Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spring Has Sprung and so has my Knee

Ah, spring -- when a middle-aged man's fancy turns to thoughts of old injuries.

It's becoming increasingly apparent that every spring is going to involve what Paul Fournel calls (and I'm paraphrasing here), "a revival of an old argument with a cantankerous knee." I successfully tried running through the whole winter at base/moderate levels, my cardiovascular capacity climbing while my legs retained some of their strength from last cycling season. But, for the fourth year in a row, once we hit March and April and I start adding intervals and hills, my left kneecap starts getting that lovely mortar-and-pestle feeling.

By now, fortunately, I know not to panic. Mostly.

If I stretch a lot, increase intensity slowly, and in the meantime just accept the aches and pains of an aging human body, I'll probably be strong and fit by May. (We'll see; moderation is still not my strong suit.) Even so, every year, it's a little annoying and worrisome.

Ah, the rites of spring.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Falls Road Rondo

Sunday morning. As my second cup of coffee cools, and a Flemish announcer murmurs sweet Gent-Wevelgam nothings in my tiny computer speakers, I sit reminiscing on a somewhat Belgian ride yesterday with Racer Rob.

We set out from his house in Sunderland under clear blue skies, with temps in the mid-30s, and the stiff, relentless March winds off the Connecticut River soon made clear what the deal was going to be. We turned off the main road and wended our way up rolling hills that only partially protected us from the gale. Fields folding upon fields, fences and old farmhouses stretching in the sun after a long, hard winter, we climbed a steady ten minutes, and were rewarded with views of humpy northern Mass, with the river peeking in and out of the picture, too.

(Wow -- heroic finish to Gent-Wevelgam!)

Down and around the hummocks we flew, a peloton of two, chattering away about tire sizes, vacation plans, and job changes. When we hit the flats, another reward: a brisk tailwind, which always makes me feel fitter and faster than I am. (Have you ever noticed how risky it is to sit up no-hands in a tailwind? The wind shifts imperceptibly, and it's like someone yanked on one side of your bars. The hands go back on real fast.)

South on Falls Road, and one more reward:

The eponymous feature of Falls Road
With the river riding high on the banks directly behind us, we took a quick couple shots of the falls and a hit or two of H2O. Never seen the falls this full before; I guess record snowfalls have their upside.

Home stretch. Rob always picks up the pace right around now, and even when early-season unfit, he's absurdly fitter than myself. I internally set a realistic goal: Just stick to his wheel up the half-mile five-percenter that leads to his driveway. Before I know it, he's getting smaller and smaller, and my thighs feel like running lava. It always ends this way; I wouldn't have it any other way.

By the time we roll up to his door, we're finally warm. The final reward? Five minutes with Rob's adorable boys, one running around playing fireman, and the other in his lovely mama's arms, giving me the heart-melting darshan like the Buddha he is.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In Which I Try Badger Balm as an Embrocation

A Dawn Ride this morning at 7:20 led me out in temps in the upper 20s, thinking that the March sun would take the edge off and make the RealFeel or whatever they call it more like mid-30s. I forgot that we live in the headwind capital of New England, and the wind off the river, unimpeded by the flat farmfields in-between, can be brutal. It was cold. I should have gone running. In fact, that's what I kept telling myself as my fingertips grew ever more painful.

However, my legs were warm. I once again protected them with something more than just clothing.

In my new adventures with all things balmy and unguential, I recently bought a tin of Badger Balm's Sore Joint Rub. It's kind of spendy, but I had a gift certificate to Whole Foods, so it was happily free of charge to me. I kind of hedged on my choice of Badger products; they have a Sore Muscle Rub that includes more capsicum (extract of either cayenne or chilis; the stuff that makes most embrocations feel hot) but I chose the Sore Joint deal because I already have a hot embro... and because the zippier Muscle Rub stuff smells a lot like those odorous herbal ointments for repelling mosquitos. Not very enticing.

