Monday, September 18, 2017
If you've been following my blog, or Strava (or any of my other social networks) you will know of my penchant for long bike rides. As I pointed out in my recent blog post, Confessions of a Budding Endurance Junkie, I'm probably just getting started.
A little over a month ago, one of the more serious of the road riders on the local scene got in touch with me to ask if I'd be interested in helping him put a team together for the upcoming Audax 600 - a 642km ride - the first of this distance in Malaysia. I looked at the dates, and decided I could do it, and that was it. The ride is now less than a week away and there's still only 2 of us....
It's not that I didn't try to enlist others from my riding buddies to join. I did. Too short notice for most people, and I do think that it's so far beyond anyone's comfort zone, that it will involve a level of suffering most are unwilling to subject themselves to without some serious preparation
For those of you who are new to the Audax concept, these are long "randonneur" style rides over distances from 200 to 1000+ kilometers, which are officially sanctioned by the French organisation Audax Club Parisien. Each participant must ride unsupported, and has to complete the course within the cut-off time via all the official check points on the route.
In terms of real physical preparation, there's not much more I can do than I already am doing. For the last few months I've been doing at least one ride every other week over 200km, and have done some back-to-back days accumulating more than 450km and over 4000m of climbing in a 2-day block, so in many ways I've already done the ground work.
The issue here is how to mentally approach the ride - how to divide this distance up. How often to stop, and whether we need to get some sleep, and at what point in the ride.
I've scoured the internet for information, but I don't find anything particularly enlightening. Lots of advice, but the bottom line in most cases is: listen to your body and rest whenever you need to. Just have to keep track of where we can get water/fuel.
Fueling strategy with me is fairly simple. I will probably have to stop every couple of hours to fill bottles with water, and at this point I will also plan to eat. Since I'm ketogenic I won't be as dependent on carbs as many of the others that I'm riding with, but I'll eat whatever is available as I'll be burning a lot of calories!
Equipment is another straightforward one: don't use anything you're not used to. It will be my trusty old carbon road racer, with nothing changed, but with a couple of additional bags for carrying stuff. I'll need to carry a power bank to charge my GPS and my phone. I've bought myself lights that should last for well over what I need, and that run on AA batteries anyway, so can easily be replaced on the road. I'll carry a change of kit and some casual shorts and a t shirt in case I need to sleep. Other than that it's just a bit more cash than usual.
Pacing may present more of a challenge. My riding companion is notoriously fast, and has recently completed the formidable Cent Cols in the Dolomites, so he's on another planet in fitness terms. We have discussed this, and he is determined to try and be super-conservative. Let's see. I'm good at pacing myself under normal conditions, and I'm also quite happy riding alone if I find the pace unsustainable. Though riding alone in the middle of the night on desolate roads with 400+ kilometers in the legs might be more than I bargained for. I've really no idea - I've yet to experience that one.
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
The Internet is without doubt the greatest development to human existence that has happened during my lifetime. Not perhaps a particularly radical statement, but bear with me.
If we consider other great forward thrusts in technology - like locomotion or electricity - and the monumental changes they forced within the otherwise steady march of human evolution (as viewed now with historical perspective), I doubt people living then had a full grasp of the significance of those changes. I'm quite certain that many of the outcomes of this recently initiated cataclysmic shift have yet to fully manifest themselves, let alone be fully appreciated.
We're increasingly witness to the fallout from these shifts. I'm fairly sure that those born into this world within the last 20 years will have little trouble navigating the new waters, but the older members of the workforce are having big problems keeping up with the pace of change. That would suggest that those at management level are often going to be the problem. Many businesses formed around traditional parameters betray evidence of a fundamental dysfunction in still trying to follow their traditional processes. The negative buzzword is now Legacy.
As a jazz artist, I have watched myself become a dinosaur in a world where the popular mainstream has been narrowed down to the basest formula-driven opiate. What seemed initially to be heralding a levelling of the playing-field in the media has actually given rise to an even more cynical and malicious manipulation of public taste and awareness. Survival requires a reassessment of the entire panorama, and your place in it.
DEMAND DRIVES SUPPLY
I could go off on many tangents from this one, but in this case I want to ponder our current situation as consumers, both from the perspective of the supplier and the receiver, and for our purposes here to narrow it down to the market for cycling-related products.
The bicycle business has shifted quite monumentally to an online mail-order business over the past few years. The average discerning cyclist on the road sports an increasingly eclectic selection of equipment and clothing that is not even available locally. In fact there seems to be a specific intention to be as exotic as possible in the more well-heeled of the cycling community.
