Tuesday, December 29, 2015
I was asked recently to do an article listing my top 7 reasons for going on a cycling holiday. Since my primary impulse in putting together my own cycling touring operation came from a personal passion for bicycle touring, I really enjoyed the process of distilling those 7 major urges. In the end, the article never got used, so I'm posting it myself now.
This is what came out:
I think this is at the core of the true cyclist’s soul. The sheer joy of propelling yourself through a completely new environment, using your own legs and energy. This is undoubtedly my number one reason for my obsession with bicycles, and comes from my first discovery of the joys of self-propelled freedom as a child.
It is my passion for this simple pleasure that gets me scouring the planet for new places to cycle, and it’s the inspiration that started me running my own bicycle tours in Malaysia a few years back. We have a fantastic environment for cycling here, with a year-round climate, and an infrastructure, to perfectly support touring cyclists. I take great pleasure in introducing visitors to this incredible environment, as I can so easily relate to their joy in discovery.
2. A sense of personal achievement.
Whether you’re a weekend warrior, a competitive racer, or a bicycle commuter, we all enjoy the feeling of having taken on something beyond our normal scope. It can be consecutive days of riding that complete a goal distance, or something more extreme like a revered climb of challenging distance or gradient. Let’s face it, if it doesn’t present some sort of a challenge, it doesn’t have quite the same allure.
3. Develop some serious fitness
If you’re a cyclist, then the chances are that you’re keen on improving your fitness. Doing a cycling tour of several days in a row can really boost your fitness in ways you won’t know until you’ve done it. You can’t ramp up the distances like that with most other sports you might do. Increasing running, rowing, swimming, kayaking, or even hiking distances has to be gradual to avoid injury. Cycling, since it’s not weight-bearing, and involves gears to keep the load light, is one of the few things you can suddenly do a lot of in a short space of time, as long as you are relatively comfortable with your riding position.
4. Get a real sense of distance.
Transportation has got to the level where we’re no longer really aware of the land distance between places anymore. Even just 100 years ago, most people didn’t stray far from the town they were born in. Go back 500 and even people in the next village were foreigners. Now people can circumnavigate most of the globe in a day. We can have face-to-face Skype chats with people thousands of miles away like they’re in the room, and commute daily to work on trains crossing hundreds of kilometers.
The bicycle reconnects us with the human reality of distance that is a lost part of our heritage. We can get a real sense of our smallness against the elements of planet Earth, and connect every tree or blade of grass between cities, mountains, states, countries, and even continents.
5. Up close and personal with nature - and culture.
The sounds, sights, smells and sensations of our environment are acutely present when you’re on a bicycle. Even places you’re familiar with by car become entirely new when you’re out in the environment. You hear every bird, monkey and insect, feel every breath of wind or drop of rain. You notice things around you that would be unnoticeable from the inside of a vehicle. You connect with nature in a real way. I can cover hundreds of kilometers on a bicycle without a moment of boredom, but put me in a car doing the same roads and I’d quickly be looking for something to keep my mind alert.
You are also forced to interact with your environment, since you're right there in it. This means meeting locals along the way, trying road-side stall food, and stopping in places far off the usual tourist routes. You get an insight into the real, unadorned culture of a place, largely untainted by the cultural dilution of global commercialism.
6. Meet kindred spirits in your co-travelers.
Another great bonus with organized cycling tours is that it’s guaranteed that there will be other fellow travelers on the journey, with whom you’re very likely to have a lot in common. It’s one of the most rewarding ways of meeting people, precisely because they’re probably there for very similar reasons to you, and share many of the same passions. Recipe for cementing life-long friendships perhaps? At the very least it widens your community of like-minded souls who may then be able to introduce you to other great cycling experiences.
Oh yes - the endurance athlete’s drug - the natural high. These little babies are released into our blood stream whenever we exercise. All runners and cyclists are endorphin junkies. It’s the healthiest addiction possible, and possibly explains why it’s easy to keep going happily for hours without any real sense of urgency to arrive anywhere. It’s also amazing how a bad day can become a good day after as little as 15 minutes of pedaling, so if you factor in several consecutive days of a few hours of cycling daily, you’re talking about some serious euphoria!
Thursday, December 17, 2015
It's been now one full year since I basically stopped eating carbohydrates.
I did it because I read enough convincing evidence that carbohydrate was not essential to the human body, and that reverting to our pre-carbohydrate metabolic state was not only the best health option, but also a serious performance edge as an endurance athlete.
I go out for any duration of ride now without taking anything but water with me. I have no need to ingest anything for my immediate fuel needs as I have a supply in my fat cells that will last me for days. I eat if I'm hungry. I never run out of fuel. For me it's a no-brainer.
It seems so much a part of my life to eat the way I do now, that I sometimes forget how radical this appears to most of the rest of the human race. A year ago it was a ferocious awareness - outrage even. I thought I was on the crest of a wave that would change the world.
Once I started to dig into the science and piece together the evolution of how we all ended up hurtling down a dietary dead-end highway, I became possessed with evangelistic determination to spread the word, to rid the world of obesity, diabetes and all the other diseases of civilization. I quickly realised however that nobody wants to know, and that I'd have no friends if I kept going. The party-pooper; the prophet of doom. Now, apart from my posts here, I go quietly about my day, and it only really surfaces sometimes when I'm eating with friends.
But this IS vital information. It is unfathomable, unthinkable... unforgivable that we have been steered like lemmings onto a path of self-destruction. But hey sorry, it's fun, haha. Have some more cake. We'll work it off in the morning.
CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?
The other day a friend asked me why I was eating like this, rather like the way you might ask someone why they sleep on a bed of nails. I replied jokingly that it was just the science nerd in me experimenting on myself. The question caught me a bit off-guard, but I decided it was time to give a run-down of my many epiphanies since I adapted my body to a LCHF (Low Carb High Fat) diet.
To borrow a term from Stephen Phinney and Jeff Volek used in their excellent manual for the LCHF athlete: The Art And Science Of Low Carbohydrate Performance - the following is a "snapshot" of what being in the state of Nutritional Ketosis has done for me, and why I will never go back:
- My energy does not fluctuate.
- I maintain a healthy weight (low body fat) without thought or effort.
- My mental focus is constant.
- I can keep going during long working days without feeling tired (and then go for a run!).
- I don't get lower back or other postural pains from hours of standing or walking.
- I can train harder for sport.
- I recover faster from hard training.
- I can cycle for hours without needing anything but water.
- I sleep better.
- I get hungry much less when inactive.
- Even if I'm very hungry it is never accompanied by feelings of weakness or anxiety.
- If I didn't eat all day it wouldn't affect my energy levels.
- My hair is fuller and darker.
- My skin and eyes are clearer.
- My muscle tone maintains itself better without training.
- My teeth suffer much less from the food I eat.
- Most of the aches and pains I'd accepted as symptoms of aging, have gone.
I've written about my journey of discovery in stages (see links below), so if you want to know more please follow the links. I'll let the above list speak for itself as my latest update. I intend to do some more scientific testing soon. Before I started I wasn't overweight, nor did I have any particular health issues, or challenges in training for the sports that I do.
I was intrigued by what some other endurance athletes were claiming about training their bodies to efficiently use the aerobic, fat-burning pathway through carbohydrate limitation, and as I started to read about LCHF diets and supporting science (in particular the writings of Tim Noakes, Gary Taubes, Steven Phinney and Jeff Volek), it just made too much sense to dismiss. I began to see this as it is: a major breakthrough in the thinking behind fueling the human body. Within a couple of weeks of starting the diet I had dropped from 76kg, which I then considered lean, to around 72kg, where I stayed for quite a while before deliberately working it up to around 73-74kg where it is now (my wife complained I was too skinny!)..
The entire way of thinking behind sport nutrition that has obsessed us for at least the past 50 years is based on the discovery of glycogen and it's role in muscular performance in (carbohydrate-dependent) athletes, and the subsequent obsession with optimizing carbohydrate intake to maximize glycogen stores. In our excitement we then completely forgot that we hadn't really investigated what a body might do if it was properly adapted to using fat as a fuel.
