Friday 26 April 2013

The slippery cycling slope? Answers on a postcard please!

I must admit that in the last year I have noticed a decline in my fitness. I know that since I have been in Milan I have not been able to ride as much as I did when I was in London. I knew that I would be a bit slower in cycle races, but I have come to realise I am just not the cyclist I used to be.

How unfit and slow I am was confirmed last weekend when I took part in a cyclosportive. It was a 100km race which included around 1600m of climbing. I finished dead last, in a time of 6 hours 10 mins. That's barely 10 miles an hour (including short stoppages for various reasons)! The rider who came second last at this race finished more than an hour ahead of me. Practically all the riders who did the longer route - 140km finished before me.
When I finished I was tired, fed up and ready to stop. I had found te hills hard work, and at one point I had had to climb off my bike for a breather.

I guess my current living situation has not helped. Back in London before coming to Italy many people, myself included, thought it would be great to live in Italy and do lots of quality cycle training and racing. I had taken part in cyclosportives on trips to Italy, enjoyed the nice weather, the friendly atmosphere and I'd even given decent performances on the bike. I had therefore thought that a season here would be great for my cycling and my performance would improve.

I am now in Milan, and have ben here for a little over a year. Living the cycling dream? Not really!

Firstly, Milan is in a plain. Any quality cycling to be done involves travelling about 30 miles out of the city to find a training loop that includes any semblance of a hill. Not having a car, I am reliant on trains so in the morning it can be quite stressful making sure I get on such and such a train to Como or Erba, knowing that if I miss one train I have to wait an hour for the next one. Once I get on the train it is a one-hour journey. Monza is a little easier to get to, but it still involves a train journey and therefore an hour's lead time from home before I begin a training ride. And of course I also need an hour to 90minutes to get home once I finish my ride.

Then to compound matters is the weather. Because I know that I will have to sit on a train for around 90minutes  after a bike ride, I get uptight about being caught in the  rain during a ride. For about haf the year rainfall here is frequent, relentless and torrential. With no facilities for changing into dry clothes and the prospect of sitting cold and drenched on a train means that a standard training ride becomes a logistical operation if I wish to tempt my fate at all!

This is all in stark contrast to the days in London where I could just pick up my bike, set off from the house and start my training ride right from my doorstep. Even being caught in the rain is not so bad when on roads local to where you live and you can just ride home and get into a hot bath as soon as you stop riding.

I have always commuted to work by bicycle, and that has been a kind of bread-and-butter training during the week. When I was in London my commute would be 10 miles (16km) each way with a steep hill to ride up and a fast training stretch through Hyde Park. Sometimes I could even do sprint reps at lunchtime around St James's Park. So by the time the weekend came I would have done around 80miles of cycling without even thinking about it. In Milan my commute to work is 3 miles each way on a folding bike through the flat city streets and canal path. There's no chance of doing any training reps as I cycle in my work clothes and there are no showers at the offices where I work. Also, there is no secure area to leave bikes, so riding to work on my road (racing bike) is out of the question. [I have already had one racing bike stolen from me in Milan. I would rather not lose another!!]
Basically I cannot rely on commuting miles to help my cycle training.
Group training rides in Milan start at around 6pm, so no chance of joining those groups since I often leave work around 7pm. In any case I wouldn't be able to keep up!

In a nutshell I can't get in any decent training miles on the road before the weekend, so I rely on my rollers. And given the frequent rainfall we get in Milan it is not often that I even manage to ride on both days of the weekend.

There is no nearby velodrome like what I had at Herne Hill, and don't even think about off-road trails, unless you are happy to ride up and down a short slope at Monte Stella (the only hill in Milan) at least 40 times to get in a decent off-road training ride!

I'm sure that there are parts of Italy where life is good on a bike. But I don't think Milan is the place to be. It is not surpring that I am nowhere near as fit as I used to be back in London.

When I get out to ride local routes I find that by the time I have added in stoppage time to consult maps and find my way, eat, go to the toilet, take on and off clothes etc. I end up averaging 10 miles (16km) an hour. That's hardly breakneck pace. I understand that constantly stopping will impact on my pace, but I like to think that in a competitive situation I will be quicker because I will be in a group and I won't be stopping.