The Sore Joint balm, on the other hand, derives some of its heat from ginger extract, and let me tell you, it smells delicious. I love to rub down with it first thing in the morning, before a ride or run. That spicy scent zips right up my nose and gets my brain all kinds of charged up.

However, no matter how much I rub on, it doesn't give more than a slight warm glow. That's not really what it's for. So the cold protection I derived from it this morning was more due to the heavy, waxy nature of the balm (hard to remove from the tin, therefore, but also better at staying on the skin). It kept the windchill off the gams pretty well, though I'd say my Vaseline-embro home brew is the most effective recipe yet. (Last weekend, I rode with that in the upper 30s, and, with knickers on, my calves and shins felt comfy and energized.) (I should mention that Badger has an Extra Strength Sore Muscle Rub, which, while still smelling bug ointment-y, claims to have extra heat and might make a more suitable cold weather embro.)

I'll probably stick to using the Sore Joint Rub for its intended purpose. It's got arnica extract in it, and I have had miraculous results with that stuff when dealing with aches, pains, and especially bruises or swelling. It's even healed slightly torn muscle overnight, once or twice.

Well, I admit it: I'll probably also pull the stuff out in April, when it's in the 50s and I don't need heat as much on my legs. Sometimes I even slap it on in the moring before work (on the pretense that there might be soreness later if I don't rub it up now). I just can't resisit a vigorous, aromatic rubdown.

I'm even spitballing ideas with Mrs. V. about creating my own, home-brewed embro sometime in the next few months. If you have any ideas for a product name, use the comments section. I'll consider all submissions.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Recovery and Detraining

When recovering from an over-reaching phase, with symptoms of heavy legs, lack of motivation, and poor performance, it's always hard to tell when I'm ready to start building again. When I first return to the road, my legs are usually still heavy, and performance is still lower, that could just be the detraining effects of time off. I sometimes wait  too long after recovery periods and lost more fitness than necessary -- and, at other times, come back too early and dug myself in a deeper hole than ever. These days, I'm trying to finesse the middle ground.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Leg Leavening

Heavy legs. Is there a more evocative expression in the athlete's lexicon? I knew I'd be suffering from that malady today, so I tried, for the tenth time or so, to use embrocation as a remedy. I'm happy to report I finally succeeded. 

A year ago, lured by the wonderful aroma, attractive packaging (sadly, recently changed) and, of course, the tradition and ritual, I purchased a jar of Mad Alchemy's Mellow Heat blend. Since I have only used it under tights or warmers, which increases the heat factor, it turned out to be anything but mellow. There followed many an antic caper involving hopping about in my kitchen post-ride, whimpering in pain.

One lesson learned the hard way: Dish soap is the best way to remove embrocation quickly, thoroughly and painlessly.

After a few experiments, I think I've finally hit on what to do if your embro is too hot. The answer is embarrassingly obvious: Vaseline. (Take it easy there, guys; I'll be filtering for inappropriate comments.) I first applied a goodly layer of it this morning, rubbing down the muscles and connective tissue just as I would with embro. (I love this part, like a combination massage and supercharge.) Once I had a sheen going, I dipped into the Mad Alchemy and layered that on, rubbing it in just as well.

Results were very pleasing.

I wore lighter tights today, allowing the heavy winds to penetrate a bit in order to lighten up on the friction factor, and also to test the brew a bit more than I have. I felt the breeze on my legs, but, even in the beginning, they didn't feel nearly as cold as they would have without the balm.  As I warmed up, of course, the heat factor rose a bit, and the legs felt even better. Nevertheless, I was, as predicted, feeling sluggish and uninspired by about halfway through. All of a sudden, at about 70% of the way, I felt that "tropical breeze" sensation that I've read about waft across my pins. My speed picked up oddly, and the realization came over me that I had an extra half-hour in me that simply hadn't been there 10 minutes before. It was like discovering an extra gas tank. What a treat! Certainly good enough to keep trying the stuff.