It's linear thinking at it's worst. Sugar works fast - at every level. It's quickly into our bodies, quick to provoke hormonal responses - or performance benefits - and quickly spent. We became obsessed with speed. Then we became obsessed with the allure of extending these speed benefits for endurance events - running marathons on jet fuel - wow! Though burning glycogen is ideal only for short, intense, anaerobic bursts of activity, we've spent billions of brain-cells on figuring out how to make it last longer... go figure! The net result was that instead of focusing nutritional science on adapting the body to efficiently use the abundant supply of energy-rich fuel it carries (fat) at higher intensities, we lost the plot in the folly of pursuing the easy-come-easy-go, fast-burning fuel (sugar) in the belief that we could somehow make pigs fly.
Now, the average endurance athlete has to meticulously micro-manage their fueling strategy for any longer training session or race in order that they don't crash and burn. Again, it's a multi-billion dollar industry providing gels, bars, drink mixes and supplements, so there are some real vested interests in making sure nobody realises that they don't need any of this shit.
I'm 57 now. I Yet I feel better than I've ever felt. If I'd discovered this when I was in my twenties...or thirties...how much more could i have achieved in my life. Not just in sport; the amount of energy I have throughout a day is incredible.
How much of my physical, mental, neurological... optical deterioration could have been avoided without the constant yo-yoing of hormonal surges racking my body due to poor fueling procedures. I had been convinced for a while that I was lactose intolerant. Something wasn't right and things seemed to run better without milk. Now I almost live on milk, cheese, yoghurt, butter and cream. It was actually all the innocuous-seeming, easy-to-digest stuff that was wrong all along.
So yes, it's easy for me to say that I'll stay with this one. I never want to go back to feeling like I did before, even though I miss some elements of the food sometimes. I still enjoy a glass or two of dry red wine, and after long hard rides I sometimes allow myself a slice of really good bread - there's no chance of a major insulin surge when the body's working so hard to repair itself. That's another perk of the long-distance cyclist.
Older posts on LCHF:
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
After all this talk about bike-fit, saddle-fit and related comfort (or lack thereof), it's perhaps appropriate that I do a review of a relatively new product that attempts to add that little extra bit of comfort and relief to the saddle-weary bottom.
You may have noticed it in ads recently, since the reference to crotch is a little, shall we say, below-the-belt (!), but since the name is actually probably more suggestive of some kind of body armour for martial arts rather than a cycling skin lubricant, it may have escaped closer scrutiny. I think I would have probably chosen a different name for it, but then what do I know. It's kind of cute. As far as function goes though, it's a game-changer.
I have to admit I was never a big fan of chamois cream. For a start, we no longer use chamois in bicycle shorts, and haven't done for the past 20 years or so, and so the whole principle of softening up a brittle layer of dried leather has gone, and with the latter generations of cycling short padding using the ever-evolving iterations of gel pads and sponge, it just creates a soggy mess which is anything but comfortable. I must say I didn't persist with it, so if anyone feels compelled to have a go at me for the above statement, I'd be willing to lend an ear at least.
Vaseline was the lubricant of choice way back when I started getting serious with bike riding, mainly because, as a triathlete, I wasn't wearing a great deal of padding, and since Vaseline (petroleum jelly) is very water-resistant, it's a good one to put on before a swim, that'll still be there when you finally start the run after 40km on a bike. The only problem is: it's still there the next day when you wash the clothes too, and unless you're very diligent, all your clothes end up with a slightly oily feel to them even with copious amounts of detergent.
When I moved on to proper cycling shorts, that's just way too much absorbent padding to be able to get away with the use of petroleum jelly, which ends up as a permanent presence in your padding, and in addition kind of acts as a solvent to the leather coverings of saddles, which is not very good news.
So it's been a few years since I used anything at all really, aside from some skin cream perhaps, mainly to allay the damage already done after a few consecutive long days in the saddle rather than to prevent more damage happening. I just developed callouses in the right spots I guess.
Crotch Guard works like a barrier ointment, in the same basic way as Vaseline, except without the mess. It's definitely of a lighter consistency than petroleum jelly, you spray it directly onto the area you want to protect, and it absorbs into the skin rather than into the padding of your shorts.
Their own description:
Crotch Guard Skin Care Oil strengthens skin at the cellular level. This is not a chamois cream, you apply directly to the skin. The product will absorb completely for a clean and natural approach to the saddle. Once absorbed the formula surrounds and strengthens cellular membranes creating an effective defense barrier to eliminate friction and chafing irritations. And that protection lasts up to 8 hours! We recommend applications before riding and after showering for continuous prevention of chafing irritations, and to maintain the moisture balance of the surface of the skin. This is Serious Protection for Serious Cyclists!!
Each bottle contains 4 fl oz with a fine mist fingertip spray closure. The mist has a great cooling effect against the surface of irritated skin, and the pump control avoids messy drips and wasteful spills.
- Absorbs Quickly & Completely
- Does NOT contain Chemical Dyes
- Does NOT contain Fragrance
- Does NOT contain Preservatives
The third big advantage is that you can use it after your ride to help your skin recover. This means it's a one-stop process for saddle-related discomfort.
It's very convenient to apply - though you'd better remember to put it on before you put on your shorts - and doesn't take up much space in your luggage when touring. I'd imagine it will also end up being used by triathletes for swim, bike and run chafing issues, though I can't say how well it might hold up against salt water. I'm sure there are a multitude of other sport- and non-sport-related uses for such a lubricant.
All-in-all, the only thing preventing it becoming a go-to item in every cyclist's bathroom is availability. For most of the globe it's only available online from crotchguard.com, though they do say that they have a fairly good presence in retail outlets in the U.S and Europe.
I'm definitely getting a few month's supply in before you all read this!
I'm compelled finally to open that old can of worms that is the subject of saddles. I'm often asked for recommendations of "comfortable" saddles, since I spend so much time sitting in them. My stock answer is that you have to find the one that suits your own anatomy best, but the unhappy truth is that rather than ever finding the "perfect fit", I think you really just find the least painful compromise, and become hardened to the discomfort (rule #5!).
It's very difficult to talk about something as personal - and entirely subjective - as the saddle, but I feel that a lot of stuff about positioning - which accounts for 90% of saddle problems - gets misunderstood, and that though most battle-hardened cyclists ridicule the aspirations to finding a "comfortable" option, there are many things that those-of-us-who-have-been-there can share to make the search a little less agonising or interminable.
Firstly, the position of the saddle relative to the way you fit on the bike is crucial. Secondly, it can't be tilted in any way that unbalances you, or encourages undue movement or sliding around. Your butt must be perfectly "anchored" in the saddle.
|A completely horizontal saddle is the place to start.|
Between the 3 contact points feet, butt and hands, it's the relative position of feet and butt that must be dialed in first. If you get that relationship right, then you are stable, balanced, and free to move the position of the hands around to gain better control or aerodynamics. A good test is to ride in the drops and then take your hands off the bars without sitting up or moving otherwise. If you can do this without sliding forward or losing balance, then you probably have that part right.
Once you get position sorted, it's just a question of getting a saddle that supports your sit-bones in an "invisible" way - so nothing rubs or chafes, or puts pressure unevenly. Though often the brunt of much mirth among the non-cycling community, those rigid little "ass-torturers" are actually specifically designed to support the static bits, while allowing the moving bits full range-of-motion.
The bigger the saddle is, the less likely you're going to get that invisibility. Large, soft and well-padded saddles might be relatively comfortable for cycling to the shops and back, but if you're going to spend a couple of hours in the saddle, all that surface area is going to start getting in the way of movement.
From Andy Pruitt, Ed.D., who's done extensive research on saddles as the director of Colorado's Boulder Center for Sports Medicine:
"Saddles with a cutout in the nose work best for about 80 percent of riders by shifting pressure away from soft tissue and toward the ischial tuberosities (sit bones). Solid-nose saddles still work best for some, particularly cyclists who naturally sit crooked on their seats. If your bike fits properly overall the seat can be pretty damn hard. Some padding is needed to help disperse that focused pressure point over a slightly bigger area. But when you sit on overly thick padding, it can deform and migrate to places where you don't want pressure, like between the sit bones."