Shops can't possibly compete with the variety, value and specificity of online retail. When you're not restricted by location, your global market can be huge, and online retailers can then invest in a selection of stock that can cater very specifically to each customer's demands and, with low overheads thanks to being in the middle of nowhere (or an industrial estate), your prices can be much closer to cost price.
Clothing, wheel and bicycle manufacturers are now getting more and more into retailing directly to the consumer, which is just great news for all of us. And though it might seem through this evolution that the local bike shop is becoming a thing of the past, in fact, as so many of us are discovering in our respective industries: it's really all about re-positioning.
THE MODERN BIKE SHOP
What hasn't changed for shops for a start is the crucial provision of a centre where people can go to get service, repair and maintenance. Not by people with basic mechanical skills, but by people with real experience in building and fixing bikes/wheels - which means employing genuine experts. Having a real expert bicycle mechanic is worth his weight in gold to the modern bike shop. A lot of your investment should be there.
I can check the price of anything on my phone immediately, so there's no point in having a stock of items that people can get cheaper elsewhere, except in the case of things that require personal fitting - like saddles, clothes, shoes, plus a good bike-fitting system.
I'd suggest taking the fitting idea one step further, and offering as extensive as possible a selection of things you don't necessarily sell so that people can "test drive" things, and make better decisions about what they spend their money on.
Try starting a collection of every saddle you can get your hands on - starting with all your old ones. Finding the right saddle is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the development of most cyclists, and you would build some real long-term relationships with customers this way. Offer these things for hire on a weekly basis so that your customers can make more informed choices.
The stuff we might need in a hurry like tubes, tyres, chains, chainrings, cassettes, pumps, brake pads, cables, and middle-of-the-range components. Things that might unexpectedly fail or wear out and need to be replaced. This stuff is also available cheaply online, so I'd suggest this is not where you're going to make a profit. If local prices are really not competitive, the more enterprising are just going to buy a stock of spares online.
You can take the service idea further, and do a consultancy on equipment selection (from the complete market) and even to sports-testing, coaching, spin classes, indoor training labs. Some of these things might also be available online, but there is always an advantage to dealing with a real person face-to-face.
If you do offer a consultancy service where you fit equipment to an individual's physical characteristics and intended application, it is better not to be a dealer or distributor for a particular brand of anything, as it reduces your integrity and the customer's trust. You could however offer a - very transparent - service where you get hold of the stuff for a customer, and build to order with clear, and fair, charges for the service.
I have seen a few shops make tentative moves towards creating a cafe section - basically a cafe/bike-shop hybrid.. This is a great idea, and often seen now in London and various other forward-thinking bike-friendly cities. But you have to make it a good cafe. Just having a couple of tables and chairs and a coffee machine in the corner won't do it, especially if there's just a couple of grumpy teenagers manning the shop. It has to be a cafe that people go to for the coffee and the food. It should have at least one screen with cycling films and races running continuously, especially current events, perhaps a library of cycling magazines and books is a good idea too. You can use it as a meeting point for group rides, seminars, coaching clinics and various other events that are ways of sharing experiences/knowledge with the cycling community. You can host special events to watch important races, or have club meetings. In short it should become a community centre.
I think there's always a good case for having a selection of drool-worthy items around your shop. The latest, lightest, fastest, most aerodynamic/expensive/limited-edition will always attract attention. Signed jerseys and other collectors items are great. You may not even want to offer most of this stuff for sale, but having them on display will draw cyclists to your shop like ants to a discarded gel sachet.
So you bought it online and it doesn't work?
Embrace what the internet is in all of our lives. The latest trend of top manufacturers like Canyon is cutting the middle-men out completely, selling direct to the end user, so get used to it. It's going to be increasingly a fact of life, so there's no point in feeling bad about it, or stigmatising those who opt for this method. Offer a tariff of realistic prices for fitting - or fixing - bike parts supplied by the customer from elsewhere. There's nothing to be lost in that exchange - and much (respect, gratitude, plus a lot of new friends and customers) to be gained.
It should be obvious now that my agenda for the modern bike shop is to prioritize the software (the humans) not the hardware (the gear), and only really deal with hardware as it needs specific fitting to software. The shop is a place for cyclists to feel they belong. It's a place populated by humans that can offer real expertise and advice. You have to offer a generous and respectful experience to the humans that are drawn to you, and welcome everybody in as if you value their company - not just their business.
Sunday, September 3, 2017
It's an intoxicating feeling. At around 6am I set out, bike lights flickering in the still-dark morning air. This is the coolest it ever gets around here in the tropical humidity of Malaysia, so the obvious lack of unassisted visibility notwithstanding, it's a very nice time to be out on the roads.
The delirious moment is in the contemplation of the agenda ahead: I have all day. I'm carrying everything I might need, and quite literally, the world is my oyster. It's quite normal for me to do over 200 kilometers on a day like this, and the fact that I'm quite happy doing it on my own seems to surprise a lot of people.
