Monday, 28 November 2011

Hell Hath No Fury - possibly the best training video ever

It is not everyday that you can get excited about turbo training.  But when I heard that the Sufferfest had released a new training video – Hell Hath No Fury - which featured the UCI Women’s World Cup I was excited. 

I first started turbo training two years ago when I had signed up for La Marmotte, which is a gruelling French sportive.  Key to success is being able to put in miles over winter, and when you live in Northern Europe darkness, snow and ice can make this difficult. So we turn to the dreaded turbo. At first I managed to get in some fairly good session using self-selected tracks and mimicking spin classes. But then I heard about the Sufferfest and downloaded The Fight Club – which simply revolutionises turbo training.  Based on this I then download a couple more videos to vary my training (Revolver and Downward Spiral).

As a woman, to hear about a new video featuring entirely professional women’s cycling I was intrigued.  David had tweeted for female bloggers to get in touch. So I did and was offered a free download in return for unbiased review.  What I didn’t appreciate was just how brilliant this new video is and that Sufferfest had taken the concept of training one step further.  In this workout you are part of the story. You are on the National Sufferlandrian team and you have a four stage professional race in the bid for the UCI World Cup.  Oh, and you are not a sprinter so you are going to have to work your butt off to gain time.

There clear instructions on what to expect and how much effort is required for each interval based on perceived effort on a scale of 1 to 10.  Sounds are also used to alert you to a change in pace….and the dreaded attacks.  This is all interspersed with the trademark taunts and motivational messages.  I download the videos onto my iPhone, and using an iPhone mount on my handlebars I listen to the tracks through headphones. This works well for me as I like to be fully absorbed in the music.  All of these features are found in the Sufferfest videos so let’s get back to Hell Hath No Fury.

Right from the start you really feel like you are involved in a stage race as the story is built up. The warm up sets the scene as team Sufferlandria gets warmed up for the first race. Stage 1 ups the anti but nothing too difficult so after a short rest it’s suffer time….and man can those women throw down the gauntlet.  I was wondering how I would last doing a 20 minute session – not out from fatigue but out of boredom. There is no chance of boredom as you are racing. There are constant changes in pace, attacks, climbs, uphill sprint finishes and the most amazing climb with a great soundtrack. Makes you want to be there for real!  But it is tough and you will be begging for it to end….so you can get a 7 minute recovery before the next 20 minute race.  Stage 3 feels harder again.  But there is still the team time trial to come.  The 3:30 that will finish you off once and for all.

The music really seems to fit the terrain and I felt completely caught up in the excitement and part of being on the National Team.  There is also a mental visualisation exercise at the end for the cool down.  I thought this was a nice touch and it helps you focus on the reason for your training.

I was already a big fan of the Sufferfest videos. They really take the mental torture out of turbo training and ensure that you get a well structured workout.  So I was already expecting good things of Hell Hath No Fury. But I was pleasantly surprised at how this workout was even better due to the story line and just how tough it was.  And the icing on the cake is to see women’s professional cycling showcased. 10/10.


Sunday, 30 October 2011

The flying Kiwi

The Women's 10 TT series trophy - originally the Vale of Leven
Clarion CC's Ladies Championship trophy from 1950.
Last weekend I was very excited to see the All Blacks lift the Web Ellis Trophy, but I was equally excited to lift the West Lothian Clarion Women’s time trial champion trophy.

It all began last winter when a few of the girls from West Lothian Clarion were discussing plans for the coming year. We got onto the topic of our clubs’ weekly time trial series.  None of us were particularly interested in time trailing but we got into the “I’ll do it if you will” kind of agreement.  I’m not sure if anyone else even remembers that discussion but I decided to uphold my end of the bargain.

The first week I, erm, needed to get my haircut, which I could of course only do a Thursday night.  I couldn’t find a suitable excuse for the next week so spent Thursday carbo loading and getting myself just a little bit nervous about pitting myself against the clock over 10 miles.  Short and fast is not really my forte.  Riding along flat, not particularly scenic roads is most definitely not my forte.  My love of cycling is hilly, scenic back country roads.  So I took in these types of roads to ride to the start of the TT.  Of course when I turned up I was surprised to see that a lot of people had driven to the start.  Oh dear, I thought, this does look serious. No matter, I paid my £1 entry fee and got my race number from the back of the organisers car.

