Controlling the controllables

At the Athens Olympics, GB won 2 gold medals – Sir Chris Hoy in the Kilo, and Sir Bradley Wiggins in the Individual Pursuit. Fast forward four years to Beijing, and Team GB won 8 cycling golds, with the first being a memorable win from Nicole Cooke in the Ladies Road Race.

It was repeated again at the London Games in 2012. In 8 short years GB Cycling had gone from nowhere to the best cycling nation in the world. We’d do it AGAIN at Rio 2016. So what was the secret?

Dave Brailsford became Performance Director at British Cycling in 2003, taking over from Peter Keen who’d begun the revolution back in 1997. Brailsford has become famous for his ‘marginal gains’ approach –

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

However, there’s another principal that Brailsford adopted that’s had less airtime, but which has been just as important in our rise to the top of the cycling world. It became known as ‘controlling the controllables‘.

Cycling is a tough sport. Possibly the hardest sport in the world. While footballers play for 90 minutes, once, maybe twice in a week, cyclists in a Grand Tour like the Tour de France race for up to 6 hours a day for 21 days. Brutal.

In bike racing, particularly on the road, there are many factors outwith your control. You can’t do anything about them, so Brailsford’s approach was not to worry about them. Instead he focused all of his energy on the things he could control – the riders training, equipment, nutrition, clothing, their recovery and so on. This is where the ‘marginal gains’ approach came from.

When it comes to business, then we can also spend lots of time worrying about things out of our control. That’s wasted energy that could be better spent focused on the things we can control. Those will be different for each of us, but should probably include the people we hire, the way we look after them, our customer experience, the way we communicate.

What are the controllables for your business?

So the season has started….


It’s been great to get the season started – my first ‘proper’ race season since 2010.

After a solid winter of racing ‘cross and then slowly building up, the training camp in Lanzarote was a welcome break from the cold. After we got back, I continued to train well and before I knew it it was time for my first race – the Ythan APR.

What I hadn’t realised when I entered the race was that this was the weekend the clocks changed, so I found myself getting up at 4.45am to get ready, have breakfast & then drive up to Ellon. The things we do for our sport! It was a really cold day and despite doing a good warm up on the turbo by the time we set off my legs were like blocks of ice. To make matters worse, I’d decide to #MTFU and ride in shorts, albeit with some of Jon McComisky’s magic Soigneur embro on my pins. It took me the best part of a lap to get any feeling in my legs, during which time we’d had to make our first climb of the brutal Raxton hill – not long but a killer 14%. Our group split to pieces on this climb & I found myself in a small group riding through & off into the headwind. We quickly caught a bigger group and this group worked well together before we were caught at Raxton on the last lap by the scratch group. The pace went up as we tried to catch the two groups that were still up the road, but sadly our chase was in vain and we rolled in some 51 seconds behind the winner. 

Two weeks later, and after a good few of Gaz’s “Full Gas” sessions, it was time for my next race and my first proper road race since 2009 – the Nick Hardy Memorial race at nearby Monikie. This was now a Cat 3/4 race after the recent changes in race structures and was a full field of 80 riders from all over Scotland. Again, I had a good warm-up on the turbo and made sure I was at the front of the bunch as we rolled out of Monikie. Within a couple of miles the pace in the peloton jumped up as the Deeside guys went to the front. I found myself quickly on the back foot, and once again my cold legs refused to do any hard work or put out decent power and before I knew it I was sliding out the back door. Within 5 miles the bunch had been smashed to pieces – a combination of the pace and the strong cross / head winds that we endured for most of the race. I put my head down and caught a few riders, quickly establishing what was to become the Grupetto! Five of us worked well together, riding in a neat echelon in the sidewinds and taking short turns in the headwinds. We rolled in 20 mins behind the winner with our tails between our legs, but we had worked hard as a small group – my average HR of almost 160 for 2 hours 35 mins of racing was proof of that!

It’s been a hard re-introduction to racing and without a doubt there are some strong Cat 3’s out there that mean many races will split this season. The key is going to be making sure I stay near the front of the bunch and to do that my legs are going to have to respond right from the start and not wait for 10 miles before deciding to work. As always I’m taking the positives and looking forward to the next race in a fortnight’s time. In the meantime it’s time to up the effort levels in training and really push myself beyond the red zone. I started this with last night’s session and after a recovery ride this evening I’m doing the Deeside chaingang in Aberdeen tomorrow night. That should certainly be a hard shift if Sunday is anything to go by!


