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

Saturday, September 7, 2013

4-Day Mega Ride in August

I'd really put this one together for the toughest of our regular riders with Equipe Nomad, so I'm sure nobody expected to walk away with a spring in their step.

The initial idea was to try and include into one of our longer rides some 50km of great hilly bits on a virtually closed road heading south from the eastern side of Kuala Lumpur into the state of Negeri Sembilan. The only problem with this is that almost all of the other interesting riding is in another direction - to the north of KL - which means a long, flat transition.

So I knew it would mean some long distances, plus I wanted to include the climbs up to the highland hill-stations of Fraser's Hill and Cameron Highlands. A lot to fit into 4 days! Overall ascent was estimated at around 5000m of climbing over a total distance of around 550km. You can check out the actual ride profiles and description here.

We had a small but well-constructed little peloton of great riders. The protagonists: Jarno Lamsa, a Singapore-based Finn with a strong engine and on his new BMC dream machine; Clarence Tang, a hardcore bicycle touring addict from Derbyshire in the UK now based out of Hong Kong; and representing the KL home crowd Jim Bryan, an ex-competition Texan swimmer and former time-trialist on the comeback after shedding a more sedentary recent history. Jim would be with us for only 2 days due to family commitments. Our support crew: my wife June and Tigger (the car).

We start with a bang. The main features of stage 1 involve 3 climbs within the first 50k and then some pretty flat-to-rolling terrain for the remainder of the 175km stage. The first ramps happen within the old village of Ampang en route to a lookout point that gives a great panorama of the KL skyline before heading down towards Hulu Langat.

Nothing too shocking in this first part (just a couple of 15-percents) but the second hill, shortly afterwards, provides a bit more pain. The aptly named Bukit Hantu (Demon's Hill) is a pretty hard grind for around 3km at around 8-10%, but the descent - also at a similar gradient - is awesome. A real test for those that consider themselves descenders as the corners can all be done at a free-fall pace - if you have the nerve!

Clarence has a flat. After only 25km, not very auspicious!

The final of the three climbs involves a 10k ascent of Genting Peras which features a heart-breaking  triple peak (see profile). Once crested we enjoyed the fast drop down to the first fuel stop of the ride for noodles, fried rice and coffee at a very conveniently positioned Malay food stall, literally at the foot of the hill.

Shortly after the re-start we had another hiccup with Jim (just off a long-haul flight after 2 weeks family holiday) getting a severe case of cramps and having to retire into the sag wagon for a spell of recovery. The three of us soldiered on for another couple of hours until the lunch stop - this time Chinese noodles - after which Jim rejoined the group with a new-found strength - he said later he felt much better post-cramps than pre-cramps!

I was the main protagonist in the next mini saga. My right knee was giving me some unexpected painful twinges. I had switched to Speedplay pedals about a month before, but after a few minor adaptational aches everything had seemed smooth, and I was really enjoying the large float range and not having to look down every time I clipped in.

Towards the 160km mark though it was getting quite bad and so when I suddenly heard something drop from the bike I was quite happy to stop and give my knee a rest. What we discovered was that the pedal had come apart. Half was still in the cleat, but the other half and one of the screws which holds it together was somewhere on the road. We did find 2 of the pieces, but couldn't really reassemble the pedal.

We realised that it must have been coming loose for most of the ride - which might account for the knee pain. After my raving about these pedals to my companions earlier in the ride, I'm afraid we all had to agree that we weren't very impressed. My trusty old Shimanos never did this to me during 15+ years of riding them. Oh well. I hopped in the car for the remaining 10k to the hotel in Karak and massaged my knee.

Next problem was that, since we were travelling light, I didn't have any spare pedals with me. Since we were now less than an hour away from KL by car on the Karak highway, we decided to go back to the house and pick up my Shimanos. This also afforded us the opportunity to have dinner at the great seafood restaurants in Bukit Tinggi, midway on the return trip. After spending most of the day toiling under a hot sun for 170+ kilometers, it felt kind of surreal to get back to our starting point in less than an hour!

This also meant that we missed out on the offer by our hosts at the D'Teroh Villa resort to join them for the Hari Raya celebrations that evening. By the time we got back we had little energy for partying and I for one managed to sleep right through the fireworks.

