Bike

Bike
637 Days To Go is my blog, which was originally started with exactly 637 days until the start of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. And now it's been re-started with 637 days until the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.



Monday, 31 October 2011

My new lights are truly.... brilliant.

OK, so the title is a bit cliché, but as the days get shorter and darkness seems to arrive by 4 in the afternoon, it's important to have a good lighting system on your bike. And if you spend any time whatsoever cycling after dark, especially on poorly-lit roads, you'll know what I mean and how important a good set of lights is.

I am fortunate to recently come across a fantastic set of lights – and the best part is, they are from a UK-based company. They have a great reputation amongst those in the know, but aren't particularly well-publicized or known to the general public. Which is a shame, because they make high quality lights that are, well, brilliant. (Last of the puns, I promise.)

Lumicycle (www.lumicycle.com) have quietly been making bike lights in the UK since 1997. Everything is assembled in-house in their UK base in Bournemouth on the south coast of England. They pride themselves on their great customer service and their direct-to-consumer sales approach helps keep costs down. They do lights for both road and mountain bikes in a variety of configurations and price points.

OK – the sales stuff over – let me talk a little about my REAL WORLD experience with the lights. I opted for their 4Si bottle-battery system. It's a small, 4 LED light that mounts to the handlebar and is powered by a battery cleverly disguised a water bottle (and fits nicely in a standard bottle cage). I chose one of their best systems, so the price wasn't as low as some of their other products, but don't let that in any way put you off. Shop around their site for cheaper alternatives.

First and foremost, the beam of light that comes out of this little unit is MASSIVE. It has to be one of the strongest and brightest I've seen from any lighting system before. Not just a strong beam that hits the road far in front of you, but a nice spread of light also, illuminating the road around you as well. This pic illustrates the difference in beam strength and spread between the 4Si and a couple of other lower-priced popular lights. The difference is quite remarkable!

The light has several settings, from Flashing to Boost (the highest and brightest setting). Battery power ranges from 144 hours on Flashing to 4.5 hours on Boost. If you are riding in a semi-lit area with street lights, you can get away with some of the other settings such as High (7 hours) or Low (63 hours). The bottle battery easily plugs into the included charger to replenish itself also.

Operating the light is also quite easy compared to other systems I have tried. The back of the light has a little toggle switch that can be operated even with heavy gloves. It's just a matter of holding it up or down to switch between settings. Easy to change, even on the fly.

The light will step down in power by itself as the battery starts to run down so it gives you some warning that it's running low (it'll go from Boost, to High, to Medium, etc. as the power starts to dwindle). But 4+ hours of night riding is probably more than enough for anyone, especially as temperatures drop!

The light clamps to both 26mm and 31.8mm handlebars with no problems (there's a little extension for the oversize bars). The battery doesn't actually weigh that much, despite it's size. My only gripe was that the power cable that runs from the bottle to the light was a little short on my bike, limiting my choice of location for the light on my bars. Or rather, I had to mount in under the bar instead of over the bar in order to make it possible to have a complete range of motion (side to side) for the bars. But this might be due to the long stem I run on my winter bike!

My dealings with the folks at Lumicycle have been really positive with great customer service. Friendly and professional – and my lights were shipped quickly after placing my order. It's rare to find a 'local' company that has what I want, provides good service and makes a quality product. These guys ticked all those boxes.

I can, with all good conscience, recommend you check out Lumicycle's products if you are looking for a high-quality set of lights for your bike. Keep your path well-lit this winter and stay safe!




Wednesday, 26 October 2011

What will it all mean?

Yesterday I flew to Dublin to be a part of the Paralympics Ireland Media Day. I think initially it had been intended to be a free-for-all for the Irish press to come and meet the athletes, try out some of the sports, take photos and do interviews. As a member of the team, I can assure you that this sort of exposure and publicity is much needed and much appreciated. The more that the general public know about who we are and what we do, the more support we will have when it comes time to compete next September in London.

However, it seems mother nature isn't a sports fan and decided to throw a flood-sized spanner into the works. Dublin experienced some of the worst rain and flooding it has seen in years the night before (and the rain continued into the following day), making it difficult for many people to get to the event – and those that did come may have arrived a little soggy. So while we did get some valuable coverage, not as much as I would have hoped for.

