The first spring-like day in March also means my first strava session = what shape’s the body in after winter’s hibernation and…will Strava become obsessive?

First Strava session - not great but not bad either

First Strava session – not great but not bad either

I have mentioned in a previous blog that one of my cycling goals this year was to participate in Dumfries CC’s very well run TT series. So after many years of cycling why now for a taste of time trialling? Two reasons; I think when you’re cycling you always want to try new things and have variety. You hear this on the road when cyclists talk about their training or their objectives for the year ahead. The other reason is a little more specific. I want to see if I can improve marginally,  riding with cadence, riding in a  certain shape and sustaining a tempo.

I’m not really concerned with the TT league placings (maybe this is reverse psychology – acknowledging defeat before losing)? but my objective is that the TT discipline will impact on my cycling in a good way. Likewise I’m hoping to join one of my fellow roadies who is a keen mtb rider for some sessions to help with bike handling during the spring.

Key to my preparation for the TTs will be the app. STRAVA. I’m not a fully signed up Garmin user at the moment. The cost of a Garmin could get me some new cycling shoes and a cool pair of Castelli bib shorts.

Strava is an excellent free app which probably sucks the battery power on my iphone but no matter. The GPS is pretty accurate and you can then store your rides on your own Strava page. The Strava page has a social network aspect with fellow bikers following you etc.

castelli v garmin?

castelli v garmin?

But the key to Strava is the stats breakdown – the specifics of performance. There’s something magnetic and potentially obsessive about stats: what your body is doing or not doing. This winter I’ve tried to work a lot more with stats using my old cateye cadence monitor. After many years of battering myself on the turbo ‘trying to get better…’ I decided this year to only allow achievable targets and these targets must only be marginal improvements. Does this sound unambitious?

Probably yet the results for me have meant a very different winter to others. Take intervals for example, the staple of the turbo session along with the pyramid. This winter I decided every aspect of the interval session must be absolutely correct;

  • interval speed/cadence,
  • off interval speed/cadence
  • rest speed/cadence.

Without doubt I found dealing in these specifics very hard, physically. But I’m glad I finally found out how to have a proper and therefore successful interval session!

The Strava sessions help continue this approach – the bends, the climbing and the straights – all improvements and targets must be incremental and achievable. IMG_1176

There are dangers of course with Strava. For example how long will it be before we start saying ‘ I strava’d’ instead of I went for a bike run? But the main one is becoming what American riders call  a Stravasshole. On the Boulder Cycling webpage they even have a list of criteria for the Stravasshole –

  • Choosing a Strava Segment due to favourable winds
  • Stravaing while in a pack, no, this is a solo thing!
  • Descending in a bubble and yelling “Strava”
  • Posting your Strava account link on your resume

I hope it doesn’t all go too far, I’m a big enough idiot without adding Stravasshole to my list of under achievements! For those interested there’s a great article about the Strava craze, including its dangers on the Outside web page – you’ll find it here.

Of course instead of all the stats and Strava, if you come home after cycling, your clothes soaked in sweat, your eyes sunken into your cheekbones and legs smashed…then you probably had a hard session!!! (you’ll know this without checking your Garmin).


‘The ides of March are come…’

Amidst all the training sessions and hard miles in freezing headwinds, our club members are currently gripped by a familiar angst about our Saturday club run. What has brought this debate to the fore?…could it be the time of year?

A couple of seasons ago we changed the structure of our Saturday club run. It used to be a mass start but now we have three start times for groups of differing abilities and aspirations. There was apparently a lot of unhappiness about the old structure; the club was getting bigger, people getting dropped and the need for safe passage out of town.

And now? unhappiness about the 3 group structure, the club getting bigger, people getting dropped…plus ca change as the saying goes.IMG_3719

There is something which fascinates me when people change a system. I see this, as I’m sure many do, in my work place on a regular basis. The logic is always the same. A change in system is designed to improve things. But when you change a system do you change human nature? Do we even consider human nature – our competitiveness? Our need to be part of something but also our need to express ourselves? Or our self interest?

Mostly our Forum reflects the negative aspects of the Club run debate. And on the road most guys have something to say about what’s wrong and how it could be improved. This for me is actually encouraging because it shows that our cyclists care about their Saturday run and that they want to preserve something, the thing that got them out on a bike in the first place.

