1000 plateaus

Yesterday I reached 1000 km of riding indoors since the moment I started working from home due to Covid-19 in March. I hadn’t ridden much outdoors since moving to Manchester in early February, and I’ve not only ridden much more than I have in ages, but done most of it in… Zwift. This is a significant change: between 2015 and 2019 I rode only 10 times on the trainer, for a total of 106 km…

Paul Fournel, author of Need for the Bike (beautifully republished as Vélo, with illustrations by Jo Burt), and the most unlikely of indoor cyclists, describes two extremes: one his complete bikelessness in Morocco, the other his reaction to the paradoxically bike unfriendly San Francisco. Visiting the latter, Fournel resorts, against type, to ride inside on a static trainer. He won’t go to the gym (I won’t spoil the punchline). I haven’t found the UK lockdown as bike unfriendly he found San Francisco, but I have thus far had no desire to ride outside for pleasure, only utility: to the supermarket with a trailer. To queue.

I couldn’t really afford a smart trainer, but the day after my last day of commuting by train and Brompton for the foreseeable future I ordered a Tacx Flux 2 (more on this later) given my growing realisation that much or all of my cycling is going to be indoors, either because of Covid-19 or because I’m going to be looking after a newborn from late July as well as helping look after my sons post-lockdown.

I fully intended to explore different virtual/augmented reality platforms when it arrived, it after a brief dalliance with Tacx VR I had a go with Zwift, and despite some early confusion found a surprising level of engagement. I’m sure many of you have seen that Black Mirror episode (15 Million Merits), which satirizes the gamification of not just cycling, but life itself), and I for one have been pretty dismissive of virtual cycling and especially virtual racing.

 

Not entirely dismissive though.

And there are other, less judgmental views of the future of a semi-virtualized future for cycling, such as Bruce Sterling’s excellent story Bicycle Repairman.

First-hand experience has been enlightening. 

Simulation Zwift simulates some aspects of cycling, but others are real. You still sit on a bike. Resistance changes. You get tired. Your butt hurts. You get bored. You can see and interact with others (albeit in an impoverished way)… you can even fall off.

Racing I have only raced my bike once before riding in Zwift in nearly 50 years of cycling. In the last month I have ridden three races, one of which I was DQed from for being to powerful for my entered category (see below under ethics and anti-cheating). My only real life race was over 1700 km long; my longest race in Zwift was 32 km long.

Data I usually ride with cadence and HR sensors and log everything in Strava. In Zwift I get a real, rather than virtual measure of power in W, and crucially W/Kg and 95% 20 minute max power (see below on why this is surprisingly important)… this has been revealing, as it has helped me not overtrain as well as maintain higher work rates when I want/need to.

Power I now have a good idea of my FTP and strengths/weaknesses. I can also see how my HR is not a good measure of effort (but is a good measure of how fatigued I am).

Equipment If you don’t have a smart trainer, HR monitor and a set of scales you won’t be able to race with any sense of real comparison with others. Your desire for such benchmarking may vary. In game purchases (currency = drops) can get you lighter or more aerodynamic virtual frames/wheels, and you can personalise your look. My smart trainer, a mid-range Tacx direct drive model, sounds unwell, is a bit flaky and I fear it’s demise, but I daren’t send it back due to current shortages and transport restrictions.

Heat and wind There is no wind indoors unless you have a fan. If you have one it won’t make you go faster if it is behind you.

Ethics and anti-cheating measures I was canned from my first race in ZwiftPower for being fractionally over the listed W/Kg limit for Category D (calculated for 95% of 20 minute max): this makes even thinking about winning tricky as you need to work just hard enough, but not too hard, or resign yourself to the bottom of the next highest category, as I have done. But unless you register accurately with ZwiftPower it is impossible to tell whether you are winning or losing, and to distinguish between more or less factual representations of effort. There is also ZADA (now CEVAZ). The easiest way to cheat is to under-report your weight. And sandbagging… sigh.

Fitness I am now fitter than I have ever been. And because of isolation, haven’t been ill despite riding nearly every day.

Hills, mountains and dirt It is harder work uphill and on gravel.