Building up nicely

cropped-20140207-111554.jpgI can’t believe that it’s now four weeks since we were in Lanzarote at training camp! After a few days of rest & recovery, it was back onto the training plan and Gary was increasing the intensity. Before Lanza it had been a block of tempo work, and most of the sessions I did out there were at tempo too.  This next block, however, we’d be moving onto threshold work.

Threshold is essentially eyeballs-out, full-gas, race pace. This was going to hurt, as other than a couple of efforts up Fire Mountain in the sun & heat of Lanzarote, I hadn’t done anything like this since my last cross race in November.

Over the next three weeks, we’d build up from 4 x 12 minute intervals, to the final week (ending this weekend) where I’ve got 1x13min, 1x15min, 1x17min & 1x20min to look forward to this afternoon! I’m doing these efforts twice a week – one on a Tuesday on the turbo & then on the road on a Saturday.

The turbo sessions are amongst the hardest thing I’ve ever done on a bike, they are just horrible. There’s no change in elevation, no corners, no tailwind or headwind, none of the chances you get on the road for micro-recovery, a chance to re-group and get back on it. Nope, on the turbo it’s just one long intense effort. Absolutely brutal.

It’s no surprise that the numbers I produce on the road are always better than on the turbo, it just feels more ‘real’. Like Mark Cavendish (the only thing I have in common with him!), I find it hard to replicate the effort on a static bike that I can produce on the road.

But one of my mantras is ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, and that’s the mindset I’ve taken to these intervals. Coupled with the gym sessions that I’m doing this block, I can feel it all working, my strength growing and my form building.

Tomorrow brings a 4.5 hour ride, with 90 mins of tempo and also the end of this block and a week of recovery. It’s also four weeks to my first race, the Ythan APR on Sunday 30th March. I can feel myself getting more and more excited about racing with every passing week, something I never expected to feel, or be doing, again. But having made a few major changes in my life for the positive over the past six months, I have a renewed energy and passion for racing my bike.

Let’s see what this season brings.

Training Camp – block two

The weather improved for the better after Sunday. It was wall-to-wall sunshine for the rest of the camp.

Our rest day was an easy spin down to the Marina for coffee & cake, then back to the villa. I spent the rest of the day lying by the pool, stretching & snoozing. Lovely.

The first day of our second block would see us doing the climb of Tabayesco again, followed by 2 x 15 minute threshold intervals. I was a little worried about how my body would cope after being so tired on Sunday, but it seemed like the rest day had done it’s job and I was never in difficulty. I’d go as far as to say that it was one of the best days I’ve ever had on the bike!

Day two was all about tempo work. We road the hour or so to the circuit, up to Femes & down to Playa Blanco, then we were split into our groups for 2 x 50 minute efforts. Riding in a chaingang, taking 30-60 seconds each on the front, this was another exhilarating and exhausting session. I loved it, even though I was hanging on in the second interval when our group was down to three riders. I dug deep & made sure we finished together.

After that it was a loop through the lava fields to El Golfo and back to the brutal climb of Femes. That would be our last hard effort of the camp, then we rode back down to Puerto for coffee.

We flew home last night and now it’s all about rest & recovery and letting the training soak in. I’m really excited and motivated for the season ahead!



Training Camp – block one

I can’t believe how quickly the first 3 days of our training camp here in Lanzarote have gone! It’s been a hard block. Day 1 was a 4 hour ride with a threshold effort up the climb at Tabayesco; Day 2 was 5 hours which included 2 x 40 min tempo efforts in small groups followed by the brutal climb up to Femes; Today was an endurance ride of almost 6 hours covering 95 miles and 7,500ft of climbing.

Day 1 I didn’t feel great, but got through it. I loved day 2 – it was one of the best days I’ve had on the bike, but today I suffered like a dog. I got through it thanks to cans of Pepsi, energy bars & gels and most importantly the wheel of Davie Lines.

Tomorrow is a rest day, with a one hour cafe ride – I may treat myself to a wee cake. In the afternoon I’ll have a chat with Gary about my race plan for the first part of the season.

