’s best to get as far up to the front as possible at the start. There was a fair amount of climbing ahead but also long stretches where drafting would make a really big difference and convert that initial effort into a good investment. What surprised me was that as soon at the initial descent was over my heart rate was close to maximum and legs were wondering what had hit them. The fact is that the spirit of the event just sucks you in and you end up racing – even if you don’t want to. There’s no way that “training” can replicate this effect. The whole dynamic of the event ramps up your pain tolerance to another level altogether. Pain becomes largely irrelevant. When you realise that the others around you can’t drop you on a long and painful climb then you know for sure that this pain is shared. People might hide their pain well – but some signs are unavoidable.

Despite a heart rate firmly in the red I was clearly going into reverse gear on the longer climbs – excess body weight being like an anchor.  When there’s nothing you can do about it you just resign to it and work as hard as you can to keep a reasonable pace. Being ahead at the start meant that I could let one pack disappear on a long climb and be sure of another appearing around me for the next rolling section. The entire race panned out exactly in this manner. Only once or twice was I isolated for short sections after long climbs. When you get isolated and face wind and tiredness you just slow down. When the inevitable pack catches you up it’s impressive how big the speed difference is so you have to battle to get the legs working again and get in behind to draft. It can be extremely difficult but you know it will seriously pay off. The best packs are those where you just manage to hang on by the skin of your teeth because you make up so much ground. It’s not cheating – because you earn every minute gained. Holding onto a pack that’s fitter than you are is tough. There’s no point having any illusions about going to the front and doing your share of the work – and they know it!

This battling went on relentlessly for about 2hrs 45mins until my legs started to give out on one of the final climbs – at which point I had to recognise my usual stupidity of not having eaten anything. I’d used about half a litre of sports drink but due to the low temperatures at altitude dehydration wasn’t an issue – though it meant I wasn’t taking on board any sugar. At that point I started to feel chilled. This is now something that I’m starting to recognise as a blood sugar issue. Chill and loss of power seem to both be due to low sugar.  I still managed to maintain a reasonable pace and didn’t lose a lot of ground to those ahead – but at the top of that climb I obliged myself to overcome the headache and tiredness to go through the seemingly impossible task of opening a gel and eating it. The recovery effect was pretty quick and on the last climb there was definitely more energy available.

I love races that end with a long 20km descent almost to the finish line! All races should finish this way. I’d spent the final 30km with a yoyo relationship with one guy in a red jersey – he pulled me along the rolling sections, left me behind on the climbs and then I’d catch him on the descents. There were a couple of very nasty seriously steep but short sections thrown in towards the end to destroy the legs completely but for the final several kilometres the countdown to the finish was fast – especially as I’d become part of a substantial pack of about 10 riders who were streaming single file at high speed. The actual finish line was after a short but steep climb and I knew there was nothing in my legs and my respiration system was already maxing out just holding on to the group so there was no question of battling for position – I just let them go and rolled over the finish line alone. There was a 2km warm down ride back to the car park and reception – which is a really excellent idea. Despite this I discovered 30 minutes later when making a telephone call that I still couldn’t both talk and breathe! My legs were shot but no cramps or problems – no bum, back or neck problems and no pins and needles in the hands. It’s surprising how the body can cope even without proper training. Interestingly, I had more enjoyment with this race than for any race that I participated in the previous year. It seems to me that weight gain in the winter is not so important as having a proper seasonal rest and break from aerobic activity – at least in my case. Last year I never gained weight in winter due to running but seemed to suffer from a form of overtraining all summer that became totally demotivating. Motivation is more important than results. (That’s my current theory – but no doubt it’s totally wrong)



I was able to use the chi-cycling coordination the whole time – but being stretched to the limit it was hard to focus on maintaining form with the active use of the core muscles. Knowing that I was at the limit aerobically I deliberately used bigger gears to take advantage of leg strength from the skiing. Most of the time that meant using the big chain wheel – even when climbing. The only time the small chain wheel was used was on really steep sections. I noticed that my cadence was lower than anyone else’s but I simply didn’t have the cycling mileage to sustain a higher cadence and maintain speed.

Nasal breathing was not an option either. Though that cured my cancer last year (verified recently by the dermatologist) it still requires specific training to be able to work at a high heart rate and avoid over-breathing. That’s something – along with weight loss – that will be a long term agenda for the rest of the summer.


