Monday, November 21, 2016

Review: SRAM Red Groupset (Long-Term Review)

I remember when I first heard about SRAM road bike components around a decade ago. Rumours were rife that this relative newcomer American brand, then up-and-coming, would compete in a world that for years had only had 2 protagonists: Shimano for the modernists, and Campagnolo for the traditionalists. I had severe doubts that they'd survive long enough to establish themselves - let alone get their stuff to G2 stage. We'd seen so many attempts from even quite big players in the bike industry, but none had been able to hang in there, compete, or convince for long enough to break into the drive-chain component market.

At some point I realised that SRAM must actually not only have some serious stamina, but that they must also possess a truly worthy product. For survive they did. Now, if you look at what the pro cycling world uses, they sponsor many top teams, are probably the most aggressive innovators, and are very present as standard equipment on World Tour team rider's bikes, and that means a lot.

Contador using SRAM Red with a medium-cage RD

When I decided in 2013 to have a road bike built up that ticked all the boxes for me: top all-rounder frame, aero carbon clincher wheelset, power meter in the cranks, and top-end drive-chain components, my choice of groupset for the build involved a leap of faith - a (calculated) risk.

Having used pretty much exclusively Shimano components since starting my love affair with bicycles in the late '80s, I was tempted to try SRAM by the promises of lighter weight, slightly better pricing (at the time) and favourable reports from trusted fellow riders.

I opted for the 10-speed SRAM Red groupset, even though 11-speed was widely available by then. This was due to a few considerations: a) 10-speed chains were still a bit more robust than 11-speed; b) I could find replacements for maintenance more easily where I live/ride; c) I do a lot of long rides into places where I would be hard-pressed to find anything more cutting-edge if something went wrong.

My initial responses to riding with the new groupset were favourable. The shifting is precise, and easy to adjust. The actuation of the shifters with their "double-tap" system felt very intuitive to me and took almost no time to get used to. The routing system on the rear derailleur is particularly well-designed, and the front derailleur, with it's "yaw" system makes for a good, smooth change on the chainrings, plus the chain-catcher that comes with it is effective and easy to install and adjust, and means you are unlikely to drop the chain inwards off the small ring. I'm using elliptical chainrings, and these could be difficult for a front derailleur to handle smoothly, but I've had no issues.

The ergonomics of the shifters makes them comfortable, at least for a normal-sized male hand, and the reach from the drops is naturally closer than my previous Dura Ace setup. I also like the fact that the main lever of the brakes does not move side-to-side, which makes braking more secure - one of the few issues I have with the Shimano system. This made riding in the drops a much more confidence-inspiring experience, and has been part of my metamorphosis into a demon descender.

The single paddle shifter works by moving the chain incrementally up the cassette/crankset onto the larger sprockets/rings with a series of strong single pushes (against the spring) on the shifter, and back down the cassette/crankset with a single, or series of, shorter pushes or "taps" (releasing the spring). It quickly becomes natural. You can do multiple shifts in both directions easily once you get the hang of it.

My only bone of contention with the shifting system is that when the rear derailleur gets to the bottom gear - or largest sprocket - and you happen to try to shift further, it shifts back up (ie: releases the spring back across the cassette to the second sprocket). This can be extremely annoying if you're on a tough climb, looking for another easier gear (which you don't have), and instead you shift back down to a harder gear. It can really wreck your rhythm.

SRAM have actually improved on this mechanism, as I discovered with my, more recently acquired, 2015 11-speed Force system - which I will write about separately. It now pushes through when you "bottom-out" and the chain stays where it is. So suffice to say that this is now a redundant criticism, but if you do happen to pick up an old 10-speed system, you'll have to get used to this feature.

The brake calipers are excellent - really strong and reliable actuation, easily as good as the Dura Ace, as are the SRAM pads. Again, this gives you a great feeling of control, and more willingness to let go when you need to.

I can't vouch for the cranks as I didn't use them, choosing instead a set of Rotor 3D+ cranks with a  Power2max power meter spider. All completely compatible and excellently matched.


