In at the deep end

With the winter nights drawing in and my cycling becoming limited I decided back in September to try to swim more often. With my desire to get into more triathlons in 2013 it seems like a good way to keep fitness up.

I’ve always been a swimmer. I started club swimming when I was just 7 or 8 with Houghton Regis Swimming Club, competing in various local galas, club championships and the occasional county level meet. When I went to senior school I stopped club swimming but continued regular training and competing for the school. My speciality was backstroke but I was decent at all four strokes so also ended up doing individual medleys.

Whilst I was technically good and at the level I was at able to get the odd win, I was never good enough to progress to the next level which would have involved a far greater dedication to training. When I went to university I went to a couple of training sessions but soon gave swimming up in favour of more usual student pursuits! Up until now my swimming has been limited to the odd trip to the pool, an abortive attempt to get into masters swimming when I lived in Southampton and a couple of Swimathon challenges.

After the HSV Sprint Tri in September I contacted the St. Albans Masters Swimming Club and arranged to go along to a Monday evening training session. It went well, although I had to drop down a lane halfway through due to lack of stamina. I soon joined up and have been to one session a week since (though I want to pick that up to two.) The sessions are well structured with a coach present, and it is good to do more specific work than just plodding up and down for an hour. It’s also a motivation to be swimming with others of similar or better ability.

One other motivation for joining was to see if there was any possibility of competing again. I have great memories of galas from my club and school days. The warm up; nerves as your races get near; focussing before the start; exploding off the blocks and, most of all, the pain!

Fortunately my chance to compete came quickly, and this Saturday evening saw me line up as part of the STAM B squad at the Herts Senior League meet in Bishops Stortford. I was pencilled in to do the Men’s 25+ 50m backstroke and the Men’s 25+ Medley Relay. Even though I am 37 I was swimming in the 25+ rather than 35+ category primarily because the 35+ category is particularly strong in our club. In fact, our A team was partially composed of recent National Masters champions and European record holders!

My B race for the backstroke saw me line up with two other swimmers. From watching other races it was clear that the standards in B races differed wildly, but given I was racing people as much as 12 years younger than me I just planned on having as good a race as possible. My one concern was the backstroke turn. I grew up being coached with the old style of turn where you stay on your back the entire time. Only in the last couple of years of my school swimming did the current style where you can flip onto your front and tumble turn come in. I was never coached it and when I tried it in school events it was not unusual to get a disqualification. The trick is judging the right point to flip onto your front. Too early and you can be DQ’d for either needing an extra pull, gliding or not touching the wall with your feet. Too late and you hit the wall with your heels or worse head! In either case you don’t get a good push off the wall. In training sessions I’d been practicing and maybe got it right 50% of the time. However it is difficult to do a lot of practice at full race pace.

I wasn’t worried about my start which has always been pretty good, and I got a decent start in the race, dolphin kicking underwater for about 6 kicks before flutter kicking to the surface at about 10m. A 50m is then basically about power whilst trying to keep as efficient a technique as possible. On the first length I couldn’t see either of my competitors. Passing under the flags I counted four strokes then turned and hoped the wall was there… which it was! The turn went perfectly and on surfacing I could see the splashes of the guy in my inside lane about a body length behind me. Now it was just a case of powering for all the second length, right into the wall. I managed to get a pretty good touch into the wall, I definitely couldn’t have got another stroke in, and knew I’d beaten the guy on the inside. A glance to the outside lane saw the other guy still halfway down the pool so I’d won!

The old feeling of elation came right back to me, as well as the feeling of needing to throw my guts up from the effort. I asked the timekeeper for my time, which was 36 point something seconds so not actually particularly fast but a good benchmark to work from. Team mates on the poolside told me I was trailing slightly coming into the turn but actually came off the turn in the lead, which was very satisfying.

The medley relay also went well. I led off on the first backstroke leg and got us into a good lead which we managed to hold onto and win the race.

Overall the STAM B squad actually finished the meet in fourth place, topping the B squads and even beating one of the other club A squads! All that was left was to head off for a big celebratory curry!

My bike fitting experience

There is a lot written on the web about the process of bike fitting. Like most, when buying bikes in the past I’ve had the most basic of fits done by the shop. This typically relies on techniques such as ‘stand over’ and the old faithful ‘slightest bend in leg when heel is on pedal at dead bottom’ methods of getting the seat height right. In one experience it also involved a stem change using the ‘hide the front hub underneath the bars’ technique.

In short, most local bike shops are going to do a minimal amount to attempt to get you fitted onto the bike of your choice. A good shop will steer you in the right direction of frames that have a geometry to suit you, but there will be little fine tuning. There are of course exceptions and more shops are beginning to offer a more comprehensive fitting service as part of the purchase, but what if you’ve already got the bike? Are bike fittings worth the money?

For me, a proper bike fitting was something I’d always thought about, but never justified to myself. I’ll also be honest and say that if there was money to be spent on cycling I’d have rather spent it on tangible new equipment! However, in the various sportives and riding I’ve done this year I’ve noticed an increasing tendency to get some discomfort in my left knee. Therefore I decided it was time to try a proper bike fit.

Professional bike fitting has been something of a growth industry recently, especially with the rise of Retul and their ever growing list of fitters. Indeed, so successful have they been that none other than Specialized have bought them up. The Retul approach is based on 3D motion capture technology and feeding lots of data into a computer which then outputs your optimum position. Normally this would be right up my street. I am a technologist by trade and who wouldn’t want to have the full motion capture 3D movie-style experience?

