Friday, 24 July 2015

Review: POC Octal Raceday Helmet and Octal Aero Helmet

Last week, I reviewed the POC Do Blade AVIP Sunglasses, and was pretty taken with them. They might have outlandish looks, but their performance proved to be second to none. The unique style really grew on me, too. This week, I'm turning my attention to the Swedish brand's road helmet line-up, having been testing out the Octal Raceday and Octal Aero helmets.

The POC helmets made a slightly delayed entry into the World Tour peloton ranks, compared to the POC eyewear range. Ryder Hesjedal was wearing POC glasses in 2013, then by 2014 the whole of his Team Garmin-Sharp squad had donned the distinctive helmet design; now most are sporting the full POC combo within the team.

POC turned the drawing board upside down with the Octal helmet, much as they did with the Do Blade sunglasses. They decided that they would make a helmet which had a superb safety rating, whilst still being incredibly light and well vented. To do this, they threw normal styles aside; creating a helmet that looks large and bulky (to some) at first sight, but once you're wearing it, it feels light and supremely comfortable.

As with many "Marmite" products (something the POC range has frequently been called), I was keen to test it out myself, and see how it performed out on the road.



Superlight 

Your initial impression of the POC Octal Raceday and Octal Aero, will likely be that they are both super light. Mine weighed in at 206 grams for the Raceday, and 225 grams for the Aero, and that's for a large size helmet! POC have shaved weight from the designs through a number of areas; including the vent design, straps, retention system and shell.


Ventilation

Firstly, the vents on the Octal Raceday. The company has broken from the norm of using a large number of small vents to let air into the helmet; instead, they've opted for a lower number of larger ventilation slots. The design helps to remove weight and increase airflow, and apparently as a result of the greater through-flow it also aids aerodynamics. It certainly makes the Octal RaceDay feel light, and the increase in the airflow is very noticeable compared to standard design helmets.

The Octal Aero has just one small vent on the brow, then the same rear exhaust vents as the Raceday (it is effectively an Octal Raceday with a permanent plastic aero cover). It is noticeably warmer than the fully vented design, but by no means the hottest aero helmet I've tested. The small vent on the front provides a notable cooling effect on your brow.


Retention system

POC have also stripped weight through the helmet's retention system, yet in doing so, they still seem to have made it extremely comfortable in the process. Unlike most helmets, where the cradle system holds just the back of your head and pushes your head against fixed pads on the forehead area, the Octal uses an all-encompassing cradle band, which means the retention system itself is almost floating inside the helmet.

The cradle band system means that there are no hotspots on the helmets, which can occur with a normal rear cradle system. It also means that the padding can be minimized to just covering this band, as it's the main area of contact with your skull. POC have used Coolbest padding, which has proven extremely effective at wicking away sweat, even in hot summer riding.

The retention system is therefore comfortable, cool and secure; whilst also being very lightweight. A win-win all round.


Safety 

Lastly, but definitely not least (in fact, I probably should have considered this first), is safety. Some have likened POC's approach as similar to that of Volvo; perhaps an inevitable Swedish comparison, but they've certainly made some great innovations with the POC range of helmets, to make them as protective as possible.

The Octal provides greater coverage than most helmets, and in particular covers vulnerable areas such as the temples and the back of the head. The helmet's EPS liner is thicker in particularly vulnerable areas, and the wrapped uni-body shell provides far better protection than helmet shells that are made in multiple parts and then moulded together. The construction not only makes this helmet safer than most, it also makes it lighter.


The Little Things

OK, just one last thing worth mentioning before we conclude this review. POC really have put some neat little touches on these helmets, and my favourite has to be the "Eye Garage" that you get on the Octal Raceday.

The small silicone bumpers on the front vents of the helmet, allow you to securely place the arms of your sunglasses in there when it gets too dark or steamy for you to want to be wearing them. Initially a bit sceptical about how well these would work, I was quickly proven wrong, and when you've got a £200 pair of POC AVIP Do Blades that you need to stash somewhere, this system offers a safe and worry-free storage system.


Overall

Overall, both the POC Octal Raceday and Octal Aero have proven to be great helmets; despite some initial scepticism that I had about the design and looks.