So now, after putting in over 10,000km to the bike, I can assess how this groupset has held up against all the other ones I've used.

I like the SRAM chains with their master-link system, and have used them pretty exclusively over the past couple of years. I keep my chains pretty clean and change them regularly, so cassettes and chainrings haven't worn excessively. However, I recently replaced one of the jockey wheels in the RD as it was almost toothless. The often wet conditions I ride in do mean that a lot of stuff gets thrown up around the back wheel. I couldn't find a SRAM jockey wheel replacement easily so I used another brand. Again, SRAM's state of permanence in the market is clearly evident when all replacement parts now come in 3 options.

Another great in-built feature is that SRAM have designed all their components to be entirely compatible with the ubiquitous Shimano system that means all wheelsets, chainrings, cassettes and chains built for one, work with the other. I haven't had to throw any still-useful bits away.

I think the bike has probably had so far 3 changes of cable in it's time, and the barrel adjuster for fine-tuning cable length on the FD cable housing (which is a necessary item if you want your FD to shift accurately) is a bit loose and should be replaced soon. The shifters do get a little stiff and need lubrication from time to time, so I think a bit of a clean and lube with each cable change is probably in order - will have to remember on the next one...

Aside from that, really nothing to report. The fact that I built up another bike last year, using an 11-speed SRAM drive-chain, speaks volumes. My next bike will most likely have disc brakes, possibly hydraulic, and I can't at this point see any reason that I wouldn't again choose to use SRAM for the brakes and the drive-chain, but that's another story for a future post.

The Inner Battle of The Ultra Endurance Athlete

I was watching this interview with a guy who finished 4th in the grueling Transcontinental Race, a sub-10-day unsupported ride from Flanders to Istanbul (after coming down with bronchitis on day 1!).

Even though he was obviously very focused on the competition, he does say something about every day being a competition against yourself, and it made me think: actually all of these ultra-endurance events are a competition between the best parts of yourself, and the worst parts: an inner fight between light and dark.

Your angels against your demons.

Some of us just need to work that hard for our self-esteem!

It goes a long way to explaining the "why?" that is so often leveled at us endurance-junkies by people who can never imagine challenging themselves in this way.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Human Diet Rediscovered - Dawn Travels

The daily hunt and gather of a keto-readapted human.
Log #1

"It's on America's tortured brow, that Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow" David Bowie. 

Today I’m on an early bus. It’s part of my regular shuttle between my 2 homes in the Southeast Asian cities of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

Being as it’s so early, I usually rely on Burger King for breakfast. Yes, that's right: in a carb-obsessed world we make friends in strange places. That bastion of fast food junk is actually able to provide me with something basically nourishing. The reason? They do an Omelette Breakfast. Eggs, oh joy! - the original super-food.

Anyway, there’s one in the mall from which the bus leaves, and it’s open early. It’s one of the few places I can get something which I’d consider nutritious at this time of day. An omelette with a cooked half tomato and a rather leathery sausage. In this case the only thing I absolutely have to ditch is the croissant, so it doesn’t feel too wasteful, and it comes with a small pack of butter, which adds to the nutritional value.

Well, imagine my annoyance when I’m greeted with:

“sorry sir, we open at 7.30” (the time my bus will leave!)

“since when?”

“since Monday"

Oh well....

I wander around the mall, into corners I don’t usually visit, in search of something else acceptable. Nothing. Everything carbohydrate. Lots of baked products. I’m thinking to myself how sad it is that in an Asian country, the only thing on offer for breakfast is bread. Good morning America.

Then I pass by a couple with child tucking into what would probably be termed Continental Breakfast - bread, jam, honey etc. I’m trying to remember the warm, fuzzy sensation of that first blood-sugar rush of the day. That kick-start to the day’s vicious cycle of blood-sugar-top-ups, with its peaks and troughs, and associated energy fluctuations. What a blessing it is to be out of that cycle. As usual, I start feeling like an alien observer. My thoughts are turning dark.

