Limits

Gearing


Gears.  Eventually, we all wish we had at least one more…

Spring is a time of both optimism and realism for the cyclist. The weather improves, and so does your conditioning if you ride enough, but every ride is a struggle with your limits. Last weekend, at the end of a cool, damp and disappointing month of March, I set out to test my limits and get a feel for how much I needed to work on before I could comfortably ride a flat century in May.

Part of what gets me on the roads is joy and anticipation. What also gets me on the road is worry and determination. Sensible riders train. Sensible riders plan. Sensible riders are aware of their limits. Every spring I set out to find mine. I’m not entirely sensible.

Some things are predictable when you break out of your winter patterns and get outside. Your first obstacle is not your legs, but your lungs. They’re a limit, because if you’re like me and your indoor workouts aren’t much more than basic muscle maintenance, pulling in big gasps of cold air is a shock to the system. You’re not used to it, but you can’t avoid it. Climbs end in gasping and puffing, and the only cure is to keep moving. I ride short rides after work to get my system warmed up and working, so the lungs have expanded their limits recently.

Your second obstacle is the one you expect. Your muscles are not ready. Climbs hurt, short distances feel long, and you wonder why the fitness you were trying to hold on to during indoor workouts managed to escape you. Part of this comes from being limited by your clothing. Tights, arm and leg warmers, base layers, jackets, heavy gloves, shoe covers, and any combination of heavy, constricting things you wear to keep the cold out limit you in a way you never expect. It makes an unexpected warm day when you can shed layers feel like a reward.

Your equipment feels like a limit when you’re not in form. Every spring I get a full mechanical check. New cables, chain and anything else I need. Sadly, doing so eliminates a very useful excuse for not riding well – the bike already had a tune up, so the limit is me. I just keep the cranks turning and push against those limits.

Saturday’s ride was hard to dress for. It was 40 degrees when I set out, and closer to 60 degrees when I finished. I did okay – I was slightly cold on the way out, and slightly warm on the way back, but I didn’t suffer too much for the temperature.  The distance was 54 miles. Good for this time of year. The course was hilly, which was a challenge. I worried about it, which was normal.

My goals were to work my legs and to ride smart. The first goal was easy. Finishing the ride would work me enough. The second was the real challenge. In this case, riding smart is pushing my limits without crashing into those limits and breaking down or bonking.

Oddly, I felt better than I expected to feel. I lacked long rides, but I got more out of repeated shorter rides during the week than I expected. Since I was an unofficial ride leader (assisting my friend Ron, who helpfully volunteered me for the job) and since I know the route, I spent much of the ride at or near the front of the group. After one pleasant descent, I knew I was facing a long climb. At the base, I shifted into the small ring in front and set up a good cadence, knowing that I had at least 3 or 4 taller cogs on my cassette to use if necessary. I only hoped that I wouldn’t use them all. At the top, about a mile later, I hadn’t used my tallest gear and nobody had passed or dropped me. In fact, as we waited for stragglers, including ride leaders, I was complemented on keeping a steady pace. For a blissful moment, I was a climber. It let me forget for just a moment that “real” climbers are usually about 6 inches shorter than I am, and weigh between 50 and 70 pounds less than I do. I am the cycling equivalent of a gorilla. I rely on power to cope with the disadvantages of my size. Starting out in the small ring and working at a strong, steady cadence was smart riding.

Later in the ride we bypassed the Adams Morgan neighborhood in the District of Columbia to try a path made from a cut off section of road.  It was much steeper than anywhere else on that ride, and it was long enough to hurt. I started cranking up the hill slowly with everyone else. At some point we have all done what I did next. I engaged the right-hand shift lever only to be thwarted by the upper limit screw of my rear derailleur. I was out of mechanical help. I had hit a limit, and I had to suffer on my own. Suffering ensued, but I persevered. I think everyone suffered on that climb, but that is the nature of cycling and hills.