Like the good trained monkey that I am, I dutifully donned my World Champs jersey and mounted a stationary bike so that I could show off the Rainbow Stripes, answer questions and give the press an up-close-and-personal look at my carbon leg (courtesy of www.pacerehab.com). Not that I mind of course – I am ALWAYS happy to talk about the Paralympic movement and my goals for 2012. I think it's important that we get the message out that we are Elite athletes competing at the highest levels of our sports and deserve to be treated with the same respect and admiration as our able-bodied compatriots. Hopefully London 2012 will go a long way to to opening people's eyes and raising the collective profile of all our sports.

One of the questions that came up during my interviews was, 'what will it mean to me to compete in these Games for Ireland'? It's actually an excellent question that has two important components for myself. I'll see if I can answer them both.

The first part of the question for me, relates to competing 'for Ireland'. My ties to the country and nationality are both life-long and tenuous. My father is Irish and lives in Ireland, I have an Irish passport, an Irish name, I ride in Irish colours, etc. – but I've never lived in Ireland. In fact, I was born in Singapore (on an Air Force base) and spent most of my life living in Canada. Even 'worse' is that I currently live in England. So how can I call myself an Irishman?!

I suppose it comes down to this: I am Irish by birthright. And my loyalty to the Irish team is because when I got into paracycling and decided to compete internationally, I first approached the Irish team and they were the ones that gave me a chance. They were the ones that stuck by me, even when it looked like I wasn't going to amount to much. Someone must have seen the glimmer of talent and decided I was worth the effort to keep training. And (so far) it has paid off. I am a loyal person – and I will always support those that support me. Ireland gave me my shot, and I will always remain true to them. I miss my friends, family and life back in Canada at times, and call England my home, but Ireland is my country. So to compete in these Games for Ireland is my chance to say thank you to all the people that have been behind me the last few years and helped me get to where I am now. I will do them all proud.

The other part of the question is what it will mean to compete in the Games in general. I won't say it's been a lifelong dream. I won't give an X-Factor style answer and say "it will mean the world to me". I can't even say that as of right now I'm excited about the prospect. That may sound cold and callous – but one thing I've learned in the past year, is that you must take one day at a time. Focus on your next race and not the one a year from now. Before the Paralympics arrive next September, I have a year of training and racing to get through. I have another World Championships in February (on the track) that is currently my main focus, followed by a season of road races and time trials all next summer. It's all building towards London but I'm trying to stay grounded and focussed on each race as they come up on my calendar – and not look past them to the 'big one' in September.

Don't get me wrong – I AM guardedly excited about the whole thing and it IS a big deal. I just haven't allowed myself to think about it too much as of yet. Winning the World Championships means that I have achieved the Paralympics Ireland criteria for selection to the team for London, but until the final selections are made and ratified (sometime next July), I am not 100% certain of going to the Games. So I guess until I get that letter from 'the boss' I won't believe it's really happening!

I recall watching the cycling events in the last Paralympics in Beijing and thinking to myself that I could do that. That was when the seed was first planted for me and I first had dreams of competing on the highest stage in the sport. At the time I remember thinking – if I can just get a try out with the team, I think I can make it. And then, if I can get on the team, my goal would be to make it to a World Championships. Even back then I had the belief that I could win a World Championships. And deep, deep down inside... I knew that I had what it takes to make it to the Paralympics.

So what will it mean to compete in the Paralympics? It will be a justification for all my hard work. An affirmation that I am a worthy sportsman and one of the best in the world. In Paralympic sport, we so often compete in front of a handful of people. To compete in London in front of thousands of people (and potentially many, many more watching on TV) will be the thrill of a lifetime. I want to open people's eyes and show them that we ride just as hard and fast as anyone else. It's just that our artificial limbs slow us down, not our hearts.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Taking the fun out of cycling

It's that time of year when cycling becomes less of a pleasure and more of a chore. Days become shorter, the weather becomes colder, there are no races to look forward to and motivation is just a word in the dictionary.

During the race season (in my case somewhere between February and September), it's easier to be motivated and upbeat about training. Occasionally the weather is sunny and warm and trips out on the bike for several hours at a time are pleasant. Or as pleasant as they can be when you're focussed on producing a certain amount of power. But when your biggest concern is staying warm and dry and avoiding patches of ice on the road, it starts to become more of a job and less of a hobby.

Furthermore, throughout the summer months I normally have a race or time trial at least once a week, if not more. And that's just the local events I participate in – add to this the trips away for International competitions or training camps, and it's easy to see how the constant stream of stimulation in the form of racing keeps you going.

And if the weather conditions didn't make the situation bad enough, there's also the inherent boredom that comes from training by power numbers. When the average cyclist goes out for a ride – they do just that: ride. When I go out for a training ride, it's usually with specific goals and targets in mind. I am forever riding at a set wattage for a set period of time. The shorter the interval, the harder it usually is to achieve the target wattage. 