Next came the pre-ride phaff.  Because I had ridden over I had the full works on my bike  - drink bottle, pump, saddle bag with tools and inner tubes.  So I starting fussing about to do with all this until someone pointed out that it is only a club TT.  Ok, stop fussing woman and just get on with it. 

Rolling up to the start I was pretty nervous. As most first timers are, I was mostly nervous about posting up a ridiculously slow time. My goal was to get under 30 minutes.   So all I had to do was average 20 miles per hour for 30 minutes.  How hard could that be?  1 minute to go the person in front has gone and I roll up to the line.  30 seconds do go I clip in while the pusher off holds on to me.  20 seconds getting butterflies thinking I’m not going to fall off, I’m not going to fall off (this comes from the ridiculous fear of falling off when the pusher off lets go).  10 seconds, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5,4,3,2,1 – GOl!  I’m out like a racehorse out of the gate riding as fast as I can, watching the speed on my computer.  I’m doing around 20 to 22 mph and feeling strong.  I hardly notice the traffic around me and just focus on keeping as smooth as possible and watching out for obstacles. I try to get as aerodynamic as possible but it difficult to hold this position on the drops.  10 minutes in and someone goes flying past me – my minute man.  13 minutes and I’m at the turn. Wow! I’m going to get under 30 minutes.  I can do this in 26 minutes. Wrong!  Now the pain starts as the course rises up over a motorway bridge and the road drags.  I don’t want to change down to my middle cog and my legs are screaming as I fight the incline.  From here it is really hard and I fight the urge to ease off.   My sportive experience is telling me to slow down as I am used to pacing myself.  I am also paying the price for going off too fast at the start.  As this stage I am yelling to myself to dig deep and keep pushing. 

The road continues to drag and another rider passes me.  Surely it’s got to end soon.  I get to a junction and finally the road seems to flatten.  I see a high visibility jacket.  The finish!  OMG and I’m under 30 minutes.  OH NO! !!! It’s just a man trimming hedges and not the finish line at all.  Where’s the finish????  Another few hundred metres and there’s the sight for sore eyes.  I feel sick and completely spent and roll back to the layby to compose myself. 

We stand around and have a chat waiting for everyone to finish.  The officials walk back from the finish to read out the results.  I am first woman and my time is read out as 29:57.  I can’t believe it!  I crawl home back over the Bathgate hills, realising why people drive to the start.  I am so spent that I have nothing left to get home.  When I finally slump in the door, the first thing I do is to tweet my time.  But then the next morning I find out that my time was actually 30:57.  So that means only one thing – I have unfinished business and start obsessing about how I can better my time.

Over the course of the summer my times gradually improve and I finally get under the 30 minutes on week 8.  My goal over the summer also changed to trying to win the women’s series, which I did. It was not an easy ride either as I had some strong competition so I had to ride as many nights as I could, as fast as I could.  Some of those nights were pretty grim too. 

I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed the series.  Not only is it strangely enjoyable pushing yourself over 10 miles, there is a great camaraderie amongst the riders.   Now, I can’t think of a better way to spend a Thursday night.

Full results can be found here;

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Classic Cols of the Pyrenees

Col du Tourmalet, Hautacam, Col du Peyresourde, Col d'Aspin are all mythical cols used by le Tour de France and these are just some of the cols we hoped to ride in the next week.  Two years ago I booked on the Classic Cols of the Tour de France run by Marmot tours, in conjunction with Exodus.  I was back to repeat the trip with my husband, Mark. 

Life’s too short to repeat a holiday right?  Well the beauty of this trip is that everyday you have optional routes to ride.  There is the “basic route” which is around 60 km with 1,500 metres of ascent per day. On some days there is a green route, which gives a slightly easier option or the blue route that involves an additional “bonus” col. But the real challenge lies in the red route or The Classic Cols Challenge.  This involves riding up to 3,600 metres of ascent a day and you get a free jersey to commemorate this epic achievement. Before we get too carried away I was on holiday so was deciding my route every day depending on what I felt like doing. My aim was to ride a slightly different route to the one I did two years previous when I took the easiest options. 