Injury Staying in the same position is tough on the body, and I have had reason to switch saddles.

Isolation you are never alone. Unless you want to be. or you get dropped.

Socialisation There are group rides, where the leader has a yellow beacon and the sweep a red one. Some are very organised (AHDR for example, or HERD/PACK), some less so. You can invite other riders to ride socially with you.

Identity and representation Some choose to make their avatar like their real self, some don’t. I shortened my avatar’s beard when I trimmed my real one.

Appearance and reality Just read Baudrillard.

Distance and duration It is possible to ride long distances, but you have to take care of positional issues, and remember to eat and drink. My longest ride was just over 100 km, and it hurt. There are even audaxes (ZHR)…

Efficiency You can find solo or social rides/races 24/7 to suit fitness, training goal and time pressure.

Active and passive You can chat or be silent (using discord or the built-in chat). You can organise, or just participate.

Laziness You don’t need to steer or brake, and if you have a smart trainer, you can freewheel downhill

Fun I have had immense fun.

Epicity If you want it, it is there for the taking. If not. that’s fine too. Or not.

The outdoors It isn’t.

 

 

 

I’ve been here before…

Last time I lay down in this bus shelter it was two in the morning and I was unwell, over halfway into a BRM400. Out of shape indeed…

So much better to be here in the sun, with my love, and on the way to a budget hotel stop, with a bit of a hangover, some accidental sunburn, and slightly fewer kms in the legs.

Sweden

Gallery

This gallery contains 24 photos.

Not many words in this post and in no particular order: Tarkovsky, Strugatskys, Vandermeer, sauna, ceramic obsession, hipster-burger, hail, sub-zero, hotdog, gravel, trust, love, Gilles Berthoud, Öresundståg, osprey, hare, elk, moose, auntie, weird b&b, memory, meatballs, past-present-future.

Adventure Commuting

So, it’s come to this. I am re-branding as an adventure-commuter. For too long I have ridden the same route in and out of work, once or twice a week. But since I am no longer an aspiring ultra racer (one race completed one race completed, no further plans) or randonneur (two SR Series but havent finished a brevet for over a year now) and have less time for weekend riding (although I will be cyclo-camping on holiday) the obvious thing is to upgrade my routes from Hebden Bridge (and probably also Manchester) to Leeds.

My current ‘fast’ route is fairly direct and follows the main roads (A646 and A58 mostly), dicing with the trucks,vans, buses and other lunatics. An adventure of a kind, and there are some wonderful vistas (such as the entry to the Calder Valley in the night). I know this route so well that I can identify the organic development of road defects and even recognise people walking to work. It takes about one and a half hours to two hours door to door, not much slower than train plus Brompton, my other default mode. And although it isn’t flat I only need the small ring once.

I have had a range of other routes, taking in the Aire Valley Cycleway (bit of a detour via Shipley), and bits of the Calder Vall Cycleway but I have failed to fully commit. I tend to baulk at a ride longer than two hours, but why stop there? Earlier this week I rode out of Hebden Bridge up the steepest hill (via Birchcliffe) and proceeded to take in as many climbs as possible before descending to the cycleway in Skipton (the first part of which is axle-breaking rocky path) and on into Leeds. Took about 3 hours. On the way back I descended into Luddenden Foot and rode along route 66 through the woods by the railway and river. The next phase will be to set off earlier and ride a more extensive loops up North or South, avoiding main roads and mixing in paths and cycleway as appropriate. Eventually I plan to set off for work from work, riding all night to arrrive back at work by morning. I could also add in a level of complexity by using trains to get me further from work, but that might be a different pursuit.

No wonder I am tired all the time. But sleep is for wimps.

(I would have written a blog about lovepacking, but that’s too private, and far too serious).

#adventurecommuting

Music doping

One of the first blog posts I penned was about the use of music by coaches and athletes to enhance performance. It’s the closest thing to my academic expertise I could really have written about here, even though it isn’t a topic I’ve worked on directly as a social scientist. I don’t feel the need to rehash the many ways that music is used by people and groups to modify behaviour or internal state: suffice it to say that music has powerful and demonstrable impacts on psychobiology that are measurable and commonly used, that go beyond the obvious benefits of taking up a private or social activity. I’m also not going to hit you with any actual science, although I’m happy to discuss that if you like, in the comments or over on twitter.

