2017 round up

It’s the time for New Year’s Resolutions, goals, all that sort of stuff. But who actually looks at what they got up to last year? Surely planning goals is pointless if you don’t then think about if you achieved them…?

Winter climbing

My winter climbing objectives were modest in the extreme. They were something along the line of ‘do some nice routes and have some great days out’. How could I fail? The weather and one of the worst winter Scottish seasons in recent memory put paid to hopes of Styrofoam ice and blue skies, but I managed a couple of decent days out. The highlight was a day out with the Hiking Club taking a couple of guys out doing some easier winter climbs and generally doing a lot of miles on semi-technical terrain. We had fantastic weather the first day and good snow in the Nevis gullies. Other great days were had out on Kinder Scout – it was freezing, it might as well have been the moon for all the similarities to the normal ‘tame’ Peak District – the Aonach Eagach under blue skies, Munro bagging from a (very) remote Air B&B, and a fun day out in the Norries too. So, ‘tick’ on the fun Scottish winter season, despite the very mild winter.

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Blasting up and down Number 3 and Number 4 gully on the Ben.

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Kinder Scout on a seriously cold day.

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Classic gully action in the Cairngorms.

Cycling

I had a lot of cycling objectives for this year, a lot of which were pretty ambitious. I’d improved more as a cyclist in 2016 than I thought possible, and there was still tonnes of room for getting better.

The terrible winter cycling season was a big blessing for cycling as there were only a couple of nights where I couldn’t ride due to ice. It also meant the normal weight gain borne of winter climbing didn’t really materialise.

My big objectives were:

  • Find this year’s spring training camp a bit easier than last year. Don’t just get absolutely smashed every day.
  • Complete the Fred Whitton for Paul’s stag do and ride every single bit of it (no pushing).
  • Complete the Etape du Dales in under 7 hours (Gold).
  • Beat my PB on the local hilly TT course.
  • Compete in a local flat time trial.
  • Get a Strava KOM on a fairly decent local segment, not just some crap one.

From January onwards my cycling was getting better and better. I had an amazing reliability ride in Leeds where I felt like I could pull all day on the front and then when breaks went I kept reeling people back in. Only in the last five miles was I starting to tire. That was a good sign for the spring training camp.

The spring training camp was also great. Run by the absolute monster that is Pete Barusevicus at Arrivee Travel, I’d been on the camp last year in Spain and while it was hugely enjoyable and inspirational, it also mind-blowingly hard. Almost just too hard for me. This year I had more miles in the legs, more experience, a better bike, and better tactics. It was a brilliant week and I left it feeling super strong, as opposed to just completely wasted.

If you want to improve as a rider then I can think of no better way to progress, as well as getting a whole heap of inspiration.

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Not your typical bunch of overweight cyclists.

The Fred Whitton was a funny objective as until it was mentioned as a stag do idea I had no desire to ride it. However, on the day it was mega. I rode it with good mates and within myself.

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Paul at the top of Hardknott on a training recce.

Regarding gearing for the Fred, I’ve heard all sorts of weird things mentioned by various people…

 

Firstly, Hardknott is really hard. It’s an exceptionally difficult climb at the best of times, and with 100 miles in your legs it really is very tough.

It’s a totally difficult league to anything I’ve ridden in the Peak or even the Dales. On the day itself I rode it on 30×25, which is a gear I’ve never had trouble getting up anything with. However, that day was hard and I had to dig deep. However, it’s absolutely possible to ride Hardknott on a way bigger gear. On a training recce I rode it on 36×28 with 50 miles in the legs, and someone strong could ride it on 36×25 no problem. Some could ride it on 39×25 but that just sounds savage. So, for people who tell you 34×28 is minimum it’s just not true as long as you’re willing to suffer a bit and have the legs to back it up. I was pretty tired after the Fred but had 7 days to recover before the real deal…

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Going up Honister on the Fred. It had been cold first thing – overshoes – but by this point was getting pretty warm. Ideal conditions basically.

The Etape du Dales was my biggest objective of the year. It was, above all else, the thing I’d been training for. However, I almost totally screwed up on the day by getting my tactics wrong. As with many tough sportives, strong riders often set off late and then try to see how many parties they can catch on the way round the course. I got there a bit late and decided I’d just join the strong guys. Meeting Andy Cunningham (7th in national hill climbing champs, multiple hill climb records, all round animal) who I knew well from the Spring training camps was an ominous sign for what was about to go down. I set off a few minutes ahead of Andy and the Harrogate Nova guys who currently hold the course record, just to make sure I wasn’t racing hard out of the gate. About 20 minutes later I was caught by the Nova train and then immediately we were on to Fleet Moss, the first big climb of the day. I climbed alongside Andy, cresting the hill just behind him.

The big difference between us was that he was cruising, but I was absolutely dying behind my sunglasses.

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Trying to hold on to the flying Andy.

We screamed down the hill and while some guys stopped at the first checkpoint I kept rolling to try and recover from the onslaught a bit. I rode steadily up Buttertubs and down Swaledale but then the train was back and we were screaming out of Swaledale on one of the ‘unknown’ viscous climbs of the day.

