Friday, 28 December 2012

2012 - Six stones lost & many miles covered

In January 2012 I decided that weighing in at a smidgen over 17 stone and not being able to walk up a flight of stairs without being out of breath was not a good place to be and it was time to do something about it.

The detail of the steps I have taken over the year to get fitter and to lose weight are contained in various posts on this blog so I won't bore you with the detail again on this page. Sitting here writing this in December 2012 I find myself with a very different lifestyle and I guess I'd have to say that I have achieved the two primary objectives for the year; I am undoubtedly fitter and I have most definitely lost some weight.

How much weight have I lost? Quite a lot, six stone or 85 pounds as of the middle of December. This weight loss has been achieved through a combination of a change of diet, reduction in alcohol consumption and a progressively increasing fitness regime. In short, I now eat less food, which is nutritionally superior to my old diet and I now complete an average of 10-12 hours exercise a week.

How much fitter? Over the course of this year I have discovered that I quite like cycling and have managed to enter and finish a number of sportives, finishing in times that as a novice cyclist I consider to be fairly respectable. With the help of Simon Vincent at Total Cycling Performance ( I have managed to go from being a serial "bonker" at 20 miles to regularly completing 100k sportives and being confident enough to have a fairly comprehensive schedule of events for 2013 which includes the Dragon Ride Gran Fondo, l'etape and RideUK24 Newcastle to London. Quite remarkable for somebody who started the year as an overweight, out of condition person who probably couldn't have cycled to the chip shop - Thank you Simon and all the others who have encouraged and supported me this year.

Yep, this was a very snug fit in January 2012
What have I learnt about fitness and weight loss this year?

Losing weight is about controlling the amount and type of food you eat, sounds obvious and it is. The facts are that if a person has a lot of weight to lose, they will only lose weight at a rate that will keep them motivated to carry on by managing the volume of food they eat on a daily basis and being brave enough to face the reality of measuring progress with a tape measure and scales.

Taking exercise undoubtedly helps with weight loss but for a person with a lot of weight to lose, it is unlikely to be the only solution if a level of weight loss that is motivational is going to be achieved. To lose a pound in weight, a person need to burn approximately 3500 calories, trust me that is actually a lot of exercise and the average significantly overweight person isn't likely to want to do the level of exercise required to lose say 2-3 pounds per week. The answer lies in achieving a happy medium where exercise is increased and diet is managed to allow the consumption of sufficient food to remain healthy whilst also achieving a calorie deficit that contributes to reduction in weight.

Plans for 2013?

As I mentioned earlier I have a fairly comprehensive schedule of Sportives planned for 2013 which can be found here and it is my intention to continue to train and hopefully improve my cycling performance to a level where I am able to put in a credible performance on each of the major events.

Later in 2013 I would like to explore ways of putting something back into the sport that gives me so much satisfaction and which has been a key motivator in helping me to stay on track with losing weight and leading a healthier lifestyle. At this point in time I don't know what the options are for being able to do this, but I'm sure something suitable will come along during 2013.

Of course I mustn't forget to finish my new bike build which is being based around a LOOK 566 frame, but the details of this are best saved for another blog post sometime in the new year.

I'm in danger of rambling on now (and I do plenty of that in my normal blog posts) so I'll finish this update by thanking you for taking the time to visit (or revisit) the Pixies blog and I hope you will be able to find the time to come back again to check on my progress sometime in the future.

Dha weles diwettha


Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Triple Conversion Update

As regular readers of the Pixies blog will know, a few weeks ago I changed the Specialized over from a 4600 Tiagra compact 50/34 set up to a 5703 105 triple 30/39/50 set up (along with a few other upgrades to cables, bottom bracket etc) The earlier blog post on the subject can be found HERE  

I've done several hundred miles on the conversion now and thought it might be useful to provide a brief update on the conversion for those people considering a similar plan of action and also for those people that are interested in hearing how going from a compact set up to a triple has been in the real world?

I've ridden the Specialized over a variety of terrain, including some fairly tough hill training in Wales and three very different Sportives. One of the biggest benefits that I have found with the conversion is the fact that the middle "39" front chainring is providing me with a set of ratio's that suit my particular riding style and current level of fitness. I am finding that I spend a lot of time riding on the "39" and in conjunction with my preferred high (for a novice) cadence pedalling rate I am able to maintain speeds of 20-22mph over mildly undulating terrain with the full range of the rear cassette available to me. With the previous compact set up, I would find myself constantly swapping between the outer "50" and inner "34" over this type of terrain when trying to maintain a speed of 20-22mph, especially over ground that included long but not particularly steep climbs that were to much for the gears available on the "50" or required a the less than ideal "large to large" chainring/cassette combination. I'm sure this is a personal preference thing as the right gear selection is available with the compact set up, I just prefer to not be constantly swapping between chainrings and prefer a set up that allows me to easily maintain my preferred cadence rate.

Of course opting to use a triple rather than a compact brings with it a weight penalty and a little more complexity. With reference to the weight penalty, in the real world I reckon it's about 200 grams, which I can make up for by losing a little more body fat (I've still got plenty to spare LOL) If I was weight obsessive when it come to the bike, I guess saving a 200 grams in the weight of the crank and then going on to save weight in other components would be something to consider seriously, however at the moment I still have around 4-5 kilos that I can lose in body weight which is effectively cancelling out any theoretical small weight saving measures on cycle components. Therefore given the way that the triple set up suits my preferred cycling style, I think in the real world of being a relatively novice Sportive rider, I'm happy to live with the weight penalty to gain the spread of useable gears that the "39" provides whilst also having a lower set of gears for tough climbs and a higher set of gears for faster stretches of road.

