An enforced rest – know when you are beaten

Tired cyclistLegs dead, they hurt climbing stairs. Pain strikes when standing from a seated position. Time for rest. I’ve been commuting every week and cycling every weekend since November. My legs have given up.

Mentally I’m shot too with 9-5 (more like 8-6 of late) office life taking its wretched toll. Colleagues have been talking at me for weeks now and I’ve somehow satisfied their needs by pretending to understand what the hell they are yakking on about. My incomprehensible grunts seem to answer their questions. Sleeping badly, every inch of me needs rest.

Yet still it takes enormous will power to take a weekend off cycling. The bad weather helped. So too the fact my bike needed some TLC after a winter spent slogging away on salty, muddy roads. It was less race bike and more a tractor. With the clocks going forward and stealing, that’s right, stealing an hour of my weekend, then I needed all the rest I could get.

Throughout winter my mileage has been short but intensity high. I don’t remember having felt so strong so early in the year. Taking a rest now will undo such work, my tiny mind thinks, when the reality is riding with tired legs will send me into a downward spiral. Progress will slow no matter how many times I shout HTFU.

And relax…

Sleeping with the bicycleSo what does a bike nut do when they’re not riding? Bike stuff of course! A half-hearted bike clean (wet wipe special) and a mini service to make sure all is smooth. Glass picked out from tyres. Gears re-indexed. Brake pads checked. Chain oiled. I’m now more eager than ever before to get out and ride.

Yet rest I must. I watched the pro’s bouncing over Belgian cobbles, the wind literally blowing them into the canal. Finally, I was happy to be indoors and practice my little Buddhist mantra to encourage my legs to heal… heal… heal.

What else? Well there were new routes to plan and lost roads to discover if only on a map. Cycling blogs to write and cycling videos to watch. The Woody Allen hypochondriac in me also Googled away in search of miracle recovery cures, of which there are none. Just time off the bike. Bah.

A big summer awaits. Scotland, the Alps, Majorca. Rest I must.

How not to climb a hill – a hard-fought education

Cycling steep hill walkingThe deconstruction of a hill climb gone wrong. Very, very wrong.

The summit. Finally. My body quivers, arms and legs shaking, in shock, for they know not what their master has just put them through. Dumbstruck, they remain numb. Nothing works. My eyes see double, triple, the many horizons wobbling before me. Asphyxiated, I’ve climbed to the moon and cannot breathe. What on earth just happened, I wonder, staring accusingly at my legs, my head shaking. The banana I ate two hours earlier does its best to rise and see what all the fuss is about. Mustn’t let the precious energy escape my mouth.

Pain sears through my dead jelly legs. I sit back down. My lungs burn, oxygen scorching my innards with every breath. Pompeii I think, I must be climbing Mount Vesuvius, right? I look back down the minor slope behind me. This is no mount.

It’s just a short, modest climb to the top of Alexandra Palace. Ordinary in fact. This is north London, hardly renowned for its brutal climbs. The name Ally Pally has never instilled fear into anyone. Until now.

Time has gone into reverse. The tailwind appears to have deserted me and is hiding, embarrassed to be supporting this farce. Defiant, I stand and stomp on the pedals as best I can, my loose legs firing blanks, dragging themselves to the sky before plummeting back down to the ground at ever increasingly awkward angles.

Fireworks at Ally Pally

Somebody is glad I made it to the summit. Fireworks at Ally Pally.

Back in the saddle, I.am.moving.so.slowly. Must turn the crank, pull and push, legs no longer spinning, my pedals rotate like the second hand on a clock. Tick tock, ouch. Tick tock, ouch. My fingers search for the gear levers but swipe only air. Damn you fixed gear bike. Wake up damn you legs. I cry out, less a roar, more a gasp.

Ugh. How am I still riding this? I stand back up and sneak a peek at the remainder of the hill, refusing to believe the eyeballs popping out of my head.

Half of the hill remains. Every fresh pedal stroke requires a monumental effort. The only thing emptier than my cycling heart are my legs, now overdrawn, more so than Lance Armstrong’s moral and current bank account. I’ve blown and there’s no paying back this debt.

Time and speed stands still and all thought of personal bests is replaced by that desperate feeling of simply making it to the top. Must keep moving, must not put my foot down, must not surrender. I sit back down and think of anything but the pain and how much further remains. My speedo is lying to me but I can look at nothing else. Definitely must not look up.

