In Just Seven Days …

“I can make you a maa.a.a.a.an …” Rocky Horror Show.

Or you can join me in the Peaks Challenge Falls Creek. Cycle 235km with 4,600 meters of climbing. The legs had better be loaded by now. In a week you can do very little to get fitter but you can ramp up the fatigue trying.

My preparation can be summarised thus …

Turning that into weekly averages gives 344km, 2,292m of climbing in 15 hours on the bike.

Volume alone is a poor measure of training. Intensity has a key role. I have endeavoured to keep up the quality by doing some interval training, hill repeats and racing. Finding a group ride has also helped to sharpen the output. The guys and girls have also been great mentors, given me heaps of encouragement and support. All of which has been most appreciated.

Has it made me fitter? Yes it has.

I bought the road bike last May six months after I started riding. I added a power meter in July and was quick to do an FTP test. That involved 20 minutes going full gas, on the rivet, going for the doctor, blood sweat and tears, pain, suffering , you get the picture. The answer was 196 Watts.

I was in no hurry to do further FTP tests but as a Strava subscriber I have access to my critical power curve which gives me another way to estimate FTP. Using the first six weeks of power data Strava estimated my FTP at 190 Watts. The last six weeks provides an estimate of 237 Watts. (A Grand Tour rider would have an FTP of 400 plus.)

Back in the jogging boom when I ran the odd marathon the gold standard of endurance fitness was VO2max. In those days you had to head into the laboratory to find what that was. These days you just have to ask … your watch. My Garmin watch estimates mine to be 51 ml/kg/min – up from the low 40’s seven months ago. (Above average for an adult male but an elite athlete will be in the range 65 to 80).

The bike was serviced just a few weeks ago. It has a new chain and fresh tyres. The cassette has been replaced with an 11 – 32 giving me a slightly lower gear than I had. That will help on the hills. It goes for a final tweak in a couple of days. I will have to put a rear reflector on it before the big day – the organisers insist that bikes be road legal (I ride in the day with two flashing red lights to the rear, one of which is also a radar. There isn’t room for a reflector and safer to boot. Ours not to reason why.)

The week past has been a big one. It included a trip to the Grampians with a couple of rides up Mount William. The last couple of kilometers to the summit have an average gradient of 12%, there are spots where I struggled to keep the front wheel on the ground. This is steeper than the worst sections of the Peaks Challenge. The bonus though is that the climb offers the prettiest views of any ride in the state of Victoria.

It’s now time for the taper. Training too hard will find you fatigued at the starting line. If you don’t train at all you start to lose condition. How best to balance freshness and fitness? The right answer probably varies from person to person and is best sorted out by trial and error. I have no recent experience to draw on so it has to be generic. Having consulted the literature my intention is to maintain the intensity but halve the volume.

And what about some carbohydrate loading? My day to day diet is low carb but come Friday I’ll be enjoying some pasta, Saturday some rice. I’m sure my body will stack away glycogen like there’s no tomorrow.

RGT Cycling …

Unboxing and first impressions.

Since Victoria is back in lock down for what must seem like a miniscule number of Covid cases to an international observer, now was a good time to explore indoor training apps. I had a one month free introduction to the Tacx app and didn’t think it worth paying up to continue it. This was mainly because I found the software rather clunky and that may be due to the adoption of Tacx into the Garmin family which may not be a natural fit. Specifically I didn’t find a way to share data with Strava without duplicating rides that were also recorded on my Garmin watch. That may be because of my weaknesses in dealing with the technology but Garmin sure haven’t made it easy to find the information you need.

Anyway after my permitted outdoor exercise yesterday morning I stopped thinking about RGT and got on to it. It doesn’t come in a box. You need to download two apps. One to your mobile device and one to whichever machine will show you the pictures. My mobile device is a Samsung phone. The screen is a Thunderbolt Display run from an Apple Laptop. The hardest part of getting the apps, pairing them with each other and then pairing up the heart rate monitor and the Tacx trainer was dealing with the Apple App Store which seems to reject my password every time I visit. The mobile app is the one you deal with, the screen app serves up a picture to watch as you ride. Behind the scene one of them controls the resistance offered by the trainer. The fact that one app was on an Apple the other on Samsung mattered not one bit.

