Friday, November 28, 2008

The Mean Season

Today is the unofficial start of the mean season. Officially, it’s the start of the big shopping build up to the Holiday Season, but for a cyclist, today holds an entirely different prognosis.

Every year, I notice that the hazards of the road seem to get a little worse, during this period between the day after Thanksgiving and the New Year. Drivers get a little more impatient and irritated at being held up on the roads, and riding just feels a little more…dangerous.

Given the horrible economy, maybe it will be different this year. Certainly there will be fewer drivers rushing to the malls, but the ones who do make the trip will likely be even more frazzled than usual.

In any case, I’m always a little extra cautious this time of the year and I go out of my way to try and give myself a solid margin for error to potential bad situations.

I hope you all keep your eyes open as well, and I hope you have a great Holiday Season.

I hope to see you on the road.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Are You Talking to Me?

A few hours ago, I rolled onto the east side of Mercer Island on my way back downtown after a great ride through Medina, Kirkland, and Bellevue. A nice mellow loop around the south side of the island would be a great way to conclude my cycling on a picture perfect deep blue sky day.

As I casually motored along at around 200 watts of effort, I noticed that I was slowing gaining on a cyclist up ahead of me. As I caught him, I greeted him with a very pleasant “How ya doing?” and a wave, and then I proceeded past. He took a hard and surprised stare at me, didn’t utter a word, and gave me one of those “Where did you come from—no one was supposed to catch up to me” looks. Frequently it seems to be problematic to catch up to a rider gradually. If you just blow by someone, usually that’s it, you’re here, and then you are …gone.

As seems to occur so often in this situation, this guy immediately jumped onto my wheel, and stuck like glue as I worked my way up through the shaded turns. I’m never happy when somebody I don’t know latches onto my wheel, but given the damp, leaf covered slick road, as well as the low winter light, I really was not comfortable. Especially so, when I realized that he was weaving around to stay behind me as I took the whole lane to pick the safest line. If the roads could have only been a little bit wetter! He wouldn’t have wanted a dirt mustache, and he would have backed off.

I speeded up a little, but I knew it would be to no avail. People like this either don’t get the message, or they are so lacking in social skills that they don’t understand the message.

As politely as I could, I slowed down, waved him up, and said “No offense, but I’m really not comfortable with somebody I don’t know following me”. I told him to go ahead if he wanted, and he waved me off—still not a word uttered, but he did give me his best Robert Diniro “Are you talking to me” look.

Once again I moved ahead, and once again he stuck to me like a cheap suit. Hmmm, this was becoming just a little aggravating. Finally he spoke up, saying “Fine, go, but I don’t what your problem is with people following”. Not thinking I owed him an explanation, I told him that I assumed that I was riding a little faster than him (as I had caught up to him), and that I simply wanted to do my ride alone.

As I again went ahead, we came to the last little uphill section before the flat at the end of all of the hairpin turns on the east side as you ride clockwise. I stepped on it a little bit, and he stood up and sprinted to match me! I told him that my intention was not to race him, and he mumbled something and just waved me away. I thought I finally might have some peace and serenity, but no, he just stayed 20’ behind me! I rode for awhile at between 220 and 260 watts, and he was still there.

Finally, I said screw this, I’m going to ride the way I had intended, and I backed it off to 200-220, still harder than I had been going prior to catching him. He motored by on the drops, I suppose intent on proving something to someone he would never see again.

I smiled to myself, and thought “Good for him, I hope he’s happy now”.

That thought stayed with me briefly, but I subconsciously found myself steadily pedaling harder and reeling him in. I guess I wanted to make him pay for ruining the Karma of my ride around Mercer Island!

I would creep up behind him, let him know I was there with a few gear changes, and then watch him latch back onto the drops, and put his head down, determined to stay ahead. Little did he know, I was only going to ride as hard as I needed to ensure that he paid the price by having to ride over his head.

We were nearly done with the loop, and I was still playing this little cat and mouse game, when I noticed a rider in full team kit slowly gaining on the two of us. Now this dynamic should be interesting! As the rider rolled up next to me, I said hi, and told him that the guy ahead really didn’t like to be passed. As we followed 20-30’ behind, I told him the whole story, and he shook his head and said he was thinking the two of us were really hammering as he was having to put down 250 watts just to stay with the pace, and it took a big effort for him to catch us.