I get myself a latte at Coffee Bean, grateful that they haven’t managed to outlaw full-cream milk. They do include some nutrition in their breakfasts at this place, but the focus is the ubiquitous carb fluff, and it just feels too wasteful spending good money on stuff of which I’ll throw 70% away.

Liquid breakfast. Oh well, I guess I’ll get something more solid at the rest stop after about 3 hours of bus journey - some stuff they usually put on rice, except without the rice. Not that I’m particularly hungry - in a body free from the dependance on glucose, hunger is a much more gradual, subtle event. Breakfast is more of a habit. Coffee is way more crucial anyway at this point. I may have ditched my addiction to carbohydrate, but I have no intention of giving up caffeine!

Then I remember that I have a piece of siew yoke (roast pork belly) in my bag, and a packet of blueberries. Things I rescued from my fridge in Singapore since I won’t be around for over a week.

The morning brightens.

Since discovering the secret to human nutrition in late 2014, initially through self-experimentation for athletic purposes, but eventually through a growing library of unbiased and objective scientific research, I was impassioned with the need to enlighten my fellow travelers. I’m fighting a losing battle. The odds are so massively stacked against nutritional enlightenment since the food industry (which drives a large part of every country’s market economy) along with the drug industry, and with staunch support from public health institutions, is dedicated to preserving the status quo, ensuring we keep believing dietary principles which are in exact contradiction to real nutritional science.
There is just so much to say about the benefits of eating correctly, and the fight for responsible information on health, that I have decided to keep writing down my thoughts on the subject as they occur, in the hope that the truth may be recognisable to someone who may then be inspired to start this journey themselves.

I would love to hear your thoughts, comments and questions!

Related Articles: 
Low Carb High Fat Nutrition #1 - The One-Eyed Man Is King 
Low  Carb High Fat Nutrition #2 - Biology Not Physics
Nutrition #3 - Re-Learning to Fuel Ourselves
 The Low Carb High Fat Cyclist - Perpetual Motion
Low Carb High Fat Cycling - A One Year Snapshot

Friday, January 15, 2016

Cycling In Malaysia - New Year In Cameron Highlands With Equipe Nomad

I'd been looking forward to this ride for some time. The bulk of our ride operations still revolve largely around standard 2 or 3-day weekend lengths, so the opportunity to do a hard 4-day ride with a day in the middle for some highland respite on the first day of 2016 in the tranquil coolness of Cameron, was a buzz indeed.

The ride is basically a festive version of our Tour De Titiwangsa, named after the mountain range that gives us all the highest roads in peninsular Malaysia. Devised last year as a possible fledgling stage-race in 4 daily stages looping out of Kuala Lumpur, taking in the lofty altitudes of the Cameron Highlands as well as Fraser's Hill on a circuit that re-entered the capital city after 4 hard stages and around 600km.

The big difference in this occurrence was to take one day off in the middle to smell the roses (and strawberries) in the cool surrounds of the Cameron farmlands, before descending back down to the heat of the tropics for the final 2 stages.

My fellow travelers on this one were originally to be 3 riders: Vicki and Hari flying in from Bangalore, and Paul in from New Zealand. As none of them voiced any major concern about distances, ascent or preparations, one could assume that these were fairly experienced riders, well able to handle a decent pace over the proposed route.

Unfortunately Vicki had picked up what seemed to be a particularly vicious flu by the time she arrived, and really wasn't fit for cycling. Terrible news for her since she'd been gearing up for this ride for months. It also meant 3 riders instead of 4, which makes quite a difference to group dynamics. That left three to try and generate the morale, and momentum, of a peleton for the journey ahead.

Day 1.

Kuala Lumpur to Teluk Intan. 171km. Elevation gain: 314m.

We started out just after 7am from our base hotel through the back roads of Gombak, a northeastern suburb of Kuala Lumpur, wending our way west through the early morning traffic. Within an hour we were on quieter roads moving firmly away from the capital and down to the coast at Kuala Selangor. The traffic is a necessary evil really - if you want to ride door-to-door - but Malaysian drivers are a tolerant bunch generally, and the sight of 3 lycra-clad MAMILs weaving through rush-hour traffic still has novelty value in these parts. A first hour then getting through the built-up bit before we could start to enjoy our surroundings.

