Friday, November 27, 2009

2009 Mean Season...Black Friday a No-Show?

Today was a wonderful day to get out for a solidly paced 52 mile ride.

Today is also 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 up until 2008, I have noticed 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.

Based on what I experienced today, the 2009 Mean Season should be another mild one, possibly even more benign than last year. Traffic this morning was more like Christmas or Thanksgiving Day than the typically frenzied first day of the big shopping season. This afternoon Downtown Seattle was noticeably quieter than normal as well. Unless everyone is shopping online, the light volume of cars as well as the decidedly less crowded downtown indicate to me that it is likely that the current economic malaise will continue for a while. I guess there is always an upside to a downside.

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 wide margin for error to avoid 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.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The 500 Club and the 700 Pound Gorilla

Last Wednesday I went over 500,000’ of total climbing for the year for the third year in a row, and a few days earlier I crossed the 9000 mile barrier for 2009. Quantity based goals are not normally my thing, but if the weather is not absolutely abysmal, I imagine I’ll hit 10,000 miles by the end of the year.

That same afternoon, I was passed on a solo ride for the first time since June 17, 2008. That’s a lot of miles “looking over my shoulder.” That last pass occurred on the Stelvio in a downpour, early on during a nearly three week trip cycling in the Dolomites, Italian Alps, and the French Haute and Maritime Alps. Technically, I wasn't on a solo ride, but I don't remember the last pass before the Stelvio, so I'm going with it.

On Wednesday, I was in a curvy section of Mercer Island, and I didn’t even notice this dressed-in-black rider until he was about 75 feet behind me. Instinctively, I prepared to drop hammer and mount a defense, but I didn’t. I just let him go without a fight.

Back in the winter of early 2008, I noticed something odd. I’d be out cruising around, and the occasional rider would go by me, pull in front, and then start riding at an easier pace than I had been riding. I’d pass them, and then a lot of the time, the anonymous rider seemed to act like I had thrown some kind of gauntlet down! The next thing I knew, I’d have a bike stuck to my rear wheel that was difficult to get rid of, and many times it turned into a real pain in the ass. I would be just out for an easy ride, minding my own business, and intending on sticking with my riding plan for the day. After scratching my head a number of times over these episodes, I came up with a hypothesis: my recently purchased “Daytime Visibility” package from Dinotte Lighting.

I don’t ride at night, so an amber headlight combined with the most incredibly bright rear light available seemed like an appealing way to up the visibility quotient during those dark days. I use a rear view mirror, and I tend to notice the body language of riders behind me, whether I am riding with them or not. I saw a lot of heads down from people that appeared to be making a big effort to catch up to me. No wonder they slowed when they passed—they were tired!

Of course, I realize that sometimes riders like to use a “rabbit” for motivation to ride hard when they might not be into it that day; I sometimes do it myself. The behavior I was experiencing seemed different. It was as if I was a “beacon” that was calling to them. Perhaps they were curious as to just what the hell I had mounted on the rear of my bicycle, or maybe we all have a subconscious tendency to “follow the guiding light”? In any case, I took action, and I think it started without me even realizing what I was doing. Whenever I saw someone in my mirror, I would start pedaling harder, whether I really wanted to or not. I had experienced some very odd and awkward minor confrontations with people who I re-passed, and I wanted to avoid this happening again.

Of course, to make not getting passed happen, several things are necessary. First and foremost, one needs a mirror. After all, how do you mount a defense if you can’t see the charge coming? Second, one must be willing to alter their plan for the day’s ride. There were many times I forced myself to ride hard the day after a really hard ride, when all I actually wanted to do was tool around and enjoy myself. Last, but not least, there is an element of luck involved, especially when you ride as many miles as I do. There was that day on Mercer Island several months back when I saw a guy riding a full out time trial machine who looked like Ivan Basso, and going like Basso goes on EPO. I don’t know which was skinnier, the rider or the bike. Lucky for me, he was going the opposite direction…

I went out riding solo again on Friday, and then again today instead of joining the HOWC. Honestly, I felt like somebody had removed a 700 Pound Gorilla from my back. I had no idea how seriously I had been taking this no passing thing! Yesterday and today I was more relaxed riding than I have been for a long time. Sometimes you just don’t realize how your subconscious is working on you. Now that I am fully aware of what I have been doing, I kind of feel like a different variation of the same kind of jerks I’ve been complaining about. Good to get this behind me.

I figured I’d be writing a blog at year end discussing not being passed in 2009. Between XMAS and New Year’s, I’ll be riding 200+ miles with a lot of climbing in the Tucson area, and I wasn’t looking forward to defending my no passing rule against a bunch of people in the middle of their prime cycling season. I also have been secretly hoping that somebody on a time trial bike would come smoking up my tailpipe early in January 2010. Let’s get it out of the way early; I’m sick of this little game.

Back to the subject of lights, appreciative car drivers have told me that they can see my tail light from a mile away…in broad daylight. That’s great, and my feeling is that you just can’t be too visible when you are on a bicycle. Must go back to my days riding sport bike motorcycles. I just plunked down the cash and ordered the newest visibility package from Dinotte, featuring both head and taillights twice as powerful as the ones I have now. I guess I am going for the W-T-F-I-T? effect. I normally set my lights on a very unique flash mode that I like to call “Highway Patrol”. If approaching cars can see me well in advance, I’d like them to be thinking, “That must be a police motorcycle, I’d better slow down,” or better yet “I better give this thing a wide berth because it looks like a UFO.”

