Before I got my trike, I heard stories about the need to gain “recumbent legs”; the time needed to acclimatise to cycling with your legs in the horizontal position. While this filled me with a degree of trepidation, I had managed to keep cycling on the turbo trainer on my upright bike until the day I took delivery of my VTX.
Most racing cyclist are obsessed with power. Measured with a power meter or a turbo trainer, the watts produced are a direct and accurate measure of your strength. There is no hiding from the Garmin lie detector. My watts on an upright bike looked good. In fact, the day before the trike delivery day, I had managed to average 355w up the virtual Alp D’Zwift, finishing it in 48 mins. I know this timing is exact because I beat my triplet brother by 2 minutes; a victory I never managed to achieve in my sailing career.
Therefore, I must admit, I felt fairly positive about the whole recumbent legs thing. After all, it was still pushing a pedal up and down (OK, out in front) and my lungs seemed to be fine. However, my first ride on the road brought me down to earth. Looking at my Strava feed I averaged 198w for around an hour and I was cooked! Bear in mind, this would have been a recovery ride pace on the upright bike. In addition, the average speed was the type you don’t want to make public on social media.
All the stories I had read regarding the famed recumbent legs came back to me. Yes, my quads were in a remarkable degree of pain, but my hip flexors were also singing for good measure. Maybe my virtual victory up Alp D’Zwift had been the zenith of my career? I could not even use the often-quoted reason about recumbent cyclists not being able to stand up to hammer on the pedals. My baby like strength in my left arm ensured my backside never parted from the saddle until I had reached home.
For good measure, and probably self-flagellation, I decided that I should do a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test on the turbo trainer. FTP is the maximum average power a cyclist can hold for an hour. When training for triathlon and time trials these torture sessions had taken place on the first Monday of every month. I used to dread them so much I could not sleep the night before.
The test itself is fairly basic. Warm up for 10 minutes and then go as hard as you can for 20 minutes. Your average power for 20 minutes is 105% of your FTP. The first time you do it, after starting off like a demented Chris Hoy, you wonder how you are going to get past 10 mins. The second time you are under pressure to beat the first time and life becomes harder. People walking past the shed were known to knock on the front door, asking if everything was ok.
So, the FTP test on the trike was going to be interesting. At least I would not fall off at the end from a great height. My upright bike FTP was around 350w. This sounds good but consider Bradley Wiggins averaged 450w for his hour record, with the challenge of going around a banked track. A friend of mine holds 400w for a moderate session. We are just mere mortals… Anyway, when all the sweating, moaning and swearing finished, the trike FTP was (drumroll) 260w! Nearly 100w lost just by moving my legs through 90 degrees.
The process of getting back to my old FTP is ongoing. I was pleasantly surprised to note I managed to hold 310w for a 10 mile time trial a couple of weeks later. Then, a month after taking delivery of the trike I managed to hold 300w for just over an hour at a BHPC event. 5 months and 5,500km later I am probably around 95% back to the upright FTP. Either that or my power meter is feeling generous.
Until next time…
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The advert in the brochure advertised ” A perfect blend of performance, dynamic handling and comfort” so I was keen to see how it performed on some twisty descents.
My first ride took place on some quiet country roads. Adopting a position normally assumed for sleeping, I placed my hands on the vertical steering handles. Resembling an old version of Luke Skywalker in his X fighter, I clipped in and made way.
The directness of the steering came as a surprise. It did not seem to make sense that a machine with two front wheels could turn just like a bike. Not only that, but it was intuitive. Maybe the “force” did reside in me after all.
Although not wanting to dwell on my physical limitations (something I reserve when requested to do the washing up), I must say the stability of three wheels was a revelation. My previous riding companions had often commentated on my inability to hold a straight line. It was only now I realised how much effort I had been putting into not colliding with the curb or passing vehicles. In addition, the pressure of descending on my weak arm had led to some dramatic speed wobbles at not very dramatic speeds. The extra front wheel made this phenomenon an impossibility.
The view from the recumbent position was also a surprising improvement from staring at the front wheel of a road bike. Normally I am not one for the visual feasts of the countryside. After walking up a Welsh mountain and surveying the view, my first thought is to quickly get back down for coffee and cake. However, from this new supine position the South Wales Valleys had never looked so good.
Approaching the first tight corner, the brakes were frantically squeezed and I leaned my torso into the corner, with a steely and dare I say, handsome look on my face. Such a dramatic movements had not been seen since my dinghy sailing days as my stomach muscles reminded me.
I soon realised that
a) the trike had superb grip. I mean extraordinary, g force producing, jowl pulling grip. Only the tightest corners required the lightest touch of the brakes.
b) although leaning out made me feel like a contestant in the Isle of Man TT, there was little need for it. In addition, adopting a steely look in this position just made me look like I was struggling with constipation.
