52Posts (vol.1): Issue #4

I had intended that I would publish one email a week for a year. I think the second email took me 10 days and since then I have been struggling to hit any sort of deadlines. Another thing to feel guilty about. But … I am still trying. And I think that is the key – just keep on going. I’m going to keep going and if I’m a bit late, so be it. But I’m going to carry on. I hope anyone reading these are enjoying them.

Business

How long do you hang on? This is an interesting question. When one is involved in a business that is trying to do something very new and different, potential clients have a natural reluctance or scepticism. Selling the thing you are working on often requires selling the concept first and then the solution. Slow-old-process. For any business owner, the question becomes one of how long you think you can or indeed should hang on. Because it is very difficult to ascertain what is the expected slow-uptake and what is a problem of product-market fit (i.e. you have a brilliant idea that doesn’t solve anyone’s problem and therefore no one will ever buy it).

I’m an avid reader of business books, including some biographical ones – the kind that business people write when they have reached a point with their business that they can look back and say ‘this is how we did it’. The problem with those books, is that they often skim over the crappy bits. Admittedly it is not fun to forensically read about how close a business came to going under. But for anyone struggling to make an idea work, it is gratifying to know that businesses and leaders that you admire have had doubts and struggles. Knowing that success is almost always preceded by failure and disappointment encourages me to keep fighting. Steve Jobs probably says this best when he explains that creating something is really hard and requires you to do the hard things for a sustained period of time. So if you don’t love it, you won’t be able to keep going.

Nevertheless, it is a regular question in my mind; how long before the world starts to realise (in significant numbers) that they need what we do at Freestak? And can we survive long enough to reach that point? I don’t think for one moment that we have a product-market fit problem in the long term (for those that don’t know, Freestak connects brands with influencers and content creators in the running, cycling and outdoors sectors). The question is how long until the market realises. Answers on a postcard (or better still a social media post or blog post) …

Running

Can I run for fun? I have posted a few times recently about the marathon-itch: the feeling that I am not quite done with marathon running. In the last couple of years it has been easy to push the thought to the back of my mind. I have not prioritised running over other things in my life – which is what I really think I need to do if I want to run to the absolute best of my ability. But in the past few weeks a couple of coincidences have made me think that perhaps I should run a marathon in 2018. The question is, can I commit to the training to run a time that would feel like I have been really stretched or should I just run for fun?

Cycling

Le Col founder Yanto Barker cycles out of a trench and up a mountain. I met Yanto Barker – former professional cyclist, turned entrepreneur, a few months ago. I was lucky to be sat at a dinner on the same table as Yanto and then had the chance to meet him at his offices, from where he runs his cycling apparel brand Le Col. I am really impressed by Yanto; he is passionate, energetic, knowledgeable and clearly a determined and serious businessman. He’s also a very talented cyclist – as this video demonstrates.

In cycling there is a concept, known as Everesting – where a rider attempts to cycle up and down a hill until he or she has climbed the equivalent of the height of Mount Everest: 8,848m. But Yanto decided to take it to another level – he was going to attempt Trenching – climbing the equivalent of the depth of the Marianna Trench: 10,994 metres.

Yanto Barker’s Trenching Challenge from Le Col Cycling Apparel on Vimeo.

Photography

Is black and white the new… erm, black? Over the past few weeks I have started to shoot in black and white on my lovely Fuji X-Pro1. I don’t know what prompted me to make the change. But I have always loved black and white photography. I think that it focuses the mind – almost pushes the viewer to use their imagination a little. And I think monochrome focuses the viewer on the details, without colour to distract. And of course, the more I learn about photography, the more I admire the greats – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gary Winogrand, Vivian Maier, Robert Capa, Robert Doisneau, Walker Evans, Elliott Erwitt, William Klein, Helen Levitt and others – and so many of these shot on film in black and white. So if I want to learn from the greats, I would like to try to shoot something like the greats. Of course, I have a very, very long way to go to being even a competent photographer. But perhaps by experimenting a bit, I can get better. Anyway, here is a photo I took in Milan on a recent work trip:

Screen Shot 2017-11-03 at 17.34.24

And One Other Thing

There are no maps. Great advice from Pascal Finette (AKA The Heretic). In his last email he wrote about the fact that when you are building something new, there are no maps. If there were, it wouldn’t be new.

My former boss and Mozilla’s then-CEO John Lilly kept telling folks that there are no maps. He prefaced every presentation with this warning – and the note that “your mileage will vary.”

I guess some people love that – the uncertainty of exploration. The task of making up a way forward on the fly. The lack of path to follow. Others hate it. But no one remembers the person who followed in the footsteps of the first person. Who climbed Mount Everest second? Who was the second person to find the source of the Amazon? Who followed Christopher Columbus, using his maps? No one remembers the people who followed. They remember the leaders. Because going first and doing something different is very, very difficult.

If you are interested in the philosophy of business, then The Heretic is a great read. I get a lot from his thinking and writing.

Cheering for Slomo. In the film I’ve posted a link to below, a man that everyone knows as Slomo might actually have found a way to live that we all can learn from. And it is linked – in his case – to roller-blading. I’m really struck by the idea that his theory explains why riding a bike feels so good. The same as surfing or skating or skiing. The power of effortless (or nearly effortless) acceleration on our brains. Is that why riding a bike for hours on end just feels like pure pleasure?

When Dr. John Kitchin, who is Slomo, says “The people that love Slomo are cheering for one person who got away. That escaped. And got to real freedom where he skates all day”. Perhaps there is a very important lesson in that for all of us.

SLOMO from Josh Izenberg on Vimeo.

52Posts (vol.1): Issue #3

These posts were not supposed to have a theme. But it feels as though, from time to time, certain motifs come to the fore and everything ends up with the same hue. Recently there has been a word and a concept that has been bubbling up over and over again – relentlessness.

