Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Pies libres

I had to do a serious double take on my way to work on the bike this morning. I noticed a new shop in the village that I live in on the outskirts of Madrid, dedicated to minimalist running shoes - in particular, Vibram Five Fingers! Unbelievable. To think that I was getting all those weird looks running right in front of this spot in my Vibram KSO's just over three years ago.

I've been thinking of getting some more for some time now as the KSO's I have are a little on the small side and, in practice, I never use them because my toes feel too compressed. On the other hand, it's not as though I actually need any more running shoes. Between my Soft Star Run Amocs for outside, my 8€ Newfeel Many's from Decathlon for the more sweaty treadmill training that causes the dye to bleed on my Run Amocs and my Vivobarefoot Ultras for competition, I think I have got everything covered. Still, you can bet I will be popping in to investigate the shop on the way home...

POSTDATA: I finally got around to dropping in to the Pies Libres shop last night. "Are you the American cyclist who posted something about us on your blog?" Well, more of a British triathlete but let's not split hairs. As I was so easily recognized I assumed that I must be one of the very few people to ever visit the shop but in fact it was so busy that I had to wait to be attended to! For having blogged about them, I was given a 5% discount on any Vibram Five Fingers, a free class on running technique as well as an invitation to the Expobike event, taking place in Madrid on the 14, 15 and 16th of September.

As usual, I was a little overwhelmed by the number of Vibram models available and ended up with the familiar dilemma of whether to buy a lightweight model for road and treadmill running or a more rugged pair for trail running. I must say, the person who attended me was very knowledgeable about Vibram shoes and seemed to know his stuff about minimalist running. It was useful to confirm that I would probably have to order the biggest size available (47) but not having one in that size to try on took the heat out of the moment and made me realize that I don't really need another pair of running shoes now that I have all the bases covered. It's more likely that I will end up buying a couple of pairs for the kids, now that they make them in their size.

I didn't leave the shop empty handed, though. They offer osteopathy, massages and pilates as well as a lot of other techniques which I hadn't heard of so I bought my wife an introductory session to hopefully help with the back problems she suffers from. If her experience is favourable, I may even go myself.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Criticized Mass

critical mass
1. The smallest mass of a fissionable material that will sustain a nuclear chain reaction at a constant level.
2. The amount of matter needed to generate sufficient gravitational force to halt the current expansion of the universe.
3. An amount or level needed for a specific result or new action to occur: "The sudden national uproar over drugs and drug abuse has reached politically critical mass in Washington" (Tom Morganthau).

According to Wikipedia, there are around 300 Critical Mass cycling movements around the world. However, from the Ciclismo Urbano website I counted 37 in Spain alone. The idea is to challenge the status quo by encouraging thousands of people to get on their bikes and reclaim the streets from cars. The first Critical Mass movement was held, perhaps unsurprisingly, in San Francisco in 1992. After my successful foray into the centre of Madrid by bike, I thought I would check out when the next "Masa Crítica Madrid" was being held.

Now, I am of the opinion that if you want to provoke change, you need two things: (1) a message that your target audience will understand and hopefully accept and (2) a way of transmitting that message. It's clear that thousands of cyclists parading through the streets is certainly an effective way of catching people's attention (especially if they are naked) but it is the first point that is more critical, if you'll excuse the pun.

So I was pretty dismayed to read the comments following the last Bici Crítica, that leaves from Cibeles at 8 pm on the last Thursday of every month. Apparently there was an altercation with a car driver that resulted in his rear window being smashed. According to a witness, the driver had been driving recklessly, putting in danger some of the cyclists. His summing up comment was

          "Lamentablemente, parece que muchas veces nos preocupan más unos cristales rotos que la violencia contra las personas."

          "Unfortunately, it seems that we are more worried about a few broken windows than violence against people."

