Monday, December 16, 2013

Kuala Lumpur to Singapore - The Scenic Route


dawn on the road to Bukit Hantu

I do the Kuala Lumpur to Singapore commute a lot by car. Having a home in KL and a work-base in Singapore means I'm often doing the return trip on a weekly basis. Door-to-door it's almost exactly 400km. That's using the most direct way via the highway which was built for the purpose and goes straight through the more densely-populated western side of the peninsula.



Given the task of coming up with a challenging route on a bicycle that provides stimulating surroundings, good food and rest points, and yet avoids the urban areas, we decided that the best option was to route it down the less-frequented eastern coast. This meant the overall distance would be around 500km. We decided it was probably better initially to aim to do it in 3 days - to test the waters, so-to-speak. It also made more sense to do it southbound from KL into Singapore, even though the more interesting riding was at the KL end, it's just that most of the group would be at work in Singapore the following morning.


route profile of stage 1


Day 1 from Ampang in the east of KL involved the longest stage at 180km. Necessary to get us through to somewhere with the infrastructure to give us a bed and food amidst the eternal oil-palm estates that make up the majority of this part of the state of Pahang. En route we had an initial 50km involving 3 main hills - virtually all the climbing of the day - followed by a remaining 130km of moderately rolling terrain.




The start of this ride goes through some of the most stunning scenery I know. Though I've been riding these roads for the past 20 years, I can never take this kind of raw jungle beauty completely for granted. From the climb out of Ampang with it's panorama of the city, through Bukit Hantu with it's sharp gradients, and on through the lush jungle over Genting Peras, you are treated to idyllic cycling territory and very little traffic.

From the triple-peak of Genting Peras there's a great, fast descent on good road surfaces back down towards (albeit minimal) signs of village life and our second-breakfast stop at 50km. Kampong fried rice and coffee!




The subsequent long roll took us first through Kuala Klawang and then on through more jungle, farmland, and several other towns and villages until we stopped for lunch just before hitting the long, straight link that cuts directly eastwards through the intense dark green of the eternal oil-palm estates.



From there on the deviation from a straight line was mostly in the vertical plane. Long rolling straights through densely palm-covered landscape. By now the toll of the first 50k of hills was starting to affect stamina, and we rolled into the day's destination town with little more than fumes left in the tank. The good news was it hadn't rained; the bad news was: we were cooked!



Nothing that some cold drinks, beef Satay and consecutive orders of most of the rice and noodle dishes on the menu at the local food court won't put right. We hit the sack shortly afterwards since there wasn't much going on by way of amusement in this remote little town besides eating.



The next morning saw us drag ourselves onto the road with dead legs at around 8 after delaying the start with a few extra coffees. 160km of rolling awaited us. The initial trajectory was northeast on the Kuantan road until we hit the Mersing road around 30km in. From there it was a nicely varied 50km or so until we hit the coast road and lunch at Kuala Rompin. Chicken rice and wantan mee....we definitely raised a few eyebrows with double orders of food, but it was devoured in a few minutes, and was probably all but digested before we hit the road again.



Mersing, the day's destination, is a fairly well-appointed town with all the things one needs for a good after-ride afternoon. We arrived about 2pm after making some pretty good progress (helped by the extra rice and noodles....oh, and a tailwind). Afternoon recovery-tea was Singapore noodles with sweet-and-sour ribs followed by cendol. The nap was quickly followed by a fairly sumptuous dinner at one of the local red-table-cloth places. Steamed Garouper Teochew style with stuffed squid, wild boar curry, and beer.



You may have noticed that food starts to play more of a central role as a ride like this progresses!

Day 3 had us out a little later than planned but we made good progress on our continued journey down the coastline. We lucked-upon a great Nasi Lemak about 70k into the ride and thereafter also came across some great local fruit stalls. All good fuel keeping the hammer-fest in full swing!



Unfortunately the urban realities started to catch up with us again as we neared the city of Johor Bahru, especially with the school-holiday traffic, and since we had decided to take the more direct, rather than more scenic, route for the last stretch to meet our deadline, we inevitably found ourselves in heavy traffic nearing the causeway.



Our deadline was the urgent matter of some friends with a bottle of champagne and appropiate recovery food (french fries) waiting for us at the Soon Watt shop in Singapore's Changi Road. It was a great welcome to have waiting for us, and made the return to city streets that little bit more bearable. Thanks Mave and Suren!