I’m not ashamed to admit that in recent months I have been feeling pretty depressed and crushed quite a lot of the time. I spent some time trying to tease out the reasons why I’ve been feeling low. I’ve come to the realisation that there are lots of things that, cumulatively, are dragging me down. Some of them are pretty significant. Some are rather trivial. Almost all of them are interconnected.

But I have also started to realise that none of my problems are life-threatening. And most of them just require some grit and determination. So that is what I am going to apply. I am going to narrow my focus and I am going to become relentless in getting things done. Because action is the answer and action is its own reward.

So without further waffling, here is email #3 of 52. I’ve had to knuckle down to get this done but as a poster that we have in the office says … “Done Is Beautiful”

Business

Adapt or die. Freestak is a new business that operates in a very nascent marketing sector – connecting brands with cycling, running and outdoors influencer and content creators. We are trying to facilitate something that 90% of the brands in our target sectors have never done. Or at least they have not done it in any meaningful way. We are pioneers, at the forefront of something that is misunderstood, badly done and a threat to the status quo. And as such it is a scary, challenging place to operate.

But. The reason we are here is that there is everything to win. There are no blueprints for what we do. We are having to work out what our clients want and need (often two different things that clients don’t understand themselves) and we’re working out how to deliver value when there is no benchmark.

One of the things that keeps me going is that we are finding more and more brands that understand that if they don’t adapt (their marketing), they will die. Working with brands that understand that, is really incredibly exciting. We need more brands that are the equivalent of Billy Beane!

The Heretic strikes again. There are a few email newsletters that I love receiving (anything from Hiut Denim or the Do Lectures, anything from L2 or Professor Galloway, emails from Alpkit or Patagonia) and chief amongst them are the emails that come from the Heretic – Pascal Finette. I would say that at least three-quarters of the emails he sends relate exactly to me and sometimes they arrive at exactly the moment that I need them the most.

Today’s email was entitled ‘Do The Right Thing (And Earn Your Thank Yous)’ and it was a good reminder that the best route to building a successful business and achieving our goals, is to remember that:

Doing the right thing will lead to profit. It does not work the other way around.

Pascal signs off with this: “Focus on two things – Doing the right thing and creating something which makes your customer want to say thank you.” Everyone at Freestak needs to absorb that and make it core to what we are doing.

Running

Why running is more important than sleep. Last week I went to Italy from Sunday morning to Tuesday evening. I was working with a new Freestak client (announcement coming soon). I spent most of Sunday travelling, with a little bit of time in Milan city centre taking some photos. And on Sunday night I had dinner with the client. It was midnight by the time I got to bed. But I really felt that I would benefit from a run, before a long day of meetings on Monday. I set my alarm for 6:30am, determined to run, even if it was only half an hour.

It was still really dark when I got up. And in the slowly brightening dawn, I could see that the countryside as far as I could see was cloaked in thick fog. Still, I was awake and I knew that if I didn’t run, I would be unlikely to manage to run on Tuesday or Wednesday (my diary was really packed for both days – one in Italy and one back in London). So I went. Truthfully, it was pretty horrible: it was cold, dark and foggy. I had no idea where to run, so I ended up sticking to some pretty uninspiring roads, with industrial buildings looming out of the mist. And I was tired.

However, the run was done. And this is the lesson that I need to teach myself. A bad run is always better than no run at all. Very often at the moment, I end up wimping out because it is cold / wet; I’m too tired; I feel too stressed; etc. But I need to become much more relentless about going out. I know that once I get into the rhythm of running regularly, it will become habitual and I’ll go without thinking about it. So here’s to prioritising running over sleep – I know it will pay dividends.

Cycling

Dusting off the Condor. Despite not classing myself as a cyclist for many, many years, I have still managed to acquire three bikes. A Trek hardtail mountain bike that I bought with a bonus I received ten or twelve years ago. My beloved Focus Cayo road bike. And a steel Condor Pista single-speed bike. Now, I am not going to suggest that I have a favourite – they all have very different purposes so it would be like comparing apples and oranges. But I will say that the moment I rode the Condor for the first time, I was in love. It is an incredibly simple bike to ride. It feels like it was made specifically for me – the fit is incredible. The steel frame is so comfortable that in comparison to my road bike, I feel like I could ride the Condor for ever and never suffer.

But recently I have not ridden the Condor. Probably not for months. To the point that both tyres were completely deflated when I checked last night. Part of the problem is that I commute about 800m to work, so there is no need to use the bike. If I go for a long ride I use the Focus, especially because that is what I am training to be able to ride faster and further. And if I go in to town, I usually take public transport. So the Condor hung on the banisters and collected dust.

Last night I had an errand to run. OK, I was actually picking up fish and chips for dinner. And I thought I’d ride – it is too far to walk back from the decent fish-and-chippery without ending up with cold food. I put some air in the tyres and jumped on the Condor. Within two pedal strokes I remembered how I love that bike so much. So I am going to try to find opportunities to ride single speed as much as possible. Maybe I’ll even ride the bike for some training rides. There is a purity to just pedalling without dozens of gears that must be great training. I’ll let you know.

Photography

Milano for a few hours. As I mentioned earlier, last week I flew to Milan for three days with a new client. My flight was at 7am on Sunday morning, so I had a very early start. But I was not required to meet the client until the evening for dinner on the shore of Lake Garda. So with the weather set to be really lovely, I decided to head into the centre of Milan, drop my bags off and take my Fuji X-Pro1 out for a few hours.

I have definitely learned that the way I am going to become a better photographer is – partly – by taking more photos. That way I can become better at the actual use of the camera I own, as well as experimenting with different ways of shooting and, perhaps, develop a personal style.