While his sentiment is perfectly understandable, the action completely undermines the whole Critical Mass idea - in particular, point (1) above - and therefore the whole point of being "in danger" in the first place. The conclusion that people less impassioned by vehicles of the two wheeled variety are bound to come to is that this is precisely the reason why bikes should not be allowed to be ridden on the road in the first place.

If this weren't enough, then, for some inexplicable reason (at least, no one who has posted a comment has been able to explain it) they decided to ride on the A2, which is a motorway. It may be true that you have to go to great lengths to avoid going on motorways - as I did to get into town last night - but the solution is not to allow bikes to ride on motorways but rather to provide convenient alternatives.

In short, I believe that the best way to instigate change through these kind of social movements is to do it by the book and demonstrate how cumbersome and nonsensical the current rules are. What would Gandhi do? :-)

Zen and the art of bicycle maintainance

As this sticker spotted in a local bike shop shows, Madrid is not very bike friendly
I want the t-shirt!
The best thing about Madrid in August is that it is a ghost town and that means that the roads are almost safe to cycle on. I had to go into town to pick up a piece of carbon for my triathlon bike (more on this later) so I had the slightly crazy idea of going there on my road bike from work. There may be less traffic but it is still not a good idea (quite apart from being illegal) to go on any of the motorways which are the obvious connections between where I work (Boadilla del Monte) and the Local Bike Shop (Ciclos Delicias) in town. I've wondered for a long time whether it is possible to get past the mess of spaghetti below:

Google Maps helps a great deal, of course, but this area has been heavily redeveloped recently so a lot of the maps are hopelessly out of date as you can see just by looking at the difference between the aerial shot and the roads, which I'm not even 100% sure are the actual ones. The other difficulty is that it can be very hard to spot fences or security gates on an aerial map. Finding a route is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle that you solve piece by piece. Every so often I work out a new section and the pieces start to join up. I was very pleased when I was able to finally put all the pieces together and get to the other side of the road - even though it meant sneaking through a gap in a fence and then crossing a deserted University Campus. This is the solution I came up with:

The piece of carbon I needed is a kind of "stem" or "nose cone" which effectively raises the handlebars on my tri bike by 3 cm. Although I feel as though I am gradually getting used to the very low and aggressive position I currently have dialled in, I should probably admit to myself that I would struggle to maintain it for 2 and a half hours and the whole point of getting the tri bike was to feel more comfortable in the aero position. Of course, the temptation is to push the envelope and try to get as aero as possible but I have to take into account that (a) I am not pedalling fast enough for it to make as much as a difference as it would make to a pro triathlete and (b) I may lose more minutes on the run than I save on the bike. In any case, the sensible thing to do is to try it out and see how much difference it makes. If it is noticeably more comfortable then I'll stick with it until a few months before the race and try lowering it progressively (which you can do with a combination of nose cones and arm rest spacers - annoyingly, the screws are not provided and I'll have to try to source them from a hardware store).

It's actually surprisingly heavy considering how light the bike is overall
Lastly, I've finally got around to doing a bit of an M.O.T. on my mountain bike. The brakes were rubbing a little on the back so I took it to Mr Schmit in Pozuelo, near where I live. One look at the chain and the mechanic said it had stretched to the point of being off the scale and so needed replacing. A bit like an old married couple that grows old together, the chain and the sprockets get used to each other so that - even if they are working well - if you replace the chain then you need to replace the sprockets otherwise the chain will skip. Then, of course, I found that the chain jumped every time I started off because the middle chain ring was also worn down. So, in the end, I had to have pretty much the whole drive chain replaced! I was impressed that the mechanic noted the ever so slight rubbing of the brakes and a bit of give in the pedals after riding it for just 100 metres. (And I don't think this was the equivalent of the plumber who maintains your boiler finding all kinds of things to replace.) Now the bike rides like it was brand new.