Our weekend run is the very centre of our club. That’s why it stirs up so much passionate debate in our members. The best experiences I’ve had on a bike have been on those Saturdays, teasing one another or trying to crush your buddies on a hill, or those incredible and mysterious moments of riding in a group where everyone is quiet and the cycling is intense and purposeful.

I might add that having cycled with clubs abroad, the vibe is exactly the same – the anxieties are similar.

Yet most of all the agonising is part of the cycling calendar. Usually the debates are most intense at this time of year – March and early summer. Why? Because of the importance of the winter and the training that goes on. Cyclists are naturally anxious about their level of fitness and because we are all at different stages in the winter months it can be a bit confusing on the road. Some guys are already strong. As for me, I’ve been getting smashed every Saturday during the winter months.

Whatever the changes ahead in the club run, I’m sure that deep down, it won’t change our cycling natures! I’ve no doubt there’s guys have got me in their sights and believe me, I’ll be returning it with interest in the summer and when those little on-road competitions are over then we’ll ride some great miles, talking nonsense and sharing stories. Long live Saturday mornings!

Excuse me are you John Stamstad?

John Stamstad

John Stamstad

‘…he moves like an engine and the ground shrinks before his treading…’

A couple of weeks ago I picked up on a link from my Twitter feed. It was a blog on cycling and the intriguing title was Reframing PainThe article was definitely one for the winter; confronting thresholds on your turbo.

Like so much to do with suffering on the bike the article eventually explored the mental aspect to training. This combination of discipline in training and the mental attitude really is a conundrum for all roadies. Does one generate the other? Is it possible to train relentlessly to exhaustion and still lack confidence? Are the mental and physical aspects of training actually separate?

This aside the article quoted a rider called John Stamstad….who?

The man

The man

I’d never heard of this cyclist, mainly I think because he was not a Pro tour rider and more a MBK endurance athlete. However the more I read about him the further my jaw dropped. Here’s some facts and stats about the legend from the site

  • in a 100-mile race in Pennsylvania he broke his collarbone after 20 miles but continued on to win and set a course record.
  • he takes off on 120-mile rides with only a quarter for an emergency phone call
  • he became the first rider ever to solo the 24 Hours of Canaan, besting half of the 380 five-person teams
  • he’s won the Iditabike, a 160-mile midwinter race across the Alaskan tundra in the last four years
  • he won the Iditasport Extreme, a 350-mile race from Anchorage to McGrath, Alaska. His strategy? Ride 65 hours straight (read: no sleep in sub-zero weather), which won him the race, beat the course record by two days, and his closest competitors by 12 hours.
  • he suffered a first-lap crash that left him with a compressed neck vertebra in the 24 Hours of Canaan but continued to finish the race without being able to move his head
  • he knows he’s mentally ready for a race when he can do a five-hour stint on the wind trainer, maintaining a heart rate of 155 beats per minute while staring at a blank wall
  • to avoid bonking on his Great Divide ride (2,466 mostly dirt-road miles and climbing perhaps 200,000 vertical feet), he chugged pure canola oil until he could get to the next rural gas station and refuel with Spam, cakes, and a 1-pound block of cheese.

If only one of these stats is true then this man is a God! The most impressive? Are you kidding me…ride 65 hours straight!!! Did I read that correctly..ride for nearly 3 days?

 You run as well??

You run as well??

His turbo sessions are something else – 5 hours at 155 bpm. And this Iditasport extreme race sounds incredible. Like a lot of boys in our club I’m a keen endurance rider but this is higher level. It’s not so much Iron man as the Kryptonite Kid!

So what does a man like Stanstad who has spent a lifetime with suffering as his bedfellow, have to say to us mortals about thresholds and the lactic attack?

‘Pain is a positive thing in my training. The worst thing to do is get emotional about your pain, because that heightens your sensations. Take it as a signal from your nervous system that you’re working hard. And when you work hard, you do well.’

Ah so that’s a truth that’s helpful for us cyclists. Listen to your pain and threshold suffering like a friend.

Back to the turbo then and when I sense the lactic creep I’ll keep turning those legs but I’ll be thinking too. Entries for the 24 Hours of Canaan anyone?

Broken back? So what?

