Saturday, May 30, 2009

Up Grade

59 miles and over 4,000 feet of climbing today.

One sighting of an unbelievably blue Eastern Bluebird (except it seemed to have a yellow breast, not orange.)

One driver pulling alongside me as I was climbing the final half-mile of two miles of eight percent grade (about 40 miles in to the ride) who asked me directions to UMass. While I was climbing. Dude -- can you hear me wheezing?

One moment of extreme self-doubt, traveling about five and a half miles an hour, about two-tenths of a mile from the peak of that same hill (the highest point I reached today). If I had allowed any other thought into my mind besides tenaciously repeating the words, "I can do this" -- anything, such as, "There's a cloud overhead" -- I would have tipped right over in the middle of the road, and just lain there, heaving for breath, hot tears washing my sweaty face clean.

One incident of extreme, full-leg cramps, where I again almost fell off the bike. This is the point at which I changed my route and headed downhill. I added miles but reduced grades.

* * *

Today's ride was my best cycling achievement since I rode most of the Oregon/California coast as a teenager (with 30 pounds of gear on the bike). I try to avoid posting stats on the blog, because I don't like encouraging the whole comparison plague. I just can't help kvelling today. The pneumonia and bone bruise/muscle tears might have set me back a couple months, but I'm making progress, and I'm so happy about that.

I'm still thinking of switching my 53/39 chainring for a compact. It seemed like a stellar idea on the last hill before home.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


General classification after stage 17, 2009 Giro d'Italia

1 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank 72.28.24
2 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) LPR Brakes - Farnese Vini 0.26
3 Franco Pellizotti (Ita) Liquigas 2.00
4 Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas 3.28
5 Carlos Sastre (Spa) Cervelo Test Team 3.30
6 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana 4.32

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Loving the Learning Curve

You make it look easy... easy!

But really it's driving long distance, dialing in the gear
Studying the balance, quieting the fear
All the hard landings, all the tough breaks
Learning all of your lessons, making all the mistakes
That's how you make it look easy.. easy... easy!

~ David Wilcox, Make it Look Easy

Yesterday I did my first group ride in Western Mass. We moved here last August, and I’ve been absorbed with either work, illness, injury, or just plain settling in. Finally, on Friday, I committed to going. Saturday morning, I was a bit nervous, hoping to make a good impression. Still, I felt strong and confident. I’d been riding well lately. I heard a great song by The Gourds on the car radio just before I parked. I even found a lucky penny in the park where I was waiting to meet the group.

Turns out the good omens were misleading, because my introduction to the group was inauspicious at best.

Three minutes after roll-out, I popped a loud flat. PFSSSSST! We weren’t even out of town yet. The group kindly waited while I fixed it, with help from a club regular in order to save everyone some time. Then, as we were rolling out of town and picking up a bit of speed, I found I just couldn’t keep up. I kept thinking, “I was pretty sure I could stay with this group!” The leaders drifted behind me, and I heard fragments of their conversation: “…two different paces today…” Frustrated and embarassed, I knew I was the one at the “different pace.” So I did the right thing: I fell on my sword and waved them on, only 15 or so minutes in to the ride. They protested (they’re a friendly group), but I insisted. One guy, shaking his head, said, “You can do this!” It was more a statement of disbelief than encouragement – like it seemed weird to him that I wasn’t making it. It was weird to me too.

Off they swung, over the horizon. I don’t need to describe the feeling in my gut to anyone who’s had this experience.

We’d been riding over roads I know well, and as I continued, I found that I just couldn’t ride like I normally do. The idea that I was overtrained seemed silly – I’d just finished taking a week at about 60% of normal volume and intensity (I don’t fool around with overtraining anymore, after this experience.) My body felt like it had good energy. Yet small hills I’d been shooting up lately were killing me.

Finally, I rode home in disgust. My wife was there to greet me, bewildered -- I wasn’t due back for hours. She was sweet, and I was in a foul mood. As I picked up the bike to move it through our doors, I noticed something weird; the back wheel wasn’t moving. At all.