Instead this short post is about self-medication. Some people join choirs, some people go clubbing, but many people get their musical fix through their earphones, privately. Over the last few years I have had to endure three very stressful interviews at work for internal positions and promotions, two of which were successful, and one a bit of a car crash (which led to some less healthy self-medication). I have often used music in my preparation for stressful life events, and for each of the interviews I used self-chosen music just prior, to both modify my mood, and to provide some distraction from unwanted negative thoughts. Moreover, I didn’t just choose music to optimise my mood and level of arousal (science here, whoops) but also to provide a supportive narrative, in most cases a surprisingly cheesy one. I normally have fairly left-field taste in music, and have periods of listening to difficult art music (my home ground) but also all sorts of pop and rock. Lately I have found that Barbershop Quartet arrangements of some show and popular repertoire worked for me, despite their distance from my normal taste. The bizarre thing about this is that for me, at least, the efficacy seems completely unrelated to whether I would choose to listen to this music out of such a stressful context.

So, the six million dollar question is: what music did I find that did the job at those interviews? What got me into the room when I wanted to run and vomit with fear? Well, it was a performance by Vocal Spectrum of a song that I didn’t even realise was originally from a Disney animation. The bottom line is that this isn’t about liking the music (although in this case I can be persuaded), it is about its limited function within a particular situation.

Here it is in all its glory.

 

I, obviously, am Hercules…

 

 

 

Dusklands: The Narrative of William Luke Windsor

My first contact with the Netherlands as a tangible concept was through the writing of J. M. Coetzee. In his book, Dusklands, he writes two narratives, one centred around the Vietnam War, the other around a hunting expedition in South Africa. In the latter, the bounded and manufactured environment of the Netherlands, where the narrator (Jacobus Coetzee) grew up, appears as a narrative and symbolic contrast to the unbounded nature of the South African veldt. At one point, alone and more than slightly mad, Coetzee (the character) describes how he becomes just an eye, swamped by the visual information that envelops him.

Only the eyes have power…. I become a spherical reflecting eye moving through the wilderness through the wilderness and ingesting it. Destroyer of the wilderness, I move through the land cutting a devouring path from horizon to horizon. There is nothing from which my eye turns, I am all that I see.

The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee,”Dusklands”, J. M. Coetzee

Of course, the mythical flatness of the Netherlands themselves have perceptual consequences, but this flatness is real only as a stereotype. Where I lived in Nijmegen in the late 1990s had both flat polder and dike as well as hills and forest. And as I have just discovered, the terrain of Limburg (apart from Weert) is about as flat as the hilliest parts of Yorkshire.

So, this is an essay about a race, and for once, not a race I watched or read about, but one I entered, started… and finished. All of these things are new: I haven’t competed in a bicycle race in my entire history of cycling:

I’ve ridden two Super Randonneur series since returning to the bike after my kids got a little older (in 2014 and 2015), but I have been riding long distances and cycle commuting since my 20s. I ride on and off road (but mostly on), rode a fixie in London in the 1980s, have toured unsupported in England, Wales and France (including the big climbs of the Alps and Pyrennees), and currently do a few solo DIY audaxes as well as calendar events, I spent a year working in Nijmegen in 1997/8 and loved the cycling (the route also passes near Wassenaar, where I ran a conference at the NIAS in ’98), and brought my bike on a shorter stay in 2004. My passion is to ride far, and look after myself, and I think it is time to race 😉

So for want of a better structure I’ll pick some themes that seem important as I write this after two days back in my reality of trying to be a normal person with a job, a family and a house.

Turn left at the Google Data Centre

The Race Around the Netherlands (there’s Facebook group here with much discussion and many photos) is an unsupported fixed route bike race with a time limit of eight days: you basically get a gpx file (about 1670 km, which I added turn-by-turn to) and after that it’s all yours. Navigation is just following the route and deciding where and

when to stop. The mesmeric nature of some of the long, flat straight and car-free surfaces was perfectly illustrated by the northernmost left turn, at one of Europe’s largest data centres, which is home to much of Google’s data, as well as many of the other big IT names. My saved can of Fanta (keeps your sandwiches cold in your musette I find) went down well on the approach, and shortly after the turn I stopped at a bus stop to change my tracker batteries and eat something.