However, something made me feel that a bike position is more than just an algorithm, and something that experience and feel plays a part in. Hence after research (e.g. reading this BikeRadar thread) I decided to book a visit with Adrian Timmis at Cadence Sport. This involved a 200 mile round trip and a day off work, so wasn’t a decision taken lightly.

On arriving at the shop (impressive, and full of memorabilia to boot) I received the first of countless offers of coffee and was shown upstairs to the fitting area. I got changed as Adrian set my bike up on the turbo.

My bike set up on the turbo

To begin with Adrian asked me to simply hop on and pedal away whilst he observed me from a number of angles, and took some video (more of that later) whilst chatting to me about what kind of cycling I do and intend to do, and any problems I had. Of course I mentioned the knee issue. A few times he asked me to drop my elbows lower, and also to move between the hoods and drops.

Once off the bike the fitting process began with my shoes. Part of the fit includes the creation of custom Sidas insoles which involved use of a special machine for taking a cast of my feet. This process took about 15 minutes or so. During this time Adrian also conducted some physical assessments, concentrating on the feet and legs as well as taking a variety of measurements of both me and my current bike setup, all the time jotting figures and notes down on his clipboard.

Even without any further cycling the first adjustment made was to move the lever position on the handlebars. Once the footbeds were ready and installed in my shoes it was time to hop back onto the bike and start the first of a lot of efforts whilst Adrian analysed, adjusted and further analysed. The majority of the session was spent concentrating on my shoes, especially around cleat positioning and the fitting, removal and re-fitting of small pieces of material under the cleats. Adrian was deliberately not telling me what he was doing at this point, instead looking for feedback from me to see if I could ascertain improvement. This is where I struggled as I had a pre-conceived idea that my knee pain was caused by not having the correct leg extension during the pedal stroke and I thought the material was used in an attempt to even out my leg length. This pre-conception coloured the feedback I was giving, but also to an extent I wasn’t feeling significant differences that were easy to describe. Part of the problem as well is that my knee had started to have some discomfort during the session (possibly through trying to hard on the turbo, having never ridden on one before)

Eventually, Adrian described what he was doing and trying to achieve, and it came as a complete surprise, but also made complete sense! During the examination he had discovered that my left foot has a natural Varus position whilst my right foot was neutral. In addition, my Specialized road shoes have an in-built level of Varus (of about 1 degree apparently). What this all meant was that during pedalling my left knee wanted naturally to move to the left, and this was exaggerated by the shoe. I was working against this natural inclination in order to keep my leg centred over the pedal. Not only was I wasting effort doing that, it was obviously putting lateral strain on the knee. The experiments Adrian undertook were to play with various wedges (not, as I had pre-supposed shims) which would change the angle of my foot in the cleat to bring it back to a neutral position and keep my knee centred over the pedal. I ended up with one wedge on the right shoe to counter the inbuilt bias of the shoe and two under the left to counter mine as well.

Incidentally Adrian mentioned that the more common problem is Valgus – where the knees naturally try to be closer together (imagine them aiming inwards towards to top tube.)

During all this assessment of my legs, my seat post was also raised by about 10mm and at various times the angle measurement of my leg at just before the bottom of the pedal stroke taken. Adrian also used a laser to plumb the ideal position of the knee at the bottom of the stroke. I was pleased to know that my saddle position was right and no fore/aft adjustment was made.

Attention then turned to the front of the bike. Adrian removed my stem and replaced it with his special one that allowed easy dynamic adjustments to be made in length and other factors. The problem he described to me about my position was one he diagnosed straight away from my initial pedalling. I was too stretched out when on the hoods, so that my shoulders were pushed forwards and my arms nearly locked out. Hence why he asked me to drop my elbows during that initial session. This immediately rang true, and indeed looking back at photos you can clearly see that I rode with almost locked out arms:

Look at the arms and shoulders

Not only was this an inefficient position, with my body not centred on the bike, it was also a tiring one. The aim was to get me into a position that I dropped into naturally when on the hoods. This involved yet more pedalling, adjusting and pedalling as Adrian observed and asked me for feedback. The differences here were far more obvious as things suddenly started to feel natural. I felt so much more planted on the bike and with no tension in my shoulders my pedalling felt more natural and fluid. On moving between the hoods and drops there was less, if any, noticeable change in cadence (the turbo made it easy to hear any difference.) The adjustments involved dropping the height of my bars giving me a larger saddle to bar drop – something I was very pleased with as it should help me get a bit more aero during TT and tri efforts.

Eventually after about two and a half hours we claimed victory with my new setup and position. This included additional time setting up a new pair of tri-specific shoes I purchased whilst I was there. As mentioned earlier Adrian spent some time taking video with his iPhone. He was trying out some new software which basically allowed side-by-side comparisons, much like that used in running gait analysis. The ‘before and after’ is below (before on the right):

The table below shows the measurements taken before and after (all in mm):

Measurement Before After
Saddle top to BB 752 764
Saddle to stem drop 77 95
Saddle tip to Handlebar 558 568
Saddle tip to lever 714 702

So in short I’m a little higher, have more of a drop to the bars, have a longer distance to the bars but crucially a shorter distance to the lever/hoods.

All that was left was to have another drink and a nice chat about pro cycling. At this point it is worth noting that Adrian is a former pro, and rode and finished the Tour de France for ANC Halfords in 1987.

The cost of the bike fit was £150 including the footbeds, with a little extra for the wedges. So, was it worth it? Well I’ve done two rides since, including my club Sunday run. I certainly feel a lot, lot better positioned and it was very noticeable that a lot of the other riders on the club run were in very similar positions to the one I used to have. I felt lower and more aero than them. Crucially as well, there was no knee pain and I could feel my pedalling being more direct. Even on stints on the front of the group and on climbs everything felt natural, comfortable and efficient. Of course time will really tell but everything seems good so far and in that respect I’d say the fit is already one of the best investments I’ve made in my cycling. If you are thinking about a fit I’d definitely recommend a visit to Adrian.