The first thing I decided was to shoot in black and white. I like B&W street photography and I think that it means I have one less thing to worry about. Apart from anything, shooting in black and white means that the editing is much simpler. And I know that complicated editing means I sometimes take photographs that I can’t find the time or energy to do anything with.

After that first decision was made, I thought I would head right for the middle – around the Duomo – and just start shooting people. As a heavily tourist-y area, it felt much less intimidating to be pointing my camera at people. And even the fact that I am a foreigner emboldened me.

I had a couple of hours. In that time I made around 120 photographs and I think two or three of them are OK. But most importantly, I have taken more photos and learned a bit more about how I prefer to take photos and what I want to shoot. I’m already looking forward to my next trip to a city where I can find some time for street photography.

And One Other Thing

Good Strategy and Bad Strategy. I have recently started reading a book by Richard Rumelt called Good Strategy Bad Strategy. It was given to me by a colleague. And from a Freestak perspective, it is a very interesting and useful book. I was recently talking to someone I know who owns a PR agency and he agreed with me that having a plan (which comes from having a clear strategy) is like lifting a huge weight off your shoulders. Suddenly you are not worrying about how to deal with enemies numerous, and often unpredictable, without a battle plan. Now you have a clear way forward. It might turn out to be the wrong way, but at least you have a direction.

As in business, so in life. Reading this book has really made me think that every aspect of life needs a strategy. The book describes strategy as a way to tackle a clearly defined problem. In business that is undoubtedly crucial. But I’m becoming convinced that it is true for everything else as well: health, relationships, personal wealth, the environment, education. Everything. In all these aspects of life and more, drifting along will not get you to the end destination that you want. To get where you want to go, you need a strategy. And from your strategy, you can develop plans that you, or other people, can implement. Certainly working out the right strategy is hard. That is why good strategy is so rare. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

52Posts (vol.1): Issue #2

The difficult second album blog post. Well, I have decided already that the first of my posts was too long. Apart from anything else, it takes a long time to write a couple of thousand words. And apart from a couple of people, it is unlikely to be read. So I’m going to be more succinct from now on. Anyway, on to …

Business

adidas and their PR efforts. This might be a coincidence but adidas seem to be having a very good time from a PR perspective. We have many magazines in the house that I always dive straight into as soon as they arrive. Amongst them are Wired UK and Monocle. Both of them this month have hefty pieces about adidas, focusing on the revival of the business through design and the technology they are using in footwear manufacture. Hats off to whoever is getting those pieces sold in to journalists.

China is leading but people want to be in the US and Europe. I love Professor Galloway and everything he produces at L2. I definitely advise you to sign up to his newsletters. In this video he talks to NYU professor Clay Shirky, author of Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream about the differences between China and the US. Mainly from the point of view of business and particularly payment systems. What I found really interesting is when – about 16 minutes in to the video – they talk about Chinese students, studying in the US and wanting to stay there. Despite the fact that the majority of opportunities are probably in China. What is it about the US and Europe that means that bright, ambitious people from growing, optimistic, exciting economies (which the US and Europe do not have to the same degree) want to spend their lives there?

Running

From hero to zero. And back again. I have been thinking a lot recently about whether I can get back to running the way I was four years ago (the year I ran my marathon PB). I had an idea to challenge myself with my own person ‘two-forty-something while I’m forty-something’ That idea has not quite gone away yet. I keep looking at 6’29” per mile (the pace for a 2:49:59 marathon) and thinking that looks pretty daunting. But then if it was easy, what would be the point.

I know that they key will be finding some consistency. At the moment my training is all over the shop – 5 runs one week and then 7 days of no exercise, followed by a weekend with 150km of cycling and then nothing again. I need to slowly work running back in, so that I am running 6 days per week. Then add in a couple of double days. Make three of the runs sessions and one of them a long run. Squeeze out a bit more speed and a bit more mileage. Et viola! We’ll see I guess.

Cycling

Tour route revealed. ASO, the company behind the Tour de France, have announced the route for 2018. And Team Sky – with leader and 4x winner of the tour, Chris Froome – like it. Back is the iconic climb up Alp d’Huez (this BBC film is a brief little history of the climb, recognising its importance in the race over the years). Commentators are saying that despite being a relatively short Tour – a mere 3,329km – it will be one of the toughest. There is even a stage with 22km of pavé. Froome himself says that winning a fifth tour will be a big ask, but then what is new about that. And Cavendish – who is trying to match or exceed Merckx record of 34 stage wins (Cav is on 30 right now) has described the route as “brutal”. Let’s give the last word to race director Christian Prudhomme “We especially wanted to emphasise stage variety and the routes that may prove decisive, whilst combining legendary climbs with brand-new ascensions or ultra-dynamic formats, to provide a vision of modern and inspired cycling”. From 7 to 23 July next year. Personally I can’t wait.

Photography

Photoblock. One of the great things about living in London (which I will miss when we leave!) is the plethora cultural opportunities that exist. Take Photoblock for example. For a week the old Truman Brewery is filled with not one but five or six different photographic exhibitions. All for free. This week has been very busy and on Sunday I flew to Italy for three days on a business trip (few hours in Milan on Sunday for some street photography – I’ll take that!) That meant I only had a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon free. But that was enough time to get super-inspired by all the amazing work that people are doing. I love seeing other photographers’ work. It is really inspiring and educational. I especially love trying to work out why a particular photograph appeals to me and how the artist managed to create it. If you get a chance to visit Photoblock next year, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

And One Other Thing

Recent REI videos are next level. In case you don’t know, REI is an outdoor retailer in the US. Actually, scrap that – REI is probably the outdoor retailer in the US. Which almost certainly makes REI the outdoor retailer in the world. Happy to debate that.

