Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Cotswold Autumn Classic Sportive

As usual the Pixies alter ego Captain Tardy will be writing this post, yep, it's been nearly a month since the Santini Cotswold Autumn Classic took place on 7th October so this post could be viewed as being a little on the late side!

The Cotswolds Classic was an event I had been looking forward to (not least because it started and finished about 20 miles from my home, rather than nearly a hundred miles away!) as it promised some riding in an area I was familiar with and looking at the elevation profile of the route it didn't look like it contained a significant amount of climbing. 

I was also looking forward to the event as it would provide another opportunity to ride in a group rather than riding on my own. My experience on the Southdowns Challenge had taught me just how much less energy is used when riding in a group compared to riding solo and I had also realised that by riding in a group longer distances were easier to complete. Apparently riding in a group uses something like 20-30% less energy than riding on your own.  

Prior to the start of the event I had arranged to meet up and ride with a couple of people I had "met" via Twitter (the wonder of social media and the internet again) Of course trying to meet up with someone you have never met before in a crowd of hundreds of people all wearing lycra and all pushing bikes around was never going to be easy, however we did manage it and Alex and Tony didn't seem to have any trouble finding the Pixie who was dressed all in black apart from his fluoro green helmet.

Introductions out of the way and it was time to take our place on the start line. It was at this point that I realised that I had inadvertently arranged to ride with a couple of Sportive veterans that had earlier in the year competed in a French sportive and had climbed Alp d'Huez - No pressure there then!

Once underway we made our way out of Cirencester and headed out into the Cotswold country side. We were all suffering a bit with the cold early morning temperature so a decision was made to increase the pace and try to join one of the faster groups that were making there way around the course.

Within a couple of miles we had joined a large group that seemed fairly well organised and we soon found ourselves rolling along at a comfortable 20-22mph. The feeling of riding along in that group as we made our way down the country lanes cutting through the early morning mist was actually quite special, if you are a cyclist and you haven't tried riding with a group I would recommend that you try it, you probably won't be disappointed. 

Riding in a group isn't without its perils, you do have to stay alert and you do have to keep an eye on what everybody around you is doing. We witnessed a classic example of what happens when people stop concentrating just as we were approaching a junction in the road. One minute everybody is whooshing along enjoying the thrill of riding in the pack, the next there is the unmistakable metallic sound of bikes scraping along the ground and the thud of soft human bodies hitting the deck. This is followed by lots of evasive action from those following the unfortunate victims and several other "near misses" as the rest of the group takes evasive action to miss those people trying to miss the original incident - All very exciting and heart pumping stuff!

The "victims" of this incident appeared to be fine, a bit bruised, a bit of minor gravel rash and lightly dented egos, but no real harm done by what was probably a momentary lapse of concentration.

Alex (second from left) Pixie and Tony (third from left)
cutting a dash through the early morning Cotswold mist  

The first half of the route didn't contain any particularly significant climbs or hills and this resulted in us being able to average a respectable average speed of around 22mph for the next hour or so. 

Once we had left the feed station the type of terrain the route was going through started to change and as each mile passed by we seemed to be making our way up and down more hills and valleys. The severity of the hills also seemed to be gradually increasing as well (nothing to severe just gradually getting longer and a bit steeper) My Strava data for the ride indicates that there was a pronounced change in the frequency and steepness of hills at around the 36 mile mark with a cheeky little short climb of around 5-6% followed by about four miles of steady but gradual climbing.

At around the 45 mile point, the terrain changed quite dramatically and it was clear that the organisers were not going to give competitors an easy ride in to the finish. The next nine miles saw competitors going up and down a number of long and relatively steep hills which varied in severity from 5-9% 

The fact that these hills were all contained within the last quarter of the ride seemed to have an impact on many competitors ability to get up them without resorting to wearing out their cleats (that's walking for all of you non cyclists) and it was actually quite surprising how many people we passed on those last hills (walking and cycling) Its at times like this that I remember why I go through the pain of my training programme - I tried walking up a hill in my cycling shoes once and didn't like it. In my opinion it is easier to train like a demon and do everything I can to minimise the potential of having to grind my cleats on a hill, however it is only my opinion and I can also kind of see the attraction of not training and walking up hills.       

