Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Prescription from the Spin Doctor

Y'all will have to excuse the extended absences from the blog these days. As you know from previous posts, I've been wrestling with issues both existential and physiological.

This week, I've been testing the new fit on my bike and my shoe inserts, trying to see if they make enough difference that my re-injured knees will recuperate as I continue to ride. So far, the evidence is tenatively encouraging. Out of the two years I've been back on the bike, there've been many months when I've been mostly or completely out of commision. So, for right now, I'm just trying to keep the chin up and focus on what I can do, even if it seems worlds below what I stubbornly feel I could do.

And, in that vein, I had a great, one-hour jaunt this morning, shooting up and down rollers not far from my house. I'm trying to re-learn riding at a higher cadence (should help the knees), and I think alternating between flats and big rollers might be a great way to do so. It's really interesting how much less tired I am overall at the end of each ride when I spin more. I think I have a muscle-structure fairly well-suited to the roleur style, pushing tough gears and moving ever faster over ever-greater distances. In each of the last two years, I've ended up in that groove at some point mid-season. Muscularly, it works great, but apparently, my knees just will not take it. (They're built a little off-center.) Especially not on the much more serious hills out in Western Mass (compared to the Boston area, where we lived until a year ago).

At the beginning of each season, I've been a serious spinner, because I spend months on the rollers during the winter (and, yes, I like it!). I'll average around 90-95 rpm on the road early on, and will often go higher. But once the meat of the season rolls around and I've built up some serious quad-acity in the hills, I get lulled into pushing harder and harder. Before the knee stuff set in a few weeks ago, I probably had a cadence in the low 80s (but I was moving much faster). Let's face it: It's fun to feel the power in your legs rocketing you over hill and dale. You feel invincible!

Well, it seems my knees are very "vincible." I'm going to try teaching my body to spin a little more and push a little less; not a dramatic change, just maybe get up to somewhere in the low-to-mid-90s. I've never been able to do that when riding really fast; most of my leg-speed drills happen at lower speeds. So this will be interesting, trying to find the balance between muscle and grace.

On top of that, I'm considering buying a compact double chainring for the CAAD 8. The combination of going from a hill-flattening triple chainring to a standard double, and trying to surpass last season's feats while on some very serious altitude out here in the Western part of the state, contributed mightily to the Chondromalacia and ITBS resurgence.I bought the bike as NOS on eBay, so I didn't have many options about components. Also, I was lured by the full-Ultegra set-up. But I have a feeling that breaking up the Ultegra will be worth it. (I know Shimano makes an Ultegra compact double, but come on: $250?!)

So if you see someone out there in a month or so, spinning fast on a bright red bike, it may well be me. Say "Hi"!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Bike – and the Shoe - Fits

At the end of yesterday's post about my Friday visit to Belmont Wheelworks, I mentioned having taking time to get to know staff I really vibed with. One of those people was Sean Brennan, head of the fit department.

The first time Sean fitted me, working on my previous bike, the Giant, I knew we'd be working together again. He's sharp, experienced, and he really listens. He also has that fine balance of training and intuition so important in a field that's as much art as science. I later ran into two separate people who'd been fitted by him and came away with just the same impression. I've been going to him ever since. Wheelworks is a great store and all, and I would have liked it even if I hadn't found Sean. But in those days, it was a no-brainer, because they were so close to me. Now consider this: When I realized last week that I couldn't solve my own fit problems with my new bike, I made an appointment, took time off from work, and drove two hours in Friday afternoon traffic to go see Sean for a mere 50 minute appointment. If you're within driving distance of Boston and you're looking for an affordable, expert fitting, I doubt you could do better.

As a bonus, you get to hang out in the middle of the fitting center of one of the busiest and most reputable shops in the region; you learn a lot just by keeping your eyes and ears open.