Loading up at D'Teroh Villa. A real find just outside the town of Karak

Next Day we had a slightly more manageable 120+km of riding ahead of us, with the only obstacle being the 30km Fraser's Hill climb up to 1200m. We set out shortly after dawn in the direction of Bentong for the essential second-breakfast noodle stop. There's not much between Bentong and Fraser's in the restaurant department so this was deemed a necessity.

Sagas of the second day started to unfold at the coffee shop in Bentong when Jarno received a text notice of an emergency at work as one of his IT company's servers crashed. We had a nicely incongruous scenario of him dealing with this emergency on his laptop at the back of the car.

We traditionally stop for a nutrition break at a particularly gorgeous spot under the canopy of some tree giants at the start of the 30k climb up to Fraser's. After this it's a steady ascent of an average 3-4% for over 20km through a secondary jungle canopy on a road with patches of slightly dodgy surface. I love this climb as you can really just get in a zone.

We take the next fueling stop at the Fraser's Gap. By this time we've reached a consensus that we won't do the full ascent - and so cutting about 18km out of the ride - as some of us really don't have the climbing legs on today. The previous day's 170+km excesses are still making themselves felt.

Jim makes a new friend at the Gap. Stayed with him for a couple of km of the descent!

After a brief pit stop then, we head down the giddy descent to Kuala Kubu Bharu, our destination for the day. This is really a gorgeous descent through some pretty amazing views and good road surface. The first 15km fairly technical but the last section pretty fast. We didn't hit our previously recorded speeds on this section though - damned head wind!

Rest stop in KKB is a homestay accommodation above a great Chinese restaurant so we really didn't have to move much for the rest of the day. Though June insisted we take a walk before dinner to get some local fruit, we commandeered a corner of the restaurant for a stream of good food and beer that kept us going for the remainder of the day. The guest house had us in rooms named after past Malaysian prime ministers. Slightly surreal - with photos of each rooms namesake adorning the walls.

Clarence has another flat!

Day 3 started with a long roll on the old Ipoh main road to take us towards the Cameron climb. Only 3 of us now as Jim had ridden back to KL the previous afternoon. The day was pretty uneventful until we got near to the Cameron area, as by now - Saturday afternoon on a public holiday weekend - the traffic was pretty bad. We spent a few kilometers overtaking the same section of traffic repeatedly. Note to self: avoid public holiday Saturdays on this route.  Once we were into the highland area however, we had fairly free roads up to the day's destination of Tanah Rata at 1600m with a nice last 8km climb up through some switchbacks in the drizzle of low cloud.

Thank heavens for hot showers! We toyed with the idea of a massage before dinner but our stomachs got the better of us and the lure of great steaks, mashed potatoes and beer soon had us in our favourite Tanah Rata eating spot.

At this point all the main hard riding of the trip was done, as the 4th day was mostly descent. As it was my birthday we felt obliged to have some sort of celebration and procured a bottle of wine and some cake and went back to watch some TDF stages on a laptop. We actually only managed one stage in the end - pretty pooped all round.

A fairly wet world greeted us the next morning, though the rain had moved on. After the essential coffee and breakfast we started the glorious and technical 8km descent down to Ringlet and from there the super-fast and open descent through some incredible mountain vistas.

The plan was lunch at Sungai Koyan and then load the car up for the transition back to Kuala Lumpur so we could get everyone to their flights on time. We gave the bikes a good hosing down at a car wash beside the food stalls in SK - they had really accumulated a good layer of filth over the 4 days.

In all - according to the GPS - we covered about 520km in the 4 days with overall ascent at just under 5000m. A great adventure in the best of company! Now we really deserved a break, and best of all, several days of uninhibited replacement of calories!

Project Orca - Episode 5: The Ride

set up for the pose

Now I know why Samuel Sanchez is such a demonic descender. It's not skill or nerves - it's the bike!

(This is the final chapter to the story of the building of my dream bike. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.)

What a dream it is to ride this bike. I"m reminded of something my wife June said in description of the experience of driving a good German car after being used to locally made vehicles: that it felt like the car was driving itself. More stable and secure and effective. Like an insider's club  - you can't possibly imagine what you're missing until you're there!

If there was one word I'd choose to sum the feel of the ride up, it would be solid. I have used the expression "on rails" to describe the feel of a really stable wheelset before, but the front end of this bike really does merit that metaphor. It gives one an immense feeling of confidence on descents, and steers with the greatest of ease and security through every twist in the road.

