Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Don't Give Up Your Day Job

As if to further strengthen the point made in my last post that one of the great benefits of a power meter is keeping you humble, here's an excellent piece written by my good friend Dr Rueban Balasubramaniam. My first guest contributor!

“Fuck, this hurts!”

I never fail to have that reaction when in the midst of what has become a regular ritual of pain: a threshold test on my road bike. Usually in the form of a time trial either on the flat or on a hill, the threshold test has become a regular gauge of my progress of a cyclist.

I’m no pro. I have a day job. But I do love to ride and to ride fast.

But to ride fast, you need a plan. It won’t do to just ride lots (contrary to Eddy Merckx, who also had a massive engine and so could just ride lots - if you believe that that’s all that he did to be fast).

To become a fast cyclist, you need structure and precision. You need to plan your workouts and calibrate your rides to defined intensities that lead to improvement. But to do all that, you need a clear picture of where your fitness lies. And this is where the threshold test comes in.

Sports science tells us that speed comes when you can ride as close as possible and as long as possible (relative to the length of your chosen event) to your lactate threshold, that point at which your body produces more lactic acid than it can clear thus causing your muscles to fire less efficiently.  Add to this, you become fast when you can put out as much power as possible by riding as close as possible to threshold.

When I started to ride more seriously, all I had, as a gauge of my fitness was my heart rate and perception of effort. But this only told me how fit my heart and lungs were, not my legs.

But today, we have portable power meters that tell another important piece of information: how much power you are putting out when you turn the pedals. The power meter focuses on the most crucial data of how much power your legs can actually produce.

With a power meter, I can measure my power output over a defined period of time.

Then, taking that measurement, I can more precisely calibrate the levels of intensity needed for different kinds of workouts.  By doing so, I ensure that my rides are quality rides and not just filled with garbage miles, that is, miles that do nothing to improve my fitness. Again, no offence to Merckx, it means that I won’t just be riding lots without gaining fitness.

Well, all this is appealing, especially if you are a data junkie, as I am. I like to know how fast, how far, and how hard I’ve ridden. And I like to map all this information to develop a bird’s eye view of my progression or regression as a cyclist over time.

I do a fitness test every 6-8 weeks to measure my average power relative to my heart rate and perception of effort, usually over 20 minutes. And this allows me to recalibrate my intensities for workouts to see if I am improving or stagnating or simply getting slower. The tests are a reminder that fitness is not static and is dynamic so that it is always moving in one direction or another.

However, the most significant value of fitness testing is that it supplies perspective. Bradley Wiggins OBE, in close to peak Tour de France form, is able to crank out at least about 450 watts for 30 minutes on the flat. I, on the other hand, am able to crank out about 240 watts for 30 minutes on the flat. 

Relative to Wiggins, or any other serious rider for that matter, I know that I am unlikely to give up my day job for a career in cycling.

But the knowledge that I am improving, even as a mere amateur cyclist, is motivating. And if I am motivated to get out and ride, then that’s what it's ultimately all about.

For this reason, fitness testing and the pain of these time-trials are, to my mind, worth it. The tests give me the knowledge to know that I can work on my fitness and get faster.

All of this illustrates a banal but important point. Like success in life, success in cycling is likely to follow from an intelligent and structured, even if sometimes taxing, expenditure of effort.

Or to put the point even more simply but with a twist: no (intelligent) pain, no gain.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Riding Goals

I spent most of my 30s and 40s training to improve as a triathlete. There was even a period where I got quite good at it, with even some modest success - I completed a couple of Ironman events and won my age group in the Malaysian Powerman championships. It's great to have such a specific agenda in training. It gives you a very clear fitness component to work on and, with target races to train for, a clear point in time towards which you can periodize a linear path of development.

For the past few years I've been just as keen to get out on my bike - by now it's a lifestyle - but have less freedom to focus all my energies towards races. Life has other priorities. As a freelance person I already keep too many plates spinning at the same time, and it's impossible to block race weekends and allot time-slots other than in the immediate future. You could call it living in the moment, but it's more like living in a constant fuzz of looming deadlines! I'm trying to change all that.