Back in town, I had noticed that the guy who was helping me change tubes had yanked both of my wheels out of the dropouts, and pushed them back in, without opening the brake releases. Odd, but there it is. He’d first taken off the back wheel, mistakenly thinking that was the flat one, then jammed it back on and took off the front. Turns out when the guy pushed the rear wheel back in the dropouts, the brakes got way out of whack, and by the time I got home, I’d ridden almost an hour with one pad fully mashed against my rear rim. It was visibly more worn than the other pad.

I was pretty frustrated. No wonder I hadn’t kept up! No wonder I was wheezing on familiar hills!

In truth, I blame myself. I am responsible for the condition of my bike, and I climbed back on it without checking the brakes after the wheels were replaced, something I’ll never do again. I also haven’t had severe brake rub before, so I guess I needed to learn: If I am weirdly underperforming, check the brakes, front and back.

I immediately left the house and tacked another 25 miles of hills on to my ride just because I could, and should. Sadly, I came home with a very sore knee, which now needs tending. Don’t know yet if it’s ongoing fit issues or just due to fighting the brakes for the first hour. (Imagine riding hard for an hour with your right brake lever duct-taped to the handlebar.)

* * *

Sometimes it seems like life tosses up endless lessons for me to learn before I can just settle down and ride with the big dogs like I’ve wanted to for a couple years. Lessons on how bike fit can cause injury (as in my chronic chondromalacia), how important caring for and listening to my body is (as in my overtraining, and pneumonia), and now, add basic, embarrassing maintenance stuff like “check your %$#! brakes.”

I started riding (again) at 43. I’m 45 now, with thousands of miles behind me, and I’m still not riding even close to my potential. I long for the time when I’ve learned enough lessons, ridden enough miles, gathered enough experience, that I can just sit in with the local gazelles and enjoy myself. Maybe it’ll take another two years still. Who can say?

In the meantime, do I love bikes enough to hang with all that frustration and zig-zag progress?

I don't think I really have a choice. This bike thing came back up and bit me out of the blue after decades away, and now, even with all those setbacks, I can't seem to stop. While writing this post, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the fifteenth stage of the Giro d’Italia, and feeling around my knee, wondering if it can withstand a ride today.

It seems to me like I might benefit from viewing the learning curve itself as my goal right now. I don't want that; I like to think I'm only inches away from being ready to ride with the veterans. But that's not really for me to say. And thinking that way only makes me frustrated when it doesn't come true. If I were ready... I'd be doing it. The only thing I know for sure is I can't give this up. So I might as well try to take a step back, and live in harmony with the obstacles and set-backs. And thoroughly enjoy the steps forward.

What can I do? I’m hooked. And -- taken all in all -- that's a good thing.

Tough brakes, indeed.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Tale of the Tape

My NOS Cannondale CAAD 8 is now a bit over three months old. I'm really enjoying the process of growing into it, observing subtle differences in ride and fit.

The last couple of weekends, I did longer distances with a lot of climbing, and they involved some pretty steep 20- to 30-minute descents. Wow -- I really like descending on this bike. It's very, very responsive at speed, yet very stable, too. My Giant is more of a touring rig, and it's quite solid at more staid clips. The CAAD just wants to go fast; the more speed, the better it handles. I'm still getting the subtleties of going at an average pace; slight glances over the shoulder make the front wheel swing a bit, where the Giant would just plow on, ruler-straight. I like the difference, the challenge of being a more attuned rider. I'm getting better.

However, there's been one difference I don't like so much. After a couple weeks of heavy-duty climbing and intervals, I started developing a pain behind my left knee. I spent Sunday morning diagnosing the (mis-)fit, doing research on-line and in books, and comparing the CAAD to the Giant, for which I've dialed in the fit quite well.

After long stretches of measuring, reading various (and often contradictory) fitting approaches on the Web, pondering the lessons I learned from the master fitter I worked with when I lived in the Boston area, and simply sitting on the bikes and feeling the differences, I made a couple of small changes, moving the saddle about a centimeter lower and a centimeter forward. I went out for a ride, and lo and behold, my new-ish bike felt more... fitted. More me. How sweet to be able to bring to bear the fitting knowledge I've been able to gather in a couple of years of riding, to make my body more comfortable on such a lovely machine.