So, yeah, my left knee was still bothering me, and I thought Sean could help. He did his usual careful observation of my pedal stroke, we talked a bit about all the considerations, and then Sean raised my saddle a bit, lowered my bars, and gave me a tip about my pedal stroke that might relieve some of the strain. He also fitted me for Aline inserts for my cycling shoes. I'd been thinking about inserts for some time to address the knee problem, and the Aline fitting system made it ridiculously obvious how misaligned my ankles and knees were. I'll keep you posted about the effects.

Then I went shopping for a jersey, since I've been needing a new one for a while. Fitting is definitely exciting and fun, but jersey shopping... oh, yeah. Bring the bling. I have been looking for a stylish top for probably a year now, and just haven't had the dough for the ones I really like -- the super-expensive Euro fine wool deals. Short of that, the best I'd found was the Twin Six line. For an affordable, stylish and unique look, you just can't beat 'em. Better yet, I found a bunch of 'em on the discount rack Friday, and ended up paying less for the one I chose than I would have if I'd ordered on-line!

After trying on far too many of them, I ended up with the first Twin Six I ever laid eyes on, and have wanted ever since -- the '08 Deluxe. I had hesitated all this time, because I worried that black would be too hot in the summer. Once I tried it on, it was like, "Yeah... and?" It was all over:

All in all, a successful day, topped off with a great Thai meal next door to the shop and an iced coffee at a nearby sidewalk café, listening to three different groups of friends chattering away in three different languages. City life: I do miss the diversity, the sophistication -- and the bike fitters and jersey selection.

I drove home a happy fellow.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

My Local Bike Shop, 90 Miles Away

Fully stocked with Boston's own high-end Indy Fabs.

Took yesterday afternoon off for an enjoyable trip to Boston to visit my old local bike shop -- which just happens to be one of the more highly respected shops in the Northeast: Belmont Wheelworks.

Ever since we moved out to Western Massachusetts, I’ve missed this place. They have okay bike shops in the western half of the state, but the ones I've found are small, and there isn’t one that begins to match the selection and salespeople of Wheelworks.

There may be a better shop in Boston (and some say there are) but I used to live a 15-minute ride from Wheelworks, and it was plenty good enough for me. First, selection: Aisle upon aisle of bikes ranging from affordable to nose-bleedingly high-end; enough jerseys to kit out the Tour de France; seven or eight models of short-fingered gloves; tires, tires and more tires... on and on. And on.

Sung to the tune of "Tradition": "Selectioooon.... SELECTION!"

Then there are the people, probably even more important to me. There is an unusually high percentage of good ones there. When I used to go in for something trivial like an eight-dollar pair of mounts for my old frame pump (now defunct), I would be blessed with a 10-minute conversation about the merits of the different systems (and at least four systems to choose from). From someone who knew, because he'd tried all of them. And was friendly. I've never once gotten a whiff that haughty, “I’m an uber-hip bike shop wrench quite obviously wearing a $200, painfully fashionable wool jersey and sporting the latest facial hair trend; get away from me with your tiny questions” attitude. The staff there smile, and start conversations. Staff who are far, far more knowledgeable and experienced riders than me.

That’s a dreamworld LBS. I do miss 'em.

(Full disclosure: I’ve heard some pretty unhappy stories about their service department. The one time I used it, I had no problems or complaints. Also, if you go, choose your salespeople. There are one or two there who really rubbed me the wrong way, and, as a consequence, I ended up not buying my first bike there. That was before I took the time to get to know people I really vibed with, which ended up paying off in spades.)

Next: Exactly what I went there for yesterday. Yes!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Just" an Enthusiast?

Second week in a row of recovery from the big early June push. Loooong story short, I got greedy.

I thought I was still coming back from the missed months of training (due to illness and injury this winter) but I surprised myself with my good progress. Did two unexpectedly big rides; got psyched. Did a really epic ride. Felt good. Hey! I must have had some kind of miracle healing! Let’s go do some intervals and yet more killer hills! Yeah… that’s about the time I burned out. And the nagging ache in my knees became real pain. Not sure when I’ll be 100% again.