It was whilst climbing the last significant climb of the day going through a  damp woodland area that we witnessed one of our fellow competitors fall off their bike into the side of a tractor that was trying to squeeze past him (rather than wait a few seconds for him to pass) This really was one of those "slow motion" moments when you are watching events unfold in front of you and you are hoping that what could happen, won't happen. Thankfully the competitor didn't fall under the tractor wheels and the tractor came to a halt in the nick of time - however it could so easily have finished another way. The remarkable thing about this incident was the fact that the tractor driver only got out of his tractor to check on the cyclist when his tractor was surrounded by cyclists, showing concern for a fellow competitor and preventing the tractor from moving. Had the "victim" been on his own I'm sure the tractor driver wouldn't have bothered to stop. The competitor appeared to be okay and was able to push his bike to the top of the hill - hopefully the bruises didn't take to long to heal and his bike is fixed. 

Once up and over this last real climb the route started its descent back down towards Cirencester with the last 8 miles being predominantly down hill on gradients of around -1%. We were able to use this last section of the route to push ourselves for one last effort in an attempt to achieve a respectable overall time. My Strava data indicates that we averaged something like 22-23mph for this section which wasn't to shabby at all, given that it was at the end of a 100k ride. 

The end of the ride was marked by riding through a huge inflatable arch and being given a "goody bag" which contained some promotional freebies and a magazine (I already had a copy of the first edition of "The Cyclist" so if anyone wants my spare copy feel free to contact me) 

Post ride feeding consisted of a small bowl of pasta and veggie sauce with a cup of coffee or tea. I believe there might have been some cake on offer but I didn't find it and to be honest my legs wouldn't have let me go and look for it anyway.

There were a number of trade stands near the finish area selling all manner of "must have" end of season cycling bargains but none of them caught my eye and I managed to refrain from buying even more cycling gear. The complete bikes were however very spangly and would have looked very nice parked up in my garage alongside the Specialized (maybe that'll be a treat for another day?)

The Cotswold Autumn Classic was a very enjoyable event, the weather was very kind to us and the course was a very well thought out course which would suit both the experienced and novice sportive rider alike.

How did we do? Our total time for the 100k was 4 hours 2 minutes, with a "moving time" of 3 hours 53 minutes (clearly we need to spend less time hanging around at feed stations and attending to "calls of nature")

Will I be back for another go next year? Absolutely and I suspect I will be doing the 100 mile route rather than the 100 kilometre route.

100K Route

Thanks have to go to Alex and Tony for letting me ride with them on the day as the ride wouldn't have been nearly as enjoyable if I had done it on my own as i had originally intended when I entered the event.

Now that I have finished writing this post, I had better start writing the next one which will be about competing in the "Exmoor Beast" sportive (the event was three days ago and I'm going to see if I can get the post up on the web site before the end of the week - Will Pixie be writing it this week or will Captain Tardy be writing it in about three weeks time?)

As always thanks for taking the time to visit my blog and for reading the rambling thoughts of the Pixie as he continues on his journey to l'Etape 2013. 

I hope you are able to pop back for another look at the blog sometime in the future.

Dha weles diwettha




Friday, 26 October 2012

Killer Welsh Hills and Testing Times

Early October and it was time for me to go over and see Simon at Total Cycling Performance for my mid training programme assessment. When I say "mid" it was actually about three weeks late due to me having been on holiday and deciding that I was going to re-complete the the two weeks of my programme that I had missed and the week immediately prior to me going on holiday as I wasn't happy with the levels of training I had completed in those weeks. An overview of the training I managed to complete whilst on holiday can be found here "August training update"

In addition to completing the assessment to see if my performance and fitness were improving, Simon and I decided we should try and complete a ride utilising some of the hills that are right on his doorstep on the same day (this was a ride that we had arranged previously and cancelled due to bad weather and had subsequently been unable to re-arrange)

When I arrived on the day it was at worst a "a little on the damp side" with a bit of mist and drizzle in evidence, not enough to abort the ride and with both of us keen to get out on the road we wasted no time in putting my bike together and setting off.

Simon informed me that we would probably only be going about 30 miles, however he had planned in some nice hills to see how my climbing ability was progressing.

