Monday, June 24, 2013

Strength Training

Everyone needs strength training. Whether you're a couch potato or a marathon runner, there are always multiple reasons you should be adding strength training routines to your schedule at least once or twice a week. Flexibility should be included as part of the workout as the two go hand-in-hand: range of mobility needs to be developed in tandem with improved strength to perform those actions. Those with sedentary lifestyles obviously need to get out and get active first, but regardless of level of activity, adding an appropriate strengthening and stretching routine safeguards against injuries.

I don't aim here to give a complete manifesto on the virtues of muscular development though. I am just out to sketch a brief overview of my understanding of the subject for the benefit of those who are looking for some ideas on supplementary training for the cyclist or triathlete.

For the otherwise relatively inactive, the obvious purposes are to develop strength, mobility and good posture. Effective methods for achieving this would be yoga, pilates, and circuit training. Including a cardiovascular aspect to the workout is of obvious benefit in this case.

For the athlete it's a slightly more complex consideration. There are good reasons for adding power, speed, flexibility and strength training targeting the prime mover muscles involved in your sport. There are also great reasons for working on the strength of the muscles least involved in your sport, in order to avoid a lot of common injuries caused by an imbalance of strength around a particular joint.

There are even greater reasons for working on the core muscles - those muscles in your abdomen, lower back, hips, glutes, and at the side of your torso that hold your body in good posture, allowing your limbs ideal range - and thus application of power - to your movements.

OK - so what is strength training exactly, and how does it differ from other types of exercise which require strength to perform?

Simply put, strength training imposes an abnormally heavy contraction - or series of contractions - of the muscle in order for it to then adapt to the new demand, and grow in strength.

At the risk of over-simplification, those concerned with the pure strength and/or size of the muscle will benefit from isolating a muscle group and working several sets on the same muscle using a weight you can lift just a few times before failure in a slow and controlled way to maximize muscle stress, then allowing several days of recovery by focusing on other muscle groups before working that group or muscle again.

While there is still some argument for developing massive quads if you're looking to maximize anaerobic power for short all-out sprints, for those looking to be able to maintain power over longer distances, the general consensus in sport science is that 1-rep max strength has little bearing - if any - on sustainable power. Even the sprinter who works on maximal strength will have to adapt that strength to the needs of cycling.

For those who are looking to develop the explosive power and speed of a muscle contraction like that used for running, cycling, throwing etc, the type of strength training that will be of most benefit is referred to as ballistic. This type of training prioritzes the speed of the contraction and the development of the fast twitch fibres in the muscle. What is being developed is ultimately anaerobic power so there is still adaptation required to bring these benefits to your - largely aerobic - cycling power.

For a cyclist, it's possible to do a lot of the strength training targeting the development of the prime mover muscles on the bike by just increasing resistance to the pedals in a controlled way, thus increasing our ability to generate force in a very specific way. A big advantage of developing good cycling technique is that we utilise the leg muscles used throughout the pedal cycle which develops more broadly the muscles on the front and back of the leg, hip flexors and glutes.

What doesn't get much development on the bike is the rest of the leg muscles and the core muscles - used for stability and posture, and  - least of all - the upper body. This can cause all sorts of imbalances - especially beyond our mid 30s when our metabolism changes from being one that requires normal exercise to develop strength, to one that requires anaerobic exercise just to maintain strength.

Without going into the myriad options for routines and specific exercises to target the building of strength in these muscles, I'd like to share with you a recent discovery of mine that's a great full body workout for anybody, but with the right choice of exercises it can basically do all the stuff for your body that riding a bike won't, in a way that can be of really great benefit to a cyclist.

The use of the piece of equipment known as a Kettlebell is a very old form of weight training from Russia which was also more recently used by the Soviets for the conditioning of their army and athletes. It has even more recently become popular in the United States which means you can now find the equipment in many shops, and instruction manuals and video workouts online.

It is a type of single-handled cast-iron weight used for ballistic exercises involving explosive and  swinging movements that can be used to have both a strength and endurance training aspect utilising many muscles simultaneously, especially those in the core, legs and shoulders. It needs very good form for it to be safe and effective, which means you need to start with a weight you can easily manage until the correct form is learned before progressing to more challenging weights.

I have come across a particularly good series of videos on YouTube by a company called Fitness Blender. This one in particular has a great series of exercises that works on the full body but with great focus on the core. It should be within the capacity of most reasonably fit cyclists but don't try to do it as fast as the demonstration in the video.

It takes a while to get the form right so I stress that you must start with a fairly easy weight and make sure you're following the instructions - especially regarding posture for the lower back in the swinging exercises. It's tough so it may compromise your bike workouts a little to begin with until your muscles get used to performing all the movements properly.

They also have easier workouts for beginners and those who are not used to the relatively high intensity required here.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Project Orca - Episode 2: The Slow Build + Adaptation

A continuation of the saga of building a dream machine. This chapter serves also as a run-down of stuff I consider to be top of the line when it comes to bike components. See Episode 1 for an intro.