The bottom bracket feels rock solid too, transferring pretty much every watt you can put into the drive as if you were literally cranking down on a steel girder. The weird kinks in the rear stays contribute to an amazingly smooth rear end which seems to absorb an awful lot of the details of the road surface. I don't really know how the science works but that's the way it feels.

set up for the hills

The bike is aero for sure. It really leaps forward with glee as you start your descents. The first real test for this beast was on a 4-day hilly outing and with other riders with specifically aero frames, and on freewheeling descents I could note a marked advantage (could also be something to do with being the heaviest!). But it's real advantage I'd say, is in it's stability. If you're coming down a hill, the thing that matters most, in my opinion, is having confidence in your machine. This bike really has an incredibly dependable steering and the balance of weight on corners does make you confident that it won't slip away from you.

So how does it feel going up? Well it's not the lightest bike I've ridden, especially the way I have it set up, but the stiffness and assurance of the transfer of power makes every ounce of effort work towards the forward momentum. I must admit to the fact that I had become a bit of a weight weenie, so the fact that the frame was around 1kg unladen was slightly perturbing, but I trust the people that have guided me to this so I persevered.

Honestly, I've completely revised my ideas on saving weight on a bike. It's nothing but a sales ploy. I'm starting to worry that lots of you are spending vast amounts of money on junk out there in the vain belief that it will make you faster than the 50kg midget with the hill record. If you're a 6-footer and 75kg, how much difference is a few grams off the bike going to make?  Especially if it spoils every other aspect of the ride? There must be a point at which a 75kg human on top of a sub 7kg vehicle presents a serious imbalance in stability based on your center of gravity....but what do I know.

Not that it's a heavy bike of course, but with the alloy crankset with power meter probably around 2-300g heavier than my old bike. I could of course get lighter wheels, but that's another story. Orbea are pretty cagey about divulging the weight of their frames, and are quick to steer you to the quality of the ride as a focus. Now that I've ridden it I know why. Yes, considering the importance of the strength, balance of weight, aerodynamics, and vibration-damping qualities of the frame and forks, the most crucial part of the bike, weight can only be shaved off if it does not interfere with any of this.

But I digress. The ride of this machine is immensely enjoyable. At the moment, my position is slightly more upright than on my previous bike. The head tube being significantly longer which means that even without spacers I can't get as low as I'm used to. It feels pretty comfortable however so I'm not in a big rush to make the change, but I could get a stem with a much more extreme angle than the EC90SL to get lower.

Beyond the frame there's still a lot on this bike to talk about. My choice of bars are the Easton EC90 SLX3. Solid as a rock but light as a feather - what more do you want? I've tried pretty much the whole Easton bar stable and this is the favourite so far. Saddle is the SMP bare carbon version with alloy rails. I've tried the covered and padded versions of this saddle and still this one works better for my personal anatomy.

I'm also sold on the SRAM Red groupset. Given the change in shifting dynamics between Shimano and this, it could have been a much lumpier transition. It really took me all of 5 minutes to get comfortable, and I quickly got used to all the little subtleties that come with this system. I like the fact that the main lever doesn't move sideways as it makes the braking more secure. Shifting is instantaneous, though it's sometimes hard to judge between the single or double shift up.

The crankset pairing of the Power 2 Max spider with Rotor 3D cranks provides me with the central and most important change. I'll give a deeper analysis and critique elsewhere, but from a ride point of view the most important point for me is that having the power meter in the cranks means I can use a complete wheel set of my choice - as opposed to the Powertap system which becomes your back wheel. The P2M is definitely more consistent and the readings don't fluctuate as wildly at the Powertap. The left/right reading balance also seems to work very well. The Rotors are awesome.

I use the Easton EC90 Aero wheels on the flatlands and my Fulcrum racing 3s in the hills. The fulcrums really compliment this bike's characters well with their untouchable momentum and stability. But that's been documented already.

So I really don't have anything bad to say about this bike. It was very carefully and fastidiously put together with well researched or tested components so no real surprises. The only negative note was the Speedplay pedals which disintegrated on the first day. They are great for quick starts and out-of-the-saddle positional float, but I still find it hard to believe that they can just fall apart like that. I don't want to be checking the bolts on my pedals before every ride. Simple construction, but all too simple deconstruction! I also think that they are really no lighter than most other light pedal systems since most of the mechanics - and weight - is in the cleats.