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 #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.

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 …

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.

Could this be a signal? LVMH (maybe) in talks to buy Rapha

This post is about signals. Two signals actually. One is the change of this blog from a personal obsession about running a marathon. The other is about how the endurance sports and lifestyle / fashion worlds are colliding.

First: changes to this blog

When I started this blog (initially posting anonymously as the Red Squirrel) it was because I wanted to record my attempts to change myself. From an overweight, unhappy smoker into a runner. I thought that being a runner would fix many of my ailments. I would get fitter. Be happier. Have more self respect. Look better.

Little did I know.

In fact my interest (some might call it obsession) with running has completely changed the direction of my life. Apart from giving me a love of participating in endurance sports, I have also co-founded two businesses linked to running – Freestak and Like the Wind magazine. Now, through running, I have work that I love, a circle of friends that I am so grateful for and a personal interest in sport as something to do and as a business.

The change from fat smoker to runner and then cyclist, climber, mountaineer and triathlete was charted on this blog. The development of my interest in the history and culture of endurance sports, outdoors pursuits and adventure has crept in. And now, I am going to start writing about the business side of my passion.

How the business of endurance and outdoors sports is changing

The first thing I am going to write about might possibly represent a really interesting change in the industry. It has been reported that LVMH (that is Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) is in talks to buy British cycling brand Rapha.

Now the fact that there are rumours about a LVMH x Rapha deal are just that – rumours. But LVMH has previous in this area. There is no secret that the mega-corp of luxury is interested in getting into the sports sector. Indeed as reported by Road.cc;

Earlier this year, LVMH together with the family holding company of CEO Bernard Arnault, took a stake in American private equity house Catterton, which specialised in investing in mid-market companies.

The new business, L Catterton, has investments in businesses including activewear brand Sweaty Betty and pet food manufacturer Lily’s Kitchen, while its holdings in the sports sector include compression clothing maker 2XU, the Peloton at-home fitness bike, sports drinks and supplements manufacturer X2 Performance, and the 360fly action camera brand.

And this is what is so interesting for me. Endurance sports have not traditionally been seen as sectors where luxury – or at least lifestyle – brands could play. It used to be the case that runners and cyclists wore kit that was all about function and as far from fashion as it is possible to be. Indeed the function-over-form mindset was ingrained to such an extent that there always seemed to be a race to the bottom as far as pricing was concerned. And it almost seem ludicrous to pay full price for kit, when everyone knew that at the end of the season there would be heaving bins of reduced stock that was no different from what had come before or what would come after, aside from the colour. And who cared about the colour, right?

Then over the last decade or so, the attitudes have started to change. Rapha started creating elegant (and still very functional) cycling apparel that allowed riders to express their love of cycling through the way they looked. Nike started creating running kit that looked as good as it performed – the Nike Gyakousu range is a case in point. Lululemon arrived with functional apparel that men and women wanted to wear all the time, not just at the gym. Other running brands that were as much about looks as performance have appeared; Soar Running. Iffley Road. Tracksmith. In cycling there are so many beautiful brands; Isadore. Huez. ashmei (which is in running, tri and cycling). For mountianeers and adventurers there are abundant brands that strike a perfect balance of style and function; The North Face. Arc’Teryx. Patagonia. The list goes on.

And the point is … ?

So why does all that matter? Well on a very personal front, this all means a couple of things. Firstly, I believe this signals a maturation of the endurance-sports-as-lifestyle trend. That people are looking for beautiful, stylish kit in which to do their sport has to be a good sign that they are going to continue with said sport. And that makes me very happy because I believe that the more people there are running, cycling, swimming and climbing, the better the world will be.

Secondly, as the co-founder of two businesses that need people who are passionate about endurance sports in order to thrive, the fact that mainstream brands and brand owners are looking to get in on the act is great. LVMH is a huge business – €35.6bn revenue in 2015 and 120,000 staff at the last count – and if they get involved in cycling, that is not just a signal that the sector is growing. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

So I believe that the rumours that LVMH and Rapha are in talks is great. Whether or not the whispers are true, there is no smoke without fire and it might not be long before we see other fashion, luxury and lifestyle brands getting involved with endurance sports and outdoors brands.

It might even end up the case that the MAMIL will become a fashion icon. Maybe.