On the subject of the weight of Shimano components, much is made in the world of cycling about the merits of buying a better group set to save weight when compared to a lesser group set. As some readers will no I am currently building a new bike around a LOOK 566 frame and I have been researching the differences between the current Shimano 5700 series 105 group set and the 6700 series Ultegra group set and one of the things that I have established is that the difference in weight between the two group sets is approximately 180 grams. The other difference between the two group sets is obviously cost with Ultegra being around £150-200 more expensive. So that's about a £1 extra spent per gram saved in weight. When the fact that the surrent 5700 series 105 probably performs as well as the previous incarnation of Ultegra and is not actually that far behind the performance of the current Ultegra, the "financially careful" amongst us might consider 105 to represent more "real world" value than Ultegra and we might choose to save those 180 grams by not eating as many pies for a couple of weeks!

What does 180 grams look like? this bag of sweets weighs 200 grams, not much is it?

Current Shimano group set weights (actual not claimed)

Dura Ace Di2    2375g
Dura Ace 7900 2111g
Ultegra 6700    2441g
105 5700         2624g

In terms of added complexity, the triple set up is a little more time consuming to initially set up as the front changer does seem to need to be in just the right place in relation to the chainrings and cable tension does seem to be more critical if consistently flawless shifting is required. It probably took me three or four attempts spread out over maybe two or three weeks to get this aspect of the conversion just right, however now that it is set up and the cables seemed to have stopped stretching, it shifting really well every time. I guess if I was having to take the bike to the local bike shop to have any required adjustments done, this initial setting up phase may have had the potential to test my patience, however as I do pretty much all of the work on the bike myself, it's just been a question of investing some time into getting the set up just right.

Photo from Park Tools

The Hope bottom bracket has been taken out a couple of times since it's initial installation in the pursuit of a good chainline, which has in turn probably helped to further improve the quality of gear shifts. Following the initial installation I noticed that I had a little bit of  sideways movement or "float" of the crank within the bottom bracket, not much, but it was there and left unattended I'm sure it would have led to premature wear of the bearings in the bracket. The float was removed and the chainline improved by installing a different selection of spacer washers from those originally supplied with the bracket (washers of varying thickness are available on e bay and from Hope) Getting this aspect of the installation was simply a case of trying different combinations of washers until the correct chainline was achieved and any float in the crank was removed, again a little time consuming but at least I wasn't paying somebody else to bugger around with it until it was spot on. There is a great article from Sheldon Brown on chainline and chainline adjustment HERE which is worth looking at if the subject of chainline is something that is new to you.

The Jagwire cables that I installed as part of the conversion have performed well. I can't say that they have improved the quality of shifting or braking in any significantly noticeable way, however they are quietly getting on with the jobs they are their for. I have had to take up some slack in the gear shift cables after about 300 miles which I am putting down to some initial stretching of the cables. It may be that this initial stretching may have only been noticeable on the triple because the front changer set up does seem to need to be "just right" and is definitely affected by cable tension. On a compact set up I suspect this initial stretching might go unoticed as they don't seem to be as fussy when it comes to front changer set up and cable tension. Would I change standard Shimano cables for Jagwire cables if all I was looking for was improved shifting quality? Probably not, because I suspect good quality Shimano cables are as good as Jagwire cables. If attention to cosmetic detail is one of the desired goals from a change of cables, Jagwire cable sets come in a variety of colours and can make a difference to the final look of a bike build. (I've got a white set sitting in the garage that are destined for the LOOK 566 that I am currently building up)

On reflection, this blog post is probably making the triple conversion sound like it has been difficult to get running right and us perhaps quite fussy to keep set up for flawless shifting? This hasn't been the case and now that it is set up and has a few miles under it's belt it is performing really well, with only the type of minor adjustment that would be required by the critical owner of any any set up. It's probably not a conversion that many people will consider as for many people a compact set up will do everything they want it to do in respect of providing a reasonably wide set of gear ratio's and being simple to live with. Where the triple provides added value for me is with the ability to provide a low set of gear ratio's for steep climbing via the inner "30" chainring whilst still be able to run a relatively closely spaced rear cassette to allow for a nice close set of gears whilst riding on the "39" It works for me and I guess that's what's important!

As always thanks for taking the time to take a look at the Pixie's blog and I hope you are able to pop back for another look sometime in the future.

Dha weles diwettha





Thursday, 20 December 2012

Performance Cycles Winter Mini Series - November & December Events

Hi and thanks for visiting the Pixies blog, this post is just a quick update on some recent Sportive action that I have been taking part in that was organised by the very nice people at Performance Cycles based in Poulton, just north of Cirencester.

The guys at Performance Cycles organise a series of events that run over the course of the winter that are billed as the "Performance Cycles Winter Mini Sportive Series"

Find out more and enter the Winter Mini Sportive Series here

The events  are in the words of the organisers "designed to be simple, and cheap!! There will be no electronic timing or feed stations, and the routes won't be the gut busting ones you'd expect in the height of summer - but other than that, they'll be everything else you expect from a sportive. With a well marked route, mechanical back-up, free energy products for each rider and much more."

Having done the two most recent events in this years series I can say that the formula works really well. For most people the only things that are not present on these events that are available on bigger events are the feed stations and to be honest, a bit of forward planning on the part of the rider easily sorts that one out. I always take a packet of jelly babies and some bite size flap jacks on every event and that coupled with a couple of 750ml Bidons of drink has been plenty enough to feed and water me on each event. If you forget to pack supplies, you can always buy some from the Performance Cycles shop before the start as it is open for business before the start of each event.

What about the routes?

November's 60 mile route was made all the more interesting by the localised flooding that occurred in the few days leading up to the event. In some places we were riding through water that was over the bottom bracket and definitely coming in through the vents in the soles of my shoes.