For the rest of the loop, the team kit guy and I had a nice chat, fully aware that at least half of what we said surely was overheard by the mystery man up ahead. The three of us descended down the west side, and I bid goodbye as I took a left turn for a little shortcut to the lower platform of the I90 Bridge. The team kit rider told me he would say hi for me when he passed the guy on the final hill up to the top of the bridge. I laughed and replied that I liked his chances. By now that guy up ahead would be lucky to just make it up the hill, let alone hold off team kit guy.

I briefly thought about joining him, but there just didn’t seem to be any point to prolonging this escapade.

This entire adventure need not have occurred. All it would have taken would have been a friendly reply to my initial greeting. He could have asked if I minded if he joined me for the ride. Is that such a foreign concept?

It’s likely that I would have ultimately said no, but I surely would have ridden along with him for awhile and exchanged pleasantries. After all, I wasn't in any hurry.

The resulting parting of the ways would have had a whole different feel to it, and he would not have had to bury himself to stay in front!

Of course, I wouldn’t have had anything to write about today, other than to say I hope everyone has a great Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A "Real" Athlete in Training

Check out this clip to see a real athlete in training!

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=UN2n6VzBcIU

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Rainy Season

This year I’m going to try a different approach for the winter rainy season. Typically, this is a time of the year where I have no real structure to my riding, and I just try and get out when the weather isn’t too bad. Since I have taken the last two winters off from leading the weekly Hills of the West Coast group ride, this means mostly easy to moderate paced riding, i.e., “base miles”. For me these could be called “boring miles”.

My Bullet Bike singlespeed is now my winter bike, and that changes everything. Not only is it much easier to clean than a geared racing bike, it’s a lot of fun not to have to worry about shifting when the weather is crappy. Having only 42x16 kind of dictates the riding style to you—you don’t boss the singlespeed around, and that means that you are mostly obligated to ride hard. With 70 gear inches (equivalent to 50/19), there are not many hills I would describe as easy, and then there is the riding into the winter winds.

Normally, moderate pace means moderate fitness, and that’s OK, as you have time to build fitness back up in the spring after it erodes away. This year I am going to try and keep as much fitness as I can through the winter. I figure that my hours on the bike will drop anyway, giving me plenty of time to recover. If I can only get out for an hour or two here and there, I’m going to make that riding time pay off. Every ride will have a purpose and I’m going to make every mile count. It we get a stretch of good weather, I’ll do more miles with less intensity. I equate two hilly hours on the singlespeed with between 2.5 and 3 hours on a geared bike, so that also makes it time efficient.

I’m not much of a “pound the trainer” kind of guy, as I find it a lot more fun and motivating to climb “real” hills on real roads.

The Bullet Bike will force my hand, and it’s a lot of fun to ride SS hard anyway. Besides, from what I understand, it’s harder and harder to build back fitness as you get older. Why lose it, and risk not being able to find it?

On Friday, November 7th I did about nine hills of hard effort climbing on Queen Anne and Magnolia. I’ve now ridden every hill in singlespeed, save one, that I normally do on my frequent winter rides to what I think of as my “winter proving ground”. As long as you are extremely careful on the wet roads, and pay particular attention to wet leaves and moss, it just doesn’t get much better than Magnolia and Queen Anne for the perfect winter riding area. Especially if you live downtown like me, and can just cruise through Myrtle Edwards Park to get there.

Only 3rd Ave. up from SPU on the north side of Queen Anne remains on my singlespeed hill hit list. I could give the climb up from the Discovery Park Lighthouse or the Counterbalance a shot, but I don’t see much upside in that for my knees. I don’t even like these climbs on my regular bike.

On another note, little did I know that my purchase of a new 09 Specialized Langster would generate five (with a possible sixth pending) sales of Specialized bikes. I have the 09 Langster, and the 09 S-Works Tarmac SL2. Reg has a new 09 S-Works Roubaix SL2 frameset he is getting ready to build up, and Justin has his new S-Works Langster track bike. Tom N bought a 08 S-Works Roubaix SL, and now Justin is thinking about a new S-Works Tarmac SL2 to replace his custom Calfee. All this was triggered by me spotting the Tarmac SL2 and the S-Works Langster at Center Cycle when I was picking up my Langster. My riding buddies have caught some new bike fever. Specialized is making fantastic bikes, and I was glad I could direct some business to Center Cycle in Renton.

I hope to see you on the road.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Fuel for the Fire

No matter what your feelings are about Lance Armstrong, you cannot deny that he is serious about his comeback, and he has already thrown down the gauntlet. Whatever his reasons for returning are, he intends to come back at the top.