I’m back out of the saddle, my arms struggling into action and beginning to quiver, crying out in pain as if to say, hey, this isn’t my job. My trembling legs have no reply, they are meek and silent, dead matchsticks, their flame long since burnt out.

Tired cyclistI sit, unable to support my own body any longer. Can’t be much further I think, my pace middling, looking up, the hill curving away in the distance. A trick of the eye, must be I think, for my legs are telling me the summit must be near. Very near. Surely? I look up to check again. The road continues to extend upwards, no end in sight. Have I overdone this, I wonder, still in denial.

Instinct kicks in and I stand, rising from the saddle like a boxer breaking from his corner stool at the sound of the bell, legs pummeling down on the pedals in an attempt to drive my bike down through the tarmac. There can be only one victor.

Slowing. Surely not? But yes, my rhythm is less orchestra and more free form jazz, my pace slackening gradually. Must keep my leg’s turning. I focus on my technique, pushing and pulling, deep breaths in… out. Yet still I slow.

A quarter of the climb done and nothing can stop me. The imaginary crowd gets to its feet and roars its delight. Nobody hears my muscles tighten.

Bang. I fire off like a bullet, a new personal best my only target. Seated, I power away, cranks spinning, a hamster on a wheel, a well caffeinated Chris Froome, eyes glued to his stem. I’m flying. The record is mine. My legs feel strong, two mighty pistons drilling for oil, rising and falling with a machine-like precision and regularity.

A nervous energy dances in my stomach as I approach the foot of the climb, my head full of dreams. Mostly of the finish. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. I look up at the famous television tower at the summit and visualise not Ally Pally but Mount Ventoux. Hello old foe I think, a smile on my lips as the wind blows me ever closer to my imaginary start line.

The climb began two days earlier. I’m already tracking the weather and that all important wind direction and speed. I ride easy on my commutes for every kilojoule counts. On the day I eat a carb rich lunch and treat myself to an energy packed banana in the afternoon, water constantly downed to avoid the cramps. The climb is all I can think about. I’m hill sick and only a new personal best can cure my ills. Temporarily.

Climbing Alexandra Palace

All Pally Hill Climb
Truth is, this was only my fourth attempt at climbing Ally Pally from the east and every time I’ve overcooked the start. Climbing from the west as I usually do, the climb is much less severe in gradient, averaging 4% compared to 7% on the east.

I always thought Ally Pally was a tame climb compared to my regular slogs up the nearby Muswell Hill or Swain’s Lane to the west. This being my first eastern climb up Ally Pally on my fixed, I was as overgeared as I was overexcited. Burning out halfway up a hill on a fixed gear bike is no fun at all.

Hills are as hard as you make them. Hit them too hard and too early and any slope soon becomes your own wall of hell. Next time I’ll take it easier on the approach. Perhaps.

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An ode to cycling in Regent’s Park

Cycling Regent's ParkSo long Regent’s Park, circle of madness, of pain, of random chaingangs, of reliable winter cycling. You have been my outdoor indoor trainer for almost five months now, looping around, huffing and puffing lap after lap. Counterclockwise of course, for I have never ridden this popular 2.77 mile cycle route clockwise. That would be just madness!

Since October I’ve cycled at the Royal park every weekend but one. The park is in my cycling blood. It is one of north London’s classic rides. Regent’s Park, Swain’s Lane, Ally Pally. The loop sends us crazy yet we can’t live without it. True love.

My rides ranged from five to eighteen laps and yet I was never bored. Well maybe a bit towards the end of the fourth month! Yet cycling entertains my puny brain so much that riding the same old short loop still entertains me. So much variation. Where to begin? A hard all out lap. Three hard laps at threshold. Sprinting and intervals. Pulling for strangers or wheelsucking better riders than I. The moments just fly by.

A lap of Regent’s is pretty much pan flat (although regulars soon begin to refer to the two slight rises as hills!) which means you can knock out rides with a high average speed, depending on how lucky you are with the four sets of traffic lights. Wind aside, your lap times are a great yardstick for where you are in terms of fitness.

Cycling around the bend

Regent's Park lap cyclingStrava tells me I’ve ridden the Outer Circle at Regent’s Park exactly 500 times! All counterclockwise. That’s almost 1,400 miles, longer than riding Lands End to John O’ Groats. Closer in fact to the entire coastline of Florida or the equivalent of riding from London to Montenegro.