Trying to establish what would occur if I pushed it too far took a while. In fact, in only occurred I had reached the limit when I elegantly slid sideways during a race at my first BHPC event. Even that was a fairly pleasant experience. More Torvill and Dean than Dukes of Hazard.
One can clearly see the effect of my new found confidence on my time down the local descent. This features some tight and off-camber sections. The first time I went down it, a road cyclist overtook me, even though I felt I was about to jump into hyperspace (to keep the Star Wars theme going). I had let the “perfect blend of performance and dynamic handling” down. Spurred on by this humiliation, as the Strava screen shot shows, I quickly gained confidence and gravity was once again my friend.
When the weather permits I will try and get a video of some trike action down this hill.
Until next time..
Hamsters on wheels
Winter…The season of short days, long nights, bulging waistlines (OK, just me then) and turbo training. Of all the reasons to move to warmer climates, turbo training must be up there.
In the old days, cyclists took to the rollers in the off season. No, they did they not emerge from the snow with a superb 80s style perm. This type of rollers consisted of a frame containing three parallel cylinders, on which one must balance two rotating wheels. Sound easy? I suggest entering “first attempt at indoor rollers” into your search engine to give you a visual answer. Watching someone else nose plant into the floor is far more sensible than trying it yourself.
However, once you recovered from the broken bones, the act of trying to balance on the rollers did distract you from the sheer monotony of pedalling hard while moving at zero mph. Until recently, the only other alternative was the standard turbo trainer. Here, the bike is held static, with the wheel pushing against a metal cylinder. The good news is you would struggle to fall off. The bad news is you are the human version of a hamster on a wheel, running to stand still.
Enter the smart trainer. Despite its lofty title, you’re not going to be challenged to a game of chess or talked though its recent doctorate. This device interacts with your PC to allow you to enter a virtual cycling world. Fancy racing a few of our American friends up Alp D’Zwift? Not a problem. Enjoy a speedy descent down the side of a volcano while being chased by some European colleagues? Just a few clicks away.
Smart trainers have transformed indoor cycling. Now we can race our fellow hamsters around the world, all sweating profusely as we steam up the windows in the most unenjoyable way. Your speed on the racecourse is computed by a) the power your produce, calculated by your smart trainer or power meter and b) your weight. These two measurements combine to give you a watts per kilogram figure. The higher this figure, the quicker you go uphill. Of course, a lot of this is open to abuse.
On a recent virtual race, someone overtook me holding 10 watts/kg. Top sprinters can hold this for a few seconds. This chap had been holding this figure for 30 mins. I hope Dave Brailsford had his number. A few people have been thrown out of serious indoor races for “virtual doping”. Of course, my weight is totally realistic every time my brother and myself meet on the virtual race course…
Indoor training on the trike
Below is an image showing my turbo training setup. Not so much a “Cottage of Wattage”, more a Room of Tears.
The VTX fits with minimal problem on the Tacx Flux S smart trainer. I just had to purchase some adapters to allow for the slightly larger dropout dimension. I had an old TV that I stuck on the wall and connected to my laptop. The other vital items you are going to need are a fan or two, a towel and a suitable drink.
In the UK winter, heat regulation can be awkward if your turbo is situated outside the house. Without the fan on, the room quickly turns into a sauna, while you write help messages on the windowpanes. With the fan on, you feel like a male penguin, sheltering from the artic winds in a David Attenborough documentary. I have overcome this partly by wearing a thermal top and only turning the fan on for the harder efforts. Even then I often emerge from the shed more paralysed than normal due to the effect of the cold on my knackered motor neurones.
When it is below freezing it is time to move the setup into the house. Not only does this save you from frozen feet and pulled muscles, but you are unlikely to be able to put out serious efforts while your body is attempting to perform a virtual mammalian diving reflex.
When on the turbo I need to have a goal. I tend to avoid vitual racing unless lacking motivation. For someone as pathetically insecure as me, racing daily can quickly lead to over training as you try and chase down the rider doing 10 watts/kg. For this reason, I often replicate sessions prescribed by some of my previous excellent coaches. I often do these sessions after a previous hour or so at a fairly easy pace, normally watching Netflix. Then I break out the worst taste in music and start the intervals.
Below is one of my favourite sessions. It is quite challenging, but not so much that you dread doing it. The intervals are just under and over FTP (see post on recumbent legs for more info), but short enough that you don’t feel too taxed.
For the newbie recumbent racer, I do have one word of warning. Indoor training is much harder than comparative efforts outside. There are numerous reasons for this; heat build-up and boredom being two. However, I personally have found turbo training more likely to lead to strains and sprains in tendons and muscles. I expect this is due to there being no break in the pedalling action. When outside there will be the long break as you coast down a hill, or the micro break you get when you reach the “dead spot” in the pedal stroke.
It is therefore important to do some preparatory work prior to starting your indoor sweat sessions. These can work on improving strength in muscles such as hip flexors. Maybe a topic for another blog!
Hope that was useful. Enjoy your hamster wheel!