Broken back? So what?

The Cooke, The ‘Thief’, The Tour and its Lovers

In a week of cat and mouse revelations from ‘Legend’ Lance Armstrong, a more deserving legend announced her retirement from cycling with an incisive attack on dopers – In doing so, Nicole Cooke  reminded us about the honesty most of us share in riding our bikes.

As with her breakaways and sprints, Nicole Cooke’s timing of her retirement was finely judged. Leaving the sport she loved, she fired a broadside at the Disney media managed, show ‘confession’ being played out across the Atlantic with Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey. I loved her unbridled courage in saying to the world

 ‘When Lance cries on Oprah later this week and she passes him the tissue, spare a thought for all those genuine people who walked away with no rewards – just shattered dreams. Each one of them is worth a thousand Lances…’

If only some of her fellow male cyclists had the guts to say that out loud in the 90s and early 2000s, then we might be further on than we are. In her press statement Cooke added

‘I do despair that the sport will never clean itself up when rewards of stealing are greater than riding clean. If that remains the case, the temptation for those with no morals will always be too great…’

This is certainly borne out by a BBC graphic released this week stating that of the 33 Tour title since 1980, 17 were nullified by doping. More than half. That’s a lot of shattered dreams for those who followed those races in awe.

Riding clean

Riding clean

Across the Atlantic, when what is needed is an unreserved and detailed confession to the proper authorities, all we read and hear is speculation about how Armstrong is avoiding litigation, how he is in discussion, how he is preparing the way for a book deal etc. Compared to these depressing shenanigans, Cooke’s honesty is like a ray of dazzling sunlight to the club cyclist. If it weren’t for cycling pros like her we might end up in an apocalyptic situation where we trust no one in the pro tour.

Sometimes we club cyclists could be forgiven for thinking that unlike fans of Murray in tennis or Messi in football, our sport has no pro heroes.  And when you think that, as I write, there are thousands of cyclists in their freezing garages or sheds smashing themselves in a turbo session then maybe we know who the real heroes of cycling are.

Thanks Nicole Cooke!

What’s Your Hematocrit Edgar?

secret-race-book-daniel-coyle-tyler-hamilton_mediumHematocrit =  The oxygen carrying capacity of blood.  Increased oxygen carrying capacity can lead to performance gains and using synthetic EPO, boosts the (hematocrit) red blood cell count.

‘Edgar’ = US Postal Team‘s code name for EPO.

On a recent visit to the Lakes I took a wander round a book store. I asked if they had a copy of Tyler Hamilton‘s controversial expose of race doping, The Secret Race which covered his time with US Postal (up until 2001) and then as team leader on CSC Tiscali then Phonak. The lady told me she had one copy left. It was in hardback. No. I wasn’t going to shell out hardback prices for Tyler Hamilton.

On Christmas morning after unwrapping six pairs of socks (brown, light brown, dark brown etc) I opened my next gift; The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle. Ah so Mrs McG does listen to me after all!

I have been unable to put this book down since. What an absorbing read it is and one of the most memorable books about cycling I’ve picked up. I don’t hesitate to say ‘about cycling’ even though you could argue it’s about doping, deceit, arrogance and ambition. Despite these powerful themes, the book also reveals a lot about pro-cycling whether it be training, diet, racing or team work.Lance_Armstrong_Tyler_Hamilton_153551555

Of course it also tells you a lot about Lance Armstrong who is the distant yet central character of the piece. However there are a whole range of other colourful characters in here such as Bruyneel, Landis, Dr Michele Ferrari, Hincapie, Pantani, Vaughters and the narrator himself, Hamilton, who illuminate the 300 or so pages.

Hamilton is clever and subtle in his portrayal of both Armstrong and himself. He goes to great lengths to portray his team leader as a personal hero and an inspiring, determined athlete, hungry for success. At the same time he provides a steady flow of damning details and anecdotes about Armstrong’s brutish arrogance and deception. It is a devastating character assassination which makes for a gripping read.

Ferrari - the key player behind Armstrong's success?

Ferrari – the key player behind Armstrong’s success?