Indoor cycling apps give you the opportunity to look at video (Tacx, Fulgaz, Rouvy) or simulate a ride in video game style (Zwift, RGT) or just show the numbers (Trainer Road, Sufferfest). All are subscription based although the Tacx and RGT package give you some service for nothing with RGT being a bit more generous.

RGT gives you the chance to join group rides and races. These happen in virtual reality but real time. You choose an event, book in and turn up at the appropriate time. You get an email reminder about one hour before the ride starts. Unless you pay for the premium version riding on your own or writing your own training session are not available. I found a suitable race and booked in for an 8pm start. By ten minutes to eight I was on the start line warming up – you can do this without riding into the guy in front (ain’t virtual reality wonderful). When the race starts your avatar starts to make progress and eventually you get to the finish line.

That’s me in the blue, I’d recognise me anywhere, surrounded by an international array of other avatars. That is standard issue kit, I think I can make some changes to the avatar but that jersey is pretty much the same colour as the Peaks Challenge jersey I’m hoping to win. I’ll have to change it if I don’t get one!

All the numbers are there. I’m ripping along at 7.3kph (up a 13.8% incline before you scoff) with 40km still to go. I’m putting out 245watts, my legs are going round and my heart is beating. My avatar is looking a good deal more composed than I was. At that stage I was in 129th position but I improved as time passed.

In the set up phase I asked the software to pass the data onto Strava which it did.

RGT incorporates some very smart features like drafting and slowing the avatar at sharp bends. It was easy to set up and enjoyable to use. I enjoyed the race format and responded in a competitive way (of course I did). I could take a two week free trial of the premium version but you have to sign up then opt out before it just starts taking your money. I’m always suspicious of such arrangements. In this part of Australia you can ride all year without too many interruptions from foul weather – I am an outdoor rider at heart – I doubt that the premium version would represent great value for me. If I were intending to do the bulk of my training inside it would certainly appeal.

Circling the Asylum …

Lock down again. That changes the plan.

In preparation for the Peaks Challenge at Falls Creek I’ve been knocking out a 100km ride about once a week. Aside from that I’ve concentrated on intensity rather than volume with hill repeats (outdoors and on the trainer), intervals and some racing. Rest days and the odd light week are vital to the mix and the first week of February was the light week. There are now 25 days to go. My intentions were to ramp up the climbing and get in at least one 200km ride. Now I find myself limited to two hours a day and within 5km of home.

The nearest asphalt to home is a kilometer away. I could ride back and forth on 4km of black top – hill repeats without any significant hill. The alternative is to take to the gravel on my mountain bike. And it’s not such a bad alternative, increased resistance from wider tyres and the gravel plus the less aerodynamic position and greater weight put the legs to the test. The distance limit means going around and round. It could wear thin but I enjoyed it this morning.

I also slipped in an extra weights session. Tomorrow I’ll do some indoor hill work and perhaps take the mountain bike out again. I can’t see myself doing more than a couple of hours at a time on the trainer.

The Nationals …

Yesterday after a light morning ride I sat in front of the TV and watched the Australian National Championships (thank you SBS).

In the women’s Sarah Roy cruised away and stayed away for the honour of wearing the green and gold for the next twelve months. The drama all played out behind her in the battle for the lesser places. Sarah Brown was an absolute powerhouse taking second with Lauretta Hanson in third place.

Breakaways had been the theme in the week of cycling that had preceded the big events but the men’s race didn’t follow suit. Breakaways got away but were reeled back in. Welsford and Johnston teamed up out front just before half way. Welsford is a track rider with a big sprint and looks it. Johnston is lighter and better built for the climb.

The course is an 11.6km circuit. You’re either going up Mt Buninyong or down Mt Buninyong. There aren’t too many places where you’d care to pitch a tent. The girls did 9 laps, the boys 16.