Gosh I bet that goes fast mister…
The ICE VTX looks like a speed demon. With your back side a few inches from the asphalt and your head barely peering over your knees, it is no wonder you draw attention from the thronging masses. Or just the local youths crowded outside the Co-Op. And no-one could group their comments into the “encouraging” category.
When I was thinking of acquiring a trike, the question I asked the team at Inspired Cycling Engineering was so common it must have led to the person answering the email to reach for the cut and paste answer. In case you have not guessed it; “will this be quicker than my road bike?”. The answer, as you may have guessed, was non-committal.
Indeed, the simplest of questions are often the hardest to answer. My doctorate researched a very basic question. My seven years of hard work resulted in a thesis of such length it was thankfully impossible for any examiner to read. After all this, I had little clue as to what the answer was, apart from, “well, it depends”.
All I can do is point out what influences your speed on the trike. How these various factors interact decides if your Strava friends will be hammering on the kudos button, or screen shotting evidence of your inadequacies to their mates.
So here we have part 1 of our journey into trike speed. Starting with the big ones, power and aerodynamics.
1) Power. There is no hiding from this. If we were all on the same machine, the one who can push on the pedals harder, for a longer period is going to win the race (drafting aside). And it’s not just a question of having calves mimicking tennis balls rammed into a sock. You must be able to get oxygen to the muscles and get rid of the waste products.
VO2 max is often stated as the performance measure of endurance athletes. The higher the better. An average adult male has a VO2 max of 35 mL/kg/min. The highest recorded VO2 in elite athletes is in the high 80s. Sounds a bit discouraging doesn’t it? However, the real kicker is this. You can only improve your VO2 max through training by 15%. For someone, like myself, who is already in a trained state, this is likely to be far lower. My Garmin tells me I am rated in the top 2% in terms of male endurance fitness, which I proudly relate to my wife while flexing in the mirror. However, the brutal truth is no amount of hard work is going to take me to the top level of elite sport.
By way of illustration and humiliation, I once took part in an off-road duathlon race. That consists of a 5k run, 30k mountain bike ride and another 5k run to finish off. I competed with my normal gusto and total lack of finesse. When finishing the mountain bike section, I shouted to my wife “How am I doing?”. The rather tactless reply came back “Second, but the winner has already finished”. Genetics is a bitch. I should has suspected as much when my Dad refused to take part in the school sports day parent’s race. You can’t choose your parents…
If you are limited by the sustained force you can kick the pedals with, what can you do? Top of the recumbent vehicle list involves improving the ease with which you slip through the air. Certainly, from the side at least, the trike looks the ticket. Low to the ground, your vertical height is way less than a road bike, or even a time trial bike. Certainly, from my experiments, lower is faster, especially if that involves getting your body out of the wind.
By way of an example, when I first got my trike, I had the seat reclined at a fairly low position (hole number 2 for all those VTX owners). With this setup I managed around an average of 38kmh for just over an hour on a windswept race track in Derbyshire, using on average 300w. The next day, after getting tips from a fellow competitor, I lowered the seat back one hole. Here I averaged 37 kmh off 260w for 2 hours. So, if my dodgy maths is correct, that is a mere two percent drop in speed for a 14 percent drop in power.
Therefore, for my fellow genetically restrained friends, aerodynamics may be your saviour. I certainly hope to do a further blog on this at some point. However, I must warn you, this is a rabbit hole from which you may never emerge. Aerodynamic gold standards are notoriously individualistic. Reclining the seat worked for me. With you, it may lead to having to lift your head into the air stream, like a polystyrene roadblock. Or this position may send the air spiralling off your shoulders, resulting in an invisible anchor pulling you back into the pack.
I once went to a wind tunnel to test equipment for time trailing. After telling me I was “a big lad”, not something that required a wind tunnel to see, the data showed that..
a) My old helmet, brought used for 20 quid, was far quicker than any new , expensive, high-tech helmet. The other half was very happy.
b) My new wheel, brought for an obscene amount, was in fact slower than the cheap standard wheel that came with the bike. The other half was decidedly less happy.
So, although it may appear to make sense, you can never be sure unless you test it.
Watch out for part 2; rolling resistance, trike weight and other factors. Only then will you be able to look someone confidently in the eye and say in assured tones “Well, it depends..”
Trike speed; part deux
In Part 1 we looked at the main factors that effect your speed on a trike; power and aerodynamics. At least on the flat, these factors are huge determinants of how fast you go. However, there are other factors that influence your speed, especially when compared to our colleagues on two wheels.
Put simply, this is drag caused by your tyres having to overcome road imperfections. This can range from roads like the surface of the moon, to surfaces a smooth as silk. I once disappeared, Vicar of Dibley fashion, down a pothole descending the hill from my house. Well the bike did. I carried on at the same original velocity into a hedge. This road ranked low on the road surface score sheet.
