The Birkebiener (Birkebeinerrittet 2010) aka mud, glorious mud.

More cycling.

Ha! Another opportunity to combine a ride with some work, this time in Norway. I got to do  the birkebeinerrittet, the world’s largest Mountain Bike race.

My good friend Mark has recently moved to Norway with his family. I’ve ridden with him on a number other events, including the UK stage tour de France Sportif, and the Grand Fondo Pinarello. He pretends not to train, and then kicks my butt.  Legs like tree trunks, lungs of steel and a missing pain gene.  Rinse and repeat.  Mark’s mate Joel came over from New Mexico to ride it.  He is wickedly fit and descends with vim and vigour.

After a busy week with Workday and SAP I got in from San Francisco via Frankfurt in the afternoon. We checked out the rental bike, changed tyres and pedals,  and then took the night train to Rena.  Norwegian trains are excellent. Clean and punctual.  I actually got some sleep. We woke to seriously grim weather. Even the Norwegians were saying it was grim. And they are a tough lot.

The Birkenbeiner is not just a race, it commemorates a significant event in Norwegian history. It is run as a bike, run and ski race at different times of the year.

There was a civil war in Norway. Faction pitted itself against faction in fight for the throne. One faction was the birkebeiners. They were the underdogs, often in such dire need that they had nothing but the bark of the birch-trees as foot-wear. The word birkebeiner, birch-leg, has come to mean a man strong in adversity, never daunted by trials and hardship.

The birkebeiners had gained ascendancy over great parts of the country, but the rival faction, the baglers, prevailed in the East of Norway. After the birkebeiner chieftain Haakon died on New Years Day in 1204,  the baglers saw a dangerous rival pretender in his son Haakon Haakonsson , who was born in 1204, a few weeks after his fathers death. His life was at stake, and the birkebeiners wanted to bring him to safety in Trondheim.

On Christmas Day in 1205 the party came to a small farm at Lillehammer, where they stayed in hiding over Christmas. They found it too risky to follow the route up the Gudbrandsdal valley, so they cut across the mountains to the neighbour valley in east, Østerdalen. Due to bad weather and difficult snow conditions the two best skiers,

Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka had to go ahead with the two year old prince.

“On this trip they suffered much from the cold, snow and wind”. Behind this succinct account of the saga lies a deed of valour and strength with an appeal to skiers of all ages and nations. The 3,5 kilo pack carried by the present day birkebeiners symbolizes the prince, who later became king Haakon. He made an end of the civil war, and under him Norway had a heyday in the Middle Age. The birkebeiner expedition made history.

Here are the original Birkenbeiners.

You have to carry a backpack of 3,5 kgs to symbolize the prince. This was a good excuse for  an investment in a Jack Wolfskin backpack with Camelback compatibility, and a heavy duty raincoat.

As is tradition, I had left something important at home, this time it was my polar watch.

We were due to start at 13.30, but we were worried about not making the train back. The pouring rain had turned a lot of the route into a quagmire, so thoughts of a 4 hour time for the 94kms went out the window.  The friendly folks at the registration kindly moved us up by  30 minutes, but we still reckoned we would need another plan to get back. Anyway, that was the least of our worries. The maximum temp was forecast to be 8 degrees.  I figured that a time around 5 hours would be good going, but I didn’t really know what I was getting myself in for.

I wore most of the clothes I’d brought with me.  The rain just kept pouring down for most of the morning.  We lurked in a coffee shop, sipping lattes and chomping energy bars and sandwiches.

The race is well organized, with 17,000 odd entrants it needs to be.  We started at exactly 13h00

The first part is a long steady climb, for about 11 kms, this is not too bad, although Mark and Joel set a pace that I felt was too quick for me. I blamed jetlag.

It then started to rain again.

We regrouped at the top of the hill.  Sometime in the next 20kms I managed to lose a lens from my glasses, and get mud in the opposite eye. The mud scratched my eyeball, so I began to have trouble seeing, especially when descending.

The middle section involves a lot of mud, some of it so deep that it was impossible to ride in.

I let Mark and Joel get on with it, and I stopped at the first aid point and had my eye washed out, but it didn’t really help.  Uphill was okay, but I was battling on the downhills. All the folks I passed on the way up, passed me on the way down.  I stopped at 4-5 first aid stops on the way, but despite their excellent best efforts, my vision got steadily worse, given the rain and the mud.  I was determined to finish though.