Most of us riding a bike have at least some desire to improve our fitness or cycling performance.  Without specific goals though, we usually fall into the trap of reaching a plateau that we can't get off. By training year-round without a specific peak fitness point we can achieve good basic fitness, but we will not realise our full potential. The classic scenario is the weekend warrior whose training focus recurrs every Sunday. It's easy to laugh at it, but it is all too easy to fall foul of this syndrome. You fail to plan, you plan to......

In a previous article I talked about the recovery component in training. This not only refers to the rest between rides, and recovery at the end of a 2- to 3-week training block, it is also a mandate for an annual recharge. It's necessary to schedule a period of complete down-time where we let our fitness go in order to let our bodies get a complete rest. Once we're fully recharged, we can then start the build again to an even higher level of fitness. The obvious point for this to happen is once we have reached the point that our peak level of fitness for the year has been attained - we reach a point of diminishing returns where continuing will not produce better results.

For the pros, this period of letting go is naturally at the end of the racing season. For those in a temperate climate, it's natural to time this for the worst period of winter weather. The hardest thing for those who live in a constantly warm environment like Singapore and Malaysia, is knowing when to take time off.

Every sport training method asks you to first consider your goals. A cyclist will be expected to target one or 2 races in a year to which you then devise a methodical plan to achieve maximum fitness at those exact moments. But what happens if you're not really a racer? What happens if you just want to be better at riding hills, or your goal is to do a particular route or hill faster or below a certain time? Or maybe your dream is to do a ride through the Alps or Pyrenees sometime but you don't have any specific timetable.

One suggestion, if you don't fancy finding a race, would be to target an organised group excursion or tour. Find one that challenges you and that gives you some time to prepare. You can even look at a series of these with gradual increases in level of challenge. Then ascertain exactly what you need to work on to rise to this challenge and build your training plan towards that goal. There are numerous methods and training manuals out there that can give you adaptable but well-structured plans - one of the clearest and most popular is Joe Friel's The Cyclist's Training Bible (also available for triathletes).

In future articles I aim to give some outlines of different approaches to what is known as periodization - the systematic building of fitness in several blocks or stages with a period of recovery between each. The established process would be to build volume first: increasing the time spent on your bike up to a reasonable maximum based on your available time and your goal. After this point volume is reduced somewhat and intensity is introduced - again specific to your goal's demands.

The most recent ideas in this however (sometimes referred to as Reverse Periodization) is to work on intensity from early on and increase volume later. This is a system that was used in other sports such as swimming first and has been more famously introduced to cycling via Team Sky through coach Tim Kerrison.

It's not entirely radical either. I remember the greatest Ironman debutant ever - Luc Van Lierde - who came out of nowhere to smash the course record, running his first ever marathon and becoming the first European to win Hawaii back in 1996. His approach was also to train for speed and the short course season first and then ramp up his mileage later in the season in preparation for the longer events.

Ok, maybe I'm not helping here. The truth is that there are so many ways of approaching this thing. The fundamental limiter however, is your body. Though we're all different of course, we can't suddenly start training like the pros out of nowhere. It will take years to build your physical condition just to be able to train 20 hours per week, let alone put enough intensity in there to take you up to a competitive fitness level.

Start though! Regardless of how long the journey might be, you have to take the first step. And it's an immensely enjoyable journey if you approach it in the right way, just remember that some overview must be maintained if you want it to go anywhere.

Training with power meters in cycling has given us a massive boost in our ability to specify, qualify and quantify everything we do, but to me the greatest asset to the weekend warrior of a tool like this is: humility.

We read the stats. Froome holds 450 watts on a climb for 20 minutes. Cavendish wins sprints with a blast of 1500 watts for 15 seconds. Most of us, when we start training with a power meter, are talking about raising our FTP (Functional Threshold Power) above 200 or 250 watts as a major goal, maybe some of us are working towards 300. Only a talented and disciplined few go beyond that. Aside from natural ability, what's the difference between the pros and us?

The difference is: a plan.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Project Orca - Episode 4: Ready For Adventure!

the rotor 3D+ cranks with the Power2Max spider
In which we finish what we started in episode 3 - building the bike up. Now we have the cranks - the final piece of the puzzle.

