Monday, 29 August 2011

The Ultimate... in Ceramic Bearings

I have to admit to being sceptical of the benefits of using ceramic bearings in my bike. I've tried them before over the years with varying degrees of success. I've used both low and high grade ones in my bottom bracket and wheels, and it was easy to tell the difference between them.

But the real question has always been – are they worth the extra cost over standard stainless steel bearings? I suppose that will depend on what type of rider you are and how much small performance boosts mean to you. As an 'elite' rider and riding in events where every second and every watt of power is important, I look for any and every way to maximise the performance of my equipment.

Recently, I have had the chance to deal with a UK-based company that specialises in ceramic bearings. Everything from jockey wheels to bottom bracket and wheel bearings – and everything in between. I got in touch with them due to their outstanding reputation for providing top-quality equipment and some of the best ceramic bearings in the business (and reading that they provide the ceramic bearings for Bradley Wiggins' TT bike). Plus I wanted to work with a local company – and not one halfway around the world.

I managed to source a few items from them for my new time trial bike – some ceramic bearings for my Zipp disc wheel and their very ingenious BB30 to BB24 ceramic bottom bracket adaptor cups. After losing a World Cup time trial by a mere 0.4 seconds earlier this year, I wanted to make sure that all my bases are covered and if I can scrape back that time through better equipment – I will.

The benefits of ceramic bearings revolve around the hardness of the balls used – they roll better and last longer and offer much less resistance than steel bearings – so less energy is wasted. We are not talking about massive energy savings – but as I've personally experience, every second DOES count.

BB30 to BB24 adaptor cups
Upon receiving my bearings and bottom bracket cups, one of the first things I noticed was that they were actually lighter than standard steel bearings. Again, not much – but we're talking about small items. The more noticeable weight difference was in the bottom bracket cups. And I was very pleased when I just held the bottom bracket in my hands and gave the bearings a spin – it seemed to continue to spin on it's own for ages!

Installation was a relatively easy process. It helps to know what you are doing when it comes to replacing wheel bearings, but essentially it's a matter of tapping out the old ones and tapping the new ones into place. The bottom bracket installation was even simpler – the new cups merely press directly into the frame. Nothing to screw in. (I did use a rubber mallet to tap them securely into the frame).

Bearings available in a multitude of sizes
After putting the crankset through the bottom bracket, I removed the chain and did a spin test. The crankset seemed to spin freely for ages! This was a marked difference to the standard bottom bracket I was using before – which put up a fair amount of resistance. The same could be said for the disc wheel – just by holding up the wheel and giving it a spin – I could immediately tell the wheel spun a lot more smoothly than before.

And so... it was off to one of the fastest time trial courses in the country to give the new bearings a real world test. I was eager to see if I would be able to feel any difference on the bike, and if there would be any noticeable performance benefit from the new bearings.

And the verdict is in: a whopping 45 second improvement over 10 miles today! It would be great if I could attribute ALL of this to new bearings, but that would be pushing it. But there is no doubt that smooth bearings in my bottom bracket and wheels attributed to a much faster ride.

If you are in the market for some top quality bearings, jockey wheels, bottom bracket, etc – I highly recommend you check out the folks at Ultimate Ceramic Bearings ( – and I'd like to publicly thank them for all their assistance as I head off (in a week) to the World Championships. 

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Being a loser is sometimes a good thing

The dust has settled and the scars are now healed. It has been a long and spirited campaign, but in the end I lost out. Or did I?

In July I travelled to Canada for the final round of the Paracyling World Cup. I had a slim lead in the competition and wanted to try and secure the overall victory. But I knew it was going to be one of the toughest challenges I have faced to date.

The event was held in Baie Comeau, Quebec - site of the 2010 Road World Championships and run on the same course – a testing circuit featuring the hardest climb I have ever faced in a race; the same circuit that almost made me want to give up cycling. I have no problem admitting I was scared about facing the course again.

But I also had hope. I am almost 10kg lighter and certainly a lot fitter than I was the last time I raced up that hill (5 times). I knew it was going to be difficult, but maybe, just maybe – this time I would hang in there. At least enough to get the points I needed to win the overall title.

Myself and Mark Rohan made the long journey across the pond to represent Ireland. As we were the only two competitors leading our categories in the World Cup, the rest of the team were left behind for this event. Mark ended up winning both his races and became the first and only athlete to win all 6 races in the World Cup series. The guy is unbelievable.

First up was the time trial. Unlike the World Championships last summer, the TT wasn't held on the same course as the road race this time around. Having to time trial (twice) up a 15% climb wasn't my idea of fun so I was happy to see they had made the course a bit more accommodating. However, it was still a climber's course and less suited to a power rider who goes fast on the flat like myself. Lots of small uphill sections and one big long drag meant that it would test my TT abilities to the max.

