18 Dec 2012

2012: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly?

I was reading Cyling UK's take on distance versus intensity in training. As I approach just short of 10,000 miles for the year I can vouch for the vital role of intensity. Or, rather, lack of it in my case. Distance is almost meaningless unless it includes real and repeated effort.

While I am certainly fitter than I was before I started tri-cycling seriously I am by no means race fit. In fact my average speeds have been falling slowly but steadily. I can travel much further than before without much stress or pain. My legs hardly ever ache as they once did all of the time. A year ago I'd try desperately to stop the endless pain as I prodded and smoothed what passed for muscles. Two years ago I'd go to bed to sleep after a ride. Anything to escape from the agonising pain in my leg muscles. My legs usually hurt so much that walking was a constant struggle.

My lack of race fitness three years later is hardly surprising considering my low daily average of about 28-30 miles. My annual mileage is merely an accident of multiplying my daily rides by a rather large figure. (~350)
My longer rides are rather few and far between. My very much longer rides are as rare as hens' teeth. When speeds fall then duration increases to cover exactly the same distance. This much is obvious. So I really can't be working as hard as I once was.

Stronglight 'Impact' Touring Triple with 46,34,24 TA rings, 160mm cranks, matching 110mm bottom bracket (with alloy cups) and self-extracting screws from Spa Cycles. Shimano 'XT' M780  SPD pedals.

I can now climb most hills without losing my breath. So my cardiovascular system must be much more efficient these days. I used to pant breathlessly just from climbing a few stairs! Where once I would hit an oxygen starvation wall on many/most climbs I now breathe much more slowly and deeply.

Though now I avoid the burn of trying too hard on the hills by using a higher cadence and lower gears. This must eventually make me soft (or lazy) unless I pedal very hard to increase my speed above the comfort level. A cyclist must be willing to expose himself to repeated pain to make any real progress. By which I mean higher speeds over longer distances. Whether you call this doing intervals or just hill climbing it requires an intensity which hurts like hell at the time! No pain, really does mean no gain, in cycling fitness. The best training is actually racing. Or time trialling. And training to race at these constantly high speeds.

Forty to fifty mile rides are now well within my capacity. Provided head winds aren't a major feature of the return journey. Which automatically increases the time it takes to get home. The trouble is the same journey can take 2-3 times as long. Including stops for shopping of course. Even now I only rarely ride anywhere without a specific purpose. If I was just sent out to ride I wouldn't know what to do. Having a target and useful purpose was a vital psychological trick which I used to keep me going out every single day. It worked superbly for me when I was first riding regularly. The habit has continued when it was no longer really necessary. Now I find it extremely hard to miss a single daily ride.

I'm rather unsure why I have recently lost my drive to ride as fast as possible literally all of the time. Perhaps it is the heavier tyres?  The Durano Plus feel as if they will roll over anything. They offer a deceptively smooth sense of urgency. Though it probably conceals higher rolling resistance and greater weight. The lack of punctures is very reassuring. A fast tyre which punctures is a slower tyre by far. Even a hasty new tube swap for the punctured one takes far more time than is lost to slower tyres.

I find that getting a puncture is usually so depressing that it takes far longer than necessary to change the tube. The former urgency to be somewhere else has suddenly gone. I am deflated by the flat. It makes me feel suddenly vulnerable out there on the side of the road. No longer in charge of my own destiny. In warm, dry weather in summer a puncture is manageable. In cold and wintry weather a puncture can be a very serious matter indeed!

The cyclist may be highly wind proof in his/her lightweight, stretchy clothing but he/she has precious little real insulation despite the layers. The cyclist relies almost entirely on  the warmth generated by the physical effort of pedalling hard. What then if the cyclist has to stop?  Finding any shelter on the open road can mean the difference between a chill and very real danger. Changing inner tubes in the wet is an even worse chore than in the dry.

When one gets really substandard tyres, like the Continental GP 4000Scheiße trash which I was fobbed off with, one may be literally taking one's life in one's hands in winter. How can one repair a puncture in heavy rain in the dark beside the road? Exposure is more than likely. Hypothermia a very real risk. Remember this when you choose your overpriced tires to save a few seconds. The expensive, lightweight, puncture-prone and vulnerable, cut-prone shit (Like the Continental GP4000Scheiße) could cost you far more than time lost! Forget the advertising hype. The fat, lying slobs at the Continental advertising department probably never rode a bike in their entire lives! When your tyres look this from the very first ride you can be pretty sure that quality control is only a myth at Continental's secret Chinese "hand built" tyre labelling plant!  

The repeated cost of buying replacement tubes soon makes costly, puncture-prone tyres even more ridiculously expensive. Repairing tubes is a strange way of valuing your precious time on this earth. How much do you earn an hour? Though I'm sure there are those who see it as soothing therapy. Rather than merely rubbing it in that cycling is a daft sport for those without the disposable income, or buying sense, of an oil prince!