Although Hamilton presents himself as a doper, obsessed with hematocrit levels, he also seems a victim of the EPO culture and the need to succeed at all costs. In the book the lowering of Armstrong’s reputation somehow elevates Hamilton as a man of truth. The worse Armstrong is portrayed, the better Hamilton appears even when he describes his shuttle flights to Madrid for ‘Edgar’ or a hotel rendezvous for BBs (Blood Transfusions).

Ullrich - feared by Postal

Ullrich – feared by Postal

For those of us who remember the pro-tour 90s, this book is a startling insider account of those times. Riis, Pantani, Ullrich, Virenque, ONCE, all seem caught up in the dark arts but the master was Armstrong who, according to Hamilton, earned millions of dollars from a sustained doping regime.image9

Despite the book’s whistleblower perspective I found lots of other aspects of cycling equally intriguing. Hamilton’s turbo drills and diet were a revelation as was his attitude towards lactic acid.

Also the book reveals how success on the Tour de France was all about numbers. If you had the right numbers you should win; the right level of hematocrit (high 40s), 5 extra heartbeats, the right weight, the right stats on hill climbs, the extra 3 -4 percent of watts etc…etc.

A great read – pick up a copy where you can. No doubt a film is in the pipeline!

Into The Valley

In the shortest days of the winter our fifth long winter run took us to Scotland‘s highest village, Wanlockhead via 3868 feet of climbing. I won’t even pretend the scenery was magnificent but on the other hand, after a week of immersion in Quality Street this ride was a welcome relief from decadent over-indulgence.DSC00608I was doubtful for this run all week. On Boxing Day I joined the club for some post turkey miles and pulled a spoke through the rim of my back wheel. No readers I don’t think there was a connection…they were very old rims!

I got myself some decent open pros as a replacement and fitted them just as the stormy weather was gathering on Friday, stoking up the crumpled leaves about my garage door. I set the alarm for 8 a.m. and listened to the wind and rain outside. At the last minute it was the bike or more Quality Street. I went to meet the guys for 9.

Elvanfoot in a hostile headwind...

Elvanfoot in a hostile headwind…

Low cloud hung over the hills and the valleys all day except for the last 20 miles. As much as I love the scenery in the South-west of Scotland, these conditions were grim. We were blown up the Dalveen and once over the top we rode at 25 mph average. However we knew what was coming…turning onto Elvanfoot, heading for the Leadhills, we went from 25 to about 9 mph.

In the absence of splendid scenery (the hills around Durisdeer excepted) there was plenty of interest in the 12 man peleton. There were two guys riding the route in the big chain-wheel and highest gears as part of their training regime. Andrew our route-master told me he broke his front-mech and found a replacement in the drawer of his kitchen (that’s quite something)!

When I said to Ian, a young Doctor at the Hospital, that I had a medical question he replied ‘Oh is it your prostrate?’ The guys thought this was hilarious.

waiting for the grub!

waiting for the grub!

Highlight of the run was our cafe stop at the local pub just before descending the Mennock pass. Mein Hostess single-handledly fed and watered 12 hungry cyclists, most of whom were huddled round a small fire with steam rising off their wet clothes.

fireside chat

fireside chat

waiting for the burgers

waiting for the burgers

Since the food would be a while I wandered round and took some snaps. I found myself in what looked like a play area and nearly jumped out of my longs. On a shelf was a human head…that’s what it seemed like in the gloom of the mid-afternoon.

yep...strange but true

yep…strange but true

the boys pass the time until the food arrives by...watching a programme about food..

the boys pass the time until the food arrives by…watching a programme about food..

We left the pub in a downpour and descended Mennock with its huge valleys of mist and nothingness. The truth is I’d rather climb this brute any day than descend it –  the Tour of Britain ventured up here a few years back and we went as a club to watch them grind up. Everyone suffers on that climb, the great leveller.

The wind chill and surface water on the Mennock were potent hazards but not the greatest danger – that was left to the Taliban ambushing sheep who’d launch themselves sporadically at your bike. I was glad when it flattened out and we wove our way through the Drumlanrig estate. By the time we were on the Clone Hill, the murky clouds were gone and the winter sun was nestling in the hills.

With so much climbing there were tired legs at the end but I think the general view was that everyone felt glad they’d done it. I certainly was and it was good to make contact again with the bike and the weather and the wild…when I got home the Quality Street were finished.

Mossy perks up on Dunscore Hill for a photo!

