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.

 

 

 

Compass Bon Jon Pass Extralight Tyre Review

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I don’t often write reviews. Choice of equipment is very personal: experiences of the same component or item of clothing are subjectively variable and I have bought many disappointing items that others love. That doesn’t mean they were wrong, just that I don’t see the world their way. I will however tell you what I think about Compass tyres (tires in US), or more precisely their 700 × 35c Extralight clincher, the Bon Jon Pass.
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Compass tyres are widely promoted in the randonneuring world having been developed by Jan Heine with Panaracer in Japan. They are reputed to be light and supple, are good at low pressures and come in a wide range of sizes (up to 38 mm for 700c; wider for 650b and 26″). They are indeed objectively light and supple, and are available in a very pale skinwall version, or all black.

I chose the Extralight version as I am a puny lightweight and thought I could get away with it. The Bon Jon runs tubeless, but I’m running them with standard butyl tubes because I am a late adopter. They fitted quite tight on the stock rims on my Whyte Suffolk (made by Alex I think) and took a while to seat properly – I inflated to about 80 psi to make sure they were seated and have settled on 40 front and about 50 rear (I weigh 58 kg): I could probably go lower but I think I will wait until I go tubeless sometime in 2020. My first ride was at 60 and 55 which seemed a little high: at the lower pressure I can descend very quickly and confidently although if I climb out of the saddle the front tyre looks absurdly squishy.
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So, apart from excellent descending in all weather, how do they ride? The only time I have regretted being on them in their first 750 km or so was lost on a farm track where the road turned to mud and was upward. Tarmac, cobbles, gravel (big and small) all seem fine. Even a bit of mud is OK if one is not trying to climb or get started! I have done two long rides on very mixed terrain and they were comfortable and felt very safe (and I am awful off road). The lack of side-knobs or raised tread would only bother me in really muddy conditions. On the road they are luxurious and I don’t think they slow me down.
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The main reason I chose the 35c version was frame clearances. They fit my frame with just enough room (the chain stay clearances are unnecessarily tight) for safety, and I can just fit mudguards to keep ride companions happy. No punctures yet and I have removed one sharp flint from the tread; the flimsy sidewalls still seem fine after some rocky path encounters.
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For mixed riding and/or long distances they are quite the best tyres I have ridden. I intend to use them on my next 300 with George and Gavin in May and I’ll report back after that, but after 105 km of awful cycle path, track and chipseal roads yesterday which delivered great comfort I am not expecting to be disappointed.
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You can buy Compass tyres direct from Compass themselves (see Jan’s original blog post about the newer tyres here) or if you are in the UK you can get them Extraquick and Extralight from Velo Vitality in Brighton. They aren’t cheap, but good tyres never are… in my opinion!
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NB I paid for these tyres myself and have no connection with Compass or Velo Vitality other than as a happy customer.

The Ghost in the Machine: underneath the tinfoil hat.

I have been struggling for a while to decide how to continue to write about cheating in sport given its state of anomie. Scandal after scandal in athletics, soccer, tennis (and even cycling) have helped normalise the view that sport is actually inherently fraudulent, whether or not that is in any sense ‘true’. Nonetheless, two developments in sporting fraud have emerged which suggest a post-humanisation of sporting fraud. Neither are entirely new in concept, but both engage with human performance in ways which question the boundary between technology and the body, and create a gap between our inquisitive nature and what we can comprehend as either human- or machine-like.

  1. Gene Doping
    The ability of products to manipulate the inner workings of our cells isn’t all that new, and many journalists have latched onto the warnings about dangers (turning something on doesn’t mean you can then turn it off) or the potential for such products to be both potentially undetectable and incredibly powerful. One such product which has never exited testing or been brought to market is Repoxygen, which causes an alteration to cells which then produce higher than normal levels of EPO. Whether this exists as a black market product is unclear but it is certain that athletes, coaches and sporting authorities believe that to be likely. The crucial difference between Repoxygen (or a similar product) and rEPO is that whereas doping with rEPO decreases the production of EPO by our bodies whilst boosting red blood cell production, Repoxygen acts directly on the cells increasing their production of natural EPO. The trick is to do so without creating chronically and dangerously high hematocrit levels. That does not happen with rEPO – which suppresses natural production of EPO and is therefore relatively short lived in effect.
  2. Technological Fraud
    The second development, which although highlighted by recent events at the U23 Cyclocross World Championship event, has been posited for much longer, is the use of small concealed electric motors to boost cycling performance by a marginal, but significant quantum. There is a suspicion amongst some that Femke Van den Driessche used such means to achieve her gains on the climbs at the 2015 Koppenbergcross – a suspicion that may have helped motivate what looked to be a targeted operation to detect the motor using an EMR application in the pits at the World Championships.

What links these two techniques is their invisible testing of our assumptions about what it us to be human. Of course, all cycling is technologically enhanced, but whereas an illegally light bicycle is only quantitatively illicit, the motorised bicycle is qualitatively illicit. We assume the power input which the drive train converts comes from the rider and if this is no longer the case we are watching a motorcycle race, not a bicycle race. With gene doping it is not the undetectability or effectiveness which chills, it is the categorical shift from human to… not human. In both cases there is an uncanny valley effect where in the absence of better preparation, whether natural or pharmaceutical, the athlete goes beyond what is possible for their physiology. The results of doping can look odd to the naked eye, but the result of gene doping or technological fraud create a categorical shift. This is no longer enhancement by degree, but a new sport which goes well beyond the metaphorical Lance-as-cyborg narrative.