So now that we've done it in 3 days, the plan is to do it next in 2. That may be a month or 2 away but there will be 3 guaranteed participants :)

After that, there's only one option left.......





Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Chiang Mai Adventures

That which does not kill us makes us stronger - Friedrich Nietzsche

No, it's not a track stand. I was moving....just



This is the time of year to be in Chiang Mai. The "Cool Season" describes a period stretching between mid November and late January when the normal muggy heat in Northern Thailand is replaced by cool breezes and a considerable lowering of humidity. A time for pool parties and barbeques for the locals, but for the rest of us simply the best time to visit.

This is why we decided to run our first cycling adventure into this area in late November this year. The region still doesn't have that much fame as a cycling destination, which I find hard to understand. Among pro (and serious amateur) cyclists with (relatively) easy access to Thailand it's been a favourite for a while. Orica Greenedge are reported to use Northern Thailand for their hill training, which may eventually prove a secret weapon for them: the hills are definitely some of the hardest in the world.



Where most road engineers of the world seem to try to keep gradients from staying above 10% for too long, maxing out at the occasional 15% or so, the Thais build roads that stay consistently at gradients approaching 20% for sections lasting several kilometers. 25% is a regular occurrence on paved roads around here. Compact cranksets are the order of the day!

There are a lot of hills, and a lot of roads around here too! Mostly not very busy, and surrounded by some breathtaking flora and occasional encounters with rare fauna. There are also plenty of villages and enough roadside cafes and amenities that you can usually count on finding somewhere for a snack or to fill a bottle. But not always - hence the support car.



For this trip I was accompanied by only one other rider. We'd decided that we'd stick to an out-and-back format for the rides for maximised relaxation, quality of food, and availability of massages in Chiang Mai. Clarence flew in from Hong Kong the day after I arrived and we prepared well at an excellent restaurant near where we were staying in the northwest of the city the evening before the "grand depart". Awesome vegetarian Thai dishes washed down with some good French wine. My sister Clare was driving support and was also responsible for most of the food recommendations.



The first day started the pattern of beginning rides at this incredible coffee outlet on Nimman Road called Ristr8to - 2 Brazilian lattes please :) - seriously some of the best coffee I've ever tasted! Great, friendly staff and a very welcoming ambience - with a giant coffee roaster in operation most of the time at the back of the cafe, lending the room it's rich aroma.



The morning evolved onto the road for the warm-up stage which took us up the 1400 meters of Doi Suthep, the mountain that hovers above the northwestern suburbs of Chiang Mai. A bit busy with tourists and the ubiquitous Songtao traffic, the road is wide and well paved with plenty of room for all. The tourists mostly are aiming for the temple half way up, after which it's quieter, and the gradients only start getting nasty nearer the top. From the top of the hill the road heads down some steep banks to a Hill Tribe Village that, amidst the stalls of tourist junk, provided some decent food and refreshments. The ride ended back in the city for a western lunch (smoothies and sandwiches), more coffee, and the afternoon massage.



Day 2 involved a drive out to start the riding about 47km from the summit of Doi Inthanon. At 2600 meters above sea level this is Thailand's highest peak, and since we started from about 200 meters, we ascended most of it. After the gates to the national park there is a section of a couple of kilometers which gives an introduction to the gradients to be found further up. Ouch.



At 40km from the start of the climb to the summit, this is the longest ascent - which should make it the most gradual, right? Wrong. The last thing you want when you know you have 2400 meters to ascend is to find yourself, after several kilometers of upward grinding, on a nice descent. In this case what goes down must go up again. There's a lot of flattish rolling in the middle of this with most of the really nasty bits at the end when the oxygen is also in short supply.



Not having really got our gearing right, there was rather a lot of grinding going on - fine for my low-cadence friend from Buxton who soldiered on unperturbed grinding his 39x25 (I now call it the Buxton Compact!). For me though, I'm happy at around 90-100rpm, so long sections at below 50rpm don't go down well with my lower back.



Nevertheless, all suffering ends at some point and we slowly made it to the top, though at over 3 hours our average speed was well below 15kmh - and probably more like 7kmh for the last section. The payback started at a rest area on the way down at around 5km from the summit with some great Thai sausages, spicy eggs and Som Tham (papaya salad).