Now I’ll take a brief detour into the wonderful topic of gearing. My friend Carol, who doesn’t have a self-deluded bone in her body, insists that if you buy those gears, you should use them all. It helps you ride smart. My own point of view is that there are a lot of options, and whatever you choose to use should be based on both your wants and the style of riding you do. I also have some personal demons. I’ll get to them in a moment.  I have one bike with compact fifty tooth outer and 34 tooth inner (50-34) chainrings, but the bike I ride most has mid-range chainrings (52-36). I am not a racer, so I don’t want to handicap myself by using standard (53-39) chainrings, but I like to ride fast on occasion. The personal demons I mentioned absolutely refuse to allow me to ride on triple chainrings. I did ride them at one time, but the tallest gear ratios ended up being quite lonely and seldom used, and mechanically, a double setup makes more sense for me. That and the snobbery my personal demons insist upon make my gear choices a little smaller than they could be. My cassette is 11-speed, with cogs ranging from eleven to twenty-eight teeth (11-28).  I could probably use a taller gear or two, but when I got the bike, I didn’t have a taller cassette option. When I get another bike, I will probably buy a taller cassette, perhaps an 11-34, because like most people, I always want to have a taller gear to go to, but I’ll keep the 52-36 chainrings, because they feel right. I don’t spend a lot of time in my tallest cogs on the cassette and the small ring in front, but that choice is determined by every individual’s limits. Many of those limits are as much psychological as physical. I can push a 36-28 combination on the climbs that I ride. Short steep climbs are always hard. I like the challenge. Some climbs make me long for a 36-34, or even a 34-34 to keep my aging legs engaged. However, most of my riding is done in the big chainring and the middle of the cassette, and sacrificing gears in that spot to get easier climbing would also be an adjustment. Psychological limits will determine that choice. I may look for a taller cassette, such as an 11-30 an 11-32 before I get another bike, but I want that decision to be practical. I’m able to ride well with that 11-28 for now.

By the time I finished the ride, my legs were tired.  I expected that. After some well-deserved beer and some good conversation at ride’s end, I went home feeling tired, with my limits slightly expanded, and my mind eased somewhat. My recovery ride the following day was just as important as pushing my limits on Saturday. I had to keep the legs moving and expand those limits if I wanted to reach my goals. An easy ride after a hard day will get your legs used to the work they need to do. Recovery isn’t just rest, it is also being smart in your training.

Every rider has had what I’ve heard described as a “Martha Reeves moment”. Those moments are named after the classic Motown song by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, where you have nowhere to run to, and nowhere to hide. You just suffer a little and hope that you don’t crash hard into your limits. Martha Reeves speaks to me a lot when I’m riding. I can’t run, and I can’t hide. I can persevere though, and usually I do. The key is to know where my limits are. The goal is to expand them.

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Spring Training

It’s the first day of Spring, 2018.  A cold rain and sleet are falling. Later tonight, it will snow. It doesn’t feel like spring yet. Every chance I get, I get out on the roads and ride. I have an event in May that’s a goal, and at this point I’m desperate to get outdoors again. The weather has not made it easy.

Of course, every time the weather is good enough to ride, I ride. With the start of daylight savings time, my opportunities have expanded. I get an hour after work to ride before the dark and cold catch up to me, and now that I have that hour, I don’t want to waste it. I suffered through a ride last evening. I knew that the weather was going to turn wet and ugly. You take your chances when you get them.

Spring is not my favorite season, but it’s a hopeful time. When Spring comes there are very few excuses that will work for not getting out to exercise. There are simply too many problems that must be overcome. You’re out of shape.  You can drop some weight. You have a goal to meet and the clock is ticking. These factors play against a litany of painful conditions: it’s still cold out there. It’s windy too, as if the temperature wasn’t cold enough. There is no such thing as comfort in cool or cold weather cycling gear. It restricts you in many ways while it grants you the warmth you need. I know a few people who won’t leave the gym until mid-April at the earliest. They are not cyclists. Now, I admit that runners also share in this manic desire to get outdoors; but unlike road cyclists they move at a more sensible rate of speed for cold weather. At high speed, there is no easy way to keep the cold out. Modern cycling jackets and gear are excellent at doing that, but the subtle difference between warm enough and too warm is a very elusive thing to manage. This is why I want to see Spring progress as quickly as possible. I can’t wait to shed layers.