Monday morning found us waking up to blue skies and perfect cycling temperatures, which would stay with us for the entire week. The night before we had studied the route maps to decide what to ride.  This usually involved me reading out the gradients to Mark.  Not sure what the neighbours thought of me reading out 5%, 6%, 6% oooh 2%, 3%, ouch 9%, get the idea.  Not that this really meant anything out on the road as the gradients are an average over 1km.  So 8% could be a mix of 2% and 15%!    Over breakfast there is the inevitable conversation amongst 20 people.  So what route are you riding today?  And then comes the inevitable change of plans as people feel the peer pressure of doing that additional col. 

So after a lycra clad breakfeast, a bit of pre-ride phaffing it is out on the road to put those legs and route maps to the test.  I have to confess that some mornings I woke up thinking I really couldn’t face another col but as soon as I start pedalling I know I want to ride all day.  A couple of hours later and a fair bit of suffering I would find myself at the top of the col to the welcome sight of the Marmot Tours van and the friendly face of James.  Usually I was one of the last out on the road so it was always great to catch some other people here to discuss who was doing what and what lunch plans were.  Then it was my favourite part - a 20 minute descent.  I think anyone can ride up a col and we all suffer the same, albeit at different paces, but the key to enjoying this type of riding is learning to love descending.  Keep your hands on the brakes the whole way down and it is a miserable experience.  The real way to do it is to learn to let go on the straights, easy on the brakes coming into hairpin corners, take a good line and let go coming out of the corner.  It is better than any rollercoaster ride I’ve ever known. 

Of course on the descents you feel like a million dollars, and the pain of the climb is forgotten, so I usually opt to get the second col done before a late lunch. And of course the second col is always harder than the first but is easier than struggling up on full stomach.  After cresting the second col it is time for another buzzing descent and then find somewhere for lunch. This usually involves an omelette, French fries, coffee and a friendly French waiter topping up your biddon with fresh water.  Then after an hour or so relaxing it is time for the ride to the hotel for that night, hopefully with some of the team that you have had lunch with. Time for a bit of group riding and team navigation to find the hotel. 

Late afternoon brings the recovery session before dinner.  This is a compulsory beer or two, a recovery drink, shower and nap. Not necessarily in that order.  The beer is most essential as is a shower. Unless you are like one of our trip mates who claimed to not need a shower because he had “already had a shower that morning”.  Bags not sitting next to you at dinner then!

Dinner is typical French affair. Three courses, maybe a cheese course, carafes of wine should you choose and endless supplies of baguette. This is topped up by the not so typical endless supply of pasta, which had been prearranged by James for ravenous, carbo loading cyclists. This then results in a quite bloated feeling as you hit the sack feeling quite satisfied, having read out the gradients for the next day, ready to repeat the experience again.   Rather than bore you with a description of everyday I have decided to highlight my top 10 moments. Admittedly this ideas is stolen from Chris Evan’s as I was reading his autobiography whilst on holiday. So here goes;