From Bike Radar:

Who the hell is Linus Gerdemann?

Recently, German rider Linus Gerdemann said that he was not pleased with Armstrong returning to the pro peloton and that Armstrong's generation and its propensity for drug use is better off out of the sport. When asked, Armstrong deflected Gerdemann's implied accusation:

"He's right, I am older. I raced with Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Miguel Indurain and Greg LeMond of all people. I have been around a long time and I don't know who the hell Linus Gerdemann is, but I know that when I rolled up in 1992, I started winning races. And when I roll up in 2009, I'm gonna be winning races. He better hope he doesn't get in a breakaway with me because I can still ride hard," said the Texan.

I doubt Linus Gerdemann will be very popular in the peloton. His comments will do nothing but provoke Armstrong into a higher level of focus. Lance Armstrong has always let his legs do his talking for him, and when others talk about him, it just seems to incentivize him to work harder and harder.

All of the other riders now can assume that their odds of winning the 2009 Tour just decreased.

“Lance Armstrong undecided about riding in the Tour”

Who believes that?

Armstrong is the ultimate at practicing gamesmanship. Rumors used to surface in December that Armstrong was having a “little knee issue”. Jan Ulrich would go right back to the dining room table, finish off his supplemental winter 15#, and Armstrong would win another Tour. The knee would never be mentioned again.

Read between the lines—Armstrong is back, and he intends to dominate.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Doubting Thomas

In an earlier post (“Get Yer Ya-Yahs Out” on 9-20-08); I wondered aloud whether incremental improvements in high end bikes would be incentive enough for cyclists to “trade up” to the latest carbon wonder bike. After taking several test rides on new bikes, I was thinking that the big gains in carbon bike design have been made. Well, now I have to eat some humble pie.

I’ve now had my new 2009 S-Works Tarmac SL2 for a little over a month, and I have managed to ride it over 800 miles during an October with hardly a drop of rain.

When I test rode the SL2, I did so two days in a row on unfamiliar roads, both days comparing it to my 2007 S-Works Tarmac SL by riding the bikes back to back. I made the decision to order a SL2 frameset because it seemed to do everything a little bit better than my SL, and I was ready for a new look anyway. The SL2 had bigger tubes, a tapered headtube, and a new finish called Raw Carbon/KL that I thought was super hot.

Subconsciously, I must have been justifying the new fashion statement by reasoning that the SL2 handled a little better, descended and climbed a little bit more solidly, and seemed to ride a little smoother than my SL. Of course, there were different wheels and tires involved, so I wasn’t totally confident that there were differences at all, despite the Specialized marketing machine claims of improvements in each area. Oh yeah, the company was also claiming the SL2 frameset weighed 100g less while managing to accomplish these goals.

The SL2 was built up with the pieces from my Tarmac SL, so I now have a true “apples to apples” comparison. After over 800 miles on roads that I am very familiar with, I now realize that that the differences between my old and new bikes are not subtle and evolutionary; they are huge and almost revolutionary. It took riding on roads that I had ridden many times to discover that the SL2 had a much more refined ride, and descended and cornered much more solidly. Given that I had thought my Tarmac SL to be a fantastic bike, suffice to say I am a little blown away by the SL2.

The SL was a blast to ride, but the SL2 “comes from another world”, to quote eight time world champion Valentino Rossi describing the 500 GP motorcycle racing bikes.

From now on I will longer be a Doubting Thomas. I’ll be prepared to be dazzled when I least expect it.

There is no moral to the story, other than the next time (and there always will be a next time) I decide to buy a new bike, I am going to do everything I can to beg, borrow, or steal (just kidding) the new model for long enough that I can ride it over familiar roads. If possible, I’ll throw on my wheels just for good measure.

With as important and expensive a decision as changing bicycles is, I want to give myself every chance to get the evaluation right.

The companies that manufacture custom bicycles tailor their marketing to their strengths. “We will build a bicycle for just you, and it will be the last bicycle you need for the rest of your life” is the mantra they preach.

High end, mass production manufacturers market to customers who yearn for the latest advances in technology, such as lighter and stronger materials, more gears, etc.

A bicycle for life? Who are they kidding? Does anyone actually do this—buy one bike, and ride it until they die? Every time I buy a new bike, no matter how much in love with it I am, I certainly don’t expect it will be my last.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Halloween Birthday Boy

I would have done this post on Halloween, except that I didn’t have the time because Tracy surprised me with a train trip to Portland for a birthday weekend. I truly am a lucky guy.

