Col de la Croix de Fer

Slowly my body is readjusting to the demands of hard cycling and lessons are being learned. Yesterday I drove to the Maurienne valley and cycled up the Col du Glandon towards Alpe d’Huez. Before anything else I must say that the scenery here is stunning. It’s incredibly wild and big but also classic “Apline” in nature. Only when you get above the tree line at around 1800m does it start to become desolate. This is part of the route of the forthcoming Etape du Tour and I wanted to familiarise myself with this part of the route. I know the Col de la Madeleine very well but had only ever climbed the Col du Glandon from the other side and saw nothing on the descent on this side due to being focused on survival . The climb is about 20km and joins up directly to the 2.5km climb to the Col de la Croix de Fer. The first 14km stretch is easy with no steep gradients but from 6km to the Glandon it steepens and I was quickly looking for the granny gear. I suspect that at this point many people will start to have a bad day on the Etape – especially as they have already climbed the 25km long Madeleine and probably pushed too hard with all of the excitement. The last three kilometres to the Glandon are particularly hard as the road winds up a steep wall. Fortunately the following climb to the Col de la Croix de Fer  is easy. When I got to the Glandon I looked over towards Bourg d’Oisans and saw rain falling about 20km away – but the sky was clear elsewhere. It only took 13 minutes to the to the Croix de Fer but the storm hit out of nowhere the moment I arrived. It had suddenly gone dangerously black – whcih at 2000m altitude on a carbon bike is not comforting. The weather looked even worse ahead and the winds were violent so this left no choice but to immediately backtrack all the way down to St Etiennes de Cuines where I started.  I’d wanted to do the complete final section of the Etape, with a couple more climbs including the big one to La Toussuire  – but that will have to be another day. It poured down on the descent for most of the way but once down that first 3km from the Col du Glandon the wind wasn’t an issue. My Sony Xperia phone was mounted on the handlebars as my sports tracking device and I discovered that it can survive a deluge with no protection – at least for half an hour! This is amazing technology! I managed to get back down to a warm lower altitude before becoming too chilled and then when I turned around at looked back up from the bottom there were no clouds. Very weird weather!




The recent experience at Time Mégève made it clear that metabolites are a major limiting factor in my performance and can leave me struggling to recover for days. With this in mind my main objective was to work on aerobic efficiency. Metabolites are a problem caused by crossing the lactic acid threshold and working too anaerobically. It’s hard to avoid this when you push hard but when you are fairly certain of drastic consequences then it might be more prudent to pace things accordingly. The entire workout was done with only nasal breathing. If you oblige yourself to breathe exclusively through the nose you will not go anaerobic for very long because you feel like you are going to suffocate. This is an automatic way of keeping yourself in the aerobic zone. There are of course all of the physical advantages of nasal breathing on top of this – all leading to better oxygenation of the tissues and brain and enhanced aerobic performance with consequently less lactic acid production. I’m planning on racing next Sunday and because it’s an endurance climbing race I’ll  oblige myself to nasal breathe and not allow the peloton to completely dictate my effort levels. There is always another peloton somewhere behind and I’m happy to wait for it and try to finish the race strongly instead of completely destroyed and everyone overtaking me anyway. If I can avoid coming in last then the nasal breathing will have been a success.


This is where things get interesting. I’d recently spotted in an old triathlon training book written by Iron Man champion Dave Scott that “elliptical” pedalling is generally more suitable for triathletes than “round” pedalling. I’d probably have not even spotted this before but as I now have dualcam (almost elliptical) chainrings then it caught my attention. It was also his description of “ankling” that caught my attention and the list of benefits – including a more streamlined upper body. Ankling is where the ankle is bent at the top of the pedal stroke and then extended though the push phase until at a max of around 120° to the leg at the bottom of the stroke. It’s obvious why the bent ankle at the top of the stroke will permit a flatter upper body – because the knee won’t come up so high. What isn’t mentioned is that the extended ankle at the bottom of the stroke also allows a higher saddle position and this contributes a lot to extra clearance between the ribs and the knee – and a better capacity to pull back up on the pedal. Another benefit is that starting the stroke from a bent ankle and extending it causes a reflexive active use of the calf muscle during the push and so helps to prevent isolating and overloading the quads. Many people have the saddle too low and actually allow the ankle to bend during the push – wasting energy and completely preventing the calf muscle from contributing – in fact probably causing it to work against them as the calf lengthens with an eccentric contraction during the push – instead of shortening with a normal contraction. Combining ankling with chi-cycling technique – pulling the hip backwards during the push – appears to create another mechanical benefit. The ChiCycling technique aligns the bones laterally much better for the push but it also allows the entire push to be made with a straighter leg – less angle at the hip and especially the knee – which  automatically creates more efficient leverage. Ankling increases this leverage effect.  In other words bend the ankle to get a straighter leg to start the push with more efficient leverage. During the push extend the ankle to add the use of the calf though this most effective range of leverage. The elliptical path of the ankle is now flat at the top and bottom of the stroke – limiting up/down movement to the most effective range. The Osymmetric and Rotor Q-ring shaped chainrings are the same shape as this – with the short axis always in sync with the top and bottom of the stroke. Analysis has shown this to be the most efficient mechanics – even without altering pedalling technique. When you do this standing up on the pedals the first thing you notice is that the body stops bobbing up and down with all of the power going into the pedals instead. The feeling is remarkably like ChiRunning – with the body still and the feet being lifted up behind. Interestingly Danny Dreyer describes ChiRunning as resembling pedalling a small bicycle – lifting up the feet behind you. One thing you feel when seated is that the ChiCycling motion of the hip and spine become more subtle because the leg motion is effectively reduced in length. My question now is whether this is the most efficient way to pedal or is it better to get shorter cranks – or perhaps both. Shorter cranks would allow many of the same benefits and I believe that even Lance Armstrong is using them in triathlon where an aero position is required over very long distances. Other than modifying existing cranks by drilling new holes for the pedals there only seems to be one product on the market (Powercranks) which is way too expensive – so I’ll stick to modifying technique for the moment. It does seem ludicrous that there is only a very small range of crank lengths available on the market when you consider the vast range in leg lengths and even feet sizes. The point is that the crank is only one lever in a whole system of levers including the entire gearing system, the body itself and the bike geometry. The most important thing about the crank is that it is the right length so that it allows the levers of the body to work properly. The next benefit you feel from ankling is that you can manage a higher cadence – because the leg stroke is shorter. I found that I can be pedalling along during a climb then if I start to use ankling in this way I’m suddenly pedalling with a higher cadence and disturbingly greater ease – but without changing gear. The mind and body react strangely negatively to this apparent loss of “connection” and “effort” and try to get me back to my usual inefficient habits where I feel comfortable through forcing. The key here is exactly the same as in ChiRunning – that we have to consciously look for relaxation – because unconsciously we appear to tune into brute force and tension. Normally when pedalling fast at around 70 kph downhill I start to bounce and find this very annoying. I need to experiment now and see if ankling can stop this through more efficient leg mechanics. Perhaps this is what will help to make the decision over crank length.

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