La Corniche

On a beautiful Saturday last weekend I met a new riding buddy called Alain, a fellow resident of Villars and UCI Director of Global Development. With blue skies and a fair wind we headed to the Swiss Riviera through Montreux and Vevey and just before Lausanne swung up onto a climb Alain called Switzerland’s answer to the Poggio: “La Corniche”, a ten minute steady effort up through the UNESCO Word Heritage site of the Lavaux vineyards.

Starting in the lakeside village of Cully the climb cuts a dramatic angle through the terraced vineyards and winds its way through narrow streets in pretty villages. Working up towards the finish in Chexbres, Lake Geneva falls away to the right all the time framed by a mountain backdrop as far as the Grand Muveran, closer to home in Villars. Not that I got to enjoy a lot of the view with my eyes focused on Alain’s back wheel- with a couple of hundred metres to go before the top I sat up (or was that got dropped), way off fitness and suffering by this point. Of course had I known it was the top…

The view on a clear day is really something to savour, we took a detour in the car today to get a few snaps but the haze masks the mountains behind.

On Sunday I was determined to keep getting the miles in while the weather held, and went out with Graham Hills who uses his apartment in Villars as a great training base for periods in the year. We ascended both the Col des Mosses and the climb home, the latter of which saw me gradually deteriorate until I arrived in a heap having finally succumbed to a vomiting bug that has been doing the rounds at school.

The sun has been a real boon for keen cyclists, but the skier in me rues the fact it comes at the cost of well below average conditions. This week we are finally forecast some snow so it should be back on the touring skis ready for some uphill action with downhill reward, although there’s no denying it feels good to have nicked some cheeky winter miles !

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For the past few weeks the title of the blog should perhaps be ‘Two Skis Fast’, and not just in the downhill variety either. The skis I bought last year to start my quiver were Salomon Lords, and knowing I would be venturing into the world of ski touring I set them up with the beefy Marker Duke touring bindings. This set-up means that by attaching skins I can get away from the lifts and access fresh snow, or use them for an uphill training session before skiing down. It’s a good workout and over the past month I have been experimenting with twilight ascents (with beautiful sunsets) followed by head torch lit skiing down freshly groomed piste!

Things took a more serious turn last Friday night. I’m not sure what it is about sports that involve an unhealthy combination of expensive kit, suffering and lycra, but I found myself lining up at the start of a rando-racing nocturne. These races are held every week here in the Alps and involve getting hold of the lightest possible kit and then ‘skinning’ like a bat out of hell up the hill, with the real ski-mountaineering races covering several ascents and descents. Friday was 800m of uphill only in the dark, and I finished around halfway down the field, which had I been on the aforementioned heavy Salomon/Marker set-up I would have been more than happy with. Instead I had borrowed some ultra-light skis and boots off a student so was expecting a little better.

One thing for sure is that the suffering on the way up was a familiar pain, much like a time-trial in terms of intensity and now I find myself looking for some lighter skis for myself to get training on… Hopefully it will all help build up for a good summer on the bike!

Back on the topic of two wheels, getting to the velodrome is not as easy as I’d hoped; time is a premium in the term so once a week is all I can manage at the moment. Still being a good 5-6kgs over a fit race weight I know I have work to do, but turbo sessions seem to show the power is not a million miles off. The killer for me is the lack of a racing season to aim towards, and training is therefore a little less focused. Hopefully the rando-racing could bring renewed vigour to the regime (and a lighter wallet at least!).

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With the first snow of the winter arriving in town last week it seemed fitting to be embarking on a winter of track cycling at the excellent UCI track just down the road in Aigle. My new club VC Montreux are part of a block booking each Thursday evening with an excellent coach, and I have been lucky to get a winter season pass for public sessions at various points in the week.

My first visit was the day after watching Ross Edgar crash in the Commonwealth Games.

Having assured the wife there was no way I would be doing full on Keirin racing on my first trip to the track I was in for quite a shock. After a few laps of getting used to a fixed again and remembering the basics (look behind, don’t stop pedaling, don’t go slow on the banking etc) it was straight into drill number one. This was simple enough, ride in a single line on the line bleu then when the bell rang the rider on the front takes a sprint for just one banking. After this warm up, we lined up behind a derny and set off relaying, which was actually more technical than it looked.

Finally I was horrified to find the third and final drill was Keirin racing! The first race I sat at the back and watched, realising that I was probably one of the faster guys in my group. The second time I played with positioning but found myself at the back and out of it, so the final time I went for the long one as the bike pulled off, getting a big gap but then went far too low on the final banking slipping on the Cote d’Azure, having a mild heart attack and just holding on as the equally scared riders behind me came around to finish things off. All in all a steep learning curve, but great fun.