But maintaining a set wattage can be a very difficult thing to do. Not because the target is particularly hard, but rather because fluctuations in road gradients, wind conditions, traffic flow, etc – all mean that you must constantly make adjustments to your pace and output to 'stay in the zone'. And the only way to make sure I'm riding at the right intensity is to look at the readout on my bike computer. So I spend most of my time riding along, constantly glancing down at my bike computer to make sure the numbers are where they are supposed to be. It leaves little other opportunity to enjoy the scenery!

Which leads me to my point. How do I keep motivated and keep cycling 'fun' during these long winter months? There's no denying that for me, at this point in my career, cycling IS my job. Like it or not, I am funded to perform on the bike. That means hours and hours of hard work, day in and day out. But HAVING to ride the bike and train certainly isn't motivating or fun!

First and foremost – you have to WANT to do it. And believe me, even though some days it does feel like a job, I love riding my bike. Even in the cold and wet and dark. While you're sat in your office looking out the window and wishing you could be riding – I'm out there doing it. The hardest part of any bike ride is the the 5 minutes before it starts. Just getting out the door and started is the hard part. Once you throw your leg over the bike and start pedalling, it all becomes easy.

And why do I want to do it? Because I want to win. I hate losing – at anything. And the only way to win is to train harder than the next guy. At the top – we all have similar skills and talents. What separates us is those of us who train harder and smarter. There is no substitute for hours in the saddle and there are no shortcuts. But pain today means glory tomorrow. The joy of winning a major championship or race is worth every second of suffering through the winter months.

This year I'm fortunate to have a nice Rainbow Jersey to look at to help stay motivated through the winter. It serves as a contestant reminder of what hard work can give you. Now that I've had a taste of success – I want more. Lots more. I want to break world records. I want to win more medals. I want to be a World and Paralympic Champion. These things don't happen overnight so the hard work starts now.

And as a World Champion the target is now firmly on MY back. The competition is gunning for me and I'm the man to beat. And that's just fine with me. I'm working day and night to stay ahead of them. If they want to beat me, they're gonna have to work harder than me – and that is not going to be easy.

So while you enjoy your Sunday ride in the park with the kids, or your leisurely club run with your mates, I'll be out there beating the crap out of myself. Learning to suffer and endure pain like never before. Putting in the miles, ignoring my surroundings, forgoing fatty foods and alcohol, ignoring my friends and family and staying focussed on winning.

And that... for me is fun.



Friday, 14 October 2011

Pee in this cup please

If you follow professional cycling at all, you will be familiar with the endless doping scandals. Any exceptional performance is looked upon with scepticism due to the shady past of the sport and its links to performance enhancing drugs. Top riders from the history of the sport have all been linked to (or busted for) using various types of drugs. 

These professionals get tested regularly and whilst methods for avoiding detection exist, it seems science is catching up and it's getting harder and harder to cheat. The sport is getting cleaner, performances are becoming more believable and the sport is slowly regaining its credibility.

But it is not just the professionals that undergo a constant drug-testing regime; but also Paralympic athletes like myself. You might not think that riders would attempt to cheat 'just because we're not professionals' but this is not the case. There have been several cases of riders being caught and banned in Paracycling – and I, for one, am glad to be part of the testing pool. I want all my performances to be credible and want all my competition on the same level as myself.

I am always subject to random drug testing at competition. For instance, when I won my first gold medal in Australia this year, I was whisked away for testing. And (in general), if you win a medal at the World Championships, or set a new world record, you will also be selected for testing.

But this is only a small part of what helps keep the sport honest. Myself and most international riders are on what we call the "Whereabouts" scheme. Every 3 months I have to fill out a daily itinerary detailing where I will be 24 hours a day. (I know this sounds arduous, but you can update it regularly so it's not as bad as it sounds.) 

Here's how the program works: I fill out a rough guide to where I'll be in advance. Most importantly – I must designate 1 hour a day for testing. I MUST be where I say I'll be for that hour. I can change the time and location of this hour at any time, as long as I am in the new location at the new time, etc. If the testers come and try and find me during that hour – and I'm not there... I FAIL. It's the same as a positive test.

The testers may also try and spring a surprise test on you – and visit you outside your designated hour. This is why you need to tell them where you will be 24 hours a day. However, (for instance) if your bike ride goes longer than expected and you're not back home when you thought you would be – and they show up – as long as it's outside your designated hour then you are 'safe'. It's not considered a failed test or violation.

