Friday, April 24, 2009

Cold Morning Commute – How to dress right with the help of AA Milne

Or Ground Effect should definitely sponsor me!

The season is definitely upon us now, here is Christchurch anyway, where the commute into work in the morning is just that little bit harder to get excited about. The weather is still mainly clear and sunny, but the weather gods have a penalty for these mornings, one with a bite. Take yesterday morning for example. The sun was just up and casting a beautiful soft orange/pink light across the city, the paddocks I bike past had an ethereal layer of mist rising just over a foot off the ground and the trees were dropping their rust and golden and crimson leaves in the still morning air. It was gorgeous. And bitterly cold, for the other feature of the scene was a very light frost on the ground.

The price to be paid for these beautiful clear mornings is frostbite on your extremities. Often when I wake up on these cold mornings, and spend an extra 10 minutes hiding under the covers to avoid the cold, I’m reminded of an AA Milne poem I used to listen to when I was a child. We had a tape (audio) of his poetry with a fantastic English narrator who really bought each verse to life. The one I’m thinking of started with this line from the narrator:

"Oh, those frosty mornings when it nips at your ears and your nose, that’s when I wish I could be a furry bear."

I couldn’t put it any better myself. Then the poem by AA Milne. I highly recommend you read this in as deeper voice as you can, especially the last two words, to achieve the full beary warming effect.

If I were a bear and a big bear too
I shouldn’t much care if it froze or snoo
I shouldn’t much mind if it snowed or frize
I’d be all fur lined in a coat like his

For I’d have fur boots and a big brown wrap
And brown fur knickers and a big fur cap
I’d have a fur muff-a-ruff to cover my jaws
And brown fur mittens on my big brown paws

With a big brown furry-down up to my head
I’d sleep all the winter
I’d sleep all the winter
In a big

What you may not realise on first reading of this poem is that AA Milne is cunningly informing you of the appropriate attire for cycling on frosty mornings, using colloquialisms of his time. The second verse is full of handy tips. Let’s take my frosty morning commuting attire as an example and you will see that Mr Milne was obviously an avid cyclist.

I’d have fur boots. I have neoprene booties. They stop my toes feeling like they have frozen into a lump of stinging white pain and that all blood has ceased to visit them. If you commute in frosty weather with even the slightest of breeze, particularly in cycling shoes, you’ll know what I mean.

A big brown wrap. Ok, so this is a bit of a stretch, but I find that wrapping myself in merino undergarments adds significant pleasure to those chilly morning rides. If you haven’t experienced the joys of merino, where have you been? Get out and get some, it is truly The Business.

Brown fur knickers. That’s easy, my Witches Britches are furry and knickers and keep my knees nice and toasty. I’m sure the winter commuters amongst you are familiar with the bright red knees syndrome whereby your knees and lower thighs take the blast of the icy air rushing past you as you speed to work and are frozen in the process. Personally I find the worst thing about the snap frozen knees is walking into my warm office and experiencing that very uncomfortable burning sensation as the livid red skin is hit by air that has a significant temperature differential to its surface. This peril is completely removed with my fuzzy Witches Britches.

A big fur cap. For me this is a bit more of a puzzler. I’ve experimented with various head and ear warming devices. My first choice was a hand knitted beanie from my Nana. It was not the best choice. It did fit under my helmet, but it made my forehead very very itchy. My next trial was what I like to refer to as my gimp hoodie. This is a Hot Toddy which is a long sleeve riding top with a hood designed for going under the helmet. When biking this has some big advantages. It keeps your head, ears and even neck warm on cold mornings. The disadvantage I found was it works too well for those "a bit" cold mornings. I discovered the optimum temperature for me to use the hood is anything below -5°C, that’s pretty chilly. I think it comes from having long thick hair. I had a similar problem with my Baked Beany (hmmm, this post seems to be turning into an ad for Ground Effect – hey guys, wanna sponsor an average cross country rider?). Fantastic for really cold mornings and also for after rides on cold nights, but I tend to over heat when it’s only averagely cold. The other thing about the gimp hood I forgot to mention is that that hood cannot really be worn in public without a helmet over it due to its cunning form fitting nature. I still like to wear it around the house and while visiting friends for comedic value and scaring small children, but it’s a bit too much of a fashion statement for everyday wear. So finally I can upon the perfect solution. My own hair. It is very thick and long and with the application of a head band (yes it is also Ground Effects one, I have 6) to cover my ears it insulates me perfectly for most cold mornings.