Top 10 moments

Being cheered up the Tourmalet by onlookers.
Restaurant Baluchon
Bonne cuisine on our rest day.
Ricky’s bucket
While we all had small day bags for our essentials to go in the support vehicle, Ricky, another Kiwi on the trip had a bucket for his kit.  It was bought initially to put ice in to treat a swollen ankle, but was amusing all the same.
Café stop after Col de Port
I stopped at a café before doing the Col de Saraillé to get a caffeine fix.  One of the locals, who spoke better English than my French, said to my ride buddy Adrian.  “It is a tough climb the Col de Port” and then to me, “but even tougher for a woman”.  The look on his face was priceless when I let it drop that I have ridden Galibier.
Col D’Aspin
Cruising up Col D’Aspin, which is a truly beautiful climb.  I passed a few guys struggling up, and their mates at the top thought it was tough.  Coming after out rest day, and now being acclimatised to the heat, we found it facile. Oh, and the best was the cows at the top with massive horns who took great delight in blocking the roads.  Luckily I got through okay but I think it was too much for some to face on the last few metres of ascent.
Joe & Jenny doing a double Tourmalet
Jenny hated riding hills previous to this trip but somehow got talked into booking onto the classic cols trip.  On the last day Jenny and Joe decided to ride back up the Tourmalet.  Only thing is they couldn’t get their classic photo at the top as the big statue had been put away.
Coralie completing the Classic Cols Challenge
Coralie has only been cycling since May last year and managed to complete the Classic Cols Challenge.  Chapeau Coralie!
The “Joe Tow”
Riding the last 20km into St Giron in a tight group of four, led by Joe doing 25mph.
Descending off the Col de Menté
Brilliant switch backs that throw you out of the corners, similar to berms on a mountain bike track.
Riding the Tourmalet and the Hautacam on the same day. 
Halfway up the Tourmalet I decided I would also ride the Hautacam. While they looked to have similar gradients on paper, the Hautacam was a lot harder. The climb was scrappy as you would get 2% or even downhill sections followed by a brutal 10% section for 3 kms.  I stopped for a rest at 5km to go and text Mark to tell him where I was.  He was at the top and had been speaking to an old French couple how were amazed at what we had ridden that day.  They stopped their car when they saw me riding up to shout “Bon Courage! Bon Courage!”.  That made my day - as did making it to the top of the Hautacam.

Cols Ridden
Col du Chioula (1431m)
Co du Port (1250m)
Col de Saraillé (942m)
Col de Porte D’Aspet (1069m)
Col de Menté (1349m)
Col du Peyresourde (1569m)
Col d'Aspin (1489m)
Col du Tourmalet (2115m)
Hautacam (1535m)

My personal distanced for the trip:  400km, 8,700 metres of ascent.

6 people completed the Classic Cols Challenge, an eye watering 600km with 15,460m of ascent.

Everyone finished the route and no one spent a single moment in the support van. 

Trip Details

Highly recommended trip.  I wasn't the only person repeating this trip so that says a lot about how good it is.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Ken Laidlaw Sportive 2011

Two years ago I rode my first century, the Ken Laidlaw Sportive, in torrential rain.  On paper it should have been a miserable experience as I also rode on my own and hadn’t done enough training.  But it was the best ever event I had ridden, due to the stunning route on quiet roads and the great organisation and camaraderie.  So in 2011 I promised myself I would ride it again, hopefully in better conditions and as a stronger rider.

My other half had somehow talked himself into entering as well so we were both up at 6am for the drive down to Hawick for the 9am mass start.  Both of us hadn’t done enough training so we discussed that we would opt for the 52 mile route if we weren’t feeling strong by the first feed stop.  Two years ago the lack of training was because I had entered on the spur of the moment, this time it was down to work commitments.  Still, no time to dwell on that.  We arrived at the start and I spotted a few of my club mates from the West Lothian Clarion.  I have only been a member of the club for 2 years so it was great to be in a small posse of gold & white jerseys at the start.

9am and we were off in a peleton of 500 cyclists riding through Hawick town centre on closed roads.  Soon we left the urbun confines and into the approach of the first climb, where I lost contact with my club mates.  No matter, there were so many friendly people riding to chat so you just end up riding with anyone.  Then someone called my name and I turned my head to see a former work colleague. It was a pleasant surprise to see Alan, who used to be a short distance commuter, wanting to do more miles.  So Alan & I caught up on news on the first climb before he dropped back to ride with his brother.  We soon reached Roberton where there were lots of bystanders cheering us on like the Tour of Britain was riding though.  Kids were banging pots.  It was such a brilliant atmosphere, which took away the pain of the first three climbs.   There were even supporters on top of the Swire, which has featured as a killer climb in Cycling Weekly. 