Throwing current style trends aside, and starting afresh, will always create unrest within public opinion. However, I believe POC have created a Marmite product that you grow to love.

The helmets do admittedly looks large at first sight, and you'd expect them to feel cumbersome; however, once on they have a light airy feel, and a fit that is comfortable and very secure. Also throw into the mix the fact that these are some of the highest rated helmets in terms of safety, and I can see why pioneering teams like Garmin-Cannondale have selected them as a partner.

If you're willing to make the leap and accept that some people might comment on your "large lid" at times, then the POC Octal Raceday and Octal Aero are well worth considering. Cool, comfortable and very well designed. These are a winner in my opinion.

Shop the POC Octal and Octal Aero at Wiggle.co.uk


Wednesday, 22 July 2015

L'Etapé du Tour 2015 - The Mountains Were Calling...

My eyes flit open from a light nap/food-induced coma, to the sight of three things that make me incredibly happy: mountains, smooth tarmac roads and a fast flowing glacial river valley… and more mountains!

Having spent the last 24 hours in the beautiful surroundings of Lake Annecy, including a brief spin around the picturesque lake, we’re now heading deep into the Alps on our transfer vehicle. I'm with Team Le Coq Sportif, and we are making our way to La Toussuire and the start of the 2015 L'Etapé du Tour.

It's been too long since I've been in the Alps. I'm not sure exactly, but I think the last time I rode a bike here was during our mammoth 2011 France and Spain Tour. I've missed it. I hadn't realised how much I've missed it. When Le Coq Sportif asked if I'd like to join them for this year's Etapé, I jumped at the chance; not only would it involve a trip to the Alps, it would also tick an event off my ever growing Bucket List. Let’s get climbing some mountains.

I gave a few details of the route of this year's Etapé in my lead-in blog; as a succinct summary though, it's a beast. With 4,500 meters of climbing packed into its 140 km length, it was always set to be a hard day on the bike. I'm a sucker for a challenge though, right?



The Main Event


Following a fantastic evening meal, in the new Le Coq Sportif base in Le Corbier, we had an early night on Saturday; ready for the 5am wake up call and obligatory carb-shovelling breakfast, before the main event.

Despite ominous thunderstorms featuring heavily in the forecast, Sunday dawn broke with welcome clear blue skies over the Alps. A quick descent down from Le Corbier, and we were penned with the other 12,000+ riders in Saint Jean de Maurienne. Ready for the off.

There wasn't much warm-up once we had rolled out of town. After just 9 km we reached Montvernier, and the start of the Col du Chaussy; a 1st category climb, topping out at 1,533 metres.

The Le Coq Sportif team had been penned in the second start area, which meant 2,000 riders had already started before us, plus those that were ahead of us in the pen. As a result, the Col du Chaussy mostly composed of a fair bit of “a la gauche” as I tried to move up the places!

The scenery was already starting to impress though, and as we climbed off the valley floor, the early morning sun on the slopes provided a welcome distraction from the challenge of the first climb of the day.

Chaussy done, it was a fast descent, leading to a quick out-and-back along the valley floor. The valley section was included in this stage so that there could actually be an intermediate sprint (there aren't any other flat sections)!

The first descent of any mountainous sportive is always interesting. With so many riders on the road, some of which were super twitchy, it was quite a tense atmosphere (and there were some inevitable crashes). I also unfortunately discovered on this first descent that I had a very dodgy free hub which wouldn't engage immediately, and made sprinting out of hairpins near-on impossible! The combination of these two factors meant I took it easy on this first downhill. Not to worry, I thought, still 115 kilometres to go!



The valley floor stretch of the route was relatively uneventful; although somehow I found myself between groups, which meant a lot of pushing-on alone. Soon enough though, I reached the real challenge of the day: the Col du Glandon and Col de la Croix de Fer double-whammy.

The Glandon is effectively a false-peak, and after a small descent, the road ramps up again to crest at 2,067 meters above sea level at the Croix de Fer. The full ascent up to the top of the Croix de Fer has more climbing in it than any other ascent during this year's Tour de France, and it didn't fail to live up to its pre-event hype…

Starting in the river valley, the lower slopes were deceptively peaceful, shaded and gentle. By 10 km in though, the shade had abated and the late morning sun was beginning to beat down. The gradient was ramping up too, and my legs were starting to feel a bit of lactic build-up. Realising I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast, I wolfed down an energy bar, clicked up into the 28 sprocket and began spinning.