Scenes like this were encountered on a number of occasions
The route in November was not to taxing in respect of hills although whoever designed the course did throw in a couple of "interesting" climbs along the way, one of which had people weaving up the hill in an attempt to make it easier to climb. I logged a total of 2638ft of climbing on the route, which on a wet and cold day was actually plenty enough for a Pixie that was feeling the cold. The wet weather certainly had an effect on the number of punctures suffered by competitors and I saw a higher than normal number of people changing inner tubes by the side of the road. Like most Sportive riders I always check to see if somebody who is by the side of the road needs any assistance, normally most people are ok and wave me on, on this event however a couple of people needed the assistance of my mini pump having used up their CO2 canisters on previous punctures. This is why I live with the tiny amount of extra weight that carrying a small mini pump involves, no amount of spare tubes are going to be of any use if you can't pump them up! ;)

November Route Profile 10.2 % in one place

Overall the route in November was a perfect blend of enough hills to get the legs and lungs working and some decent stretches where it was possible to ride as a group and maintain a reasonable average speed. My time for the event wasn't anything to shout about at 4 hours 21 minutes, but I estimate that I probably lost around 30 minutes helping other people out with punctures, so not so bad after all.

For the December event I was riding with Dave "the puncture king" (who regular readers will have met in the Isle of Wight blog post which can be found here ) and we set out with every intention of riding the long route which would have been around 60 miles. Despite heavy rain overnight, it was actually a really nice sunny, but cold, morning and all competitors seemed to be in really good spirits. Although the sun was out, the previous few days rain had left the roads very wet and littered with muck and debris.

There was still a lot of water on the ground after heavy rainfall

As any cyclist who has more than five minutes experience will know, country lanes and heavy rain equal punctures due to the amount of rubbish that is washed out of hedges and fields and into the road, it was for this reason that I was riding along feeling very pleased with myself for having fitted new Continental Grand Prix 4 Seasons winter tyres a couple of months earlier (they have multiple layers of puncture protection and still ride really well without feeling heavy or wooden)

As with Novembers event, the atmosphere was excellent and their was plenty of conversation in the "peleton" as it made it's way around the course. Their was a good mix of abilities and bikes present, with some obviously very quick riders out on their winter bikes and some other riders out on their mountain bikes and just enjoying the ride. The course was less demanding than Novembers course and had significant stretches of relatively flat going which allowed for a good average speed to be maintained over the early parts of the course. Regular readers may remember that Dave was a bit puncture prone on the IOW and unfortunately Dave suffered another puncture on this event, which probably lost us around 20 minutes whilst Dave changed his inner tube. An examination of Dave's tyres revealed why he may have been suffering with a plague of punctures recently, the tyres he was using are probably more suited to summer riding with limited puncture protection - I understand that new winter tyres are now on order! 

December Route Profile Max 8.2%
Dave had also suffered a bit of a knock to his lower back whilst riding earlier in the event which was causing him some serious discomfort. It was clear as we approached the split point for the long and short routes that given the time lost due to Dave's puncture and a drop off in our pace, because of the significant discomfort that Dave was in, that it would be prudent to ride the slightly shorter 49 mile route. We arrived back at Poulton in a time of 3 hours 24 minutes and I logged 1534ft of climbing, which confirmed my suspicion that this route had indeed been easier than Decembers when it came to the amount of climbing on the route.

No post about a Performance Cycles Mini Series event would be complete without a mention for the post ride catering, this is simply the best post ride catering I have encountered so far. Instead of the usual free cup of tea and maybe a tiny bowl of pasta (some events don't provide free food and charge for cake etc) these events are supported by a full on catering trailer serving bacon rolls, hot coffee, cakes, sandwich's and in December even mulled wine. And the best bit? Yep, it's free and you can have more than one bacon roll or slice of cake. Other event organisers take note, this is how it should be done!

Proper post ride food in the depths of winter

The post ride atmosphere at both November and Decembers events was really friendly with riders hanging around to have a chat and reacquaint themselves with people they had met out on the ride, as well taking the opportunity to talk to the people from Performance Cycles who were also very friendly and helpful.

Starting to feel that the winter lay off is to long? Need to get out on the bike and get ready for next spring and summer? Try one or two of these events, they really are worth making the effort for.

(No I don't work for Performance Cycles, nor are they bribing me to say these things, these events are really that good)

The remaining dates in the series are as follows;

  • Sunday 20th January 2013
  • Sunday 17th February 2013
  • Sunday 17th March 2013
More information on the Winter Mini Series can be found here Performance Cycles Mini Series   

As always thanks for taking the time to drop by and read the Pixies ramblings and hopefully you will find the time to pop along again in the future.

Dha weles diwettha


Friday, 7 December 2012

Wight Winter Sportive 02/12/12

Firstly, thanks for visiting the blog, all visitors, new or returning are gratefully received on this blog! Please feel free to tell your friends about it if you find it even remotely interesting or it simply passes away 20 minutes of the working day :)

Secondly, this has turned into a somewhat large post, so here's the the executive summary for those of you who don't want to read all of this blog post. The Pixie has completed another sportive, this time on the Isle of Wight, accompanied by some great friends, he did the 100k route and completed it in a "cycling time" of 3 hours 57 minutes.

Here's the full version of the post, settle down with a cup of tea and a slice of cake....
It's Sunday morning on the 2nd December, it's 5:30am and I'm sitting in my car at the "ferry port" at Lymington waiting for the first ferry over to the Isle of Wight to take part in the Wiggle Wight Winter sportive. I'm also wondering the following;
  • Why did I leave home quite so early?
  • Why did the AA route planner lie to me and say it would take me 2 hours and 20 minutes for a journey that at best took 1 hour 30 minutes?
  • Can I claim financial compensation from the AA for the hour of much needed sleep that their route planner has deprived me of?
  • How many layers will I need for today's ride, given that it is plainly and literally freezing cold outside?
  • Have I got time to grab an hours sleep while I'm waiting for my 6:45am ferry?
I'm also feeling quite pleased with myself as I make myself some instant porridge with hot water from my newly purchased thermos flask. This is taking my sportive event planning almost to a professional level with me being able to eat my breakfast at the optimum time before the start of the event to ensure that I have adequate energy reserves for the ride ahead - If your reading this Mr Brailsford, feel free to pinch this marginal gain technique for Team Sky and feel free to ring me about my other breakthrough in nutrition timing, which involves bread, peanut butter, a banana and a sandwich bag.