What is really interesting is how REI is tackling some very, very important issues through videos they are creating. Two videos in particular have really grabbed my attention: this one about skier Caroline Gleich and this one about ultra runner Mirna Valerio. Both are pretty shocking and uplifting and thought provoking. Please take the time to watch them.

What I am really impressed with is the fact that a retailer is taking a stance about issues that it obviously believes are important. There is no need for REI to put itself in the firing line. No need to stick its neck out in this way. The team at REI could simply focus on creating beautiful content and no one would criticise them for that (indeed just doing that would, I would argue, put them in a very, very tiny minority of businesses that are creating content that people want to consume and share). But obviously doing something that could make a difference is obviously important to REI. Perhaps more important than selling more gear. I can’t be cynical about this – it is too well done and too important in the wider debate that needs to be had about body shaming, trolling and online bullying. Hats off to REI.

52Posts (vol.1): Issue #1

This is the first of 52 posts that I am going to write. The plan is one a week for the next year (that will be volume 1). I’ll be posting about four important areas of my life: business; running; cycling; photography.

The common theme with all of the above, is that I have a huge amount to learn and a fascination (actually probably an obsession) for all four that fuels my desire to get better at them. So I study and practice as much as I can. I believe that through hard work, persistence and luck, I can get better at these areas. And I want to share what I learn and discover as I go.  I also would like as much feedback as possible, so if you have anything to say or share, please let me know.

Business

Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey Moore. I read business books more than any other subject. I can’t remember the last novel I read. But it is rare that I read a business book that seems to talk so directly to what we are doing at Freestak. I’m actually a bit embarrassed that I didn’t discover this book earlier.

The edition I have in by bag is only 240-odd pages, but it is pure business-sense gold. From describing a challenge that I knew we were facing and didn’t know why (the ‘chasm’) to proposing a very clear plan of action, that we have now started implementing at Freestak, I believe this is one of the most important and useful books I have ever read. Full stop. If you are involved in a tech start-up that is trying to make a dent in the universe (thank Steve Jobs for that little image) and you haven’t read this book, then you really should get a copy.

Running

Berlin Marathon 2017. I don’t think I will ever stop being fascinated by road marathons. I constantly feel the tug of wanting to train to run another one myself (in fact my friend Charlie Dark really pushed my buttons recently and I am seriously considering whether I can get in shape to race a marathon at the end of next year).

As much as I love running marathons, I equally enjoy seeing other people tackle them or learning about how runners in the past raced the 26.2 mile distance. So watching the Berlin marathon unfold a couple of weekends ago was a treat.

There were so many aspects of the race that I was fascinated by. In the end Eliud Kipchoge won in 2:03:32. That is just 36 seconds slower than the marathon world record. I think that having won 8 out of his last 9 races Kipchoge is definitely amongst the best marathon runners the world has ever seen. This race really showed Kipchoge’s class. Following on just a few weeks after running 2:00:25 at the Nike #Breaking2 event, Kipchoge could have been excused for feeling a bit knackered. But from the very outset when Kipchoge asked for splits from the lead car every 200m for the first 2km and every 500m thereafter, there was a sense of intent. He also showed an incredibly human side when, at one point during the race, Eliud told one of the other runners, Guye Adola, that he should follow the blue line to run the shortest distance. Then when it was just Adola and Kipchoge left in the race, Adola surged and took the lead at 36km. Kipchoge didn’t panic, he simply continued to run his race and within a couple of kilometers he had closed the gap and then went past the younger man.

As he ran the last 1,000m towards the finish beyond the Brandenburg Gate, in the pouring rain at something close to 4 min/mile pace, Eliud Kipchoge was smiling. Incredible and inspiring to watch.

Cycling

Saxo RLAP and L’Etape London from Human Race. My Dad was the person who made sure I could ride a bike. I have vivid memories of him running next to me while I was learning to balance on two wheels. After that I always had a bike – goodness knows how my parents afforded it. But there was a BMX for Christmas one year. Black and yellow. It was called a ‘mud cruncher’. I loved it.

But once I went to university aged 18, I lost my love of cycling until I was in my 30’s. Then I found two wheels was a great way to get around town, so I bought my beloved Condor Pista. And then in the last 18 months, I have really started getting into road cycling.

I had lost touch with running after my last London marathon in 2014. I needed something else. And long rides on a road bike seemed to fill the gap. I somehow found myself invited to be part of a programme called Ride Like A Pro organised by Saxobank. They kit out a team of 40-odd ‘friends’ of the bank and provide training over the summer. The aim is taking part in a big sportive. This year the target was L’Etape London organised by Human Race (now part of ASO, the owner of the Tour de France).

The SaxoSport team were all training for the long route – 190km – although on the day some of the team dropped down to the medium or even the short route. Less said about that the better. As  I stood on the start line, I was feeling more than a bit nervous. Training had been going OK, but very patchy and I had not ridden more than 100km in one go for months. I knew that the big ride would be difficult. In the end I got what I was looking for: 155km with a group of fellow Saxo riders. A few of us took turns on the front. The majority just sat in the whole time, but I was determined to get the full experience and take turns on the front. And then, after 6 hours, the metaphorical wheels fell off. I bonked. Met the man with the hammer. Truth is my lack of training caught up with me like the minute man catching the rider in front in a time trial. I went from OK – hanging on – to completely blowing. The last 35km were just a matter of turning the legs and looking for the end. Lesson learned? Simply that if I am going to ride those sorts of distances, I need to train more. But I knew that already, didn’t I?