Bedford Autumn Sprint Tri

After the HSV September Sprint Triathlon I was bitten by the bug and very keen to do more. Unfortunately this is the time of year when the Triathlon season winds down, but I did register for this event in Bedford. I went to school there for years and have swum in the pool the event used countless times so it seemed like a great opportunity to fit in a final event for the year.

Since the HSV tri I’d done one cycling sportive and some club rides, run once at the St. Albans Park Run (getting under 24 minutes for the first time) and gone along to the City of St. Albans Masters swimming training once (something I’m joining up to, but will probably blog about that later.) None of that can be considered focussed training, so my goal for this event was to simply make some improvement on all three disciplines.

On the drive up it was cold and very foggy. I arrived for the briefing at 7am, but my swim start wasn’t scheduled until 8:45. I’d put in an estimated 400m time of 6:30-7 minutes this time to try and ensure I wasn’t held up much. This gave me plenty of time to get set up in transition and to watch the three hundred or so people before me do the swim. I also did a small warm up in the dive pool.

The swim itself went well and I clocked 7:34 which included getting into the pool and a longer exit to the timing mat at the start of transition so I reckon I was faster in the actual swim than last time around. I had a pretty clear run, only getting held up once, and could tumble turn on all but one turn. The only problem was on the final length where my silicon swim cap started coming off. I had to take it off and hold it for half the length, which slowed me down.

On the swim, cap starting to come off!

T1 was a bit of a nightmare. It was noticeably colder than the last event, so dripping wet in a tri-suit I chilled quickly. I also didn’t use a towel on my head so my cycling glasses steamed up immediately leading to some faffing about. They remained condensed for much of the bike ride as the air was so misty. I didn’t choose to put on socks this time which paid off and didn’t cause any issues. I was out of T1 in 1:40.

The bike ride was 4km longer than the last event so I was looking simply to achieve a higher average speed. This time I had my Garmin on the bike which helped a lot. The course was more undulating but still pretty quick and I was passing a lot of people. I ended up averaging 19.5mph for a time of 47:02.

T2 was quite slow at 1:32 as I was cold and struggled with swapping shoes. The run itself was two and a half laps on a tarmac path around the park and flat as a pancake. I felt pretty good throughout but again probably could have pushed more here. That will come with simply doing more running training. I had a strong finish though and clocked 24:25, so only 30 seconds off my 5k PB.

Overall I finished in 1:22:18 for 112th out of 351 finishers, and came 12th out of 42 in the Male 35-39 age group. Looking at the individual segments I was 68th overall in the swim, 89th in the cycle and 238th in the run! It is obvious where the biggest gain can be achieved and if I can improve my running then I should be able to jump up the results quite a bit. Only one person above me ran slower.

Most of all though it confirmed that I have the triathlon bug. The plan now is to continue some work on all three disciplines over the winter and aim to make more of the season next year, including the goal of stepping up to an Olympic distance event. I have a longer term goal that I’m thinking about, but I’m not ready to commit to that publicly yet!

HSV September 2012 Sprint Triathlon

As is obvious from this blog, I do a bit of cycling. This year I started doing my club time trial, and this led me to think about what other competitive ways I could find to stretch myself. As a kid I swam competitively at school and club level so the combination of swimming and cycling offered by a triathlon was appealing. The only problem is that I don’t have any fondness for running.

The solution was to find and enter a locally run sprint triathlon, in the form of the HSV September Triathlon, held at the Herts Sports Village just down the road. The definition of a sprint isn’t strict, and this one involved a 400m pool swim, 20k bike section and a 5k run. I reckoned I’d be able to cope with 5k.

I had a couple of months before entering and the event itself. Despite good intentions my training didn’t extend beyond one pool session and a single outing at the St. Albans Park Run, just to make sure I could actually run 5k!

I was quite pleased with a time of just over 24 minutes, but had no idea if I’d be able to do that after the swim and bike. I’d read about brick sessions when for instance you start a run straight after a session on the bike, but I decided for this first attempt to just go along and firstly see if I liked it and secondly set an un-trained base level from which I could improve.

The one thing I did do was purchase a minimum of tri-specific gear, in this case:

  • A one-piece tri-suit used for all three disciplines. Made from quick drying technical fabric and including a thin chamois for the bike leg. It saves any need for clothing changes in transition.
  • A race belt that allows you to quickly put on your race number for the cycle, where it has to be visible from the back, and to flip it around for the run when it needs to be visible from the front, again saving time and complexity in transition.
  • Elasticated laces for my running shoes. These speed up the second transition, do not come undone, and don’t require much dexterity to do up (important if your hands are cold!)

On the day myself and friends Paul and Fiona left the house at stupid o’clock to get to the sports village, get registered and set up in transition for the briefing at 6:15am. On entering I’d been asked for an estimated time for the 400m swim and this decided the starting order. I’d pessimistically put ten minutes (I’d be gutted if it took that long) as it seems did a lot of other people. I’d be starting in 113th place out of the 239 entrants present.

Whilst waiting for my start it was apparent that the swimmers in front of me would be holding me up. The swim was organised so that you do two lengths in each lane before ducking under the ropes into the next. Thus, you start on one side of the pool and exit on the other into T1. When my time came I caught the guy in front within the first length, giving him a tap on the feet to let him know I was there (harder to do than it sounds!) As per the briefing he let me pass at the end of the length. This continued throughout and I passed about ten people, only being able to get proper tumble turns in on about half of the lengths that didn’t involve a lane change. I concentrated on not using my legs for anything more than stability in order to save them for the later segments and on keeping a comfortable pace. I completed the 400m in 7 minutes 24 seconds. Given a clearer run I might have got just under the 7 minute mark without needing to go all out.