Last weekend I got a day worth putting miles in for. It was bright on Sunday, and the temperatures climbed up into the 50s, which feels warm at this time of year. Warm enough to trade tights for leg warmers? Yes. If I guess wrong, I’ll suffer – but I’ll suffer anyway. I might as well take a chance. I’m wearing layers to remove in case I overheat. I wanted to ride for 40 miles.  Not a lot, but right now it feels like a lot.  With a minimal training base, this is a reasonable goal. I’m shooting for a lot of smaller efforts to work myself into shape. Riding for an hour after work at least 3 or 4 times a week will do me more good than long rides on the weekend with little in between. As the weather improves, I’ll stretch the distance, and of course I’ll build rest into the schedule too. I don’t want to burn out or lose motivation. Rest days and sleep, particularly when you’re training in the Spring, are vital.  It’s better to keep your focus and avoid breaking down when you’re in the process of building a training base.

When I leave home, the best rides head west.  The trouble is that west is the direction in which you find the climbs. I’m not in climbing trim. I climb fairly well for a big guy, and I don’t avoid climbing because I can’t get better at it through avoidance. I have 22 gears, and many are good for climbing with, so I might as well use them. I try to be realistic about what I can do. I was ready to get my training started, so I headed west into the hills last Sunday.  Sadly, the wind was working against me.  I spent the first half of the ride climbing up hill after hill into a steady wind. It made me feel more out of shape than I thought I was. Worse than that, I’d chosen the warmest part of the day to ride in, so I encountered other riders on the road. They looked like a very happy bunch. There they were, passing in the opposite direction with a friendly wave. I gave a friendly wave back. I understood their desire to be there. I only wished I looked as happy as they did.  I didn’t feel happy. I was grinding along with the feeling that I’d been too comfortable this winter. Now I was paying for it. I was suffering, and I deserved it.

A little over halfway through my ride, I took a brief rest stop.  I had an empty water bottle, so I was drinking enough. My clothing was doing an admirable job of holding in my sweat, making temperature control a challenge, particularly now that I’d stopped. I was cold, a little sore, and my only real consolation had been the scenery. I was ready to hold on to any positives I could find. I was feeling defeated by the hills and the wind, and I was ready to cut the ride short. I took 10 minutes to recover a little.

Then I turned for home. Suddenly I understood why all those other riders looked happier than I was. The wind was with them. They were riding downhill for the most part. Now I was, too. My speed picked up. I started using different muscle groups. I still had climbs, but I had more downhill to work with, and the wind was helping me on the level stretches. This is why you ride a bike – sometimes you get to feel like you’re flying, even when you have a hard day.  I abandoned all thought of cutting my ride short. I met my goal.

Once I’d put the bike away, I felt a little sore. This wasn’t surprising. I had earned a little fatigue. I had two things that I needed to do. The first was get a good night’s rest. I hadn’t had a lot of chances to ride outdoors this year, and whenever you make that kind of change, your body needs to adjust. Sleep is how you do it. The second thing I needed to do was ride the following day. A recovery ride helps your muscles adapt to changing demands. It doesn’t have to be a hard effort, but it has to be long enough to get your muscles warmed up and your lungs working.  Bad weather stayed away long enough for me to get that done.

I’m bracing for more bad weather, but the effects don’t last too long in the spring. I will certainly suffer enough in the next six weeks to be ready for my first event of the year in May. Every spring I get at least a ride or two like the one I’ve described. They have hopeful beginnings, hard efforts, and self-doubt. They feel good when they’re done. I don’t think I can avoid the feeling. When the days start getting warm, these hard days will be forgotten. Just now, they are a yearly rite of passage. Outside my window the weather is miserable. Soon it will improve again. When it does, I’ll be back out on my bike. I’ll be suffering, until I build the fitness I want. There are no short cuts.