The last section is a fast downhill, some tarmac, and some mud. At out 80kms, my back brake on the rental bike gave up the ghost, so I ended up walking in places I would normally have been riding, and doing the rest really slowly.

I finally got to the finish in 6.10,  tired and cold,  slightly disappointed with my time but really satisfied to have hung in and finished. Mark and Joel finished nearly an hour before me.


(being a good copyright citizen, I bought the photo)

Notice the Mario Cipollini Aqua Sapone look. Bit short on the Sapone.

At the finish we got hosed down, as we were so muddy the showers couldn’t cope.

Here is some video of the event.

and this one.

That wasn’t even the muddiest section. If I find some pics, I’ll add them.

After a quick shower, we figured we had missed the train, but we managed to cage a ride back to Oslo  on a bus.  The next day I had a lovely time with Mark and Joel’s families, thanks to them for a special weekend.  Special thanks to Mark for making this happen and organizing everything.

Monday was  a work day in Oslo. Most of the people I met asked me about the race, and several colleagues and clients had also done the race.

I plan to be back to do it again, perhaps next year. I do hope that the sun shines, but this is an epic event.  The organization is impeccable and the atmosphere is brilliant.  The staff were friendly and professional and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them.

From a social software point of view, Sig watched the race on-line, and tweeted my progress or more accurately, lack thereof.  Norwegian TV and the organizers make impressive use of mobile and social technologies.  Have a look at the website.

I’d recommend it to any reasonably fit cyclist.  10 out of 10.


On innovation

(image of Scott Berkun presenting via Chasingfun cc attribution. Thanks!)

In this interview on the O’Reilly blog Scott Berkun nails it.

How do you define "innovation"?

Scott Berkun: I strongly recommend people use this word as little as possible. It’s mostly a distraction. Many great ideas and breakthroughs were achieved without people worrying if they were innovative enough or not. They simply chose to try and solve a problem they or their customers cared about. And then later on, after the hard work was done, they were called "innovators." It’s a good word to let other people say about you, rather than use it in reference to yourself.

His book, The Myths of Innovation is a sharp, if short read. This quote encourages me to re-read it. Scott also has a blog.

A very sweet ride

Occasionally I manage to combine work and a ride. I especially like a ride in California, nothing better to beat the jetlag.

Sunday was one of those occasions.  I got to ride with my friends Andrew, his wife Beth  and Jeremiah, as well as bunch of guys from Workday.  A very friendly gang indeed (Ned, Nick, Seth and Sean).

This was my first ride in the East Bay. We rode up the Calaveras Road, and then out  past the reservoir. A lovely route, relatively quiet, and a gentle climb, winding up a couple of relatively gentle  hills.  The route has featured on the Tour of California.  There were lots of cyclists out, and very few cars or motorbikes.  The weather was perfect, not too hot, hardly any wind.  I spent a lot of the ride sitting on Seth’s wheel. 

However, the main reason for this post is the sweet bike Andrew arranged for me. I got to ride a Specialized Tarmac 2011 pro. It isn’t even in the shop or on the website yet.  I don’t know how he managed to borrow it.

The closest approximation is the pro SL SRAM in terms of spec, but the 2011 version uses the newer frame SL3.


This is the same frame that Contador and Schleck rode on the tour. Components included a mainly SRAM red drivetrain, TRM brakes, and Roval Fusee 28 wheels. Many of the other components were Specialized specific, tyres, seat etc.

The Roval fusee 28 wheels, they weigh 1695g, which is not that light, but they are very stiff. With a frame of this quality, I’d probably go for a more high end wheelset for big climbs (lightweights), with the fusee as a training wheelset, but then this bike is close to the UCI weight limit as it is.


SRAM Red shifters.  the hoods are very comfortable, but I found the reach to the brakes a bit long when riding in the drops, but that is probably just a set up thing.  This was my first ride with SRAM, and once I got used to it, I found it really easy to use, very smooth changes.


Specialized stem and bar. These were aluminum, and if it was my bike, I’d probably upgrade these to carbon (probably to the richley that I have now). 

Cane creek headset.




I spent the day in the big chain ring, as the hills were nice and gentle.  50/34 compact is ideal for amateurs like me.  Force front derailleur, rather than Red. The drive train was smooth, no creaks or groans.

TRP brakes.


These guys are known for their cyclo-cross brakes, but they have a road bike option too. Very light. Wondering if these will be standard though.