Somehow I lost contact with my group on the descent so had to work hard in the Yarrow Valley in the head wind to catch a group.  I took my turn at the front but found the pace a bit slow so I left them behind.  Then I spotted a clarion jersey up ahead so wound the pace up again to catch John Hanlin.  We started up the next climb together and worked with four others up the gradual Berrybush climb into that persistent head wind.  I looked behind and saw about 30 hangers on.  I tried the flick of the shoulder to get more to share the work. Then I got half wheeled out of the group so I decided it was time to get clear of the group and went over the top on my own.  Of course I got caught on the descent and John & I rode into the first feed station together.

My beady eyes were searching out a red Ribble amongst the melee of bikes outside the village hall.  Yes! I had caught up with Mark at the feed station so walked in with a grinning face to spot him.  Both of us were having a great ride, and the weather was fair, so there was no way we were going to cut the ride short.  It’s very hard to leave the feed stops on the Ken Laidlaw sportive as it is more like being in a café, but even better - a café filled entirely with cyclists. I chatted to so many people that it was 20 minutes gone by before I could get myself sorted for the next section, where John & I joined forces with more clarionistas Davy & Gordon for the rest of the route.

We worked together and chatted for the next section to Langholm, so it was more like being on a club run.  I was dreading the next climb as I knew it was a biggy and was steep at the bottom.  About three miles before “That Climb” Davy punctured.  Within 30 seconds a support vehicle pulled up with spare tubes, then another, and then a motorbike with a track pump appeared.  Puncture repaired, we were off, only to puncture again.

Nicely rested after the second puncture we were soon faced with That Climb!  After four big climbs in the legs and a head wind it was tough.  Everyone seemed to be in their on little world of pain. Alan caught me so we rode up together to what we thought was the top.  But there was more to come as there was a dip and then more ascent.  Davy, Gordon & John were waiting for me at the first false summit –what a sight for sore eyes!  We mingled in with the club from Dalmeny, a neighbouring town, whose shirts said “No Hill No Cake”.  Great motto and after that hill we deserved cake. The next feed stop didn’t disappoint and there was definitely cake to be had and much more, including endless cups of tea.

By this stage we were tired but thought we had cracked the ride.  Mmm,  maybe not with 3 big climbs left….the ride almost cracked me.  I had to resort to the emergency caffeine gel for the second to last climb as I was feeling the pace.  And then there was Bonchester hill, the last gruelling climb to get over before the charge for home.  And it went on, and on, and on.  When you’ve got three grown men asking if this is the last climb then you know it’s been a tough day.  Still we dug in got to the top and then it was only five miles of descent and a straight run home…until we punctured again with three miles to go.  Again there was fantastic support from the roving supporters. Puncture “fixed” we were off to the finish of what has got to be the best sportive in the UK.  Challenging route, quiet roads and brilliantly supported.  The icing on the cake is it is such a friendly event from the organisers and volunteers to the riders to the supporters on the road side.  Simply fantastic!

105 miles, 2,500 metres of ascent.  Rolling time of 7 hours.  Elapsed time of 8 hours 40 minutes. 

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Lake Feminine APR 20 March 2011

Driving up the M9, a rainbow appears from the murky Scottish Day as I listen to hyper pumping tunes on Radio 1 on the way to Balfron.  Balfron is the HQ for the Lake Feminine APR, a women’s only handicapped road race.  While I have lost count of how many sportives, triathlons, half marathons and 10ks I have completed, this is the first cycling road race I have ever entered.  Why, as I near the age of 40, am I putting myself through this?  Well a few reasons.  Firstly, I want support the drive to develop women’s cycling in Scotland.  Secondly, I am hoping to lead by example to encourage other novices to enter.  Lastly, plain curiosity, to find out how I compare and what it is like.

It’s about 7 degs C with a constant fine drizzle keeping everything damp.  At registration I try to ignore that fact the most of the competitors look 10 years younger than me.  There’s the normal last minute phaff over what to wear before I meet up with Debbie for the 4 mile ride to the start. It's a nice warm up but you sense the pre-race nerves as groups of riders go flying past in silence.  I didn’t want to rush to get to the start only to get cold again.  So Debbie & I just stick to our own steady pace and time our arrival to perfection.  Debbie is my club mate and fellow committee member from the West Lothian Clarion.  This is Debbie’s first event ever – not even a sportive or 10k to her name. This is a fantastically brave move, especially with the race being in March, straight out of another fairly harsh winter.