The killer Welsh hills waiting for the Pixie  

If you ever go for a ride with Simon and you start from his premises, be warned, there is no warm up in the ride before you start climbing - its basically uphill as soon as you clip into your pedals! Within 0.4 miles we were on a gentle 7.5% incline as we made our way to the start of the ride proper.
I have to say that at this point I was a little apprehensive as my heart rate was merrily skipping along at around 155 beats per minute and I was already having to ease my pace up to manage it in the way Simon had taught me to in order to avoid "blowing up" early in the ride.

At around 2.5 miles we arrived at the bottom of the first serious climb of the day, the "Maerdy Road" Simon had warned me that parts of this climb were over 14% and that it was a longish climb of around 2.75-3 miles of varying degrees of difficulty with some "alpine" hairpin bends thrown in for good measure. It was at this point that the weather changed and it went from being "a little on the damp side" to "very, very wet" It's safe to say that as we climbed up this hill I was glad that I had left my 12-30 rear cassette on and hadn't changed it out for the new 12-27 I had sitting on the workbench at home!

Maerdy road hairpin bends - very steep on the inside! 

The picture above shows one of the hairpin bends on the Maerdy road with Aberdare in the background, and its a whole lot harder riding up this hill than it is riding up the hill in a bus! According to my Strava data the elevation gain on this hill was around 759 feet.

As this was the first real climb of the day I found it encouraging that I was able to maintain a good average speed and most importantly have enough power in reserve to be able to manage my pace and therefore my heart rate to keep it below my lactic threshold. It's true you know, hills are much easier to climb in a low gear with a high cadence rate - Again it seems that Simon knows what he is talking about! - No more gear grinding for the Pixie.
The Maerdy road from about halfway up

Once up on top of the hill, the rain was properly "lashing down" and the sky was a nice shade of dark grey, however that didn't detract from the fast descent down into Maerdy which highlighted how woefully inadequate the Tektro brake calipers on the Secteur are and how much a bike moves around (even in a straight line) when the road is basically awash with water - All excellent and exciting stuff! 

Our ride continued for a further five miles until I found myself turning onto an ominously steep looking road, we had arrived at the bottom of the Penrhys Road. My Strava data from the ride tells me that this hill starts out at around 12% increases to 14% and reduces back down to around 11.5% (its always nice when a hills steepness reduces towards the end of the climb!)

Of course "what goes up, must come down" and the reward for toiling up one side was a glorious descent down into Treorchy. Again this descent showed me that if I was going to ride the hills through the winter, I would need to do something about my brakes which were largely ineffective in this amount of rain.

A brisk ride through Treorchy brought us to the bottom of the Rhigos, which heralded the start of a steady 4 mile climb to the top with an elevation gain of circa 1011 feet. The climb to the top of the Rhigos from Treorchy is best described as a steady "grind" at its steepest its around 13% but on the whole its generally between 5 and 7.5% and the hardest part of the climb is the fact that you can see it stretching out for miles in front of you.

The Rhigos from Treorchy 
I had originally planned to ride the Rhigos with Simon in July so in a weird kind of way I was actually quite looking forward to riding this particular hill and having driven up and down it with Simon earlier in the year I sort of knew what to expect. Due to the nature of the climb I didn't find it necessary to resort to my lowest gears for much of the climb and found that I was able to keep my heart rate around 140-145 beats per minute for the majority of the climb, which I was quite pleased with. Chatting to Simon on the way up the climb revealed that their was little difference in our respective heart rates when travelling at the same speed on the climb, which again I was quite pleased with.

It's bleak at the top of the Rhigos on a "dark and brooding" day

By the time we arrived at the top of the Rhigos the weather had improved and it had stopped raining just in time for the the fast descent down into Hirwaun. The descent down the other side of the Rhigos culminates in a mile long long straight piece of road which is graded at around 5-6% that allows the rider to build up some speed and recover from the climb that has just been completed - Again exciting and exhilarating stuff! 

You can go very fast going down this part of the Rhigos! 

Our ride finished off with a brisk paced 3 mile run back to Simon's premises, most of which was either flat or slightly downhill and very welcome after the rain soaked climbs completed earlier in the day.

Strava Profile Data For Complete Ride

Simon is planning to run either a guided "VIP" ride or Sportive next year of around 100-120 mile duration using these and many other hills in the area as part of the course and if you are in training for a major European or UK sportive that takes in hilly terrain I would recommend joining Simon on his ride as it really will be an excellent training opportunity.  