While we are on the subject of trash, try these for size: SealSkinz gloves. Their motto: "Cold from day one." Worthless below 55F without thinner gloves as liners. Avoid the slightest damp or they will chill your hands into solid blocks of frozen meat! This way to the meat counter, please. BTW:They offer no laundry instructions either and only the anorexic can close the Velcro wrist straps so the active parts actually meet.

GripGrab 'Polaris' gloves are equally inadequate in my own experience. Ridiculously overpriced for the protection on offer. Again the slightest damp will reduce them to less value than a free polythene bag from the supermarket checkout. Polythene bags are arguably more wind proof than these over-hyped gloves.You might get home safely  by wearing polythene bags over these gloves to overcome their inadequacies in the wind proofing department.

Eventually I found a pair of Dintex Heat Pax gloves in a motorcycle shop. It just seemed logical that those not generating any heat of their own would need warmer gloves than cyclists. These actually worked in Denmark's regular, sub-freezing conditions. They have provided the warmth I only thought I was buying in the other two pairs of over-hyped gloves. Forget about the Heat Pax inserts though. Unless you like to spend a couple of quid a day on very short lived, one-use only, slightly luke-warm, crapola tea bags.

Last New Year year I made a resolution to ride 100 miles in a day. In fact I only managed a longest ride of 81 miles this year. In fact I managed 81, 80, and 76 miles on my three longest rides. Some of the 81 mile ride was due to getting very lost. Which caused me to go too far south somewhere in the middle of Fyn. On an island of about 50 miles across and 50 high at its absolute extremities, you'd think it would be difficult to get lost. In a car you just keep going until you recognise somewhere familiar. Or notice a place name you can work with in imagining you actually know (roughly) where you are. The delay is only slightly irritating.

On a trike getting lost is is an expensive luxury in terms of greatly extended travelling time and in my case, even worse saddle soreness. Not to mention even more serious tiredness towards the end of the ride. Usually it means a lack of food to replenish essential energy stores. The sum of which is horribly uncomfortable and exhausting misery. Only very recently have I taken maps with me. Should I plan a serious ride in future I shall use a pre-printed map with my route clearly marked.  Many Danish village names are repeated at intervals across the country. Or are very similar in sound or spelling. Do I look as if I could tell the difference?

By far the greatest problem, over the last three years, has been saddle soreness. It has taken nearly 30,000 miles to resolve this problem.  Not through increased personal toughness. Nor some strange, physical adaptation to cycling. It is all down to the new saddle. The rather floppy and obviously twisted, Brooks B17 "Select" has become completely invisible to my precious sit bones. Other than visually, the lightly tanned object now goes as unnoticed as any other component. Reaching that point has meant real pain on almost every single ride of almost any length over the last three years. Had I known back then that a B17 would protect my tender parts (sit bones) from real and endless torture I might be looking back at far greater mileages. I might also be much less angry and cynical!

Brooks B17 'Select' after 1650 miles. Notice corkscrew twisting of the nose and lateral, anticlockwise curvature. Fortunately both go completely unnoticed in use. Strangers don't often get to laugh at this misshapen leather blob because I'm usually sitting on it.  I have had to tension the nut regularly to stop the whole thing  turning into a flat piece of leather. Though there is a very real danger of the spine rising relative to the seating area if tensioning is overdone. The usual advice is to leave the tension nut well alone. This is usually good advice. Unfortunately I had absolutely no choice in the matter. Without tensioning I'd probably be sitting on the rails by now!

I still cannot explain why I was willing to suffer poorly fitting saddles for so long. I bought three new saddles in the time I could have afforded a single, bog standard B17 for the same price. Perhaps it was a blind unwillingness to accept that the narrow "sporty" saddles would always reduce my comfort. Like many cyclists who started riding seriously while still young I clung to pretensions of grandeur in the speed department. This despite all the obvious clues to the contrary.

Buying the wider B17 put an end to any illusions that I still had any potential as a solo time trialist. (Say what?!?)  The Brooks was, after all, a dyed in the wool, "touring" saddle. The B17 was the clear signal which finally admitted that I was just a slow old  fart on a heavily laden trike and would never amount to anything else. I had run up the white flag of surrender. Practised the semaphore. Fallen on my sword.

All this, despite the thin and stretchy (and occasionally gaudy) "racing" clothing. Though I wouldn't be without my cycling wardrobe now. It is all essential wear. Much of it was obtained in charity/recycling shops so my entire stock of cycling jerseys and jackets probably cost as little as a single quality item bought from a half decent bike shop. My wife always insisted on washing them several times before I was finally released onto a startled world. I now have the flexibility to fine tune my cycling wear to within a couple of degrees C regardless of the weather. I just wish I could be so confident about the choice of gloves. Nothing has been so disappointing as spending large sums of money on gloves which did not perform in cold weather.