Out of the pool I headed into transition and my bike. Again, other than thinking a bit about the order I’d do things in I’d done no transition training so it was a case of on with socks and cycling shoes (I chose to wear socks as I’d never cycled with wet unclothed feet before and now was not the time to try) sunglasses, race belt and helment, then grab the bike and head out. T1 took 1 minute 35 seconds.

There was a bit of a run from the T1 exit to the mount point but soon enough I was on the bike and heading out onto roads I know very well (the halfway point was at the end of my road!) In theory the bike is my strongest segment, but with hindsight I under-paced myself in fear of the run leg. I completed the basically flat 20km in 40 minutes 59 seconds which, not withstanding the 2x 200m or so of running from transition to mount/dismount point was quite slow, at an average of around 18mph. To put that in perspective, two days before I’d ridden 50 miles at 19mph average, and in my 10 mile TT personal best I’d averaged 20.6mph on a much hillier course. In hindsight one factor was that in order to save time in transition I’d opted not to use my Garmin so had no speed or heart-rate data with which to pace myself properly. It was also the case that I simply didn’t know how much to conserve so was probably conservative in riding a higher than normal cadence in a lower than normal gear to keep my legs fresh.

On the bike leg. Tri-suits are not a fashion statement!

On completion of the bike leg however I had passed lots of people who started before me and had been passed by only one with higher start numbers. T2 was much simpler – rack the bike, take off helmet and cycle shoes, flip round belt and put on running shoes (the elasticated laces worked very well here) and I was out in 1 minute 10 seconds onto the run course.

The run consisted of four laps of the sports village. After each lap we were given a rubber band. Three bands and you knew you were on the final lap. I set off at a pace I felt I could keep up for the entirety. I didn’t get any particular weird feeling coming off the bike onto the run, which again suggests I’d held too much back. Aerobically I felt ok, and in so far as I could ever enjoy running, it was all fine. However I resisted picking up the pace until the final 500m or so and finished the run in 25 minutes 17 seconds, over a minute down on my Park Run outing. At the finish I felt fine, and really knew that I could have left more out on the course.

The net result was an overall time of 1 hour 16 minutes and 22 seconds which saw me finish 74th out of 239 starters, and 9th out of 35 in the Male 35-39 group. Overall this was really pleasing given if asked I’d have said I was aiming to get under 90 minutes. What’s more important is that I absolutely loved the whole experience, so much so that I am already signed up for my next one in October, have arranged to go along to my local masters swimming club training and will be hitting the Park Run a lot more often!

From looking at the results, it is obvious (and expected) that the run is where I have most room for improvement. However encouragingly I think there is time to be shaved in all areas so I’m really looking forward to having another go, armed with a better idea of how to approach it.

Finally, a word about the event organisation. It was simply brilliant. The timing setup was very impressive, with the ability to get a print-out of your time/splits as soon as you had finished. The marshalls were friendly, encouraging and plentiful, the cycle route very well signed and basically everything ran like clockwork. Congratulations to everybody involved in putting it on. I look forward to the next one in May!

Garmin Sharp Ride Out 2012

I was recently lucky enough to get a place on the 2012 Garmin Sharp Ride Out organised by Garmin UK. I got my place through the ballot so considered myself very lucky to be among the 500 people gathering at the UK Youth Avon Tyrrell activity centre in the New Forest on a sunny and warm Friday morning.

Garmin have put this event on for the last few years to co-incide with the Tour of Britain. They bill it as a chance for their pro team riders to give something back to the fans, and the whole day was certainly in that spirit. The highlight of the day was to be a 50 mile ride through the New Forest in the company of the pro riders and assorted other special guests. However the whole day from start to end was a well run and extremely fun occasion.

After registration, which included possibly the best goody bag ever (including in my case an extra piece of luck in being a random winner of a Camelbak) there was time to peruse a variety of demo/vendor stalls. Muc-Off were giving demos of their cleaning products whilst of course, Garmin were demonstrating their cycling related GPS units. Indeed you could also hire one free of charge for the ride (I’m already an Edge 500 user.) Mavic mechanics were also giving bikes a fettle on request.

In a larger marquee area Garmin’s UK Fitness product manager gave a good demo of the features of Garmin Connect. In the presentation and Q&A he openly admitted that progress with Connect hasn’t been as fast as they would like. He also talked about some of the upcoming features they are working on, including better elevation/gradient features in activity views and course planning, as well as more social/discovery features. All of which should help bring Connect more in line with some of the competition that have moved faster and which, frankly, have taken mind and market share. It will be interesting to see if Connect can tempt me back from being an avid (and paying) Strava user.

Next up was no less than Phil White, the founder and CEO of Cervélo – the Canadian bike company that of course provide Garmin Sharp Barracuda with bikes (after Garmin and Cervelo Test Team merged for the 2011 season.) Phil talked about how he and Gerard Vroomen started the company as cycling enthusiasts but primarily as engineers. He then discussed advanced in carbon-fibre technology and some of the innovations they have brought to the cycle industry, especially in terms of testing. He claimed Cervélo were the first company to actually factor in the rider in frame testing! Finally he talked about aerodynamics and how Cervélo have innovated in this area through use of Computational Fluid Dynamics and other wind-tunnel analysis, especially focussed around the development of the P5 time trial/triathlon frame. He talked about “foam Dave” – a laser modelled replica of Dave Zabriskie used to achieve consistent and repeatable tunnel tests.

