I’m transitioning to Spring Riding and a more promising 2021.
Like many people, I found the year 2020 to be difficult. Most people don’t cope well with change, and I’m no exception. I had some bright spots during that time, and I did my civic duty of working from home and obeying the Covid rules, but now that we have reached the one year anniversary of “Let’s shut down the economy for two weeks to flatten the curve” of Covid-19 infections, I’m starting to see signs that an end may be in sight. It couldn’t have come too soon.
I’m beginning to see buds on the trees outside my window. Vaccine distribution seems to be moving along, and 2021 is just beginning to look like a year worth looking forward to. I like to look at the bright side and hope for good things. As Spring approaches and the last days of winter begin to lose their bite, I have begun to come out of hibernation.
I have spent many weeks spinning in place on my trainer. Trainers are something I see as a kind of beneficial torture device. Last weekend, I got outside for a ride with friends. While those nightly trainer sessions left me with good leg strength, I found that my lungs have to catch up. I’ll need to suffer through a few more outdoor rides before my breathing isn’t so ragged and my lungs feel strong and clear. The good news is that it feels like that every Spring. It often takes longer to train the lungs than to train the legs. I’ll be fine. Daylight savings time has opened up the opportunity to ride outside after work. I’m very happy about that!
I am starting to get information from my cycling club, (Potomac Pedalers in the Washington DC area) about rides, and I’ve gotten emails with sign up information from event rides I’ve enjoyed in the past. Hope may arrive with the Spring. I’m feeling excited about riding in a way that I couldn’t in 2020. Things won’t be exactly the same as they were before Covid. I think I can live with the changes though. The next 6 weeks before my first event of 2021 will be marked with joy. A very long hibernation is nearing it’s end.
You have a bike – this will help you form good habits to make the most of it.
Bicycle sales in 2020 were so strong that manufacturers couldn’t keep up with demand. Most of those bikes were intended to be ridden for fitness during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. The bikes selling the best were inexpensive models designed to get you riding comfortably. The shops were sold out. As I write this, 2020 is nearing an end. It looks like there may be a Covid vaccine ready by spring. Now it’s time to take that new bike you bought in 2020 and make the resolution to ride it in 2021. How do you start? Everybody knows that there is nothing more crowded than a gym in January, when the resolutions are fresh in people’s minds and their resolve to do something is still strong. You have the bike. You have the motivation. What you need now is a plan, and you need to start forming good riding habits. Here are a few tips to help you get the most from that new bike and keep your resolutions.
Before you get on the bike, stretch your legs. Learn a few simple stretches to loosen up a little. This is a habit that I have to develop. I may be one of the least flexible people on the planet – at least it feels that way. It always feels good when I stretch though. A little stretching warms up the muscles and helps prevent injuries. You don’t have to do more than you’re comfortable with. Just a few simple stretches will help. When you stretch, don’t bounce your muscles. Slow, sustained stretches are best. You’re not looking for a pain point, just enough to feel the muscle stretching. The more you do it, the more flexible you’ll become, so don’t worry if you’re not flexible now. Just do what you can. Hold each stretch for a minute and balance your stretches for both legs. You can find useful stretches for all of your leg muscle groups and advice for stretching safely online. Stretching is an excellent habit to get into before you ride your new bike.
How much time do you have to ride? Most of us have busy lives and riding seems like a big commitment. Don’t make it one. When you get started, don’t think about how far you’re going or how fast. Just use the time you have. In the summer, you might have an hour after dinner before sunset. Use that hour. Ride for 50 minutes, 25 out and 25 back. If you need to stop and rest, stop and rest. Build a little rest into your riding time. If you don’t need it, fine. If you do, take a break. If you have half an hour to ride, ride out for 12 minutes, then turn around and come back. Ride finished. Ride whenever you get the chance. As you get started, consistency is more important than how far you go or how fast. Those things may become important to you later, but until you’re in the habit of riding, they don’t mean much. It’s nice to have a computer so you can know how far or fast you’re riding, but they’re taskmasters. They focus you on speed and distance, when the most important thing to start with is just to keep moving. Most people start by fitting rides into their lives. After you get used to them, you’ll be able to schedule more time for them. When you get started, turning the cranks is the important thing, If you push yourself too much, it might start feeling too much like work.
Keep pedaling. Don’t coast too much. Part of riding is knowing how to apply pedal power efficiently. Learn your gears and when to change from the big chainring to the small chainring, what gear to be in for riding along on a flat road and what gear is better for climbing. If you’re starting with clipless pedals, practice using them and expect to fall at least once. Everyone does! If you’re using flat pedals, upgrade when you feel comfortable on your bike. Clipless pedals are efficient, and if you enjoy your cycling they make a great first upgrade. In the meantime, get used to pedaling consistently.