This is the most comfortable ride I have ever ridden, even though I didn’t really carefully set up the bike for seat height, reach etc.  Specialized seat was very comfortable too, similar to the SLR.  The bike corners immaculately and I felt that every little watt I had transferred to the road. This is good, as I’m short in the watt department.


This is one sweet bike, and one happy cyclist.  Thanks to Andrew and friends and to Specialized for the loan. 

Giro delle Dolomiti 2010

A cycling post.

I’m just back from the Giro delle Dolomiti 2010.  This is a six stage, 7 day event,  covering close to 800 kms, with  about 11,000 metres of climbing.  The giro is based out of Bozen, the largest town in the Dolomite region. This part of Italy is bilingual, with most locals speaking a wicked form of German as well as Italian.

Basically the format of the event is that you ride as a peloton to the start of the time trial, say 80 kms away and then charge up some famous steep hill, regroup at the top,  don some warmer clothes, then ride down, have some lunch, to be followed by a spin back into Bozen or another South-Tirolian spot.

You have to ride all the stages, not just the TT to count for the general classification. The field is a mix of very serious racing cyclists, and then the rest of us.

The roads are semi-closed. There is a police escort, tour director car with flags,  mechanics, broom wagon, doctor etc. When you are at the near back of the field, they do let some cars through, but not so that it is an issue.  99% of the drivers stop and enjoy the spectacle of the big peloton going by.

I did the event in 2006, so I knew what I was getting myself in for.

What with work, a long cold at the wrong time and a myriad of other excuses, my training this time around was not really up to much.  I had done a few rides, and some cyclo-core work, but nothing like what I should have done.

I adjusted my goal to completing the event, rather than worrying about position. Switching to Saint Campagnolo and his miraculous  29” cassette was the most significant part of my event preparation. Forget the Mona Lisa, those 29 teeth are Italy’s most beautiful creation.

My super fit friend, Martin and I drove down the day before, and the family also came along to hang out in Überbozen. Charlotte will no doubt blog on that here, so I’ll focus on the cycling bits. I didn’t remember to take a camera, so I need to await the official photos. I’ll post some later.

Stage one.

The announcers stated that the field was over 900 strong, with participants from all the place.  It certainly seemed bigger than the last time.

(apologies on the image quality. see the giro site for a crisper image)

The Jaufenpass is rather long, and so I left out the charge up said hill bit, and applied more of a trundle strategy.  I made full use of my sensible gearing.

The descent was a tad hairy, as 900 odd folks were also looking to jump the lunch queue at St Leonhard.  Some of the downhills at the Giro less fun than if you are in a smaller group. The fast guys find the pace car a pain, and we slower sorts find descending a bunch rather nervy.

I burned 4875 calories according to my bike computer. Took  1.55 for time trial, putting me in 627 place out of about 900 starters.  Several folks didn’t complete the stage, so all things considered, I was pleased to make it through the first day.

It was rather hot, at the finish in Bozen it was over 36 degrees.

Stage two.

This involved a rather early start, as we had to drive to Arabba.

I was a bit worried about the first bit, as it involved a rather long downhill. I was even more worried about the rest, as it involved a rather long uphill.  Passo Duran was rather step, at points it is is 15%. I was in trundling form again.

I did a quick search of flickr, and there a couple of photos up, and at the risk of copyright infringement, I’ll borrow this fabulous one from  HendrikJ. Thanks!

I did the time trial climb in 1.17, finishing in 583 place. I sensed the leaders were worried. I burned 5420 calories. Again, it was hot.  My cycling tan was coming on. Vast hordes of Swedes, Norwegians and Danes were going red.

Stage three.

This began in the rain, not fun.  A peleton in the rain is not a joyous thing.

The sun came out after about a hour, as we laboured up the first hill.  We then regrouped for the battle for the sandwich. Watching Germans and Italians battle over who can push in and grab the last ham sandwich is all part of the festivities.

The GARDECCIA is evil. Lots of it are at 20%.  The first bit is steep, through a quaint village, then it gets less steep for about a km, but then the last 3 kms are very very steep.  A Snail with a limp could have overtaken me.

After hurtling down the hill, we gathered for lunch. I slept in the sun while my socks dried, then it was another nasty climb and then a fabulous if slightly hairy descent into town.

I burned 5190 calories, and finished in 535 place. Only 579 finished the stage, so depending on how you look at it, I was moving up the field, or slipping back.