At start, a layby on the roadside, we are arranged into our groups.  There are four groups, arranged by ability.  Group 1 has a 4 minute head start on Group 2, who has a two minute start on Group 3, who in turn leave 2 minutes before the last group.  39 women are entered in total. 

As novices, Debbie & I are in group 1.  We have a discussion in our group how we will arrange ourselves.  We decide on the classic chain gang in an anticlockwise direction.  This means we ride two abreast, with the outside riders moving up faster and pulling over to the left in front of the first rider.  The next rider following behind and does the same, while at the back the last rider pulls out in behind the last rider on the right so we all move in a circular motion.  This will give us a faster speed as each rider only has a short amount of hard slog and then will recover in the group once back on the inside.

However, this plan doesn’t eventuate as the group falls to bits right from the off.  Some riders just take off too fast (or are we too slow?) and others are a long way behind.  Debbie and I work hard to try to catch the front riders to form a group as the others are not catching us from behind.  Stuck in no-mans land, we experiment with taking turns at the lead and soon begin to ride really well as a two woman team.  Group 2 goes past.  We try to catch their back wheels but inadvertently caught the tail-enders who had fallen off the back so miss catching the main group.  Once we hit the first roundabout and we realise we can’t catch them we just keep working out our pace as a team.  A few minutes latre and riders from Group 3 come through.  Then, just before the first climb, along comes the train that is Group 4.  We stick with Group 4 for a bit on the first climb but as we crest the hill we lose them. 

The middle section is just the two of us for quite a while.  My demons start to come out and I have to confess to feeling a bit down at being passed by so many girls.  But I concentrate on my riding, banishing those pesky demons, until we catch up with another rider and form a team of three.  We yell to a girl who is abandoning to come with us but she doesn’t look best pleased.  We get a really good chain gang working and get a good speed up.  A few miles on we see another rider in the distance but can’t catch her on the flat.  Finally we catch her and then three becomes four.  We work together on the next section which has a few ups and downs and a long drag uphill.  At times the group falls to bits, as we each have our strengths and weakness.  And we all show signs of tiredness at different sections. But we try to bring it back together.  I really start to enjoy the race now as it is this team working that I love. 

Debbie is flying now and has managed to pull ahead.  You GO GIRL! is what I am thinking.  Normally I’d be a bit jealous but somehow you are quite please when it is your team mate getting ahead.  But after a couple of miles Debbie takes the wrong turn and, due to the time lost, is back with us.  At this stage I am feeling knackered and realise I need some fuel. I eat what is left of my energy bar and a few minutes later start to get some strength back.  After what seems an endless piece of A road we  hit a roundabout and are directed to Balfron. I can sense the charge for the finish line now.  We hit the bottom of a climb so I take my gel and the last of my drink, and start to push harder.  I look down on my frame and see my Livestrong sticker “I ride for Ellen Orr (Mum)”.  Thinking of my Mum’s battle with cancer I dig deeper for Mum.  Last turn I sense the end is near.  I take advantage of the turn to drop my group but am soon bought back into the fold.  Down to three and then it’s just me & Debbie again. We ride together until the last climb when I give it all I’ve got to the finish line.

Back at HQ it’s time for tea and cake.  There is great chat amongst the girls, even with our comical mud splattered faces.  A quick clean up and then it’s time for prizegiving.  A £250 prize pool is allocated out to the first 6 places.  There is a great buzz at the turnout and talk of the next event.

Debbie & I completed the 31 mile ride in a time of 1:48.  Out of the 39 entered 32 finished.  We placed 26th & 27th but I am pleased because I have a ridden the fastest I have ever ridden, have worked well as a team and we finished!  I’d recommend the Lake Feminine APR to anyone who wants to experience racing.  There was a wide range of abilities. If you want to avoid riding on your own get along to your local club now and start finding a race buddy or two.