There are so many saddle shapes and sizes on the market, that it's impossible to say exactly where the search should start. A lot of the bigger and more progressive saddle producers have fitting systems that can measure the position of your sit bones, and make assessments based on your flexibility and seated position, but this will give you only a ballpark to start in. The rest is trial and error. Expect lots of error.
|Selle Italia's "flow" options for open saddle profiles - spoilt for choice?|
I have tried a lot of saddles in my time. I think the first one that I decided I could live with was Selle Italia's iconic Flite, which was very popular back in the 1990s, and has still survived in production until now. I then moved into triathlon and time trials, which require a riding position that rolls your pelvis forward a lot, and thus requires some different considerations, so I got into some of the soft-nosed options that were being developed for the growing tri market. It never really seemed to work for me and I was back on standard saddles pretty quickly. In the interminable interim I probably tried most shapes and sizes.
|The classic 1990 version of the Flite/|
The body, of course, changes over time. Quite apart from the obvious aging process, changes in your body fat percentage will definitely affect the place where you sit down more than most other bits of your body. So you might find one saddle working for a while, but as you lose weight it starts to put pressure on different bits, causing bruises, chafing or numbness.
At some point I decided that the wave shape of saddle worked best for me. Saddles are mostly either flat or have a wave which kind of pre-selects the seated "centre" of the saddle for you. Flat saddles suit those who like to move quite far forward on the saddle when going hard in the drops, while the wave shape tends to suit climbers who like to push back for more leverage on hills. I eventually decided though, that the standard full-surface saddle design didn't suit me as I was getting a certain numbness, which indicated that some crucial blood flow was being impeded. All saddles I choose now need to have an open "flow" section along the centre.
In recent years I have championed the SMP saddles with their pronounced wave shape and downward pointing beak tips. These work quite well for me as they have a wider open channel down the centre of the saddle that supports the blood flow in my nether regions a little better than many others. These are available in harder to softer versions, and wider or narrower too. The pronounced wave shape does force you into one specific placement on the saddle though, so not recommended for those that like to shift around, and the shape discourages riding in a low drop position since the wave crest at the front is quite high.
I've gone through a few of these to try and get the best option, and so far I like the Composit model best: basic leather-type covering but no padding. I even tried the Carbon model, which has no covering at all. Super-light of course, but I found that I slide around on the polished surface of this one too easily which is disconcerting and gives me less control.
Another one that I have found works quite well for me is the Specialized Romin. This has a wave shape, but much less pronounced, and the shell of the saddle is flatter, though it still has the open cut-out section down the middle. Better for lower frontal positions without the pronounced lump of the SMP at the front. It comes in 3 widths, and any Specialized dealer has the equipment to determine which is for you. I went through 2 of these though, which both broke in the saddle shell in the exact same place - on the left side at the front of the open channel (see photo below). Specialized replaced the first one but refused to help me with the second. I'd say these are a bit fragile, so if you're heavier than 60kg and expect a few bumps in the road, look elsewhere. These were both the Romin Pro: the carbon-railed top-end version.
|The Romin Pro saddle's weak point|
Because I like the shape of this saddle, I recently got hold of a second-hand, more basic version of it, the Evo Expert Gel, just to give it one last chance. The shell is the same material, so it may be just wishful thinking on my part, but there is a bit more foam-padding, so this might give it the cushioning to withstand whatever my ass is doing to it. Watch this space for an update on that.
A similarly shaped saddle is the San Marco Aspide. I'm currently giving this saddle a road test. It comes in 132mm or 142mm widths (narrow or wide), and open or closed (with or without the central cutout). Also a wave shape, but with a little less at the back, so the wave is even more understated. Again, this is a work in progress (aren't they all...) so no definitive verdict yet.
The company ISM have come up with a radical redesign of the saddle which cuts the nose off, thus avoiding the compression on tender parts that the front of standard saddles are accused of. This design is particularly appropriate for riders of time-trial bikes with their extreme horizontal-torso requirement, though I know some road cyclists who also love them. Again, it's what works for you. I have this saddle on my TT bike, and though I did try it on a road bike for a while, it really only offers one position, which if you tend to ride on varied terrain, can be extremely limiting.
|The ISM nose-less design - a big hit with triathletes.|
Whatever your choice, you'll probably end up changing again after a while, unless of course you really do find the perfect saddle which is......dare I say it, comfortable!
If you do, please let me know!
Tuesday, December 1, 2015
Those that have followed this blog over the past couple of years will be aware of my penchant for micro-managing my bike builds. I have always liked tinkering with bikes, basically because I like to know how things work, but also because the precise mechanics of a bicycle are subject to a lot of abuse from the environment they are used in, and to keep things running smoothly requires constant tweaking, adjusting, repairing.
I can't begin to count the number of times I've taken my bike to a shop mechanic with a problem that I can't figure out, only to then find out that it was something embarrassingly minor I could have fixed myself in less than 5 minutes. I live and learn. It happens less these days.
When I first got into bikes in my youth, my process was to buy a ready-built-up bike with a decent frame but basic components, and upgrade parts little-by-little. With limited funds, and expensive tastes, this would often see a fairly average frame gradually amassing professional components. Perhaps satisfying at the time, but completely impractical, both from the point of view of replacing the rapidly-wearing top-end parts (chains, cassettes, chainrings, brake pads, tyres), and money spent against accumulated value for possible future sale (hard to get a good price for a no-name frame with Campy Record components!). However, the seed was planted for a lifetime of bicycle-nerd obsession.
Now that in my old age I've become what amounts to a semi-professional cyclist, my practicality in choosing the right elements in a bike build has gradually eroded my expensive tastes. I now temper my aesthetic and nerdy zeal with a focus on functional specificity, and I spend a disproportionate amount of my free time investigating bits of equipment. I've also put together a pretty well-equipped bike-mechanics workshop. Heaven! :)
Until a few years ago I still believed that there was a solid logic behind buying a frame from a reputable high-profile industry brand, despite the heavy over-pricing (they put the inflation down to R&D, but it's mostly marketing and advertising in reality). The logic being that their after-sales service would be reliable, since they had a reputation and image to uphold which would surely safeguard the consumer. Right?
Wrong. After my experience with one such frame, which the manufacturer refused to replace when it failed after 5 months of normal use, I made the decision to investigate the new breed of DIY frames coming out of China. Of course, many of these are copies of well-known bikes, possibly using the same factories and carbon moulds, some of which even infamously masquerade as the real thing. Many are not though. Many use their, by now extensive, R&D experience working for the big brands, to produce excellent new designs of their own. It's a natural process of evolution of the industry and market. Chapeau!
With several recommendations from friends and further investigations I settled on a company called Velobuild - you can read the details of this experience in a previous post. They have a great selection of frames for various types of riding, and you can specify carbon-weave type, finish, BB type and other customisations to get the exact beast you want. They respond quickly to enquiries, and in good English, and seem generally fairly flexible to your needs. The products arrive within a few days, well-packed, exactly as described, and ready to build.
The concern with a no-name frame is that it may somehow be lacking in proper R&D or build, and either has weak points, or is unstable or jittery to ride. I say no-name, but actually Velobuild are quite meticulous about their on-line presence and most products are backed up by customer reviews, so it's less of a risk anyway. My choice was the VBR-016, which, at the time of this writing, I've put 5,373km into, and I can testify that it's still the best bike I've ever ridden. No issues. Light, super-stiff in the BB, forgiving of road vibration, and descends on rails.
With most of these frames going for between US$3-400, this now brings the cost of frame and forks into line with anything else on the bike, and means that, whatever happens, replacing any one damaged element of your bicycle should not be an arm-and-a-leg job.
When it comes to components there are 4 considerations that have to compete for predominance:
Weight: Every cyclist wants lighter stuff of their bike. Every gram is going to be your enemy as you grapple with gravity up a hill. However, the difference of a few grams saved on a cassette can mean a 4-fold price increase. The difference between a mid-range cassette and the pro version is mostly about those few grams saved in using high-tech materials, not an improvement in function. Given that most cyclists could easily shed at least a couple of kilos of fat, the weight of components is really the last of the remaining 3 to be considered.