Quite a feat of mental endurance if nothing else. How does that make me feel? Torn. My cycling heart believes this to be a travesty when I could be out there enjoying the great British countryside. Are you mad, it screams? Deviate, explore for Christs sake, or at least ride the damn loop the other way!

“Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun, in Regent’s Park, was enough. Too much, indeed.”
Virginia Woolf, QOM Regent’s Park Outer Circle

Yet my cycling brain dominates. Regent’s Park is my winter turbo. I can ride ice free roads which are relatively traffic free throughout the winter. There’s no country lane slime to clog up my gears. No potholes to puncture my tires (I’ve never punctured at Regent’s Park – Jinx!). Yes I’m mad, but no worse than cyclists turning gears on their turbo in the shed or their kitchen.

Truth is I’ll rarely visit the park in the summer but for one reason. Rising early to beat the sunrise, the traffic, the traffic lights and my Regent’s Park lap record.

A cycling club without the jersey

Regent's Park in Autumn

Autumn in the park and the park turns a very Merckx orange

True, Regent’s Park has its own cycling club (more on them later), yet it’s the random cyclists I enjoy riding with, informal and brief alliances as we drag and follow one another for a lap or two, maybe more. Grimaces as you each smash it into the headwind past the zoo. The picking up of pace as you climb the gentle incline towards Gloucester Gate. Few words are exchanged, communication is little more than heavy breaths. Occasional thank yous every now and then, a comment about the headwind at the traffic lights, a knowing tut when somebody almost doors you getting out of their car.

Sure I could join a club but I’m a man who likes to cycle on my own terms. Regent’s Park allows for this with the benefit of a little group riding as and when required. You can fall off the back of a group and catch them next lap for nobody is left behind on a 2.77 mile lap.

Regent’s Park Rouleurs

Less of a cycling club, more of a chain gang. These boys ride more laps of Regent’s Park than Wiggle sells Team Sky jerseys each July. Seeing the RPR gang ride around the park at stupid o’clock in the morning is almost magical. Bright white bike lights cutting through the dark, a ghost peloton, a freight train of silent legs mashing out revolutions, smooth rubber licking the hardtop. Graceful.

Hamsters on wheels, they’re a quick bunch. ‘We ride at a brisk pace’, declares their British Cycling profile somewhat modestly. ‘You should be able to sustain 22 mph (36 kph) solo around the park for sustained periods’. Ouch. Whilst I can manage that pace when the park is quiet the thought of getting up at 5.45 to ride the park wearing bright yellow booties every week is another matter. For that is madness.

 

Fastest lap of Regent’s Park

The park is probably one of the most competitive segments in the UK. A mere 8,864 people have ridden the loop but between them have stacked up a mind boggling 476,892 laps. That’s an average of over 50 laps per rider. The aforementioned Regent’s Rouleurs dominate the leaderboard on Strava, with 15 of the top 20 fastest lap times. Impressive if achieved without drafting.

With four sets of traffic lights, record laps are best attempted early morning or late evening when the park is closed to traffic. Crunching out 2.77 miles at near max heart rate is quite the feat and seems to get harder every time I try it. Must be getting older.

My fastest lap of Regent’s Park? A 6.22 starting at Gloucester Gate, which is a 26 mph lap and puts me comfortably inside the top 10%. The leaders are nearer 30 mph! I vividly remember breaking the 7 minute barrier and achieving something akin to inner peace. If I ever break (sorry, when I) break 6 minutes I’ll be so happy spontaneous human combustion will be a distinct possibility.

I find a rare easterly wind to be the most beneficial, pushing you along the drag near the zoo or a southerly helping you climb the ‘hill’ towards Gloucester Gate. Most people begin their attempt at the bottom of the incline up to Gloucester Gate, giving you an easier finish on the flat. Not being most people, I give myself the hardest finish possible and have been close to death on this stretch on many an occasion.

What to look out for

Giraffes at Regent's Park

You talking to me?