Now my favourite line – I’d have a big fur muff-a-ruff to cover my jaws. Last winter my lungs got soft, or maybe just weren’t happy with the night-racing-cold-air-torment I subjected them to. It got to the point where breathing the cold morning air was too painful for any sort of speed on my commute and I wouldn’t dare try to tackling even the smallest of rollers for fear of coughing up a lung. Then I discovered the Ice Breaker Chute and all my problems were solved. I’ve tried riding with a scarf and that always used to move round and fall down or cause my glasses to completely fog up (before I got the laser eyes). Plus all my scarves were itchy. The Chute can be pulled right up to eye level, protecting you poor exposed nose and cheek bones from icy wind. I found that my glasses didn’t even fog when it was worn like this. And breathing was sooooo much better as the air is warmed slightly as it passed through the double layer of merino goodness. The best thing is once you reach optimum temperature, which for me is about halfway to work, you can just pull it down and you’re no longer too warm. Perfect. Best muff-a-ruff I’ve ever had.

The only part of the story I have to dispute good old AA on is the brown fur mittens. Mittens are not good for cycling, gloves, with their individually differentiated fingers are the best option. Given my penchant for over heating halfway through my commute, I like a bit of versatility. To achieve this I start off with my normal fingerless roadie gloves with a pair of thermal gloves, the kind you get for about $10, pulled over the top. Then when my hands have achieved full finger circulation I whip them off and stuff them in the side pockets of my bag (it’s a Ground Effect one, shock horror).

As you can now plainly see AA Milne was obviously an onto it cyclist and with the except of the slight faux pas regarding the mittens, knew how to dress appropriately for winter conditions. Of course on the weekends, when I don’t have to ride in the icy weather, I take his best bit of advice and stay in bed under layers of warm blankets (one of which is even furry).

Monday, April 20, 2009

Mt Somers – In it for the Grins

My favourite race of the year rolled around on Sunday. The Mt Somers Classic. This race has now been running for 4 years and I’ve been in three of them (I was going to say competed, but I’ve really only competed in 1 of them). This was my first "race" back from my broken elbow and with the grand total of 5 weeks of riding after 3 months of complete inactivity while my elbow healed under my belt I was only entering the Recreational Grade this year. Luckily for me I wasn’t the only one keen for a bit of a laugh at Mt Somers and I had plenty of company for my pootle along the farm tracks and back roads of Mt Somers station (which are really gorgeous).

Strangely enough I was still quite nervous the morning of the ride, but the drive to Mt Somers with Appetite for Destruction blaring loudly from the speakers, to drown out my Axle Rose impressions, sorted my butterflies out. Heavy fog descended on to the Canterbury Plains just outside Rakaia, but this year I wasn’t too worried because it was like that last year and it cleared by the time we got to Mt Somers. This year was even better though. We burst out of the fog into bright sunshine and clear skies, it was a stunning day. How I wished I was fit, the ride up the hill would have been well and truly worth it with such beautiful clear vistas as a reward.
The posse crossing

As usual the organisation was absolutely top notch, with marshals stationed on all the approach roads and junctions around the township to make sure no one got lost. We parked up and I donned my wings. Yep, you read that right. I decided a few weeks ago that if I wasn’t fit enough to take the race seriously, then I really wasn’t going to take it seriously and decided to live up to my namesake and dress as Tinkerbell. I think you’ll agree I make a charming fairy!

It was rather amusing checking my bike in full regalia and having the man from the car next to me ask if I’d lost a bet. "Nope," I told him, "I’m just a bit special!" I managed to lose my husband right before the race, but I found my crew of Vorbettes (and Thorg) and we made our way to the start line. The usual Mexican waves were carried out and then the Experts were off, and then the Intermediates were off. Finally we were off. Surrounded by children, winding back and forwards and up the first gentle hill. I quickly realised that the 2 laps of McLeans on my singlespeed the previous day, while very fun, were not the best idea when your legs are as feeble as mine, but not to worry. I was a fairy and would be flying most of the way! Down the first wee descent on the road I passed a few little kids and could hear them say "Look, there’s a fairy!" It made looking like a fool completely worthwhile.

The sun was warming and the sleeping was good.