BUT – if they DO find you, then you MUST submit to a test. Refusal is tantamount to a fail.

We all have access to our Whereabouts info online and can update it any time as often as we need to. For instance, if I decide to spend the night at a friend's – I simply log in, update the info and away I go. They can come test me there instead if they want to. Furthermore, you can just text updates to them off any mobile phone, so there really is no excuse to be caught out. It's a pain and not always easy to remember to do, but it's part of my life and something you simply have to get used to.

I've only been on the scheme for a few months, and as of yesterday hadn't had the testers come and find me. As the weather was pretty poor I had decided to do my training indoors on the turbo trainer. I was in the middle of my living room, earphones on, wearing nothing but my cycling shorts and my carbon leg – pedalling away furiously... when I thought I heard a knock at the door. As I had earphones on and the turbo makes some serious noise – I wasn't sure.

I stopped pedalling, took the earphones off and listened. Sure enough... another knock. Damn it!! I hopped off the bike and made my way to the door. I cautiously opened the door and peered around the side of it (trying to hide the fact I was mostly undressed and sweating heavily!). Plus the sight of my carbon leg (essentially a carbon post) would be enough to frighten the casual observer so was trying to keep it hidden.

And lo and behold... it was the drug testers; there for my first surprise home visit! Talk about bad timing. 

You are allowed to make them wait as long as you want – until you are ready (or able) to give a sample. However – you MUST remain in their sight for the entire time until you do so – so you must invite them in. You don't need to feed or water them (or even talk to them) but they have to stay with you until the test is done. I could have hopped back onto my bike to finish my training session and they would have had to stand there and watch until I had, but there's no reason to prolong things if you don't need to.

So I attempted to towel off some of the sweat, threw a shirt on, swapped my carbon leg for my walking leg and got down to it. The test involves filling out some paperwork to confirm your identity, then it's off to the toilet with one of the testers and a sample bottle. They must witness the urine passing from your body into the sample bottle. That's right – someone has the unenviable job of watching me pee. This is to ensure the urine isn't coming from a bag strapped to my leg or some other source. It's very weird – but something you soon become accustomed to.
The sample is then poured into two different containers – known as your A-sample and B-sample. If you ever test positive for anything (testing is done on the A-sample), then you can request the B sample is tested also for confirmation. This helps ensure that IF a sample was to become contaminated somehow, then the other sample would clear the athlete. It's rare – but there have been instances where an athlete was cleared after subsequent testing of their B-sample.

Everything is verified and the samples locked in bottles, sealed in bags and then sealed in a box. You sign some more paperwork to confirm everything... and then they are off. The samples get tested in a lab somewhere and you only ever hear from them is there's a problem. Otherwise you just wait for the next test!

It was all over and done with in under 30 minutes. I closed the door behind them as they left and hopped back on the bike to finish my training, still laughing to myself over the state I answered the door in. Ah... the life of an athlete.

But as my friends said to me: you know you've made it in this world when someone actually wants to come to your house to collect your urine.




[As a footnote to this post, I would like to add that a few weeks later I received a letter in the mail from the anti-doping unit that oversees my testing. Basically thanking my for my cooperation and informing me that my test was clear. My initial reaction when I first opened the letter and saw who it was from was one of fear. Not because I had anything to hide as I know I compete cleanly, but because I wasn't expecting a letter to inform me of the negative test results. Normally no news is good news, so a letter was a sign (to me) that something was wrong.


But my previous testing had been in competition (and in Australia) so they just didn't send a letter to inform me. Despite living a clean lifestyle and watching everything I take, eat and drink to ensure that none of it is on the banned list, there is always that fear that something will have become contaminated by a banned substance and somehow get into your system. It has happened to athletes before and if it were to happen to me, I would have little recourse to try and prove it. So that scenario is the only thing I worry about.


But not very much.]






For a follow-up to this post, you may want to read about my further experiences with anti-doping here: This time they are out for blood

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Comfort is King


When you spend as much time in the saddle as I do, it's critical that the hours pass by with relative comfort.  Over the years I have tried many different saddles – big, small, gel padded, unpadded, flat, curved, cutout, etc. –  but only ONE saddle can be given the credit for saving my cycling career. The Selle SMP.