Having made a firm decision on choice of frame, I ordered a 55cm Orbea Orca Gold in blue from my local Orbea shop. I was told by Mave who runs the shop that there would be a 3-week wait for the frame to be ordered in from Spain. No worries there. I relish the opportunity to slowly piece together exactly what is to adorn this new beast.

I also wanted to prepare myself a bit so that I get my position on the bike a bit more stretched-out on the smaller frame that I'm used to. I know I'll be putting in long hours as soon as I get the new one set up, and I don't want to be having too many twinges from a change of position at that point.

So first step to stretching out: I extended the bars forward by 15mm to see how that felt. Mave lent me an Easton 115mm EA90 stem to help me with this process.

It felt immediately more stretched-out but I tried putting the saddle back by about 5mm to see how that worked - you need to be careful to keep the weight distribution between your three points of contact - butt, feet and hands - balanced. That started to give me some lower back twinges, but the length to the pedals felt better, so I put the saddle forward again and raised it by 3 or 4mm. That felt great, and I could feel a slight improvement in power transfer to the pedals in this position. Again, a few twinges from the lower back but this time very slight, and only after a 4-hour ride with lots of climbing - to be expected really....getting there!

OK - anatomical adaptation underway....what am I going to put on this beauty?

Well I'd kind of decided, based on some research but largely on the anecdotal evidence of friends, that SRAM Red deserved a serious investigation. Now, I'm a Shimano guy - have been, by default really, from the start. Worked my way through the ranks until Dura Ace was pretty much all I would take seriously - I mean it it's so precise that even a mechanical no-hoper like me can feel like a pro adjusting derailleurs and brakes. Guess if my first bike had been Campag-fitted, the story might be very different. Therein lies a tale of clever marketing. We're creatures of habit after all.

But we're in break-out-of-the-rut mode. It's time for a change. SRAM Red is famously the lightest groupset, used by many pro teams, and I've had the R2C levers and derailleurs on my TT bike for a while now and they work very nicely. I also have a SRAM chain on my otherwise DA-equipped road bike and it does seem to be better (and quieter?) than the DA one. I aim to do a comparative analysis of the 2 groupsets eventually.

So SRAM Red it is. 10-speed. Partly because I'm still a bit reluctant to embrace the reduction in chain wall strength and other such issues of the 11-speed, and partly because that's what I'm used to. And to give the groupsets a fair comparison, I need to use equivalent stuff - plus I've got a lot of 10-speed cassettes..... So we'll get the most recent 10-speed Red groupset - but not the crankset. Now to a much more fundamental change.

One of the key factors in this project for me has become the transition from the hub-based power meter to the crank-based one. It's integral to my plan for testing wheelsets. I had really looked hard at the Quarq models, with the SRAM Red/Quarq pairing as the apex. The issue of cost however troubled me, not just because I'll have to pay for it, but also because the Powertap hub-based system's biggest advantage is it's price-point. There's no real point comparing these systems unless you can offer a price point that is also comparable (I mean, wouldn't everybody rather have an SRM and a pair of Mavic Cosmic Carbones if money were no object?). The SRAM Red/Quarq set-up still costs around double what you should pay for the Powertap G3.

I keep saying that it will only be a year or 2 before we see accurate power measurement becoming massively more available, integrated in groupsets even, and at a rapidly descending price-point. The truth is it's already happening now. It's just not at the tried-and-tested stage yet, or even that widely reported. I investigated a German company called Power2Max (actually starting to get quite established in Europe), who make a crank-based power meter that they pair up with some of the more interesting cranksets on the market, and at a very attractive price-point.

At this point I must admit that I'm completely the victim of aesthetics. I just saw this image of the Rotor 3D+ crankset with the P2M and a switch was flicked. German engineering and design sense - love it! The company has some flair so even though they're a relatively unknown quantity with little presence in this region, I'm willing to stick my neck out for them a little...

On to wheels: I'm afraid I'm not going to do much in the wheel department at this point. The main reasons: I've got a lot of wheels, they all work very well, and I want to get a feel for the differences in the other stuff without adding another new dimension to the experience at this point. My Easton EC90 Aero still haven't been put through their paces properly so at least for the build-up I'll probably use them - bling factor!  I also have big plans for the search for the ultimate all-rounder wheelset. but that's another story.

Bars and stem: I love Easton stuff. It's light and super strong/stiff, and I've tried pretty much every other carbon bar they do, and now it's the turn of the EC90 SLX3 - 42cm.

I'm already stretching out quite far on this larger frame, so the SLX3's 75mm reach and short drop will mean that my position from tops - to hoods - to drops, won't require any massive shifts in this precarious new balance. I'll use a EC90 SL 100mm stem: light, bomb-proof,!

My saddle will remain the SMP Composit that I've been very happy with for a while now. The SMP saddles all have the central section missing, allowing blood flow in those easily-compressed but crucial veins down there. I've used the softer versions but in the end, the harder ones work better for me - no numb genitalia with this baby! It has the kind of traditional curved profile which works well for someone who shifts positions a lot.