Durability versus cost: I would pit the other 2 considerations against each other, and say that the longer something is expected to last, the more money you can be justified in spending on it. Durability is a hard thing to assess from the outset though. You might think that a set of handlebars, for instance, should give you at least a good 100,000km - 10 years or so for the average serious amateur. Given the fragility of some materials like carbon, plus the possible mishandling in build or repair, or some unforeseen mishap or accident, you have to build confidence in the stuff you use to know it's strengths, and you have to know who you can trust to work on it.
At the bottom end though, there is definitely stuff which you should plan to replace regularly. A chain is probably the first of these. Chains stretch under normal riding stress, and no matter how much you spend on your chain, or how well you look after it, you should not expect it to last much longer than about 5-7000km. Failure to replace it in time will have an extra wearing effect on all the other components of the drive chain. This means it's pointless to buy a top-end super-light chain, unless you're happy to buy it again 6 months later.
The same goes for tyres, cassettes, chain rings, cables, brake pads, bar tape, cleats (not to mention shoes, and of course clothes). These are all things that, unless you take extra special care of them, you should expect to have to replace at least once a year, so these are not one-off purchases, but a part of your annual cycling budget.
Then there's the once-every-couple-of-years stuff like pedals, headset and wheel- or bottom bracket-bearings, or slightly longer-lasting things like wheels/rims, shifters and derailleurs. Stuff that moves repetitively and wears out gradually. Their durability is less predictable, but they may need to be replaced within a few years, and may develop problems or get damaged sooner. They will present a sudden and sometimes unexpected need for replacement, and it's best if you can plan for it, or at least be able to find and buy them easily. Again, pointless to spend on pro-level stuff just to shave weight unless it really is very affordable for you.
If you do develop a taste for unusual or hard-to-find components, you had better have the time to spend browsing around for these on a general basis, and buy them well in advance of any urgent need. You don't want to have a bike sitting around redundant because you can't find the right bits.
Other things like handlebars, seat posts and stems, should be as strong as your frame and forks themselves, though as I say, you try-and-test these things until you develop confidence in them. If you're confident that the super-light bars will withstand a good innings, then by all means....
Saddles are in a different category, and are about comfort, and very particular to each rider's anatomy. If you find a model that nails it for you, you might consider getting the lighter version, but bear in mind that the difference in padding might completely change the experience. Saddles with padding or leather covering have more to go wrong than the simpler ones.
I would think I have ridden at least 30+ different types of saddle in my life. I'm usually only willing to spend good money on ones that I'm sure will work. However, our bodies change over time, especially as our fat percentage drops, and I'm still not convinced after a lifetime of riding bicycles, that I've found the perfect saddle for me.
So the bottom line to those looking to build themselves a bike from scratch is:
- get the best stuff you can afford to replace, and expect to
- develop confidence in the equipment you use and stay with it
- research carefully into new equipment before buying
- learn how it works
BIKE BUILD CONSULTANCY
I have become aware of a gap in the market for a bicycle build consultancy service completely independent of commercial ties. There seems to be a dire need for people that can give advice based on real-world experience in the aid of those who wish to get a completely custom-built bike for their demands and budget. No stock to get rid of. No bias towards anything except that which works best for the given job.
I think that I'm in a perfect position to do this. I have no affiliation with any brands or access to special job-lot deals with budget component providers. Through my experience I am able to assess exactly what a rider is looking for in a bike and construct one based on my awareness of the available options, their strengths and weaknesses.
For those that would like a bespoke road bicycle designed specifically for their needs, I am able to offer several levels of consultation, and design what you need, according to your size, strengths, type of riding, terrain, aesthetics and budget. I will source the best stuff online, and can either leave you in charge of assembling the pieces, or build the bike up for you.
My insistence is that there is no need for you to spend more than USD$3000 on a complete, top-notch, sub-7kg road bike. In addition, I can build one using different, but equally robust, components for USD$2000 that will weigh in with an increment of at the most 1kg. All this depending on your acceptance of my advice for selection of component parts.
For information: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Sufferfest have 3 new videos coming out on October 30th. This adds to the existing library of 20 peak-achieving cycling training videos, known to most initiates as simply the hardest training sessions in the world.
I am lucky enough to be in possession of a pre-launch version of one of them now, and I can testify, once again, that Sufferfest has nailed absolutely the most entertaining way of suffering I've ever come across! If Sufferfest is new to you then read my previous review of the series by way of introduction.
Some noticeable renovation in the opening graphics and sequence, so the intro is much slicker - something more akin to the start of a contemporary movie, though still with the essential Sufferlandrian tongue-in-cheek. It gives you less of a feeling that you're about to embark on a fitness program, and more one of the start of an epic saga. The instructions have developed a little too. Now the countdown to increase or decrease intensity comes with a number for the new intensity, so you can prepare your gears (and mind) a little better for the up-coming effort.
The new video I have is called "The Best Thing In The World". It's a 45-minute workout, and will no doubt fit in as part of their Race Simulation series. The main sets of the video involve 2 intervals of 13:30 with a short (!) recovery between them. The footage they use for the 2 race sections are both from the 2015 spring classics, starting with the Amstel Gold race, and followed by Gent-Wevelgem. The effort and intensity model of the intervals is also based on these super-tough races, and they use events in the actual race to create the fluctuations in effort - like Niki Terpstra's flat (3/10) and then subsequent effort (8/10) to get back onto the front group in GW.
I don't want to give too much away about the content here though. There is some entertainment/training value in the element of surprise, and the intensity variations within the intervals are suitably arranged to push you to where you need to be to get maximum training effect. You can expect all the usual Sufferfest tricks and mind-games that keep us entertained, motivated, and most importantly: suffering.
After the 11-minute warm-up we're fairly quickly into the first of the intervals. These are not actually full-gas all the way but, typical of races of this nature, involve a lot of wild fluctuations as breaks are made and caught, and attacks on the sharp "berg" sections demand occasional maximal efforts out of the saddle, so your heart rate will rarely drop below your threshold. Leave it to the Sufferlandrian masters of agony to make sure they push you right to your limits over the duration of 13-and-a-half minutes...twice. I'd once again warn that - except for hardened Sufferlandrian warriors - it's almost impossible to still be nailing the required intensities by the end of the session the first time out. As I mentioned in my previous review, the Sufferfest training effect comes from attempting impossible challenges, that through repetition eventually become manageable. By then you're on another level: IWBMATTKYT!
The main training effect aimed at here is to develop your ability to repeatedly work above your threshold. It will definitely also help push up your FTP. More specifically it develops your ability to respond to surges and attacks within races or group rides. It would be a good isolated last workout for tweaking your race fitness just before a big race, or an excellent part of a race-preparation plan in the latter stages.
There's really not much down-time in the session at all, so it's pretty much a 45-minute blast. As always with Sufferfest, you need to believe. You need to know that the pain is good, that the more you suffer now, the more ass you will kick tomorrow.....unless you're up against other Sufferlandrians that is!
All Sufferfest videos available from: www.thesufferfest.com
Tuesday, October 27, 2015
When Rotor announced the development of their new INpower system of cycling power measurement earlier this year, I was definitely one of the first to pay attention. The new power meter is housed entirely within the bottom bracket spindle of any of their 30mm BB cranksets, including the battery, which is an easily-replaceable standard AA with a claimed 300+ hours of life. The options include all 30mm models which means their off-road cranksets too. The power is read from the left, non-drive-side, crank arm in this case, whereas most others are on the drive side. Swings and roundabouts right...?
I've been using their cranks for a few years now, and have also become a convert to their Q Ring ovalised chain rings. With the INpower, Rotor offer both the full crank arm set, and the option of just buying a replacement left crank arm. This meant that actually I'd only need to switch out the non-drive-side crank arm on my 3D+ crankset, and I'd be riding with one of the latest power meters on the market, and one that was actually designed to work with the Q Rings to refine the exact position of the oval for maximum pedaling efficiency.
