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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Baselayer science

Baselayer science is more hardcore than a Pussycat Dolls video. It’s more difficult than reading quantum mechanics, in Chinese, while solving a Rubik’s cube using your nose. But, like a rhinoceros in ballet pumps, I’m going to dive right in, before these similes get any worse.

Why are baselayers important?

I’d argue that a baselayer is the most important clothing layer that you wear. Why? Because it’s next to your skin. You wear it all day long, unless you plan to go streaking, and comfort is measured at the skin level, not on the inside of your waterproof jacket.

A good baselayer can be used year-round and in every activity from cycling to mountaineering – there’s not many garments you can do that with.

A baselayer can be used for pretty much anything. Here's a 'running' baselayer going via ferrata-ing.

A baselayer can be used for pretty much anything. Here’s a ‘running’ baselayer going via ferrata-ing.

What is the job of a baselayer?

The classic answer to this is ‘to wick sweat away’. You could counter this statement by saying that merino baselayers – which have an excellent reputation – wick pretty badly. You could also argue that Helly Hansen’s classic polypropylene Lifa fabrics do not wick at all, yet a lot of runners still think they’re the best baselayers on the market. In short, I think wicking is a bit of a misnomer with baselayers. Here are the four criteria I think are important for baselayers:

  • They must keep you dry
  • They must keep you at a comfortable temperature
  • They should smell, look, and feel nice. They also need to fit (which is part of 1, 2, and 3).
  • They must be durable and easy to care for

Note that nowhere in that list is ‘keep you warm’ – a baselayer should not try to hold in masses of heat, as you can’t take it off easily in most situations (particularly if you’re female).

If you are too cold, you can put layers on top, but providing lots of insulation is the job of your midlayer(s), not your baselayer.

The classic boulder look of t-shirt and hat... you don't need a baselayer because you never sweat enough to warrant one.

The classic boulder look of t-shirt and hat… you don’t need a baselayer because you never sweat enough to warrant one.

Keeping you dry

This is where people will be shouting “wicking!! Wicking!!” …and they’d be… sort-of right. If a baselayer must keep you dry then it should allow direct evaporation of moisture from the skin to the atmosphere or into your clothes and/or it should be able to wick sweat from the skin. The level of absorbency of the fibre is also important – of the common fibres used in clothing, cotton absorbs the most water, wool next, then polyester, then polypropylene. If you are not exercising, and are instead sat at a desk in a comfortable environment, any of the above fibres will keep you dry enough, but if you start sweating more (maybe your boss arrives at your desk and tells you that you are fired; alternatively you leave your desk and run up and down the stairs for fifteen minutes) then the cotton will become saturated – the wet-t shirt look – as it absorbs huge amounts of liquid; the wool will also absorb a lot of sweat, thus taking a long time to dry. The polypropylene, meanwhile, even when saturated, will have only absorbed a fraction of the sweat, meaning it dries faster. Why is keeping dry important? Because it feels horrible to have wet skin, and wet clothing makes you cold (see here).

Under shoulder straps you are bound to get wet from sweat - if the baselayer doesn't absorb water in the first place, or wicks it asap to other parts of the fabric, then you'll be better off.

Under shoulder straps you are bound to get wet from sweat – if the baselayer doesn’t absorb water in the first place, or wicks it asap to other parts of the fabric, then you’ll be better off.

Direct evaporation is all about the air getting to your skin, and is a combination of lots of different factors including the type of knit used in the fabric, the thickness of the fabric, the way it fits… it is really complicated. However, the way I think of it is simple – a lightweight and open fabric will allow more direct evaporation of liquid from your skin. So, a Brynje-type mesh top will allow huge amounts of air onto your skin to transport moisture away super-fast, a lightweight Helly-Hansen top will do the same, but an ‘expedition weight’ baselayer weighing 300 g will not.

Wicking is a whole other subject in itself, but wicking (capillary wicking if you are feeling clever, and do feel clever, you deserve it) is the spontaneous transport of liquid that occurs when liquid would rather come into contact with a solid surface, than more liquid like it. Imagine the liquid to be like a group of desperate male blokes, who would rather spread out to meet women than keep each other’s company. What people forget with wicking is that there are two types – transverse wicking and planar wicking. Both are important, but one is useless without the other.

Remember, no matter how many clothes you've got on, it's the one nearest skin that impacts most on comfort.

Remember, no matter how many clothes you’ve got on, it’s the one nearest skin that impacts most on comfort.

Transverse wicking is the movement of liquid from one side of a fabric to the other, such as from your skin-side to the face-fabric side. This one is crucial, and is what keeps your skin dry in the absence of air flow. Planar wicking is what allows transverse wicking to work faster, moving sweat from high concentrations to low concentrations through the plane of the fabric (eg. from the armpit to the side of your torso), enabling more surface area to get rid of the sweat.

Small diameter fibres in a fabric lead to greater number of channels for sweat to flow through, and small channels between these fibres are more attractive than big ones, making wicking happen faster. Wicking is also sped up by increasing the cross-sectional area of fibres (fibres such as Coolmax are shaped almost like a key, with loads of notches along them). As a result, not all polyesters are equal, and that £50 baselayer might well be a whole lot better at moving sweat than the £3 one from Tesco (remember that the diameter of the fibre, the shape of the fibre, the coatings on it, the way it is knitted, and the weight of the fabric all impact on performance). In general, polyester and wool wick well; polypropylene less so.

So, to keep dry, let’s just say that a baselayer should allow for direct evaporation (it should be as open as possible), should wick (needs the right type of fibre), and shouldn’t absorb too much water (should be thin, lightweight, and not cotton!)