At the opposite end of the scale, you have Castle Coombe racetrack. The tarmac is so smooth it appears like a dark river on a windless day. After experiencing the bone jarring asphalt of British roads, the sight of this may cause you to collapse to your knees and lay your lips on its tarry goodness (touch dramatic I grant you). However, from this close viewpoint you will notice that even this, the king of road surfaces, has sizeable lumps and bumps.
When your tyre encounters these bumps, it is going to distort. Worse than that, if the tyre pressure is too high, it’s going to bounce the wheel, and you, up. Both distortion and bouncing slows you down, especially the bouncing. Lifting 100kg of combined rider and trike, thousands of times a minute, is going to take a bit of energy. Just getting out the sofa requires more than I can sometimes manage. Unless it involves a trip to the fridge, but I digress…
Rolling resistance is performance sapping enough with two wheels, but we are going to have 1/3 more rolling resistance on our beloved machine. This disadvantage becomes more apparent as we go faster, as rolling resistance increases, in a linear relationship, with speed.
With rolling resistance having such a marked effect on our three wheeled beasts, it makes sense to try to improve the situation. First up we have tyre pressure. On a road bike I pumped my tyres to solid 100 psi, and so the trike got the same treatment. After my first ride, it took a few hours to stop my eyeballs shaking. It was only after talking to John Greed that I recognised 3 wheels should mean a third less pressure.
I now run around 58 psi on all three tyres. The difference is dramatic. Compared to before, the ride is magic carpet like. Not only that, but your speed will go up as your trike is no longer bouncing over every little imperfection. A true win-win situation.
The second step you can take is to get some fast tyres. After a few rides dealing with punctures, I once purchased some “puncture proof” winter tyres. I should have realised these were not fast after I had to put them in airing cupboard for a week to get the rubber supple enough to mount them. On their only outing, my friend overtook me freewheeling down a descent while I pedalled furiously to keep up. After breaking four tyre levers to get them off the wheels, they are still in the shed, awaiting the day when the local council decide a layer of shattered glass constitutes the optimum road surface.
So, you need quick tyres. For the rear, 700cc wheel there is lots of choice (bicyclerollingresistance.com is a superb source of information). For the front, we are a bit more limited. Luckily, Shwalbe produce the excellent Pro One tyre in this size. Go tubeless and they are even quicker.
The ICE VTX is light, coming it about 13kg. However, this is still almost twice the weight of a good road bike. How much difference does this make? Well, no one is going to cycle uphill with another bike strapped to their back and consider it fast. People with more intelligence than me state that for a 1 mile, 7.5% gradient hill, at the top you will lose two and half seconds for every extra pound. So, we will lose around half a minute on our trike compared to a road bike, just on weight alone. Plus, we have the extra rolling resistance and drivetrain drag to contend with.
My times up the local hill seem to back this up. Up a 1.24 km hill averaging 7%, my best time on a road bike was around 4 mins 10 seconds. On the trike, with slightly less power I am looking around the 5 minute mark. You should banish all thoughts of beating Chris Froome up Alp D’Huez.
However, on lesser gradients the effect of weight is far less pronounced. On the flat there is no effect. I, personally, have found this when riding with my good friend. Let’s call him David. Now David is a man who seems oblivious to delights of Maryland Cookies, Angel Cake and the other staple constituents of a balanced diet. Sadly, this often results in David seeking out Wales’ steepest slopes, with me dreaming of a nice Victoria sponge behind.
On rolling terrain and gradual slopes, my power, gained from years worshipping the deity of Mr Kipling, are more than a match for David’s svelte physique and feather light road bike. However, up the steep stuff, I am pretending not to appear exhausted as he floats past me.
Of course, in terms of overall weight, my body weight is far higher than the trikes 13kg. I could probably afford to lose at least part of the road bike-trike deficit if I could stay away from the biscuit tin. However, as I say to myself, while considering another trip to the fridge, “all the BHPC races are on the flat”. And long may that continue…
Putting it all together.
We can conclude that we are going to struggle to win a mountain time trial. At slower speeds, especially up hills, the trike’s weight and rolling resistance puts us at a severe disadvantage compared to a rider on a road bike putting out the same power.
However, a trike does have an aerodynamic advantage over a standard road bike. As aerodynamic drag increases exponentially with speed, this becomes rapidly apparent the quicker we go, with your conventional cycling friends fading into the distance. However, on the flat, due to the extra rolling resistance of the third wheel, to go fast you need to exceed a certain amount of power.
You can lower this threshold dramatically by reducing your aerodynamic drag and, to a lesser extent, lowering your rolling resistance by proper tyre inflation pressure and tyre choice. Finally, although it pains me to say it, if you live by some hills you may want to avoid the chocolates.
Hope you enjoyed!
Increase your get up and go!
Let’s face it. Sometimes getting off the sofa and onto the trike can feel like a lot of effort. Procrastination is a dear friend of mine, alongside his close cousins, slothfulness and idleness.