Mossy perks up on Dunscore Hill for a photo!

Feed Station

It’s nearly Christmas and probably the furthest we’ll get from our bikes in terms of commitment. My winter bike is shiny and clean in the garage – a sure sign of a bad weather winter. Never mind it’s given me the opportunity to write a blog post about one of my other favourite pastimes – Cooking. And instead of the 12 days of Christmas I’ve included my 12 observations on road biking

1. When climbing it’s everything to the left.

Since I’ve been young I’ve always enjoyed making food. When leaving school I wanted to work in a kitchen. I found out you had to start work very early and buy your own equipment. For some reason I found this off – putting even though it makes perfect sense now. Of course this was in the days before the TV chef making food sexy and cursing everyone to hell like a rock star. Nowadays I spend most of a Sunday in the kitchen after cleaning the bike of course!IMG_1023

2. If you’re going to compete with fellow club members, remember they have the right to beat you.

I have a few things that I can always do well in the kitchen; cake, soup and stews. However I think with the past couple of years of ‘austerity’ I now find myself making something instead of buying it. This is why when I’m out in restaurant, I’ll rarely choose macaroni or lasagne from the menu as you’ll always compare with your home version.

cinnamon loaf - the aroma fills the house

cinnamon loaf – the aroma fills the house

3. Never wait to be ‘invited’ to the front.

I have to confess I enjoy the little challenges of competing with supermarkets. When cycling I like flapjacks which I usually buy from Tescos. But then I thought…why not make your own and then you can decide the contents and size etc?

4. If you complain about a hill, it immediately becomes twice as long and twice as hard.

Home made yorkshire puddings - bigger and better

Home made yorkshire puddings – bigger and better

Usually on Christmas Eve my family have a buffet and this year my wife suggested we make our own. She used the word ‘we’ to mean me obviously but that’s cool…another challenge. So I’m trying a few things. Having been to Spain this year means there’ll be some influences from there, such as empanadas and huevos rotos.

5. Applaud another cyclist‘s improvement and learn from it.

Baked versus Set Cheesecake? Always baked for me.

Baked versus Set Cheesecake? Always baked for me.

6. A good winter means a good summer.

I’ve always loved American southern fried food and this year I’ve faced my fears and had a go at fried chicken (watching The Help inspired me) and cool little chicken nuggets. Getting the oil temperature right and the cooking time for chicken takes a bit of practice!

KFC I smashed you!

KFC I smashed you!

7. Winter’s buddies will be the summer’s adversaries.

crunchy chicken nuggets - beasting

crunchy chicken nuggets – beasting

8. What you borrow on the road must always be returned or replaced.

Like all cyclists I enjoy a good chat on the road about food but also I’m not alone in the enjoyment of cooking and baking. One of my road buddies, Graham, is much the same and we usually have a word or two on club runs about what we’ve been making in the kitchen usually before we discuss what we’ve been doing on the turbo. Graham’s head and shoulders above me in the cooking front. His chocolate and orange cakes and homemade bread mean I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

9. Always hold the wheel.

sour cream scones - delicious just out the oven

sour cream scones – delicious just out the oven

10. A headwind will also be a tailwind.

As I said earlier food is never far from a cyclist’s mind, especially on the long runs. Another fellow roadie, John and I have taken food discussions to a new level. Usually after a long day in the saddle on a Saturday we text one another after the run. These texts are not about cycling matters as you might imagine – comparing Garmin outputs etc. No. We picture message each other what we’re having for lunch. I think he is ahead with his salmon and scrambled eggs. I nearly choked on my pie and beans one Saturday when I got a picture message of finest salmon, posh cold meats, grapes and some wine. Thank god he was on the wind up!

11. On the road don’t get isolated from your group.

Banana cake and butter icing...still working on that icing though

Banana cake and butter icing…still working on that icing though

12. If you get a kicking for 5 – 6 miles don’t forget the other 40 – 50 miles which you cycled well.

Most roadies will have a few days off for Christmas. We can spend the rest of the year agonising about the kilos. I’ll be the same. It suddenly struck me when writing this post that cycling is one of those great sports which actually demands we eat when participating…perfect for the roadie, perfect for the foody!

Merry Christmas everyone and here’s hoping for great miles in 2013.