Johnston led the way up taking care not to drop the sprinter. Welsford did his share of the work on the way down and it looked a pretty effective combination for a while. Eventually though they were chased down. One of the pursuers didn’t stop to say hi. Lucas Plapp just sailed on through with about a third of the race ahead of him. Just 20 years old Plapp has an amazing career waiting to become a reality. He soloed away to a lead of more than a minute. It was easy to believe he would make it another win for a bold breakaway.

Every spectator, apart from the family members of the riders behind, loves the courage of a rider that goes it alone. A group sharing the work enjoys an enormous aerodynamic advantage over a solo rider.

The dream held good until two laps to go. Plapp ran out of gas. He would go on to finish 17th 3:37 behind the winner. Five kilometers out there were nine in with a chance. Tim Roe was one of them but he came off his bike on the second from last corner. Everyone else managed to stay upright but one rider was disadvantaged to the extent that he lost contact with the bunch. So seven hit the kilometer marker with a medal on their mind.

Kelland O’Brien turned up the power and jumped away. He quickly opened up what looked like an unbeatable lead only to cramp short of the line. He was the last breakaway of the day to get reeled back in, pipped at the post by Cameron Meyer. Scott Bowden finished third.

I shared every pedal stroke with the competitors. What made it so incredibly real was the fact that I had ridden the course on Saturday evening in a road race open to all. We were only allowed 5 laps of the course but it was more than enough to feed the addiction. I finished fifth in the 70-74 age group or at least my number did. Somehow they managed to screw up my name in the results.

Spice …

The local veterans cycling club for me is the Central Victorian Veterans Cycling Club. Racing resumed three weeks ago after being shut down by the pandemic last year.

Competition ups the intensity; more in some than in others. As a school kid my basketball coach used to talk about killer instinct. I think he intended it to be synonymous with white line fever. It does appear that I have it in spades. Knowing this to be the case I was keen to turn out for the races, not for their own sake of course but as part of my training program for the Peaks Challenge.

The first week was a graded scratch race. The handicappers conspired and put me in C grade. Away we went. I was keen to do my share of the work. I didn’t want to seem parasitic on the hard work of others. What was I thinking? All seemed to be going well, the pace was quick and yes I was breathing heavily but coping.

All too soon however a corner, that I didn’t take particularly elegantly, exposed me to a harsh cross headwind just at the base of an uphill straight. It was all over in an instant. The string broke. I was looking at the backs of a receding bunch. Initially I thought I might catch them. I managed to pile on some extra pace and the gap stayed constant for a while but working as a team they eventually left me to my personal time trial. An education.

Week two was a handicap race. The handicappers were kind to me, I went with the first bunch away. We had a 20 minute start on the scratch riders. The strategy is quite different in a handicap. A group has an advantage over an individual. Each rider in turn gets out front to break a hole in the wind while the remainder tuck in and benefit from the slip stream. There is an advantage in keeping together, a weaker rider can still be of value even if taking short or even infrequent turns at the front. The bunch is in no hurry to drop anyone but they will sacrifice them eventually if they don’t contribute.

I was getting plenty of good advice and encouragement and feeling good.

Eventually the stronger riders will catch up. Their strategy is to pass at a speed that makes it impossible for you to latch on. Your strategy is to latch on at all costs. You will be welcome if you can take your turns. You will be unwelcome if you spend too long hiding down the back. It was the scratch riders that caught us first and they passed at over 40 kph. I made it across but by digging deep into oxygen debt. I wasn’t with them for long.

Now you have to make a choice. The friends you wanted to make have rejected you. The friends you recently abandoned are behind you and may feel a little miffed that you left them. Slide back and rejoin or go it on your own? It would be ignominious to slide back but even more so to go it alone, blow up and be passed by them!

I put my head down and finished between the two bunches in eighth position. Not entirely shabby … it’s great what a 20 minute start can do.

This is not racing for a sheep station but it is for small stakes. $10 goes in the kitty prior to the race and eighth gets a small token of the club’s appreciation. As a newby I was excused from making a contribution so did not pick up my envelope.

It was waiting for me this week!