No Smithsonian Kite Exhibition this year

Every year since 2006, I’ve participated in a unique event.  The week before the Cherry Blossom Kite Festival (Formerly the Smithsonian Kite Festival) has been Kite Day at the National Air & Space Museum on the mall. There have been exhibits, kite building for children, and demonstrations of indoor kite flying by some local and some out of town guests.  It was always fun to do. Imagine flying a kite inside a famous museum among the exhibits!

Indoor_Kite

My indoor fighter kite design. This kite flew inside the National Air & Space Museum in 2017.

I design my own fighter kites. My indoor designs have been flying in different parts of the National Air & Space Museum for the last 11 years. I tried to make my flying a change of pace from the other flyers.  Generally, you have to back up to put air pressure on the sail of your kite.  It’s best at a constant speed. With my fighter kite, I can also pull on my line to move the kite, so I enjoyed playing faster, more modern tunes and basing my performance on speed. I loved every moment of it.

This year, due to budget difficulties, and the desire to fund other priorities, the Museum decided not to hold Kite Day.  I hope they resurrect it.  I’ll miss that unique opportunity.

Taking advantage of a break in the winter weather

As I write this, it’s Sunday the 21st of January.  After some arctic cold that has made it hard to get outside this month, the weather finally changed. This week I could barely contain my excitement at having a weekend with riding conditions warm and dry enough to get outdoors.  I decided to ride in the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve near Poolesville, MD.  Then I sent out an invitation to a big group of riders to join me. Now not everyone could make it – some were traveling, some had transportation issues, some were dealing with injuries, and some had other plans, but 6 of us rode together Saturday morning. The temperatures reached into the 50s by the end of the ride, and we took advantage of the break in the weather to take a conditioning ride. The plan was to stay together, pick a direction, and ride without a set plan or a cue sheet.  We call it “cueless and clueless”.  That means we make adjustments to the ride as we go. The goal was 30-40 miles of riding to stretch out our legs.

I’ve ridden in the Ag Reserve many times, but I’ve spent less time there in winter than any other season. The muted colors, and the lines of sight past bare trees and across fields usually obscured from view were a welcome experience. The sense of distance was welcome, and birds that winter in the area were active at the edges of the fields. We chose a direction and changed our minds when it suited us, and we enjoyed the day as we got our miles in.  In the end, it was only a little over 37 miles, and that isn’t much by the standard of later in the year, but for January, it’s a good distance. What was great was our comraderie as we rode.  Since I wanted this to be a “no drop” ride, we stayed together for the most part, and the social part of the ride was terrific. We spent some time afterward talking and celebrating a fun and successful ride.

Winter_Gear

Taking a break at the Dickerson Store.  

Today I rode from home. I didn’t go quite as far as I did on Saturday, but I managed to work my legs a little more, and I needed to get another ride in to work the legs more.  Riding alone isn’t quite as fun as riding with friends, but in the end its important to get out and get your legs used to the work.  The only drawback to winter rides is dealing with road salt.  I found quite a bit of it on the down tube of my bike, among other places.  You have to take the time to clean the bike carefully in the winter. In my estimation, the state of Maryland dumps enough salt on the roadways in the winter to thoroughly poison the Chesapeake Bay every year with the salty road runoff. Then they spend the other 9 months of the year trying to keep the Bay clean.  It makes no sense to me, but with any luck, the state will cut back on its road salting habit. In the meantime I hope the weather will continue to be moderate enough to allow me to ride outside.  I prefer riding outside to an indoor workout every time!

 

Cold and quiet time

It’s a mid January Sunday, 2018.  A little after 10am. It’s 18 degrees outside my windows.  I’ve already finished my daily workout. Arsenal and Bournemouth are finishing a game in the background as I write this. (Bournemouth won 2-1. David has beaten Goliath today.) I’ve run out of household jobs to do. If this were a perfect day (That is to say warm enough to ride any respectable distance even when wearing all the heavy bike clothing I have available to me), I’d be miles away on my bicycle.