It was during the last five kilometres of the Glandon that I discovered why this stage had earned its mark as the “Queen’s Stage” of the 2015 Tour. This climb is a stinger! Towards the top, the gradient sharpens and the hairpins are frequent, whilst the shade is almost non-existent. With the temperature now pushing 30 degrees, I was milking the last bit of moisture from my water bottles, as I counted down the milestone markers to the summit.

By the time I rolled over the Glandon's crest, I realised that I'd made a mistake. I should have eaten more early on, and I definitely should have drunk more. I rolled into the feed station and binged on coke, oranges and dried fruit; desperately trying to rectify my error, and replenish my depleted stores.

Feeling a bit more human, and with a mouthful of figs and banana, I rolled down the short descent from the Glandon's summit and spun my way to the top of the Croix de Fer. From there, it was a fast and flowing descent back down to the valley floor; marred only slightly by my continued intermittent freehub problems… who knew how disorientating it is not being able to have a solid drive to push on as you come out of the corners!

Next up was the Col du Mollard. This climb only holds a 2nd category certificate, unlike the hors categorie classification of the Croix de Fer, or the 1st category of the Toussuire. This by no means implies it is a walk in the park, though; especially when the temperature is up at 34 Celsius and you have well over 100 km in the legs already!

My ascent of the Mollard could be likened to a roller-coaster ride through an oven. Probably as a result of my CocaCola overdose at the top of the Glandon, my blood sugar seemed to be yo-yo’ing something rotten! I’d go from feeling on a high and picking up places rapidly, to barely being able to turn the 36-28 gear. Unfortunately, as the climb emerged from the trees and progressed into sharp switchbacks, I was in the latter state of depletion. I sumitted the climb and rolled into the drinks station, swearing I’d stick to isotonic tablets and flapjack on my next long distance ride!

One final descent was then all that stood between me and the La Toussuire climb, which represented the final (substantial) hurdle of the day. Again, I lost time on this descent quite significantly; easing up because I was conscious of my weariness. I had to remind myself of the phrase "races are rarely won on descents, but they can definitely be lost". I didn't take any risks.

Heading into Saint Jean de Maurienne again, represented the completion of our loop, and the start of the ascent to La Toussuire. Only 15 km of climbing to a height of 1705 meters to go. Almost there…

At least that's what went through my mind as we initially hit the climb; but then I started to do the maths. My speed had dropped to a meagre 14 kph, so that meant this was going to be at least an hour of climbing. With the temperature up at 35 Celsius, and the new asphalt emitting a heat that was stifling, it was going to be a long hour.

The final climb all blurred into one in all honesty. It wasn't until I did it again the following morning, before flying home, that I realised what a great climb this is. It is twisty, interesting and varied. During the event, it was more of an out-and-out struggle.

I eventually crossed the finish line in a time of 6 hours, 14 minutes. That placed me 381st out of 12,000+ participants. I collapsed into a pile, and shovelled pasta, Toulouse sausage and water into my dry and gaping mouth. That was quite a day out!

As I was gingerly rolling back down the hill to Le Corbier, I began to take in what had just happened.

On paper, this didn't look like more of a challenge than many other Endurance Rides I've done; it had less climbing and less distance than either last year's Dragon Ride or the Mallorca312. Yet, it was without doubt one of my hardest days in the saddle.

As I removed a crusty and salt stained Le Coq Sportif Pro Jersey from my shoulders, back at the hotel, I realised the amount of fluid I must have perspired through its high-tech lightweight fabric. I was grateful it had been a comfortable and well fitted minimalist race jersey!

As I removed my Etapé casquette, shorts and socks, they revealed stark tan lines. I realised that it was the combination of the heat, some nutritional mishaps, and the far longer climbs than I've endured in other events, which had made this such a challenge.