Phil White from Cervélo

During the Q&A I asked Phil if he thought the UKSI bikes used by Team GB at the Olympics were likely to be superior to commercial products given their hype, or whether it was just smoke and mirrors. He answered that he hadn’t obviously been able to obtain a UKSi bike, but he was pleased that David Millar, the Garmin rider and Team GB road captain, was not pressured to ride one of the UKSI creations and chose to ride his Cervélo S5.

After Phil finished it was announced that the Garmin team were delayed (aside, they went to the wrong place – jokes were made about that given the sponsor!) so a couple of hastily arranged Q&A sessions were presented. First up was Tim Don, 2006 ITU Triathlon World Champion.

Tim Don

Tim was brilliant value, answering everything asked of him with humour and honesty. This included his disappointment at not being selected for London 2012 (the BTA went with a strategy of choosing “domestiques” who would ride solely for the Brownlees.) and his goals for the future.

Next were Felix English and Luke Mellor from Rapha Condor Sharp. They were thrown in at the deep end a bit but made a good fist of their Q&A and came across as hungry young pros.

By this time most people were getting hot and sweaty in the marquee and increasingly eager to get out on the road. The ride briefing kept some interest, but thankfully the Garmin team arrived and quickly got up on stage.

L-R: Lachlan Morton, Tyler Farrar, Sep Vanmarcke, Steele Von Hoff, Nathan Haas, Jacob Rathe

A short interview commenced, covering the year so far (including the relatively disastrous Tour de France) before the questions were opened up to the floor. Naturally most were aimed at Tyler and Sep, but in the spirit of the occasion it was good that nobody asked anything too testing or controversial.

So, onto the main event. We were set off in groups of about fifty. Unlike what I’ve read about previous years, there was no attempt to segregate groups by expected speed, which was good. I ended up in the third wave out, and we had Nathan Haas along with us.

On Nathan Haas’ wheel! (Photo from sportivephoto.com)

I managed to have a chat with Nathan about his season, saddle sores and his goals for the Tour of Britain (it has been one of his main goals all year) and his targets for 2013. The pace being set was fairly average and it was clear that the pros were quite happy to go at the prevailing pace of the group they were with. I took the opportunity to play pretend pro and shot off the front to catch a smaller group further up the road. I eventually made my way onto the back of a much larger group with Sep Vanmarcke on the front. I stayed with this group until the food stop at halfway.

Me and Sep at the food stop

The second half saw me ride solo or with smaller groups. At one point I hooked up with a larger group and realised I was following the wheel of Tim Don! This lasted for about five miles until we hit an exposed section with a headwind and a slightly uphill drag that saw me drop off the back. I made it back to the start with an average speed of just under 19mph however.

Post-ride hot food was provided as every relaxed and swapped stories before people started to ebb away.

A massive thank you to Garmin UK, the Garmin Sharp Barracuda team and everybody else involved in the day. Of course, events like this are always PR exercises but this really felt like it was aimed at giving back to the fans. Judging by the number of people wearing Garmin kit, riding Cervélos and generally having an awesome time, it is well worth the cost and effort. Given the amount that people pay for a far inferior experience at a lot of UK sportives this event really stands apart. Other pro teams could do well to follow the example. I hope I get lucky next year as well!

Sportive update

It has been a while since I wrote anything about my cycling, and there has been quite a bit of it recently, including a couple of sportives.

Ride With Brad

First up was the inaugural Ride With Brad sportive in and around Lancashire/North Yorkshire. Whilst it has a new name and a new patron, the event has been run previously and went by the name of the Bowland Beast, or Pendle Pedal. It was my first time riding oop North.

The course was tough by any standard. Comprising 100 miles and over 3000m of climbing including Longridge Fell, Trough of Bowland, Nick ‘O Pendle, Barley Fell and lots more un-named but brutal hills. The last 20km or so in-particular was constantly up and down over gradients in the mid-teens. I started off in the third wave of riders and we made quick progress for the first 13 miles to the bottom of Longridge Fell. The weather was perfect at this stage with no wind and a mild temperature. At the 50 mile food stop I was feeling fine and continued on after a quick stop. Unfortunately just after a group of us took a slight diversion off the intended route and this must be where Wiggins himself managed to pass us by. Loads of people talked about getting to ride with him for a while, but we must have missed him here.

For the final half the weather also turned a bit. Thankfully there was still no wind, but a constant drizzle descended for the rest of the ride. The only real impact was to make people a bit more cautious on descents, but still there were a couple of incidents I came across. I also started cramping up on climbs. I had to stop briefly at one point to shake my legs out and started to make sure I fed and watered more regularly than I had been doing. However the damage was done. Thankfully however I was still making up the severe climbs using a variety of positions on the bike to try to use different muscle groups. By this stage there were plently of people walking the hills! Only on the steep ascent out of Barley did I run into trouble as my right leg completely cramped up on a 17% gradient and I had to unclip or fall over. There was no way of getting back on and going so I had to walk the final 20m of the climb.

Once the ride was completed there was time to stick around to watch Brad do the raffle before heading back down the motorways. All in all it was a well run event and certainly a good challenge.

Marlow Red Kite Ride

Two weeks after the Ride With Brad was another new sportive, but this time a lot closer to home, and a lot flatter! The Red Kite Ride was put on by Marlow Riders and took a 100 mile route North through the Chilterns and Vale of Aylesbury. The route was fairly flat with only 1200m of climbing.