It's like buying a nice suit off the rack: You buy one with lustrous material and an appealing style, but it's still not quite... right. You take it to a trustworthy tailor, and when you try it on after he's done... wow. It's your suit. The next time you step out in it, you feel a certain relaxed confidence.

I can't wait to go out for a longer run tomorrow and see if that feeling holds up.

Of course, I still have to get used to the biggest difference on this bike: The standard gearing. After the triple rings and outsized cogs on the Giant, this one makes me feel weak on the hills. But I'm getting there over the weeks. Hopefully a better fit will transfer a little more power!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Snap the Leash

You ever feel like you’re trudging throught the day-to-day with a tether lashed to your back? Holding the other end of the leash is every person to whom you are in any way responsible. Your boss. Your co-workers. Your clients or customers. Your parents, who keep hinting that you could visit a little more often. Your in-laws, who keep hinting that your spouse could visit a little more often. Your spouse – much as you love him or her, and wouldn’t change a thing, there’s a leash there, too, yes?

Here’s what you do: Find a fine spring afternoon. Sneak out of work early. Get on your bike. Start riding. Don’t stop.

Ride so far (or so fast, if you prefer) that you start to feel the leash going taut, pulling backwards on you. Pedaling gets a little harder. (Some people call this a “hill” or an “interval.” Don’t let them fool you. It’s the leash.) Behind you, the leash goes zoing-oing-oing, about an a E above middle C, as you reach the outer limit of the time and space meted out to you by the leash-holders.

Now, let’s be clear: Those parties are not going to relinquish their end of the tether. It’s down to you: Do you give in, turn around, in order to return some slack to the leash?Or do you bash out one more pedal stroke, and finally hear that SNAP you’ve been unconsciously craving for days? Your vision clears. You feel lighter. You can ride as far as you like; physical abilities are no longer pertinent here. Your sleepless nights and tense days fall away, the blue of the sky opens up at the top of the hill, eager to swallow you as you pedal off into thin air.

There is only one May per year. Go snap the leash.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Nothing Ordinary About It

Before Armstrong. Before Merckx. Before Coppi and Bartali.

Before even the pre-Cambrian advent of Le Tour or the Giro.

There was.

The ordinary.

Or high-wheeler, or penny-farthing, if you were a Brit.

Velophoriacs already know how enamored I am of this style of bike, and the tweed-cap-and-knickers cycling style it birthed (re-born in contemporary riders, though sadly without the caps).

What you don't know is that Mrs. V. and I actually saw a vintage sample in the flesh this weekend -- just a few miles from our house. We were at the opening of a small local museum situated in a lovely old house of stone (called, in a touch of Victorian irony-deficiency, The Stone House). They had the carriage house open for the event, as well, and were displaying beautiful old specimens of pre-combustion four-wheeled transportation. Off in a corner, hanging on a wall, was a gorgeous, neglected ordinary. Someone got a hold of this beauty and thought it was a worthy piece of local history. (Of course, I agree.) Click on the pictures to get much bigger versions:

As we got closer, we noticed something odd about the pedals: They were offset from the hub by a strange mechanism... which turned out to be pump-action cranks. That's right, you pumped your legs up and down, not 'round and 'round, to make this baby go. At the bottom of the stroke, spring-action drove the crank back up. (Yes; of course I tried it, without asking permission.) I was thinking about it later and wondered if that would add or subtract to stability.

Notice also the interesting handlebars. The grips look like they were re-purposed from a farm machine of some sort.

The whole thing dates back to "Circa 1880," according to a scrawled tag stuck in the spokes. I have to confess that I differ with the curator (who is probably a local schoolteacher or shopowner in their alter-ego). It's possible they're right, but by 1880 the design for the ordinary was pretty well set in stone, and manufacturers abounded in Massachusetts. There are scholarly figures citing over 100 bicycle manufacturers in Boston alone around this time. It seems unlikely to me that this oddity would have been produced that late... but what do I know? Maybe the local blacksmith just wanted a cheap form of transportation for his son, and fired up the forge and just made this lovely old thing.

(Note: I've since done some digging around, and it seems there was a greater variety of pedaling mechanisms, and handlebars, around 1880 that I'd originally thought.)

However and whenever it happened, it was a terrific find.