The Climb by Chris Froome. In the hope that reading about great riders would somehow make up for a pathetic lack of training, I picked up a copy of Chris Froome’s autobiography. I started it one night when I was feeling utterly knackered and I barely got to the end of the first page before I realised I had not been taking in the words. I put the book down and fell asleep. But picking The Climb up again yielded a treat. Froome’s story is really impressive and David Walsh’s writing style (he is the ghost writer) is quite different from anything else I can remember reading. It certainly feels as though Froome has put a lot of himself into the book, being very open about some of the lows and frustrations he has felt in his cycling career. Obviously the book is now out of date, being published in 2015, but the back story is the meat of the book and that has not changed. The more recent successes are missing, but we know about them, don’t we. So I think this is well worth a read if you are a fan of cycling and biographies. Chapeau, Chris Froome.

Photography

Copywrite laws and Unsplash. It is often said that a picture says a thousand words. It can also cost a thousand dollars. And there is a reason for that. Photography is art. And the artist deserves to be paid for their work. But we live in an age where the image is seen as commoditised to the extent that it has no cost. Note, I do not say no value, because every image has value. But so many people forget that every image is owned by someone and as such they have the right (whether they choose to exercise it or not) to charge for the use of that image. This reality (and the emergence of software to police the use of images) also creates an opportunity. There is clearly demand for free images and this is something that Unsplash has decided to address. Unsplash is a website full of images that anyone is free to use for anything they choose to. There are no limits. Obviously it is important to credit the photographer, but there is no need to pay them. I’m going to use Unsplash or my photos for each of these posts.

I have uploaded images to Unsplash – you can see them here. Although I must confess that I have used a lot more than I have contributed. I need to upload more pictures to redress the balance. So if you love photography, join the party – give and take in equal measure. It’s the right thing to do.

Photoblock at Truman Brewery in London. I love seeing real photographers’ work up-close-and-personal. So I am really excited that Photoblock is back on. Last year I went and I absolutely loved it. There is a prize for press photography again, which I found captivating last time. I will be going a few times if I can make it down there. Details here.

And One Other Thing

Stance adventure socks. Complete disclosure – Stance is a client of Freestak. But that doesn’t detract from that fact that I love their socks. In fact, it was because I loved their products so much that we ended up working with them. Stance started out as a lifestyle sock brand (and their lifestyle socks are really the most amazing things you can put your feet into). When we got to know them, they were launching a performance range of socks and at Freestak we have been mainly working on their running range launching into Europe. But they are nothing if not a creative, growing business and they now have an Adventure Sock range. And let me tell you … they are sweet! I have only recently started wearing them and I’m kicking myself for not getting involved earlier. They feel and look absolutely incredible. The first time I wore a pair, I remembered a hike that me and my wife did in the Alps. One of the days ended in Zinal, Switzerland. I was wearing some crappy, cheap thick hiking socks that I had bought because they were in the sale. After 10 hours or so walking I was in so much pain, I literally dropped my pack and sat on it while my wife went to sort out accommodation for the night. I had to borrow trainers from the person whose house we rented because my feet were in such a state I couldn’t put my boots back on for 24 hours. I know that if I’d had Stance Adventure socks, I would have been fine. I’m going out on a limb here, but I really think that hiking will – for me at least – never be the same again.

Remembering Alex

One of my friends I have known for the longest time is Tom. He is a phenomenal person – a father to two wonderful children, that I am privileged to know. A husband to a wonderful woman who I am lucky enough to call a friend. Tom is an entrepreneur, a musician, a surfer. And more than anything he is the most supportive friend I could hope to have. I could write a whole post about him.

But this is not about Tom. This is about his sister Alex.

Now I have to admit that I did not know Alex all that well. Tom and his older brother had three step-siblings and Alex was one of them. They are younger, so that is probably why I didn’t get to know them well. But I have been to many of Tom’s family occasions to have met Alex quite a few times.

She immediately struck me as a quiet, shy and yet hugely friendly girl. She was – like all of her siblings – talented and creative. But modest and humble with it.

So it was a real shock when Tom told me one day that Alex was sick. She had cancer. I guess when he told me that, Alex would have been 20 or 21 years old.

As the years went on, Tom would update me on how Alex was doing. I seem to remember there being some better times. And some times when the news was bad.

And then suddenly last year the news got a lot worse. Tom and all of his extended family were coming to London where Alex was in hospital. She was sick and getting sicker. Eventually Tom told me that the doctors were of the opinion that there was nothing more they could do for Alex.

She was 27 years old and she decided that there was no more treatment that she wanted to go through. She would just face what was coming.

Alex passed away last year, in December.

There really isn’t much that can be said about the death of someone so young, talented and loved. There isn’t anything that can sugar-coat the loss that her family feel. But perhaps there is a little something that a few of us can do to try to help ensure that future Alexs have a better chance of beating this disease.

That is why three of my closest friends – including Tom – and I are cycling to Paris and hoping to raise some money for our efforts along the way. So I am unashamed in asking you to consider a donation – anything at all that you can – for the charity that Alex herself supported. Click here and please support the fundraising effort. 

Saxosport Ride Like A Pro Week #1: Cry Like A Baby

I had been dreading the climb to the top of Box Hill for the last three hours. In my mind, it was the final brutal kick that would completely destroy my legs, already feeling as weak as cooked spaghetti from the 1,600m of climbing that I had already done.

As we turned on to the road leading up to the summit (if you can call it that) I thought I heard a car behind me. It was, in fact, a fellow cyclist. Although when I say ‘fellow’ it should be noted that the only similarity was that we were both on bikes. The rider passed me as if I was standing still. Actually I was going so slowly that it could have appeared from a distance that I was standing still.

This was the last lesson from a wonderful morning of lessons. Most of them learned the hard way.

So how did I find myself grinding up Zigzag Road to the top of Box Hill? Well, I was with my erstwhile teammates from the Saxosport Ride Like A Pro programme. The rider that shot past me was one of our group – Sam Harrison: a pro, riding for the Wiggins Team.