Today I did something I have never done before. I came to work on the bike, changed behind a bush and started work without having a shower! Shock horror! With the time saved going down to the gym and back up again, as well as the optimized route based on intelligence from last night's reconnaissance mission, I was at my desk at the same time I would have been (if not before) had I come in by car.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Time to get back to work

As you will know if you have been following this blog, I have been on a little "sabbatical" since the end of April, in order to recharge my batteries, reduce stress and - hopefully - regain some motivation to compete or at least take part in races again. My idea was to focus on three main objectives:

1) Improve swimming

I think I can definitely tick that box, although there is still loads of room for improvement.

2) Enjoy training

I think this is also a "tick" although running in Vietnam was not much fun, if I am honest. I went for an hour long run in Madrid at lunch time yesterday - a time when no one else was foolish enough to be out in the street - and it felt like a luxury compared to the humidity in Vietnam.

3) Maintain form as much as is possible

I think I have done a reasonable job here. Obviously I'm not going to be able to run another Half Marathon in 1:19 without getting some serious grind in beforehand but it shouldn't be too traumatic either to start ramping up the quality and quantity of my training. Also, I am a bit on the heavy side (the scales told me 90.3 kg on my return from Vietnam) but it shouldn't be too much of a challenge to whittle off 4 or 5 kilos between now and the Marathon in New York in November. Even though I don't (currently) plan to "race" it, I'd still like to feel fit and not have to lug around any excess weight.

To give you some idea of what kind of training load I have been voluntarily subjecting myself to, this is how things compare to the run up to Seville Marathon at the end of February and the preparations for the ICAN Half Ironman (which, in the end, I didn't enter):

ECOs are like TRIMPS - a way of measuring training volume and intensity

The Seville Marathon was in Week 10
I still have a few more weeks of "sabbatical" to go - in any case, my trainer is probably on holidays - but it's probably time to start ramping up a little so that the start is not too much of a shock to the system.

Running and Cycling in Vietnam

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh)

Now I can see that I was ripped off by the cycle rickshaw that took me home after I got disorientated at the end of my run. I was less than a kilometre away from my hotel and just next to the same park!

Hoi An

An 8 kilometre out and back run with virtually no traffic and a chance to buy drinks at the halfway point.

A 36 kilometre cycle ride up to the toll gate and back. If only I had decided to turn left instead of right, I perhaps would have avoided some of the worst traffic and had a more scenic route. Up until that point the scenery was breathtaking.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Es la Hoya!

OK, a fairly crap attempt to make a funny headline out of the name of Chris Hoy but all the best and most obvious ones have been taken because this guy is a legend.

After having missed most of the games due to being on holiday in Vietnam, it was tantalizing to have to make a stopover in London yesterday on what was one of the most interesting days for me. I would have loved to have been able to watch the Men's Triathlon, one of the few events for which you don't need a ticket. Luckily I was back home in time to be able to watch the final of the Men's Keirin which was effectively Chris Hoy's swan song (although it seems likely he'll be unable to resist taking part in the Commonwealth Games in 2014 in Glasgow, in his home country Scotland).

I don't think I have been as excited to watch a race since the Searle brothers won the Coxed Pair in Barcelona. (By the way, Greg Searle has just won a bronze medal in the Men's Eights, 20 years later!) The Keirin is a very peculiar race which is enormously popular in Japan, where billions of dollars are changed hands in betting on riders as if they were dogs or horses. A kind of motorbike with pedals leads the race off with the riders in tow - the contrast between the old fashioned motorbike (technical name: a derny) with rider sitting bolt upright and the cyclists crouched behind on their hi tech superbikes is quite striking - and then the speed is gradually ramped up until... all hell breaks loose and it is a mad scramble for the line.