Human beings are fairly inquisitive: I’d guess around .7 on the cat scale. Their desire to gather and interpret data is not always matched, however, with the intellectual capacity to come to conclusions that bear much relation to reality. Whether it is rappers thinking the Earth is flat, or the mistaken belief that there is a causal link between autism and the MMR vaccine, our desire to explain what we observe can outstrip our ability to interpret. Of course, it’s worse than this: the desire for an explanation may not drive us to seek information upon which to ponder; and it can be manipulated by the unscrupulous. It may drive us to select information which reinforces our existing beliefs; or to reject information gathering and rely upon solipsistic deduction of a kind Sherlock Holmes would be distinctly uncomfortable with. And sometimes, the explanation is so seemingly crazy it can lead to madness…

The detective novel plays with this desire for explanations, and also the pleasure we gain from being just one step ahead of the detective (or one step behind). And although we often look to be searching for the smoking gun, its discovery often disappoints as well as befuddles. The reveal undoes the setting up if explanations, unless through shock (Seven) or unexpected confusion (Usual Suspects) it itself sets up a new set of questions. It takes a deft artist to tell a tale which simultaneously unfolds into a rational state of closure yet still leaves us questioning: perhaps this is why the confusing “reality” of time travel narratives, whether hysterical (Interstellar) or creepily whole (Predestination) are so fascinating.

So where does this leave the inquisitive cycling fan? All sports fans have some degree of fascination with the causes that sit behind winning. However, many of these factors are hidden, either because they are forbidden by law or rule, or because they are too complex for any but an expert to really grasp. These ghosts in the machine of sporting excellence lead many of us to express our inquisitive nature in fantastic, ill-evidenced speculations worthy of the X-Files. The truth is indeed out there, however, and it isn’t our fault that the UCI have to use ghost detectors to combat technological fraud. Who can blame us for retaining our tin foil hats when if turns out that a form of cheating much derided as fantasy turns out to be both actual and invisible, yet needs only the right tool (a free EMR detector app) and a tip-off to find.

 

Further reading:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15157120 (paywall – a review from 2004 of the state of the art in gene doping in sports)

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/03/sports/playmagazine/0603play-hot.html?_r=0 (NYT from 2007)

http://www.wired.com/2010/02/gene-doping-detection/ (WIRED from 2010)

http://cyclingtips.com/2016/01/more-details-emerge-about-motorized-doping-at-cyclo-cross-worlds/

http://cyclingtips.com/2016/02/cyclocross-motor-scandal-belgian-rider-blames-mix-up-claims-bike-belongs-to-a-friend/ (Two CYCLINGTIPS articles on the Van den Driessche affair)

Fortune favours the brave: Northwest – Passage BRM 200… again

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I got lost again – but that’s not the story. Instead it’s about being ill 48 hours before the event, but being ready on the day. It’s about favourable winds, lack of ice or rain, the snow stopping five minutes before the start. It’s about checking and replacing worn wheels, and preparing all the equipment and food even before the illness is definitely gone.

It’s not about being lost. It’s not even about finishing. It’s about starting.

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Review: Café du Cycliste Josette Waterproof Jersey

WP_20131201_005 (1)WP_20131201_003WP_20131201_007 (1)I recently purchased a waterproof short-sleeved jersey. Rather than go for the ubiquitous Castelli Gabba, I tried a Café du Cycliste Josette: it was reasonably priced and I had the option of trying before buying (thanks to personal service from Victor and Liberty). The jersey has full, waterproof zip, three back pockets covered by a storm flap, longish close-fitting sleeves, and a reflective stripe. It is very light, and has a good cut: the small fits me both with and without a standard jersey underneath. The styling is reservedly ‘fancy’ and the zip an unusual brown, but the ensemble works well together. The jersey isn’t fully waterproof (it’s a good balance between breathability and impermeability), but keeps one warm when wet, is windproof, and if worn with armwarmers and a short-sleeve jersey underneath and vest, toasty enough to keep me happy on rides as cold as 2-3 degrees celsius.

I have only worn the jersey on cold rides so far, but it regulates temperature well, so I am expecting it to function pretty well on wet spring rides. Thumbs up to Côte d’Azur for a versatile and well-designed product.

Quick jaunt to the Humber Estuary

Kilnsea bendWhat could possibly go wrong? A week of intense work stress and very little sleep followed by my first 400km Audax (randonnée, brevet) in 10 years. Actually, quite a lot, as it turned out, but little of it to do with my physical condition… after all, I know I can cope without sleep and I have more kms in my legs thus far this year than I have achieved since my 20s.

After finishing the ride (I won’t keep you in suspense) I have quite a lot to think about: some good, some bad, and even some very, very ugly!

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Bob Jackson rides again…


After Friday’s epic today needed to be more sedate, so after a little reconstruction I decided to ride my oldest bike. Bob Jackson are located in Bramley, just outside Leeds, and their frames are still good value. This example is probably due a respray, but I haven’t yet managed to decide whether to retain its unusual finish or go for something new. The silver ‘transfers’ are actually stencils, and the dents and scratches are now almost too familiar to lose, tracing past infelicities and insults.

It rides pretty well, and its fork crown is a thing of beauty; lovely vented bottom-bracket shell too. The current build is a but mixed-up, but that’s just me all over, and what I had in the parts bin.