The day after the Mega-Doi stage was designated as a recovery ride. After the obligatory coffee indulgence, we met up with a couple of the local riders for a spin through the flatter bits of the countryside along the Ping river. Time for socializing and allowing the legs to get a bit more of a spin going before the last stage in our festival of gradient.

By this time we'd found so many outstanding places to eat we decided to return to one of them for a repeat order on Clarence's last night in Chiang Mai. More amazing Thai delicacies washed down with German beer. The food in Chiang Mai is already reason enough to visit this place. Plus the people here have simply the most open and friendly nature and are a joy to be served a meal by.



Day 4 had us facing the Mae Rim to Samoeng loop. A 90km route, basically around the base of the Doi Suthep mountain which involves one major climb of just over 17km up to around 1100m, a super-fast descent and then a fairly brutal but shortish climb up some switchbacks that has you rising 280 meters over a distance of 2.3km, before a descent back down towards the city.



Andrew, one of our local friends with a strong knowledge of the off-road scene in the area, joined us for this ride and his local knowledge peppered the ride with interesting insights into other types of route available within riding distance from Chiang Mai. Along the way we passed the elephant camp and some strawberry farms before the road got quieter and more scenic. This is a really gorgeous route.



The day's ride ended back in the city with more smoothies and sandwiches. This was the end of the road as far as the cycling went, and though I had a couple more days of uninhibited refueling ahead of me, Clarence had a flight to catch.

It's hard to match a place like Chiang Mai for running this type of cycling break - especially at this time of year. I really don't believe there's anywhere else on the planet that ticks so many boxes on the list of ideal things for cycling bliss.

It was so much fun that we've decided to run it again in January 2014 before the end of this cool season!

Anyone interested? Chiang Mai Adventures






A great bike shop in Chiang Mai which you can rely on for spares and mechanicals

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Starting Over - Base 1



In which we get our act together again after more than a month of relative inactivity. This is the beginning of my "season", though mostly my target "races" are just tours with my bicycle touring operation ranging from 2-days to a week.

I'm sharing my own experiments with training here so this is by no means a recommended training plan, but I've been experimenting with my own body using different ideas on training for many years, including training concepts and plans by some of the greatest minds in sport science, so there's some foundation to the concepts. I do welcome comments, constructive criticism and suggestions if you have any. I'm here to learn.

So I've decided I'm committed to the experiment with what some refer to as "reverse periodisation". The basic premise being that you start hard and increase distance later. I've now completed my first block of real training, so though it's a bit too early to assess the effectiveness of the method, I can at least assess how it felt.


Training Blocks

My training blocks for the last couple of years are based around 17 days on, 4 days off. Within that 17 days I'll take 2 days of complete rest - usually on Mondays (my Monday work schedule is pretty full-on) but I go by how my body feels too. I also have to figure in 3 runs a week and strength/core sessions at least twice a week, plus I have a short pool session 2 or 3 times in a week. Sounds like a lot, but I'm not doing the kind of riding volume I'm used to, so aiming at shorter, harder workouts. I'm also determined to keep my overall body strength and running form together. I don't push anything off the bike hard at all, apart from one of my weekly runs doing cruise intervals (for my approach to run training).

I tried doing the often-recommended 3-weeks-on / 1-off in the early days of my training life, but I gradually found 3 full weeks of training to be too hard for my aging body, so I brought it down to 2-weeks-on / 1-off which is sometimes suggested for older athletes. That was too much rest, and I rarely managed to keep a whole week easy anyway. I even tried 6-day weeks for a while, but that was too hard to keep track of. So I devised this way of just taking a 4-day rest period every 3 weeks and it seems to work well for me.

Focus

So for my quality workouts at this early point in my season, the focuses are the components of: Form, Force, and Threshold in that order of priority. I'll generally limit it to 6 real quality sessions on the bike per 17-day block. Form doesn't intrinsically require hard effort so all workouts will include form drills. Of the 6 quality sessions, 3 will be force, 2 threshold, and 1 random (hilly or group ride). I consider most group rides as kind of random quality (Threshold mostly) workouts, and they're usually longer, so I may have to lose one of the focused threshold workouts, and be flexible with recovery needs.