The race went well. It was great to be chatting with friends, playing silly buggers, going brrrraaaapppp, brap brap, down the hills and generally having a laugh. I discovered on one of my favourite downhill sections that fairy wings actually provide significant wind resistance, so they won’t be the go for night racing. Physically I really gave it everything I had (cause there wasn’t much to give), pushing hard on the downhills and spinning the up hills. The steepish gravel road climb that seemed so easy last year was bloody tough this year, but I was determined to ride everything, especially after making the river crossing, even though there were people walking all around. The lovely sweet_p on her singlespeed put a big gap on me and scatter, who was a great support, up the last hill, but as the track pointed down we reeled Dirtdiva back in and the three of us put the chase on to get back on her tail. Back on the road the three of us wer all in the big ring, riding aggressively (ha ha!) and managed to whizz past sweet_p and thorg just before the hill dropped down into the town. Woooooshhhhh, through town (again fantastic marshalling keeping the intersection clear for the riders) and then into the long grass of the finish shoot. Dirtdiva 11th, Scatter 12th, Tinkerbell 13th, Sweet_p 14th, and Thorg 3rd(burglar!). Then we all had a fantastic feed, thanks to the wives for bringing a plate, and chilled out in the sun watching the more competitive among us come home.

Post race nutrition is important! 20 tiny chocolate muffins are great, especially if all eaten at once

As usual the atmosphere was fantastic, laid back, but well organised. And best of all the proceeds of the race go to charity, with over $50,000 raised in the last 3 years. I will be back next year and back on track to reach my goal of a top 5 finish in the intermediate race. The one thing I’ve learnt from yesterday is that a race doesn’t have to be all about winning, or placing or beating anyone. If you’re surrounded by friends and equally silly individuals a race doesn’t even have to be technical or hard to be fun. The grins are why I race and they are still to be had even when you’re not very fit at all.

Dirtdiva's socks are why she's so fast

PS - Thanks to scatter for the title!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The first of the season is special

The days are very much shorter now than when I was riding regularly before Christmas, which may seem like a cruel blow, but maybe it’s not that bad. Last night I went on my first night ride for the year, and for added lung and leg burning goodness it was on the singlespeed. It was so good. There is something extra special about the first night ride. It’s been at least 8 months since I was last out in the dark, 7kgs of battery strapped to my back, and light blazing from my helmet. The first night ride is special because it’s by choice. The weather is warm (otherwise you wouldn’t bother because winter hasn’t hit yet), and the tracks more fun. Over 8 months you tend to forget about the added excitement for riding at night. You can’t see so far ahead of you, you can’t really see holes or bumps until you’re on top of them and you have a strange tunnel vision that heightens the sense of speed and the proximity of trees. After a few night rides these sensations diminish into the routine. Then as the darkness of winter stretches on night riding isn’t really a choice anymore, it’s the only way to get in a ride during the week. And of course it gets colder the further into winter it gets. Often the lure of a warm blanket on the couch is enough for the helmet with its light to stay under the table. Riding when there’s a bit of mist about and the temperature is near freezing isn’t as pleasant as it sounds.

But the first ride isn’t like that. The first ride is about grinning, and whooping, and skidding and racing. The first ride makes me feel like a child with a new toy. And that’s how I felt last night on my singlespeed. Whizzing up the little hills and wheezing down the other side, chasing possums and rabbits and hideous big spiders off the track. And the best thing about it was riding with really cool chicks who always make me want to ride more and more and more. Ok, it hurt lots on the singlespeed, but a week ago I didn’t think I could even get round on my singlespeed. The fact that I can bodes well for me being ready to for the Bicycle Business World Champ Night Racing Series starting on the 13th of May. I’ve got three weeks to get used to pushing my legs to the limit for an hour on the singlespeed, I don’t want to finish last. The series looks to be fantastically long this year, with the final race no the 1st of July. Brrrrrr, there are going to be some very cold races this year. I can’t wait.
P.S. I almost forgot. This morning I had physio on my elbow for (hopefully) the last time. Yay! A huge thanks to Lee at the hospital physio for getting my elbow working so well again and to Dr Dalzell for pinning it back together.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A stock-take for Easter