When I put my latest bike together earlier this year, though still unaware of Rotor's big plan, I had included a 3D+ crankset with the MAS (Micro-Adjust Spider). I'd had the plan to add a power meter, but just wasn't sure which one to go for. I currently run a Power2max power meter on another 3D+ set, and though this works perfectly well, they're not that easy to get hold of, and grotesquely over-priced outside of Europe. The INpower was going to cost me just over half of what I was looking at previously. I was a dog with two tails!
So the immediate benefit of this new product was a saving of a good chunk of Euros. However, Rotor also claim that the specific design of the power meter to work with their Q Rings includes an analytical software to determine the optimal position of the ovalised ring to compensate for the dead spots in your pedal stroke.
ON THE ROAD
A direct comparison with my other power meters reveals very similar performance. That means 'good' as far as I'm concerned. It gives me power and cadence with reasonably consistent readings at a comparable time lag of somewhere around a couple of seconds from crank impulse to power displayed. I'm using the Garmin 810 that has been my trusted companion for the past year or so, and the ANT+ wireless communication works. I have to remember to do a power-meter search on the Garmin each time I switch bikes, but it's a necessary pairing of one-to-one as with all of these things.
Loading up the data - my favourite nerdy scientist bit - there are a couple of extra parameters measured that aren't on my previous meters. One is Pedal Smoothness, and the other is Torque Effectiveness. Both are only measured on the left crank arm, though there is a reading given for the right arm. I got some feedback from Rotor on this, after they saw the print-out below from my Garmin Connect, and apparently I may not have calibrated the unit correctly.
After calibrating it again in the way described to me, I came up with numbers that look quite different for the right crank arm so I would guess that I'm closer to the truth now.
One issue with calibration is that in the manual it describes the process in a slightly confusing way. The correct way to calibrate is in 2 steps. Set the calibration on your head unit with the pedal mounted, and the left crank arm in the 6.00 position, then turn the crank backwards 2 full cycles and with the arm in the same position again, press calibrate on the unit a second time. You should apparently not need to re-calibrate again after that.
I did initially have a small issue with this meter in that I found myself changing battery 3 times in the first couple of months, as I would get no reading despite repeated attempts to activate the pairing with my Garmin. It seemed I was not getting anywhere near the 300+ claimed hours of battery life out of it. In retrospect it may just have been a lag in repeated pairing of the Garmin with different power meters. As I said, I switch bikes using the same head unit (the Garmin Edge 810) with 2 different power meters, sometimes every other day, and it does sometimes take a couple of attempts before it recognizes the INpower. I've persevered with the same battery now for around 2 months, so I think I was probably a little hasty to assume a change of batteries was needed.
After consultation with Rotor, it appears there have been some software issues, especially paired with Garmin head units. They say this has been addressed with their latest firmware update. It is remarkably easy to find AA batteries pretty much anywhere, and it really is very easy to replace the battery, even with mitts on, so it's possibly with the ease of this solution that I failed to persevere with the lag in pairing. If I ride the same bike on consecutive days the Garmin generally does not need to search for the unit again.
It is perhaps the most understated of all power meters on the market though, and whether you like that or not, it does mean that all of the delicate stuff is tucked neatly away and protected by some of the strongest bits of the bike. As long as the seal stays tight it can probably withstand some ugly environments and rough treatment - ideal for MTB or Cross?
I love it when things just work. When you turn them on and they do what they're supposed to do, and never stop doing that. But it doesn't encourage lengthy discussion really. And so the summary of this review is basically that the INpower system does everything it should without a fuss and at a fraction of the cost of some of the top-end, and rather more finicky power meters on the market.
I've yet to get to grips with the pedal-stroke diagnostics. Having downloaded the required analytical program, it seems that I need a "translator" program to run a Windows OS software on my Mac, and the one suggested doesn't seem to work. I'll get down to this when I have more time. It all seems to be working well for the moment, so I'm not at all sure that I need much tweaking. I will get there.
All-in-all I would give this product a "highly recommended".
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
It may seem incongruous that anyone would have anything positive to say about the pollutant cloud that has descended on the region in which I live recently. The consequences for health in the hardest-hit areas will only become apparent in the future. But for me, living in an area with still-tolerable levels of haze, the fact that it forced all of us outdoor dwellers to retreat into our air-conditioned sanctuaries for a couple of weeks forced me to rediscover the benefits of working on that most hated beast in any cyclists arsenal, the turbo-trainer, or stationary home-trainer. Through that revival, I then came to discover the true joys of the Sufferfest.
Sufferfest is a series of videos devised to offer structure - and motivation - for developing cycling fitness and power on an indoor trainer. The videos are the brain-child of David McQuillen, who started making them for personal use while holding down a high-octane banking job, and still maintains full engagement with the product 6 years after it's launch, though the 9-to-5 was jettisoned 2 years back. With the imminent release of another 3 editions, there will be 23 cycling videos available, and he has also added 4 more for runners and triathletes.
The videos use HD footage from pro races, including on-bike and helmet cameras, as a backdrop, and motivator, to specific timed interval workouts devised with top coaches for developing all elements of a cyclist's fitness spectrum. The clear, on-screen instructions and timing are mixed with David's own brand of cajoling humour, prodding you to go harder, or to complete the challenge. He creates an on-screen identity for you as a Sufferlandrian, and builds a story around your exploits to spur you on.
Most of the full-length workouts are around an hour in duration and cover every type of intensity. They use a scale of 1-10 of effort which you need to get used to in order to perform the workouts to best effect. I found that I overcooked the intensity initially and could barely finish the workouts. This was, in part, not being used to the home trainer I was using, but also because I was trying to gauge it using a power meter calibrated for road use. I've realised that, at least on my equipment, I can't get a realistic calibration on a flywheel, so I've reverted to rate of perceived exertion (RPE) which works well, as long as you are fairly clear on what your FTP (Functional Threshold Power) feels like (7.5 on the Sufferfest scale), and with an eye on my heart rate just to make sure I'm in the right zone.
They are truly awesome! You will never work this hard on a bike on your own. In a one-hour-plus workout you can really get the maximum training effect in whatever fitness component you're aiming for. I would recommend warming up for at least 10 minutes before you start the video - I'll usually do at least 20mins - as the workout "warm up" is usually pushing your pace up almost immediately.
The cadence stipulated for each effort has to be read with some flexibility in mind. When 90rpm is indicated, read that as "normal" cadence, and likewise if it pushes that number up or down, gauge it against what is normal for you. My cadence is naturally around 100 so I adjust all figures by +10 (-ish) for instance. For those who are used to slower cadences, I'd say its good to try and stay with what is indicated during the warm ups, and generally if you can handle it, the purpose is to speed up your natural cadence. But until a cadence at or above 90 becomes comfortable for you, if it asks for 90 during the main set, use whatever is a "normal" cadence for you - with perhaps an additional +5rpm if you can manage it.
I've found that it's better to ignore the timing of the efforts on your gadget, even though you'll no doubt be recording them. The videos also won't count your efforts down on-screen until the effort is about to change and, especially on the longer intervals, it's just better not to know how much more suffering you have left. It's part of the deal - just do what the coach says. It also takes away any need for unnecessary movements. Believe me, you'll welcome that!
Videos I've used so far include:
- Angels (climbing). 62mins. Main set: 3x8mins. Develops: Threshold/anaerobic endurance. Pushes your ability to stay above your threshold for longer stretches while climbing. Lots of low-gear and out-of-saddle efforts.
- Revolver (VO2max). 45mins. Main set 15x 1-minute-on, 1-minute-off. This is designed as a VO2max endurance session, and the instructions are clear: flat-out all the way. Could also be used as a force-development session using big gears, or quite a few other possibilities. Short and effective.
- Local Hero (race simulation). 85mins. Main set: 3x6, 5x3, 4x2. Starts out with 3 pyramid intervals designed to push up your threshold pace. The next 5 are more towards Anaerobic endurance, and the last 4 improve your ability to finish with a sprint. Easy to overdo the first 3 and compromise the rest, so keep it conservative the first time out. Good for when you have few other chances in a week to do a hard workout.
