Tuesday 15 March 2016

Cycling the Etruscan Coast, Retro-Style

Our good friends at Tommasini are working with L'Etrusca, an Italian retro-tour that began in 2013. It will run April 9-10, 2016 from Bolgheri, west of Florence and the routes range from a 27 km "L'Elegante" to a robust 160 km ride with lots of gravel.  And attention, Gran Fondo overchargers: the cost for the long route is 25 Euros if you register early!  Information about the ride (mainly in Italian) can be found here.

Until then, enjoy this video!

Monday 22 February 2016

The Tour of Sufferlandria: Where Nobody Hears You Scream

Every February there is a bicycle race that is considered the harbinger of the new season by thousands of keen riders, tired of sitting on the couch and welcoming the chance to put down the doughnuts and get fit. Not the Tour Down Under, nor the Tours of Qatar and Oman, or even the Volta ao Algarve, this race takes place in a country so obscure it appears on no atlas. A race that offers an impressive list of prizes but no actual winner; a race where all riders are encouraged to encourage each other and share the pain; a race where nobody dopes and everybody hurts. This is the Tour of Sufferlandria, and I have survived three editions.

For those unfamiliar with them, the Sufferfest training videos offer a wide range of training situations—climbing, endurance-building, sprinting, time-trialling—set against images of real races licenced from the UCI and others. On-screen legends indicate the desired cadence, percentage of power output and time in the interval. From time to time you are required to stand or spin faster in a 10 second surge. There is suitable accompanying music by bands nobody has ever heard of.

It can get pretty dull spinning for hours in the basement, watching a big fan oscillating in a vain attempt to blow away the perspiration. Maybe not as boring as that East German technique of putting your rider on rollers facing a blank concrete wall, telling him to spin for four hours and then turning out the lights, but pretty boring. What makes the Sufferfest different from other video training systems? Others also use coaches to set the program and indicate your optimal cadence or power output. Others are also available only as downloads, with no DVD alternative. What sets the Sufferfest apart, in my view, is a) the very reasonable price of the videos; b) the you-are-in-the-middle-of-the-race editing of the videos; c) the worldwide community of enthusiasts and d) the ridiculous narrative of each video. And the Tour of Sufferlandria (ToS) is the ultimate statement of that narrative, a way to train with purpose and be entertained for more than a week of intense exercise. Well, pain, really.

The Sufferfest - Introduction from The Sufferfest on Vimeo.

The ToS runs for 9 days, with an investment of around 2 hours each weekend day and an hour each weekday. Participants qualify by simply owning the necessary videos and, preferably, signing up for the special Facebook group page. This year more than 3,800 were signed up. Then you just ride the stages, make comments on Facebook if you would like, and do your best. To do good, one contributes to the Davis Phinney Foundation, established by the famed American sprinter after being diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's Disease at age 40. For each $10 donated, participants had a crack at a pretty amazing list of prizes, such as a trip to the Tour de France, a BMC Time Machine bike, various signed World Champion jerseys, books, jackets, helmets, fashionable clothing and even a 12 week personal coaching plan and consultation. The ToS raised over $111,000 for the Foundation this year.

Described as “the Greatest Stage Race of a Mythical Nation,” the Tour of Sufferlandria features you as a rider on the Sufferlandrian National Team, doing the bidding of the remarkable DS, Grunter von Agony. His idea of strategy is to cover every break, go for the KOM points and win every sprint finish. Dire threats are promised; failure is not an option. It is said that becoming a Sufferlandrian comes wish some heavy responsibilities: you shall always suffer; you will never be passed;
you will never get dropped, and if you do it will be in such a glorious explosion of Suffering that it will be seared into the minds of those around you and become a legendary tale for generations to come. Sounds easy, right? Just remember that in Sufferlandria the standard form of greeting is: “Have you suffered today?” and the correct response is “More than you.”

Like a real race in non-mythical countries, you get a start number (you print this yourself and impress others with your creativity) and there is an excellent handbook, outlining all the stages and offering helpful suggestions on nutrition, mental focus (i.e. not quitting) and equipment. I am using a time trial bike on a Kurt Kinetic Road Machine trainer stand with a Garmin ANT stick communicating to my laptop and TrainerRoad, which works as a kind of overlay to the video but with the wireless communication allows me to see heart rate, cadence and virtual power. It downloads to Strava as well so fans can enjoy the suffering too. The Sufferfest now offers an official app and there are other alternatives. But you don't have to be very high-tech at all. Some participants appear to have used gym exercise bicycles crammed into bathrooms.

As the event went on, hundreds of Facebook posts appeared each day, commenting on the difficulty of the stage and the suffering involved (with confirming photos), as well as encouraging others. The event took place in a range of time zones and the Handbook let you know when you could start and when you should have finished each stage, whether you were in Kiribati or Vancouver. Specifically.
Stage 1: Known as ISLAGIATT (“It Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time”) this is a very very long 2 hour stage with a lot of climbing—half the stage, in fact. Climb No. 3 takes you to the top of Mt. Sufferlandria, a noted volcano. Not being very good with computers, I had some issues with the TrainerRoad interface and synchronization of the video and the power readings. The result was that my stage ended up being 2:25. I knew that this would not help me on Stage 2 much since no credit is given for getting lost on the Tour.