So writing is my refuge for the moment. I’ll go to the bookstore and find something new to read perhaps, or I’ll get out for a walk later, but what my heart would have me do is not the least bit comfortable in sub freezing temperatures. Being single, I don’t have anyone else to make claims on my time. I don’t see that as a disadvantage. I’m not necessarily quiet, but I have some fairly quiet habits. People all over on this cold day have the same problems that I do.  So I’m even done paying bills, and I’m thinking about what else to do, and I’m happy that I’m in a place in my life where my biggest worry is what to write today.

I’ve got a little bike maintenance I can do, but what I really need to do is take my bike to the shop and get a yearly service.  I’ll get the cables replaced, re-tape the bars, get the drivetrain adjusted, and probably replace the chain.  For now, here at home, the best I can do is keep the bike clean and the drivetrain in good condition. It’s days like this that make me think of things to do.  Chores get put off when the weather allows me to be more active. So this is the kind of cold, antiseptic day that makes chores interesting.

Resolutions

Another year, another set of resolutions. It’s very cold outside on New Year’s Day, and despite this, I’ve already started thinking about resolutions. Yes, they involve cycling. That’s because it has a direct effect on my health. The older I get, the more I think that the time I spend on the road cycling with my friends is an investment in a long and healthy life.  As it is, I’m working out in the gym, but eventually the thaw will come, and I’ll be back on the roads, where I feel the most free.

Since life is a precious thing, I’m going to do what I can to improve the quality of my life. So my goal is to continue to ride and celebrate with my cycling friends.  I’d also like to ride at least half a dozen Century rides – and I’m already signed up for the first of them! I’m also going to see if I can find a ride that I haven’t done before to try out this year.

These are modest goals, but they’re achievable, and they’re things I believe in. They’re the kinds of resolutions that make sense to me, and they’re an integral part of the quality of life that I look for.  2018 will be another joyful year if I keep them.

How much does your bike weigh?

CAAD12

I get this question occasionally. In fact I was asked again recently. The people I ride with don’t ask about these things much, but sometimes new riders or people who know I cycle seriously will ask, and it’s an interesting topic of conversation. Among cyclists, it’s a loaded topic.

The answer in real terms is about 18-19 pounds.  That’s light enough for me. Most people think the bike is very light, particularly when they pick it up. Bike weight is important because you have to overcome the forces that work on you as you pedal.  The classic example is riding up hills.  All other things being equal, the less weight you have to take up that hill, the easier it will be. It has an affect on other aspects of riding as well. So being large means that I have to apply more force to move myself and the bike. Physics can be cruel.

Racers want the lightest possible equipment, but I don’t race. Light weight comes at a price.  The lightest bikes are the most expensive to produce, they are also more fragile because of that weight saving, so a rider as big as I am can ride a superbike, but I  would put some serious strain on it, and unlike top end riders who race on a superbike, I’m far less aerodynamic. Think of it like using an expensive Ferrari supercar to pull a trailer.  You might have the horsepower to do it, but it wasn’t what the car was designed for. So even if I had the money to ride a superbike, I’m hardly the guy to take advantage of the performance gains it may offer.  Having said that, it FEELS nice to ride an expensive bike.  You can’t deny it. So as far as I’m concerned, I think people should ride the nicest bike they can afford.  You’ll want to ride it, and that’s important.

I ride a high quality aluminum framed bike (pictured above). Carbon fiber frames are more expensive, exotic and lighter as a rule, but high end aluminum and low end carbon overlap in price, and even in weight, and high end aluminum is less expensive to produce, so for the same price you can get better components (drivetrain, shifters, brakes) than you can on a carbon frame of similar weight.

My wheels are actually custom – built for strength.  I have no illusions about the utility of low weight components for my riding style.  I rely on power.  Power is torque and strain on my bike.  Material strength is more important to me than weight at this point.

Bike weight doesn’t mean much to me, and my next bike is likely to be heavier than the bikes I currently ride, since I’d like to ride a custom steel bike. Steel is denser than aluminum, so steel frames tend to be heavier, but I’m sure the advantages of a bike built to suit me and my riding style will be worth a little extra bike weight.