Airbnb

Well what can I say: I had planned to do more camping (both wild and tame) but decided just a few days before the race to try using Airbnb as an alternative (every night but one in the end).This was a risk as I had never used it before, but it just looked like a good solution, and I could always sleep rough it if went wrong.

I discovered very quickly how this was both extremely practical and emotionally uplifting. I decided roughly where I might stop for the day each evening, and then about mid-morning I would book my place. All my hosts were fine with a late night arrival and an early

disappearance, and some even allowed me to bring my bike inside (or had a shed, garage or back garden). And wow, what lovely people I met: so thanks Jochem, Roelie, Elies, Esther, Annet and Klaus, you were great to meet, however briefly! A special mention goes to Annet, who, through her son’s expert translation, established I wanted to leave before 6 am, and made me a packed breakfast and loaded up the coffee maker in advance, but all did something to make me feel looked after.

Not bivvying

The one night I camped was at a fantastic campsite (a natuurkampterrain) in Weert, just off the

route, called Camping Wega. I emailed ahead the day before, and ueed my green card for the first and only time. It was one of the best sites I have stayed at, and after a good shower and some eating I whipped out my bivvy and slept under the stars.

I’m not sure about camping as a solution every night, but here they take check-ins until 2100, and of course I was off early, just before dawn.

Drugs

If you’ve read any other posts on this blog you may know I have a position on drugs. Well, reader, I brought some with me, and used them. I had half a packet of paracetamol, half a pack of ibuprofen. I used all the ibuprofen (but below the max dosage) to keep the inflammation in my achilles (from about day 4) under control. I really don’t think I would have finished without medicine, the pain was intermittent and never too awful, but I think it kept it under control. I certainly wouldn’t recommend prophylactic use of ibuprofen but it did its job as a response to the battering my underprepared body was taking I guess.

At sea with Onno

I rode most of the race on my own, if you don’t count my attempts to catch and pass Dutch kids on traditional bikes: I was so destroyed by the first day that the final 20 kms into Enschede were aided by yo-yoing behind a girl and her younger brotther who were much amused by my inability to maintain any kind of speed as the light dimmed in the evening and the temperature fell. However, I did ride side by side with two fellow victims of the race, Onno and Marc, both for long enough to find out a little about their motivations for racing and their life outside cycling.

Given the importance of wind direction and strength for riding in the Netherlands it seemed particularly apt to ride for a bit with Onno on my second day of racing between Enschede and, in my case ter Apel and my second Airbnb, given his life at sea. I had had a late start, having to stop at Bagels & Beans for a “power breakfast” on my way out of Enschede. I think we had both had a rough start to the race, and Onno had not had much sleep, staying in a hostel. It was a welcome change chatting with someone, and although I couldn’t quite match his pace and had decided to make a short day to compensate for the ugly start and my lack of pre-race fitness, the brief time we had together was a priceless reminder of why I do this kind of thing. It’s the random nature of the focused human interactions, against the background of being alone. Onno was to maintain and extend his lead over me, despite an achilles injury (which seemed to be catching, as two days later my left achilles started to hurt).

It’s not about the bike

It really isn’t, although some aspects of my setup desrve a mention, like the excellent wheels purchased from bikediscount.de (xt hubs, front dyno, dt 466d rims), faultless charging and lighting from B&M, and the completely flawless Vittoria Corsa Control 28 clincher tyres, run with inner tubes, no punctures and run at low pressures for smooth riding. Less satisfactory was my decision to use xt spd pedals and RT86 shoes: the slight rocking this setup allows contributed to ankle and foor pain, and I would use spd-sl pedals and more supportive shoes (probably my Bonts, which I have completed a 600 in). I did very little walking and the achilles problems I suffered nearly ended my race. Similarly, I had considered either using my race bike (with the same tyres, they just fit) or transferring the di2 onto my Whyte: after the first day (cold and wet then hot) my hands were covered in splits which just got worse over the course of the race. By the time I reached Limburg on the penultimate day I could barely change gear it was so painful, and braking became an issue. I had very few other physical issues, and unusually for me, my back and neck were pretty cooperative throughout.