Getting the motivation to put yourself through some physical distress can be difficult, especially this time of year. Even putting on the sixteen layers of clothes required to stave off frostbite can seem a hurdle too high.
Plenty has been written about motivation. There is an entire industry based on self-help books. However, today I present to you two simple strategies that may help you get out the door. As my academic research touched on this area, they have some science behind them. So, before you exhaust Netflix, merge seamlessly with the sofa and tuck into the last of those cookies take a look…
Tactic 1; Any training undertaken should lead to lots of immediate rewards.
People often link motivation with a long-term goal. Examples include losing a stone in weight or winning your chosen event. We may create a mental image of standing on the podium, holding the trophy skywards, while the adoring crowd cheer below. My mental image would also have me with bountiful hair, but sadly goals should be realistic.
While there is nothing wrong with long term goals, the use of immediate rewards can increase motivation to train. Those of you who studied some psychology (or watched Haribo adverts) will remember the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment in delayed gratification. A subject is told you will be left in a room with a marshmallow and if they manage to refrain from eating it, will be given an extra one on the examiners return. Substitute the marshmallow for adult concepts like admiring looks from would be suitors, a pile of money Scrooge McDuck would struggle to count or a championship winning performance. All these require goals require delayed gratification to succeed.
Sadly, I, and a lot of people, struggle to work for a reward that seems lightyears away. Therefore, what we need to do is provide rewards straight after our training activity. This “reinforcement” can be real or virtual. Your “real” reward may be the social reinforcement of your mate gasping in awe as you overtake them up the hill. Or it could be a nice sugary treat after you get off the turbo. You can even increase the frequency of rewards even further. For example, on long time trials I would reward myself every 15 mins with a sugary gel if I kept to the required power output.
Now, some may think that this sounds a bit like dog training and far below the level of our vast intellect. However, the science supports that fact that humans still make decisions often unconsciously and then use our cognitive abilities after the event to justify it.
In terms of decision making, I am a slave to my primitive past. For example, I once rode with a friend of a friend for an “easy coffee ride”. This fine young man had all the attributes I lacked. The fine head of hair, racing snake physique and youthful good looks were just the start of it. However, as we reached the halfway point on the first hill, I realised all my pointless hours pushing pedals up and down had left me with a sizeable advantage on a push bike. At this point I announced we would do some interval training and for two hours I tortured this poor youth, going up the steepest hills I could find at the fastest pace I could manage. My description of the ride on Strava read “Interval training in the hills”. Of course, what it should have read was “insecure middle age man looks to torture nice young gentleman due to fit of envy”.
So, having accepted we are more primitive then we thought, we can now really go to town on the amount of rewards we get. Enter the world of virtual reinforcement. Strava has many great features but, for motivation quality, you cannot beat the kudos button. Due to humans’ unique ability to believe in an artificial construct, the social reinforcement we get from these virtual slaps on the back egg us on to greater endeavours. There is a reason Facebook has a like button.
Of course, Zwift has the “ride on” feature. During a ride on the turbo, a big virtual thumbs up will appear on your screen. To me, this seems less motivating and the science backs it up. Motivation to perform a behaviour, say cycling, is closely linked to looking for approval from your peers. An individual giving me kudos from his shed, thousands of miles away, just doesn’t cut it. Compare this to my brother finally admitting my physical prowess, for the entire world to see via my Strava post ride comments. Sadly, this has yet to happen!
Regarding rewards, there is other good news. By receiving a fistful of reinforcement after training, we can actually make the training more pleasant next time. This is due to the timing of dopamine release; the chemical associated with happiness and other fluffy constructs. Surprisingly, when we have learnt an activity leads to a reward, the dopamine release occurs in anticipation of the reward, not as you are chomping down on the post ride cake. You get a feeling of pleasure when you see the road rise ahead of you or you are lining up on the start line, anticipating all the good things that will follow.
Of course, this will result in motivation to train and then more real and virtual rewards. An upwards spiral to sporting immortality. You may even get to your long-term goal. However, it is the short-term goals and rewards that drive our journey to trike godliness. I used to sail, and get beaten, by many future Olympic gold medallists and world champions. Without exception, their motivation stemmed from their enjoyment of “the journey” and the multiple real or virtual rewards they got on the way. The medal around their neck was almost a happy after thought.
Tactic 2: Reconstruct your memory.
Every year I do my first race of the season I am taken aback by how much it hurts. The burning in my legs comes as a genuine surprise despite having competed in one form or another since I was a child. All I remembered from the races the year before was elation and pleasure. Where the hell did this pain come from! This dissonance stems from the fact that memories are malleable.
I will use an example from my previous profession, the one I did prior to friendly fire from my immune system taking aim at my motor neurones.
You may attend the dentist to have a tooth removed. The dentist is pleasant and professional, the procedure is pain free and the tooth removed with little fuss. As you walk out the surgery you state your amazement at the painless nature of the procedure. However, by the time you reach home, your memory of the event has changed to a concrete and certain image of the dentist placing his knee on your chest while heaving at your tooth like he is pulling up an anchor.