Once again I started amongst the first riders and managed to spend the majority of the first half in the company of a group of 4-5 others. We worked quite well together keeping up a good pace along some fast roads. The second half was spent pretty much solo but again I pushed on in an attempt to keep a decent average speed up. The effort from the Ride With Brad had obviously paid dividends as I felt pretty strong. I also fuelled better. Talking of which, Marlow Riders really went to town with the food stops which were the best stocked I have ever seen!

I made it back to the base in a pleasing sub 6 hour moving time at an average speed of just over 17mph. By contrast that is 90 minutes quicker than my moving time for the Ride With Brad over basically the same distance! Just goes to show that I’m definitely not a climber!

A basic guide to cycle road racing tactics (or why Cav didn’t win this time around)

This post may be a day late, but given the events of today’s Olympic road race from a British point of view and especially given the basic and inaccurate nature of a lot of the resultant media coverage, I felt compelled to try and explain some nuances of the sport. I am only an enthusiastic fan, not a racer so emphasis is on the “basic”…

Olympic sports tend to be individual or team based and a simple case of going faster, longer or stronger. Road cycling is unique in being an individual medal event undertaken by teams. In a football match or a relay race the winning athletes all get a medal. In cycling only the first man/woman over the line gets gold.

So, firstly, a basic physics lesson. As a human powered sport where the cyclist will cruise at anywhere between 30-50km/h and peak at over 70km/h, wind plays a big part. It comes in two forms – the natural kind, which may be in the form of a tail, cross or headwind and the self-generated kind, or air resistance – the faster you go the more air you have to push out of your way, which takes more energy.

Therefore the crucial thing to realise is that much like motorsport, there is a distinct advantage to sitting in the slipstream of another rider. In fact by sitting on a wheel as it is known, you can expend 20-30% less energy than the man in the wind.

Now a physiology lesson. Much like Usain Bolt is a sprinter and Mo Farrah a distance runner you get different types of riders. Mark Cavendish is a fast-twitch muscle sprinter – the fastest one out there. He is built for short periods of massive power within the last few hundred meters of the race. However he has to get there and that is where the teamwork aspect comes in. He needs his team mates to do a number of jobs, but one very important one is to shield him from the wind and give him as easy a time as possible through to the point where he can do his job.

Other types of rider revel in riding into the wind, on the front – they have massive stamina and are known as Rouleurs. Ian Stannard is a prime example of one but in this context so were the rest of the GB team. They are used to chase down breakaways and to keep a high pace going to prevent them in the first place.

There are then a number of variables about the race itself:

  • One day or stage race? The Olympic road race is a one-day event. The Tour de France is 20 stages day after day. Therefore one day races see more balls-out racing, more breakaways and risk taking as you don’t have to worry about what is coming up in the next days.
  • Stage length. In the Tour de France a stage of over 200km is considered long. However the World Championship and Olympic road races are generally about 250km in length.
  • Team size. A regular race will see teams of eight. The Tour de France and other grand tours have nine. The Olympic road race allows up to five (the exact number per nation is decided by ranking during the season)
  • The course (or parcours). Is it hilly, rolling or flat? Different courses suit different riders. The London 2012 course involved a punishing nine ascents of Box Hill. It is a mere bump in the road for these pros, but tackled nine times it takes it’s toll. However after the hill comes a 50km flat run in to the finish. It is therefore a stage that encourages breakaways over the hill repeats, but offers promise for the sprinters that everything can come back together for a sprint finish.

So, the Olympic Road Race is a single day race which encourages aggressive riding. It is also long, and you don’t have as many team-mates as you are used to. The course is a bit of an enigma.

So, as a team of five, with the best sprinter in the world, Team GB set out their stall to get Cav to the finish for a bunch sprint. This meant that they had to work to get him there fresh, as well as policing the peloton and managing any breakaways. Essentially what they did to great success in Copenhagen in 2011 to get the World Championship, just with less men this time and a hillier course, as well as every other nation knowing exactly what the plan was. On paper a suicide mission, but when your sprinter is the World Champion who rarely fails to deliver, and he is backed up by the Tour de France winner, runner up, British national champion and one of the most experienced riders in the pro ranks, and with a backroom staff that are not known for leaving things to chance, you have to believe.

In a typical stage race the first hour or so will see a group attempting to form a breakaway. Normally this will be policed so that the breakaway will only be let go if it contains nobody of threat to the overall leader. Breakaways routinely gain a number of minutes on the peloton before being methodically reeled in to produce a bunch sprint. This chase down may be down to one team (of eight riders) or multiple teams who work together in the interests of producing a bunch sprint.

However a one-off race like the Olympic Road Race doesn’t follow norms. Today a breakaway formed and a decision had to be made whether to let it go or not. Not letting it go would involve expending energy in shutting it down. In Team GB’s case that would mean using energy they would need over the nine ascents of Box Hill, so the break was let go. Whilst it contained some good riders there was nobody seriously threatening in there early on.

In fact, the break came back to within three or so minutes after about four ascents of Box Hill. All the driving to bring it back had been done by Team GB with next to no assistance from any other teams. The other teams either had a man in the break, and therefore no incentive to work, or simply believed they could let GB do it all for them. The pace set by GB here had two goals: firstly to reel in the breakaway, but secondly to discourage further attacks by stringing out the main field and making them work just to stay with GB, let alone think of attacking.

Then more aggressive riders started to try to bridge across to the lead group. They had been comfortably sitting in the peloton doing no work and therefore had the legs to accelerate in front of GB. In theory however the effort to bridge across is high and would need to be paid back later.