We had a rest day after stage three, so we did family stuff, like hang at the pool and walk in the forest. And eat. And eat.

Stage 4

This was supposed to be king stage, 160 odd kms, and masses of climbing,including Gardena, Pordoi and Sella, much of which would have been at over 2000 metres. Skiers familiar with the area will know this route as the Sella Ronda.

But the weather intervened. It poured with rain, and with temperatures at the top of the mountains at around freezing, the evil organizers arranged a plan b. They had a spare hill about 10 kms from Bozen, and they made us ride up that instead. It was 9kms long, with an average gradient of over 10%. I should remember what the hill is called, but I didn’t. (update Henk commented below, ride was from Meltina to Terlano. profile here)

I finished in 528 place.  588 people finished the stage.  I executed on my lurk at the back strategy perfectly.  I burnt about 2000 calories.  The downhill was grim. I was glad I didn’t buy those fancy carbon wheels, as braking in the rain on carbon rims is a bit of a lottery.

Stage 5

I was really looking forward to the Stelvio climb, or Stilfserjoch as it is also known.  It is an epic climb,  at 2757 metres, it is Italy’s highest pass.  It has 48 hairpin bends. It 24,6 kms long and you climb 1844 vertical metres from Prad.  Martin has climbed it about 5 times. I did it in 2006 and it was memorable.

profile Passo dello Stelvio

see for more details.

Alas, there was 30 cms of snow on the pass (yep in August), so we weren’t allowed to climb right to the top, so we just did the first 19 kms. I had forgotten how steep and long the forest section is, and I really found it hard going. If I had ridden any slower I would have got a parking ticket.  I took 1.45 to do the climb. I burned 3100 calories, most of them shivering on the way down.  I finished in 621 place.  In my defence, there were a bunch of new folks only registered for the last 3 days.  I felt pretty drained from the start, not much juice in my legs, my lack of training was showing.   Not a good day.

Stage 6.

For the final stage, the sun came out.  Instead of driving down from überbozen, we took the super fast cable car, and then pedaled through Bozen to the start. The stage is relatively easy, only 80kms or so, through the vineyards towards Trento.  Really lovely. The time trial was short, only 4,2 kms with less than 300 metres of climbing.

I left the heart rate monitor belt behind, so I don’t know how many calories I burnt, but I’d guess it was in the 2000 range.

I  meandered up the time trial hill, finishing in 640th place, with a pedestrian time of 18 minutes. The descent was super, glorious fresh tarmac, and vineyards. And nice policemen on motorbikes to keep the caravans at bay.  The peloton on the last day is bigger, with several people coming along just for the day.  We stopped at a really modern winery for a drinks break. Check it out  Mezzacorona.

Two kms from the finish, there was a crash. I’m not sure how the crash happened, but one minute all was fine, the next it was mayhem. I flew a few metres,  scraped my knee a bit, but no serious damage to me or the bike.  Some folks came of worse than I did, and I hope they recover quickly. Riding in a big peloton isn’t plain sailing.

I finished in 394th place in the overall classification, close to the back in terms of overall finishers, but given the number that were registered for event, I’m not complaining. I’d like to do the event again some day, but next time I’d hope to train more, and be more competitive.

My thanks to the family for coming along,  and to Martin. I’d also like to thank the organizers, the local police and community for their support.  An excellent event.

My tips for the surviving and enjoying  ride.

1. Correct gearing. Compact chain ring and the biggest cassette money can buy.

2. Eat a good breakfast at least two hours before the start.  Even if it means getting up earlier.

3. Know your lactate threshold, and ride on or below that for as much as you can. Don’t race when it isn’t a race. Alpine climbs can be very long, you can catch people later if you are feeling stronger later.

4. Get comfortable with descending in a crowd.  Make sure your brakes are in good shape. Watch out for the odd car or motorbike, the roads aren’t totally closed.

5. Have plenty of clothes for the descent. You can pack a bag, and they take it to the top of the hill. Pack some long gloves if it is a cold day, and a fresh pair of socks if it rains.

5. Eat and drink when ever you can while riding.  Only eat stuff you know you like. Don’t experiment.

6. Have a good recovery meal and drink.

7. Be vigilant in the peloton. Stay away from the cowboys and those that look nervous.

8. Be patient in the pauses and lunch breaks, you aren’t at work, so relax.

8. Stretch in the evening.

9. Oh, and try and train a bit.