As it turns out I end up going over on an early ferry with the event organisers and find myself with about an hour and a half in which to get the bike ready, finish putting my upper layers on and get myself signed on for the event. Hmm, that's about an hour more than I actually need, it's amazing how much surfing you can do on an iphone in an hour when there is nothing else to do.

Ok, I sense that you the reader might be more interested in hearing about the actual event rather than my start to what was a really quite long day, so I'll cut to the chase and get on with it.....

One of the great things about making the effort to ride sportives in different parts of the UK is the fact that not only do you get to meet some really nice people, you also get to ride through some great bits of the UK with pretty stunning scenery. The Isle of Wight was no exception and the sunny weather we were blessed with was an added bonus. It was cold though, have I mentioned that yet?

The Wight Winter sportive is part of the Wiggle series of events and it provides for two distances, Standard 43 mile and Epic 62 mile (100k). As is becoming the norm for me at the moment I had entered the 100k Epic as part of my training for next years l'etape, I was meeting four other people at the event Alex and Jane who were going to do the Standard route and Simon and Dave who were going to do the Epic route. The loose plan was to all start together and try and stay together until the route spilts into two different directions with the Epic route going off on one of two additional loops that would add the additional 20 odd miles to the Standard route. 

It was particularly cold (have I mentioned that before?) and the pre event riders briefing contained warnings of difficult and icy conditions throughout the course, great, not only was it cold but it was also going to be slippery out there. Cautious descending and keeping a constant look out for the tell tale shine of ice would be the order of the day for the first couple of hours.

The event organisation was really slick and groups of riders were allowed to set off as soon as they were ready. This worked particularly well as riders were arriving in large groups just after each ferry arrived from the mainland and an added bonus was that there was much less bunching out on the route than is sometimes evident when riders are released in large groups.

After a bit of messing around which involved two of our group missing their ferry and one of our group having to dash off and buy some medicine for an "upset tum" we managed to get away in a fairly small group of riders and headed out onto the course, as predicted it was really, really cold and the roads were showing evidence of frost and black ice. Despite the cold weather (have i mentioned that before?) everybody was in good spirit and their was plenty of banter in the "peleton" as the group made its way towards the first proper incline of the day.

Simon and Pixie enjoying some banter

The first incline of the day was the point at which our small groups plan to ride together for the first part of the course fell apart. The three of us on the Epic route were all feeling the cold and as a result our pace up the first hill was shall we say "fairly brisk" resulting in the "Epics" and "Standards" getting spilt up much earlier than anticipated. following some deliberation at the top of the hill when the "Standards" arrived it was decided that the "Epics" would push on at their own pace and hopefully see the "Standards" either out on the course later in the day or at the finish.

First real hill of the day for Pixie

So what was the first part of the route like? The Epic and Standard routes are exactly the same until a short distance after the first feed station and to be honest I think the early hills took a few people by surprise and there was much heavy breathing, panting and even some cursing on the first few hills of the day. The first part of the route is a good balance between long(ish) gradual inclines and flat(ish) stretches culminating in what one fellow competitor was heard to describe as follows "Christ, how did we end up in the Alps on an alpine climb complete with hair pin bends?" I'd have to say that whilst it was a long and at times steep drag, I suspect the Ventoux maybe a touch longer and harder to climb up. However, it certainly made the Pixie sweat and resulted in a quick stop at the top to take a layer of clothing off. By now it was just Simon and myself riding together as we seemed to have inadvertently dropped Dave without realising it. 

Somebody has a sense of humour

Shortly after this climb was the first feed station, which I have to say was really well stocked with "eat me now" foods such as flap jacks, cakes, banana's etc and "eat me later" foods such as energy gels. Definitely the best stocked and best run feed station I've encountered in my brief sportive career. Whilst at the feed station Dave caught up with us and we were able to set off on the next part of the route as a reunited trio. 

The next part of the route was a little different from the first part and narrow roads and villages featured much more than on the first part of the route which had at times followed the wonderfully wide and scenic coast road. Within a short space of time the route was once more climbing in a relatively gradual manner initially through country lanes and then through a built up area, with some "interesting" intermittent steeper sections on junctions and bends. It was at this point that Simon and I realised that we had once more "dropped" Dave. After about five minutes of hanging around we decided that we would push on and we (sincerely) hoped that if Dave didn't catch up with us, that he would have found another group to ride with. (more of Dave's adventures at the end of this post)

"Where did you get that hat, where did you get that hat?......."
(lyrics from a very old song for those of you that are very young and don't recognise it!) 
After a while the Epic route rejoined the Standard route and Simon and I were reunited with Alex and Jane who were on the Standard route and making their way around at a comfortable pace. A short stop to eat a few jelly babies and flap jacks whilst having a quick natter with them was followed by Simon and I leaving them to wait a while for Dave whilst we pressed on with our "Epic" journey. Jane has said that she will contribute a guest blog post detailing how her first sportive went, and that will published on here in the near future. 
The "Standards" having a jolly time - Is Alex doing some weird Peter Crouch robot impression?
The rest of the route to the second feed station and beyond was a mixture of what I would describe undulating terrain interspersed with some climbs that were hard enough to make most people work reasonably hard whilst not being so long or steep that they would make the route unenjoyable and plain hard work. Road surfaces were pretty mixed in terms of quality and the threat of ice and slippery road conditions prevailed until around midday. Both Simon and I were agreed that the second half of the route was well planned and provided a challenge that was sufficient to keep the semi serious competitor or serious competitor working hard without breaking their spirit with relentless or steep climbs. One aspect of the second part of the route that we were both agreed on was that the road surfaces were acceptable, however they were in places poor enough to have a significant contributing effect to overall fatigue levels as the the end of the route was approached.  