Somewhere along the line I suppose it might have evolved as a result of my athletic history: much of my cycling in the past was in training for Ironman triathlons - and since that type of racing constitutes a quintessentially solitary effort, which requires specific, solitary training, I just got used to doing it on my own. Add the fact that as someone who often worked late nights, my rides were at times of day when most others were working - or avoiding the heat.
And it is hot here. That's another factor. I somehow suffer less in the heat than many of my friends, so I'm quite happy being out under the midday sun when most local cyclists are safely back in their air-conditioning. And so being out from dawn to dusk doesn't really present any additional issue for consideration. Good sun block on arms and legs. And I wear a cap under the helmet to give sun protection to the forehead and nose - sunblock on the face always ends up in my eyes.
The final deciding factor though has to be my ability to keep going happily and indefinitely on water and not much else. This makes preparing for a ride a breeze, where the only difference between preparing a short and long ride is the size of the bottles, how many spare tubes I carry, and the amount of cash in my back pocket. It means I stop less during the ride, since my first couple of bottles can last me 100km, and I eat only when my appetite demands it, and even then I rarely stop for long.
Since I adapted my body, almost 3 years ago now, to ketosis via a low-carb-high-fat diet, I no longer seem to have any limit to how long I can keep going. I don't experience fluctuation in my energy levels, and have entirely forgotten that fear of hitting the dreaded "wall" of glycogen depletion. In a body adapted to burn its stored supply of fat, instead of sugar, I seem to be able to operate indefinitely within 70-90% of my threshold without really running out of reserves. I will get hungry, but there's no "wall" to hit. Hunger is just that: I feel like eating. It's a massive advantage.
No doubt it's a major factor in opening up this world of possibilities, but why do these possibilities even interest me? "Where does the desire to be out all day on a bike come from?" you might ask. Now that's a good one. I will have a stab at analysing it.
In a previous post "The Poetry of Cycling", I suggested that those of us who discover cycling as children as part of our exploration of the world around us, never quite lose the sense of freedom associated with the humble bicycle. It's an empowerment. There's enormous satisfaction for us in getting ourselves somewhere else propelled entirely by our own forces.
It's a feeling of self-sufficiency. Maybe it's a residual genetic imprint of our persistence-hunter forefathers and their nomadic lifestyle. Keep moving to survive.
Then there's the sense of discovery and adventure added once you're onto new roads towards new destinations. This in itself is possible with many forms of transport, but as an additive to this self-sufficiency, it's even more special.
There's a kind of intimacy with the environment, which is only possible on a bicycle, with nothing more than the sound of your breathing to disturb the peace, and every element of the world around you tangible to your senses, you form an integral part of the world as you move through it.
Then of course there's the obvious sense of achievement. To be doing distances routinely that you once considered seriously challenging can become quite addictive. This is just inevitably going to lead to ever longer, higher, harder rides.
I relish the lightest possible load when I'm doing this. The art for me is to get everything down to the purely essential. I'm always looking for the smallest and lightest way of carrying only precisely what I can't do without on a ride like this.
You might one day see me heavily laden with panniers etc as I embark on a round-the-world or trans-continental ride, but for my current plans of rides lasting no more than a few days, I'll carry everything I can in my pockets and a saddlebag. You see, I also want to be reasonably fast, and not too severely handicapped when it comes to my favourite terrain: the hills. So I'm fully-kitted-out for the bike, and only minimally prepared for the time off it.
On rides in Malaysia - where keeping warm is never an issue - the only extra clothes I will carry if I'm staying overnight somewhere, is a t shirt and a pair of shorts. Assisted by the new high-tech fabrics by sportswear companies that pack away into tiny spaces, these will take up very little space. I won't carry extra footwear since the budget hotels available in most towns provide flip-flops in the bathroom, which they don't mind you wearing to wander around. And if not, I would rather spend a few ringgit on a pair of flip-flops than carry these things with me.
So then the only additional thing in the "luggage" is a single charger for gadgets with 2 cables for the different plug types of my phone and my GPS. If I intend to do a lot of riding in the dark I would invest in some AA-battery-powered lights, as carrying additional charging capacity for rechargeable lights would be more trouble than it's worth.
I'm doing an Audax race of 600 kilometers later this month, so I'm looking around at those light options now. That will probably mean riding through one whole night as I don't intend on stopping for long, but I'll see how my body feels. I'll find somewhere to sleep if I need it.
That is a story you'll hear more about here. It's not something I've done any specific preparation for, and my longest single ride so far was around 10 hours, but I'm quite sure I can do it.
It's just a long ride after all.