Form

For Form I work on high cadence drills mainly as a warm-up to other rides. I would be doing one-legged drills if I could bring myself to get on a home trainer, but I just find it too mind-bogglingly boring. I also work on the full pedal-stroke when the cadence comes down on hills, especially with the hill reps that I mention below - when you're pedaling against a lot of resistance at a slower cadence it's easier to focus on maintaining pressure on the pedal cycle all the way round, and with an equal balance of left to right leg.

Force

For Force, in keeping with my aim to reverse-periodise, I am starting out working on seated hill repetitions of roughly one minute with a 4 minute rest interval spinning. The idea is to keep it in a gear that keeps your cadence low and your force at maximum. It's like weight-training on a bike. As I mention above, I keep the pressure on the pedal cycle all the way round so that my core is as motionless as possible in the saddle. These are really quite tough so you should probably start lighter at the beginning, and you definitely need a good warm-up before you start this session. I'll begin with just 3 reps the first week and then add more as my fitness improves. If you feel like you can't manage another good one, don't. With a power meter, a good way to judge when to stop is when your power for the interval drops by more than 5% - that's your last effort. It's usually fairly obvious - it feels as hard as it did before but the watts are way less.

Threshold

For Threshold I start with 5-minute efforts with one minute spinning in between. I keep the cadence high and the effort as constant as possible. Again, I'll aim to complete 3 the first time out and add more as my fitness improves. It's not a main component at this stage so if I do a hard group ride I'll usually ditch the Threshold workout.

My hill rep session as seen by my HRM


Measuring Effort

This is a real matter of developing your inner sense of pacing to begin with. The use of a power meter and heart-rate monitor will make your training much more quantifiable and enable you to track progress accurately. It's easy to become obsessed by your gadgets though, and you have to remember that the desired aim of training is not the numbers but the Training Effect: you put demands on your body beyond what it can cope with comfortably and it adapts to be able to better cope with those demands in future. For this you can also rely on that tried-and-tested maxim of RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion). However, it is now possible to be more exact, and work with specific incremental adaptations in a way that was previously impossible.

I use both the power meter and the HRM as described in previous articles. They are both incredibly useful tools for the above reasons and more. I'm just fascinated by the science. If you're new to training at this level you may want to test your fitness to determine training zones as many coaches recommend. However, since I've been doing this for years I know what my threshold and maximum heart rates are - to within a couple of beats - and I will have a fairly good idea of my Functional Threshold Power and other such measurements by the end of my first training block.

I don't tend to do much testing as I can generally monitor progress to a certain degree from the training rides, and to me the real test is a race anyway - you'll never push yourself that hard otherwise. If you're really into numbers, don't race, or work with a coach, there are plenty of good testing protocols out there.

Listen to your Body

So this block of training is where I get an idea of where I'm starting from. To do this I listen to my body to figure out how hard I can push it and make a note of what numbers that gives me. These days I think about my hard effort in relation to 4 benchmarks of intensity; it makes everything a little simpler. The first - and overall most important to most racers - is Threshold: the maximum pace I can keep for around an hour  - a 40k TT pace. Second is a 5-minute maximum pace: Anaerobic Endurance. The third is a 1-minute max. The last being a 5-second all-out sprint effort. It's not that I train only at these intensities - 90% of my training is below any of them - it's just that these represent clearly defined intensities that help me monitor my progression.

The human body is an incredible instrument. It can measure the amount of effort it can maintain for a perceived time-frame very accurately after a little training. In most people I'd suggest that it works fairly conservatively, and as I say we can achieve more when the chips are down, but for the longer durations, conservative is probably better since other factors like heat and hydration come into play. However, you won't improve unless you push through these perceived limitations.

My Hill Repeats

I have a great little hill about 20km from where I live in Singapore that is a very quiet, dead-end road of around 400 meters with a relatively steady ascent at about 8-9%. Warming up on the way out there I might include a couple of 1-minute grinds just to get the body tuned to that sort of effort.

I make sure I'm spinning easily approaching the hill and get it into the right gear. Mostly in Singapore, the lightest gear I have is 39/21 anyway since 99% of the terrain is flat. So my lightest gear is fine for this - my cadence will be moderate (90ish) at the start of the climb but will drop below 70rpm as I get to the middle and I'm really grinding to the top.