Use the buddy system. Do you have a spouse or friend or neighbor who has a bike? Invite them to ride with you. Make your ride social. If someone else is riding with you, you’re less likely to skip a ride. There is also safety in numbers. Riding alone is great, but for most of us, a riding buddy is incentive to ride more so you can get the most out of your bicycle. If you don’t have one, look for a local cycling club. Most clubs welcome beginners and they’re a great source of information you’ll want.
Look up. Be aware of your surroundings. This is important for safety on the roads and trails you’re riding. Situational awareness is the key to being safe. It also helps you to look at the world you’re moving through. You’re out in the fresh air, why not take the opportunity to enjoy the scenery? Explore new areas by bicycle. Don’t go the same route day after day. Look for new places to see, even if they’re close to home. Mind and body work together. Keep them both engaged and you’ll get more from your rides.
Learn basic maintenance. Know how to fix a flat tire and make simple adjustments. Your local bike shop can help you there. Learn how often to lubricate your bike’s chain and get your bike serviced every year. A dependable bicycle is a terrific companion and you’ll enjoy your adventures more when your bike is in tune.
Treat yourself. On Saturday morning, ride to the coffee shop. Sit down to a coffee and a croissant. Then ride home. Bring your riding buddy. Take the long route to get there when you have the time. Cafe stops are great motivation. Make your rides part of something else you look forward to. Eventually the rides themselves may be the important things, but even then, the Cafe stop is part of the experience. It doesn’t matter how far you’ve gone. That can be adjusted. If you treat yourself, the bike isn’t just a workout, it becomes part of the experience.
Set a goal. If you have something to look forward to, you will get more from your bicycle. I ride a lot of local cycling events. While you might see them as too much for you, many events have courses that are less than 30 miles long. I have seen some events with family style rides as short as 5 or 10 miles. Sign up for one. Search for Century Rides near you. Most local cycling clubs hold events. The important thing to remember about cycling events is that they’re not races unless they specifically SAY they are. Lots of people who ride events look like racers, but it’s surprising how many people at events don’t look like racers or even athletes. You don’t need special equipment. Ride the bike you have. Racing bikes aren’t required. Bring your riding buddy to share the experience. If you don’t like bike shorts, wear whatever you want to wear. The way you look doesn’t matter. Ride the way you train. How fast you go doesn’t matter. Pin on a number. Go out and push your limits a little bit. Get a T-shirt to commemorate your ride. If you like it, go back the next year with new goals. Goals motivate you. Once you get experience, you can do more and know what kinds of changes you want to make.
All these things will help you get out on the roads to use that “pandemic bike”. Maybe you’ll be inspired to do more with cycling. The important thing to remember is that your bike can be so much more than a garage ornament. It has the capability of changing you. Take small steps at the beginning. That bike can take you farther than you ever imagined.
It’s mid-October and at this time of year I usually look back on my year and think about all the events that I’ve ridden. Not this year. I have ridden fewer miles than usual this year. All of the events I might have ridden if the pandemic had not cancelled them have past, and I’ve come to accept 2020 without events. Without something to train for, I changed my habits. While I enjoyed my rides, they felt different. I spent more time riding alone. I rode fewer miles, but my rides were more intense. I will need to adapt again. I have used Century events to plan out my year for well over a decade. This year was no gradual change – it was a shock. What do I do now? I thought I’d look back on my cycling history, and set some goals for 2021.
I’ll start with a little personal history. I began road cycling with my local club in 2005, after returning to Maryland from the Seattle area. I have ridden over 100 Century events since my first in 2006. For years I rode 10-12 centuries per year, most of them within a day’s drive of the Washington DC area. Rides like the Seagull Century, Indian Head 100, Backroads Century, Maine Lighthouse Ride, Bay to Bay, 6 Pillars Century and more have been part of my riding plans for years. I’ve written about all of them here in the past.
I have ridden over 11,000 miles in Century events alone. That doesn’t even consider other events that were less than 100 miles that I’ve ridden. I’ve spent a lot of money on entry fees, and a slice of that has gone to charities. Events have been good for my health. They have been good for my social life, and they have even done some good for others. I’m proud of that. I estimate that I have ridden over 36,000 miles since I took up road cycling in 2005. That’s 15 years of commitment to something that I look on as a hobby, which became a lifestyle and a passion. Cycling events have become part of my identity.
As a century rider I’m not unique. The fastest I’ve ever ridden 100 miles was just under 5 hours, averaging just over 20 miles per hour. I’ve only done that once, and while it felt good, I don’t think I will ride another 5 hour century. While I like to ride fast, I’m not a fast rider. I may be a strong rider, but I’m nothing special. Given my conditioning over the past 15 years, I’d say I’m a good rider for my age and size, but I’ll never be a racer. I climb well for a big man, and I enjoy rolling rides and climbs. I’ve ridden events from tabletop flat to mountainous. The average speed of my first century was 15.6 mph at the Seagull Century in 2006, a flat course. Last year I rode the Seagull averaging 17.4 mph – 13 years after the first one. The fastest I’ve ridden the Seagull was an 18.6 mph average speed. I was riding my fastest about 8-10 years ago. The speeds I’ve ridden have varied, but not wildly. I had to look up the speeds from my old training journals. As I get older, I expect my speed to go down. It’s a fact of life. I can’t compete with past efforts.