Saddles are the one item on a bike that nobody will ever agree on. It seems like 90% of the science serves only to create variety - it's really down to just whatever fits your particular anatomy.

I had in mind to use the blue Alligator iLink cables with this bike. They would add such a cool touch. However, since it already comes with the top-end (black) Gore cables, I may leave the iLinks for it's first service. If you haven't used these yet, they are super light, plus they don't compress at any point, so cables remain free to activate on command for a very long time. Detractors say they can corrode, but mine haven't yet - and I can corrode stuff!

More blue stuff: I love the feel and the look of the suede-feel Fizik Dual bar tape. I've had the red-striped version on my Felt F3 for a while now and I swear it feels even better than it looks. It is quite absorbent though so needs to be changed quite often as it can get a bit smelly! They only do red and blue as far as I'm aware - but that works for me!

And I'll be adding the blue Vittoria Rubino Pro III tyres to the mix - great tyres but even more awesome blueness!

Anything else I can get in blue? Lever hoods?

Might be a bit much! Maybe I should put a bit more green on it to match the colour of the power meter..... I may just put this bike in a glass case and gaze at it all day!

When it finally arrives that is! Latest update from Mave at the Orbea shop is that there are some production delays (!!), so I have even more time to obsess on the adornments! Guess I'll have to find something else to keep me busy..... maybe I should get out there and work on my legs a bit so I'll be doing some justice to this superbike!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Weekend Ride Through Fraser's Hill

Just back from a great little outing with our bicycle touring operation Equipe Nomad.

We did a slight variant on our usual Fraser Meets Gohtong ride at the request of the group. The request was that we started somewhere a bit nicer than our usual Gombak base, so we put them in the idyllic setting of Kampong Janda Baik in the foothills of Genting Highlands.

The group included returning riders Dirk Izzo, Jim Rowe, Paul Finn and Margus Uprus of the cycling group The Greyhounds. All strong riders that have survived the tortuous ride from Gua Musang to Cameron Highlands with us (a 125km stretch that has an elevation gain of over 3000m!). New faces on the team were: fellow Greyhound Dave Malligan and new honorary member Rodney Thurston. Paul, Dirk and Rodney are preparing for Alpine adventures in July including the Etape Du Tour.

In order to have something to replace the initial warm-up climb up to Genting Sempah from Gombak, I routed the ride through Bukit Tinggi from the lower approach, which means within 15km of starting, we were already grinding up an, albeit short, 15% climb.

The next hurdle was the 1km climb above the Genting Sempah rest area. After climbing through gradually increasing gradients for 4.5km it involves one last kilometer, much of which is at an average gradient of 10% that kicks up a bit more at the top. By the time the group got to the top I was starting to get a few gradient-related grumblings.

OK. Warm-up out of the way. After a quick re-fuel on June's Flapjacks and a tray of 100+, we resumed the order of the day. From this point it meant a descent of around 18km, fairly technical at points, but nevertheless lots of chance for free speed! After that we rolled through to Bentong on the little-used Old Bentong Road that follows the Sungai Benus river through some gorgeous countryside.

Rodney managed to blow a tyre in a strange spot - we were all stationary at a brief re-grouping stop just coming into Bentong. As the only one on tubulars in the group it was a bit of Murphy's Law at work, and could have been a bigger hassle, but the group effort over a bowl of noodles meant that in the end it was a relatively painless switch.

Bentong was noodle stop around the half-way point at 60km. A typical settlement slightly off the beaten track of the main Malaysian east-west traffic jugular, Bentong offers some pretty decent food in an environment that still has echoes of Straits Chinese tradition.

After about another 6km we turned off onto the quiet tranquility of the Fraser's Hill road. Time to zone out and enjoy the moment. After a 20km stretch, that I call "rolling" but the flatlanders refer to as "hilly", we arrive at a spot that I maintain is a contender for the most beautiful bit of road on the planet, shaded by a natural canopy of gigantic trees. This is just before the 30km climb starts, and a good moment to stock up on drinks and some fuel.

From here on the trajectory is upward. The first 22km is fairly gentle, with an average somewhere between 3 and 4%, and shaded by trees pretty much all the way up, which is welcome at this point since the day is getting warmed up. Margus and Dirk pushed on ahead at a pace that nobody else could muster to begin with. Margus (the baby of the group in his mid 30s) is affectionately known as "the engine" by the rest. His ability to continuously crank out what must be in excess of 300 watts comes from a youth spent as a competitive swimmer and triathlete. Scary to imagine what he could do with some structured training!

After about half an hour you notice it getting cooler as we gain altitude. We met a roadworks and some freshly laid tar on the way up which left Jim's tyre with a bulge, but with a reduction in air pressure it was good to go - at least for the last few slow, upward kilometers.