How can this be? Surely, we are remembering a true event. Sadly, memories are extremely pliable. Maybe you are anxious to start with, increasing the probability of you remembering it as a traumatic event. Your memory may be influenced by your partner telling you, as you walk out the surgery, how brave you are. Why would I need to be brave, your inner dialogue wonders? Because I endured a traumatic and dangerous procedure, answers your inner logic. Once in the car you ring a friend and slightly embellish on how “brave” you were and how traumatic is was. By the time you are home and the post-operative pain has kicked in, you are well on your way to a future dental phobia.
Now, for a fair proportion of time, cycling is not comfortable. In fact, of you push yourself hard, it can be fairly unpleasant. If we dwelled on the memory of rasping breath and frostbitten toes we would soon stop. However, we can use our minds flexible nature to our advantage. Simply stating to your partner or friends what a great ride it was as you walk in the house will dramatically improve your memory of the rain-soaked hell you just went through. Repeat this on your Strava ride description, ideally with a big selfie of you bearing a beaming smile at the top of a big hill. Every time you look at this image, what was a fairly unpleasant experience turns into a moment of personal triumph and makes it more likely you will put yourself through it again.
Cycling is a strange sport, full of tales of pain. Hopefully these tactics can help you increase your motivation to suffer. Or at least get off the sofa.
Hope you enjoyed.
If it raining, we’re training!
I guess you all know the feeling. After dreams of trike utopia, sunshine and beautiful countryside, you awake to the sound of rain drumming on the window. As I live in Wales, this occurs frequently. Richard Llewellyn’s novel, How Green Was My Valley, did not mention the near constant drizzle that created the lush grass. So, what is it like riding a trike in the wet?
The bad points first. Being only one foot from the ground does have its downsides. Although I have not reached the phase of snorkel necessity, I have occasionally felt like a boat plunging down a slipway after the naming ceremony. In addition, you are at a perfect level for the spray from passing vehicles to give you an invigorating shower. More road sludge than Radox I am afraid.
Another downside of riding a trike in the wet compared to a conventional bike is your position. On an upright bike you can hide your face from the rain by burying your head. On the recumbent trike, the laidback position, while perfect for admiring nature’s fauna, leaves you facing the full blast of the what the weather forecaster described as a “light shower”.
Without a mudguard, your head is positioned a few inches from the torrent of water coming from the back tyre. As it seeps down your neck and back, you get to experience a new type of water torture.
Standard day in Wales
Ok the bad points out the way. What are the good points? Firstly, stability. Although you still need to pay attention, gone is the paranoia that the innocuous puddle may contain a pothole capable of swallowing your front wheel and catapulting you into a hedge. Also, the trike’s tremendous grip around the corners gives some you some feeling of comfort when you realise you have forgotten to brake. At worst, the back end slides out slightly till balance is restored.
Secondly, by virtue of having two front wheels, you do not get spray hosing itself onto your feet and bottom bracket bearings. In my upright riding days, I even took to wrapping my feet in clingfilm to stop the wet seeping in. So, finishing the ride with semi-dry feet has been a revelation. The purchase of a pair of fluorescent yellow shoe covers, while not fashionable, has certainly added to my visibility. Who cannot see two spinning, bright yellow, size 11 feet? By the way, why do cyclists insist on dressing in black to blend in with the tarmac?
So, all in all, I would say the trike wins on wet days over the upright bike. A rear mudguard is a definite for the winter. The spray from the two front wheels only really wets your elbows. An old-fashioned cycling cap is going to help keep the rain out your eyes, but probably some glasses with clear lenses will help more. Or just hit the turbo trainer and sweat so much you will look like you have been out in the rain.
Like Marmite and certain populist politicians, you either love them or hate them. Living in South Wales, it is lucky enough for me that despite my size, I enjoy the sensation of burning legs and sweat dripping in my eyes. All while moving forward at snail pace. This masochism may have been fostered by my previous sailing career, where one would spend an hour slogging away into the wind, only to enjoy a brief and fast trip downwind to the bottom mark. Cycling in Welsh Valleys is, like life, full of ups and downs.
When you talk to anyone about your inclination to do your cycling in a supine position, you are often met with the statement “They can’t go up hills”. Amusingly, someone breathlessly proclaimed this to me while I floated past them on an especially nasty ascent. I would have pointed out the irony, but I was struggling to keep the poker face of relaxed godliness and was looking forward to easing up as soon as this cyclist was out of sight!
So, can a recumbent trike climb? Well, as stated in a previous blog, we have certain facts of physics working against us. Firstly, weight. My trike is almost double what a good racing road bike weigh. To counteract this disadvantage, with some hellish effort, I have managed to lose this amount off my body. With a previous diet that resembled a toddler’s birthday buffet, this has not been easy. However, after much angst and waking up chewing the pillow in hunger, it seems to have come off. The good news is the skin suit is much easier to slip on. The bad news is I still look just as grotesque in it.