Whether you finish a century ride in 5 hours or 9 hours, you get the same prize – the satisfaction of having completed your ride. Centuries are challenges, not races. Another challenge I’ve done is riding two centuries back to back in a single weekend, Saturday and Sunday. I’ve done that 4 times. It will definitely make you feel run down the following Monday! I don’t need to do that again. Like the 5 hour century, It’s enough that I’ve done it at all. 2020 saw my club cancel group rides, and that was a problem for my motivation too. Club rides are excellent training and preparation. Assuming that club rides come back, 2021 may provide new friends and new groups to ride with. I’m definitely going back to club rides.
I’ve met a lot of people through cycling. Some are very close friends. Some have come and gone, some still hover at the edges of my cycling experiences, some will join me occasionally, and a few I won’t see again, and that makes me sad, but I’m proud to have known them. I’ve lost acquaintances and friends and drinking buddies whom I’ve ridden with over the years. That is the sad part of doing a group activity. The groups change. When a riding group stays constant, as mine had for several years, it becomes so familiar that you become a team. Unfortunately for me, the group I once enjoyed is breaking up and going in different directions. Nothing is forever.
As I look to 2021, I see that over the years I have built rituals around some Century rides that make riding them memorable. Some can be reduced in distance to a metric century, or 62 miles. The difference in the distance is significant, but a metric is enjoyable in a different way. It makes fewer demands of you, and lets you enjoy the scenery more. Yet it still feels good to complete one. Looking back makes me realize that I have nothing more to prove. Over the last 15 years I’ve done so much cycling that I’ve exceeded any expectations I might have started with.
My reason for riding all these events has changed over time. At first I just wanted to ride a century. Then I wanted to experience new century rides. Everything changed when a friend challenged me to ride 10 in a year with him. 10-12 a year became normal for 7 years. I scaled that back somewhat in 2017, but not much. I need to change my goals again. I’ll still ride my favorite events, but I will support other riders or maybe try new events, perhaps some multi-day tours. I’ll plan to ride 2 to 4 centuries per year. That’s still a lot. I may ride a metric century option at other familiar events. If a friend wants to ride one that I haven’t planned for, I can still join in. I’ll stay in shape, but I won’t do it in quite the same way. What I want to get from century rides now are small joys. These joys are found in the people, the scenery, the fatigue, the post ride celebration, the satisfaction of finishing and good memories. I will still use century rides as goals, but backing away from the frequency will keep things fresh and hopefully give me a new perspective. I’ll still make cycling a journey of the spirit though. Given all the time I’ve spent cycling, and my health, there’s no reason to stop, but less may be more in 2021.
I’ve been feeling acute cabin fever after working from home for months, and I miss my usual outlets. I didn’t know how much it was all getting me down until I got away for a week. Nothing will pull you out of a funk like some vacation time. This year I decided to accept an invitation to visit my now retired friend Ron in Mackinaw City Michigan. It was my first trip to the Great Lakes, and I was keen about getting out and seeing some of the things that had been described to me over the years. One of the most intriguing things that I have heard about was a road known as the Tunnel of Trees.
The Tunnel of Trees refers to Michigan route M-119 between the towns of Harbor Springs in the south and Cross Village in the north. The ride itself is short, about 20 miles long in either direction, but very scenic. As the name says, it is shaded by trees and it runs along the top of a bluff with Lake Michigan to the west. It’s a single lane road, not divided by a center line, with only fog lines at the sides. Cars can pass each other in opposite directions with care, though without a center line traffic tends to keep to the middle and riders should exercise caution and ride in line rather than side by side. The reason that I’d heard about the Tunnel of Trees was that it has been a part of the local event rides, and at least 3 of my friends had ridden it. It was one of the things that I wanted on this vacation – to finally ride it. In fact, two days before we rode the tunnel, we had the chance to drive it, and we had a scenic drive and stroll through Harbor Springs in addition to driving the tunnel. While the tunnel seemed better by bicycle, knowing what was there helped my mental preparation a great deal.
The ride isn’t flat by any means. There is only one steep climb from the North. From the south that same climb has a warning to trucks at the top about a 7% grade, but riding north to south it’s a long climb that feels just a bit steeper than that. In general, the road isn’t flat but has only a couple of climbs that could be called notable and they’re on the south end toward Harbor Springs. The rest was gently rolling. As I’ve often said, that’s why your road bike has a small chainring! The road runs mostly downhill when ridden from south to north, the way the local events take it. I rode it in both directions, starting at the north end from Cross Village. The interesting thing to note is that as many times as Ron has ridden the tunnel of trees, he had not ridden it in the North to South direction before.