For many many years Easter has been a bit of a non-event for me in the traditional scoffing of stupid amounts of chocolate bunnies and eggs way. This is because of an initial traumatic Easter experience when I was about 6 and then a conclusively horrific Cadbury’s factory incident in 5th Form (when I was 15 for those of you who don’t understand old school). This Incident involved a bus load of 15 year olds let loose in the reject egg room and told we could eat as much as we liked, but couldn’t take any chocolate out of the room with us. Add to this a 3 hour bus ride on very windy roads and I think you can guess the result. This one Incident scarred my tastebuds and stomach so comprehensively that to this very day I can’t eat Cadbury’s chocolate. In fact until last year I didn’t eat chocolate very often at all. Say once or twice a year! “My god, that’s unnatural!” I hear you say. Well maybe. But since marrying my beloved husband that has changed. He is a lolly monster and is capable of ingesting amounts of sweets and chocolates that would make mere mortals vomit. Copiously. Because of this there are often chocolates in the house. Early on in the relationship this was fine. I didn’t like chocolate after all. And then came the fateful day when the block of Whittakers Dark Chococlate with Orange came into the house. It even smelt good. It all came crumbling down. Over fifteen years of freedom from the tyranny of chocolate undone by that delicious dark goodness. Still I tried to tell myself that I still didn’t like chocolate, but there is no going back. So this Easter has been the first in many years when I have enjoyed the ample supply of chocolate eggs and bunnies that I’ve been missing out on. With this high calorie chocolate diet I decided it was important to do some biking and to really try and work out where I’m at now, both confidence and fitness wise.

My first goal, a hill climb. I haven’t been on a hill since I broke my elbow so I was feeling quite apprehensive. I decided on Rapaki as I knew it was freshly graded and should be a nice smooth start for someone as unfit as me. My goal was to get to the top, and hopefully only stop once or twice. Admittedly we cheated a bit by parking halfway up Rapaki Rd. Still I dropped into my granny ring and spun up and things felt pretty good. OK. This will be doable. I was a little concerned about the burning in my thighs by the first cattlestop, but decided that was just my lazy legs trying to get out of it. The 4wd track was S-M-O-O-T-H, no bumps whatsoever. This did mean there was a new hazard to be avoided. In addition to the usual runners and walkers there were now a large number of tiny dogs. Riding near tiny dogs is always slightly worrying as you never know what they’re going to do, and when you’re crawling up a hill at 4.5kph there’s not much you can do to avoid falling off if they take it into their crazy little heads to run under your wheels. Fortunately there were no small dog acting crazy situations and I spun up to where the climb plateaus out feeling really surprisingly good.

In fact I was feeling so good I re-evaluated of my goals for the ride. Now I wanted to get to the top without stopping and get there in under 45 minutes. My fastest recorded time up there last year was 32min 35sec so that seemed a realistic goal. Also the first few times I’d gone up there it took over 50 mins so it would be good to be better than that. Down the wee descent before the big final climb and I headed to the only rough bits on the track just to see how the bike felt with a bit of speed over the rough stuff. It felt pretty good. A bit weird, but good. Then I was into the last bit of the climb. Bleurgh. I wasn’t really up to chatting with my ever patient husband who had cruised up with me to this point so I told him to go for it and I’d spin up as best I could. And I was very pleasantly surprised with how well it went. In fact with the end in sight I decided I wanted to get to the top in under 42 mins and put a burst of speed on! I made it to the top in 42mins and 4secs (but that included some time on the road) and was stoked. I was definitely puffed, but I felt really good and for a first ride up a hill it couldn’t have gone better. Then came the descent. Oh yes, it was good. I was even popping little hucks of the few rocks in the track. It felt so good to go fast again. I felt balanced on the bike and completely in control. It made me want to head back to Vic Park and play on Sesame St, but common sense will prevail and I will wait till I’m stronger.

Easter goal number one – hill climb. Check

My other goal was endurance. I’m definitely doing the recreational race at Mt Somer’s next weekend. Its 20kms long and the furthest I’ve managed to ride so far is 16km on the road and 13km on the dirt. I wanted to make sure I could actually still ride 20km. So hubby and I headed to the sandpit for 2 laps. Last time I was there I couldn’t even do a full lap of the inner loop so doing over twice that was going to be a challenge. Hubby set off on his singlespeed with the agreement that he’d ride with me when he lapped me. I tried to start more conservatively than my usual all or nothing starts that leave me gasping after one small section. I sort of managed it. I’m definitely getting the hang of my new arm position and felt more balanced on the bike and was able to push the bike through the corners more. Also I did a few more jumps and they all went well.

I feel an aside is important here, just to reassure those of you who are currently reading this and thinking I’m insane to be doing any sort of jump after Christmas. Well, the “jumps” in Bottlelake are very very small, the kind of thing you’d be happy let your small child play on. The ones I broke my elbow on were proper, bigger jumps that required some skill (which I obviously didn’t have) to do well. I will not be trying to do that sort of jumping in the near future, please be reassured.