I can't comment on the quality of the second feed station as Simon and I elected to ride on and get ourselves to the finish a little quicker (I would guess this probably saved us 10-15 minutes on our final finishing time) Judging by the size of the crowd that was gathered around it, I would say that in all probability it would have been as good as the first.

One aspect of this event that is worth recording is the real sense of camaraderie and good spirits that was evident from all of the other competitors that we encountered during the day. On the whole it looked like everybody was enjoying the ride and enjoying the banter which always seems to happen as individuals and small groups form up to ride as a bigger group until road conditions or pace split the group up again.

It was cold. Have I mentioned that before?
(Might have to re-think the fluoro beanie hat?) 

After a fairly concerted effort over the last 15 miles or so Simon and I finished the 100K Epic route in 4 hours 19 minutes, of which 3 hours 57 minutes was actual riding time. Alex and Jane finished the Standard route in 4 hours 10 minutes.

So, what about Dave? Dave had what can only be described as an eventful day. It turned out that the reason that we "dropped" Dave after the first feeding station because he suffered a puncture and lost time replacing the punctured inner tube with the spare one he was carrying. This first puncture was then followed by another one about three miles further up the road, which caused a longer delay as Dave did not have another spare and had to ring the Wiggle service van and ask them to bring one out to him which they duly did. Wiggle's excellent back up support for Dave continued, when upon arrival at the second feeding station he was presented with a spare tube to take with him in case he suffered yet another puncture on the last leg of the route. Understandably, as Dave had lost a significant amount of time waiting for the service van, he elected to join the Standard route rather than the the Epic route for the final run into the finish and he finished with a time of 5 hours 17 minutes.

Dave out on his own prior to becoming the puncture king

Overall impression of the Wight Winter sportive? A well organised event that provided a route which had just the right blend of hills, descents and undulating terrain to make the event a challenge without being a monumental challenge. Everybody I saw on the route and at the finish appeared to have enjoyed themselves and I didn't see too many people grinding cleats on the hills. Would I do this sportive again? Yes, absolutely. Would I recommend it to a friend? Yes, it provides the right balance of challenge with an enjoyable riding experience that is probably very important to a lot of riders at this time of year when fitness levels may not be quite as high as they were a couple of months ago.

Thanks to Wiggle and the team from UK Cycling events for putting on a well run and enjoyable event.  

As always thanks for taking the time to drop by and read the Pixies ramblings and I hope you are able to pop back some time in the future to see how the Pixies journey to l'etape 2013 is progressing.

Dha weles diwettha


Saturday, 17 November 2012

L'Etape du Tour 2013 - The route ridden and documented

Well the ASO have announced details of the route for the 2013 edition of the L'Etape du Tour and it will be held on Sunday 7th July using the same route as the professional cyclists will use on stage 20 of next years Tour de France, although us amateurs will actually be riding a few more miles than the Pro's. So what will the route be like for an Amateur to ride? 

A little further on in this post you will find a link to a recently written blog post by a friend of mine, Phil Sinclair, detailing his impressions of the route when he rode it earlier this week. It's an interesting read and contains some valuable information and insights for anyone taking part in, or contemplating, next years l'etape. (Just in case you don't want to read the Pixies own rambling thoughts on the subject, you can go straight to Phil's account of his day riding the route here!) 

The organisers describe the route as follows "the Etape du Tour will allow cyclists to use roads in the penultimate stage of the 100th edition of the Grande Boucle. Annecy - Annecy Semnoz: 130km of a breaking and selective route in the Alps before a summit finish Semnoz, on the balcony of Mont Blanc."

The start looks like it will be in the heart of Annecy and will then take the following route;
Albertville (D1508) – St-Jorioz – La Chapelle St Maurice – Bellecombe en Bauges – Le Chatelard – Aillon le Vieux – Thoiry – St Jean d’Arvey – La Féclaz – Trévignin – St Offenge Dessus – Pont de l’Abîme – Gruffy – Quintal – Montée du Semnoz

As can be seen from the above profile there are a number of significant lumpy bits that will need to be climbed and the official list is as follows;

Côte de Puget (5,4 km at 5.8%)
Col de Leschaux (3,6 km at 6.2%)
Côte de Aillons-le-Vieux (6 km at 4%)
Col des Prés (3,5 km at 6.5%)
Col du Mont-Revard (16 km at 5.4%)
Montée finale du Semnoz (11 km at 8.3%)

What is the route like to ride? 
In the weeks since the route details were announced I have seen numerous conversations on Twitter and Internet forums talking about how difficult (or not) next years route is going to be. Many of the people taking part in these discussions are seasoned l'etape'ers and have plenty of experience to draw on when putting forward their views, however have they actually ridden the route or are they looking at maps and profiles in order to draw their conclusions?

As I mentioned earlier in this post, Phil Sinclair, who has previously been a guest blogger on my blog, actually rode the route earlier this week and his own blog contains an account of that ride together with photos he took on the day. Phil is a seasoned l'etap'er with many years experience of competing in the event and as such I would say that his thoughts on the route are probably going to provide a valuable early insight into what we can expect on the day of the event.

Phils own account of his day riding the 2013 L'Etape route can be found here 

If you are interested in reading Phils previous blog post on taking part in Sportives and L'Etape it can be found here Phil Sinclair on Sportives and L'Etape 

Many thanks to Phil for providing this useful early preview of what the route is actually like to ride and hopefully if you are reading this and Phils blog post as somebody who will be riding in the 2013 L'etape du Tour, the information provided will in some way inform your training and preparations.

The official ASO L'Etape du Tour web site can be found here

Another UK based site "L'Etape du Tour" for L'Etape competitors which provides a wealth of information and support can be found here (

As always thanks for taking the time to vist the Pixies blog and hopefully you will be able to pop back some time in the future to see how my own training and preparations for next years L'etape du Tour are coming along.

Dha weles diwettha


Saturday, 10 November 2012

Installing upgrades to make riding upgrades easier?

Time for a quick update on the actual bike I am riding and some changes that have been made to it over the last six months.