The race podium

Colin James

Third place

Although I felt pretty disconnected from the pointy end of the race, the podium deserve special mention. I chatted with Colin and Tjerk a little before the start and they both seemed pretty sorted (Colin is a TCR finisher) and experienced. I didn’t speak with Joris, but I remember looking him up before the race and thinking that he looked one to watch. I was interested to see how the real differences in finishing

Tjerk Bakker

Second place

time seemed to derive as much if not more from rolling average speed, but from time on the bike. This is not an unfamiliar pattern for races of this kind, but it’s a lesson for anyone who wants to try to win. I was sleeping for about 6 hours a night and taking photos, and even if I had been better prepared (i.e., not ill for 3 weeks before the race and able to ride) I think I would have struggled to continue at such a speed with less sleep.

Joris Cosyn

The winner

Scandal

There was scandal at the front of the race. That’s all I’m saying…

Full value with Marc

The other rider I spent a few hours with was Marc Wismans, who was riding in support of Forza4Energy4all, and lovely to talk to. Marc was struggling at the beginning with back trouble, but was keen to get full value from the ride, meeting with kids his charity works with along the route, and having a clear plan to use the full 8 days. It was a pleasure Marc!

Eating and drinking

I did much of my eating on the bike, often purchased from service stations (although I did stop at a great sandwich shop somewhere or other and even an Aldi which did a nice pizza slice):

I cooked for myself once at Elies’ Airbnb (pasta with honey), having had a lucky encounter with a late-night Turkish convenience store. I did eat two McDonald’s meals, one late in Scheveningen after a long day prior to meeting Esther, my host for the night; one in Malden, on the outskirts of Nijmegen where I felt the need for cooked breakfast and coffee on the final day. I did eat some ‘proper’ Dutch food (uitsmijter twice, hamburger speciaal (!!) and appeltaart (yum)).

The service station food was a mixture of squeezy yoghurt, sandwiches and a variety of snacks. I had a musette with me which was useful for stuffing full of all the food I could buy at each stop for easy access – and I could fold it up into my back pocket when empty. Getting water and food on the two national holidays was bit of a worry, but I never actually ran out of anything.

Rain and sun

There were really only two kinds of weather on the race: cold and wet on the first morning, and increasingly sunny and hot for the rest of the race. The temperatures reached the 30s celsius on the penultimate day in Limburg, and the winds varied from strong and gusty (only really a problem on travelling East prior to Limburg) to just a breeze.

Scorchio!

Fauna

I saw sheep, goats, rabbits, was raced by hares and was surprised by wild horses: I actually slept next to horses one night on Elies’ farm, they were literally in the next room and I could hear on of them snoring! I was also serenaded by crickets and frogs! Oh and geese!

Mission control

A special mention has to go to the organisers, especially Mark and Michael, who set us off and welcomed us with such good cheer. The organisation was pleasingly low key and clear, and I am keen to see what their other events turn out like. Adventure Bike Racing seems a good thing, and this particular race was a really great stepping stone for me into the world of unsupported racing. Also it was nice to start from such a fabulous venue in Amerongen, the Cafe de Proloog.

Wilderness

Exiting the Hoge Veluwe on Day 1

The Netherlands is famous for its built environment, and much of it is below sea level thanks to Dutch engineering prowess. But we were routed through to near wilderness areas: the Hoge Veluwe and the Dunes of the West coast. Both were magical, and although I have ridden in the former before, it was 14 years ago, and the bike paths weren’t as good!

The finishers

Finisher photos

All the finishers!

Finishing

What can I say. My major goal was to get to the start, and get back for my younger son’s birthday, so actually finishing the event within the time limit was great. It is particularly resonant given that the previous two seasons have been plagued by unfinished and unstarted events, and some really horrible physical and mental collapses. I really didn’t think I was going to start until a few days before when my cough began to subside, and given I hadn’t ridden a bike for three weeks until I rode from Schiphol to Amerongen (about 70 km) the day before the race. Maybe I could do it a day quicker, although I’d have to be fitter and stop less!