Yet, I’m not as discouraged as I’ve been in the past.

The 20 months since I’ve gotten back into cycling have been characterized by this yo-yo pattern. I ride too hard; I start to feel bad; I ease off and loudly commit to more reasonable ways; start to feel better, ride too hard; feel bad. Rinse & repeat.

So this week, I’ve done some navel-gazing in an attempt to get my hands on the psychological crossed wire that’s causing this self-destructive behavior. Turns out it’s the same pattern I’ve lived out in other parts of my life. When I was in college, having taught myself guitar for a total of two years, I decided I was going to be a “serious” jazz guitarist. Like, for a living. I talked the dean of the highly respected conservatory connected to my school into giving me a locker for my instrument and signing me up for theory classes, jazz improv classes, and, most laughable of all, a small combo seminar. I had no business being in that audition room, and the instructor told me so in no uncertain terms. Didn’t stop me, of course.

Since I was a kid, I couldn’t love doing something without trying to be a hotshot at it. It was never okay to be just okay. To do something just because I liked doing it. To be mediocre, just another enthusiast, a hacker, a duffer. I've missed out on a lot of healthy enjoyment because of this.

There are some first causes for it, events and relationships in my childhood, but this isn’t People magazine, and you don’t come here for tell-all confessions. Suffice it to say I’m 45 now, and it’s time to take yet one more step in that life-long process we call growing up. Basically, to accept that my body has limits. That it’s genetically destined for only a teaspoon of athletic talent. That it’s getting older (and I’m getting busier) and it won’t let me go off and act like a hero for a while without long-term repercussions. Most importantly, it’s time to find a way to ride within myself – something I’ve been writing about since the day I started this blog.

Shoot, staying within myself is something I’ve been trying to learn since I was old enough to think. Here’s to another step: Enjoying my time on the bike for what it is. Being neither hero nor zero, but rather that thing I just could not swallow before: One more enthusiast. I think allowing myself that luxury will open up a world of cycling enjoyment I haven't even touched yet.

As always, I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Ain't Dat Dope?

A very interesting item in VeloNews featuring an interview with nouveau celebrity bad-boy Bernard Kohl suits my mood today. It's a gray, drippy, cool day, and I'm feeling reflective at best. I'm also taking the week off riding in order to let my body and attitude do some regenerating. Time off training, as healthy as it is, tends make me a bit melancholy. But I had a much better spring than I expected, and it's time to pay the piper -- before he sends the collection boys with the brass knuckles around. I overtrained once, and I plan never to repeat that experience.

Which leaves me surfing the web for interesting reading like this interview. I've been slighly out of the loop with Kohl, but apparently he's been in a National-Enquirer-style tell-all mood for the better part of a year. I don't mind; I think the cycling world really need a dose of reality. As long-time Velophoriacs know, I take a realpolitik view of doping. I would love to have it eliminated from every sport, but I'm pretty sure it's never going to happen. And yet, we have to keep trying to rub it out... it's a slighly absurd co-dependent relationship that's probably never going to change. I posted on this almost exactly one year ago, and am sorry to say that I still feel very good about that post; it's one of my faves.

In VeloNews piece (which itself is about an interview in L'Equipe), Kohl lays out every detail of what he took, when and how. It's sobering (sorry; can't resist a bad pun). He says blood boosting was the only doping he took a chance on during last year's tour. Now, don't get the wrong idea: The caffeine, pseudo-ephedrine, painkillers, EPO, human growth hormones, and insulin -- that was all leading up to July. I mean, why take chances?

He also says that the new Biological Passport program is a farce. It has"...fallen short, and perhaps even aided the more nefarious members of the peloton.
'The top riders are so good at doping that they know what they need to do to keep their blood levels stable to escape targeting,' he said. 'In fact, the UCI has shown us the levels of riders who failed tests. We used that as a reference to follow. The passport has almost helped us.'"