Then it’s block 2, which promises to be tough. But I’m not thinking about that tonight, I’m just stretching and thinking about that coffee & cake tomorrow.

Adios for now!


Splosh at the Tosh!

So, I did my first cyclocross race at the weekend and it was everything I thought it would be and more! I arrived nice & early, in fact a couple of hours before my race – I wanted to soak in the atmosphere. After parking, I wandered down to sign on & found myself in the middle of what seemed like hundreds of kids riding the u10/12 race. The noise of cowbells & cheering parents was brilliant & I was hooked.

In the queue to sign on, I bumped into Bill Young of Pedal Power – Bill has become a good friend online, although we’d never actually met! It was good to finally shake hands and be able to say thanks for all the advice & encouragement as I took my first steps in the world of ‘cross. Turned out that Bill was parked only 2 cars away from me, so I was able to ask a couple more ‘newbie’ questions before the race. Cheers Bill!

After getting the bike setup & my kit on, it was time to do a couple of practice laps. It was great to finally be on the course after weeks of training in the park – it’s totally different. The bomb hole scared the crap out of me, but I managed to ride through it. I also noticed that most people were running down the muddy hill, through the burn & then up the muddy bank, so all thoughts of riding down went out the window (which I was quite happy about!).

The muddy bank

The muddy bank

After this I did a quick warm up on the turbo, as Craig Hardie had advised, and I was ready to go. It seemed like there were hundreds of guys in our race (the vets 40-49) and everyone wanted to be at the front of the grid. The gun went off and it was no surprise that there was a big crash on the first tight corner – there simply wasn’t enough room for everyone to get through first!

My race plan was simply to gain experience, so I was content to start at the back and just get used to racing on the course. I turned round at one point on the first lap and was surprised to see that there was no-one behind me. Shit, I was last! Pretty quickly I pushed harder on the pedals and moved up a few places. Thing is, I have the fitness, I just don’t have the experience or race skills yet. With each lap I got more confident, and as my strava file showed afterwards, faster. By the last couple of laps I was much happier and despite being lapped by a handful of riders I was still moving up through the field. I was best on the flatter sections and got past people fairly easily, I’ll just need to get better at riding up / down hill and through mud!

In the end I finished 52nd (out of 70 starters) – I had Gordon Watt of Deeside Thistle in my sights, but I just couldn’t catch him, finishing 10 seconds back. I was content with this – as I said it was all about experience. Racing for places will come in the future.

It was also good to have one of my new team-mates from COG Velo there as well. Pete was riding the seniors race – his first ‘cross race too. Pete had pretty much the same experience as me, although had to ride for 20 minutes longer. I can’t imagine what that must have been like, especially after being out the night before. Chapeau!


My learnings from the race?

  • Start position is everything & you need to fight to hold your position. It’s not like a road race where you can move up & down the bunch. It’s much harder in ‘cross once you slip back.
  • I need to work on my trail riding – I was too tentative, particularly on the downhill sections through the forest.
  • I was okay on the off-camber sections, but need to learn to ride them faster.
  • I need to push myself to ride harder in the race. My average HR was 163 – I know I’m capable of pushing that up towards 170.
  • Someone said ‘cross is like doing a time trial. That’s bollocks! In a TT I could pace myself to ride at a certain power and could pretty much predict what my time would be. In cross it’s eyeballs out and you go from threshold to above threshold a lot! It’s nothing like a TT at all….
  • My running is pretty good – I made up time & moved ahead of guys on the running & banking sections.
  • Cross is hard, but great fun with brilliant banter!
  • You really appreciate the support from the crowd. Hearing ‘come on Ali!’ drives you on (thanks everyone!)
  • Mud gets *everywhere*

Finally, I can’t sign off without saying a big thanks to the legend that is John McComisky. We’ve spoken a fair few times on twitter, and having watched a load of the DigInMate videos on You Tube, I already felt like I knew John pretty well, but this was the first time we’d met. John’s shouts of encouragement  & friendly banter as I raced round the course were great and just what I expected to be on the end of. Loved it mate!

And so we move on to round 2 at Falkirk on the 20th, when there will be at least 5 of us from COG racing.  Between now & then I’ll be training harder, running more and getting in some sessions on the trails. I might not be race-ready by then, but I’ll be a lot better & wiser than I was at the ‘Tosh. Bring it on!