Cauberg and Co.

Just before the turn onto the Cauberg

I was really worried about the Limberg climbs (we did three of the Amstel Gold ones) due to my achilles: I live in one of the hilliest parts of Britain, so normally I wouldn’t worry. It was a relief to find that 36:36 bottom gear was enough and my achilles actually hurt less than on the flat into a headwind!

The Cauberg was a shock to the system and the Keutenberg was a pig, but the third big one (Camerig) was really beautiful, worth the previous kilometres on its own. There are some great views to be had in Limburg, I will return.

Afsluitdijk

Ah, the Afsluitdijk, one of the moments I was really grateful for aero bars. 32 kms of straight, two-way flat cyclepath, next to a main road… in blazing sunshine. With a plague of buzzing midges which came at me like black clouds. Quite the strangest piece of cycling I have done, and when I finished shaking the bugs out of my helmet on exit, I really felt I had been in the Netherlands.

The sea

The sea was an often present feature, sometimes bizarrely unseen, behind a dyke, at other times the dominant visual feature:

Crossings

And where there is sea, or rivers and canals there must be crossings:

Training

Although I didn’t ride for three weeks before the race due to illness, and hadn’t ridden more than 160 km since the previous September, I did ride about 160 km per week throughout Autumn and Winter (at a fairly brisk pace (for me, anyway) at times), including a completed Festive 500. I actually think three weeks off the bike was a blessing in disguise, although it was touch and go… It will be interesting to see how I fare on June 16th on the BRM600 I have entered.

The scene of the crime

One of the nicer aspects of the race was passing by my old workplace and street in Nijmegen, I spent a year here as a Postdoc in 1997-8 and came back for some research leave in 2004.

Some things stay the same

Just over the road there is a brand new cyclepath shortcut into Nijmegen!

And returning to the polder and the hills around Mook was a curious mixture of seeing how little time touches places, and how much. The dyke roads were unchanged, but the addition of huge cycle infrastructure investment was really apparent on the outskirts of Nijmegen (as well as the new McDonald’s in Malden).

Navigation

The map is not the territory … The only usefulness of a map depends on similarity of structure between the empirical world and the map…

Science and Sanity, A. Korzybski

Route and leaderboard

Near the end, looking for a geldautomaat 😉

The kindness of strangers

The proprietor of de Proloog who lent me his jersey to ride the race in (mine was mothed); the Turkish shopowner who insisted on giving me free figs…

Social Media

Being followed and encouraged on social media was a fantastic experience, thanks to all of you wonderful people, but I think Herbie takes the prize for obsession, with some stiff competition from Robert:

Contact with the enemy

Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus

no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force

On Strategy, H. Von Moltke

Diversions

Through the woods with Julia

Julia Freeman had a painful couple of days on the race with injuries before very sensibly calling it a day. I was touched that she came to see me finish, and guided me to Schiphol via train and a lovely wooded route.Tot ziens Julia and dank u wel!

Recovery

I stayed in a rather posher hotel at Schiphol than I had wanted, but it was probably for the best. And there was a moroccan buffet, and Belgian beer. Inevitably I had one too many, but I managed to get up for my plane, and had time the next day to take pictures of jets for my aeroplane obsessed older son.

Home!

I couldn’t have done this wihout the support and encouragment of my partner, Alison, who kept me positive when I felt like self-sabotaging before the start. And it was great to return home to see my younger son becoming a year older!

Race Around the Netherlands

The tracker is up (rider 14), and on May 1st I’ll be starting the Race Around the Netherlands.

My goals are:

  1. get to the start
  2. get to the finish following the route
  3. catch my return flight so I can wish my youngest Happy Birthday!

I would post a kit-grid but I am so disorganised that it would just be a pile of stuff on the floor. Also I am still recovering from a heavy cold, and feeling VERY UNPREPARED.

Edit: detailed chronicle of my successful race here.