Late September in Northern Michigan is a beautiful season for cycling. We rode the tunnel on a Wednesday in late morning and early afternoon, and while it was hazy, it was bright enough to show the building fall colors. The temperature rose from the high 60’s into the low 70’s while we rode. Perfect conditions. When Lake Michigan came into sight the haze prevented a long view, but the lake was visible and the sight of it was part of the ride’s charm. We set out at a steady pace, riding strong and enjoying the views all around us. Seven miles from Cross Village we arrived at the general store in Good Hart. It’s a great stopping place, particularly when riding north, and it’s a great place to get water or a bite to eat. (Note – the very tame family dogs at the general store are part of the charm.) After another 4 or 5 miles we reached the climb of the day and I got into a steady climbing rhythm, finding the top of the climb bathed in sunshine. The tunnel winds along the bluff, and despite the occasional inconvenient driver, all the little curves and very short climbs and descents were accents to the character of that beautiful tree-lined road in autumn, with occasional views of the lake as a bonus. Unlike Cross Village, which is a very small community on the North End of the Tunnel, Harbor Springs is a bigger town with enormous old houses and a large Marina for weekend boaters. It is worth exploring. We turned around just before riding down into town though, and headed back north. At this point, I learned why events ride the tunnel from south to north – while just as scenic, the northward direction is more downhill, and despite enjoying the big climb on the way out, I found the return to be a little faster and easier to ride. We took a quick break at the General Store in Good Hart and had a smooth ride back to the finish. It was an outstanding ride, and I was very pleased to finally experience riding the Tunnel of Trees.
After getting back to the car in Cross Village, we gave a push start to a gentleman who was driving an old Austin Healy Sprite – while we were wearing bike shoes! People driving convertibles and other sports cars or motorcycles down the tunnel is a common sight though, and helping him out was the right thing to do. We can all do with a little good karma! Riding the Tunnel of Trees made up in some small way for the cycling times and special events that I’ve missed out on this year. Given another chance, I will certainly enjoy it again.
Yesterday was a good Saturday for a ride. It was going to get hot, so I got up early and I met friends for a ride out in the Agricultural Reserve west of Washington DC. The place we started from is called Riley’s Lock, which is a good location to access the back roads in the reserve and the C&O canal towpath by the Potomac river. It’s a place to see people paddling, fishing, running, trail biking and road biking.
We started early – but we were far from the first people there. It’s a popular spot, and on a good day Riley’s Lock can be a very busy place. I’m a road cyclist. I love the roads and what you can see from them. Yesterday was a banner day for wildlife. I saw an owl for the first time from a bicycle. I also saw a bald eagle, various other birds, and a red fox. Having said that, these kinds of sights are available to anyone doing just about any kind of exercise out in the countryside, and when you make the effort to go to beautiful places to get a workout in, these things are a reward.
When out on the roads we saw lots of other riders. I’ve seen a lot more riders who look like they’re just beginning, particularly closer to towns on the route. I’ve made a habit of waving to all the riders I see, no matter what they look like. I think of it as a kind of respect and encouragement that helps in small ways. Because of the pandemic panic, people have started looking for ways to escape their isolation. The bicycle business has exploded. That means more people are getting out on bikes for the first time. I want them to know that THERE IS NO WRONG WAY TO DO THAT. What you’re wearing or riding isn’t important. Riding is. I know that a lot of riders are inspired by the racing culture, and the difference between starting out and being experienced can be fairly large, but you can’t let snobbery decide what a cyclist is. I’m not built like a cyclist. But I am one, and nobody would dare say I’m not. It isn’t just the experience I have, or the speed I’m riding at, or the kit I wear, or the stories I can tell. It’s that I choose to get out there and turn the cranks, and nothing else is nearly so important. Therefore I want to be friendly and set a good example.
Cycling is healthy, scenic and fun. It’s easy to forget how much we all had to learn when we started out. A little encouragement can go a long way!
After the ride, we sat together in camp chairs by our cars in the shade with a cooler nearby and talked. We weren’t the only ones doing that. I saw a little family drive in with their bikes for riding the trail. I thought it was wonderful. The two little girls riding with mom and dad may be forming lifelong exercise habits. I saw the smiles on everyone’s faces as they came through. It didn’t matter if they were riding old mountain bikes, road bikes, hybrids or whatever they were rolling on. They were rolling. They were out enjoying the outdoors. No matter how they choose to experience it, they should be encouraged. Maybe in years to come those will be the people riding in the events that I love that have been cancelled this year due to the pandemic. Maybe this explosion of bike purchasing is a temporary thing, but how many people buying bikes could be catching on to a lifetime of enjoyment of the outdoors?