A quick refuel around the 50km point, and then we settled into a good pace along the coastal roads. This stage can be a bit daunting, faced with 170km of almost pancake-flat, long, straight roads, and as the sun hits it's zenith it can wilt the resolve. I just settled into time-trial mode and pulled away on the front of the group. Imagining myself the Super-Domestique - or even Road Captain - to get me through the day. A boy playacting his heroes - just another romantic delusion, comparing mine to the roles played by the pros in the Grand Tours. Actually, as the only paid member of this little peloton, it is my duty to deliver these guys to the more interesting - and challenging - bits of road with some zip left in their legs, so it's not that far away from the truth.

We stopped for a noodle lunch in the town of Sungai Besar with about 50km left to go to our day's destination. As Malaysian towns go it's a tad curious, with an untypical sparsity of restaurants in the main area. We've been here before though, so we know under which rocks to look. Luckily my fellow travelers are all keen on the local fare, so there was no issue with the selection of Malaysian Chinese dishes on offer, and we all took some much-needed nutrition on board.

For the remainder of the stage we made fairly good time, and arrived at the finish line in the seaside town of Teluk Intan shortly after 2pm, were quickly checked into the hotel, showered and soon enjoying a pretty good latte in the lobby. For me, the local mini markets provided the recovery meal of milk and almonds, after which a bit of catching up on the internet, and a short nap, took us through to dinner.

I look forward to dinner in Teluk Intan more than any other stop on this tour since we discovered a great seafood restaurant on the outskirts of town, and though there are many food options within walking distance from the hotel, the 10-minute drive is well worth it.

Day 2.

Teluk Intan to Tanah Rata. The "Queen" Stage. 150km. Elevation gain: 2182m.

A rather slow start to the day saw us hit the road around 7.30am as we began the stage's early sections getting through another 80km of flat before beginning the long ascent up to the Cameron plateau. More long, straight flats. More of me doing my Bernie Eisel impersonation. We stopped for a second breakfast - southern Indian style - in the town of Kampar, just off the main Ipoh road.

At the 75km point, as the gradient of the road started to vary a little more, and the surroundings developed a distinctly greener appearance, we stopped again for a quick refuel. From here it would get harder. From here we would probably not stay together, as the relative parity in power output would be compromised by differences in body composition. From here we'd be starting the long ascent up to the entrance into Cameron Highlands at around 1400m. No more Bernie Eisel. Now it was Mikel Landa :) (I flatter myself in both cases of course!).

The climb is fairly gradual, with lots of sections of respite during the first half, but a bit more consistent climbing between kms 100 and 120 taking us to the top of the first main stretch of climbing. The road flattens out before another rise, and then a drop down to the beginning of the main farmland area at Kampung Raja and Blue Valley.

Nearing the top of the main climb, we had enjoyed a pleasant cool wind helping keep our temperatures down. As we hit the top of the climb though, we started to get that fine drizzle that tells your you're into the clouds. Then the pleasant wind came back with a vengeance in a rather less pleasant form. Coupled with the increasing wetness of the road, it made for a rather cold, and brake-orientated 5km of descent before the final 8km climb up to the 1600m Cameron peak at Brinchang.

Owing to a couple of lengthy stops to regroup I found it quite hard to keep my body temperature up on the descent (should have grabbed that jacket!) so, even though I basically just hammered up the subsequent climb, it took almost the full 8km ascent to get the feeling back to my fingers. Not something you experience often in Malaysia, thankfully! I'm no lover of the cold.

After this it's a steady, rolling run in to the finish at Tanah Rata, with quite a picturesque route along a ridge. We were out of the cloud and the wind had dropped, so we had a less hostile environment to deal with, but with hammer-mode still locked into operation it wasn't long before we were checked in and into warm showers.