I have been training and racing all year with the aid of a power meter. In particular it helps me pace my TT efforts, ensuring that I don't go too hard or too easy and has helped me produce some stellar results. However, when race day approached, the equipment failed. This meant that I would have to ride 'blind' and go on feel. And on a hilly course like this one, a very difficult proposition.

The race was over two laps of a 8.6km hilly circuit. I set off and quickly tried to get into my rhythm. The first portion of the course is a long uphill drag, so was difficult to get comfortable. At the top of the climb, the circuit entered a residential area with some tight, technical and high speed sections and turns. I actually enjoyed this portion of the course, navigating 90 degree bends at high speed and looking for the best line to the next turn.

After the first lap the top 5 riders were all within 10 seconds of each other. But I was starting to hurt. Riding up the sharp hills was taking its toll on my legs, and not having any feedback on how much power I was putting out was making it difficult to get my pacing right. I was going too hard up the hills and not hard enough on the downhill sections. But I powered on, hopeful that I was still doing a solid ride.

I crossed the finish line completely empty. But I was only 5th. Sheer and utter disappointment on my part. I had expected much better from myself. The race was actually won by the talented German rider, Tobias Graf. I had beaten him by over a minute in the last round of the World Cup on a flat course in Spain. He had taken almost a minute out of ME on the hilly course in Canada. Just goes to show how much of a difference the right course can make.

I had a day off to recover before having to regroup for the road race. As mentioned previously, it was held on the same circuit as the Worlds last year. After the TT I still held a very small lead in the World Cup standings over a Spanish rider. Therefore, my goal in the road race was to try and stick as close to him as possible, marking his every move, and try and finish within 2 places of him. This would secure me the overall win that I so desperately wanted.

The race started and we were off. I had no problems staying with the main group of riders up the initial (smaller) climbs. But it was the main climb that I was worried about. As we hit the bottom of the 'big' hill I surged to the front, trying to take every advantage I could. The pack rode up the first part of the hill at a sensible pace, but as the road briefly levelled out before kicking up again, everyone powered forward and I found myself in difficulty. I knew that if I went too far into the red to try and stay with them I would pay for it later. I stuck to my own pace, slowly being distanced – but not nearly as quickly as I had been last summer on the same climb.

I crested the top of the hill and began my chase in earnest. Fortunately – I go downhill very quickly, so was able to catch back up to the main group within a few miles. But I had wasted valuable energy chasing back on. And this was to be the story of my day. Each lap I would get dropped going up the climb and each time I would chase back on. But each lap the time it took me to catch the pack grew and grew. They would get further and further up the road before I would finally catch the tail end of them and get some respite. By the final lap I only managed to catch up to them less than a mile from the base of main climb! Hardly enough time to catch my breath before being buried again going uphill.

On the 3rd lap, when I rode myself back into the bunch, I noticed that the Spaniard that I was chasing was no longer in the bunch. I rode up to one of the Brits I know and asked him if anyone had ridden off the front of the bunch. He told me 'no'. I was elated! He must have dropped out somewhere along the route while I had been chasing back on. All I had to do was finish the race and the title would be mine.

And so... the final lap was almost over. Once again I was off the back, chasing to try and catch up, but the mammoth effort of chasing down the other riders 5 times in a row had taken it's toll. I could see the riders in the distance, but I wasn't going to catch them before the finish line. Still, thinking that I had won the overall title kept me going and raised my spirits. I crossed the finish line alone in 7th place with one arm weakly raised in a victory salute.

Compared to the 18th place I finished on the same course last summer (over 12 minutes down from the winner), 7th place (and less than 2 minutes down on the winner) was a massive step forward – especially considering that I had ridden a large portion of the race on my own. 

As I went to find my coach and manager my elation soon turned to disappointment. I was informed that the Spaniard who I had been trying to keep tabs on.... hadn't dropped out of the race. In fact, he had ridden away from the entire bunch and gone on a solo breakaway. And while they managed to reel him back in, he still managed to cross the finish line 10 seconds before anyone else. And in doing so had secured enough points to rip the overall title away from me. I had travelled all that way... and lost.

I have to admit I was inconsolable at first. But I felt the worst for the people that had taken time out of their lives to come along on this trip to support me – my coach, the manager and our mechanic. I felt I had let them down. They didn't feel that way of course, but it's hard to understand these things in the heat of the moment.