The Sufferfest - Trailer - It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time from The Sufferfest on Vimeo.

Stage 2: When unveiled at the Embassy of Sufferlandria in January, this is the stage that frightened everyone. “Revolver” takes 90 minutes and involves 16 one-minute intervals at high power. This hurt a lot and for the ToS participants had to do it twice. 32 one-minute intervals are much less fun than you would expect. My maximum wattage in the first set was nearly 600 but only 500 in the second. Ouch.

Stage 3: At only 48 minutes this looked at first glance to be a bit more merciful but in fact involves two segments of race simulation, with breaking away, sprinting, climbing “and generally crushing the spirits of your Sufferlandrian opponents,” in the words of the Handbook. This stage rejoices in the inappropriate name of TBTITW “The Best Thing in the World.”

Stage 4: Today was more merciful as another 90 minute video was the object of our sweat (“Sufferlandrian Holy Water”). A base training session with Michael Cotty, of the excellent Col Collective video series, it rambled through wonderful scenery in Italy and Austria. “To Get To the Other Side” was a bit more comfortable to do, which was good as I was now using a great deal of chamois cream on each ride.

Stage 5: “The Wretched” hits you with a miserable sucker punch. After going up and down for 35 minutes on three major climbs you are confronted with a final climb basically rips off your legs. I could not believe this stage was only 49 minutes.

Stage 6: A much nicer change of pace. “The Rookie” posits that you are the Sufferlandrian stagiare allowed to join the Giant-Shimano pro team. The story is that for the first third you just hang in, the second third you help your leader and in the third you are the leader. You get to drop Jens Voigt (if you can). There are three 10 minute intervals. Good stuff and it is thrilling to watch John Degenkolb's titanic acting skills, to say nothing of the beauty of Marcel Kittel's coiffure. At the end of the video when Kittel learns the team will ride the Tour of Sufferlandria next season he remarks: “This is frightening. But I am not afraid when we have the Sufferlandrian with us.” That would be you, of course. And the Handbook helpfully suggests it is time to clean your bike before it corrodes from a week of Sufferlandrian Holy Water being dripped on it.

Stage 7: “Do As You're Told” is 47 minutes and very complicated. It involves 22 high-intensity intervals that run in inverse order to recovery periods and there is a nasty sting at the end here too. This was difficult to follow as it is hard to accelerate suitably on a training stand. I did manage to hit 804 watts but felt pretty worn by the end. Seven days of this was starting to wear me down and I noticed that I was seeing a higher heart rate with lower power output. Not good.

Stage 8: Saturday and I started late after driving to and from the Montreal Salon du Velo. I would rank this the second most difficult after Stage 2. The first segment, “A Very Dark Place,” offered 10 strength intervals from three to four minutes each. This was followed by “Nine Hammers,” which I liked because it features video from the Tour of Romandie the year I was there to watch it. It involves a series of threshold-level and V02 max intervals. I completed this stage in a stage of total mindless exhaustion.

Stage 9! Valentine's Day began with the latest love note from the Sufferfest, a new video called “Power Station.” My first time seeing this and it was quite different from the usual drills, with a lot of climbing at high-power and low cadence. I enjoyed this as a pedal-masher with strong legs, no aerobic capacity and limited intelligence. The last segment was “Violator,” which clearly was not meant for me and I just had to hang on and suffer through this—64 brief sprints at full power. Although I managed to put out over 1,000W I did not have a lot of fun. I kept telling myself it was for a good cause and when the Tour of Sufferlandria ended on Sunday I felt a bit let down. But I slept very well that night.

“Cycling is suffering,” said Fausto Coppi. But it is not so bad when you do it in a great big global group. It was fascinating to follow everyone's effort on Facebook and it was disappointing that there were riders who Did Not Start—whether through illness, scheduling problems or, in one case, ending up in Intensive Care after being hit by a kangaroo—or Did Not Finish due to a swollen ankle, dental problems or a crash on a commuting ride. Everyone got encouragement, including some from Davis Phinney himself. And Micheal Cotty, notorious for always standing on the pedals, produced photographic proof that he actually does use his saddle from time to time.

My favourite postings were from a couple where he had to drop out but his wife, who had only ridden a beach cruiser for a short distance before, continued. She must have been seriously fit because after the Tour of Sufferlandria she then immediately became a Dame of Sufferlandria, which requires doing 10 videos in one day, a task that typically takes 12 hours. Fit, or compulsive/obsessive. I myself might take a crack at the Knighthood of Sufferlandria (the male equivalent) in a month or two.

I did not win any of the lovely prizes? So what did I get from the Tour of Sufferlandria? I rode 335.1 kms in 11:19, burned 8,144 kcal and produced 7,308 kilojoules of work. Maximum power output was 1,010W and I dropped three kilograms of weight (some of which has returned—aaargh). More importantly, I am made lots of virtual friends on Facebook and am highly motivated to continue my training in my Pain Cave until warmer weather and the potholed streets of Ottawa beckon.

The next Tour of Sufferlandria will be February 4-12, 2017.

A joke runs that a masochist is defined as someone who says; “Beat me! Beat me!” while a sadist says; “No.” Cyclists: we are all Sufferlandrians now. And if you dare you can find out more at: www.thesufferfest.com