Friday, July 10, 2015

Stelvio pass, Italy

 One of the highest passes in Europe the Stelvio also has these remarkable spagetti-like roads leading up to it from both sides.  I rode up from Bormio, the south/eastern side and can recommend it.  The climb starts in the town but with just one sign in the centre to show you the way it can be a nervous first few minutes - am I really on the right road?  A sign says "turn 39" and that confirms it - there are that many corners to the top.

Initial climbing is hard, may be 10% + and you seem to be heading into an impassable set of cliff faces.  After 5 or more KMs of turns and climbing the road veers right, straightens and flattens to go through a series of tunnels and galleries (tunnels but one side is open.  I wasn't looking forward to these fearing that they would be long and unlit.  But they turned out to be well lit and pretty short.  More gentle climbing comes after them - you can see this road in the picture above coming straight up from the middle right.

More big climbs in the Italian Alps

At what appears to be the head of the valley there is a wall with lot of hairpins making the road go upwards dramatically, and many of these approached 10% at times.  After this anther long valley opens up towards the right and you again ride up at reasonable pace towards what you can now see is the actual pass top.  Right at the end of this valley ride are yet more hairpins to crank you up to the very top, again at 10%.

 I'd say it was a very doable pass, no big ramps, and with a 9am start relatively few cars or motobikes around.  The pass top is a traffic jam of fast food, people taking pictures plus gift shops. From here you can look down on the very dramatic North/West appoach, this has more roads inspired by spagetti.  Descending them is tough as every corner is an extreme hairpin and this side seems to be much more popular with cars and, unbelivably, buses in the way.  I dropped   15 turns and then rode back up fairly easily, nothing over 10%.  Descending back down to Bormio was also a treat, the two long valley roads are open with clear views way ahead so you can descend for several kilometres without touching the brakes. 

Top is at 2,758m, you gain 1,560m from Bormio

Monday, June 08, 2015

Bike Techniques # 1

Selecting Gears

You'd think this would be simple.  Just get into the gear you need to travel comfortably, or even progress with speed, and there you are - in gear and on your way.  That's it, isn't it?

Well, mm, there can be a bit more to it.  One key thing I don't see people doing is anticipating gear changes.  So they are riding along and all is fine, but up ahead is a corner.  It's a tight corner and they need to stop pedaling and coast around it .  And once around it they will have lost speed, and they'll still be in the gear they entered the corner in.  That's when you see people stand up to push the harder gear to get back up to speed.  Another way would be to change up just before the corner so they are in the right gear to accelerate back up to speed.

Another classic is not changing up when coming to a stop.  It means when they set off they are in the wrong gear - still in the cruising gear they were using for 25kph.  Now they are trying to set off in the same gear and that can be tough.  It can actually be dangerous if you are at a road junction - you're in the wrong gear, far too hard to set off with, but now you've got to make your way out across a busy road (turning right) and clip in and change gear into something you can work with.  You're increasing the chance of grinding to a halt in the middle of the road, or even falling over.  Much easier to have changed up just before you come to a stop - then you can pull away in the normal gear you use to set off with.

Even more of a classic is waiting until the steep hill starts before changing gear.  This can be a real problem.  The hill starts, you are in way too high a gear, your pedaling stops and as soon as that happens all ability to change gear disappears.  If you are lucky you can unclip before you keel over.  Much better to look ahead, see what's coming up and get into an easier gear - doesn't have to be the exact one for the hill but it does need to allow you to turn your pedals whilst on the hill so you can make further changes as you adjust to the actual incline.

Probably the one that most people are familiar with is not changing into a higher gear as you descend a hill.  You've climbed up a steep slope in your lowest gear, then coasted down the other side.  Now, at the bottom of the hill, where things level out you want to capitalise on all the speed you've acquired but when you go to turn your pedals they spin uselessly around - still in the low gear you used to climb the hill 10 minutes ago.  Should have changed up to a higher gear as you descended.