Then on the ninth and final ascent of the hill one of the strongest riders in the peloton, Fabian Cancellara, attempted to bridge and took with him a small group of very strong riders. Suddenly the break had 20-30 riders of quality in it. The crucial fact here is that a small group needs to work extremely efficiently to stay away as each needs to take a turn in the wind more often. The larger a breakaway the higher their chances of success as they can expend less individual energy to stay away – they can work as a group as efficiently as the peloton behind them if they all co-operate for the greater good.

If there was a tactical error by GB here then it was at this point. However they could not necessarily work harder to bring the break back because there were only four of them so sending one up to the break would weaken the plan to ride for Cav. If they all went then they had to make sure Cav could stay with them. Whilst Froome, Stannard, Millar and Wiggins could have upped the pace and bridged themselves there is no guarantee that Cav could make it across with them – he’s not built for it. In some post-race interviews it has been hinted that Cav did actually have the legs at this point and that they possibly made the wrong call.

It is at this point that another difference between the Olympic race and regular season racing becomes apparent. In World Tour races teams are wired up with two-way radios to their Directeur Sportif in the team car. They can discuss tactics and make decisions with near perfect information and in real-time. In the Olympics race radios are not allowed so you are reliant on time gap information relayed by motorbikes or the officials. If you want to discuss tactics you need to go up and down the line, or even back to the car. The road captain (in team GB’s case David Millar) is absolutely key here, but it is simple fact that it takes longer to react to things that happen.

So, Team GB found themselves with 50km to go and a significant and strong breakaway group at 50-60 seconds up the road. The general rule of thumb is that you need 10km to pull back 1 minute of time so in theory everything should have been under control. However as discussed the Olympic road race, and this one in-particular is not subject to normal rules of thumb. So clear was Team GB’s strength they had been left to drive the peloton for nearly the whole race, which takes it’s toll as you are doing so much more work into the wind (well, everybody except Cav.) and you only have four riders to do it with. Secondly, the break was big enough that nearly every nation bar GB and Germany had at least one rider in it so the appetite for chasing down wasn’t one the peloton had. Finally, Germany as the one team who had a sprinter capable of challenging Cav in a bunch sprint in Greipel, seemed convinced that GB would be able to pull things back (again, lack of race radios may play a part here) so only made token efforts. Their main rouleur, Tony Martin, had also already dropped off the pace (he’d suffered injury in the Tour de France and would also be keeping focus on the forthcoming time-trial)

Thefore the rule of thumb was broken and the gap remained. Effectively Cav’s chances were already doomed at over 20km from the finish and the rest is a simple matter of record.

It is easy to use hindsight to say that there hasn’t been a bunch sprint in the past six Olympic road races, that GB should have had a Plan B and so on, but the truth is they used the resources available to them in the best possible way. It very, very nearly worked but because it didn’t it looked a lot worse than it was. The fact is, this is bike racing and it is unlike any other sport in this respect and that’s what makes it beautiful.

How I was almost in the London 2012 Opening Ceremony

This is a tough blog post to write…

It is the eve of the London 2012 Olympics, and tomorrow the opening ceremony, produced by Danny Boyle, will commence in front of 80,000 spectators and a live TV audience of 1 billion. It is estimated that 4 billion people will see some part of the ceremony via news clips, the internet and so on.

Last night I was lucky enough to see the final dress rehearsal which included most of the first half of the ceremony up until the athlete’s parade. If you are expecting me to divulge any details then sorry, I’m saving the surprise!

Watching it was an extremely bittersweet experience. On one hand I got to witness an absolutely spectacular display. However on the other I sat there knowing that up I was going to be part of it until the segment I was in got cut for timing reasons. Once again, if you are reading hoping to find some vitriol or speculation as to why then sorry but you’ve come to the wrong place. Cuts happen, it is essentially show-business after all. The only thing I’ll say to add context to this post is that the press widely reported the cut segment as “stunt” bikes or BMX, but there was more to it than that.

In mid April an email from the communications secretary of my cycling club arrived in my inbox. It didn’t give much detail other than the club had been offered about 10-15 places in a cycling related segment of the ceremony and that signing up would involve a fairly significant time commitment. It was also made clear (as it has been in the press around the cut) that the position was remunerated – we were not volunteers.

A month later fifteen of us went down to a rehearsal site in Dagenham for an audition, and all of us got through. Our first rehearsal was also at Dagenham in early June, and only then, after signing our contracts and non-disclosure agreements, did we discover what we would be doing. We had rehearsals at the Dagenham site before transferring to the stadium itself later on that month.

Rehearsing in the stadium was pretty awesome, as you would expect. Naturally information was on a need to know basis so we knew next to nothing about anything else other than the segment we were working on. However during evening rehearsals just seeing the testing of the sound and lighting in the stadium made it pretty clear that the event would be visually spectacular. Naturally there were props littered about in nooks and crannies under the stadium that gave us glimpses into what might be going on elsewhere in the show.

What was to unkowningly be our final rehearsal was really the first time that the entire segment came together with all of our equipment ready. I’d love to describe what I was actually doing, but I’m still under contract and NDA. Maybe after the ceremony itself more can be said, or maybe even become apparent via the Explore the Ceremonies site.

We had three rehearsals and then the two tech/dress rehearsals left to go. However the next rehearsal two days later was cancelled so I used that day to go down to the accreditation centre and pick up my accreditation pass. Sadly on the very next day we all got an individual call to explain the decision that had been made on the Saturday night to cut the segment almost entirely. Only one part of it remains, a part that is integral to the traditions of Olympic opening ceremonies. At this point it has to be said that personally, I really appreciated the way that the Ceremonies staff we were dealing with handled the whole situation. They could have done it a lot more impersonally, but didn’t and have been very helpful in finding us extra tickets for the dress rehearsal and so on. As I said before, stuff happens.