  • Giraffes! And maybe zebras too as the Outer Circle takes you through the middle of London Zoo. This really is a treat. Early mornings you can hear the squawks and roars of many a beast!
  • Car doors. The entire loop can become a bit of a zoo on a Sunday afternoon with lots of parked cars opening doors. Go early or stay wide.
  • Traffic lights. There’s four sets, two of which are pedestrian controlled. The set in the south of the park are the worst in terms of waiting time. Watch for cars at this set turning left and ignoring the cycle lane. Beware also of cars coming in the opposite direction turning right across your path.
  • Police. The park is well policed, targeting speeding drivers and also red light jumping cyclists. Don’t do it no matter what your lap time.
  • Other cyclists. Draft ’em, lead ’em and thank ’em. The standard of group riding in Regent’s Park is higher than average (at least early-ish mornings when I’m there).
  • Pedestrians. They will step out in front of you. Remember, this is not a velodrome so be considerate and give pedestrians priority when required.
  • Water fountains. Refill in the park and never go dry and don’t carry too much liquid for that record lap attempt!
  • Frieze Art Festival takes place in Regent’s Park every October and there’s temporary traffic lights, lots of pedestrians and traffic. Avoid.
  • Ride anti-clockwise to avoid the right hand turn across traffic
  • The Inner Circle. A 0.6 mile (1 km) mini loop to really drive you insane. The road is rougher here. I tried it once but was dizzy after a couple of laps. Kudos then to the folk who rode it 166 times to complete a metric century!
  • Don’t go crazy

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What kind of Strava rider are you?

Strava badgesStrava sometimes splits the cycling community. Most people love it, a few hate it. Some are addicted. Strava is like body fat. Essential and great in small doses but ineffective in too great a measure if you’re out on the roads smashing every segment day after day.

Strava is a tool and thus, like the hammer, is useful when in the hands of somebody who knows what they’re doing and who is fully aware of the other tools at their disposal. Only got a hammer? You will destroy something. Segment hunting every day makes for a tired body. Master the technology and be not its slave. Use Strava to find new routes, plot your rest days and monitor your own workouts. Forget about leaderboards and KOMs. Until that is, the dreaded email arrives in your inbox. Uh Oh. So cruel.

So how do you use Strava, if at all? Are you a Strava slave, denier or abstainer? Do you recognise yourself or club mates amongst the Strava characters below?

Strava-holic

Your every ride is logged, even your five minute pootle to the shops. Well it would have been a pootle if you hadn’t gone all out on the ‘Shops LOLz’ segment. PB too. Not bad, you think, ignoring the fact it’s a 0.1 mile downhill segment.

Strava slave

Strava memeYour rides are shaped by the machine. You avidly check weather forecasts not for rain but for wind. Most cyclists see a windy forecast and sigh. Not you. This is the day for a ride. Your route will be determined by which record you’re chasing that has a favourable tailwind. You’ll ride in the middle of the night if the wind is howling a gale.

You’re not a segment hunter, oh no, you’re above all that. You have a dozen regular routes and you shall not deviate from your roads for new segments. Not when you have so many segments to chase on your regular routes.

Segment hunter

Unlike the Strava slave, you’re more than happy to go out of your way to find a segment, especially if the top 10 beckons. Hell, you spent three hours yesterday stitching together a route optimised for the segments you’re chasing combined with adequate recovery roads.

You’re a regular rain man, you can recite segment names complete with the times and names of your virtual enemies. You’ve memorised the street signs and lampposts that signify segment starts and ends. You are Neo, your world a matrix of segments. You must be the (number) one. When you look at roads you see red lines and the leaderboard times of all those ahead of you.

Your post ride map looks like the drawing of a one-year-old child, all squiggles and illogical turns. Intervals, you tell yourself, fooling nobody. Rest is a downhill segment. This is a healthy way to ride, I’m just pumping out high intensity rides, you think. Every day.

Trophy collector

Strava trophy cabinet

My real world, self-made Strava trophies

Virtual badges motivate you. The amount and type of your riding is dictated by random Strava challenges. Hell yes, you’ll climb 20,000 ft in your lunch break if it means a virtual trophy.

Café stops are dominated by talk of progress, of planned rides, of the ridiculous weather you’ve endured in pursuit of the digital trophy. Nobody mentions how much they’re not enjoying the experience, forced to ride in order to chase an arbitrary goal. Motivation you tell yourself.