Let me go back a year. I had just finished riding the World Championships in Canada and I was in serious pain. The long hours of training and racing had taken their toll on my undercarriage and I was in big trouble. Without going into too much detail, I managed to get a pretty serious injury and infection 'down there'. It meant I couldn't sit on the saddle, couldn't ride or train and it also meant constant trips to the hospital for treatment. I was off my bike for a good month while I tried to deal with the injury.

The doctor I saw recommended that I give up cycling all together. I wasn't about to let this be the end of my cycling career, so I started looking into ways to alleviate my problems. My research led me to the Selle SMP line of saddles. They are by FAR the oddest looking road saddles I have ever seen, by also the most comfortable.

I first came across one of the saddles several years ago when I was doing a London to Paris charity ride. One of the other riders had one of these on his bike. He was a hefty fellow and the saddle was pure carbon fibre (no padding whatsoever). It looked like it would be torture to ride. But he claimed it was the best saddle he had ever used. And this is a sentiment that has been echoed by many others.

So what makes these saddles so good? Well – the trick to a good saddle is the FIT. If a saddle fits your body well, then you will have a nice, comfy ride. But if the fit is wrong, you're in trouble. But it's not just the fit of the SMP that makes it work – but some unique design features.

First up is the central channel; there isn't one! The middle has been removed – taking all the pressure of your perineum (your undercarriage). Instead, your weight is supported by your sit bones. For some people, it takes a little while to get used to this, but it's not painful. It's just a different feeling that what you might be used to. But it's well worth it.

The saddle also has a curved shape – and I find this helps put me in the right place. Keeps me from sitting too far forward or back on the saddle. There's even a bit cut out at the rear of the saddle so you don't hit your coccyx bone!

For the more 'traditional' cyclists out there: fear not. SMP do a wide range of saddles in different sizes and with differing amounts of padding from bare carbon to full gel padding. There is a saddle to suit every bottom!


www.dillglove.co.uk
It is not an overstatement to say that the SMP saddle saved my cycling career. And so it was a no-brainer when the opportunity came along to have them as my official saddle sponsor. The good folks at Dillglove (www.dillglove.co.uk) are the UK distributor and are making sure that I am well taken care of. I am now using the SMP saddles on my road, winter and track bikes. (I use something very special on my TT bike, but that's a story for a different day!)

I highly recommend that you look into these saddles if you have ANY issues with comfort, especially on longer rides. Admittedly not the cheapest out there, but can you put a price on your health? (And they suit BOTH men and women!). Dillglove can answer all your questions about the brand, the range of saddles and point you in the direction of a retailer where you can buy one.

Monday, 3 October 2011

My season comes to a close

It's been a long season for me, but (I think) it's finally come to a close. At least on the competition side!

It started with training last October. And continued through the dark and cold winter months (although there were a few nice warmer breaks in Majorca). I raced in the Track World Championships in March and went straight from there to the road. The road and TT season has been a long one – competing both locally and internationally – and fitting in all the training in between.

This past year I raced in Australia, Spain, Canada, Belgium and Italy (twice). Training camps in Spain and Ireland. Local races up to twice a week. And it has totally been worth it! (And probably the best year of my life.)

This past weekend saw me compete in the final TT of the year. The Rudy Project is a national series of time trials around the UK. It has the added benefit of having a disability category so I can compete against other disabled riders (instead of the able-bodies folks I normally ride against). I usually do OK against the 'regular' folk, but it's nice to go up against people that are a little more like... me.

The race had the added benefit (for me) of giving me the opportunity to wear my Rainbow Stripes in competition for the first time. I haven't had a chance to get some skin suits made up yet, so just wore the jersey over a white part of shorts. Although it meant giving up a big aerodynamic advantage, I really wanted to show off the stripes.

As it turned out (and as many off you will know), it was the hottest October day since records began! Good day to be wearing white, but still a scorcher nonetheless. Admittedly I haven't been on my TT bike in a while and my training as of late has been more focused on long, slow rides rather than the high intensity intervals that keep me sharp for time trialling. I was worried that I would have lost my edge and it would be a disastrous day.

In the end, I managed to win the disability category and honour the Rainbow Jersey (for the first of many times I hope). I even finished right in the middle of the able-bodied riders of my age group. Not a bad outing really - and a nice way to finish off the year.

I look forward to riding more of the series next year (and hopefully taking the overall title). I think it's great they support disability cycling and I want to give my support back in any way I can!

So - thanks to those that have followed me this year. It's been phenomenal. I am now starting my winter training again – and making the switch back to the track. The Track Worlds are in February in Los Angeles and I have a lot of work to do if I'm going to compete for a World Title on the track also. But that's my next goal... so stay tuned!