The hill reps themselves on the Garmin power profile


My average wattage for these short climbs lasting from 1:04 to 1:12 is currently around the 400+ mark. I'm not watching the watts as I'm riding, but this will be a reference point later as I intend to base all my interval intensities on watts in subsequent training blocks.

After cresting the hill I will coast back down and then spin around the area for 4 minutes or so before going again. Once the effort outweighs the results I stop. I think the important thing here is to put your absolute max into these, regardless of how many you complete, and then spin home for a good recovery meal.

The power profile for my best minute for the workout (rep #2)

The Verdict

I have deliberately tried to pull the volume back a on what I would normally consider a minimum week of riding, so I'm riding 5 or sometimes even only 4 days a week, keeping easy days really easy (still enjoying the cycle paths!). My run is starting to develop a bit more of a groove and I'm starting to enjoy it. In my strength training workouts I'm including some new, standing core exercises and getting back into my kettlebell routine. After this first training block I felt pretty tired in the legs but relatively energised otherwise. I'm feeling strong now after a few days off and am ready to get back into it. Legs feel good.

I've just completed a 3-hour ride in the hills near my house in Malaysia to see how I feel overall, and I can notice an improvement in my core and upper body strength. This means I still feel strong towards the end of the ride, even after some hard climbing.

The next block will be a bit fragmented as I have a 4-day ride of long stages through some of the toughest mountain roads in the north of Thailand that happens right in the middle of it. Improvisation will be the key! As a jazz musician, I'm very good at that :)

The Big Picture

The main drive of my plan is to come up with a method that is easy to maintain and doesn't reduce the enjoyment of riding my bike. I want to be able to improvise with scheduling hard/easy days according to how my body feels or to other commitments.

It may be age, but I'm getting more and more reluctant to compromise on my enjoyment of life, despite the fact that I would like to be a faster cyclist. I'm not a professional, so I have no interest in staring at a wall, hovering over an expanding pool of sweat on the home trainer, especially as I live in a tropical climate and can train all year round out on the roads.

The desire to reach a destination shouldn't obscure the enjoyment of the journey.


Nice informative article on the arguments for milk as recovery nutrition.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Off Season



I read an interesting article by Ironman legend Mark Allen recently suggesting that for endurance athletes, being competitive past 40 is no longer just an option but an expectation. One of the main reasons he cites is the modern understanding and importance given to recovery, claiming that previous training concepts often resulted in a burn-out in athletes by their mid thirties, if not earlier. Without this in-built fail mechanism he suggests that the deterioration of performance with age is far less that we had previously thought, and that otherwise the limiting factor is our expectations and belief.

There's a large and growing community of athletes in their 40s and 50s still remaining at, or near, the top of their game. Another legend, 6-times Ironman world champion Natascha Badmann won Ironman South Africa in 2012 at the age of 45. Mountain bike legend Ned Overend is still fully competitive at the ripe old age of 58, and in another recent article he hits on some similar nerves in analysis of his longevity.




As both of these articles allude, the mental burn-out is often more decisive than the physical. Without the passion to remain in the sport you won't stay with it long enough to discover that your body is still capable.

The off-season then - that annual break from our normal training routine - is much more crucial to our our ability to stay motivated than many of us are willing to admit. It is also crucial that you not only let your body rest, but that you involve your mind in other interests and let go of the obsessions for a while.

The pros, and those that are racing for a specific period during the year, will arrive at a point for a natural break at the end of the racing season. When it's your job it's an easy choice and usually cause for celebration, there's also a pressing need for you to get back on your bike after a few weeks hanging out in the pub. For those without a clear start and end to the season it can be hard to make the decision when to take time off. I think also there's a fear that we'll somehow lose momentum with our drop in fitness and maybe become less motivated to come back at all.



One way or another my off seasons usually end up being decided by outside influences. I'm now in the throes of coming back from an enforced rest - caused by an injury, surgery, and subsequent recovery period. I can't remember when was the last time I took 3 weeks completely off the bike. Probably the last time I was injured!

Anyway, I was definitely suffering from a temporary mental burnout even as I wound down my training before the surgery. There's a fine line between a discipline and a rut, and when you have to force yourself to get out and do the miles because you don't want to lose fitness, I think it's time for a premeditated loss of fitness.