Once we got back to Simon's and had changed into dry clothes it was time to get on with the business of testing whether all the training I had been completing had improved my strength and cycling performance, compared to the results that had been attained during my intitial assessment in July (details of my intial assessment can be found here )   

The following is a snap shot of the results achieved during the reassessment. I think it's fair to say that both Simon and I were happy with the improvements given that immediately prior to completing the tests I had just ridden 30 miles across undulating terrain, in very wet and windy conditions. 

  • 110kg increase in leg press strength
  • Power to weight ratio of legs now 4.30
  • Total of 17 pounds in weight lost
  • 5.6 pounds of muscle gained
  • Net weight loss 12 pounds
  • 10mph increase in sustainable road speed
  • Post ride blood lactate level 4Mmol (indicating ability to hold increased speed at an aerobic level) 
As always, I had a thoroughly enjoyable and informative day with Simon and as I write this I am well into the second eight week block of my plan. Will I be going back for more "Welsh hill action"? - Absolutely, I need to be riding more and more on hills like the ones I rode with Simon if I am to ride l'etape in a credible manner and I will be making regular visits to the area over the next few months.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read the Pixies ramblings and I hope you are able to come back again in the near future.

Dha weles diwettha



Thursday, 18 October 2012

Southdowns Challenge - A Sportive virgins perspective

Sunday 16th September 2012, was the day on which the Pixie achieved another milestone on the journey to completing l'etape (A quick overview of what l'etape is can be found here) It was the day on which the Pixie competed in his first competitive cycling event, the "Southdowns Challenge"

The Southdowns Challenge is a type of event known as a cyclo sportive and the following is an extract from Phil Sinclair's guest blog post which was published on here last month provides a description of what a sportive is ;

"The issue of sportives, for some is sensitive. Especially in the UK where older riders do not see them as races. More as touring rides, (randonées) as they are unlicensed and not normally on closed roads. There also exists Audax rides for which the challenge is long or ultra-long distances. Recently there has been a huge upsurge in the popularity of sportives.

Sportives are very definitely races, with a timed start and a timed finish. With winners in different categories and non financial prizes. Depending on the country, and laws you may need a licence (or day licence bought at registration), a medical certificate and third party and personal insurance. Normally sportives offer up to three routes of different lengths and difficulties."
The Southdowns Challenge offered two different courses of 50 miles and 80 miles and as this was to be the Pixies first competitive cycling event I felt that it would be prudent to choose the lesser distance as my chosen race distance.
Prior to arriving at the start of the event I had exchanged e mails with the organisers who reassured me that, "yes the route would be well sign posted, no, I would not need a sat nav to get around the course, and it would actually be difficult to get lost" this was obviously the answer I was looking for and it certainly played a major part in me not withdrawing my entry for the event (at this point I had run out of reasons to not compete and accepted my fate of probably being the only Sportive "newbie" competing in the event)
Now that I had run out of excuses, I got down to the serious matter of preparing for the event. I'd read any number of internet articles on competing in Sportives. I've got more than a couple of books on the subject, which were consulted and re-consulted, checklists were written, the bike was checked and checked again. My kit bag was packed, unpacked, packed and packed again while I tried to decide what kit I would need? In the end I think I just took everything cycling related I own (better safe than sorry)
On the day of the event I got my route planning for the journey down to the start hopelessly wrong and arrived at the start a full hour before the organisers got there, of course this gave me more time to check everything again, decide what which of my now considerable cycling wardrobe I was going to wear and check the bike again.......
"Signing on" for the event was outrageously simple, no complicated forms to fill in, just turn up, confirm my previously allocated race number together with my name and before I knew it I had my very first competitive cycling race number in my hands.