Given this, I guess I really can’t blame riders for wanting to roll up and take a closer look. I hope they just keep rolling on by, because I still don’t plan on slowing down to stay behind them.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

11-14-09 Hills of the West Coast Sacrificial Lamb

Miles: 56 Climbing: 2500’ Route: Downtown—Mercer Island—89th—Coal Creek—Jones Rd.—196th climb—224th—Soos Creek Trail—Downtown Renton—Seward Park—Downtown Attrition Rate: 20% (1)

Of our group of five today, four were members of Team High Performance Cycling, and three of us were wearing our team kit winter jackets. Not only was it nice to see the jackets, it was a great day for a cold weather test, and the jackets worked great. Our non-member was Lee, who recently moved to Seattle from Oklahoma, so we’ll work on him. Yesterday I posted an invite for team members to join the ride on the team message board, promising that riders would adhere to the “lower winter pace.” Who wants to ride hard on a cold mid-November day anyway? All five of us!

Had we had some new faces on the ride, we would have complied with the promise, but given our small group, we only had responsibility to ourselves, and we rode pretty hard most of the time. That didn’t stop us from conversing just about the entire ride. Traffic was light, and we covered topics ranging from the best running shoes to the state of the economy.

Jeff led the ride today, but the true protagonist was Steve H., who went to the front and picked up the pace anytime we got a little too chatty. Warren was game as always to ride hard, but it was Steve who drove the ride. Rolling home up Lake Washington north of Seward Park, Steve was at it again. Since he had done so much work on the front already, we encouraged him to finish it out and pull all the way to the hill leading to the I-90 tunnel overlook.

Steve’s almost always willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the group, and he said, “Sure, but you guys will just drop me on the hill.” To which I replied, “Don’t worry about that. We’ll make a deal with you—you do the pulling and we will ride up the hill with you.” A quick consensus formed that this was indeed a great strategy late in the ride. When we got to the hill, Steve just kept the hammer down, and no concession needed to be made. We did ride up the hill with Steve, but not at an “I’m cooked” pace.

One of my pet peeves is what I call the “Sacrificial Lamb” syndrome. An example: Some brave soul on a HOWC goes to the front as we drop down onto the I-90 Bridge for our return trip. The bridge has a lot of traffic, and this person winds up doing all of the pulling across the bridge, by choice or not. We all hit the grade on the west side, and bang, there goes the whole bunch rocketing by our now tired little lamb. Give me a break! It’s a “group” ride, and is that any way to thank someone for keeping you out of the wind? It’s not like a big climb with a re-group where we all hammer up and the group splits.

I like the concept of fair play. I’ll be throwing out proposals like today’s on the ride next year. If people still go around, at least we’ll have an idea of who has class.

I hope to see you on the (dry) road.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

11-1-09 Hills of the West Coast Halloween Comes a Day Late

Miles: 45 Climbing: 3000' Route: Downtown--Mercer Island--Honda Hill--Newport Way--164th climb--Newcastle Golf Club climb--Coal Creek Parkway--89th--Lake Washington Blvd.--Downtown Bellevue--Lake Hills Connector climb--Kamber Rd--Mercer Island--Downtown Attrition rate: 0%

Yesterday (Halloween) was my birthday. Without going into the morbid details, it was kind of a big one, at least to me, and an occasion like that is always a good excuse for introspection. As far as bicycling gifts, Tracy gave me the new book by David Byrne called Bicycling Diaries, but the real gift comes on the road. I'm getting older, but I am still getting faster, and that is really my motivation. My goal is to try and keep improving my times on certain "benchmark" climbs as long as I can.

I've posted recently about Personal Records, and the various ways we all have of keeping track of how we are doing. I'm hoping that a combination of a healthy diet and smart riding can keep me improving for a while yet. I have several older friends I ride with that have me convinced, through their own example, that I can continue getting better. These guys are riding hard, going really well, and often times going faster than people a lot younger. I think the 2010 version of me can go better than the 2009 version, and that is really the only "performance" goal I have.

Today's ride started off on a rather subdued and mellow tone. Things didn't really get wound up until we got out to Cougar Mountain. Emil led our group of eight, and I believe we did the Lake Hills Connector climb east from Downtown Bellevue for the first time ever on the HOWC. All in all, it was a great and varied route. The photo below was taken by Tim near the Newcastle Golf Course clubhouse. I'm the one wearing the white shoes (in November-faux pas?) and Downtown Seattle is to the left of Jeff's (in yellow) head.

Considering it is now November, we climbed at a pretty high standard. We didn't have that many climbs, but they were great climbs, and a lot of fun to ride hard. Besides the shorter miles this time of year, about the only difference is that I didn't get the sense that people were "keeping score” on the climbs as much as happens in the summer; at least I wasn't.

Emil is leading the ride through November and into December. We are trying something a little different this year, in that we are going to ride on Saturday in the winter. We figure if it's crappy on Saturday, we'll reload and give it a go on Sunday. I hope to see you out there.