Where was I? Oh yes, little jumps. The little jumps actually felt better than they had before my crash. I felt really balanced and loose on the bike and seemed to hit them perfectly. This did my confidence the world of good. By the end of the first lap, yes I managed to do a whole lap, I was hurting, particularly in the legs. I decided that I might have to do a reduced length second lap, but I’d see when hubby caught up (which should be soon) before deciding. I was using my gears a lot more in the second lap, but I kept going and even managed to get up the nasty nasty pinch in the middle (just) and just kept going. No short lap for me. I came here to do 2 laps and I would do 2 laps. By the end my legs felt completely spent, but I did it. 26kms and my hubby didn’t lap me. He did manage to do 3 laps in only a little more time than it took me to do 2, but hey, I’ve got a broken arm. Despite feeling physically ill I was stoked to have ridden more than double the distance I managed last time and now feel quite happy that I can at least complete the race next weekend before the prize giving starts.

Easter goal number two – endurance. Check

All in all, a very satisfying regaining of much confidence. Now I’ve just got to get my outfit for the race sewed up and it’ll be all go for next Sunday. I can’t wait.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Recovery, not just a frolic through the daisies

As I write this I have a little voice sitting in the back of my head reminding me that it could be worse, after all it is only my elbow that causing me difficulties. To see a real injury, go get the latest issue of NZMTBR and check out Sheryl McLeod’s xray! She is one lucky lady! I have good friends who have had much worse injuries than my elbow and have come back fighting fit and strong and more determined.

Despite this knowledge that I’m actually very lucky, I’m struggling at the moment, both physically and mentally. I love being back on my bike, it still brings a huge smile to my face, but it also makes me a bit sad. You see, it’s really hard to ride at the moment. I’m so unfit that riding to work is a struggle. Last night we went for a ride at Bottlelake. Yay! I sensibly took my bouncy bike, even though I hate taking it there because the sand is so bad for the bike. I’m glad I did, I needed my gears. And even with my gears it hurt my lungs a lot and I couldn’t do a full lap. That made me sad, I used to be able to 2 or 3 laps on my singlespeed and still hold a conversation at the end. The most disturbing part was that later in the evening I realised it wasn’t just surface tiredness (if you know what I mean) I was really deep down tired. My legs hurt like they used to after a race. Logically, I know this is normal, but mentally it’s actually quite hard to get my head around. Three months ago: fit, strong, confident, balanced; I could ride for a long as I wanted, where I wanted. Today: unfit, weak, regaining confidence, wobbly; I struggle to ride for 40 minutes and know I can’t ride in the hills yet.

This recovery is much harder mentally than last year when I made the decision to try and get fitter and better. Every bit of progress I made felt like a huge leap forward. Every ride seemed to hold new challenges and milestones. And while its true that every ride is full of challenges and milestones for me now, they are all old challenges and milestones and I really don’t get the same fantastic (and addictive) feeling of conquering something new.

Relearning to ride my bikes isn’t actually much fun. With my currently bung arm not really straightening much I’m very lop-sided on the bike. The more I try to straighten it, the more it hurts and then I start unconsciously dropping my right shoulder. From there everything is out of whack. I am getting better at focusing on keep my arms and shoulders more balanced, but it is pretty disconcerting how loose the front end of the bike feels at the moment with my uneven position. The jury is still out on the road bike, my first ride this morning was not the most successful ride I’ve had recently. Nice and fast, but very painful. Need more core strength and a different stem I think.

It’s not all bad news though. Last night I did a tiny little huck, but a huck all the same. It felt good. Real good. Riding through the rough stuff and letting my bike float through it felt good. Pushing the bike through the corners felt good. Being out with friends in the setting sun on my bike felt good. Not feeling my sit bones felt good (every ride has been rather uncomfortable recently as my butt has got soft in more ways than one). So my confidence hasn’t gone, which is a huge positive. When I’m riding I hardly ever think "Oh no, what if I fall off", which is good because once you start thinking like that you tend to fall off. I just need to be less impatient I guess. Of course it will take time to get back to where I was before the crash, but dam it!, I don’t want it to. I’m prescribing my self more regular sandpit rides, more bike maintenance (I’d forgotten how much I enjoy working on my bikes) and more swimming. I’m doing a recreational race on the 19th of April and I do not want to be last!