We re-grouped at the rest area known as Fraser's Gap before the final push. The last 8km is a bit more varied with some sections up to 8 or 9%, but it is a truly gorgeous little winding road through the trees with occasional open vistas down the mountainside, and since traffic is only one-way at this point, you can really get into the moment. Paul really got into his stride at this point and rode through the group to lead the way to the top with Margus tagged on behind.

The stage's official finishing point is the clock tower in the town square at Fraser's Hill at an altitude of 1200m. Though there's still another km of climbing up to the hotel, it at least presents us with the best opportunity for a group shot. We managed to avoid making the previous group's mistake of having a beer before this last bit.

Beer-o-clock was called for 5.00pm, and so after showers and a bit of stretching we headed down to Scott's Bar for refreshments that very quickly evolved into fully-fledged dinner once the support crew joined us.

Fraser's Hill doesn't have much to offer in the restaurant department. In a country with some of the best food on the planet, it's a shame that somebody doesn't make more of an effort to put Fraser's on the culinary map. Anyway, Scott's Bar does it's best to make up for it and some of their offerings are really quite good - especially the sirloin steak. And a good selection of European beers!

The next morning we set off around 7.30 down the winding 10km descent to the main road. This is really one of my favourite moments in these rides - this descent just after dawn with the views and morning mist  - I'll never tire of it. It hits pretty much all of our riders the same way, and is probably one of the main reasons this is our most popular route.

Once we're on the main road, it's a fast descent for the next 30km down to Kuala Kubu Bharu. I take the lead for the first part - it's fairly technical, and a knowledge of the twists, turns, and road-surfaces is pretty crucial. After that it straightens out past the reservoir and the Sungai Selangor dam, and we can really open up for the last stretch into KKB and our noodle stop of day 2.

It's great to see Paul, the normally reserved Brit, get quite excited - even effusive - about these fast descents. I completely share that - I mean it is one of the great joys of cycling - as do Dirk and Margus who, after initial tentativeness about being able to really let go, eventually followed my wheel and we made the whole 30km plummet as a group of 4.

This video shows Margus, Dirk and Paul on the fastest section of the descent from above the dam down to the town of KKB. We hit 70kph at one point. That was some serious fun!

We covered the next 20km as a unit and turned left together at the crossroads to Genting Highlands, here taking a quick break for pees and flapjacks - and to shed a bit of weight. From this corner it's around 16km to the roundabout at Gohtong Jaya, the last 12 of which is an average of around 9% with some particularly tortuous, unrelenting sections.We have to stop at the guard house about 1km before that now due to some odd restrictions.

Our King-Of-The-Mountains classification was officially won by Margus who made it up the beast (from the crossroads) in 45 minutes. That's fast! Dirk was next at 46:30 and he rest of us rolled in somewhere behind. The climb is a real grind and everyone was pretty spent by now, though fatigue was definitely tempered by a certain sense of achievement.

The whole group did a great job and the 4 repeaters were really on a different level of fitness from the previous time with us. It's really heartening to think that we're providing such positive motivational forces to those that ride with us, but we do have a serious advantage in having such a great place to do it! Unfortunately Rodney wasn't feeling at all well the second day so he spent a lot of it in the vehicles. I'm sure he'll bounce back soon, and hope he's raring to go by July in the Alps.

Finally figured out the best way to use the GoPro camera - strapped to my helmet. Pity I didn't get more of the ride on it but look out for improving footage of our rides from now on.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Rolf Prima Vigor Wheelset

This wheelmaker has managed to stay under the radar, despite (or maybe as a result of...?) an early association with Trek.

I must have had these wheels for about 15 years.

Sometime in the late '90s I had bought myself a fairly basic Trek as a get-around-town bike while working in Singapore. The wheels that came with it were these funky-looking-disco-dancer wheels that were actually remarkable effective - with this paired-spoking idea which seemed to make them pretty solid.

The next serious bike I bought, I went looking for these Rolf things. They weren't hard to find at the time, though their association with Trek had already evaporated. The set I found was the Vigor model. The specs were impressive.

I really loved these wheels. My friends loved these wheels. They defied logic in the way that they worked: an aluminium wheelset with a reasonably deep rim (33mm) that flared outward slightly on the spoke side, that was nicely aero and extremely light (1540g).

They have had some pretty bad press over the years, in fact I'm hard-pressed to find any review with anything positive to say about them. Very strange. I don't think they'd suit the heaviest rider, but then I'm not exactly the lightest, and I've never had an issue with them.

The paired spokes are supposed to give extra rigidity to the wheels, but most of the bad reviews focus on the fact that the spokes break, and that once a paired spoke breaks it puts the whole wheel so out-of-true that it's unrideable. Firstly I would say that any wheel that has a low spoke count is probably unrideable once a spoke has gone, and secondly: the only time I had to replace spokes was after an accident where someone rode over the back wheel.