It was in the days that followed that I began to put things into perspective. Yes, I had 'lost' the World Cup title. But I had still come second in the overall standings. Yes, second. Second in the entire world across a whole race series. I had won one gold and two silver medals. I had beaten my previous time by 10 minutes on the toughest course I had ever faced. And I had shown that I could race with best in the world.

Furthermore, losing the TT (on a hilly course) and finishing as far back as I did was a bit of a wake up call. Had I not experienced that, I might have gone to the World Championships later this year thinking that I had it 'in the bag'. But now I'm more realistic (the World's course is also hilly this year) and know how much more work I will have to do to win. I still know I have what it takes to win this year, I just need to train harder and prepare for the specific type of course that I'll be riding. 

And that's how being a loser is a good thing. It may just turn me into a big-time winner. – Customer Service Extradordinaire

Being an amateur cyclist can be a tough road. Not only do you have to do all the training and put in the hours, but you have to find ways to gain every last second you can on the road – by the way of the best equipment you can get ahold of.

Now this may seem like a simple concept, but when you have limited funds, you sometimes have to rely on the kindness of others to get the bits you need. I am constantly begging companies to help me out in any way they feel comfortable. Usually this comes in the form of discounts or advice and it can be just a one-off transaction.

But occasionally I get the chance to be associated with a company that goes above and beyond. And they don't just treat ME this way – they treat all their customers with the same level of professionalism and service. And that has been my experience with (

The man behind Cyclepowermeters is Bob Tobin – and he knows pretty much everything there is to know about power measurement. We're talking Powertaps, Quarqs, SRMs, Ergomo – if you need a system to measure your power output on the bike – Bob is your man.

I first had the opportunity to deal with this company a few years ago when I was looking to try out a Powertap wheel and see if there was any benefit to my training. They offer most power measurement systems for rental (at great prices) so that you try them out without committing to buying one (which can be an expensive proposition in some cases). I hired out a wheel for 3 months and I was hooked. It revolutionised the way that I trained and my riding immediately improved. I have been hooked ever since.

Earlier this year I went back to the good folks at Cyclepowermeters to see if they could help me out with a crank-based power measurement system as I needed something that I could use on both my race and TT bike in both training and racing scenarios. Powertap wheels are great, but impractical for TT racing. A crank-based system ticks all the boxes though.

With the aid of Bob's second in command – Rachel Lloyd – they helped me secure a new crank-based system as well as sourcing a very hard to find crank arm to suit my special needs. Once again, my training and racing improved as I was getting feedback not just from training rides, but also from races.

When I had problems with the unit (manufacturer defect) they replaced it no questions asked – the same day. When the replacement unit also failed a few weeks later and I decided to move to a different system – they once again helped me out. No questions asked. And when there was a delay in getting the new system, they arranged for a replacement system for me to use in the meantime. No questions asked.

I have dealt with many companies in my cycling career. Most with be happy to help you out, answer all your questions and smile politely for you. Right up to the point that you purchase something. But after that they move on and it can be difficult to get any sort of follow up service. Bob and Rachel and the exception to the rule – always there and always helpful. (But they ARE busy so sometimes they can't answer your call or email on the spot so if you can't get ahold of them immediately, they don't worry. They WILL get back to you!)

There is no one else in the UK (or Ireland) that does what they do. So... if you want to rent or buy a power meter of any kind – they are the folks to talk to. Great prices and great service. Can't recommend them any more than this.

If you need any more information email or call their sales/rental team on 01788 556860 - and they will be happy to help you.

Cyclepowermeters Ltd
18 Arches Business Centre, Mill Road
Rugby, Warwickshire, England, CV21 1QW
Callers by appointment only
Office opening times
Mon-Fri 9.00-5.00

Telephone: +44 (0) 1788 556860
Fax: +44 (0) 1788 556869

Sales/AccountsAmanda TobinTel. +44(0) 1788-556862
Technical / Sales/PurchasingBob TobinTel. +44(0) 1788-556863
Sales/Office AdminRachel LloydTel. +44(0) 1788-556860

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

It takes a little luck and lot of hard work

I've been in a lot of (able-bodied) road races in my brief cycling career and most of them have gone the same way. I suppose I have made a fair bit of progress from a few years ago when I would get dropped almost right away and would either go home early with my tail between my legs or struggle on through the entire race on my own – usually getting lapped by the field several times (depending on the size of the circuit).

In the past year I have gotten a lot fitter and stronger and have managed to stick with the pack for the entire race and sometimes if the circuit was flat enough – managed to attempt to sprint it out for a placing at the end. I think I managed a 6th place in one of these races which to me... was a win.