It helps to give the beginners some encouragement. Cheer them on. Let them know that there are no limits. With every pedal stroke those limits are pushed outward and every memorable bit of scenery, every wildlife experience, every new milestone can make that bike more special to them. I’m reminded of the finish to one of my favorite events. Riders who have finished are relaxing in the beer garden waiting for friends to join them, and riders keep coming past to the finish with huge smiles of triumph and joy. I have stood by the fence cheering and high-fiving these happy riders. The ones who have finished their first century are almost floating. You don’t need to be fast or look like a racer to feel that way. You have to get out and do it. Everyone has to start somewhere. Many who have started cycling this year as a way to get away from the boredom of home isolation will stay with it. They’ll be happier and healthier, and many will have inspiring stories. Encourage them. Cheer them on. Give them a smile and a wave. They’ve earned it by being out there on a bike. The encouragement you give may be the difference between a bike that is well loved and used, and one that serves as a garage ornament.
After I’m done with work for the day, I like to get out and have a short ride while the daylight lasts. The route I take is convenient and I ride it frequently. It’s a short hilly route that goes out and back, and it gives me a good workout without taking too much time. I found myself riding hard and fast on that ride recently. Conditions that night were ideal, not too warm or cold. I was breathing easily and had good focus. Traffic was light. I didn’t set out to ride fast, but once I was warmed up, I pushed myself to the end of the ride.
I was only competing with myself, knowing that I might just log my best time for that ride this year. I love the feel of speed and control and pushing my limits and the exhaustion and exhilaration of it all. This is just part of my personality. I’m competitive. I enjoy knowing my ride statistics – how fast and far I’m going, and comparing the ride to others using Strava. I sometimes get a feeling that my bike and I are a single unit. The feel of a beautifully tuned and responsive bike is a real joy. I think most riders come to know this feeling at one time or another.
These things are closely aligned to one of the driving forces of road cycling – racing. Racing is about excitement. It drives technological change. It inspires us to test ourselves. It’s part of the joy of what we do, and most of us have watched or followed a race such as the Tour De France, even if we have never raced ourselves. We respect racers and racing. In our own ways, we all emulate them. While that can be a good thing, and even great fun, most of us do not race. Thinking like a racer isn’t hard to do. In some ways. it’s encouraged. I don’t think that racing is something we can or should ignore, but sometimes it pays to stop thinking like a racer, and start thinking like a RIDER. Some people even find the racing aspect of cycling culture to be discouraging. Riding doesn’t have to be guided by competitive thinking. Thinking like a rider is important in two ways, practical and technical.
Practically, thinking like a rider is a matter of looking at the larger picture. Do you have a goal? Do you want to be fitter, or maybe drop a pound or two? Do you have events you’d like to try? Are you getting all the variety and enjoyment that you can from your rides? There are times when what I really want is an easy ride and I push myself anyway, or I set out to push myself and discover that I can’t. The important point is that I’m riding. In an ideal world I would be able to ride every day. That simply isn’t practical. You have to rest. I normally take Fridays off from riding, and on those days I clean the bike instead. The secondary benefit of this is that the act of cleaning your bike reminds you to maintain it. It’s a good way to build rest into your routine.
It’s also a good idea to do this when you’re riding: look up. Don’t just ride. See things around you! Birds. Scenery. All the things you pass that you might not notice if you’re focused on performance. There are many times when I’ve been riding a lot and my legs feel heavy, and I just don’t want to ride. I have two cures for that. The first is to do something different. Put the bike in the car and go somewhere fun. Shake up the experience. The second is to get some company. It’s harder to skip a workout if someone else is counting on you. Part of the joy of cycling is the experience. While it’s okay to push yourself, that isn’t the point of riding. You can get great satisfaction out of pushing yourself, as long as you keep your perspective. My absolute favorite cartoon character is a textbook fanatic – Wile E. Coyote. He is creative and focused and I love that, but he is a fanatic, because he redoubles his efforts while losing sight of his goals. You can satisfy your hunger without catching the bird, and you can be fit without being fast.
The other aspect is technical. Racers use the best and lightest equipment, because it could be the difference between winning and losing. What if you don’t race? Do you need the best tech? No. If you want the best and can afford it, buy it. Otherwise if you don’t race it isn’t necessary. I love bikes and bike tech. I ride a “retro-modern” bike. It’s a classic lugged steel frame with 11 speed Campagnolo components. I love the look of old style bikes and components, but in reality, I want something that I can ride every day, so I want modern convenience of shifting from the bars and a gear range to help me on difficult climbs. By racer standards, it’s too heavy. It’s all wrong. By rider standards, it’s perfect.