However, my p1ss poor result from Sunday shows that there is a big problem with my cycling. I am just far too slow, and I don't know what to do stop the decline. When I think about what I have ridden in the past - La Marmotte three times, the Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, stage cyclosportives, multi-day cycle touring in the mountains and a number of Italian Gran Fondo events, I find it hard to believe that these were done by me. It must have been someone else!! I feel like a completely different person! Where previously I didn't think twice about riding 70 miles (110km), nowadays the idea of riding more than 80km feels like such challenge.

Parts of me think that it may be my age. I am over 40, so probably not as sprightly as I used to be. But then again, I know of many people my age and even older who can still knock spots off 30 year-olds with their performances! Maybe there's something wrong with me - anaemia or the onset of chronic fatigue. Or maybe doing this activity is just not in my genes. Who knows?

The worst thing is that I am on a slippery slope and don't know how to stop the rot. I joined a cycling club and was looking forward to taking part in races with my team mates, but now I am very reluctant to ride with them. Firstly, most of the rides take place at 9am outside of Milan so it is a stress to get an early train just to get to these places in time. And then when I get there I become anxious about holding everyone up with my snail pace.

Frankly, I'd rather keep my embarrassingly slow performances to myself away from the full glare of everyone else, and ride on my own. Of course this is not going to help my cause as my legs will only know this 10mph (16kph) pace and nothing else. But I really don't know what to do in order to improve my performance, especially now that I have a mental block on getting out and riding competitively. Maybe it's time to retire from this competitive cycling lark.....

If anyone has any ideas I'd be very interested to hear them. Answers on a postcard (as they used to say in the 1980s!)


Thursday 25 April 2013

Escape to a Beautiful City (well, Florence actually!)

These days the weather in Milan is quite grim and unpredictable. One day the sun shines but then for the following 3 days it rains practically non-stop. While I don't mind riding in a bit of rain it begins to get frustrating when you get drenched for hours while apparently "doing your favourite outdoor activity!"

Feeling a little tired of the wet stuff and the greyness in Milan I made a snap decision to travel to the nearest place I could get to and back in a day at reasonable cost and where the sun would be shining. The answer was Florence.

So, at the crack of dawn I jumped on a Freccia high-speed train* to see Giotto's bell tower. By 9.30am I was pedalling through the old narrow streets of the "city of lillies". Already, just being in one of the most beautiful cities in Italy made me feel good. Not only had the sun come out but the temperature was also a good deal warmer than in Milan. I also realised quite quickly that Milan is not Florence! The well-kept streets were bordered by beautiful architecture and neat shutters characteristic of the local area. There was also a distinct lack of graffitti on the walls and dog poo in the streets. Furthermore the Florentine air was clearer and the sunlight was brighter than the usual haziness experienced in Milan.
Don't get me wrong - Milan is nice, but Florence is delightful!
By 10am I was coasting along the strada provinciale in the sun heading for the Tuscany hills. My route was a small loop that went east to Pontassieve and then around the hills and woodland of the Vallombrosa area, and then back to Florence while taking in a northern detour via Fiesole. I was looking forward to riding this route as I found out that parts of it would coincide with stage 9 of this year's Giro d'Italia (San Sepolcro-Firenze).

My intention was not to specifically ride the exact route. For me, just getting a feel for the area and experiencing a few of the local hills on this sunny day would be good enough. From Florence to Pontassieve the road was flat and fast, and provided a good warm-up. Once past the interchange at Pontassieve East the roads become quieter, narrower and started going upwards.

My work began by tackling the long climb from Pontassieve to the summit at Passo della Consuma. For me that meant more than an hour and a half of riding uphill, with just mountains, vineyards and crickets for company! I didn't see many cyclists riding up in the same direction as me. Either they were so much slower than me and much further back down the mountain, or they were alot faster than me and had left me for dust. It was probably the latter! However, I saw so many cyclists coming down in the opposite direction that this led me to believe that people had chosen to experience the climb to La Consuma in the same direction that the pros will on May 12th. Also the way that cyclists were cheering me as I ground up the hill, and they sped down the hill suggested that they may have been impressed that I was riding up to La Consuma via the harder side. I definitely had my work cut out for me!