Even as I lay in hospital I was trying to figure ways of getting back to at least minimal training earlier. In the end my body wouldn't let me (I've learned to listen to it!), so it was a clear 3-week break before I could get back on the bike at all. By the time I did, I was really looking forward to having a really methodical and slow build up to where my fitness was before the injury - and then beyond!

It's been a great mental rejuvenation; letting go of my fitness, enjoying having the opportunity - and energy - to do other things, and then planning my comeback! I'm now enjoying actually going slowly on the bike, even using the bike lanes instead of the roads, allowing fat guys in sandals to overtake me (good ego therapy!), and relishing the actual feeling of riding a bike.

Another outcome is the resolve to keep my running, swimming and weights/core routines going. Most of the time all I want to do is just get out and ride, but overall body conditioning is a crucial key to keeping strong and avoiding injuries, so you have to introduce a healthy discipline of cross-training and off-the-bike workouts in the off-season, and be vigilant not to let them go once the mileage and intensity starts ramping up.




I'll take another 3 weeks of moderate but gradually increasing distance and intensity, prioritizing the off-bike stuff, before I take a few days off and then start my base training. I'm aiming to eschew the usual linear periodisation this time in favour of what is sometimes referred to as "reverse periodisation". Quite apart from the use of this concept to great effect in the sport nowadays, I think this will work well for me; as an aging athlete one needs to keep the intensity higher than the young things who develop muscle strength from lighter activity - and lose it far less quickly. Just putting in the base miles no longer makes any sense.

However, the available training manuals don't offer any ready-made training plans for this approach so I'm using my accumulated experience and designing the whole plan myself - which takes some energy in planning and constant reevaluation - and as always I'm using my body as a test lab. I love it!

Base training therefore will not have the typical increase in volume as a priority, and will include three key intensity focuses: 1) Force, 2) Speed (cadence/sprints), and 3) Threshold. I'll be documenting my progress here for those interested, so by all means join me on this journey, and if you have anything to comment or add, even better.

First step is done. Batteries recharged. Now the fun begins!

Links:
Great article on reverse periodisation by Nick Grantham


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Faith



OK, so I'm an optimist. I'm the one who sees his cup as half-full rather than half-empty. I would rather consider everyone innocent until proven otherwise.

Being a follower of an athletic sport is always an act of faith. When this faith is betrayed and the rug firmly pulled from under our feet, we need to look for some solid ground to stand on.

If we are still drawn to the sport, we need to re-build that faith. I managed, after an awful lot of reading, to come to terms with what had happened within the sport of cycling, and through that I built some faith in the ethics of certain people in the sport. Most importantly though, I developed an insight into the circumstances that made people make the decisions they did.




Two of the journalists most outspoken against Armstrong and the doping culture were David Walsh and Paul Kimmage. Having read everything I could find from them and from riders like Millar, Obree and several others (as mentioned in a previous article), I could see that the British amateur cycling scene was, as it continues to be, a stronghold of idealism and clean competition. It had also become the most successful amateur track scene in the world under the direction of guiding lights such as David Brailsford.

Now that many of the protegees of this scene have made their way into the pro tour - many under the direction of Brailsford in Team Sky or in other teams with clear ethics - I have faith that at least this corner of the peloton contains worthy heroes. It's of no small significance that after spending the whole Tour de France following Team Sky, David Walsh remains convinced.



So yes, my faith is reserved for those I really believe in. This is always the case anyway - we follow our favourites. I continue to dig, and occasionally find new gems. So my list of “good guys” includes Froome, Wiggins and a gradually expanding group. It's still fundamentally an act of faith. I want to believe.

I can't be 100% sure of anyone. I enjoy immensely what Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert and Jens Voigt can do on a good day. Would I stake my life on them never having used chemicals to enhance performance? No, of course not. Now we have an exciting world champion in Rui Costa - from the same mould - who once served part of a suspension for a "controlled substance" that he and his brother were later found to have unwittingly taken as part of a dietary supplement. While for some it might dim the brightness of whatever he subsequently does; until otherwise enlightened, I believe in him.




As for numbers; from my 30+ years of training and racing in sport one truth of human physiology is inescapable: a world class athlete is mostly a result of nature, not nurture. Top athletes are genetically "chosen". The average guy won’t come close even with years of high-tech training, yet the gifted one can turn up at his first race and blow the field away. Genetics: blood values, VO2max, lactate threshold, pain threshold, muscle development etc have a massive range of variance from the mules to the Derby winners. Put the thoroughbred on a highly-structured and monitored training plan, and you may come up with power numbers that are off the charts.