Joining Saxobank Ride Like A Pro (season #2)

Photo © Ryan Bevis
Photo © Ryan Bevis

I was part of the Saxobank RLAP programme last year. I felt hugely fortunate to be given the chance to learn about cycling from a great coaching team and a group of riders all more experienced than me. However for various reasons I didn’t feel that I got the most from RLAP’16. Partly that was down to my lack of cycling fitness, specific strength and undeveloped bike-handling skills. I wasn’t able to improve as much as I wanted because I spent so much time trying to get up to a basic level of cycling competence.

So I was really excited when I was one of a handful of alumni from the 2016 programme to be invited back for the RLAP’17 season.

I had spent this winter really trying to get better on the bike. Riding innumerable laps of Regents Park. As many long rides – especially out to Hertford, north of London – as I could. Absorbing as much info as I could about training properly and riding efficiently. And more learning about cycling history (I think that it’s only when you understand the past in a sport that you can get to grips with the present).

The First Group Ride

So Sunday 30 April was the date picked for the first group ride.

Inconveniently the start of the ride was in Dorking, a town to the south-west of London. Basically on the polar opposite side of the city from were I live. So the alarm needed to be set for 5:30am. On a Sunday morning (I was not popular with Mrs. Freeman!)

Having said that the location for the ride was inconvenient, it was a great excuse to check out a new area for riding. As I wrote a few paragraphs ago, most of my long rides have been north towards Hertford, which is lovely, but already becoming predictable. I was happy to check out a new area. One famed for the Surrey Hills. As I would discover first hand.

The ride started in a carpark just on the outskirts of the town. We were asked to choose a group to ride with: the steady group or the easier group. Of course I went for the steady group. The plan was an 80km ride that would take us around 3 hours. That seemed very reasonable and I was looking forward to chatting to some of my team mates and enjoy a roll out in the countryside.

But those Surrey Hills had different ideas…

The steady group was around 12 of us plus a couple of riders from the coaching team, Rowe & King and Sam from Team Wiggins. Thankfully as we rolled out and started to ride properly – in pairs side-by-side – I felt comfortable and pretty confident that I would not be dropped. At least not immediately.

What I had not done was check out the route in advance. Perhaps that was a good thing. But it did mean that I was not really ready for the amount of climbing and descending we would be doing. Wikipedia says that:

Dorking/ˈdɔːr.kɪŋ/ is a market town in Surrey, England between Ranmore Common in the North Downs range of hills and Leith Hill in the Greensand Ridge

The key thing that I had not appreciated was how sharp the hills are around that area. I was not prepared for the little brutes of climbs that we encountered. Leith Hill was the biggest climb, but there seemed to be dozens of other. Each one had me in the easiest gear I could get the bike in and most of them required me to be out of the saddle to keep upward momentum.

Then, of course, each climb would be followed by an equally sharp downhill. Most often on narrow country roads, with a ridge of loose gravel running down the middle. As someone who is a bit nervous about riding downhill, I could not work out what I struggled with more – the quad-shredding climbs meandering across the road at 8kph or the fast, twisting downhills, trying to avoid the potholes and on-coming cars at 45kph that immediately followed.

Towards the end of the ride we found ourselves on more undulating roads and the speed picked up a bit. This was undoubtedly my favourite part of the ride.

And then Box Hill came …

Riding Up Box Hill to the Cafe

Actually riding up Box Hill was great. Instead of a long, steep grind, I found switchbacks on Zigzag Hill, that resembled – albeit only slightly – what you might find in an alpine setting. Except much, much shorter. I didn’t even need to change out of the big ring. In comparison to the hills we have ridden up for 3 hours, the final climb was a breeze.

At the top the Saxosport Ride Like A Pro team for 2017 regrouped and we finally had a chance to chat properly for a while. The ride had not been the right opportunity to chat – there was too much pain on the climbs and concentrating on the descents. But we shared some thoughts on the ride and started planning what we will be doing next.

Honestly, I think the team – certainly the group I rode with – are all great. It was a pleasure to meet them.

And as for lessons learned. Well the first one is that I have a long (long) way to go as far as improving my cycling is concerned. I think this is probably a project that will take a few years. It will be a matter of getting fitter and stronger, improving my bike handling skills and developing more confidence.

Thankfully as part of Saxobanks RLAP programme, I am in a great position to become a better cyclist. I’m excited to see where this journey will take me (thanks Saxobank!)

 

Beget: to cause or bring about.

I can’t remember who first said to me:

Money begets money

What I know is that when they said it, there was more than a tinge of bitterness in their voice. And I guess I believe that it is true – if you are lucky enough to start out with a big pile of cash, it is generally easier to make a bigger pile of cash. Donald Trump, I’m looking at you.

But recently I have realised that there is another – much more positive – side to the idea that doing something can bring about more of it. I am currently experiencing it.

Fitness begets fitness

In the past month or so, I have really hit my stride. In fact I have written about little else on this blog. The reasons I have gone from struggling to get out for a run more than a couple of times per week are many, but include;

  • Discovering that I actually really enjoy cycling
  • Getting better at cycling (or at least less scared of going fast on the bike)
  • The arrival of spring – especially the warmer weather and longer days
  • Realising that my physical fitness is an essential part of being the best husband and colleague I can be

What has really become apparent though, is that the more I do, the more I want to do. It is almost as if now that I have invested some time in exercising, it would be a bigger and bigger waste to let the hard-won fitness go.

Transformation

The transformation has surprised me. I’ve gone from feeling like going for a quick run was far too much effort to waking up excited about a 3 hours solo bike ride. I have been getting out for a run or a ride five or six times per week. And I am starting to think about some challenges for later in the year (Chiltern 100 and the Etape London are on the menu for cycling. Might also chuck in a trail race).