So, with my new svelte physique I decided I would see how well my trike would perform on a local hilly route close to my home. Within the 55ish kilometres ridden, there would be 900 meters of climbing, starting almost from the go with a 500 meter climb to the top of the Rhymney Valley. Following this, would be short descent through some valley towns, another long climb to the top of the next valley and then a descent back home.
My metrics for how well the trike can climb were going to be my placings on the Strava leader board. South Wales is blessed with some great riders. It not at all uncommon to see Geraint Thomas come past (who, by the way, always says hello. A note to all the weekend warriors who ignore my cheery wave). To get to near the top of the leader board in this area takes some talent or strapping the Garmin to the top of your car.
When cycling a standard road bike, I would look to come in the top 5% on a hilly segment. This was the criteria on which I would judge the three wheeled chariot.
Straight from the off I had a sharp climb of 1 km, averaging around 10%. The leader board informed that I was 430th out of 2,300 riders. I had crept into the top 20%. Not terribly good. Mitigating factors (or some would say excuses); I had averaged about 370 watts which for me is fairly tame for the 2 mins on the climb. In addition, the climb was steep. Certainly, previous rides and their subsequent Strava analysis in the bath afterwards informed me that any climb over 7 percent is not going to favour a trike.
After a brief respite, it was time to start the “big” climb. This starts with a steep portion along the main roads, before making its way into the country lanes and then out onto truly breath taking scenery at the top of Bedwellty Mountain. A more trike friendly 3 percent climb for 6km, backed up by the Strava leader board informed me that I had moved into the top 15%. Maybe, enduring all those sugar cravings had been worth it.
After the brief respite in the valley, it was time to push on a bit up the last climb. This climb is remarkable in many ways. Firstly, the headwind that seems to barrel down it no matter what wind direction. Secondly, the red kites that sore above you at the summit. Truly spectacular. The verdict from the Strava gods looked good. Into the heady world of the top 10 percent, although laughably 2 minutes behind the leader on a 9 minute climb.
The stats at the end of the ride showed that I had averaged 28 kph, with a normalised power of 280 watts. Not too bad for me, a 45-year-old with three working limbs, on a very hilly ride. Uphill, the trike struggled to achieve the same as a top of the range road bike. However, on one strava segment, a 30 minute uphill section with one small flat, I managed to get inside the top 3%. Evidence that is does not a lot of none climbing to make up any time deficit.
Up next for me is the first time trial of the season. Expect a list of excuses and lots of synonyms for pain. Until then…
First race of the season!
Please take a look at my son’s vlog from the Castle Combe 10 mile time trial.
Sadly, Covid prevented race footage but we have a light hearted interview, conducted by my son!
An English proverb states that “Truth often hides in an ugly pool.” Despite making no sense in almost any context, it makes perfect sense for time trialing, the so called ‘Race of Truth’, if an ugly pool describes a face etched in suffering, suspended over a sweating torso. Having said that, I do like a good time trial. There is a purity about it. Just you and your trike, pushing those pedals around while the feeling of nausea rises inside.
I have done a few time trials this season. All at the same circuit in Castle Combe. Halfway through the season they decided on a change of scenery by turning the course from clockwise to anti-clockwise, maybe to even out the wear on my front tyres. In attendance are some super quick two-wheel athletes, as well as the GB Paralympic squad. To this end, they serve as a fun event to test your form and allow some interesting comparisons of trike and tt bike.
A time trial seems simple enough. Go as hard as you can for the prescribed distance. However, I have learnt there are some vital techniques that one needs to use to eke out your best performance.
Do not start too fast. This is so important it is worth repeating again in capitals
DO NOT START TOO FAST
You can often spot the novice time trialist (ignoring the flapping race number and backwards aero helmet) by the demented way they head off the line. Their confident look one minute into the effort contrasts to the look of distress halfway through the course.
Now watch the experienced ‘tester’ in the grand tours. They move off the starting line with an almost laconic pressing of the pedals, as if they are on a gentle amble down the shops, admittedly on a bike worth more than a house in the Welsh Valleys. Unlike our novice friend, they understand that pressing too hard in the first minute will mean the rest of the time trial in lactic soaked misery.
Someone once explained to me it is like pouring water into a bath with the plug open and a semi blocked drain. For the perfect pacing you need to get the water to the top of the bath but not allow it to overflow. If you gently pour the water in to start and then gradually increase its rate, you get to a point where you can just keep it from lapping over the rim. However, if you start by fully open the taps, the water rushes to the top and the only way to stop it coming through the ceiling is to almost shut down the flow completely. You can see why our novice friends first 5k our vastly quicker than the remainder.