Saxobank to the rescue

If you read my last post, you will know that I have recently been in withdrawl from running – mourning the loss of an addiction that took me from hatred of what I had become to one of the proudest moments in my life.

But in the last three years, running has slipped away from me. I’m still not sure why, but I can take a guess. Running is hard – that is part of the attraction. But running faster than you ever have before gets very, very hard the faster you go. Partly I think I knew what it would take for me to better my time in the marathon and simply didn’t fancy it. Plus Julie and I had launched a business and I wasn’t up for dedicated the same amount of time to my running as I had been to achieve my PB.

I thought about focusing on ultras, but they are not where my real passion is. I think that without real passion, it is impossible to excel at something. I don’t have the same love of running in the mountains that Julie does and so I am always happy to run with her in ultras, but I am not going to dedicate weekends to finding hills outside of London to train on. And if a long run turns from two and a half hours (which was what I was doing for the marathon) to six or seven hours, that hardly solves the time-challenge I have with Freestak taking priority.

So I have been drifting. Getting slowly tubbier and less fit. And at the same time, less happy.

What I need is a gift from the Gods

IMG_4823
Me in my Saxobank Ride Like A Pro kit after today’s ride

Maybe I have just been given exactly what I need. Not quite from the Gods, but it was certainly unexpected and from a source that I would never have expected; a bank. Saxobank in fact.

Some time ago I received an email about a cycling team project that Saxobank were organising, called Ride Like A Pro. It sounded amazing – a team of normal people riding and training together with a big target at the end of a programme that would last all summer.

With my increased focus on cycling, I thought something like this would be perfect. I also thought I had no chance of being part of the programme. But nothing ventured, nothing gained… I filled in the application form.

Two weeks ago, I was contacted by the person behind SaxoSports Ride Like A Pro to be invited to join the team of 50. First step would be to come to Saxobank offices in Canary Wharf, the financial district in the east of London. That is how I found myself outside a vast glass and steel building, on a cold blustery evening wondering if this was all a cruel joke or a big mistake.

I was welcomed into the building and met some of the other riders in the team. They were all lovely – some had been part of the programme last year, but many were first-timers like me. Then Matteo Cassina – the man at Saxobank behind the Ride Like A Pro concept – introduced the programme to us. Oh and we were give all our team kit. The idea is really quite simple; we will get together once a month between now and September to ride as a group and learn from a team of coaches and experts. We will also start meeting up for rides with other team members when we can. We can have subsidised training and analysis. And at the end of the summer, we go to Spain to ride a stage of the Vuelta a España with Alberton Contador, whose foundation we are supporting through this programme.

I have found the next thing… or it found me.

So like a gift from the Gods, I have been presented with the thing that I was looking for. A bit of structure. A target to aim for. A group of people to be responsible to. And perhaps most importantly, a way to test myself that doesn’t allow comparison with things I have done before.

I have been out riding more and more since getting the call, already excited about the chance to go from a very low base to Riding Like A Pro. Obviously I’m incredibly grateful to the Saxobank team for inviting me to join. I already have a feeling this could be the start of something. Obviously, running will always be my first love. But when the Gods deliver a chance like this, it would be foolish to not fall in love all over again, right?

Three punctures, one culprit: the story of a ride

This week the weather has been – as we like to say in the UK – changeable. That means shit in almost every other place on the planet. I guess there is truth in the myth that April brings showers and we have had a shed-load of them this week. But the weather predictors – those brave souls upon whose words avid BBQers and wedding planners wait with baited breath – said that today would be sunny, dry, still and cool. Boy, were they right.

In fact it is probably fair to say that they could have said “it’ll be a perfect morning for a bike ride” as shorthand for what the weather was going to do.

So I contacted Kaz, a friend of many years standing, who I met at the Mornington Chasers running club (he was the team captain for one year, dontcha know) and asked if he would be up for a ride. Since the heady days at the ‘Chasers when me, Kaz, Marc, Alex, John and a gaggle of others all dueled it out to see who was the fastest, who could find the most effective training plan and who would go ‘sub-3’ first or get a London Championship qualifying time, we have changed. Fatherhood for some. Moving away for others. Old age for most of us. And Kaz started dabbling in triathlon (I say ‘dabble’ – he actually represented Hong Kong in the ITU World Champs) and now he’s always up for a cycle.