So what does all this mean? I think that the old adage that “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” (attributed to Jim Ryun, US track and field athlete who won a silver medal at the 1968 Summer Olympics in the 1,500 metres) is the key here. I was motivated to try something new – cycling – and now it is becoming a habit (and a bit of an obsession) which makes it easier to make it stick. And that has increased my motivation to run as well.

Long may this new motivation last …

Minimum Complexity = Maximum Results

I read a piece today in a fashion magazine published by the Guardian. I was having a relaxing 15 minutes on Good Friday with Julie. We were in the new local coffee shop on the same street as the Freestak x Like the Wind offices (check it out if you ever happen to be in Bowes Park / Bounds Green – it’s called Hot Milk).

The piece was about having a signature look. One of the writers said that Steve Jobs had a signature look: black polo-neck, Levis 501 jeans, New Balance trainers. But I take issue with the author’s assertion that Steve’s choice of clothes was about fashion. I have read a few times that he chose to wear the same clothes day-in-day-out to reduce complexity (as well as liking what he wore – that is important). I have read that President Obama did the same thing – he wore the same grey or blue suit every day to reduce decision fatigue. I got this from a Fast Company piece that covered a few of the ways Obama reduced complexity.

Thinking about this small detail in the lives of some of the most driven and successful people in the world got me thinking. How complex is my life? How can I reduce that complexity. And what impact will it have?

Definite Decision Fatigue

I am now sure that I suffer from decision fatigue. I start work at 7am or 8am most days and often by 5pm or 6pm and I feel pretty drained. I usually try to fight that feeling with a coffee, but it rarely gives me back the ‘pop’ that I have first thing in the morning.

And I have been monitoring the amount of decisions and questions I have to manage during the day. When I have a day with lots of distractions, questions and demands I definitely get to dinner time with less energy than if I have been left alone to get on with a few important tasks or I have been out pitching all day.

Over the last few weeks I have been making a note at the end of each day about how much (on a scale of 1-10) I have been dragged into making decisions. Anything above a 7 and I usually want to collapse into bed by 9pm.

I guess that is natural.

Reducing the Complexity

So what is my plan? Well I am still experimenting so I don’t have a definitive answer yet. But here are a few of the things I am actively doing to try to reduce my decision fatigue, at least when I can:

  • Planning my exercise in advance: I know that a day when I don’t manage to exercise is a day when I will be wracked with guilt and boiling with frustration. So every day I make a decision about when I am going to exercise the next day. As far as possible, I stick to that plan. Most of the time that means deciding to get up at 5am and just getting a run or ride done. I also book in with friends to go for a run or ride and that takes away the negotiation that can happen – it’s agreed so I just go.
  • Wearing (mainly) the same things most of the time: I am not going to pretend that I can do a Steve Jobs or a Barak Obama. But I have bought four of the same Uniqlo shirts in grey and blue plus I have a couple of other shirts that I know fit and look good (in my opinion, of course!) I make sure there are always a couple washed and ironed (a good job for Sunday evening) and I wear them with the same selvedge jeans or chinos plus one of three pairs of trainers pretty much every day (plus one of three sweatshirts I have if I know it will be cold). I have made sure that this capsule wardrobe would be perfectly acceptable if I suddenly had a meeting or a client turned up at the office.
  • Blocking out time – this is one that I am struggling with. I have put time in the shared work diary when I would like to be left alone. The problem is that if I am in the office, no one takes any notice of that and just asks me whatever they want. It would probably be easier if I had an office, but we are all open-plan at Freestak, which is great most of the time, but this is one limitation of that set-up.
  • Expecting colleagues to work it out for themselves – as Freestak and Like the Wind both grow up, both Julie and I are looking for people who can take responsibility and work it out for themselves. Empowering people to take risks and use their initiative not only means the business can really grow and thrive, but it also allows each of us to focus on the few things that really matter and that we can have a big impact on. Gary Vaynerchuk apparently talks about his business like a federation – i.e. there are independent states that govern most of what they do and then a collective entity that each state contributes to and relies on for certain things.
  • Planning food in advance – this is much like the clothing thing: if I know on Monday what I am going to eat each day for the working week, then there are 15 fewer decisions / negotiations to navigate. It is hard to do this, of course. But I have noticed that on the days when we have left-overs for lunch and dinner is planned (usually because something needs to be eaten before it spoils) my decision fatigue score is a lot lower.

I am sure there are many other ways that I can help myself to be more productive by reducing the complexity day-to-day. I have a lot of requests from people asking me for little favours (quite often from clients) and being the kind of person I am, I really struggle to say “No”. But perhaps I need to a little more.

If you have come to the same conclusions as me and / or you have any suggestions for how I can improve my results by reducing complexity, I would love to hear from you. Especially if you have seen results. Of course, I realise that you might decide to reduce your own complexity by not replying to this post. I would totally respect that decision …

Starting To Click

IMG_7338
Sunrise on the ride to Hertford this morning

Sunday morning: I was just unloading some decking planks from the back of the car, when our neighbour crossed the road to say hello. He was on his way out to get some ingredients for lunch. As a keen gardner himself, the neighbour was interested in what we were doing with the array of potted plants, bags of compost and decking materials I was unloading. Truth be told, this was all my wife’s idea. I actually dislike gardening only slightly less than I dislike DIY. And I hate DIY.

But I was actually feeling really good by this point.

My alarm had gone off just after 5am. I had eaten breakfast, dressed, faffed and was on my bike by 5:30am, pedalling up the hill from where I live to meet a friend with the intention of riding out from north London into the countryside. He was late as usual, but a small coffee van in the carpark where we had arranged to meet was already serving (at 6am on a Sunday … only in a city like London!)