So it's New Year's Eve, and you have some tired, depleted bodies craving nutrition around dinner time. Dinner in Tanah Rata presents a fairly eclectic set of options, but regardless of the various normal preferences in the groups we arrive here with, after the efforts of climbing to this point, curiously the consensus usually gravitates towards red meat, and then inevitably western fare, so we have our choices more-or-less dialed in. After a sumptuous meal chased down with a few glasses of red wine it's a quick glance at the watches that tells us that no one's going to make it to 2016 awake.

Day 3.

Happy New Year!

Rest day. The low cloud has persisted, so ideas for a recovery ride (or run) have been dropped. There were some moments of dryness in the afternoon, but the holiday weekend traffic was an instant turnoff, and we ended up just supporting the coffee and food establishments of Tanah Rata mostly. Could be worse! A much needed lazy day.

Day 4.

Descent to Raub. 145km. Elevation gain: 986m

A dry morning greeted us as we stepped out at 6.30am for breakfast at the local roti chanai shop. With a technical and steep descent to start with, that was very welcome news. This first descent evolves, after 8km, into some rolling flat through a slightly lower plateau into the town of Ringlet, in which we turn into our main descent back down to the heat of the lowlands.

This long descent covers the best part of 80km, and the best description I can assign it would be "severely rolling". For many sections the upward bits seem equal to the downward bits, but we are actually descending - gradually. It does have several sections of good old plummeting, which invariably gives the heavier members of the group a chance to get their own back. Once again, the groups rarely stay together in this mode either.

This 80km section of road, has to be one of the quietest roads I've ever ridden. This fact makes it all the more remarkable that the road is very well engineered, and the surface is actually mostly in great condition. The surrounding landscape is often breathtaking, with some very ancient and dense jungle in many parts, and vistas into the valley below clad in wisps of low cloud. The moment is not lost on my riding companions who are obviously taking it all in with awe.

We stop for lunch at 92km at the Malay stalls in Sungai Koyan. At this point we've done the descending, and have 50km of gently rolling oil-palm estates ahead of us under the heat of the midday sun. Luckily we get quite a bit of respite, courtesy of an overcast sky, for most of the remaining distance and, though it often looks like it might rain, it never quite does.

So we roll into Raub ahead of schedule at around 1pm with the mosques singing their lunchtime prayers. Once room keys are procured, bodies are washed and some head off for a massage while others nap through the heat of the day in their air-conditioning.

Dinner once again is a group affair, this time at one of the excellent local Chinese seafood restaurants.

Day 5.

Raub to Kuala Lumpur via Fraser's Gap. 115km. Elevation gain: 1399m.

And so on into our last stage. We hit the local Indian breakfast place before sunrise so we can make sure we get back into Kuala Lumpur ahead of the end-of-public-holiday traffic, and so we're already starting the climb up to the Gap at Fraser's Hill by 7.30am. This is a super-quiet and serene road that climbs through the thick overhang of dense jungle growth pretty much all the way up for 20km at a steady average of around 3%.

From here it's a descent of about 30km before we pass the town of Kuala Kubu Bharu and into the rolling flats that take us through to a lunch stop at around the 90km mark in Hulu Yam - my local favourite is a killer Char Siew Rice with a particularly delicious, pungent sauce.

The remaining 30km gives us plenty of ups and downs including a last couple of testing ramps, the first of which hits around 18% at it's worst, and the second short one that definitely hits 25% at one point, though the GPS never quite gets it right due to heavy overhead foliage. These add a nice little footnote to the journey, before we descend back into the city traffic for the last 5km home.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable ride with 2 great riding companions, both strong cyclists.

I like to analyze my fellow riders using comparisons with pro cyclists, and Paul for me was definitely an Andre Greipel: great raw, explosiveness; a good descender and lots of rocking-and-rolling power on the flat. Hari: Alberto Contador - lean and slight of frame but with great power-to-weight, making him a natural climber, but still with the excellent technique of a time-trialist.

An honour to ride with you guys!