Under the circumstances I felt obliged to put into the kitty this time even though they were still willing for me to enjoy my free trial period. It was another handicap. 46 km this week so slightly longer. The handicappers did me slightly less of a favour. I was with the second group away (four groups in all). It was two laps of a simple flat circuit. There was a strong headwind out and by that miracle of nature no wind at all on the way back.

We were caught by the third group and virtually everyone made it across. Subsequently we caught the front markers and they mostly coalesced although only a couple of them had enough left to take turns. We had only about 3 or 4 km to go when the scratch riders screamed past. Two of us made it across, neither of us had the legs to stay there. We both finished between the bunches. I improved my position to seventh – just as well I contributed to the kitty.

This time I collected my winnings with a big smile on my face. The scratch puppies that beat me all looked way to young to be in the vets. I think I should call for the production of birth certificates next time.

Training Camp …

The Peaks Challenge starts and finishes at Falls Creek. The journey takes you over Tawonga Gap, Mt Hotham and climbs the back of Falls. 235km, more than 4000m of climbing (146mi, 13,125feet). I live in the flatland so a trip to the hills seemed a very good idea.

It wasn’t an official training camp, just a DIY effort staying in caravan parks, the lovely Gayle as my support crew. It was an opportunity to try eating lunch during a ride and a chance to gauge the pace required to get it done in under 13 hours because if you can’t stay in front of the clock you will be invited to leave the course.

I had never ridden from the summit of Hotham to Omeo before. That was the only section that was a cycling mystery, the bulk of the route, including the big hills had been ticked off individually previously.

Day one was Freeburgh to Omeo. 102.4 km 2,221m of climbing in 5hr 39min including 20 min off the bike for lunch.

Day two started in Omeo and ended in Mt Beauty taking in the Back of Falls and Tawonga Gap. So, all on course but the final few kilometres in the opposite direction. 128.5 km, 2425m in 6hr 52min. Again that includes 20 mins off the bike for a salad.

When the big day comes I’ll need to put all that together and add another 5km! Not all kilometres are equal but the 5 missing from this exercise are flat. A very good thing.

The average speed for the 230 km was 18.472 km/hr which would get me in at 12hr 45min. I would certainly take that. Bad weather or a puncture would be all that it would take to do me in. On the day there will be opportunity for drafting on the flatter sections which offers an energy saving. There will also be the opportunity to make crucial mistakes. I will have to climb at my own pace not try to match the person ahead of me. Two and a half watts per kilo up the hills will get me there. It’s essentially no watts per kilo to come down. There are sections on what seem like down hills that require more than a little effort to get over. That is quite noticeable just after Fainters Falls on the way down from Falls Creek and again approaching Omeo and yet again heading to Anglers Rest between Omeo and WTF Corner that marks the start of the last major ascent.

And on that last major ascent there are a few places where 3 watts per kilo barely keeps the bike moving forward. I haven’t yet got off and walked – that would blow the time budget right out the window.

44 days to go.

Nutrition …

There’s a big day coming and I have been studying Dr Stephen Lanes advice on how to prepare for it. He tells me that I should by now have settled on a feeding strategy and have rehearsed it thoroughly. I haven’t.

Here’s his video on the subject. No need to watch it unless you have a specific interest …

There is nothing in it that violates cycling orthodoxy which concentrates very heavily on carbohydrates. Most of what’s on the table is going with you on the ride – I’ll need a trailer!

I’m thinking this through with you as my sounding board. Please let me know in the comments what mistakes I’m about to make.

What are the requirements?

  • Hydration
  • Electrolytes
  • Energy
  • Supplements?

Hydration is clearly a must. I’ll put a second 750ml water bottle on the shopping list straight away.

There is a clue there as to my normal routine. Generally I drink before setting off and will not drink again in the next hour. I then start to sip occasionally rationing a 750ml bottle over about 4 hrs. I don’t bother to take a second bottle unless I intend to be out for longer than that. I arrive home under-hydrated and drink a liter fairly promptly. Not good enough, Robert.

