Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: Sufferfest - The Best Thing In The World

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:

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Review: Rotor INpower

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.


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

Review: Sufferfest Cycling Training Videos

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.
I am gradually expanding the above section, so check back periodically for updates. For developing anaerobic power and endurance I already have a pretty wide-ranging assortment collected here....but there's more. With a range like this you could already formulate a pretty effective program!
Expect a few extra surprises here and there in the sessions that don't appear on the menu. So far I've focused on collecting mainly anaerobic endurance types of workout that are hard to do outdoors, as I can (usually) ride all year round where I live, and have some good routes for pure training focus for other fitness components. I have friends who swear by these workouts though, and I can see how well they work on developing power for those with limited riding time. All of the videos push you to your limits if used correctly, and if used as part of a structured program, they will be instrumental steps in achieving your full potential as a cyclist.

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 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

The Season To Come

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.


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!


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!