In the end I came 209th out of 251 – which for such a competitive field was a much better result than could be reasonably hoped for. This was 37th in age category out of 55. Chris came 103rd on the long course and was pleased with an improvement from 118th last year. It’s clear that for me a bit of training will go a long way but it will be more important to control weight through diet and to be able to recognise the signs of over-training in future.

Prizes for the short course at the end..


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Last Day Of Winter Season 2013

Skiing steeps is always challenging. Practice is the only way to avoid anxiety but technique is the only way to be genuinely safe.  In this video clip I demonstrate good control on the steep –  remaining supple and in control of speed with linked turns. The main key to this is in the hips – specifically pulling back the outside hip and pushing the outside foot forwards while pivoting: Get this right and adapting to the terrain is more or less reflexive…

Gareth however has decided to demonstrate how NOT  to do it. He chose to ski solo on the unfeasibly dangerous and currently icy North face of the Grande Motte – which is also something NOT to do. My only condition prior to this was that he make his will and leave everything to me…

Gareth’s hip comes forwards and his foot is left behind. This causes him to become rigid and to lose control of speed  - the ski lagging behind acting as an accelerator – the body also has to rotate due to the hip blocking a clean movement across the skis…

Panoramic view of the North Face.


I managed to get some video here of the “two footed pivot” – where both skis are used together as a single platform. The demo isn’t perfect because both skis should really stay in contact with the snow all the time  - but that’s not really a problem if they don’t. Both skis would be used as a single platform like this when skiing in powder or in bumps – both when skiing directly in the fall line. When skiing steeps it’s best to have the feet apart for a more powerful independent use of the legs during the pivot – and for extra security. Most people allow the skis to pull the hip around the turn twisting the spine in the wrong direction. It’s not visible here that I’m doing the exact opposite.

Jumping or rebounding and pivoting in the air is something commonly seen in racing turns to quickly change line at the start of the turn. This is a precursor to learning to use retraction as I demonstrated being used in the first video clip in this post.

Gareth finally understands the combination of pulling the outside hip backwards and pushing the foot forwards from the start of the turn. You normally push the foot forwards when there is weight on it – but when retracting or jumping it will already go forwards during the part of the turn where the skis are in the air. I explained to Gareth that the hip being pulled back doesn’t create angulation unless the foot and/or knee are pushed forwards actively.

Last day up the mountain -  transformed snow and excellent skiing. Really an excellent day to finish on!


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Going Homer

Horrible snow on top of irregular ice on steeps – with a headache – not ideal! At least that’s Gareth’s excuse. I can’t blame him because I chose to sideslip instead and blame lower back pain (from cycling!). The goal had been to attempt to ski this section without jumping. If I’d been skiing it I would definitely have jumped. Gareth tried to use the “Dripping Glacier” technique but it all went a bit “Homer Simpson”.


The main technical problem is that the outside foot was pushed sideways instead of forwards and inwards. This happened in an effort to avoid moving the centre of mass – in other words – the feet were displaced instead of the body. That led to uncontrolled rotation and the outside foot being left behind. There was a bit of a jump too when it was intended to be only a retraction. This rotation problem looked much like we observed during pivoting exercises we did on the piste.

On the positive side the pivot was very rapid and the “body check” was well executed. 



More Sandstorms

Overnight the sand blowing over from the Sahara turned into a real sandstorm – but when it cleared up that didn’t stop us from going out and taking advantage of the changed conditions…

It’s amazing how rapidly the seasons change in Tignes…

Nice powder turns…

Photo of a poster – nice race training conditions.

This of course is really in Namibia and on small dunes of only 80m height. They go up to 350m in some parts with a 45° slope. There are as many different kinds of sand surfaces are there are snow surfaces. Hard wax is used on the skis. Current speed record is about 60 km/hr.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Snow from the Sahara

Weather from the south has deposited a layer of sand from the Sahara desert. Needless to say this is not ideal and the temperatures are correspondingly too mild to be much good for skiing. Yesterday I managed an 80km bike ride between storms and today the rain returned once again in the afternoon. The conditions didn’t stop us from going up the glacier and working on steeps technique… Gareth now has a specific turn – or application of a turn named by by himself – the “Dripping Glacier” turn.