One thing all this implies is being able to pedal at different speeds, and specifically, the ability to pedal at high cadence.  As you approach a climb you get into your "hill gear".  OK but this means that for a moment you are on the flat still and in a very easy gear, and additionally you want to keep pedaling as any loss of speed right at the bottom of a hill isn't going to be welcome.  It means you're going to have to pedal at high speed, just for a couple of metres.  So this means being comfortable with pedaling at different speeds.  I've lost count of the number of people I've overtaken at the foot of a hill - them fiddling with their gears whilst I spin by and up.

Does this make sense to you?  What are your gear selection experiences?

Saturday, May 09, 2015

The Rotor Ring Diaries #2

Took delivery of my old Bianchi race bike fitted with the brand new Rotor rings last Saturday, and haven't looked back.  If you recall, the Rotor rings are oval chainrings (all explained in Diary #1) and I was going to report back on how they are - so here goes:

1)  Initial riding impression - did feel different - as if the first part of the pedal stroke has disappeared.  The top part of your chainring isn't there anymore, is what it feel like.  Your foot arrives in the middle, power part of the pedal stroke as if by magic.  Some have said it's like riding fixed wheel, and it is.

2)  Quick Saturday evening ride - I ended up with 2 top ten Strava results!  I'm not usually in the top ten anywhere on Strava, but now I was bombing along and getting high results.  The rings enabled me to be very fast on flat segments.

3)  Hilly riding.  Long, 1,500m of climbing ride on Thursday led to noticing better hill performance, and less fatigue - less muscle soreness afterwards.

4)  Ride with club today - very good.  Easily beating everyone in my group up the hills - without really trying too hard.

So, overall, what a result!  Definitely would recommend you at least trying them.  I think Rotor dealers have an offer where you can try them for a couple of weeks - probably would take a week of so to get used to and see what benefit they can bring...

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Steady State Intervals

My hill training has led me to start exploring interval training.  Yes, going up a slope is a good way to get good at going up a slope.  But I've also noticed - before the gradient gets too steep - that a lot of time on a hill is spent at the top end of your aerobic performance.

You're breathing hard and only just "within" yourself.  This isn't a leg thing.  Your legs are fine.  It's more about the supply of energy and oxygen to them that is being taxed.  You need to get better at supplying all they need to power up the relatively easy 8 to 12% slopes that a continental climb is likely to present.  And to be able to keep on supplying all they need for 30 to 60 and may be even 90 minutes.

So that's perhaps 90mins of "top end" aerobic performance.  To start trying to improve this you can schedule in a "Steady State Interval" - the name isn't quite right to me - perhaps "top end aerobic interval" would better describe it?  Go pretty fast over a 10 to 15km flat route - so something that will take you 15 to 25 minutes to complete.

The interval should be quite hard - but not sprint or all out - and probably a 7 or 8 out of 10 on a scale of "perceived effort".  Because of the duration it almost inevitably becomes just about the fastest way to cover 15km of flat road - and still be able to ride on immediately after the interval (rather than collapse).  You should feel able to say a few words/communicate a bit whilst doing the interval but not carry on a conversation or even say a whole sentence.

This sort of interval will start to reflect the demands you are going to face on a continental sportive where 30mins is nothing for a climb...

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Another Way

Many people rate the winter training they do as leading to success in the summer.  I'm one of them.  But there are problems - training in the winter can be painful.  The cold, the ice, the wind, the rain, the dark.

I did my winter training in Dec, Jan, Feb and March and have now "transitioned" to more intense but less time consuming training.  So it's ironic - just as the weather gets better I'm riding less.

In March I did 900km but for April it'll be more like 500km.  That's the plan, it's what I should be doing because now I'm now focusing on intensity rather than distance.

The sun is shining, the sky is clear, there's no danger of ice or snow, it stays light well into the evening - no more hurrying home at 4pm.  Just the right time to start doing some serious distance, really.

Another way of doing things would be - start building distance in April, May, June, and July then switch in August and September to intensity work.  This would lead to a peak performance at the end of September or in October.

This way would mean enjoying long hours in good weather building your endurance, and then a chance to knock off a major sportive event just before the season finishes.  And it fits into a purely UK based training system - if you aren't planning on going to a big continental sportive in July then there isn't a problem.