- Rubber Glove (threshold, FTP test). 60mins. Main set: 20min TT. Actually an FTP threshold test, but good for developing threshold anyway. Winds up the intensity gradually in the warm up, and then, after a break, straight into a 20-minute all-out effort. Simple and painful.
- Nine Hammers (VO2max). 55mins. Main set; 9x intervals of 3-4:30. Develops: Anaerobic endurance. This is my favourite so far. 9 intervals starting each group of 3 with a threshold effort followed by 2xVO2 efforts of 3 minutes. Very hard, but very effective for pushing your VO2max.
- There Is No Try (threshold). 60mins. Main set: a "pyramid" set of intervals starting with one minute and building up to an 8 minute time trial and then back down: 1:00/2:00/3:00/4:00/8:00/4:00/3:00/2:00/1:00, with not a lot of rest in between. Each intervals is divided into 4 equal parts and builds over each quarter to a searing finish above your threshold. Great for pushing up your FTP if you can really handle the required intensity. Painful!
- Downward Spiral (VO2max). 55mins. Main set: 2x descending interval sets using an equal effort-to-recovery ratio, starting with 2:00 on and 2:00 off, and working down in reductions of 15 seconds to an all-out 15 second sprint. Very effective at pushing up your VO2max as you definitely go naturally harder as the set progresses.
By now it has gained a cult following. Users feel proud to be part of an elite fraternity of sufferers with the tenacity to push themselves that hard. The mantra is summed up by an acronym: IWBMATTKYT - I Will Beat My Ass Today To Kick Yours Tomorrow, and it has become the war cry of the Sufferlandrians who have their own flag, national team jersey and shorts. You can become a Knight of Sufferlandria by completing 10 videos in one session back-to-back! (though you should time it carefully as your immune system will be impaired for days afterward).
Training for sport involves the process of adaptation. We push our bodies to withstand more stress than they're used to, and in the recovery process they adapt to be better able to accommodate that effort the next time. Most of us are encouraged to introduce these stresses gradually, so that we back off the intensity as soon as our bodies can't respond at the same level. The Sufferfest way is to throw something at you that is virtually impossible to complete at the given intensity. It takes a LOT of willingness to suffer to complete the session - and a good deal more recovery than normal too - and you're really only getting close to nailing the required intensities after a few weeks of repetition. But the net result is some serious fitness. IWBMATTKYT!
I guarantee you that there is no better way to include those extreme-intensity structured workouts, that are crucial to improve your cycling fitness, than to add these videos to your workout schedule. In a workout taking not much more than an hour out of your day you can get a major boost to your fitness. I have realised a completely different level of suffering since I started using them, and I know it's translating to new levels of power and fitness when I get out on the road.
Sufferfest videos are available from www.thesufferfest.com and downloadable for around $12-15 each for the full-length ones, though the files are quite large so you'll need a good connection. All other information also available through the website. There is also an app available which means you can subscribe to have constant access to all videos for $10 per month.
Sunday, October 18, 2015
I'm already impatient for the 2016 road-cycling season to start. Reduced to channel surfing in the vain hope of finding something faintly related to cycling, you may even catch me watching one of those dreary NBC Ironman triathlon soap operas where they have to explain the entire sport again every 5 minutes. Around now the average roadie is expected to be going through serious withdrawal symptoms - a week or so after most of the peloton were finally allowed to hang their bikes up for the holidays. But I think that it has been exacerbated in 2015 by the more than a few inklings that we can look forward to performances in 2016 that may become some of contemporary road cycling's defining moments. Though we'll all have our own particular angle on this, I would like to make a few observations, coupled with some predictions of who to watch out for.
I think the recent world championships in Richmond put the blender to the peloton, and what rose to the top was really the cream. I think the era of Peter Sagan is about to start for real, and if only he can find a way to flourish within the court of King Oleg, where I feel he's not in his element, we'll see some breakthrough wins. Vasil Kiryenka surprised everyone except those who have been paying close attention, and though he's not exactly new on the scene, his humility and good nature have so far seen his capabilities used in the team engine room rather than for his own reward. This should change now, though Team Sky are amassing a depth of talent for 2016 that is really quite bewildering.
Lizzie Armitstead, like Sagan, is really the most worthy winner within a stellar field, and women's cycling looks ready to ramp it up yet again in 2016. With the tantalising proposition that Marianne Vos also returns from her year off to injury to add yet more quality to the field, we should be in for some stunning racing in a gradually expanding women's race schedule. Hopefully we can get a bit more coverage out of Eurosport, and if not, then some other sport channel needs to take up the slack. Can't someone make it a bit more distinctive?
I still feel that women's cycling needs to go through a whole identity and PR shift in order to nurture an audience, and maybe another TV channel can help make that identity shift happen. Using the same formats as the men, and in much the same attire, tends to make the female athletes come across as second-tier, and many of the attitudes portrayed even from within the field reflect that. The more lively and distinctive personalities in the peloton really also need to be brought to the fore if we expect an audience to engage with them. Lizzie and Marianne can really help there.
IN THE WINGS
The grand tours have thrown up a few gems this year. If he'd been allowed to, Mikel Landa would have won the Giro by a country mile in my view, and it was dismal management in the end that meant that Astana ended up with only steps 2 and 3 on the podium. Landa will be with Team Sky for 2016, and I'm fairly sure they are aware of what they have. When he's on form he's able to hit it out of the ballpark. He just needs to work on his time trial.
The Vuelta introduced us to the maturing talents of 2 up-and-coming 24-year-old athletes who I believe both have the full package of talents needed to win bike races. Esteban Chavez is physically the distillation of the pure Colombian cyclist with his size, power, climbing ability, and endurance. He's also fast developing all the mental strengths of resilience, determination, and true grit, coupled with a generous and effervescent personality. He also has great support around him in the family-like atmosphere of Orica Greenedge, and they are already chomping at the bit now that they really have a GC contender.
For me though, the revelation of the year was Tom Dumoulin, with a performance significant enough to again completely re-write the competitive agenda of a World Tour team for 2016. He was in fine form in the early season, announcing himself with searing lone-breakaways in the spring classics, but destiny had other ideas, and accidents and injury stopped him short of making any major podiums. In retrospect however this all may have been for the best in the grand scheme of things.
His bounce-back to form coincided with his inclusion in the Vuelta, which catapulted him to global stardom when he suddenly became an overall contender as he out-climbed the climbers, blew the time trials apart, and hung in there even in the 3rd week only to run out of gas on the last 2 climbs. That he did this having come to the race as an extra engine in a sprinter's lead-out train made it all the more remarkable, as any team support he might have hoped for evaporated as soon as the peloton hit the hills. That it took the concerted, and combined efforts of whole teams to topple him made Fabio Aru probably one of history's least popular grand tour champions.
What impresses me more than anything else about this guy is his emotional coolness. His win on stage 9 was perhaps the most gripping moment in the whole season. On the last brutal 3km climb up to the finish line, he shot out of the front bunch and held them off for half the climb before being reeled in by an attack from Chris Froome followed by Joachim Rodriguez. But instead of throwing in the towel after being passed by 2 of the sports top climbers, he jumped on Purito's wheel, and within 100 metres of the line had the strength and tenacity to go round both of them for the win.
In subsequent interviews you got the impression that it was all new to him, but that he was game for every challenge, and though he ultimately succumbed, his ability to keep his cool and hold his pace was a study in composure and emotional balance. We could really now have the next Eddy Merckx on our hands!