According to Bicycling Magazine, Portland is America’s number one cycling city, and it also comes across as the land of…no helmets. We saw a lot of cyclists, and I’d guess one out of 50 was wearing a helmet. What’s up with that?

There was even an ad in the newspaper promoting bicycle commuting, including a photo of two riders without helmets! It’s great to encourage people to get on a bike and ride to work, but please at least put a helmet on the people in the photo. Sure, wearing a helmet is a personal choice (even if it is a law in most cities), but can’t we encourage novice cyclists to at least wear one when they first start on the bike? They can make their final decision later, but throwing a few dollars down for a helmet seems a logical thing to do when you first take to the roads.

Bikes are everywhere in Portland. And you thought it was tough to find a spot to park your car in downtown Seattle:

Seriously, Portland is a fantastic city for cycling. We didn’t take our bikes, but you don’t need to be riding to sense how strong the cycling culture is, and you can pretty much safely get around in every direction. The cycling infrastructure is really well thought out.

Reflections on Age and Cycling

A birthday is always a good time for a little reflection. Since this is a “cycling” blog, loosely defined, I’ll try to keep this in context.

No one ever expects to get old when they are young.

The young have youth on their side. The “not so young” have experience. Just like a product has to be marketed based on its strengths, an athlete has to train and ride based on their advantages.

If you are young, you can spend a higher percentage of time riding at high intensity levels. If you are older, you can’t do high intensity rides as frequently, but you might have a little more time available to ride, and to recover from hard rides.

Most of my group riding experience over the last five years comes from a weekly ride I lead called the Hills of the West Coast.

At the start of the ride, typically either I or one of the other ride leaders will describe the route, and try to give a subjective estimate of the overall difficulty and summary of the major climbs. Based on the ride name, riders who participate can assume that we usually focus on climbing.

Normally, I mention that we will be doing 70 miles (summer rides) at a hard pace, and that some of the difficult climbs occur towards the end of the ride. Implied here is a need to save a little bit of energy for the late part of the ride.

I used to play competitive golf, and I always believed that it was a lot more satisfying to birdie the 18th hole, as opposed to starting your round with a birdie. Not only are more bets won or lost on the 18th, but the after round drink always tasted better. As a matter of fact, not only can I still remember many of those 18th hole birdies, I can remember the entire 18 holes of golf I played that day. If I tried really hard, I might be able to recollect a first hole birdie, but the rest of the golf day would be a blank.

Inevitably, the younger riders in our group (at least the ones on their first ride) attack the first climb of the day as if it were a mountaintop stage finish in the Tour.

On a ride about three years ago, I overheard two younger riders in full team kit talking about what maximum heart rate number they had registered on one of those earlier climbs. I remember this because I heard a number in the 200’s, and that is a number I haven’t thought about for a long time. These two riders were very strong, and for the first 30 miles or so, hammered each climb in a real Mano a Mano show of force.

Deep in the ride, we visited Cougar Mountain for a couple of hard climbs. At the re-group at the top of the climbs, these two riders were conspicuous by their absence as we waited for everyone to finish. They rolled up together, dead last of the 20 or so riders out with us that day.

We dropped down the north side of Cougar, and headed west up the gentle grade of Newport Way. One of the riders who had remained almost invisible all day, content to stay in the pack, now rode to the front. As he pulled the group up Newport Way, I noticed two riders getting shelled off the back. Yes, it was the same two riders, and now they were getting dropped on a very easy section of road by a rider who happened to be in his sixties (albeit a very strong rider). We never saw these two riders again that day, or on any subsequent rides. Perhaps they peeled off to lick their wounds?

Just like no one remembers who birdies the first hole, no one normally can recall the rider first up the initial climb of the day. You can bet that everyone on the ride that day remembers who was last up the last climb.

Every human being is born with a genetically wired, pre-programmed ceiling for aerobic capacity as defined by Vo2 Max. A sedentary person’s capacity peaks at around age 25. Endurance athletes hit their peak between ages 25 and 30, and sometimes as late as 35. There is not a lot one can do to alter this course.

There is a lot that the individual can do to develop and keep as much of that aerobic capacity for as long as possible. This involves discipline and a lot of hard work over many years.

There is also a lot than one can do to influence how wisely their aerobic capacity is deployed.

Sometimes it comes down to a common sense decision made in the blink of an eye after a subconscious split second analysis of the situation at hand. This is where an older athlete can often level the playing field.