With race number fixed to my handlebars, I lined up with at the start with all of the other competitors and awaited my turn to set off, was I nervous? Oh yes! At one point my resting heart rate was 101 beats per minute which is about double what it normally is.
When my turn to set off came, I started with a group of around twenty other riders, who thankfully all looked like old hands who I figured I could follow for the first mile or so until they "dropped" me and then I would ride at my own pace for the rest of the ride and hope that I didn't finish with to slow a time.
About three or four miles in, I found that to my surprise I had passed a couple of other riders and was catching up with another group of riders who had either started in the group before mine or had been at the front of my group at the start. When I caught up with this group, one of the riders very kindly asked me if I wanted to join them for a while and ride part or all of the course with them? As a "sportive newbie" this was an offer I wasn't going to turn down, I mean it would be really difficult to get lost with this bunch who clearly knew the ropes.
Over the next couple of miles I was introduced to the rest of the group (Doug Lucktaylor, Steve Dickson, Miles Van der Lugt and Craig Pidcock) and what a great bunch of lads I'd found to ride with, friendly and willing to teach the newbie some of the expected form when riding in a group.
As somebody who had spent the entire summer riding on my own, I was really surprised at how much less energy is used when riding in a group of riders who all take in turns to ride on the front of the group and also how much concentration is required when the rider in front of you is only six inches in front of your front wheel.

The rest of day was a real learning experience and I learnt so much about riding in a group that I would never have picked up had I gone around on my own, so Doug, Steve, Miles, and Craig thank you for letting me ride with you, answering all of my questions and for being so willing to let a stranger ride with you.
Steve competing in a previous Southdown Challenge
The course itself was a really good blend of challenging hills, long inclines, fast descents and long flat sections which meant that all of the different riding styles and techniques that I had been practising since June were called into use. I was particularly grateful to the coaching I had received from Simon at Total Cycling Performance in respect of riding within specific heart rate zones and not riding beyond my lactic threshold on hills as without this coaching I'm sure I would have run out of steam on the longer, more challenging hills. I was quite pleased with my progress in respect of being able to get up big hills without running out of steam when I realised that I was actually passing other riders on hills and was able to have conversations with them as well! #chuffedwithmyprogress 
One of my memories of this event will be Steve proclaiming that "this is the last big hill on the course" as we were climbing Ditcham school climb. The profile image of the entire route taken from my Strava record of the day shows that this was clearly not the case. Somebody once said to me "never trust the locals" that might have been true in respect of Steve's somewhat hopeful statement!
The rest of the ride went really quickly and illustrated to me just how much harder it is to ride on your own than it is when you have the company of other cyclists to distract you from focusing on how long you have been in the saddle and how far you have got left to ride. One of the things I learnt about myself on this ride, was that I think I quite like going up hills, and the steeper they are, the better I like it - weird, I know. It might be something to do with overcoming the challenge or knowing I am pushing myself to the limit or something like that. Alternatively, it might be that I am starting to become a cyclist and accepting that to go down a hill you have to go up a hill.    
Something that Doug and I were discussing towards the end of the ride was the fact that Tandems punch a really big hole in the air, as they move and if you are following one it really does shield you from any headwind that might be present. So the Pixies advice is this, if you are on a Sportive and find yourself behind a tandem, take the opportunity to rest for a few moments before pulling out into the brick wall of wind that you will run into as you try to pass it. 
So how did I do on my first Sportive? Well with the help of the Doug, Steve, Miles and Craig I manged to get around the 50 mile course in a time of 3 hours and 17 minutes which meant I achieved a "silver" standard award.

Was I pleased with this result? Oh yes, just a bit!
I'd gone into this event not knowing what to expect, hopeful that I wouldn't embarrass myself by not finishing or finishing with a really slow time. I had been completely unsure of how a newbie would be received by the seasoned sportive veterans and had been unsure of whether riding in a group would be something I would enjoy? 
The organisation on the day meant that I didn't have have anything worry about in respect of the logistics of competing in the event and I would definitely recommend the Southdowns Challenge as a first event for a Sportive newbie or seasoned competitor alike. The other competitors couldn't have been more welcoming or friendly and if you are reading this and thinking about entering your first Sportive, don't worry about whether you will find somebody to talk to or ride with, you will and everybody will be really friendly. What about riding in a group? Well the Pixie, loves it and is now taking every opportunity to ride with other people. If you haven't tried riding in a group, try it, you'll probably love it and won't look back.

I could have written a lot more about this event as it really was a milestone for me in my preparation for next years big European adventure, however I suspect you will have read enough about this event by now, so I'll resist the temptation to write more :)

Once again thanks to the great people I met and rode with on the day (lets do it again sometime) and thanks to the organisers for putting on a very slick and enjoyable event.