SHIFTS OF ALLEGIANCE
I mentioned that Team Sky are developing an incredibly rich vein of talent. This includes their seeming interest in importing and developing a Basque contingent with Landa and Benat Intxausti both coming in to team up with Mikel Nieve. This must be a consequence of the signing of Basque coach Xabier Artetxe last year. He was instrumental during his time at Seguros Bilbao in developing a lot of the new crop of Basque riders, which includes Intxausti and the Izagirre brothers. Once again, Sky have a devious master plan! They also have the 2014 world champ Michal Kwiatkowski joining for 2016. Within their own already stellar cast which has seen the likes of Kirienka and Italian sprinter Elia Viviana growing in stature in 2015, they already have the strongest ever collection of British classics riders, a 2-time - and current - Tour de France champion, plus a growing orchard of GC contenders at varying stages of ripeness. When you factor in this new contingent of pure hard-core climbers, they are really spoilt for choice, and the 9-man limit to the team they can put together for competition will necessarily involve excluding a lot of the world's top riders from the race!
Not sure if Richie Porte is going to find the kind of support he wants from BMC, but he's a force to watch if he's in a good place. Louis Meintjes is moving across to Lampre Merida, which though I'm not at all sure is the right move for him, will definitely push different buttons for him. I'm also hoping that Dan Martin can find himself in a better place, and with a bit more luck, at Etixx Quick-Step. Marcel Kittel will also be on that team, which looks to be going for the complete make-over.
MTN Qhubeka become Team Dimension Data next year, and with a bid for World Tour status backed up by a team that now includes Mark Cavendish, Bernie Eisel, Mark Renshaw and Edvald Boasson Hagen, they look set to complete their African fairy story. I'm hoping to see Daniel Teklehaimanot take it up another notch and go for some major podiums.
I'm personally waiting to see what Canadian Mike Woods does now that he's made the step-up to World Tour level to ride with Cannondale-Garmin. This is a man with immense potential whose story I've followed since he made the shift from track running several years ago to climb his way up to North American cycling prominence, and a great 2015 season with the Pro Continental US team Optum Kelly Benefits. His presence in the European scene should make itself felt within the year if he can get through the baptism of fire of the Spring Classics.
I can't wait!
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
An update on my experiences with the Low Carb High Fat diet, now that it's almost a year that I've been following it. In the process it seems I've discovered the secret of eternal energy, and through my continuing studies, become further convinced that this is actually the way the human body evolved to be fueled over more than 99% of 2 million+ years of our evolution. That we lost it can only be viewed as yet another part of the saga of our on-going downfall.
My awakening to the health benefits of our ancestral metabolic state, has brought with it the grim knowledge that this won't be welcome information to many. Through blinkered thinking, self interest, and hasty public health decisions, we live in a world that is just so far down the track in the wrong direction. It seems increasingly evident to me that the 12,000 or so years of development of our sedentary culture or "civilization" as we like to think of it, while considered widely to be our crowning achievement, is also at the same time our curse. Author Jared Diamond notes in his great anthropological study The Third Chimpanzee that with the advent of agriculture the average height of populations decreased by 6 inches, and longevity by 10 years. Recent studies on diabetes and heart disease have similar observations. But more on that later.
It's immensely difficult to get through the barrage of erroneous and irresponsible information that is out there, not least of all because so many industries, and livelihoods, are now reliant on the established dogma.
What makes it doubly difficult, even without being constantly bombarded by propaganda, is the harsh reality that most of what we have come to identify as food, is actually better labelled "fun". Our bodies have got used to the sugar-rush associated with eating refined carbohydrates, and our days are organized around the need to satisfy our blood-sugar cravings at regular intervals. I'm aware that a lot of the struggle with the LCHF diet comes from the perceived lack of fun in real food. I mean, the most pivotal social occasions in almost every culture on the planet have evolved to be inseparable with the consumption of sugar and refined carbs. Dietary salvation, it would seem, comes with a certain social exclusion.
THE "CALORIES IN, CALORIES OUT" MYTH
One of the most damaging myths in modern circulation, and one that the exercise industry is bent on perpetuating, is that you can basically eat what you like if you have an active lifestyle. I myself used to accept the conventional wisdom that as a fit person I was free to indulge in pretty much anything I fancied in the knowledge that I would be able to "burn it off" later.
The reality is, unfortunately, that we don't lose weight with exercise if we eat wrongly. In fact if we eat correctly we'll reach our ideal body composition regardless of activity levels. Exercise stimulates our appetite as our bodies trigger the impulse to replace the fuel we've used up in energy. In his meisterwerk Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes observes that all animals have a central governing system that regulates food intake according to energy expenditure against stored reserves. We humans lose weight if our bodies are able to access and efficiently utilize the stored fat which we all carry around. However, if we feed ourselves carbohydrate, we short-circuit the system. We bombard our blood with an instant hit of cheap and fast fuel - glucose - which our body happily uses for all of it's energy needs.
Glucose blocks the body's ability to use it's stored fat.
In addition, when we have no current energy demands and our blood sugar increases above what we can immediately use, our pancreas creates the hormone insulin which shunts all the blood-sugar to storage sites where it is converted to fat. This creates an immediate need for more sugar. Sugar and modern super-refined carbs start to enter our blood streams as soon as they enter our mouths, so the surges can be quite extreme depending on your body's insulin response. We then experience the sugar-craving which most of us call hunger.
Insulin also blocks the body's ability to metabolize it's stored fat.
This yoyo-ing between raised sugar and insulin levels creates the Metabolic Syndrome where the body is constantly craving sugar, which it then stores as fat, but which it cannot then access since insulin controls the release of triglycerides from adipose tissue,. As long as either sugar or insulin levels remain elevated, the fat stays where it is. By eating the wrong stuff we are literally starving our gradually expanding bodies.
Thus you can see that, though we assume that those involved in endurance sports will have efficient fat-burning, aerobic metabolisms, most of us burn sugar rather than fat for a far higher percentage of our overall effort than we expect. When a marathon runner depletes their store of glycogen and blood sugar after about 2 hours of sub-threshold running, their body can't just flip a switch and change to burning fat.
It's an either-or situation. You're either adapted to burning sugar, or your adapted to burning fat. It takes days just to start the transition from one to the other. Even the most highly trained glucose-burner can store only around 2-hours-worth of sugar, whereas even the leanest of us is carrying enough fat to last several marathons back-to-back. Changing that will require re-calibrating our bodies at a cellular level to again use the super-efficient energy pathway we evolved over the past 2 million years as persistence-hunters.
Sport science for the past few decades has focused on finding ways of optimizing the delivery and storage of glucose to enable our glucose-fueled activity to keep going for longer. Only a rare few had the idea that maybe it was better to find ways of tapping into that vast reserve of fat that we all carry. We will all one day thank them. This is their legacy.
In a fasted, or glucose-free state, our bodies will gradually learn to efficiently use the relatively slow-burn option of fat for fuel. Our liver produces Ketones from fat, which serve to fuel the organs which in modern humans have grown used to relying on sugar, and our bodies maximize the range of the aerobic energy pathway so that it becomes super-efficient at metabolizing Triglycerides from our fat storage for use in all activity. It will also regulate intake according to what is required for energy reserves, so hunger is a real sign for a need for nutrition, and not just a craving for more cheap, immediate fuel.
To get there is simple, but will need more than a little will-power, and will require days of minimized carbohydrate consumption. You will crave sugar for the first 4-5 days and you'll be cranky and lethargic to begin with. I achieved basic nutritional Ketosis in the only real way possible - cold turkey - within a week of cutting all refined carbs and any grains or starches. After 4-5 days I no longer experienced the cravings for carbohydrate. Having the strength to cycle at anything more than an easy spin took a couple more weeks to kick in however, as my body adapted at the cellular level, or what Dr Stephen Phinney calls Keto-Adaptation. But aside from some rather pathetic rides it was a fairly smooth and painless transition thereafter. The results on my energy levels and well-being were life-changing.
In my studies I've covered just about everything I can find - from the coaching methods, testimonials and evidence in the field of endurance sports, to the latest revelations in nutritional science. I realize that while LCHF is a path to good health for all humans, the demands of an athletic life deserve particular consideration. My past year has been my testing out of this theory, using my own body.