I had stopped riding them actually since that accident. The back wheel came out of it with a slight dent in the rim which makes it ever-so-slightly-out-of-true. However, they still work, and I've been reviewing my ideas on wheels recently, so I got them out again for my ride through Fraser's Hill and Gohtong Jaya this past weekend. Lots of ascending and descending (over 3000m of elevation gain in 200km), and these were always the lightest and most fast-rolling wheels in my collection.

They were awesome! There's this short stretch of fast downhill that I use to test the speed of wheels. It's around 1km long with a couple of fast curves and reaches 11% near the bottom. I test the wheels by just freewheeling from the top and seeing what speed I can hit at the point just before I have to brake. I hit 68.9kph with these wheels, which beats my previous recorded best of 66.9 with the Fulcrums or 64.4 with the Fulcrum front and the 32-spoke powertap on the back.

So they roll like a dream - zero mechanical drag and very aero to boot. In fact on some descents I find myself braking just because they feel too fast - I'm not used to it. Braking too is way better than I'm used to, and once again I'll need to ride them for a while before I get the braking a bit smoother.

Uphill they are of course very light and from what I can tell they also seem very stiff. The second day up to Gohtong Jaya involves a lot of grinding up long steep sections and I'm out of the saddle a lot. These wheels seem to be taking whatever I crank into them with little sign of any flex.

I will probably have to retire these wheels completely soon. The braking surfaces are getting a little too worn-looking, but considering the amount of life these have seen, it's hardly surprising. What this rediscovery has shown me however, is that it is possible to get a pair of wheeks that are: A) light, B) stiff, C) aero, D) easy to stop, and E) inexpensive (they used to cost around US$800).

You have to remember we're talking about a 15-year-old model of these wheels, so I'm sure the new version has improved on what these can do. I've checked out the Rolf Prima website for specs on the latest version and they now have some added features including ceramic bearings, a 22mm rim width, and they now weigh in at merely 1450g a set! At US$1299 a pair I'd say they were worth some serious consideration.

Watch this space though, as I've come up with this great idea for testing wheelsets and publishing the information. This is part of my quest for the perfect all-rounder wheelset.

More to come!

Road Test - Wheels

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Recovery - Yin and Yang

It's not the notes that create the music, it's the space between them.

Our bodies are amazing things. They adapt to whatever we want to do in life without us even noticing mostly. They store the information of whatever we're doing when we're active, and when they get a chance (when we're resting/sleeping), they adapt to be able to better do that activity the next day. The harder we push ourselves, the more they adapt to be able to go that hard again with less effort.

This is what in sport we call the training effect. Every hard session you do is only one half of the picture - it will only pay off once the body has assimilated it. If the effort of our training session is well within our body's current capacity, a good night's sleep will do it. The harder we push ourselves, the more rest we need before we can assimilate the training effect.

For those of us who train for sport regularly, if we neglect to monitor our recovery properly, and just keep training as hard as we can, we will reach a plateau where we're too fatigued to be able to push ourselves hard enough to get any sort of training effect. This happens to a lot of people. We have to know that for every "quality" workout, we must put in recovery time. This means being able to measure our effort accurately so that we don't overdo it on a day that should be easy.

It is definitely possible - and in fact necessary - to push the boundaries. Subsequent hard days are great for building endurance for longer races and stage races, but we must be aware that we will need to pay back what we are using now or we will arrive at the condition known as overtraining syndrome. The first symptoms of this are irritability, poor sleep patterns, irregular bowel movement, and eventually a severely compromised immune system which means we'll pick up any bug that's going around.

You watch the younger riders on the Tour de France, or any of the major tours. Most of them suffer like dogs into the 2nd and 3rd week of their first few tours. Their bodies are just not used to spending that much energy without the chance to recover. This is with the assistance of soigneurs and team doctors that are giving them every available assistance in maximizing recovery. It's just too demanding for most human beings to be not only riding, but racing 3000+ kilometers in 21 days! The ones that survive to the end will never be the same again. They will be depeleted beyond anything they've ever dreamed of, but with a week or 2 of recovery they will be athletes they couldn't have imagined before.

These days I'm doing a lot more riding than I used to. Since I started my bicycle-touring operation I've had to be very disciplined about keeping in shape. We are doing rides from 2-7 days in duration and often including some long, tough stages. In preparation for one of these rides I'll need to make sure I have some down time before. If it's just a 2-day thing there's not that much to consider, but if it's 5 to 7 days, I shouldn't be doing too much the week before.

After a ride like this, that may have involved an average of 120km of riding daily, I'll generally take a week off from anything structured. Sometimes more. I'll probably take 2 days of complete rest, followed by some easy spinning on the 3rd day, a short run on the 4th day, and then play it by ear. It's really a chance to do other things so I embrace it (you'll see much more activity here during those times!). 

Reading your body

Your body will tell you when it's ready to resume normal effort levels so you have to be attentive to signs that it still needs more time. If you have a heart rate monitor and power meter it's easy to tell. A low heart rate and power means your cardiovascular system hasn't recovered. A high heart rate and low power means your muscles need more recovery. Once your levels of both start to respond normally to increased effort, it's time to start re-introducing (slowly) some harder efforts. Pointless to do it it too soon as you'll only interrupt and then prolong the period of recovery.