I'd also like to point out that we share this history - and the accompanying sense of disappointment and loss - with the current riders on the pro tour. Many of these guys were inspired to get on a bike by the now fallen heroes of the blood-doping era. If you as a fan/amateur can feel so betrayed, the young person for whom cycling is their whole life will need some serious therapy to combat the unfillable void of shattered illusions and demolished faith. I hear many modern athletes speak of this experience, and I know they are determined not to ever go down that path.

To the cynics I will say this: if you really care about the sport, make the effort to dig as deep as you can to get as full a picture as possible. Doing this involves some pain, and will probably turn your stomach for a while as you sift through the really mucky stuff, but you’ll come out the other end with a deeper understanding of the problem, a connection to the humanity behind the decisions - good and bad.......and perhaps a few new heroes.

Nice Twistedspoke piece on Froome during the TDF

Grey Rules

Somehow we need to come to terms with the sport of cycling's past. While I'm the first to agree that a black-and-white view to doping in sport is the only way to move forward, we can't deal with the history of the sport with the same severity.

What started (at least in our sport) with athletes looking for ways to make intolerable suffering more tolerable, went unchecked at the crucial early stage, and became unmanageable at a point where the sport was already big money with too much at stake.

Now we have medals, jerseys, races that nobody won. We have some of the most defining moments in the history of our sport captured on video that contributed to no result. We have the best years of the lives of so many riders, team crew, soigneurs, mechanics dedicated to pursuits now made redundant and even embarrassing. Why? Because the sport was allowed to play by rules that embodied a dark secret that eventually had to come out.

From an article called Lance Armstrong's Endgame by author/editor Bill Strickland on Bicycling.com:

"His ultimate legacy most likely is out of our hands. Fans who may not yet be alive will decide who he was. To us, today, Eddy Merckx is the greatest cyclist who ever lived, not a fraud who tested positive for a stimulant while leading the 1969 Giro d'Italia and had his 1973 Giro di Lombardia win stripped for the same. Joop Zoetemelk is the hardman who started and finished 16 Tours—a record—and won one. He's not a reprobate who was caught doping at the 1979 Tour, received a paltry penalty of a 10-minute time addition, and maintained his second-place podium spot. Jacques Anquetil is the five-time Tour winner who in 1961 took the yellow jersey on Stage 1 and wore it all the way to Paris, not a boastful cheater who said, during a French television interview, "Leave me in peace—everybody takes dope." And Fausto Coppi is il campionissimo, the champion of champions, not an admitted doper who said on Italian television that he only took drugs when necessary—"which is nearly always."."

This is not Hollywood.

.... and I'm still a cycling fan.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Froomie vs Lance



There's something fundamentally disturbing about the apparent inability of some amateur cyclists and fans of the sport to embrace the new wave in cycling. It may be hip in the coffee shops and online forums to support the attitude: "clean sport? pull the other one!", but in reality you are all just afraid of making a stand for fear of being shot down later. Open your eyes and you might find that you can untie yourselves from the mast and revel in cycling's new dawn!

I won't argue that a bit of healthy scepticism isn't natural given the severe thrashing our faith has taken in the recent past. We were convinced by a cancer survivor who looked death in the eye and then bounced back to win the world's greatest bike race 7 times. It was such a big story that it changed the world of cycling. It was Lance's story that fueled the dreams and passions of a generation of cycling fans. Tragic indeed when you consider that almost every current pro cyclist was inspired by his story, and many of them may be riding today as a direct result of that inspiration.




I was definitely a believer. It's a great story. But whatever our dismay at being duped, it's repulsive to witness Lancemania turn on it's heels into a hate fest. I mean, we supported and urged the media,  the teams, the athletes, the UCI, to sell us the super-hero story over and over again for years, even to a point that it no longer sounded remotely plausible. We all played our part.




Many tried to warn us, but we dismissed them as heretics. It's too easy to blame him for bursting our bubble, but our delusional addiction to the Hollywood ending is a major contributor. And should we single him out for playing by the sport's rules so effectively, just because we knew nothing about the real nature of the game? Like a bunch of kids who find out that the actor who played batman is an alcoholic transvestite. He lied. They all lied.