Technology in rider terms is the difference between “good” and “good enough”. There will always be something lighter and better out there. Tech improves every year. In my opinion, the best “rider” technology is a step or two behind the leading edge. Component groups such as Shimano 105 are excellent, give you a wide range of gearing, and are an outstanding value. I like to think that having a wide range of gearing options is wise for all riders. The best gear is the gear you can afford, but there are a lot of beautiful second hand bikes being sold because there are people who love the best bike tech more than they love to ride. As a rider, think about tech in terms of the options you need.
Cycling is a wonderful form of exercise. It can be cooperative, competitive, fun and even relaxing, Sometimes thinking like a racer can be great fun, but thinking like a rider can prevent burnout and keep your mind and body working together.
Another day, another pandemic (Covid-19) shutdown story.
A happy scene from the 2016 Patuxent Rural Legacy Ride. From left to right: Eric, myself, Rita, Ron, John and Carol. This is a picture full of small joys!
I have events that I ride every year. I have many fond memories of them, and I have friends to experience them with, and over the years they’ve become familiar and friendly. They represent small joys. They are goals to train for, and fun things to look forward to. They aren’t so important in the larger scheme of things, but small things do matter. Recently I discovered that the Patuxent Rural Legacy Ride, (which I often refer to as Pax) has been cancelled. This follows the cancellation of the Six Pillars Century. These are two rides that seem to highlight every Spring for me. They were not just a source of T-Shirts or a way to avoid boredom on a Saturday. They were waypoints in my year. It’s a wonderful thing to talk about and share memories of rides like these. Others ask about what I do, and these events are part of the tale to be told. These may not be the only events that will be cancelled, but for now, they are fresh in my memory. At this writing, Six Pillars would have happened this weekend, and Pax in 7 weeks’ time. I can only hope that they are the only enjoyable events that will be cancelled. These cancellations, in addition to the cancellation of club rides, have left me feeling like I’m somehow behind where I should be. I have ridden fewer miles than I normally would. I’m riding well, and I’m not far behind other years in my fitness, but my motivation seems less. I will move on without them, but I wish I didn’t have to. So here are a few words about these two rides that won’t happen this year.
Six Pillars has been great for me. After a century early in the year, no other ride seems too difficult. It is a flat ride that always seems to work out well. It remains the only century ride that I have ever ridden in 5 hours. (There will be no more attempts!) I have managed to enjoy riding Six Pillars every year because it motivates me. It stretches me out. When I finish it, I’m always exhausted, but once done I can celebrate with friends and look forward to a great year. Since this is always the first event on my calendar, it always comes with a sense of excitement. It will be missed this year.
The Patuxent Rural Legacy Ride is one of those rides that finds a way into your heart. It is a rolling Metric Century (this one is 64 miles) through the farmland of southern Maryland, and all of the rest stops are at the river side. This means you descend to the stops, and climb out again. The weather is normally comfortable, and the scenery is excellent. It’s run by the Oxon Hill Bicycle Club, and they do a wonderful job. It’s always been a ride to revel in. I have celebrated after this ride with friends every time, and I wouldn’t want to miss it. Now I must.
In the long run, these event cancellations don’t mean much. I’m sure they will return. Like everyone else I am “sheltering in place”, yet like most of us, I’m healthy. Thankfully I’m allowed to ride on my own. It feels wrong to be shut in like this when you’re perfectly healthy. Normally, you quarantine sick people, not healthy ones. I am lucky that my life disruptions are manageable. Still, the loss of small joys has been adding up. I can’t wait until the panic is over and small joys become accessible again.
A time will come when I ride and enjoy events again, but I am socially distanced, and my Wilier must be patient.
I’m in new territory. Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve been cultivating good habits by cycling. For many that is a solitary pursuit, but for me it’s also a group activity. I have found good friends through it, and brought others into the sport, and told tales of cycling experiences that I’ll always remember. As Spring begins I feel excited to get out and train, and cycling events are on the horizon, and everything feels new again. 2020 started strong, and I started my cycling year with high hopes.
Then the Coronavirus, Covid-19 happened. This is the first true pandemic of my lifetime. I don’t recall anything like it. Businesses are closed, people are practicing “social distancing” and there are no obvious gatherings. Thankfully I can work from home, and as of this writing I’m free of any symptoms and hope to stay that way. I’m just outside of the demographic that should be worried, but I’m also healthier than most men my age (58). So I’m not concerned, but it has already had an effect. My first event of the year was “postponed”. By postponed I think “cancelled” because the later in the year they hold it, the more it’s likely to conflict with other events. I ride a lot of them! So I don’t have a sense of urgency that I’ve had in years past. I still ride whenever it’s nice enough outside. I ride after work, and that comes by just wheeling my bike out my door and getting started, without a commute between office and bicycle. There is more time to ride before sundown. I even ride hard when the mood takes me, but there isn’t any urgency about it.