Be sure to eat well during your recovery period, and forget about keeping your weight down for a while. Plenty of fruit and good complex carbohydrates, plus eggs and good lean meat, but really it's just time to enjoy your food. Don't be too anal about it.

I used to do supplements, but I don't believe in them any more. I have found it to be vastly better to eat properly and get all the nutrition you need from real sources. For a start, it's the way your body's built to do it, and secondly, there are a lot of things used in the synthesis and preservation of the vitamins and minerals in most supplements that are unnecessary toxins for your body to deal with. Plus it's usually an excuse to eat crap otherwise. Crap fuel = crap performance.

One of my staple recovery drinks is a blend of oranges, green apples, beetroot, celery and grapes. Don't juice it, blend it - that way you get all the fiber too. If you want more ideas on a good cyclists diet you can check out The Feed Zone by Dr Allen Lim.


If it hasn't occurred to you yet, proper hydration levels are THE most important thing to ensure continuing good health and a strong immune-system. I can't state this emphatically enough. Since I started forcing myself to super-hydrate every morning with a litre of water, I have a tiny percentage of the ailments that used to affect me. It's not the most comfortable feeling in the world initially, and you'll pee a lot, but you'll notice the difference quickly. I drink it warm as it really gets the bowels going. It's a detox and hydration cure in one. Believe me. Do it!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Training By Numbers 1: Powertap G3 and Garmin Edge 500

This is to be part of a series where I expound upon the merits of training by power measurement, and where I investigate and review a few options.

By now I think it should be obvious to most sport cyclists, but just in case: if you aren't training with a power meter by now, get one. It's the difference between shooting in the dark and having the lights on. Here's how it works.

If you want to improve as a cyclist, you need to train to be able to produce more power. Outside of race situations, you don't have to care about how fast you're going, all you need to concern yourself with is that your power is increasing through your training, for which you test yourself every few weeks. You can train for power over intervals of any duration in order to improve for the specific demands of your chosen challenge. If you're going to race up hills you also need to be very concerned with your power-to-weight ratio.

What you have in a power meter is completely specific, quantifiable information that tells you exactly where you are in relation to your goals, to each other, and also - somewhat harder to swallow - to the pros. It takes a specific amount of power to move a rider of X weight over course Y within a selected time. When I'm on my bike I care about only 3 numbers: my power output in watts, my heart rate, and my cadence. If I'm producing more power for the same heart rate, I'm improving. I can try out different positions, cadences, wheels, sport drinks, haircuts and whatever else I think that might affect my ability to produce power and transfer it to forward motion, thereby refining all of these things.

In training, I can sustain a set power for as long as possible and work on increasing the duration, or I can work on increasing the power output for a particular interval. I can collect data and see what my average power output is for a particular climb or route. No coach will work with you unless you have a powermeter. It is the number 1 training tool after your bike.

I got myself my first powermeter - a Powertap SL+ - about 2 years back. If you're not too familiar with the terrain, the Powertap system bases it's measurement of power on that which is delivered to the rear hub.  It's not the top of the powermeter food chain, but it's the most affordable and regarded by most as accurate and reliable enough - used by many pro teams so it definitely works.

I initially had a few problems with the SL+ and after a couple of pit stops, Cyclops (who make the Powertap) replaced the faulty unit with the brand new G3 model. Already an encouraging recommendation for the product.

Your power meter needs a head unit which displays and stores the data. Most producers of power meters also produce a head unit, but thanks to an agreement on a single interconnectivity protocol called ANT+, any head unit will work with any power meter. Very useful since I'm very attached to my Garmin Edge 500

The Edge 500 is arguably the greatest little gadget a cyclist can have. You no longer need magnets on your spokes and odd little gadgets taped to your forks - it measures speed, distance, position, altitude, gradient (rather obviously) by GPS. It also does heart rate (via a transmitter strap), cadence (using the powertap or a sensor), and pretty much any info a cyclist might need. If you need maps, you go for something higher in the Edge range such as the 810.

Coupled with a power meter it will give you actual power, or averages over a series of durations. It gives you average lap power for your current lap which is a great and vital function for keeping intervals at the right intensity, or maintaining a set average power output on a hill climb for instance. Plus you upload it all to the Garmin Connect website and analyse everything you've done to your heart's content.

So back to the meter itself.

My choice was to get a 32-spoke version built onto a standard training wheel. It's mainly a training tool after all, and I trust the strength and durability of the standard wheel rather than a low-spoke-count lightweight that might have some flex. I might review that decision were I to start again. Once you start training with an indicator of your power output, it's hard to ride without it. I've ended up using it in races - that after all is the place where you really test yourself. In retrospect, a better choice might have been to get a 20-spoker and build it onto a durable but light racing rim. Moot point now.