At this point I can only assume that the very slightly greater width of the B17 provides lower pressure per square inch for my foolishly unpadded sit bones. You occasionally hear daft rumours that cyclists develop (completely imaginary) muscles or a special rhino hide to cover the exposed sit bones. This is complete nonsense in my parallel universe. The 'Select's' rather disturbing floppiness provides both localised softness and real-world suspension. Instead of my sit bones being constantly and locally hammered by a hard and unyielding surface, they now float in, or on, a thick, leather hammock. My long-suffering sit bones are now effectively and actively supported by a perfectly fitting, Brooks <cough> bum bra.<cough> A trick which the harder, narrower and firmer "Professional" was never really able to pull off. At times it would tease and hint of being comfortable even up to thirty miles. It was always a sham. Turning like a cur to bite my bum when it grew tired of the charade!

It was the same with my Brooks B17 Narrow. Which I had bought in haste twenty years ago when the only local bike shop had nothing else to offer except more plastic. These saddles' narrowness has always been their Achilles heel as far as my sit bones are concerned. Yet a very posh bike shop told me I need an even narrower saddle according to their memory foam test bench! I would still be suffering on an even more expensive plastic saddle if I had followed their advice!

The Spa Cycles Nidd saddle has been a disappointment so far. I really wanted to like the Nidd. Yet it is so uncompromisingly hard that it produced the first real saddle sores I have had so far! Boils, no less! The laminate on the underside must be at least partially to blame. The saddle is superbly made, for a seriously low price, but lacks any give and suspension. (at all) I put a few hundred miles on it but was probably fooling myself that it would improve dramatically before it made riding, on any saddle, completely impossible. The B17 Select was rapidly becoming so comfortable that there was little point in persevering with the repeated damage the Nidd was doing to me. At its low price it would have been worth soaking the Nidd get some dents going in the sit bone area. Again, I doubt the laminate on the underside would allow any such easy modification. Take away the laminate and the potential could be rather amazing. The leather is really thick, even and tough. Which Brooks no longer seem able to source reliably. The Nidd holds out the promise of a very long-lived and comfortable saddle for long distance touring. One wonders if anybody has actually managed to make it perform in that capacity?

In retrospect, my purchase of an MTB triple chainset with 175 mm cranks was probably a mistake. While providing a wide range of lower gears, to match my new, higher cadence, I still feel sure the cranks are much too long for me. I have yet to fit the Stronglight chainset with 160mm cranks due to the present foul weather and regular road salting. The latter produces ugly rust on anything exposed to the spray from the wet roads.

Meanwhile, the Shimergo gears, using Campagnolo Chorus levers, have been a revelation. No more fiddly bar end levers. Though the change has forced me into a radical revision of my riding position. Being able to comfortably reach the levers forced a drastic shortening of the reach to the handlebars. Which proved that the Higgins was far too long in the top tube for my particular build. (unless I was racing or time trialling) Which I wasn't. (honestly) Considering the trike was bought on eBay it has served me remarkably well.

I'm still not sure whether my lower spine is stiffening up with age or I'm just feeling my age after riding bent over for far too long. I just don't enjoy leaning over that far any more. The B17 is now pushed fully forwards on its rails and the compact bars and short stem are now close to providing optimum reach without over-stretching or lower back pain. Where I once spent all my time on the tops I now spend most of my time on the hoods. I'm sure I've said that before. Every day is a surprise when you have a failing memory.

One thing I would change about the Ergo levers is to lower the thumb pads for changing to higher gears. They are foolishly difficult to reach from the drops. Particularly in thick winter gloves. There is really no need for the thumb levers to be set so high. Slightly lengthening the hidden metal lever, with two right angle bends to lower the thumb pad, would easily do the trick. Considering how much time racing cyclists spend on the drops the high position seems like a cosmetic step too short.

So a completely new adventure awaits in 2013. Lower gears, shorter cranks, ergo levers, a comfortable saddle, a useful wardrobe and more upright and relaxed riding position. Will he finally manage to ride a century? (As our former colonists like to call it.) Who knows? A more upright position inevitably throws more of my weight onto the saddle. Will this mean continued comfort on longer rides? We shall see.

Thanks to the availability of excellent mapping websites in Denmark I have a 40 km, entirely rural route drawn out already. One which never runs along a main road. Four laps and I have 100 miles safely in the bag. All without ever being more than about eight miles from home. It is by no means flat but I am very familiar with these minor roads.

No need to take a load of extra stuff with me either. My multiple layers of insecurity clothing, tent, sleeping bag, blankets, duvets, umpteen spare tubes, parachute, life-raft, flotation devices, solar still, umbrella, anchor and all-emergencies tool set, can all be left safely back at home. A mild, sunny and calm day would be useful but may be asking too much in combination. The last year has been almost constantly windy and grey. It took me months to make my bare knees look even mildly tea-stained!

Click on any image for an enlargement.

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