(There has also been a further update to this blog post, reviewing the conversion detailed below after a few hundred miles of use which can be found HERE ) 

As regular readers of my blog will know, earlier this year Mrs Pixie bought me a new bike for my 50th birthday present (she is a very generous Pixie and I am extremely lucky to share the Pixie cave with her) The bike in question is a Specialized Secteur Elite which was chosen because it offered Sportive friendly frame geometry (taller in the headset and therefore less likely to break an ageing Pixies back), a sensible compromise between price & specification and I liked the colours!

Over the course of the last 6 months I have grown to really like my Secteur, I know there are fancier and more expensive bikes out there that would possibly be a bit more comfortable or maybe make me a few seconds faster in a Sportive, however all in all the Secteur I seem to rub along nicely together. Despite being happy overall with the Secteur there were a few aspects of the bikes specification that I felt would benefit from a bit of an upgrade.

First things to get changed were the seat and seat post for items that promised a ride that would insulate me from "road buzz"  and be easier on my bum, namely a new Specialized S Works carbon seat post and a Selle Italia Max Flite gel saddle. I am pleased to be able to say that both of these modifications have been a complete success, ride quality has been much improved and my bum no longer gets numb!

Selle Italia MaxFlite and S Works carbon seat post

Swiftly following the saddle and seat post was a wheel change. A bit of an impulse e bay bargain saw me becoming the new owner of a brand new pair of Shimano RS10 wheels complete with new Schwalbe tyres and a new Ultegra 12-27 rear cassette for not a lot of money. The Shimano wheels and some Continental GP 4 seasons tyres were installed together with the original Shimano Tiagra 12-30 rear cassette. Again these changes made quite a bit of difference to how the bike rides and definitely made it feel a bit livelier on hills. 

Next up was a need to look at the brakes. My wet Welsh hill climbing trip with Simon from Total Cycling Performance had highlighted how inadequate the standard fit Tektro brakes were on long fast descents in the wet, providing only minimal retarding capabilities which were "we'll stop eventually but not anytime in the immediate future" in nature. As luck would have it, Wiggle had a sale on (actually I think it's a continuous sale) and I picked up a very natty looking pair of FSA Energy brakes. The FSA brakes were supplemented with some Swissstop green pads and as they say the "job was a good 'un" We now have stoppie inducing brakes on the front and more than enough power in the back. As a bonus they even work in the wet.

FSA Energy brakes

The Secteur actually stayed in this specification for about 6 or 7 weeks and to be honest I was really happy with how it was riding and performing - reliable, comfortable, quick enough for a Sportive newbie and good fun. However, some time ago I decided that for l'etape I wanted to have the perceived security of a couple of really low "bale out" or "granny gears" of the sort provided by the new generation of 32-12 and 34-12 MTB type rear cassettes.

The existing Tiagra 12-30 cassette when combined with a compact chainset provides for a pretty wide set of gear ratio's, with the lowest two gears being low enough to stay in the saddle on all but the steepest of climbs, however what this does mean is that there is one big gap between the gears where a a 16 tooth cog would normally be found on a 12-27 cassette which can make itself felt when trying to "crack on" on flat roads. What I wanted was a set up that would provide for a low set of granny gears for later in the day on long hilly Sportives, whilst maybe tightening up the gaps between the intermediate gears and decided a conversion to a "triple" set up might be able to provide this in conjunction with a 12-27 cassette.

There is a weight penalty when converting to a triple set up, however for a rider at my level I think the increased range of gears that are made available is probably beneficial enough to outweigh the increase in weight. Besides, I can just lose a couple of pounds of body weight to counter the weight of the new crankset.

Of course a conversion of this type isn't as simple as it at first seems and as usual my "inner perfectionist" surfaced and took the opportunity to "upgrade" some components that were working perfectly well but were ripe for upgrading at the same time.   

So whilst I say the Secteur stayed in it's then current specification for 6 or 7 weeks, this was only because I was I was collecting together the various components that I wanted or needed to fit as part of the triple conversion. 

In the end I had a pile of new parts that contained the following;

  • Shimano 5703 levers
  • Shimano 5703 Triple cranks and chain set
  • Shimano 5703 front derailleur
  • Shimano 5700 GS rear derailleur
  • SRAM 10 speed chain
  • Hope stainless steel bottom bracket
  • Front chain catcher
  • Jagwire Pro Racer cable set
  • New gel type bar tape
  • Red hoods for the 5703 levers

I elected to utilise my trusty copy of "Zinn and the art of road bike maintenance" and complete the instalation of the new components myself. This decision was made on the basis that if I can rebuild a 1978 XS650 Yamaha motorcycle, I should be able to cope with a push bike! Well, the conversion took me probably a day to complete, over the space of a week, working on the bike when I could grab an hour or two. 

Shimano 105 50/39/30 crank set

Shimano 5700 105 GS rear Mechanism

Hope road specific stainless steel bottom bracket

Chain catcher

Shimano 5703 / 105 levers and after market hoods

Look no cables!

I'm actually really pleased with how the conversion has finished up, the 5703 levers and concealed cable routing have really tidied up the look of the bars and the shifting action of the levers seems to be a lot crisper than the old Tiagra levers. The SRAM chain went on with no drama and was chosen because it allows the use of the SRAM powerlink system for joining and making roadside repairs. The chain catcher may be working but as the front set up is shifting flawlessly it hasn't had to do any work yet! The rear 105 GS rear derailleur feels like it is providing a cleaner shift than the old Tiagra component (although to be fair, the Tiagra rear mech' performed well and was only occasionally reluctant to shift cleanly when under load) The Hope bottom bracket? Its a bottom bracket, it looks nice in its anodised red finish and it feels buttery smooth. Hopefully it will provide long and trouble free service over the winter? 

In theory the conversion to a triple set up has increased the number of available gears from 20 to 30. However the actual ratio's achieved in each gear mean that their is some overlap between what is actually produced by each of the front chain rings, so the actual number of unique gears is a little less than 30.   