I'm a sucker for a challenge though, and whilst this day out was definitely up there as one of my hardest, it was also one of the best. The scenery of the Alpine landscape takes your breath away, almost as much as the climbs themselves; whilst the feeling of riding on completely closed roads, with 12,000 other cyclists, is something truly fantastic.


As the Le Coq Sportif team relaxed with beers and a BBQ in the ski-resort restaurant that evening, we recounted our individual challenges and victories. It seems that whether you're a bike-courier from Paris, a journalist from Spain, or a British blogger; the Etapé presents a great challenge and a great event for all.

I might have ticked it off my Bucket List for now, but I fully intend this year's event will not be my last.

Until next year!


With Thanks 


A huge thanks goes to Le Coq Sportif for hosting me at the event, and providing me with kit and company that made this such a special experience. Their range of cycling kit is good enough for the Maillot Jaune, and it was definitely good enough for the Etapé. Full blog reviews coming soon!

A special thanks also to Rufus Exton, who provided the stunning photographs in this blog post; they really showcase what a fantastic event and weekend this was.









Saturday, 11 July 2015

Alpine Adventure - L'Etapé du Tour 2015

This time next week, I should be kicking back with a chilled drink; taking in the Alpine air and preparing myself for a big day in the saddle. It's time for L'Etapé du Tour 2015!

So far this year, my big rides have consisted of riding around the perimeter of Mallorca, during the Mallorca312 challenge; as well as riding around the island of Jersey, during the Natwest Island Games. So, I figure now it's about time to ride over (not around) some mountains. I reckon the route of this year's Etapé should accomplish that...

The Route

This year, the L'Etapé du Tour follows the route of Stage 19 of the Tour de France. Set deep in the Alps, it has afforded itself the label of "The Queen's Stage" of this year's Tour, and there is little doubt that it will be instrumental in deciding who arrives in Paris in the Maillot Jaune.

The route might only be 138km long, but packed into that distance is more climbing than any other stage during Le Tour. The ascents of Col du Chaussy, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Mollard and La Toussuire, sum up to a total of 4,106 meters of elevation gain throughout the route.

There is no question that this is a climbers' stage. La Toussuire is famed for the moment when Chris Froome "dropped" Bradley Wiggins during the 2012 Tour de France; its duration is certainly punishing, and it contains more elevation gain than any other single climb in this year's Tour. Let's go climbing...


A New Challenge

The Etapé will be a new kind of challenge for me. Unlike the Mallorca312 back in March, where I was aiming for a personal challenge of completing the event in 10 hours; I'm going to treat the Etapé more as a placing challenge, and I'd like to see how high up the ranks I can come.

The level of the riding at the front of the Etapé peloton is very high, and the field itself is massive. It would be great to be in the top 20 percent of the finishing times, and I feel after last week's Island Games, I've hopefully got the form to accomplish that.

Le Coq Sportif 

I'm attending the Etapé as a guest of Le Coq Sportif, who are the official kit sponsor of the one day event, as well as the Tour de France as a whole.

Le Coq Sportif has an iconic cycling heritage, and have had links with the Tour de France for over 30 years. After a brief hiatus, they returned to being the creators of the Maillot Jaune and the other podium jerseys in 2012, and have quickly re-established themselves firmly as a unique and special cycling brand. If the video clip below doesn't get you fired up about Le Tour, I'm not sure what will!


Kit

Kit is always something that's an interesting topic when taking on Endurance Riding challenges. Tying in with my Le Coq Sportif support in this event, I'll be putting a selection of their riding apparel through its paces at the Etapé, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it performs.

The kit I've selected includes the Classic Jersey, Premium Bib Shorts, Arm Warmers, Etapé du Tour Socks and the Ultralight Windbreaker. I'm hoping that the selection will be enough to get me through anything that the alpine climate might throw at us, and also keep me in comfort for the duration. I'll report back on the kit in a separate post, after I've put it through some test miles during the event!

View the Le Coq Sportif range at lecoqsportif.com (Link)


Bring On The Alps!

There's not a lot left to say at this stage, except that it's been far too long since I was last in the Alps, and I'm very much looking forward to riding there again.

I'll keep the blog and my social media profiles updated before, during and after the event; it's sure to be a great few days. Fingers crossed that we get some great conditions to ride in!