You ignore the complaints of your wife about the actual trophy cabinet you’ve lovingly cobbled together in the shed, a real world replica of your virtual shrine. Now you just need the time to carve the real life versions of your virtual trophies. Oh, what’s that? A new badge if I cycle underwater for three hours every day for a month? Finally, a chance to wear that Rapha wetsuit.

Mr spreadsheet and statistics

Pah, Strava. You were logging rides in a paper diary back when carbon was known only as something Jabba the Hutt used to freeze Hans Solo. You can chart your times back to before the internet was invented, and yes, it goes without saying that you’re the king of your local mountain. On paper anyway.

Despite the advent of Strava, little has changed but the accuracy of your numbers. You upload rides religiously and study the same numbers as before. The only leaderboard you’re interested in is My Results. Strava is simply your online diary of rides, the electronic yardstick against which to measure your progress. And maybe the odd trophy.

Strava denier

Oh, Strava? Yeah, I just use it to log my rides. Leaderboards? Nah, not interested, you lie when people talk course records. The fact is you’re a secret Strava addict but nobody must ever know. You’re embarrassed, as if you’re somehow ruining the true tradition of cycling by wanting to improve, to be the fastest. The majority of your rides are private until that is you break a course record. You’re a regular record-breaking virtuoso. I haven’t even been training, you lie when others comment on your ride. Yeah, sure.

Strava stalker

All your rides are private, visible only to you. Why would you give your rivals access to data that would give them a competitive advantage? That’s why you use Strava, to follow your rivals, to see just how hard they are training. Did they train on Christmas day? Ha, one nil.

You don’t know what size underwear your girlfriend wears but you know the heart rate zones of your ten closest rivals. You shake your head and smile when you see their pitiful junk miles or cry when they top a leaderboard. You must log more miles, climb more metres and ride faster than everyone. Every day. Unfortunately all that time on Strava means you’ve neglected your own training somewhat. Bugger.

Strava seeker

Kudos. You’re looking for virtual friendship, attention, anyone, please, I’m just like you, I cycle everywhere too. Really fast, honest, please look, please praise me. You hand out kudos willy nilly, so much so you’ve amassed 1,500 followers, the exact same number of people you’re following. New friends are just a kudos away. Not that you’re alone. Everyone wants kudos. Human’s crave recognition. One of the paradoxes of motivation is that there’s no self actualisation without praise from our peers. And hey, you know, it’s just so darned nice.

Data hater

Strava data mapped

Europe’s Strava rides

Yeah, I use it only to hate myself, you say, for Strava is destroying the sport you love. Your group rides have become Strava slogfests, people racing off the front to own a segment, the cyclist equivalent of cocking a leg and pissing up a tree. It’s like, so dangerous, all this charging about. You ride to enjoy the wind in your hair and you don’t want to ride by numbers. Oh no, you’re no machine. Where’s the romance in it all? But yeah, I’m on there, you admit begrudgingly, I look at it occasionally, perhaps. If only you had caught that wheel eh?

Social Strava

You ride at your own pace and follow the road whichever way it goes. The ride is unimportant until that is, you get home and share your ride with the world. I just rode 15 miles, you beam. This is why you rode. To tell somebody. Anybody. Not that your friends ever seem to notice. Truth is they blocked your fitness posts a long time ago. Pity, they’ll never know you commuted the same old five miles to work. Again.

Strava cheat

You have more flagged rides than Lance Armstrong. You are the king of any mountain you wish. Course records quiver with your every upload. Motor paced behind the car my girlfriend was driving? Nah not me mate, you must be confused.

Yeah, we hired a double-decker bus last week, what of it? Fancied a bit of open top touring in the Alps so we did. Those KOMs? Coincidence. Digital EPO? Never heard of it. Why would I cheat? Really why? That’s a question only you can answer because we have no idea either.

Strava snub

What’s Strava? Seriously. I just ride my bike. GPS? Great Potato Salad? KOM? King of Munchies? Segment? As in Terry’s chocolate orange, right? Now, if you’ll excuse me I’ve got some riding to attend to.

What about you?

I enjoy Strava for all of the above. There’s nothing like looking at your dashboard and seeing the miles of others to inspire you and get you out on the bike. Or looking back at old activities astonished sometimes at the miles you’ve ridden. No matter how you use Strava, whatever encourages us to ride can only be a good thing.

How about you, love Strava? Avoid it? Or perhaps, it’s just a meh?

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Images courtesy of Strava and unknown