At the present time I have kept the Tiagra 12-30 cassette on the rear wheel to see what a 1:1 or 27 inch low gear will be like to ride with in the real world. I suspect it might be a touch to low and I wont be surprised if I find myself swapping it for the new Ultegra 12-27 cassette that I acquired with the RS10 wheels as this should in theory give me a lowest gear that is the same as the compact/12-30 set up and provide me with the missing 16 tooth cog.

Testing of the new set up has so far been limited to very short local rides, however I have another session in the Welsh hills with Simon and a couple of hilly Sportives, planned in the next month, so I should start to get a feel for whether either of these cassettes are going to give me the spread of gears I want or whether I may want to try another cassette.

I'll report back sometime in the future on how this set up is performing and I will provide an honest assessment of whether the expense and the slight weight penalty of the triple conversion is actually worth it when compared to the compact/12-30 cassette set up.

Whilst sitting in the garage this morning getting the bike ready for a training run, I realised that the only original bits left on the bike are the frame, forks, bars and stem.

Hmmmm....that means I've got nearly all the bits required to complete the build of a second bike sitting in the garage. I feel a new project coming on, anybody got a cheap frame and forks they don't need?  

As always thanks for taking the time to stop by and read about my journey to l'etape and associated Pixie ramblings. I hope you can pop back again some time in the future to see how I'm getting on.

Dha weles diwetthaVP 


Tuesday, 6 November 2012

2012/13 Event Diary - Events the Pixie is entering

I have decided it would be a good idea to diarise the events that I have entered, I'm awaiting confirmation of entry or are planning to enter.

The primary purposes for doing this is to inform training schedules and to allow Mrs Pixie to have the opportunity for planning our non cycling related social life in the run up to l'etape 2013.

The planner will change from time to time as events are added, however when this happens I will try to post the new version of the planner as quickly as possible.

If you are a Sportive rider and are planning on entering any of these events please feel free to get in contact as it is always good to meet up with other riders before, during or after an event. Likewise if we "talk" on Twitter and you are going to be at an event, please let me know as it is good to put a face to the Tweet!

Velo Pixie Sportive Events Diary 2012/13

PS, the date error for the 2013 Exmoor Beast date will be corrected in due course!

Thanks for looking, hope you can pop back to the blog soon.



Friday, 2 November 2012

Out on the wiley, windy moors - The Exmoor Beast 28/10/12

Hi, Captain Tardy has been given a few days off and the Pixie is going to write a blog post about an event that only happened a few days ago - Don't get excited or expect this type of thing to become a regular occurrence, I'm sure Captain Tardy will be back soon!

I entered the Exmoor Beast Sportive sometime during the late summer, thinking it would be a good event to finish the main riding season off with and to use as a bit of a measure of how I was progressing as a Sportive rider. My original plan was to ride the event on my own and simply take any opportunity to ride with other people if they arose on the day.

Following on from my ride with Alex and Tony on the Cotswold Classic I had been out for a further two or three rides with them and some of their other riding buddies. During the first of these rides it transpired that Tony and a couple of the other guys had also entered the event and were also doing the 100k route. 

A plan was soon formed to travel down the afternoon before and try to do the ride together or at least all start together. Our group for the day would consist of Tony, Chris, Welli, Cal and the Pixie, with all of us excepting Welli travelling to Minehead the day before to complete registration and generally prepare ourselves for the following days exertions. Welli was working on the Saturday night and had decided to elect for a 5:00am alarm call and a two hour drive on the morning of the event to allow him to get to Minehead in time for the start of the event.

The event start and finish was in Butlins holiday camp on the outskirts of Minehead and close to the sea front. Having the event HQ in Butlins meant that there were plentiful facilities for riders to get breakfast prior to the event and most importantly there were plenty of toilets that weren't of the portaloo variety.

The weather forecast had been very favourable for the week leading up to the event, however the forecast changed dramatically during the 24 hours prior to the start with torrential rain and relatively high winds being forecast for race day. 

Sunday dawned and the weather forecast had been right, it was raining and it was a windy enough to make riding a bike into the wind "interesting" Actually "rainy and windy" doesn't really do the weather on the day justice, "miserable, grey and gloomy" probably describe the conditions more accurately.

The following photograph of the moors was taken by freelance photographer Andrew Hobbs on the morning of the event and I think it really portrays the type of weather and conditions that competitors would be enduring for much of the day. More of Andrews photo's of the event can be found at  

We had intended to start as close to the 7:00am opening time for the start as possible, however Welli was delayed on his journey down and we eventually got away in what must have been one of the last groups to get away before the 8:00am cut off time for starting the event.

The start of the route takes you around the outside of Minehead on the main road before heading towards the moors. Ordinarily you would think early on a Sunday morning that this would be a safe environment for "competent" cyclists who are about to take on the task of "taming the Beast", but no, within minutes of the start I could hear the unmistakable sound of bike frames scraping on tarmac, wheels becoming entangled in other bikes and the dull thud of human bodies landing on wet tarmac. Swift avoiding action was required to miss the heap of bikes and bodies that had resulted from somebody losing concentration while opening a packet of jelly beans. Everybody involved in the incident seemed to be fine and it was a timely reminder that today was not a day for day dreaming.

The initial part of the route was an easy run up to the edge of the moors on A and B roads. At around the 7 mile mark we arrived at the first real test of the day Crook Horn Hill. 

The gradient on Crook Horn Hill varies between 10% and 14% as it works its way up through some woodland. On a dry day, it would be a challenge, on a wet day in autumn with leaves and mud on the road it was carnage! The combination of the weather, the road conditions and hundreds of riders in such a small space meant that for many riders the hill had to be walked and for some it meant accidents and intimate contact with the ground. It was at this point that our group got split up with Tony and myself making good progress through the crowd and surviving the crossing of the cattle grid to make it to the top in one piece and having not suffered to much (if an average heart rate of 179 beats per minute during the climb isn't suffering!)

