It’s not you it’s me…

February 19, 2017

img_20170218_125211_590Another North West Passage 200 completed (#4), and with it the realisation that I’ve fallen out of love with Audax. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of randonneuring, but as with many ideas, a collision with reality is never far away. The weather was the best it has been for four years, just a little drizzle towards the end, and a bit of battling into headwinds after the turn.

About 160 km in I started feeling grim, and eating and drinking didn’t help – the same sensations as on my last two failed events, and although this one I finished I was in no fit state to ride home and had to ask my long-suffering partner for a lift home (I did ride the 25 km to the start). I hadn’t ridden for a month before this (apart from a quick spin on the Brompton) which probably explains the earlier onset of these sensations, but I am becoming increasingly frustrated with my string of unpleasant audax experiences. Read the rest of this entry »

Oh dear what can the matter be?

September 22, 2016

There was a time when throwing up in the middle of the night in a Northern town might have involved drink and drugs. These days I’m better prepared (bivvy bag) but it’s cycling that drives me past the point of physical no return. Two rides in a row now have ended in physical and mental collapse around the 300 km mark. You may think this is normal and unsurprising, but in over 20 years of long distance cycling I’ve only ever quit three audaxes: once through over sleeping and running out of time and the other two this season, in similar circumstances and in close succession.

My most recent ‘failure’ is particularly telling: having ridden 200 or so km to Glasson in the Fylde, and managed to navigate around a closed bridge and a swiftly mended puncture (first this year), I descended into chaotic failure mode surprisingly quickly. I clearly hadn’t eaten enough before reaching Glasson (where I inhaled a burger) and wasn’t functioning properly. I was following a mandatory route and hadn’t really had any navigational issues but my Garmin routed me in completely absurd way following my stop, dumping me onto a bizarre network of minor roads and cycle paths, all in roughly the right direction but none anywhere near my planned route. In a better mental state I might have noticed earlier, but I had clearly gone into ketosis and that state where the body is OK but brain is starved of fuel. 

Hence, Colne at around midnight, opposite a full hotel. 307 km but a fair way still from home. Sick twice and shivering. I was offered help by a lovely taxi driver and a BMX bandido, but by that time I’d called for help from my angelic partner as I was in a worse state than on the Old 240.

Learnings: I’m switching to using my smartphone and ride with gps app for navigation if I ever do this again. I’ve done two DIYs before with no issues but this was a complete navigation disaster. And some thoughts about taking on more fuel (possibly liquid). The main realisation though is that as I get older I may need to reduce the intensity of my training and ride longer distances (there’s lots of good advice from ironman triathletes on this it seems): I’ll let you know how I get on.

The Ghost in the Machine: underneath the tinfoil hat.

February 2, 2016

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: (paywall – a review from 2004 of the state of the art in gene doping in sports) (NYT from 2007) (WIRED from 2010) (Two CYCLINGTIPS articles on the Van den Driessche affair)

Medication and long-distance cycling: post 600 thoughts

June 19, 2014
Desgrange on a bike

Henri Desgrange rides a Brevet Randonneur

I have written a lot about doping here, especially in relation to competitive cycling. Since I do not race, this is fairly neutral territory, and I can at least maintain a degree of objectivity. Recent discussion of the use of strong pain killers such as Tramadol, and of medical interventions for asthma and other respiratory issue in professional cycling, and my recent encounter with pain and injury has brought this all a little closer to home. Any medication can enhance performance, and the ethical issues here are complex: many athletes could not compete at all without asthma medication, and there are many situations where anti-inflammatory medication or an analgesic would be perfectly reasonable to enable someone to continue with a minor injury. I would suggest that there are three issues that limit such medical intervention in competition, notwithstanding chronic conditions which require maintenance:

  1. the injury or condition should not be made worse by the use of medication;
  2. the medication should not enhance the athlete’s performance above their baseline without such medication; and
  3. the medication should be within the rules of the sport.

Read the rest of this entry »

Time to get off…

December 6, 2013


So, here it comes: I may need to take a break from cycling for a bit. I have been feeling physically and mentally out of sorts for the last few weeks, and despite some very enjoyable rides the signs are there that I need to change focus: there will certainly be no Festive 500 for me, and I may even eschew the rollers over Christmas. I’ve been here before, and it always amazes me how little riding I did when I was off work with depression – and how little it directly helps my low mood now I am generally better. Cycling has a more background and indirect effect on my health and well-being: prophylactic rather than topical, and like any treatment, dosage needs careful and constant management. There is a constant temptation to increase volume or intensity to fill gaps in life, yet that can lead into a spiral of worsening mood and physical state. It is entirely possible that I’ll feel differently tomorrow or next week, but that’s exactly the point: riding on feel is a reliable way of managing both fitness and psyche once one has learnt to listen to the signs. I am still learning, and it’s a skill I need to remember and practice.

4822 km so far this year, 2539 last year, so a good point to rest!

In praise of Altigraph

June 16, 2011

Altigraph, a name that still makes my hairs stand on end.

la Berarde – col de Spandelles – Grand Ballon – col de la Schlucht

altigraph guideHow would you plan a cycling holiday in France? Perhaps you would plan it around gastronomy or viticulture; possibly around pragmatic considerations such as the availability of airports, campsites or gites; maybe you want to visit historical or cultural centres; or the Tour de France climbs. Given that France is such wonderful cycling destination one can easily succumb to the paralysis associated with a proliferation of uncontrolled and interacting variables. Read the rest of this entry »

Cycling and depression: finding a balance

May 24, 2011

Ex-professional cyclist Tyler Hamilton (in the news again recently, which you will know unless you were asleep for 60 minutes) claimed in 2009 that his second positive test for doping (DHEA) was the result of his taking a herbal remedy to counter longstanding depression (Bonnie Ford of ESPN as usual does an excellent job of summarising here). Hamilton is not the only professional cyclist to have suffered from depression during or after their career, and I have often wondered about the relationship between training workload as a cyclist and mental health. I recently read two blog posts about depression by active cyclists (Scientist, you’re a failure & Drugs and Mental Healthcare) and this got me thinking about how exercise and mental health interact. In this post I write about my own experiences, share some academic research on the topic, and speculate a bit about depression and cycling in general. I am not a mental health professional (although I am an academic working in the area of empirical psychology) so please take my words with this in mind.

Read the rest of this entry »

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