Being the first power meter that I've used, I'd have to say that it was the expected metamorphosis in my training life. I have rarely ridden without it since. There is an issue of reliability there, as the readings can fluctuate with temperature changes, and I do seem to find myself "calibrating" - resetting the unit to zero - a couple of times during rides where I'm keen to get acurate figures. The batteries don't seem to last very long, and there's no indicator other than extremely dodgy readings to tell you that the batteries are going. The battery is easily replaceable though (easier than the old models).

The main drawback with using the hub-based power meter, is that you never get to use your rear wheels. I suppose it's saved me some money over the couple of years, since there's little point in looking at new wheelsets. However, the adavntage is that you can use the same power meter on all your road bikes - this is a big advantage to me as I live in 2 cities, keep bikes in both, and am constantly travelling between each with only a wheel to carry. Horses for courses.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Project Orca - Episode 1: Choosing a Frame

My question is this: why do we make the equipment choices we do? Recently I've often asked riders I meet why they chose the bike they're on. A very frequent reply is: a friend recommended it and they got a good price. I know how influential friend's ideas can be - one of my best riding buddies told me a couple of years ago that I ought to consider one of the big classic Italian frame builders. The idea sort of took root, and soon I could be spotted drooling over Bianchis and Pinarellos in shops. But I wasn't really able to justify why these were better than what I already had, so it never really came to much. The price point is of course a very good argument.

In the past I admit I made some of my choices of bike, like many do, based on what the people I most respected rode. My ownership of a Trek, a Principia, and a couple of Felts were all at least indirectly due to what I saw great riders on. I guess I might be getting a bit more sensible in my old age though, because I don't tend to get the player and the instrument quite so confused anymore.

I'm doing a lot more riding now. When you ride a lot, you start to notice things you probably didn't before, you become more acutely aware of your strengths and weaknesses, you get a clearer distinction between the kind of rider you are, and the kind of rider you want to be.

Recently I realized it was time for a new frame. It was partly the age and gradually deteriorating condition of my current #1 workhorse/racing machine, but it was also the realisation that somehow the thing had become too small for me!

Actually it's been slowly dawning on me for a while now that my ideas on frame sizing need a bit of review. I guess I'll have to admit I'm guilty of obstinately sticking to principles that have now become outdated.

My idea was that a smaller frame would be stiffer and consequently better for transfer of power - especially in a climb. I suppose in the era I grew up it may have been true, given the stock sizing of most tubes on the old steel frames we rode, but now the technology of carbon is light years ahead of that. They now build different sized frames with completely different geometry and wall thicknesses for different sized riders, so that such concerns of stiffness and transfer of power are utterly redundant.

A larger frame will now also mean a longer wheelbase. I'm no engineer, but as I see it if you're on a frame that's too small for you it will feel less balanced - kind of like putting a BMW on a Mini's wheelbase - it won't have the stablilty.

I'm 183cm tall and I'm using a "54" frame with a 53.5cm top tube, whereas most bike-fitters would have me on a 56 or even a 58. This means I use a long seatpost to get the height I need and a few spacers between the head tube and stem so the bars aren't too low. For me to feel stable on this bike, I can't really use a very long stem or I'd be too far over the front of the bike's center of gravity. So to find a balanced position in the middle of the bike's gravity, my cockpit length is only about 53cm.

This is OK with my hands on the hoods - and since most of my riding involves climbing and on my own, it hasn't been so noticeable in the past. Nowadays I'm doing more riding with groups and my lack of ability to stretch out in the drops and get both aerodynamic and comfortable is starting to frustrate me.

So, given the green light (by the boss) to indulge my fantasies, the mountain of choices suddenly becomes a very real 10-headed beast to grapple with.

This is the list of priorities by which I whittled it down:
1) Stiffness in the bottom bracket/chainstays for power transfer. Most modern carbon frames have it.
2) Super-light. Again, it's carbon. Most manufacturers shave a few grams off every generation.
3) Lateral stiffness for climbing. OK, the choices are diminishing slightly.
4) Comfort. Not so easy. Something with lateral stiffness but vertical flex. Lots of bike claim to have it though.
5) Aesthetics. Yes, ultimately it has to fit with one's idea of beauty.

It's interesting how this idea of beauty evolves. Something that we thought looked super-cool 10 years ago, looks like a shopping bike now. Of course it's all down to marketing and planned obsolescence, and it's hard not to feel manipulated when you realise how capricious your tastes have become. But hey, we cycling addicts spend so much time looking at top-end bikes in races, it really has to be expected that we come to feel comfortable with the current look.