There will be opportunity to refill the bottles at stops along the way and whilst stopped it’s a good opportunity to drink a bit extra. If you don’t need a pee from time to time or your urine is very orange you need to drink more water. The need is clear. The solution is straight forward. Drink little and often – it will be absorbed better. The aim should be to lose no more than 2% body weight. (Scales in the trailer?) It’s all about discipline.

Electrolytes. Salt is lost as you sweat. Sodium chloride is present in the sorts of things cyclists eat and drink and aids absorption of both water and carbohydrates. Back in my marathoning youth (30’s actually) Staminade was offered at the drink stations and actually started to be palatable after about the half way mark. Overall, though, electrolyte replacement is way oversold. So forget the potassium and magnesium. A chocolate milk at three stops and a couple after the event and a gel or two here and there will take care of the sodium and help with rehydration.

Energy is the big one. Looking at the Calories that Strava thinks I’ve used for a couple of my toughest rides leads me to believe that I’ll need about 460Cals/hr. The physiologically average guy has about 80g of glycogen in his liver and 500g in his muscles on the starting line, say 600g equal to about 3,000Cals. This is increased in the trained athlete and boosted by carbo-loading but remember that muscle glycogen can only be used in the muscle that it’s stored in. The spare glycogen in my impressive lats can’t be borrowed by my exhausted quads. Once your leg muscles are empty you’re knackered, once your liver is empty you’re comatose by the side of the road. Bonking is the cyclist’s nightmare.

I could be in the saddle for 12 hours or more so the total Calorie requirement is about 5,520 equivalent to 1.1kg of carbohydrate (a deficit in the order of 500g – 600g COH – if I can get that amount in I can be comatose at the finish line clutching my finishers jersey).

The line of reasoning so far is well known to cyclists but things are not as bad as they seem because there are two other sources of energy – fat (by β-Oxidation of fatty acids), which I have plenty of and protein (by gluconeogenesis) which I would rather not use. I’m on a low carb high fat diet. It has helped me slim down considerably. I usually train fasted or with a low carb biscuit for breakfast. I commonly allow myself a banana a couple of hours into a long ride (>100km). This is supposed to have brought about some fat adaptation. I will be able to mobilise fat for some of the energy needed.

There is absolutely no doubt that the consumption of carbs during an event delays the onset of fatigue and that post event carbs aid in recovery. I will be consuming carbs during and after the ride.

This approach is sometimes referred to as a “train low race high” strategy.

The coma can wait until I’ve had a few beers.

The athlete can absorb about 60g of glucose per hour. Fructose is absorbed by a different pathway so another 30g can make it to the bloodstream. One molecule of common or garden table sugar breaks down readily into a molecule of glucose and a molecule of fructose. So 60g of sucrose plus 30g of glucose per hour is as much as you can do to offset the energy expended cutting the deficit in my case to just 10Cals/hr.

If you’re going to drink it an 8% solution is optimal. That is 60g in a 750ml water bottle. Sports gels tend to contain about 20g per sachet – I’ve yet to try one. Dates have about 5g each, bananas have about 20 – 30g but can become inedible after traveling too far in the back pocket. Jam sandwiches anyone?

Supplements. Welcome to the Essendon Cycling Club. Caffeine, good stuff, well known to enhance fat utilisation and enhance athletic and cognitive function. The effect is greatest in the naive and almost too small to measure in people who consume it daily. I’ll almost certainly have two long blacks before setting off – it’s what I do everyday. I don’t expect it will benefit me much during the ride.

Beetroot concentrate is a new one to me. According to Sports Dieticians Australia it works because it’s loaded with nitrates which are converted to nitric oxide (by oral bacteria no less) which cause some vasodilation. There is a Training Peaks article <HERE> as well. The main benefits claimed are a delayed onset of fatigue and better performance at altitude. A concentrate taken 2 to 3 hours prior to the event might be the go or you can juice a whole bunch of beetroots. Don’t clean your teeth though – just turn up at the start line looking like Dracula. Viagra works by the same mechanism, it would be way more convenient – could be the new wave.

Analgesics are also on Dr Lane’s list. I can’t imagine they will give enough benefit to be worth taking.