Kaz suggested a 70km loop that he knows into the countryside north of London. I though that sounded much nicer than endless 3 mile laps of Regents Park.

As I opened the door this morning, it was spectacular. The cars were still dusted with frost at 6am and it was cold. But the sun was already high in the clear, blue sky and there wasn’t much more than a gentle breeze. Perfect.

I was very fortunate to receive a parcel earlier in the week from ashmei, who have recently launched a cycling and tri range to complement their running apparel. We agree a contra-deal for some work and they had sent me three items from their bike range – bib-shorts, merino carbon cycle jersey and cycle softshell jacket. After following instructions about washing the bib-shorts before the first ride, this three-some was my kit for today. It was perfect. Actually I will write about my first impressions in a review that I’ll post soon. But for now, suffice it to say, this kit is amazing.

So there I was – breakfast eaten, tea finished, all kitted up and ready to ride. Well almost…

The back tyre on my bike was flat. As flat as a pancake.

Actually two weeks ago I had a flat on that tyre on a group ride. The guys I was riding with had helped me change the tube and used a CO2 canister to fill the tyre. One of them warned me that I should deflate the tyre and refill it with air when I got home, because the CO2 would escape over time. I forgot.

So no drama. I used the track pump to get the tyre up to 100psi and off I went.

Kaz and I cycled to Hertford. About 25 miles. It is a flat ride out with a couple of tiny hills. But I was really blowing from around 15 miles onwards. It felt like I was peddling through treacle the whole time. And the bike felt squishy.

When we arrived in Hertford, I found out why. My back tyre was soft. Not flat – I would definitely have felt that. But it completely depressed under my thumb. That is why it felt so hard to pedal at my usual pace.

We had a coffee and then I changed the inner tube. I thought that maybe it was the CO2 from a couple of weeks ago causing problems (although the tube was completely full of air since I’d pumped it up). We set off.

Five miles down the road and that squishy feeling was back and I was better tuned in to it. We stopped and once again, the back tyre was like marzipan.

A second tube come out and this time, in the absence of a friendly Halfords that would lend me a track pump – as we had in Hertford – I was reduced to pumping furiously with a pump that looked like a biro.

This time, though, I did what I should have done the first time the tyre was flat. And the second time. I checked really, really carefully for anything stuck in the tyre. And sure enough, there it was – a tiny splinter of glass. Almost too small to see and actually so small that it was barely piercing the inner tube, so the puncture was a slow depressurisation rather than a dramatic psssshhhht that usually happens when glass meets pressurised rubber.

Finally after a few minutes, we were on our way again.

Sun was still out. The temperatures were still low and the sky was blue. The roads were dry and – thankfully – for the majority of the ride, the drivers were not all reckless, aggressive idiots. It was in fact, a perfect day for a ride. Just a shame that the rider was such a novice! Lesson learned. Let’s hope that there are more days like this for me to find out ways to develop as a cyclist.

My runners prayer

Recently I was talking about the words of the Lord’s Prayer – something that I don’t think about all that often, but having sung the words every morning at chapel in school from the age of 11 to 18, I had no problem recalling them.

In the prayer there is a line

thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven

This line popped into my head today as I was on a group ride – my second such morning in the last week – as I considered the spirit of cycling versus running.

Back on the bike

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 12.14.32It’s been many, many years since I have been on a bike for fun. A while ago I dabbled in triathlons and I used to ride to get fit for them. But I was always more into the running and to be honest I have always been very nervous about cycling. Or more accurately, nervous about falling off a bike, at high speed, whilst wearing thin Lycra kit.

But since the London marathon three years ago, my focus has moved away from racing marathons. I have run some trail ultras and loved them, but I didn’t have the drive and motivation to train intensively for them. So I have lost my way. In the last few months, however, I have really started embracing variety. I’ve been running, certainly, but I have also been hitting the gym. And trying yoga.

Then last Sunday I joined a local group of cyclists for a group ride. It was very friendly and we waited for the group to come back together several times. We managed 43 miles in a little over three hours. Then a friend, Ben, suggested that he would organise a ride for today – Good Friday – out to Essex, followed by a couple of hours at the Olympic velodrome, watching a track race meet. I was super excited about this, not least because I knew the riders today would be of a higher standard and the planned route was longer than last Sunday.