The distance from Pontassieve to the summit was around 10 miles with a climb of around 7% in gradient. In practice the first 7 miles were harder than 7% and it was only in the last 3 miles that the false flat gave me any respite. The terrain was initially quite open with various cute guest houses and farms producing local items like olive oil and wine. Then further up, the scenery became a little more dramatic with higher mountains coming into view. The snow on the roads made me think I was travelling to another country. In fact the summit of La Consuma was no longer in the province of Florence, but in Arezzo. Despite the presence of snow, the place still felt springlike in the March sunshine.

Near the top of the climb was the right hand turn to Vallombrosa, but I chose to pass this turning and continue to the Passo in order to admire the beautiful views of the Tuscany hills. I must say the summit itself was not anything special. It was just like alot of other summits really - a mountain top with a sign covered in stickers from a multitude of cycling clubs, a car park and a cafe nearby. I guess it's only really when all the excitement of the spectators, the media, the promotional caravan and of course the peloton comes through that the place comes alive. I imagine this place will become something special on May 12th.  

Next I took the descent through the most beautiful part of the route, the Vallombrosa region. This ancient forested area with lots of beech trees and fir trees interspersed with mini rivers and streams was like a cyclist's dream with roads that constantly rolled gently downhill. These descending roads meant there was no need to pedal, and the slight slopes meant braking and cornering were easy enough so I was able to admire the spectacular woodland and rock formations around me. On a summer's day this would really be a lovely place to stop for a picnic. Vallombrosa village itself is very small but quaint. Its abbey and museum provide an attraction for quite a lot of visitors judging by the number of people stopping there. The main square is also big enough to welcome lots of spectators on the big day as the riders (hopefully) do a circuit around it before zooming onwards.

For the time being, my work on riding uphill was done as I continued to drop right down into the valley at Pontassieve while passing lots of pretty villages with various artisanal woodworking and furniture shops. On approaching Pontassieve the roads became a little bit busier and it was obvious that this was a big crossroads area for people going to different parts of Tuscany.
At this point, I was tantalisingly close to Florence and it was very tempting to take the 10-mile main road back to beautiful Firenze and get a gelato in the main square. But I quite fancied heading up to Fiesole of "A Room with a View" fame!

I therefore took a right hand turn through Compiobbi and asked a woman how far I was from Fiesole. "I'm not sure, she said - about 8km, but it will be all uphill. I hope you are ready!" I had to be. The first 2 miles were very tough and I had to grind hard out of the saddle. There were a few American tourists walking down through the nearby woodland area and they egged me on as I struggled my way up. Soon the road levelled off as I arrived at Montebeni. Thank God! This was probably the hardest climb of the day. It is not actually on the Giro d'Italia route. The stage 9 route would have been a road slightly to the east of where I was, but probably equally steep since it was in the same valley. I just hope the racers will enjoy the views!

After Ontignano the road became a false flat, and all along the way, my view to the left consisted of a beautiful panorama of the city of Florence below.
Eventually the road dropped down and I arrived in Fiesole. The last time I was in this place had been roughly 10 years ago. I remember it being a very quiet, peaceful village. It is a shame that the place has since fallen into the arms of a tourist trap and nowadays the square is littered with a stream of coaches dropping off and picking up tourists from all over the world. Still, the views of the Duomo of Florence and the surrounding churches and monuments had not changed at all. When I was last in Fiesole I went up by bus. Today, I could zoom down the switchbacks on my bike and really sense the smells, the sights and the sounds of the area as well as enjoy the process of Florence gradually revealing itself and delivering me all its splendour once I arrived in this majestic city.

Finally arriving in the main piazza in front of the Duomo just as the sun was setting, I was able to enjoy my well-deserved ice cream while watching folks taking their passeggiatta.
Alot of people who cycle in Tuscany focus on the Chianti area and places near San Gimignano and Volterra, but I would definitely recommend a jaunt around the roads in the Province of Florence. And the beauty of routes around here is that you can start and end your ride from the heart of this amazing city.

The route I took can be found here.

*Bikes can be carried on Freccia high speed trains as long as they are in a bike bag and can be placed on a large luggage rack. Once I arrived in Florence I folded up my bike bag and put it in left luggage at the train station. Bikes can be carried on regional trains unwrapped, though you may need to buy a 24hour bike ticket.