Given all of the choices, this is a shortlist of the frames in contention for me:
1) The Bianchi Oitre - great looking bike though not sure how it handles, but I would trust the manufacturer as they certainly have the pedigree. I liked the naked carbon one with the thin lines in their trademark celeste but I don't really have much history with the local dealers, so not confident.
2) S-Works Tarmac - again, seems to have the required gubbins, but not sure how it is really as a climber and again I don't really have a good feeling about the local distributor.
3) Felt F1 - definitely a good choice, and I've been riding an F3 for something like 8 years and love it, and I do have faith in the local distributor. Somehow though I can't justify such a conservative choice. It's time to change.
4) Orbea Orca - famously stiff bike, developed under the riders of the Euskatel team in the Basque Pyrenees (I love Spain!). The latest gold models are stunning, and I do have a great relationship with the local distributor - in fact it's my local bike shop! Bingo!

And before you all yell "biased!", this was the bike that won Olympic gold in the Beijing road race (though Samuel Sanchez's legs might have played a part), and I have been using an Orbea as my training bike for the past 6 years.....and yes, it was recommended by a friend and I got a good price :)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Barefoot Running

I'm not really into conspiracy theories. I tend to look for the positives in people's motives rather than looking for ulteriors. However, when it comes to medical science, I'm afraid I can see quite a few instances in our daily lives that are evidence at best of an entrenchment of ideas, but quite often are probably just blatant lies fueled by self-interest.

Some of the absurd positions on "alternative" medicine and therapies among our esteemed western medical experts stem from the self-interest of the pharmaceutical industry. Why cure something when you can make a mint out of alleviating the symptoms. This has created the absurd western medical practice of treating the effect instead of the cause.

Whether fueled by industrial greed, or just simple obstinacy, there seems to have surfaced a belief within the medical profession that humans - the great 2-legged persistence hunters, that ran for days on end to wear their quarry down - are not meant to run.

Enter the modern running shoe. Invented in the 1970s by a person who had never run but wanted to, who found that it hurt his heels too much. This person had such poor running form that he was landing on the back of his foot and consequently jarring his whole skeletal system with each step. What did he do? Study running form so he could run better, faster, and with no pain? No. He put a foam pad under his shoes to absorb impact. That was Phil Knight - the founder of Nike. The rest is our inheritance.

I was just another one of his victims. All advice on shoes for running followed the same mantra: In order to make the inefficient human, sedentary, badly-designed body do that completely unnatural running thing, you needed high-tech help.

A few years back I injured the soleus muscle just behing my right achilles tendon about 5 weeks out from a half-ironman race I'd signed up for. Disaster!

Through recommendations I managed to find a great physiotherapist who not only got my foot working again in time for the race, but did a video analysis of my run to see where the problem was. I had always prided myself on having a pretty good, natural running style, so I was dumbfounded to learn that I was committing that cardinal error of running: The Heel-Strike: landing on the back of your foot.

My physiotherapist told me to increase my cadence, as this would mean I would be taking shorter strides and consequently landing behind my centre of gravity, and so on the front of my foot.

I followed his advice religiously, and was soon running comfortably again. I even got through the 21km run in the race without needing to stop or walk!

At that time, a few friends were starting to experiment with this new idea of minimalist running shoes. Not me. I was still firmly of the belief that they would all have such horrible injuries that they would be on crutches. Then one of them gave me a book.

Born To Run by Christopher McDougall is a special book. It reads in the easy style of a great American novel, but the story it tells is magical. Based around one runner's search for the cure to all his running-related injuries, it introduces us to the Tarahumara tribe in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. The Tarahumara have a delightful culture that involves running hundreds of miles a week with nothing on their feet except a pair of sandals fashioned from old tires to protect their feet from the rough terrain.

McDougall presents a strong case for the legitimacy of the barefoot runner including scientific as well as anecdotal evidence of our evolution as the great persistence hunter that then devolved into the heel-striking couch potato.

It worked on me. So I got myself a pair of minimally-soled shoes and started re-training my body to run correctly.

When you start running barefoot, your calves can't take too much to begin with. This is because you're keeping your heels off the ground by using the tendons and muscles in the foot and lower leg as a spring to push back off before your heel touches down. It doesn't take long though. As long as you increase the volume very gradually, you'll be over the aching calves within a week or 2 and starting to be able to run continuously for longer.

It's not hard to get the technique right. If you take your shoes off and run a few steps across a hard floor, most of us will instinctively keep our heels off the ground using the springy tendons in our mid-foot. But even if you're not quite so instinctive with it, the basic idea is to take small steps, which will have you placing your foot on the ground behind the position of your knee and hence on your toes, then push off before you heel hits the ground. That's how our ancestors did it, and why our feet and legs have the shape and musculature that they do.

This might not cure everybody's running problems. There are plenty of things that can contribute to making running difficult in your musculoskeletal structure from hereditary of injury-related problems. But whatever the problem, look for the cause. Don't just make the symptoms go away.

Shoes: I have used the Vibram FiveFingers and also some minimalist shoes by Merrell and New Balance. All of them work well but I prefer the FiveFingers for road and smooth running surfaces as you feel more of the surface that you're running on. For off-road you might need a bit more protection which the Merrils and New Balance ones give you, but do get the off-road versions - the road ones are starting to re-introduce some cushioning, which is totally counter-productive.