ON THE ROAD
My presentation here is mostly anecdotal. I don't have the resources to run meticulously controlled tests which might offer conclusive results. But what I've discovered is that I am able to keep going with the same level of energy for a very long time. As yet untested as to the actual range I might have. I have developed the ability to push the pace maximally through training. I do regular rides of over 100km on nothing but water. On longer rides I will eat. I try mostly to keep to the LCHF regime if I can. If I'm in a group that needs to refuel I'll generally go with the flow - it's one of the rare times when you can actually eat most things, simply because the body is already in the metabolically elevated, exercise mode and will correctly utilize whatever you give it.
Beyond a 4-hour ride I will get hungry. Literally just that though. Not lacking in energy or feeling depleted in any way. I haven't actually pushed the water-only test beyond this point yet. The longest rides I've done in the past year are just over 200km, and with groups, so I follow the group dynamic, which means having refueling stops, but I have phased out the use of isotonic drinks even on these rides, and now rarely drink anything other than water. In the past year I haven't ever experienced anything remotely resembling that feeling we call the "bonk", when our glycogen stores run out.
So assuming that I can train my body to maximize it's ability to function within the fat-burning, aerobic energy pathway, there's still the issue of that potential glucose requirement for the higher-intensity effort that is assumed will have to come from the anaerobic pathway which relies on muscle glycogen - a stored form of glucose. In racing, and in training to improve our performance, it is commonly-held sport science dogma that we will need to make demands on this anaerobic system if we are to maximize our potential.
The big question I had when I went into this was how to assess this demand. Much of the literature I was reading suggested that in the fully keto-adapted athlete, no additional carbohydrate would be needed. In fact it suggested that the preserved state of ketosis was ideal for recovery. Other writings suggest that athletes will need to consume an additional amount of carbohydrate in their diet. Most however agree that there's no one-size-fits-all. The claim is that glycogen will also be synthesized from fat and protein, and at higher metabolic rates in the keto-adapted. Much literature also suggests that we can train our aerobic pathway to be efficient at remarkably high intensities, so that our fat-burnigh metabolism can take care of it all.
I have made the following observations from my own personal experience. This is what I currently believe is working for me, though I'm still experimenting, and I'm still yet to push the boundaries of the experiment in terms of distance, intensity, and (lack of) consumption:
- When riding 1-4 hours of endurance-based, mainly zones 1-3, but even with a fair amount of higher intensity, my body will not require additional carbohydrates under normal circumstances. I will not need to eat during the ride. My recovery drink will contain some added carbohydrate from fruit, but my meal afterwards with be a standard LCHF meal.
- If I am to do consecutive days of the above, I will include a little more carbohydrate in the recovery meal.
- On rides of over 4 hours I have nothing conclusive to offer really, as I haven't pushed the envelope by not eating. Up to now I eat whatever is available on these rides, due to their social nature mostly. I will get hungry at some point, though I haven't experienced any reduction in strength. Convenience and speed of digestion means carbs are the obvious choice. Recovery will involve a similar carbohydrate element to the above.
- If I train at an intensity of zone 4, or shorter durations in 5 or 6, I will include a similar additional carbohydrate element in recovery.
- If I train specifically for anaerobic endurance - zone 5 or above for maximal durations, I will include a fair amount of carbohydrates in recovery, and possibly more carbs in a subsequent meal within 2 hours of training.
Below is the data analysis of a 4-hour ride I did a couple of months ago without consuming anything other than water. I was reasonably well-rested for the ride, so my glycogen stores will have been good (whether I actually tapped into them or not is still unclear). For the last 20km downhill of the ride we went quite hard, in fact my highest heart-rate reading for the ride of 179bpm was recorded during this section. Average HR for the ride was 145bpm (threshold is around 168bpm). My highest average 5-minute power output at 258w was in the last hour, while my highest average for 20 minutes, at 215w, was on the first climb (estimated FTP at 238w). My energy levels were consistent throughout.
WHAT TO EAT?
Crucial to give a picture really, as most people can't imagine how they might eat if they took out the bread, rice and pasta etc. In fact it really is like only eating the nutritious stuff and jettisoning the fluff. You actually eat less in terms of volume. Just more fat.
As an example I covered a sample of my normal diet in my last post about the subject, but to summarize the principles: we're talking about replacing the calories you'd normally get from carbohydrates with fat. The protein content of your food should remain pretty much the same. Fat is denser in calories than carbohydrate so you need to eat less of it. The best fats are animal fats. Other good fats include coconut, palm kernel, almonds and olive. Saturates and Monounsaturates. NOT seed or corn oils. Omega 3s are essential, though not too much. The longer chain Omega 6s only in small quantities.
Those still duped by the Cholesterol myth can refer to my earlier posts below, or should read this or this.
Additional carbohydrate when needed should come from fruits. Not grains or starchy vegetables.
During a ride, if you're hungry, obviously carbohydrate is the easiest food to digest, but as long as you're not about to go "full gas" include as much good fat as you can comfortably digest, and some protein. I've found that half-boiled eggs (with butter?), some fruit, and tea with cream work pretty well, but mainly because that's easily available on most of my rides.
Dairy is awesome, but check that you're not lactose intolerant. Everything should be full fat.
Low fat = high carb.
My favourite recovery drink is full-cream milk and beetroot juice.
SO WHY DON'T THE PROS DO THIS?
The most interesting testimonials will come when those who ride, and win, grand tours are using a LCHF diet. I'm sure that within the extreme parameters of the effect that this kind of brutal event has on the body, things evolve that otherwise wouldn't. I still see top pros in these races obsessed with maintaining their blood sugar, and suffering withering melt-downs when they "hit the wall". That means their bodies are still reliant on carbohydrates as a primary fuel or that wouldn't happen. Of course the rigors of a 3-week race demand ridiculous levels of food consumption, which even then fall short of replacing spent reserves, and leave the athletes under-weight, with impaired immune systems and even reduced muscle mass. I'd be fascinated to learn how a body adapted to ketosis could evolve to deal with this extreme situation. It really is like a complete re-wiring of your metabolism.
While there may be teams or individuals that are secretly applying these principles, to my knowledge it is still at the "secret weapon" stage if it exists at all. I'd say it's a typical case of "you can't add to a cup that is already full". The pros are all advised by their appointed "experts". Very few of the doctors, coaches, and sports scientists recognized (entrenched) within the sport are open-minded enough to completely challenge the prevailing dogma. Couple that with the fear of losing even the slightest competitive advantage, and it should be easy to see why ideas become entrenched.
In fact it was the complete 180-degree turn on diet of one of my personal gurus, and one of the most respected sports scientists, Professor Tim Noakes, that prompted my interest in this food revolution in the first place. He has become an evangelist for this revolutionary cause, and though the book Real Meal Revolution was, until recently, only available in South Africa, it has now been published internationally. The website Real Meal Revolution remains one of the best resources for updates on what they call the Banting diet - the science, the testimonies, the recipes, and the growth of the movement, plus lists of acceptable and prohibited foods. Noakes has converted some top marathon runners and other sportsmen to the LCHF diet, with stellar results.
Of course there are plenty of other age-group and amateur athletes like myself out there already reaping the benefits of reverting to our ancestral metabolic state. Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney's great book The Art And Science Of Low Carbohydrate Performance was first published in 2012. But for us it's much less of a risk, and we get to try all this out in a relatively non-lethal environment, since we don't make a living from winning.
I think we can anticipate a wave of young graduates from those currently in sports science and medical programs, unable to dismiss the unraveling evidence of dubious Public Health practices, and excited by the real science now being put forward by Noakes and a growing contingent of free thinking academics. These guys will be the coaches and team doctors of the near future.
There's no doubt in my mind that this is the way to go. Whether your purpose is to become a better endurance athlete, lose weight, regain your health, or just improve the quality of your life, the LFHC diet works. There may be those who don't respond so well to it to begin with because of certain metabolic predispositions, but there is a growing body of resources for all of us to find the balance that suits us best.
This is still very much a work-in-progress, so expect more updates. I realise many of you will be hoping for more scientific testing and results. I will get deeper into it, but I'm no lab rat. My main purpose is to open minds to the possibilities. For now I again refer you to a blog post by an amazing Finnish endurance athlete, Sami Inkinen, who has data on a couple of scientific tests he did during his process of training the body to run on the LCHF diet.