This is exactly what I discuss in that original doping post, referred to above. If you haven't read it before, perhaps now -- a month before the biggest bike race in the world begins again -- would be a good moment to do a little reflecting. You don't need cool, rainy weather like we've got here -- that's just a starting point.

I'm no less a fan of cycling than I ever was. We just have to swallow the fact that life is messy, and then move on.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Two-wheeled Mikvah

Mrs. V and I paid a visit to my parents this weekend, at their small weekend home in the southern Catskill mountains of New York State. For one reason and another, I haven't been there in almost ten years. Beautiful weather, visits with family friends I haven't seen in ages, lovely little towns and scenery everywhere. And, on Saturday morning, I got to ride there for the first time.

My father, a dubious and cautious fellow, laid out a small route for me, warning me of dangers and dismissing my requests for more distance. As it turned out, I missed some turns anyway, and ended up adding ten or so miles, for a modest 33 total, though the 2500 feet of climbing was a nice challenge, including one hill of about three miles at seven to eight percent. (Of course, I was attacked by dogs about 70% of the way up, and had to "sprint" while I was heaving for breath... the authentic rural experience. I almost tossed my breakfast.)

By far the best part, though, was cycling through the land of my forebears. Well, okay, right... I wasn't riding in Israel, exactly. But the next best thing: the Catskills were a summer retreat for New York City Jews for most of the 20th Century, and there are still remnants of that culture everywhere.

First, I ran across an ancient, abandoned summer resort (called a "camp" in those days) that looked like a little like a ghost town. The first thing I noticed that set this abandoned resort apart from just any old abandoned resort was the tennis court, which featured a handball wall right beside it. If you're not Jewish, you might never have noticed it, but handball was a very popular sport with Jews of a few generations ago (one of my grandfathers was a pretty avid player). As I rolled a little further down the road, I saw the simple bunk buildings lined up, quietly dilapidating in the June sun:

Can you visualize the little kids in yarmulkes running about?

In my imagination, I could hear Yiddish being shouted back and forth, the laughter of little children, perhaps a ball game on a radio. Then I stopped still on the road: A genuine shul (synagogue) stood right out on the road, smack beside the very entrance to the camp.

Note the Star of David set in simple metalwork over the doors.

Now, Ulster County these days isn't nearly what it was back then; one gets used to seeing pretty mainstream American houses, maybe a flag flying in front, cars rotting in side yards, ATVs parked out there, and so on. The shul was a jolt back to another era, when this area literally crawled with Jews, many in traditional formal black clothing, and no one felt the need to set a temple back from the road to make it perhaps a little more unassuming. You took for granted that, if the person you saw walking down the road wasn't Jewish, he was at least comfortable with Jews. He had to be.

More evidence of this culture came throughout the ride, as I rode past street signs like "Synagogue Street" and "Abromowitz Road." You just don't get to see signs like that in rural places in the United States. It was a sweet reminder of another time, when my people had a stronger sense of identity and unity. Of course that came at the price of (and to some extent, as a result of) some pretty painful discrimination and oppression, even here in the good ol' Land of the Free.

All thoughts of lineage, identity, and history began to vanish as I worked my way up the seven-mile hill into Grahamsville, replaced by ragged breath and a burning in my quads. I like to think some of my ancestors would have understood my personal ritual of purification: Cycling, a mikvah of perspiration and fresh air.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Cervélo Short Subjects

Cervélo is filming a series of short subjects on the evolution of their new "Test Team," and is posting each of them to its web site as they are finished. So far, there are four entries, covering start-up of the team, and then this year's Tour of California and Milan-San Remo.

Though in the beginning there is some shilling for the Cervélo brand (this is an in-house production, after all), they get more meaty as they go. Overall, I've found them enjoyable and authentic enough to get something out of each entry. Anyway, it's hard to complain when you get free films about bike racing! Something fun to do when you need a break.

Let me know what you think.