My initial feelings of resignation and realism were slightly turned to anger on the following Wednesday when the news broke, but only because of I spent most of the day reading Twitter and getting wound up by the number of curmudgeons and naysayers slating the ceremony and everything Olympic in general.

What was most notable however is that none of the fifteen of us involved from my club emailed around with any reaction to being cut. It is as if we were just internalising it and not wanting to spark any debate. That is until after last night when we all got to go along and see the dress rehearsal we should have been taking part in. Today the email floodgates opened as we exchanged views on what we had seen, which soon turned into discussion on how we felt after being cut. When I emailed the sneek peek news clip (Warning, don’t watch if you want to truly save the surprise) that includes a glimpse of the remaining part of our segment one person responded:

Strange feeling watching that. Not sure I am going to enjoy tomorrow night. Why have we all been so deeply affected by this?

Which, I think, sums things up perfectly. With a professional head on I understand that tough decisions need to be made sometimes. However, when speaking from the heart I can’t be anything other than truly gutted that I had the opportunity to be part of a global event seen by billions. A once in a lifetime opportunity and something that I would be able to recount to any future generations of my family that may come along.

So, to those ten thousand or so volunteers and cast that will be performing tomorrow night, along with those in the closing ceremony and Paralympic ceremonies – good luck, you are awesome and will put on a display that will made London and the nation proud and which will entertain and enthrall the World. I won’t miss watching it for anything.

My London 2012 Olympics

It is now only two weeks until the London 2012 Olympic Games begins. Here’s my personal itinerary based on the events I’ve managed to get tickets for.

Friday 27th July – Opening Ceremony. I don’t have a ticket, but I am in it! The how come? and doing what? and all other questions will have to wait to be answered as I am under NDA. I’ve been rehearsing for a while now, including in the stadium itself. Guess I am watching it on telly like everybody else :-(

Saturday 28th July (All day) – Men’s Cycling Road Race. Despite being undoubtedly bleary eyed and possibly hung over, I will be trekking down to Surrey to take up a place on Box Hill to watch Team GB, led by Mark Cavendish, ascend the hill nine times on their way to what will be the first medal of the games, hopefully a GB gold…

Saturday 4th August (PM) – Diving. I’ll be watching the Women’s 3m springboard semi finals.

Saturday 4th August (Evening) – Men’s Basketball. GB v Australia and one other game.

Tuesday 7th August (Evening) – Track cycling. This is the final track cycling session and will see the Women’s sprint, Men’s Keirin and Women’s Omnium decided. All three represent very real GB Gold medal possibilities. I’ve got an AA category seat right on the back straight. This is the huge one for me.

Saturday 11th August (All day) – Men’s Modern Pentathlon. A strangely compelling chance to see three venues and five sports in one day. Fencing in the Copper Box, Swimming in the Aquatics Centre, and Equestrian, running and shooting in Greenwich Park. Historically the GB men are not contenders (unlike our women) but this seemed too good to pass up.

Sunday 12th August (Evening) – the final day of the games and the closing ceremony. I’ll be in Hyde Park watching it on the big screens, followed up with a concert featuring New Order, The Specials and of course, Blur.

Saturday 1st September (PM) – Paralympic track cycling. Including Women’s sprint that will feature Sarah Storey going for GB Gold.

In-between all that I’ll be glued to the TV coverage of course.

Can’t wait…

Monitoring London 2012 ticket availability

It isn’t often that my line of work and main passions co-incide, but the frustration of trying to land the London 2012 Olympics tickets that I wanted gave me cause to find a technical solution to my problem.

I’ve blogged before about my limited success in getting tickets for the games. Most of all I wanted tickets, any tickets, for track cycling. These are like gold dust as the venue only holds 6000 people and it is the sport which bears Team GB’s highest chance of medals.

A while ago tickets started to be issued as venue layouts became finalised. In addition the official re-sale process kicked in. This meant that an occasional drip-feed of tickets started to become available on the ticketing web site. There was no advance notice, it was pure luck/co-incidence if something happened to be made available when you looked.

This kind of scenario lends itself nicely to some scripting, so I started looking into the HTML source of the ticketing site to work out how to automate the discovery of ticket availability. The general approach is simple: each session has a unique code and you can perform a search for that session. It then either tells you that tickets are currently unavailable, or allows you to select that session and go on to the ticket selection process.

Therefore a simple script that could poll the session search results page and check for the indication of availability would do the trick, so here it is:

The starting point was this web site monitoring script found via google.

Usage is simply like this:

ticket_watch.pl -e <your email address> <session code>

I utilised an Amazon EC2 micro-instance running Linux then simply set up cron jobs to check the nine track cycling sessions every five minutes. Using cron isn’t perfect – if tickets for a session do become available for a period of time then your inbox might get busy with continual alert emails but that is a minor inconvenience. What’s more annoying is the way that the ticketing site works. There is a significant lag between tickets becoming unavailable and the search results page indicating this fact. These two issues can combine to mean that you continue to get alert emails for quite a while after tickets sell out.

So, does it work? Well I’ve had it running for about two weeks and there have certainly been a lot of tickets drip feeding in during that time. There is no pattern to when, so I could wake up to alert emails sent during the night, or receive them whilst walking the dogs or otherwise not being in a position to do anything about it. However, today I was sat at my desk at work and an alert email came through. I jumped on the site and managed to grab a top-price ticket to the very final track medal session featuring the Women’s sprint, Women’s Omnium and Men’s Keirin. All three events will have very solid possibilities of GB medals.

So, mission accomplished and my EC2 instance has now been retired. There’s still tickets coming in though, and time to grab them so if you are also a bit of a geek feel free to make use of this script!