There you have it, eat drink and be merry – it ain’t an exact science.

Indoor Mountains …

The Peaks Challenge at Falls Creek entails more than 4,000 meters (13,100 feet) of climbing. Living in the flat land makes it hard to prepare the legs. One answer is an indoor trainer that can simulate the resistance that would be experienced climbing hills. I settled on the Tacx Neo 2T and with the help of Youtube got it up and running. I’m currently enjoying, if that’s the right word, a one month free trial of the Tacx software.

Here’s a shot of the pain cave …

I’ve repurposed a superseded lap top and thunderbolt screen and added an ANT+ dongle to the computer so that it can read my heart rate monitor. In this shot I’m setting off to climb the Jaufen Pass. The video advances to match the speed that you’re making whilst the software adjusts the resistance to reflect the gradient.

Here’s a screen grab nearing the top of the pass …

On the left of screen you can see speed, power, cadence, heart rate, time elapsed, the gradient and in the tiny letters the most important information is the distance to the top.

The real Jaufen Pass is in the Alps in the far north of Italy. On the Tacx the ride to the top is a little over 15 km and climbs 1,087 meters. Average gradient is 7.2% and it maxes out at 9.4%. You can continue down the other side but I can’t for the life of me see why you would, you reach impossible speeds with no effort and round corners in a fashion that would be lethal in real life and are too dizzying to look at on screen.

How does it compare with the real thing? It certainly feels pretty realistic and I think it will substitute well for the missing mountains.

As well as a library of videos there is a workout section where you can set up an interval session with control over gradient if that’s your thing and there’s a built in ramp test and FTP test.

The trainer will work with other apps such as Zwift and RGT. They have free introductory offers that I will probably make use of before choosing which way to go in the long term.

Meanwhile there are 54 days until the big event which equals four Jaufen Passes plus a whole load of connecting asphalt.

Four Days On …

and one day off.

The week was invented by astronomers not physiologists. It just divides the lunar month into neat quarters. From a fatigue management perspective shorter regular blocks suit me better than a seven day week. The biggest problem is that the calendar and the program don’t stay in sync. If Wednesday is the group ride and Saturday is race day the system runs off the rails.

Within the block I like to ride hard then easy, easy, hard then the fifth day is a day off. There is nothing sacred about that order so that’s where group rides and race days can be accommodated – just change the order when necessary. The day off though is well worth preserving even if it means ending a block early.

Occasionally it runs to plan and last week a block looked like this …


Distance kmClimb mTimeTSS
Wed1013293hr 52m289
Thur57692hr 38m111
Fri551682hr 6m174
Sat1098134hr 18m377

The Training Stress Score (TSS) is one of a number of tools designed for quantifying training load. It uses power, time and intensity. Riding flat out for an hour would give a TSS of 100 and leave you gasping on the side of the road. Riding at lesser intensities for longer periods will enable you to achieve higher scores and still be able to walk!

Strava has a similar tool called Relative Effort and my Garmin Watch comes up with Training Effect. Today’s ride for example had a TSS of 154 or Relative Effort of 147. Training Effect in the Garmin universe is expressed for Aerobic and Anaerobic scores separately 3.6 and 1.1 today.

A TSS of less than 150 is considered Low Intensity, recovery will take less than 24 hours. 150 to 300 is moderate, you should be fit to train the next day, over 300 is high and some residual fatigue may last 2 days. The Peaks Challenge will likely generate a TSS over 400.

A hard day may be a long ride, a big climb, intervals or hill repeats. I’m probably as guilty as anyone of making my easy days too hard and my hard days not hard enough.

My Garmin Fenix6 watch gives me access to a coaching program. It’s an odd situation being coached by your watch. It has no idea of my goals. Tends to suggest workouts that aim to improve functional threshold power and criticises me frequently for a lack of anaerobic effort. For someone preparing for an event that will have me in the saddle all day long rides are essential. The watch often dismisses these as unproductive. Given the money I paid for it I think it should show its owner considerably more respect.

I never was very coachable. At least the watch doesn’t shout at me when I ignore it.