Despite my enthusiasm, though, my concerns about cycling remain firmly in place. A faster, longer ride with better cyclists would only serve to increase the chances that I would either hit the wall (or bonk in cycling parlance), get dropped by the group, crash… or all three.

If it’s so scary, why do it?

So if cycling is so scary, why do it? Well I think that part of the answer to that lies in the way many cyclists are passionate, knowledgable and excited about the sport, not just the activity. Undoubtedly I am drawn to cycling because I love the physical challenge – that is what got me so excited about running. But I am also drawn to the way that seemingly so many cyclists are into the sport of cycling, not just the activity.

Certainly there will be many, many people who cycle for fitness and leisure and have no, or only very superficial, knowledge of the sport of cycling. The same is true of running. But today on the ride, the other members of the group I was with all had matching jerseys. I saw dozens and dozens of similar groups, all proudly sporting the same kit as one another. I don’t see groups of runners out on a Sunday long run, all wearing the same tops to identify them as a group.

I also loved the way that the group I was riding with talked about past and present athletes. They seemed to know their sport quite intimately. I wonder how many runners care about heroes of the road and track from the 1950s and 60s or in fact from any era in history?

In running as it is in cycling

So this is my fervent wish – I would love many more runners to get into the intellectual and spiritual side of the sport. It would be fantastic if  runners knew about the history of the sport and celebrated that. I would be over the moon if retailers used their intimate interaction with runners to educate them. I would love brands to spend far more of their time and the invaluable attention that they have, on what it means to be a runner and why running is such a fantastic sport. Of course, these fervent wishes are the basis of Freestak, where we spend all of our time telling brands about storytelling, and Like the Wind, where we try to reach more and more runners with stories about why we run, rather than how to run.

So here is to cycling – I hope that the sport of running looks at its two-wheeled cousins and decides to take a leaf out of its book.

Book & talk about ‘Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists’ by Michael Hutchinson

Running is such a simple sport. The common wisdom is that all you need is a pair of shoes and enough functional clothing for the weather / legal requirements of the place you are running in. Some even argue that you don’t need shoes. Or clothes.

But that is also, perhaps, one of the downsides of running. I don’t think there is much that science can do to help runners go faster. Certainly the footwear and apparel brands are doing their best with shoes that give more return or weigh less and clothes that are designed to wick sweat and support muscles. And nutrition brands undoubtedly create products that are scientifically superior to the beer and butties that our running forefathers trained and raced on. And of course there are GPS devices and heart rate monitors that mean that training can be more and more specific and controlled. And yet…

Despite all the technological advances, runners in the UK and Europe are – on average and at every level – getting slower. Not only slower than the runners coming from the distance-running powerhouses in east Africa but also slower than the aforementioned beer-and-butty fuelled runners of the past.

Maybe in cycling it is different? Well Michael Hutchinson is certainly obsessed with finding out.

On 6 May, Michael will be at the Bloomsbury Institute to talk about his new book;

Faster_image001Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists

Hutchinson will explain why cyclists do what they do, what the riders, their coaches and the experts get up to in preparation and why the idea of going faster is such an appealing, universal instinct for all of us.

This examination of what it takes to get faster on two wheels has garnered high praise already from none other than the man who has made cycling fast a national obsession: Sir Dave Brailsfor. He says of Faster,

Fantastic. An intelligent and personal insight in to the world of elite cycling

There should be no surprise that Michael has written a good book on the subject of cycling fast. Hutchinson is a former professional cyclist and won multiple national titles in both Britain and Ireland, represented both countries internationally and rode for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games in 2002, 2006 and 2010. He also has writing-form having already penned an award-winning book, The Hour: Sporting Immortality the Hard Way.

So I would say that this is going to be a very interesting read. And if you can get to the talk, then I think it will be a fascinating discussion around the subjects in the book. I went to the Bloomsbury Institute for a talk by Scott Jurek about his book Eat and Run as well as a talk by Graeme Obree for his book A Training Manual For Cyclists (I still need to post my review of that book… sorry!) – both were utterly brilliant! If you want to go to this latest talk click here and book a ticket (in case you need to copy and paste it: http://tinyurl.com/oqa9fgo) – it’ll be a very worthwhile £10 I assure you!