It all sounds simple. Start easy and gradually increase the intensity until you feel an urge to cry. However, I promise you, with the adrenaline pumping as the starter counts down, it is extremely hard to gauge your effort in the first few minutes. This is the great benefit of a power meter. Without it, you can feel like you are hardly touching the pedals but putting out 450w for the first two minutes, feeling like Filippo Ganna stuffed into a middle age body. Five minutes later, you are toast. The effect of adrenaline is so pronounced that a correctly paced effort feels like you are attempting not to turn the pedals!
Technique 2) Push on when it gets slow, recover when it gets fast.
We all like to push on when going fast. In my mind’s eye, I am racing through the fields of France having just overtaken Merx, Hinault and Indurain, in what must be an all-star race. Armstrong is also there with a large * emblazoned on his jersey.
If you are like anything like me, you tend to push harder when the tarmac is whizzing past at impossible speed under your wheels, enjoying the sensation of speed.
However, this race to warp speed makes no sense when you consider we are going to spend a proportionally longer time on the slower parts of the course. Therefore, you should make every effort to get through the slow parts as quickly as possible, using the faster sections to recover (slightly!). For instance, pushing on more when we are going into a head wind or up a rise. This technique was illustrated perfectly when I was completing a 25 mile time trial a few weeks ago. Starting 30 seconds behind me was Dame Sarah Storey, Paralympic cycling and swimming legend and a far better athlete than me! When she inevitably overtook me after 40 minutes or so, it was noticeable how much harder she pushed when going into the head wind or up the slight rise on the course. This was so obvious that I was almost catching her up when there was a tail wind, only to watch her disappear on the slower parts of the course.
Technique 3) Learn to suffer!
Coping with suffering is a skill and like any other skill, needs practice. There are numerous techniques to help you through the pain barrier, from distraction techniques (“doesn’t my little finger feel relaxed”) to my personal favorite, breaking the effort down into manageable segments. For example, an hour effort is broken down into 30 mins followed by three 10 min efforts.
However, the above techniques are of limited value if you have never asked your body to get used to the lactic induced burn when training. If you can cope with the feeling of oxygen debt and tearing muscles in training, you will be in relative heaven when the race induced adrenaline is pumping.
I hope some this helps with your race of truth whilst bathing in your ugly pool!
2021 season review
With the nights starting to draw in, it is time to reflect on the 2021 racing season. Like my journey into home wine making, it has come with a rather bitter aftertaste. The delta variant, Covid’s latest page turner, led to Holland requiring UK residents to quarantine for 10 days before entering. Although my wife is very tolerant of my various and frequent obsessions, asking her to stay locked up with me for this period of time is pushing the limits!
However, if I was to briefly look outside my own little world, a missed championship does not rate highly compared to the loss numerous people have suffered. There is always another year and other challenges!
My non-attendance at the world championships aside, I have been really pleased with my season this year. My pre-season training was greatly aided by the kind staff at Maindy Leisure Centre in Cardiff, allowing me to use the outside velodrome to train on (for the sadomasochists we will have an article on interval training to come). Not having to stop an interval for an approaching horse or red light has proved a god send. Although I never felt the spirit of Geraint Thomas, Tour champion and ex member of Maindy Flyers, the velodromes youth cycling club, pushing me along, it did encourage me to call my new sheepdog G in his honour!
My work ethic clearly rubbed off on the new working sheepdog.
My racing season has been split into two different categories. First of all, we have the criterium type races that make up the BHPC (British Human Powered Club) races. While the unfaired trike class lacked somewhat in numbers, I was lucky enough to have some great competition with John Greed. A great athlete, who gives even better banter, he certainly drove me on to train harder and look at ways to improve my standard VTX trike (again more to follow). I was lucky enough to win all our races in the unfaired trike class, although I always have a suspicion this is based on me pushing myself harder, not due to genuine ability.
Struggling to understand why ICE trikes never offered me a trike model contract.
The races in the BHPC are unique in terms of the demands placed on the rider. Most of the courses are short, only 2 km or so, with tight corners. This places a need to put out large amounts of power sprinting out of the corners and then recover while going around the next corner. For an ex-time trialist, for me this is the complete opposite to what I was previously trained to do; build up the pain till you see double and hold it there. Lucky enough I found some training intervals that really helped me.
A rare straight line on a BHPC course!
In terms of going around corners, having John there really helped me find the limits on how far you can push the VTX.
Yes, you can corner on two wheels.
Cornering on two wheels tends to send you towards the tyre wall.
Our cornering prowess got so good this year that I managed to get down the canvass on a new, forty-pound, front tyre after one hours racing…this could be an expensive hobby!
Sadly, the children will not be eating this week.
Away from the BHPC races I have completed a number of 10 mile time trials and a single 25 mile time trials. These have ranged from racing in 2 degrees in the pouring rain to racing in a 30 degree UK heat wave. Highlights were averaging nearly 45kmh for a 10 mile time trial and averaging just off 44kmh for a 25 mile time trial. I would have never believed one year ago that these speeds were possible and shows what a 46 year old with three working limbs can do with a bit of healthy obsession!