My cycling companion arrived, apologised and we set off. Steady pace – my legs were tired this morning and my friend had not ridden for a few weeks.

Within half an hour of us heading north, the sun rose and we were treated to the most glorious morning you can imagine. Our joy at being out before the roads got busy (6:30am on a Sunday, remember) was only tempered by the fact that it was way too cold for the kit we were wearing – hand in particular were throbbing with pain.

But the whole ride was wonderful. Scooting along quiet country lanes, seemingly a million miles from the hustle of the urban sprawl, I felt stronger, fitter, calmer and freer than I have for a very long time.

On the way back we had a coffee stop. And I was home by 10am.

Just in time for a trip to the garden centre with my wife to purchase the planks and plants that she wanted to get.

That was when my neighbour said the words that – if I am being completely honest – I love to hear:

You’re obsessed

Well, I am a firm believer in John Water’s quote:

Without obsession, life is nothing.

I actually think that getting obsessed by something is route #1 to getting as good as you can at it. And I really want to be the best I can be at a few things at least. Ten years ago, it was running. In the last year, it is cycling. And I’m still obsessed with  photography. And for the past five years I have been obsessed with Freestak and Like the Wind magazine.

My wonderful realisation today was that cycling has started to click. I am feeling more and more comfortable on the bike. My ability to read the road is improving. I am getting fitter. And I am getting braver.

One thing I know is that I am really lucky to have the opportunity to get obsessed with vanity projects like marathon running or road cycling or photography. These activities have no value other than boosting my ego. Nevertheless I would love to be the best I can be (given all the circumstances) and so I will embrace the obsession. Long live obsession.

My On-and-On Love of Photography

I have loved photography for as long as I can remember. I have really early memories of my Mum taking me through boxes of old photographs on the landing at home. I can still easily recall the smell of the 4 x 6 inch prints in their paper envelopes. I found the little plastic pots that the films were stored in absolutely fascinating – it was because I knew that they contained unseen stories. But more than anything, I loved being able to see history, even basic stuff like my parents or grandparents when they were young. I remember asking for the big cardboard box that housed all the photos to be taken down and just going through them for hours.

olympus-trip-35By the time I was 16, my interest in photography had changed but not diminished (though I was much less comfortable in front of the camera – good old body issues starting at that age). I somehow ended up talking about photography with a teacher at school who was, herself, interested in the art and science. She told me that there was a darkroom in the science block that I could use it if I wanted to. So armed with my parents Olympus Trip 35, I decided to do a GCSE qualification in the year before my A-Level exams.

It was great. The course – I was the only one in the school doing it – was overseen by the teacher who had introduced me to the dark-room. I had to study for an exam (which I sat on my own), learned some of the basic technical aspects of photography. I had to take photos, develop them and present them in a portfolio alongside descriptions of what I had shot and why. I took close-ups of tree bark, reflections in show windows, portraits of my brother and went to shoot the 1991 London marathon.

All the photography was in black and white. I still have the portfolio.

After that I let photography slip away. I had other interests. I didn’t have a camera for many years and I had not enough interest in photography to invest in one. Eventually in my late 20’s I bought a cheap point-and-shoot. It was pretty rubbish and only good for taking snaps at events. By the time I was in my mid-30’s smartphones all had cameras. I went to Peru with the woman I would later marry and we bought another point-and-shoot but one with a really impressive zoom, which was really useful for trying to capture the mountains.

In the last few years, however I have really fallen back in love with photography. Both learning about great photographers and photography technique, as well as taking as many photos as I can.

fujifilm_x-pro1For my 40th birthday, I invested in a really lovely camera – a Fuji X-Pro 1. It is a four-thirds mirrorless camera and I have a couple of prime lenses (18mm and 27mm) which came with the camera. The 27mm is 41mm equivalent on a full-frame camera and as a result, seems to be the perfect focal length for pretty much everything I want to shoot.

Because I believe that you learn by doing, I try to shoot as much as I can. And I particularly enjoy trying to make photos of people on the streets. Obviously I now have the benefit of a digital camera so there is really no limits to the number of photographs that I can take. However I like the idea of having to think about the composition and setting on my camera before I start shooting and then only taking a small number of photos (rather than putting the camera on burst mode and adopting a ‘spray and pray’ approach).

I also really enjoy getting inspired by other (often, but not always, well known) photographers. My current obsessions are people like:

  • Henri Cartier-Bresson – the original and still the best!
  • Bruce Gilden – I don’t really like how Gilden shoots on the street but I love that he has such a recognisable style
  • Garry Winogrand – shot in New York in the 1950’s / 60’s / 70’s capturing the spirit of the city
  • Martin Parr – I love the fact that Parr’s photos are so recognisable. Sadly he’s got a reputation for being a challenging person
  • Rebecca Lepkoff – another New York photographer who took amazing street photos in her neighbourhood
  • Joel Meyerowitz – an early adopter of colour film, Joel’s career continues to be amazing
  • Boogie – this guy really has guts and takes some incredibly challenging photos. I’d love to be 1% as brave as Boogie
  • Helen Levitt – starting in the late 1930’s, Levitt took amazing street photos on her Leica
  • Lee Jeffries – simply amazing photos of people living – rather than hanging out – on the streets.
  • Diane Arbus – the tragedy of Arbus’ life is perhaps reflected in the marginalised and ‘un-beautiful’ subjects of her work
  • Saul Leiter – yet another New York photographer who is really only recently getting the recognition he deserves

So that is me and photography. There has always been a thread of photography in my life. I never really pursued it so as a result I have never really been very good. But I’m trying to take photos as much as I can now. And my ultimate aim? End up having taken half a dozen really good photos in my life. That would be fantastic.