To preface this story – I must admit that this particular race I'll be writing about here was a Vet's race; everyone in the field was over 40 (and most over 50). Don't get me wrong – these races are not easy as these guys have been racing for years and are strong. I have struggled to maintain the pace at times and it certainly is no Sunday training ride. But I've found that the level of my disability puts me nicely in the middle of this group with so serious advantage or disadvantage.

I've watched a LOT of cycling on the TV – probably thousands of hours. Most races seem to go the same way: early on a group of riders will try and break away from the main group, then spend all day out front building a substantial gap before being reeled in and caught before the finish line. Sometimes it's a few miles from the finish, other times it's a few hundred meters from the end. Very rarely does a breakaway get away and STAY away all the way to the end.

I have long fancied 'getting in the break' in one of these races. However, I have very poor race sense. I usually come to the front very early on and manage to try and jump into every move right from the start – inevitably burning myself out early on making jump after jump – and then missing the actual break that gets away while I'm sitting at the back of the pack recovering! Still, it hasn't stopped me from having a go. Much better to try and fail then to just sit in the pack the whole race and finish with everyone else.

The bunch rolls out to the start
So, getting back to the race in question... as I rolled up to the start I was feeling great; fresh and ready to have a serious go at this one. As the riders rolled through the neutralised start area (a mile or so), I slowly made my way up towards the front of the bunch. When the flag dropped and the race began in earnest, I was nicely positioned a few riders back from the front – and able to see everything that developed.

A few riders immediately had a dig and tried to get away – but nothing doing. Then the second wave went with just one or two people. I decided to do my usual thing and immediately jumped across. We started to get a gap but the pack reeled us back in. 

Then another rider went off the front – not quickly but just slowly powering away. I jumped across to his wheel and began to work with him to build up a gap. When I looked around to see who was chasing, I was surprised to see the answer was no one! They had decided to let us 'go'.

I think a few people in the bunch must have looked at me (the guy with one leg) and the other rider (someone who hadn't done a lot in races before so wasn't considered a threat) as two people that wouldn't get far on their own – so we were given some room to ride. They never thought we'd make it to the finish together, ahead of the bunch. This was to prove a fatal mistake.

The other rider (Ewart Howkins of Weaver Valley CC) is a big guy. Well over 6 feet tall and built like a track sprinter. Possibly not the best physique for road racing, but looks like he could tear my legs off me (pardon he expression) in a flat out sprint. I assumed (and said this to him) that if we got to the finish together, I would be happy with 2nd place as there was no way I could outsprint him to the line.

And so we kept at it. Each taking a turn driving on the pace at the front. Building the gap mile after mile. Soon the pack were nowhere to be seen and we were well and truly out in front. I began to believe that we might actually make it to the finish first. And even began to try and formulate a plan on how I might try and win the race for myself. But just didn't think that I could get away from Ewart at any point.

Fast forward to the last few miles. We were still working together, but both very tired. I could see the pack now closing in (but they had been doing so slowly for miles). We still had an advantage but it was quickly running out. I was starting to panic and giving everything I had left to get us to the finish line. Ewart was also clearly struggling as every time he came to the front to do a turn, I could see he was going slowly.

Ewart and I in the break
The finish was at the top of a motorway overpass – which meant a slight uphill sprint to the line. This type of finish really doesn't suit me as I struggle to go fast when the road goes uphill (even a little bit). It's why I was convinced I had no shot at winning the race. I also knew I had to get up that little hill before the pack caught us or they would ride straight past me.

I didn't want to be one of those guys who spends all day out in the break – only to be caught within sight of the finish line and gets passed by the entire bunch. So, with one last glance behind me to verify that the bunch was breathing down our necks, I yelled at Ewart that this was it and we had to go NOW. I launched myself off his back when and powered around him as we hit the base of the final climb to the finish line.

Head down, I put every last ounce of energy into stomping on the pedals. I got about halfway up the hill before my leg(s) just about gave out, but didn't stop. I just kept on going, oblivious to the pain. I expected Ewart to come flying by me at any second to take the win, but it didn't happen. 

And just like that... I crossed the finish line. FIRST. It wasn't pretty – there was no moment of sitting up and raising my hands in the air for the photographers. It was ugly. But it was a win. Within a few seconds the rest of the bunch came roaring past me – but it didn't matter. I had gotten to that line before them and taken my first win in a road race.

Many of the riders came to congratulate me afterwards (something that meant a great deal to me). Speaking to Ewart later on, he told me that he had suffered from some saddle pain and just didn't have it in him to sprint up the hill (although he still held on for second place).

The moral of the story: don't ever underestimate the guy with one leg. He'll surprise you every time.