The Dripping Glacier Turn

Many years ago when introducing Gareth to dynamics I demonstrated to him off-piste how to fall into a steep turn with leg retraction and how the skis would surprisingly follow – and that this would give a surprisingly stable turn. I teach this in deep snow for people who want to ski slowly. The key is the dynamics and the very low stance the retraction brings – then the power from the leg extension during the turn. All this was done by moving the body to get onto the inside edge of the outside ski right at the start of the turn. More recently, when using this form of leg retraction to teach compression turns on the flat I’ve made sure to pivot the skis instead – staying on the outside edge as long as possible with a strong pole plant. This is how I’d start to teach people how to ski bumps. So what had Gareth changed? Well for a start he’d linked the retraction to the pivot by himself – but more importantly he’d:

  1. spotted that it is the perfect turn for real steeps where control of speed is critical.
  2. He took it further by realising that the leg extension provides an even more powerful pivot than I’d ever spotted and
  3. if the extension is done very strongly and rapidly as the feet are pushed forwards after the retraction and dynamics then there is total control of speed on the steeps.
  4. This makes steeps so easy it becomes boring.

Anyone can ski steeps by being brainlessly aggressive and Gareth has plenty of experience of that. He recounted to me one story of a classic Homer Simpson calibre when he fell in a couloir and had his zipped ski pants ripped off and ended up coming out at the bottom naked. Sadly Gareth is currently expunging his inner Homer. I’ve seen plenty others exploring their inner “luge” – usually face first. Cartwheels is another Homer favourite. Basically, after a while you don’t want to play Homer Simpson any more. The negative side of this is that you become over-cautious and then more and more nervous. The standard way to overcome this is to throw in some jump turns – but when it gets seriously steep that starts to become dodgy too. Unfortunately the tendency is to default to either more aggressive dynamics or short swings – with standard “down/up” timing for good skiers – or crappy “up/down” timing for people who have been coached by idiotic Brits burbling moronic rubbish about “balance”. The main safeguard is to “commit” to the turn  - move downhill – but it’s always a bit dodgy and Homer is waiting to pounce.

Personally I’ve only used leg retraction for either bump skiing or racing (outside of specific teaching situations) and I don’t use it much because it is tiring. It never occurred to me to use it on REAL steeps because “falling down while retracting” is not very appealing in a life threatening situation. In addition I’d have been right because all of the new elements are necessary to prevent a Homer episode from occurring. Retraction in racing is towards the end of a turn when there is massive load on the legs and body and you are inclined strongly into the turn. The softening and retraction of the legs paradoxically allows the body to come up and out of the turn – sometimes getting airborne.  You use this to prevent yourself from going into orbit between turns. This would then be followed by the body falling down and over into an inclination towards the new turn centre aided by a powerful acceleration generating extension of the outside leg (preferably of tree trunk width) – while the centre of mass drops down towards the snow. There is also a small degree of this in rutted slalom and deep snow skiing. To summarise; the legs extend as the body goes down and retract as the body comes up. We maintain the necessary “down/up” dynamics. What hadn’t occurred to me is that although this happens in racing due to speed the same should apply to excessive steepness where gravity has a powerful acceleratory effect and the terrain itself is sharply inclined. Watching Gareth, he appeared to be jumping but the “jump” was in the middle of the turn. In fact this was just the body being airborne as a result of combining dynamics with the retraction. Once this was pointed out he eased off on that and kept the skis comfortably on the ground and in contact – despite atrocious snow conditions on the steeps beneath the Tignes cable car. When I worked at it I found that the active use of dynamics with retraction, powerful extension with feet forwards and powerful pivot made for a profound level of security and control even in difficult snow. Experimentation showed that it was better to separate the feet and legs for independent leg use  - pushing the uphill ski ahead but keeping it down near the level of the lower ski. Keeping a (feet together) narrow stance makes the whole pelvis turn and so the power of the leg can’t be used to swing the ski as actively during the extension. The swing with the leg extension seems to have power like a punch – being ridiculously snappy if necessary. This is an area I’d never looked at before. Gareth is one of the very few professionals I’ve explained the (outside edge) pivot to so it’s fascinating to see where he has taken it already. I knew it would be the key for safe steeps because it guarantees the feet kept below the skier at all times – but I couldn’t see the right way to use it.