 

Keeping you at a comfortable temperature

This one is seriously hardcore, but bear with it (I told you it was a Pussycat Dolls video, didn’t I? This is possibly more like Rihanna and Beyonce starring in an advert for Cravendale). Obviously, to be at a nice temperature you shouldn’t get too hot, or too cold, and we’ll deal with them in turn:

Plenty of baselayers, all trying to do the same thing - keeping you dry.

Plenty of baselayers, all trying to do the same thing – keeping you dry.

If you risk getting too hot, wicking is bad. Yes, bad.

That’s because sweat that doesn’t evaporate is useless – it hasn’t evaporated so hasn’t cooled you down. Direct evaporation, however, is good, as all that sweat has evaporated and that cools you off.

If you risk getting too cold, wicking is good, as your sweat does not evaporate and instead moves away slowly. That direct evaporation, however, suddenly becomes a nightmare and you get too cold too fast as your sweat ’vaps away.

So, we’ve now got a position where the two things are in opposition! What do I do on a day when I might get too hot and too cold, such as any day out in the UK hills?!

The answer is that you can’t win, and therefore I’m going to argue that the most important criteria for a baselayer to keep you at a comfortable temperature is to use a thin one, thus minimising the amount of moisture it will absorb, reducing the chance of you overheating, reducing the distance that moisture has to wick, and also making your midlayers more useful.

Smell, look, and feel

Some synthetic tops get a really bad reputation amongst their owners, and perhaps amongst their owners’ families, for stinking. This is often justified. Merino wool, however, stinks far less often, and that’s because wool is amazing, nature’s second most incredible composite (after feathers). In short, no matter how fancy a coating is applied to a synthetic fabric, merino is the way to go if you want to wear your top for long periods. If I go backpacking my synthetic baselayers will be seriously offensive after 3 days; after 7 days I’d come back and probably not even bother washing my merino ones.

Look and aesthetics of a baselayer is down to your taste, and beyond the scope of this blog, but one point worth making is super-tight baselayers look better on people they fit – if they are super-tight because you are super fat it may cause offence. Also, no one looks good in mesh.

This is my dad. His Helly Hansen baselayer is much older than me: durable.

This is my dad. His Helly Hansen baselayer is much older than me: durable.

The feel of a fabric is important, and some people argue that merino fabrics feel itchy. I think that’s probably because you’ve bought a rubbish one. Prickle and tickle from fabrics result from stiff fibres sticking into you or from roughness on the fibre surfaces. British wool is coarser than merino, but merino is often as thin as synthetic fibres used in baselayers, so really shouldn’t be a problem. However, if you know that even fine merino feels itchy for you, then don’t buy it.

Durability and ease of care

This is where there’s another real difference between wool and synthetic fibres: wool is not as durable, and is harder to care for than polyester or polypropylene. I have synthetic baselayers that I have worn over 300 times and that look ‘as new’, yet woollen baselayers of the same vintage have holes at the cuffs and bobbled shoulders. Synthetics are also easier to wash – just stick them in the washing machine and they aren’t fussy, they dry quickly, and usually don’t mind being tumble dried. Merino tops tend to be picky on these points, but this is countered by their awesome resistance to stench, meaning they don’t need to be washed as often. If you are washing your merino baselayers after every wear I’d urge you not to – your bills, your clothing, and the environment will much prefer it if you only wash them when they actually need it (eg. stained, filthy, sweat patches, etc.).

Getting dirtier than the Pussycat Dolls. This baselayer's been shredded over the years yet is still going strong - synthetics will outlast most merino ones.

Getting dirtier than the Pussycat Dolls. This baselayer’s been shredded over the years yet is still going strong – synthetics will outlast most merino ones.

What baselayer should I buy?

Now at risk of repeating myself, I’m going to say your most important priority should be to buy a thin and lightweight baselayer, regardless of what activity you are doing. If you are going somewhere cold then use a thicker midlayer, or two baselayers. Beyond that…

Here's two baselayers being used - Helly underneath and merino one as insulation- it's doing the job of a midlayer.

Here’s two baselayers being used – Helly underneath and merino one as insulation- it’s doing the job of a midlayer.

If you are going to be working hard and sweating a lot – synthetic, as it absorbs less water than wool. Polypropylene or mesh polyester are possibly the best.

If you are going on a long trip without easy washing facilities – merino all the way, or your friends will disown you.

If you are going to be wearing the baselayer as your only layer all day – think of your friends; don’t go for that outrageously tight mesh baselayer. Also, if you’re in the sun, you can get awful sun burn (as demonstrated once by well known peddler, Chris Froome.)

If you are going to be wearing stuff over your baselayer all day – mesh! It’s the best on allowing direct evaporation of water from the skin and polyester meshes also wick very well.

If you have limited budget – buy the best one you can in a sale, and get a synthetic one as it should last for ages and will be cheaper at point of sale. Make sure it fits you and buy a colour that you actually like, or you’ll buy two and so spend more.

If I could only have one baselayer – I’d have a synthetic one with long sleeves and a zip to mid-torso, in a lightweight fabric.

My dream baselayer – synthetic again, with long sleeves and long zip, with a under-helmet hood, and weighing 150 g in a size medium. They’re rarer than hen’s teeth, though – mine was ordered from Canada by a friend of a friend. And, it is absolutely amazing.

This is the best baselayer that you can buy.

This is the best baselayer that you can buy.

Conclusions

I hope this has proven useful. Baselayers are really complicated, but it’s worth realising that wicking is not the whole story, and that each fibre has its place. I think if there’s one thing worth remembering, it’s that baselayers are there to keep you at a decent temperature, and to keep you dry – they’re not to keep you warm, as that’s the job of a midlayer. When it comes to buying time, think about what you’ll use it for, what sort of trips you go on, and whether you can pull off the mesh baselayer look…