Last week was the formal induction by the staff at the velodrome, a much more sedate affair, but all in French so probably better for language skills than riding. This induction opened up the public sessions, where various groups steam around in pacelines, and you can get a pretty good workout as well as adjusting to the demands of riding at close quarters on the track.

As the snow settles the masterplan is to use not only the track, but also XC skiing and Ski-touring to build a solid base. I’m hopeful to do some track racing as well, we’ll see what comes.

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No faking it

Lets do the excuses first: no racing for nearly a year; long recovery from major shoulder surgery; moved to a ski resort where winter riding doesn’t exist; less training time due to new job; long car journey from Switzerland; tired from sleeping in strange places and lastly stomach cramps on the day.

Phew, now we can get real. Being in the UK for the week (to get married of all things) meant I had a Sunday afternoon free, and of course the next logical step was to see if a) there was a race on and b) I could fit my bike in the car for the trans-European journey. With both criteria met it was the Surrey League race at Ewhurst (although actually on the Walliswood circuit due to roadworks) that seemed the best fit, with unfinished business having finished second last year.

So much like my race, I’ll keep it short. The goal was to avoid sitting in, race aggressively and be under no pressure at all, so from lap one I tried to attack a few times (and was at least once pulled back by a team-mate, although to be fair I had only met him a few minutes earlier). One move looked promising, with race-tweeting buddy Rob Enslin and two others, but after a couple of turns my lungs felt like they were inside-out and my guts were screaming in agony, so I dropped back to the bunch, and as it accelerated off the next bend something inside clicked and the pedaling went soft, letting the following cars overtake.

I tweeted earlier that I’ve never pulled out of a race (other than puncturing) but there was a handicap back in 2007 where I went off like a bat out of hell and quit with lower back pain, so it’s not unprecedented. When I see people’s advice about starting racing I’m always slightly wary of the advice that you should expect to be dropped in your first race, then hang on and be proud of finishing in the bunch. This progression is alien to me having never had a problem when I started racing, yet today’s experience has humbled me a little and I can now understand that perspective, although the old adage remains: “proper planning and preparation prevent piss poor performance”.

Tom Southam, whom I have raced against a few times in the Totnes-Vire and Surrey League 5-day back in 2008 sums up my current state of mind very eloquently in this excellent piece of writing for the Rapha website. This quote in particular wraps today’s race report up:

“recovery is so slow and the increments so small, that it is easy to miss a bit, skip a session for a brew ride or forget about it completely. But then you race, and you know exactly what you have and haven’t been doing.”

One thing is for sure in endurance sport: training is not like money, you can’t put it in a bank and save it. At the end of the day, there really is no faking it.

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Ticking off the cols

Being on an extended summer holiday has allowed for ongoing exploration of all the local climbs, and for route planning the excellent climbbybike website has been a great resource, as has the useful bikeroutetoaster when trying to work out total climbing and whether a ride is going to be painful, really painful or just plain punishing.

Riding around with a lowest gear of 39×25 means that the steeper ascents tend to be a grind, although as fitness returns and weight drops I was beginning to wonder if a compact is really necessary after all.  That was until further exploration of climbbybike revealed this little gem lurking just a few kilometres from home…

This week I ventured beyond Martigny to the excellent Col des Planches, a back road that heads towards Verbier.  The plan was to climb it and descend the back side before heading up to Verbier, but on reaching the Col it clearly wasn’t the high point of the climb, with a road signposted to Saxon (a village in the Rhone Valley) heading up.  Taking this road less travelled led to stunning remote pastures, yet I failed to notice for a few hundred metres that tarmac had given way to a hard-packed dirt road with rather chunky drainage channels.

Seeing as this road was just about rideable, I proceeded upward to the Col du Tronc manualing and bunny-hopping the drainage channels (the Sl2 coping admirable with the abuse) until eventually the descent started, initially quite gingerly on loose dirt, then back on tarmac, although frankly dirt would have been preferable given the state of the road.  After the first village the heavily weathered road gave way to the more familiar smooth Swiss tarmac and after a very long descent I was back in the valley, smashing into the ever-present headwind riding back towards Martigny and Bex.

This is just one of many rides this holiday, with fitness and weight both heading in the right directions, and a beautiful set of tan-lines coming along, inspired by Thomas Lofkvist of Team Sky.  The Swiss racing license should be in the post by now, and a track bike is very much on the shopping list ready for a winter in the velodrome.

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