Monday 15 April 2013

Africans and Cycling - 2

In light of Gerald Ciolek's recent victory at the Milan-Sanremo bike race while riding for the African Team, MTN Qhubeka I thought I would revisit a subject which I previously wrote about - Africans and cycling.
Not only was Ciolek's first victory for an African professional cycling team (which only got into the Sanremo race on a wildcard), but the team actually included a black African racer, Songezo Jim. We have seen African racers like Chris Froome and Dan Craven participate in high profile professional events, but for once we saw the first ever participation of a black African guy in the Milan-Sanremo. He has documented his experience of participating in this year's epic edition of the event, which makes for quite interesting reading.
There have been black guys participate in other elite races on the UCI African Tour, and other races like the Tour of Rwanda and the Tour of Burkina Faso. At the London 2012 Olympics a number of racers from Eritrea, Morocco, Algeria and Rwanda also competed in cycle races.

It seems that cycling is no longer being seen as a form of transportation for the poor, as was traditionally the case. More Africans are choosing to ride a bicycle for pleasure rather than cycling out of necessity.

Cycling can be a way of overcoming adversity, as is the case for Rwandan cyclist Adrien Niyonshuti. After losing most of his family at the age of seven in an attack on his village during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Adrien found comfort in cycling. As a novice cyclist riding on an old steel bicycle through the Rwandan hills this gave Adrien a sense of freedom and a new focus.

Thanks to events organised in Rwanda by mountain bike pioneers Jock Boyer and Tom Ritchey, Adrien Niyonshuti took up off-road cycling more seriously and joined Team Rwanda which was set up and coached by the two Americans. The full story can now be seen in a new film, Rising From the Ashes, which shows the story behind team Rwanda and how cycling has given hope to the Rwandan genocide victims, including Adrien, who competed in the London 2012 Olympics.

There have been different schemes to encourage cycling in Africa such as the Bikes 4 Africa scheme. Indeed, Team MTN Qhubeka race to raise the profile of children in African communities and donate bicycles to disadvantaged young people in South Africa who would like to take up cycling.

Where cycling was previously seen as something only done by certain classes in society, nowadays different types of people in Africa embracing this two-wheeled pleasure.

As with many countries across the developed world, cycling is a great leveller. Two South African photographers and cycling aficionados Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler, recently published a book entitled Bicycle Portraits, containing various photos that can be viewed on line. The book features ordinary people of all shapes, sizes and races who are bonded by the fact that they travel around by bicycle. (More on their project in this article.)

I for one, was very pleased to see the participation of Songezo Jim at the Milan-San Remo race this year. I hope that in time we will get to see more black Africans in World Tour professional races. Who knows, this could then lead to an African equivalent of the "Wiggo" effect (like what we saw in the UK after Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France).
It seems cycling could be about to have a new image in Africa. I look forward to the time when cycling will firmly be seen as a "like to do" activity rather than a "will have to do" activity.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

And the March Yellow Jersey goes to.....

Spartacus (aka Fabian Cancellara)

With a third podium finish in a row at this year's Milan-San Remo, a third victory on the cobbles at the E3 Harelbeke and a second victory at the Tour of Flanders (not to mention a victory in a classic track sprint in Paris-Roubaix in April) it was a no-brainer for me. I still find it amazing that someone who is known primarily as a dominant force in time-trialling can produce such results in the epic races of the Spring Classics. Oh, and he happens to be one of my favourite racers in the men's professional peloton

As a Londoner it was a great feeling to watch the professionals at the Tour de France prologue on the streets of London in 2007. Seeing Fabian Cancellara zoom up and down Constitution Hill and power to victory was so impressive. Without taking anything away from the other competitors on the day, I must say he looked so much stronger, smoother and faster than everyone else. His ride was so impressive, and it was no surprise that he finished the stage wearing the Maillot Jaune.

It was a shame he was not able to repeat his success at the London 2012 Olympics. Cancellara is known to have won almost everything that is possible to win in time-trialling. One notable absence though, is a victory in the Giro d'Italia. As I am currently in Milan it would be great to see Cancellara wear the Maglia Rosa at some point during the Corsa Rosa. I, for one would be very happy to see him do well at one of the time trials during the Italian grand tour. 

Forza Spartacus!