Chris Hoy won in convincing style and, judging by how happy the silver and bronze medallists were with their result, it looked like it had been pretty much a forgone conclusion, although the Keirin is a very tactical race in which potentially anything can happen. This converts Chris Hoy - sorry, Sir Chris Hoy - in Great Britain's Olympian with the most gold medals (overtaking Sir Steve Redgrave). Ironic that it should be in such a tactical race when Hoy makes it very clear in his autobiography (which I read on holiday) that he got into track racing and, in particular the Kilo (1 km time trial), because it was a race whose outcome he could control almost mathematically. In spite of that he bows out virtually undefeated in the Keirin.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The end of the holidays is nigh

I haven't been posting lately which is a good sign in that I have been enjoying my holidays but not so good from a training point of view. But this time I decided to take a real holiday and allow myself to fatten up a little bit for when things pick up after the summer.

It's hard for even me - I feel more Spanish than English in many ways, having had some of my most important life experiences in Spain - to not feel extremely patriotic right now. An Englishman has won the Tour de France - and one who likes to say "cunt" a lot, something that particularly pleases me - and, at the time of writing, Great Britain is third in the medal table of the Olympics with 14 gold medals, behind the USA and China. If the medals were per capita then GB would be leagues ahead (although I'd have to check the population of Kazakstan to be sure). I was proudly telling my half English and half Spanish children that this was the result of the lottery funding of the past few years and my eldest remarked that it could have been spent on something more useful. He has a point, of course, but after food, shelter and sanitation, I think that culture (be it music, art or sport) has a fundamental importance in society. At least the money wasn't sent on superfluous airports, backhanders and bank bailouts as has been the case of Spain (currently in 36th place) which, by the way, has been disinvesting similarly in education and research. I have been a bit cut off from the Olympics converge which in the hotels I have been staying in, frustratingly seems to be limited to stills on BBC World News, but every morning I have been checking the results from the day before. I bet that people in the UK have changed their tune from the defeatist "It will be a logistic nightmare" to one of unashamed pride. Even I wish I could be there and it had never even crossed my mind to get tickets let alone a flight to London.

We've been in Mui Ne and Hoi An since I last posted and tonight we are going to Ha Long Bay before heading back home. The only thing I am looking forward to is a respite from the sticky humidity - and to being able to ride my bikes, if I am honest.

In Mui Ne I did some open water swimming in the sea. I'm convinced that the improvements I have made in technique are starting to trickle down into the much more challenging task of swimming in the sea with waves and under currents. I was curious to see how fast I was swimming so I puts Garmin in my iPhone arm band aroun my neck: 4.7 kmph out and 4.5 kph back. That would be a seriously sub 1 hour Ironman time so I think that the fractal noise from the GPS error will have greatly exaggerated the distance covered - something I can smooth out when I get home (POSTSCRIPT: it was exaggerated by a factor of 2!).

I reckon that if I built up running again from scratch, starting with a 20 minute easy run, I could eventually become acclimatized to such humid conditions. But that is not how I have been going about it, so I have continued to suffer. I did however, really enjoy one outing on a reasonably OK mountain bike (a Giant, no less). I was able to go at an average speed of 30 kph which was more like 28 kph taking into account road works and traffic jams. It was a beautiful route through paddy fields and little villages. In many ways I felt safer than in Spain - the roads are generally very good in Vietnam (surely one of the benefits of communism) and, being on two wheels, you are part of the crowd. Safety in numbers. At times I felt as though I was in a Keirin race - those Japanese track bicycle races that are lead off by a motorbike. It would have been great to have been able to tour on bikes - maybe next time.

POSTSCRIPT: How biased of me to think that Great Britain would score highly if the number of medals won were divided by the population of each country: Jamaica with only 2 million inhabitants and several gold medals was top in Beijing and may well be again this time. I realised that this is an example of a phenomenon described at the beginning of Daniel Kannehan's "Thinking Fast and Slow" book. Is the country with the highest number of gold medals by per person likely to be a small or a big country? What about the the country with the lowest number of gold medals per person? The answer, surprisingly, in both cases is that the country is likely to be small because the extreme cases (high medal rate and low medal rate) are more likely in a smaller sample size.