Once again, if you want to get the background, check the previous post or go back to the first or second episodes. We're still at the Soon Watt Orbea shop on Changi Road in Singapore for the final stages of the build and getting it set up for me. Bike fit at this stage is a fairly rudimentary one using measurements from my current workhorse racing machine plus a couple of tweaks. This because I'll be getting a serious bike fit analysis done soon which will feature in a later post.

inserting the press-fit bearing rings into the bb housing

This is the point at which the level of newness really ramps up. Firstly because I'm using a crank-based power meter for the first time. Secondly, I'm using a BB30 system which the Orca is designed for which ostensibly brings the cranks/feet closer together and gives a better line from the chainrings to the rear cogs. I'll also be using Speedplay pedals as a departure from the Shimanos I've used for the past 15 years or so. Verdict on all this to come!

getting the bb bearings tightly into place

chainrings onto the spider
 I had decided to initially not include the obvious choice of the famous elliptical Q Rings for the Rotor cranks. This being a better way to get a direct comparison in feel for the new drivechain without adding too many exotic elements. I used instead a set of Dura Ace 53/39 chainrings off another crankset.

would maybe look sexier in all black...

non-drive side with spindle goes on first...

...then the drive side

precision :)


The battery is a slightly odd one - a CR2450N - larger than the usual type. Easy enough to install, it goes into the triangular casing with the '2' on it which is just a question of undoing 3 small screws. The battery supplied is by a Swiss brand named Renata, and I have heard that other brands don't work as well - which could be a problem - but I'll look into that. In the meantime, if anyone knows where I can get hold of these, let me know.

chain on....

fd adjustment

rd adjustment

adjusting height, length, position...

As Mave puts it, doing a bike fit for someone who's been riding as much as I have is a question of transferring the dimensions of my previous ride to this one, since I will probably have an effective position already dialed in. Then making any possible minor adjustments if needed.

We took the measurements from centre of BB to the saddle rails, from the flat point on the hoods to the floor, tip of saddle to the centre of the bars, and horizontally from the BB centre to a plumb-line from the tip of the saddle. Then we replicated these as far as possible on the new machine.

Once we got this done it was a question of riding it for a while to see how it felt. Sine the frame is bigger than my old one there were a few things that felt different. We thought we could use a 100mm stem, tried a 120, and then settled for a 110. Took a plumb-line from the bone protrusion at the top of the tibia just under the knee down to the pedal. Ideally this would be directly above the spindle of the pedal, and in my case it was - adding weight to Mave's claim.

cutting the steerer

We left 1cm of leeway at the top of the fork steerer. Just being conservative in case we needed to raise the bar position later.

At this point, a nice sunny day had suddenly transformed into an unexpected downpour so the first ride was postponed for a couple of hours. When I did finally get out on it, it's maiden voyage was rather a wet 45km at rush hour on a Friday evening. May not have been the most auspicious start, but it couldn't dampen my mood. The bike felt super solid and responsive, especially at the front end. But more on that in the next chapter.....

Next Chapter: The Ride

not super-light, but then the crankset and wheels are the main culprits

the finished article!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Project Orca - Epsode 3: The Birth


Well, the cranks are finally in the same country as the rest of the bike so, though the post will take a few more days to get them to us, we decided we'd build the rest of the bike up to get it ready for the last steps - cranks and fit.

For an intro to what's happening here, see the first and second episodes.

Venue is the Soon Watt/Orbea shop on Changi Road. In attendance: Master of Ceremonies Mave Goh, Dr Ahmad and his assistant Bob, myself and Mrs me (proud parents). are many good things!
 Here's a photographic essay on the birth of my kind of superbike :)

the doctor preparing for operation
first step - bearing rings for the headset

greasing it....

unusual clamp mechanism for an unusual seatpost shape

fork assembly in place
all the orbea bits on plus the easton ec90slx stem
easton ec90slx3 bars 42cm with the sram red levers in place

sram red aerolink brakes

sram red aeroglide rd
sram red yaw fd with chain-spotter

running the inner-cable sleeve through to the rd
gore cables for the gears, grey jagwires for the brakes

easton ec90sl aeros with vittoria rubino pro IIIs

taking shape

my favourite fizik bar tape - and oh-so-matching!
front end is pretty complete
So it will be a couple of days before the last pieces of the puzzle are put into place. Tantalizingly close but no cigar yet!

Watch this space.....