There is less traffic to cope with, and I’ve begun to see more runners, riders and dog walkers out there. People are adjusting, and so am I. I have ridden with friends a few times, but not many at once. My cycling club is not holding group rides just now, and I don’t know when my first chance to ride among others at a cycling event will come. I’m slowly getting miles in. It doesn’t feel the same without group rides and the excitement of my first event coming up. Eventually there will be one, but I don’t know when, because more events may be cancelled before the pandemic eases. I miss that familiar structure that defines my spring season.
Yet the season progresses. The trees are budding and the familiar green of spring unfolds. I notice the birds and animals as they become active. It reminds me of Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book”. This is the “time of new talk” where the birds and animals practice their mating songs, and life in the jungle is renewed. Yet it feels different. I have a distinct feeling of change – a difference that may go beyond the conditions forced on me by social distancing. Perhaps this forced change from the familiar is telling me to expect more changes. My life is a good one, and I don’t fear changes, but I know that they must come. I must prepare for them. Despite the melancholy that comes with changes, I have to look ahead with hope. The bike will be there for me, and we will welcome these new times as we look forward to the return of familiar gatherings.
As I write this it is late February. The weather is starting to get a little better, and Daylight Savings Time is starting soon. After a long, dark and cold winter that left me working out indoors, I’m ready to get back on the roads. At this time of year, motivation is easy. Everyone looks forward to the first warm days of spring. What they don’t think about is actually training.
I’m a recreational rider, not a racer. So why should I mention training? What do I have to train for? The answer to those questions is my motivation, and for years I’ve been building motivation into my calendar in the form of events. Most are fairly close to me, but I make a point of trying to get outside of my home region for at least one event a year. This year I will ride the Maine Lighthouse Ride in Portland Maine again, and before that event I will spend a few days riding in Nova Scotia, Canada. (It seems that most of my vacations involve exercise.) In any case, an event such as a century ride on your calendar will focus and motivate you like nothing else will. One thing to remember about events is that you’ll see all kinds of people with all kinds of bodies riding them. It’s an approachable goal for average people. Perfection isn’t the goal, improvement is!
At the finish of one of my favorite events, the Seagull Century, with my friend John Summer.
My first event of 2020 will be the Six Pillars Century in Cambridge Maryland in early May, but I ride events throughout the year from May to October. If you set a goal, you keep your incentive to ride. The advantage of events is that they can be found just about everywhere, and they usually include some shorter distance rides that you can use to prepare for a longer event later in the season.
I ride several Century (100 mile) rides a year, but I’m not quite typical. The typical recreational rider might ride a local charity or club event, but centuries are a big test for the average rider. If you’re ready to try a century, I think the best time to ride your first century is the autumn, in late September or early October. That way you can train for months in the warm weather and schedule some test events over the summer to see how your training is coming along. Also the weather is warm but shouldn’t be oppressive.
I neither have nor use a training plan. If you want a specific century training plan, they are easy to find on the internet. I prefer to use the Eddy Merckx “ride lots” method. I get my miles in for a couple of months before I ride my first century. This has worked well for me because I ride longer rides on the weekends with my friends or my local cycling club. I also have a lot of experience. Since my first Century ride in 2006, I have ridden over 100 century rides. For many years I was riding 10 century rides per year. Lately I’ve come down to 6 or 7 century rides a year. Often I’ll ride a particular event every year. I’ve found many events that I enjoy so much that I won’t miss them without a good reason. Important note: I do all this without being “slim”. You don’t have to be some kind of ideal body type to be fit. You just need to be motivated.
The Metric Century – 100 KM or 62 miles – is a great intermediate distance. Riding a Metric is a great way to test yourself before you attempt a full century. It can teach you the kind of pacing you need for a full century, and it also gets you accustomed to making rest stops, hydrating and eating enough to complete a century later in the year. You can’t ride 100 miles without eating something to keep your energy up. You need to stay hydrated. I have also noticed that people often get nervous about their upcoming “goal” event, but having a little practice and experience relieves some of that anxiety.
If you’re already a century rider, a metric is a great distance. It’s long enough to be a challenge but doesn’t drain you like a century can. Normally a century rider will have to push through a “wall” between 70 and 80 miles, and a metric puts you on the edge of that wall without having to push past it.
I couldn’t write about training without mentioning of one of my favorite things – a touchstone for me – the humble 40 mile training ride. To me, 40 miles is the line that separates a satisfying training ride from a short ride. 39 miles is too short, but 40 miles is just about right. It’s an attitude, not something that can be measured objectively. It is a motivational waypoint.