I was hurting hard as we went through and off into a fearsome headwind, and soon I was missing my turns.

Miles of headwind followed and I was dropped from the group. This was where the problems started. My big issue was that no one who we’d caught could work for me, basically nobody was going quick enough for me to still finish in under 7 hours. So I worked like a dog into the wind, feeling sick and with no one coming through and a growing group of people following my wheel as I picked up riders ahead. At the next check point I was in trouble but I ate a lot, drank a lot, and didn’t rush. Then I was back on the road, still riding effectively solo. About an hour later though and I got a good partnership going with a strong rider, and we each worked hard to the final checkpoint, which I rode straight past. I had an hour for the last 20 miles, and by now I had a tailwind. It was still possible to make the time gap, but it would be balls out. I rode as hard as I could for the last hour, now completely on my own, and screamed into the finish knowing it’d be super close. I’d managed it with a minute to spare. I was delighted. It was the hardest ride I’d ever done given how I’d had to ride it: as hard as I could basically all day.­­

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The Etape du Dales. A hard day out.

Following the training camp I managed to get a KOM without too much difficulty. I found a great segment locally that favoured me – hilly but requiring multiple efforts with a bit of recovery between them – and which had no big hitters who’d yet ridden it hard. I rode at 180 bpm for 7 minutes and got the KOM. Another tick in the box!

I rode the flat TT – a pretty simple objective completed – but rode it badly so wasn’t particularly satisfied. As for the other TT, well that effectively marked the end of my cycling for the year. Overloaded and possibly with a bad bike setup I was in a bad way as I rode the TT and despite putting in a time on the way out which would have smashed my previous best my knee felt bad on the way back and so I abandoned. More on that below…

Running

For running I had two objectives: beat my long-standing 5k PB, and to do that bit better in some local fell races. I managed both of these, but not through doing any training! My fitness from all the cycling translated well into fell running fitness and I placed 12th, 14th, and 14th in the three races I did. I was very pleased with that and it was a big improvement over the top 25 finishes I’d been getting in previous years. My 5k PB fell when I came back from the Alps: I thought two weeks of altitude would have done my running fitness no harm, and so I set off to try and break 19.08. On an unfamiliar but flat Parkrun course I furiously tried to stay with the strong woman ahead of me, but she eventually pulled away. However, nearing the final bend I looked at my watch and could barely believe the time: I was going to do it! 18.53 was the official result, 15 seconds off my previous best. That was a good Saturday morning.

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Liz on a sunny training run round Langdale.

As an aside, back in Feburuary I managed to find a suitably niche event that I could do fairly well at. It was a duathlon which combined cross country running with a punchy bike course, and it was all over in just over an hour which is perfect for me. I was fourth in both running legs but third on the bike and so came second overall. The winner was super strong, being fastest on the bike (he was a Cat 2 rider) and second quickest runner too. That was my best ever position in a solo race, so I was psyched.

Climbing

My climbing objectives were pretty poorly defined. However, I’ve had the best climbing year I can remember, so that turned out to be no bad thing. I’m never going to be a good climber, partly because – unlike with cycling and running – I’m not particularly driven by pure performance and am more into it for good times. The other reason is I don’t train properly and am a big wuss.

However, I’ve had a lot of fun climbing this year, which definitely counts for something.

I’ve climbed amazing routes all over the UK and some spectacular routes in the Alps too. A day bouldering with good mates at Burbage, climbing 400 metres of bolted granite in the Alps in under 3 hours, Northumberland rock, loads of gritstone, Pembroke… it’s been awesome. I’ve also done a lot more plastic pulling than in previous years, and for the first time ever have learnt to enjoy indoor leading. I’ve always enjoyed indoor bouldering, but indoor leading makes you a lot fitter, rather than just stronger. That’s definitely helped on longer routes.

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The Cobbler. A fantastic mountain in a fantastic setting.

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Climbing at Peel Crag and Crag Lough: totally fantastic and yet deserted!

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Belay duty for Ross in the Alps.

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Liz gets to work on a pretty steep Pembroke VS.

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Dave Macleod: inspiration personified.

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That moment when you’re trying really hard but your spotters don’t seem to care.

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The end of a great day out.

Injuries

The above list reads like a huge line of successes, and I suppose it has been. I’ve ticked every objective that I had for the year with one major exception. My first objective was ‘don’t get injured’. It’s always my first objective, it’s always impossible, but this year’s been worse than most. In January I had a back injury but that’s now cleared up thanks to some excellent physio, a lot of core exercises to turn off my previously inactive deep abdominals, a lot of hamstring stretching, and a bit of fiddling over the bike setup. However, the big one which I’ve now had since about May-time is in my right knee. Broadly speaking it’s patellofemoral pain, and it’s a pain in the arse. Knee. I’ve not ridden my bike apart from to work for over 6 months now, and haven’t run save for the odd jog for the same time. However, it doesn’t affect climbing or hill walking one bit, which is partly why they’ve prospered. A lot of physio, two professional bike fits, and literally hundreds of hours of stretching haven’t fixed it yet, but it is slowly, oh so slowly, getting better. I think a combination of factors including overload and bad bike setup caused it, but it’s been a massive downer for the second half of the year. Objective for 2018? Simple: fix my knee.