Fine photos © Mrs. V. 2009

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Western New England Cycling Events

I took some time over the last week or two to gather a list of upcoming cycling events in my area. Given my lengthy health issues this winter, and that I'm still cleaning up some ongoing related stuff, I'm probably not going to be racing this season as I had planned. But I need events to train for.

I spent last year -- my first season back on the bike in decades -- just riding to ride, and it was fun, but the aimlessness got a little dangerous sometimes.

So, this season I aim to acquit myself reasonably well at organized rides in the my newly-adopted region. I won't be off the front trying to prove how indomitable I am, but I'll try to post some good times, and have some good times, too. Hopefully, I'll get a little training motivation out of it, discover more of the area, and make some new friends to hang with. It's been a little lonely out here, away from my friends back in Boston.

Since it took me a while to compile this list from different sources, I thought I'd post it here for the benefit of cyclists in the Pioneer Valley, or the larger region (which the local NPR affiliate so smoothly calls "western New England"). Most of these rides start within roughly a two-hour drive of the Five Colleges area (basically Amherst and Northampton, MA). Some are much closer. Most events offer a variety of routes, with distances ranging from 12 miles to well over 100, and a number of lengths in-between.

I warmly invite comments if you know anything about any of these rides. I'd also love to know of any area cycling events not listed here. (Note that I've not included rides that only offer long-distance routes, such as pure centuries or brevets.)

Sat., May 16 – Tour de Northeast – Woodstock, Ct

Sun., May 17 – Heidi’s Chain of Hope – Westfield, Ma

Sun., June 7 – King’s Tour of the Quabbin – Rutland, Ma

Sun., June 14 – Hat City Cyclists' Cyclefest– Bethel Ct.

Sun., June 14 – Tour De Cure – North Haven, Ct.

Sun., June 20 – Ride to Survive – Plainfield, Ct.

Sat., Jul 25 – Memory Ride – Devens, Ma.

Sat.-Sun., Aug 1-2 – Vermont Lakes Region Cycling Weekend – Poultney, Vt.

Sun. Aug. 2 – Tour of Litchfield Hills – Litchfield, CT (?)

Sat. Aug 22 – Hoosic River Ride – Bennington, Vt.

Sat., Sept 12 – No Limits Ride – Manchester Centre, Vt.

Sun., Oct 11 – Great River Ride/Berkshire Brevet Series – Westfield, Ma.

Hope this list is helpful to folks!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Riding Naked

It's been an interesting spring, biking-wise. I decided to ride more tuned in than ever to my body's health and fitness (in trying to recover from illness and injury). Accordingly, when I returned from Moab spring training camp (with a cold, a bruised femur and two torn muscles -- ah, camp!) I began riding naked.

No, not like that. I'm getting back to nature, but I don't want to scare anyone.

I mean, without a heart monitor and without even a cyclocomputer. The only thing I've been bringing on my rides for the past seven weeks has been a watch -- and occasionally, I've even forgotten that. The only way I've known how far I've ridden is by mapping my route online afterward.

It's been a very different experience. When I go out, all I have to rely on as far as training metrics is the various sensations from my body. It's been an education -- truly. I'm a better rider for it.

I'd been thinking about trying this for many, many months, but I just couldn't let go of my precious numbers. Oh, once in a while, I'd ride without the HR monitor or even without the computer, but it was rare, and hard for me.

For the sake of my limited time, I'll just say that -- for what it's worth -- I'm healthier and fitter now, both overall and bike-specifically, than I expected to be. And I am acquainted with my fitness in a much richer way.

Perhaps more importantly, nearly every ride I've taken has been enjoyable. That didn't used to be so -- I'd ride to maintain a plan. Sometimes that meant "pushing through" when I didn't enjoy it. Perhaps I was in better shape then. (I like to think not. And even if I was, I rode myself into illness that way.) But either way, the plan was choking the life out of my relationship with the bike.

At heart, I've always been more intuitive and spontaneous than intellectual and regimented. I fall into planning and analyzing when a) forced to by circumstances (job, finances, etc.), or b) I'm acting out of fear or worry. Usually both.

This spring, I've been riding out of joy and health. And getting stronger and faster.

More on this later.