The rot set in long ago. We can look back at 1967 and the death on Mont Ventoux of Tom Simpson and see in retrospect that this could have been one of the more timely moments to turn the tide if our governing body hadn't been so spineless. Drugs insinuated their way into the sport well before Simpson's day. Hardly surprising that those involved in such a tough sport would look for ways of making it slightly less painful. Yet the tolerance of the slight bending of the rules back then was the slippery slope to the teams with their own pharmacists of the 1990s.



My reaction to the revelations of USADA's report and the subsequent Armstrong admission in 2012 was to read absolutely everything I could get my hands on about the subject. There are some great books out there that reveal the truths of life in the peloton in the 1990s. Books by Paul Kimmage, David Millar, Tyler Hamilton, David Walsh, and others brave enough to break the code of silence, who told it like it was. That was the only way I could get over the demolition of my own personal history as a fan of the sport. The most real and enlightening book is still Willy Voet's Breaking The Chain.

And (along with a slightly irreverend and outspokenly clean London boy winning the Tour) it was a great help. The results of this study pinned the fault squarely on the shoulders of the UCI for failing to protect professional cyclists from the pitfalls of competing in such a brutal sport for financial gain. For allowing drug use to be the way team managers could ensure results for the sponsors by making sure riders "prepare" themselves chemically to win. Many noble and principled individuals watched their self-respect disintegrate as they accepted what they must do to have any hope of renewing contracts and keep their families fed for another season.

Bradley Wiggins has spoken of his own evolution within the sport and the lucky break of making a painless transition from the wholesome UK Olympic track program into a French team in 2002 that was of the new clean era. We can see that he was already part of a new generation, even though many less fortunate were still being subjected to the pressures of "preparation". I believe him, and I believe in him: "I'd rather stack shelves in Tesco's and be a good father to my children than live a lie and one day have to explain to them why we've lost everything and have to sell the house".




There are some awesome people cleaning the sport up from the inside out. It may not come from the top yet, but nobody's waiting around for the UCI to take charge. Here are a few simple and obvious truths which satisfy me:

1). I believe in the integrity of certain individuals. These people are particularly vociferous and aggressive in the insistence on a clean sport. Most obviously Sky team's amazing guiding light David Brailsford, but also riders Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Richie Porte - basically the whole Sky team. Also Garmin Sharp's outspoken director Jonathan Vaughters and riders Dan Martin, David Millar and co. These people are just the most visible tip of the iceberg. There are many more.

2). If these guys were just in the pack struggling, it would be a moot point that they were clean. But they're not. They are winning - even dominating sometimes. The message is clear: There's a clean way to be the best. Nobody in the peloton has missed this message. Not the riders, nor the teams or sponsors. This is the new order.

Froome: “For me it is a bit of a personal mission to show that the sport has changed. I certainly know that the results I get are not going to be stripped 10, 20 years down the line. That’s not going to happen."

There may still be bad apples in the cart - players who are so used to the old game that they feel it's their right to use whatever means necessary to achieve the result. But from what I gather through what I've read and seen with my own eyes, is that I am watching even riders who were part of the old order now competing clean, not because they have to, but because they can. Because they have faith they are competing against clean athletes, they no longer need to take drugs to be competitive.

Whether this has a long-term effect is up to the UCI or their replacement. They can't rely on the idealism of the new generation being enough to ensure a trouble-free future in the sport. The biological passport is a great step forward as it monitors the health and fitness of riders in great detail, but the governing body has to do much more than just putting testing measures in place. The hardest thing will surely be to oust the considerable private enterprise that goes on behind closed doors at the top end. To move forward though, it has to set-up and live by a new set of democratic principles that can never allow this kind of self-interest and corruption to creep back in.

But back to the present. I, for one, am having immense fun watching my new cycling heroes in action. There are some amazing new faces coming up in the sport. They all have bad leg days, they lose form, gain form, and are transparently human, but on a good day they can be awesome. There are also some individuals so talented that many would like to believe they're on drugs. But I'm sure they can't be - it would take too much effort to arrange such a deception now, and I know they'd much rather just ride their bikes.



Some related links:
Jonathan Vaughters compares the contenders for UCI leadership
Dan Martin interview
David Walsh on Chris Froome
David Millar on Sky and Froome