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A bonus winter day: a great way to finish the year’s big days out was a day out on North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor. A long day, but a good one.

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Smart fibres and smart fabrics

A little while ago I was asked to speak on a panel discussing smart fibres at a fabric conference/show. Unfortunately I was unable to attend but I wrote a mini essay on the subject. It’s copied below, and I’ve stuck in some photos to try and illustrate the point.

Fibres which thermoregulate are the dream ticket – we don’t want fibres to keep us warm or cool, but fibres which do both. These are real ‘smart’ fibres. Historically, in technical textiles we have always been trying to protect, be it Gore-Tex, down clothing, or windproof fabrics.

We have been trying to reduce the impact of the surroundings on the wearer. This is borne of the ancient beliefs in the fear of outside, the alien, that the world is a threat.

In spacesuits, deep-sea diving suits, high altitude clothing, and polar expedition gear these assumptions might well be true. But in the everyday, even in potentially hostile environments like the mountains, perhaps we should be shifting to a position where fibres, fabrics and clothing are more about enhancing the interaction with the environment rather than limiting them. In practice, this means enhancing or amplifying the body’s exceptional thermoregulatory capacity, rather than limiting it.

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On days like this you want to keep everything out, you want nothing getting in. Suit of armour, spacesuit, whatever. But these days are relatively unusual, and more often you want some degree with interaction with the environment.

Humans are extremely well adapted to prevent overheating. This is imperative, as while our core temperature can drop by more than 5 °C with no lasting effects, a rise in temperature of 5 °C is often fatal. Yet to survive the cold latitudes in which many of us live we wear clothing. This clothing protects against the cold, but it inhibits our most powerful thermoregulatory response: sweating. In effect we have replaced one evil – being too cold – with another: inhibition of cooling ourselves. And this is why fibres which thermoregulate, or enhance our ability to thermoregulate, are crucial.

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Why would you want to keep all this out? Smart materials and smart design let you interact when you want to, but keeps out the nasty stuff when you have to.

We don’t want a barrier, a suit of armour: we want something that allows us to interact with the environment.

If we go back to the early mountaineers they wore clothing which was mainly made from natural fibres such as silk and, particularly, wool. Their clothing allowed basic interaction with the environment. One way a material can interact is to be ‘smart’. Wool in particular seems a pretty smart fibre and adapts constantly to its environment: it has a huge heat of adsorption, greater than many of the manmade fibres which have been developed that boast smart properties. One can sometimes see steam coming from piles of sheared wool as rain falls. When worn, this latent heat is fantastic in that it can keep a user dry in damp conditions, but the problem comes if the user is overheating: they sweat into the wool and it gets hotter! That isn’t smart. Many of the ‘modern’ smart synthetic fibres boast the same properties.

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Another great example of interaction with an environment is an umbrella. The all-over Gore-Tex suit, less so.

There are plenty of other interesting limitations borne of the current ‘smart’ fibres. For example, wicking can prevent cooling: the body loses heat by sweat evaporating from the skin, and the greater the distance between the site of evaporation and the skin, the greater the reduction in sweating’s efficacy. This effect is magnified as the environmental temperature rises. Thus, wicking fibres which transport sweat far from the skin may well increase comfort by reducing chafing, reducing the feeling of skin wetness, etc., but they don’t necessarily aid thermoregulation. If used correctly, however, they can allow sweat to stay near to the skin, while spreading sweat over a large area and thus maximising cooling. This is an example where the fibre isn’t the key, but the ways that the fibres interact: this is fabric design.

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In environments like this, no one is thinking about the fibres or the polymers their clothes are made from: it’s all about the design of the garments themselves.

Much of the big talk over the last two years has been about air permeability and the resulting comfort.

This is a huge step in the right direction: it’s no longer about us versus the hostile environment; it’s about us interacting with it.

Air permeability, however, is not so much a fibre property as a fabric property. And fibres and fabrics are only a small part of the answer: a factor that makes textiles and performance clothing so exciting is the number of factors that influence performance. There are more hierarchical steps than in almost any other science. Polymers are the building blocks. There are more possibilities with polymers than we perhaps realise. We can change the polymer, the molecular weight, distribution, blends… there is so much potential. After that is the fibre. Old fibre production techniques still offer new possibilities, and relatively new fields like electrospinning are in such infancy that they offer near-limitless opportunities. Fibres go on to make fabrics, and here again are countless ways to innovate. Fabrics are where brands start to pay attention, and it their job to make sure they use the positive aspects of those fabrics to make garments which enhance those properties. The garments must also allow interaction with their environment and not merely try to barricade against it. Interaction with environment is the key to smart materials.

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Humans are amazing. We need to try to amplify our ability to thermoregulate, rather than shutting it off.