I will be riding this event again next year and I will be riding with the intention of achieving a gold standard, so if you fancy joining me, feel free to get in touch.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read the Pixies ramblings and I hope you can find the time to visit my blog again in the future.

Dha weles diwettha


Monday, 15 October 2012

September Training Update and Losing Six Stones

I think I may be just a little quicker publishing Septembers training update than I was publishing Augusts in September, only a bit quicker, but a bit quicker nonetheless.

September proved to be a pretty good month weather wise and I was able to get out on the roads pretty frequently and gradually push the length of my rides out a bit further with weekend rides on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays regularly being of 50 mile plus duration. What a change from when I started cycling back in May, when to be honest I was struggling to complete a ride of 15 miles.      

Following Augusts disrupted training month, I was fairly determined to put in a good months work during September to try and catch up the two weeks of my Total Cycling Performance training programme I had missed whilst on holiday. During September I made a conscious effort to really push myself when I was in the gym doing strength and cardio training and I am sure that this has had a very positive effect on my performances out on the road, in respect of climbing ability and increased average speed over the duration of a journey.

During September we also took delivery of the Watt Bike that I am hiring over the winter. Watt Bikes are used by Team Sky and Team GB cycling teams as an indoor training tool and if they are good enough for Mr Brailsford, Wiggo, Froome dog and Miss Trott, I'm sure the Watt Bike will be just fine for me!

One of the features of the Watt Bike is the facility to measure peak power in Watts (hence the name) both as an average during any session and also the peak power attained during the session. Lets compare a random figure achieved by me during one of my early Watt Bike sessions with the figure achieved by Mark Cavendish whilst sprinting during a race. I achieved an average power output of around 160 watts with a peak power output of just over 400 watts. Mark Cavendish reputedly pushes out 1400 watts when sprinting for the line. So I think its fair to say Cav' hasn't got to worry about the Pixie catching him up just yet! 

Having the Watt bike available at home has definitely added a real focus to sessions that would have previously been completed on the Turbo due to being able to monitor performance in real time via the bikes "on board" computer. It's surprising how much of an incentive it is to keep pushing harder when you can see your average power output going up or you can see that you have averaged 35 kph over an hour's session. Another useful function that the bike has is the ability to monitor pedalling efficiency in real time, to help achieve a more efficient and powerful pedalling action. This is a copy of one of my early pedalling efficiency print outs.


So how did September look in numbers?

  • 27 training sessions completed during the month
  • Total training time was a little under 41 hours (so around 1 hour 20 minutes per day on average)
  • Average heart rate during all training sessions was 121 beats per minute
  • Average maximum heart during all sessions was 159 beats per minute
  • 15,363 calories burnt as a direct result of training sessions (so just over 4 pounds lost due to exercise completed)
  • Total weight loss 7.7 pounds
  • 627 miles of riding completed
  • Average speed this month over all rides 19.04 mph (Average speed in May/June was 13mph)

  • All in all September has proven to be a good training month and is probably the month where I have made the most significant progress so far in respect of my performance on the bike and with my fitness levels more generally. I think it is fair to say that if I wasn't working with Simon Vincent over at Total Cycling Performance and working to his "Smarter Not Longer" training methodologies, the levels of performance increases I am achieving would not have been possible. As I have said before, maybe, just maybe, the boy knows what he is talking about?! Check out Simons web site here

    For those people who are interested in my weight loss progress, I am now just a fraction under 11 stone 7 pounds. Total weight loss since January is now 85 pounds or just a little over 6 stone. I am fairly sure that my weight will now remain fairly static and changes in relation to weight and fat loss are most likely to manifest themeselves as a reduction in overall % of body fat rather than outright weight.

    So what does the loss of 6 stones look like in the real world? The jacket I am wearing in the following photograph is a jacket that I was regulalrly wearing for work up until mid January and it was a pretty snug fit.


    Yes that jacket really was on the tight side and it is fair to say both Mrs Pixie and I were quite shocked when I tried it on recently.

    In other news relating to Septembers activities I have taken part in my first Cycling Sportive event, but that story deserves it's own blog post.......

    As always, thanks for taking the time to read the Pixies ramblings and hopefully you will be able to find the time to visit the blog again in the future.

    Dha weles diwettha


    Pixies not afraid of this hill anymore! - Thanks Simon