To me, a good training ride can be hilly or flat, but the most important thing is that you ride at least 40. I recommend longer rides as well, as progress toward your goal, but that 40 mile ride stands as the difference between making progress and not doing quite enough. If you’re not riding quickly, or you’re on a hilly course, most riders can go 40 miles with 3 hours of saddle time or less. Most riders can also go 40 miles on back to back days without feeling exhausted. If you’re cramped for time it gives you a workout to be proud of and still manage other priorities in your life. It’s 2/5 of a century ride – it’s a few hours to clear your mind and enjoy the scenery. It’s real training! You can work up to riding 40 miles in a few weeks’ time. Once you can ride it comfortably, 40 mile rides will keep your conditioning up.
I go back to the 40-45 mile distance often when I’m busy, and throughout the year to maintain fitness. If you haven’t ridden 40 miles, you can work up to it, but that number is magical. It’s enough to get you ready for the metric distance if you can ride it comfortably. You can get an early start in summer and complete 40 miles before the day gets too hot. If your motivation is at a low ebb, a 40 mile ride will keep you on track or put you back on course to your goal.
I recommend adding an event to the calendar now, while the motivation to get out and exercise is strong. Look up local events, and put your motivation on your calendar!
I ride a steel road bike, and I love it. I love the mix of classic looks and modern components on it. I love the way the bike feels on the road. To me, there is no doubt that steel is real. I’m not a purist or a traditionalist or even a snob about my bikes. Yet like every other rider, I have opinions. My steel Wilier is much different than my carbon fiber Orbea or my aluminum Cannondale. My other bikes are every bit as real as my Wilier. A rational argument can be made that how a bike feels has more to do with things like frame angles or tire pressure than any mystical property of the frame material.
That argument is valid. Steel has many great qualities, but it is generally a heavier material than carbon and aluminum. In cycling, weight matters. Lighter is better as a rule, and if you’re a racer, or an engineer, or even most club riders, steel isn’t likely to be your first choice. At this point, the racer’s choice is Carbon Fiber. Carbon is the “go-to” material for bikes, so much so that often riders overlook the strengths of other materials.
Steel is Real. This bike is my pride and joy.
Yet, steel IS real. It is undeniable. the material is the classic definition of “elastic” in that it will return to it’s shape readily if it flexes – and it is very good at soaking up vibration from the road. It can be custom built to anyone; a builder can mix different grades of steel tubes to create a masterpiece of fit and function that any rider can appreciate at any speed. My fit metrics are fairly generic, but I appreciate the feel of that steel bike. My bike is made of Columbus SL tubing using lugged construction, hand crafted by a master frame builder in Italy. It is a classic bicycle with modern drive components. The joy of riding it and the joy of looking at it are pleasures that never fade. What makes it so perfect for me is that my riding is for the soul, not the stopwatch. It delights a part of me that cold and analytical engineering cannot see.
Aluminum frames have a reputation for being a harsh ride. That might have been true when they were introduced, but no longer. Riding my CAAD 12 has been a revelation. That bike is far from harsh, and at this writing Cannondale has updated to the CAAD 13, which takes Aluminum frame building to another level, if the marketing is to be believed. My CAAD 12 is a smooth and accurate and connected ride. If the CAAD 13 is improved, the result must be outstanding, and they would certainly end any suggestion that Aluminum bikes are harsh riding!
“Real” aluminum. Performance and excellence that many overlook. I suspect that the next generation of Cannondale aluminum masterpieces could be even more “real”.
Carbon frames are anything an engineer can dream of. There is an almost infinite variety of carbon frames with different layups providing different “feel” on the roads, and any rider can be forgiven for thinking that riding a bike made of this miraculous material is the very best they can do. At the high end, just about any carbon bike is a well designed blend of form and function that has been tuned to do specific things very well, such as time trials or climbing mountains. I can’t fault anyone for wanting that.
Carbon Fiber – the look and the feel of the modern road bike. Real in it’s own way, and even though I’ve moved away from the material, carbon’s properties make it ideal for a bike frame, and it’s appeal is universal.
I started riding a road bike seriously in 2005 when I joined my local bike club and used the bike as therapy as I worked through some problems and made some changes. In those years I’ve had many bikes. I started with an Aluminum Felt – it was light to me, and it expanded my cycling horizons. Then a Carbon Orbea Onix – a bike that was quick and responsive – the frame angles made it almost too twitchy, and yet it taught me things about bike handling that I still use. I went back to Aluminum with my CAAD 12 – a bike that easily outperformed the carbon options I had that were usually more expensive and were often just as heavy, and the CAAD 12 had a precision and ride that I have to rave about. It is an exceptional bike. Then I got my passion project, the steel Wilier, and it was both a nod to the steel racers of my childhood years and classic good looks while giving me a beautiful ride that no other bike has equalled. It is a bike to love. It is “real” in every way that matters.
For me, “Steel is real”. That doesn’t mean that other materials aren’t, and many other kinds are best for other riders. I’ve fallen for the look and the feel and the tradition of it. “Real” for me may not be real to you, but once you’re turning the cranks, “Real” is the cycling experience, regardless of the frame you’re on.