The route then took us further into the woods and onto the famous river crossing that features in so many reports on this event. There are two options for crossing the river, a foot bridge, which requires dismounting and walking across or riding through the Ford - slowing down to queue for a bridge was never going to be an option, so the ford it was...

Following the crossing of the river the route took us on long climb up through the woodlands and out onto the open moorland where we found ourselves riding in wind and driving rain. The severity of climbing relented for a short while until in the distance we could see a steady stream of cyclists working their way up a long gradual ascent. Looking at my Strava records the hill in question was only around 6% but on the day it felt much steeper and longer than it actually was. The following photo is a shot of the hill viewed from the direction we were coming from and the photo immediately after it, is yours truly cresting the top of the hill.    

 Thankfully there was now a respite from continual climbing as we headed out across the moors and onto the coast road as we made our way to the first feed station at Lynton. The going was pretty tough on the coast road as we struggled into a headwind and continuous rain, whilst trying to reclaim some lost time and increase our average speed. Tony and I took turns at leading and punching into the head wind and wherever possible we briefly rode with other groups as we caught them on the road.

Soon we were on the approach to Lynton and the descent down Countisbury hill. As you can see from the following photographs Countisbury hill is quite steep and on the day the road surface was more than a little bit damp. 

This photo taken by Andrew Hobbs really portrays what type of day it was and the bleakness of Countisbury hill on the day of the event More of Andrews work can be found here Hobbs Photography 
The Feed station at Lynton was particularly busy so Tony and I decided that we would only stop long enough for him to fill his water bottle. Even with my limited Sportive experience, I have learnt that you can lose an awful lot of time stopping at feed stations and if a personal best time is being chased it is best to carry what you will need with you.

The route out of Lynton took us back up over a particularly steep feeling climb ( Strava says between 10 and 11%) and out onto the open moorland where we were once again riding in the driving rain and wind. At this point the field had become more drawn out and it was becoming clear to us that there must have been a significant number of people dropping out and abandoning the event. The run across the moor was tough but it was also an experience to be remembered, it's not often that you find yourself in such a remote place in conditions that actually lend the landscape a sense of majesty and history.

After around 45 minutes the route was taking us off of the top of the moor and into small villages and farm land, the change in scenery also brought a well received respite in the weather, with the rain relenting and the wind was dropping.

Despite not being on the top of the moor or on the coast, the route still managed to throw up a good number of testing hills with one in particular at around 45 miles, which was only around 7%, however when your tired and wet, 7% suddenly feels like 14%. My legs were tired, arms were tired, head was aching (I think it was the constant cold and damp) and my feet felt like blocks of ice, the last thing I needed was another long steep(ish) hill!

I don't know who the chap behind me in black is, but he does look as though he was pretty determined to stay on my back wheel! Tony is behind the chap in black and no he wasn't being scruffy with his jacket open like that - the zip broke early on in the event and as a result Tony was probably wetter and colder than I was. 

With around 53 miles covered the route takes a very welcome turn back towards Minehead and descends for around four miles towards the village of Timberscombe. The descent is very fast and spends much of its route threading it way down narrow tree lined lanes. Remember what I said earlier about rain, mud and leaves, and the fact that they make riding a bike uphill a little more treacherous than in the dry? Yep, it's true going downhill as well. 

On our descent I was following Tony, accelerating a little, then on the brakes, then leaning over for a corner, then accelerating some more, whooshing downhill like a pro on an alpine descent, then a corner tightens mid bend and there is mud on the road. Heart is thumping, I'm wrestling with the bike and I know I can't lean any more or I'll be off. The mud bank opposite is getting larger and closer, I need to slow down but using the brakes will lead to an "off" There's nothing for it, I'll have to lean it over and hope I get around without coming off - I have a moment where the back wheel is coming round to meet the front and I skirt the edge of the mud bank, but I'm still on the bike and heading in a straight line down the hill. Did I slow up after this? Nope, Tony was pulling away from me and that will never do! 

The descent takes us into Timberscombe and my arms and hands are aching from the constant braking, my legs are aching even more than before and then I spot the event photographer. Can I summon up enough energy to try and look like I'm not hurting and I'm attacking the last leg of the route?

The remainder of the route took us into Dunster and then through some country lanes that emerged on the outskirts of Minehead. The run into Minehead and back into Butlins was completed without any dramas and soon we find ourselves riding into the indoor finishing area. The indoor finishing area certainly makes the Exmoor Beast stand out from some of the other events on the Sportive calendar and it was certainly very nice to be finishing inside rather than outside in the wind and damp.

So how did we do? Tony and I finished the 100k in 5 hours and 2 minutes which placed Tony 123rd in his age group and 303rd overall and I was placed 42nd in my age group and 304th overall. There were a total of 1650 entries for the event so although I missed a gold standard by 7 minutes, I'm actually quite pleased with that result.

The rest of our group all individually had eventful days with Chris being knocked off of his bike on Crook Horn hill, he did however get back on and finish the event in 6 hours 32 minutes. Welli had an encounter with a hedge on the long descent into Timberscombe and finished in 5 hours 51 minutes. Cal had problems early on in the event with his breakfast and ended up feeding the local wildlife finishing ahead of Welli (I don't have a time for Cal at the time of writing)

How tough is the Exmoor Beast compared to other Sportives? It's a tough event, the running of the event in the autumn means the weather is likely to be poor and the route is a lot hillier than some of the "flatter" routes used by other Sportives. To be able to finish even the 100k route most people will need to do some training beforehand.

Elevation Profile of the Exmoor Beast 100k route

The event has a reputation for being run with military precision and this reputation is well deserved. Will I be back next year? Absolutely and probably to do the 100 mile route.

As always thanks for taking the time to take a look at my blog and read the rambling thoughts of the Pixie as he continues on his journey to l'etape 2013. 

I hope you are able to come back to read more Pixie ramblings some time in the future.

Dha weles diwettha