There are still variables to conquer: Learning at what temps I can ride bare-legged, how to manage the effects of the sun on embrocated legs (under tights, it's like turning the dial to Broil) and what the effects are over long rides. I look forward to these experiments.

As a little bonus, I sit now before the laptop, in a chilly house, wearing only a baselayer above and bike shorts below, and feeling the most cozy warmth emanate from the gams. You just can't beat it; it's like someone lit a toasty blaze in the fireplace.

Let me know your experiences with embrocation.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

My Unconscious is Smarter than I am

I always get a little depressed whenever I have to take a rest week. I guess when the red flags include physical tiredness, irritability, achey joints, and sluggish performance, it's not surprising that I feel a little moonish over the idea of cutting back on my favorite pastime.

Interesting; I had a dream a couple nights ago in which I had this urge to go swimming in a quiet pond in the wilderness. I felt the sparkling sunshine, the soothing water, and an unusally refreshed sensation as I thought about it. I went looking for this pond, but all I found was a beach where folks were body-surfing in tall crashing waves. I thought to myself, "That looks really great, and usually I'd choose that. But I'll hold out for that pond." Pretty clear message, right? Yin over yang for a little while. Body and mind need a break.

Yet soon after -- it was either that day or the next -- I did a very demanding running workout, only days after the hardest bike ride I've done this year. My body felt strong and eager to go, just as it usually does right before it starts declining.

Guess my unconscious has a better handle on my best interests than I do. For the next week, I'm taking it light.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Spring Buy

Avid cyclists know that, after seeing robins pulling worms out of the ground, or that first bare patch of lawn in two or three months, the most welcome harbinger of spring is the bike buy. Make a list, check it twice: New bar tape? New tools for the shop? Maybe a whole new ride?

Here are the newest members of my team, researched for days and just ordered this afternoon:

Specialized Borough CX Pro
 1) Specialized Borough CX Pro: I've been intending to upgrade my second bike -- a humble but sturdy Giant OCR 3 -- into a "snow/rain/commuter/dirt road/hardpacked trail" bike for some time now. These tires will be the first step. I'm now looking forward to the next slush storm, to climbing up some of the fabled dirt-road hills around here, and to generally messing about a lot more on my bike this season. 32 millimeters of cushy rubber to smooth out those spring potholes; relatively smooth center for a faster ride to the dirt via the pavement; and then a dash of knobby-ness on the shoulders for biting into turns during those scary-fast gravel descents. Ooooh, yeah... fun city.

Spin Doctor Pro G3
2) Spin Doctor Pro G3 Work Stand: It's simple -- I've had enough squatting on 47-year-old knees. I'll work on my bike more, and more efficiently, if it's comfortable, stable and stylish.

Diadora X-Country
3) Diadora X-Country MTB shoes: With the help of my friend, No One Line (thanks for the advice and the cleats, d00d!) I've gotten up the guts to switch to MTB pedals and shoes for all but the fastest of rides this year. I'm a born-and-bred road guy, so why would I pay good money for (gasp!) heavier shoes? A few reasons: a) See above. I'm going to be off-road more this year, even if on a road bike, so I want to be able to put my foot down and get actual support out of it. b) For 30 years now, I've been slipping and sliding down convenience store aisles from New England to Nothern California on my road cleats, and now I'd like to try actual walking. (I'll miss the uncomfortable stares, though...). c) One more concise and compelling reason: Double-sided entry. Fewer dangerous pauses trying to get started at a green light, or back in the pedal after putting a stabilizing foot down on the dirt.

If I've managed to get you interested while writing about a shoe, a bike stand and a tire, you're either a hopeless bike nerd, or I deserve a Pulitzer. Now go line up your own spring buy and pull the trigger. Nothing is better than waiting for that doorbell to ring. Speed the day!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Of Wind and Wool

It was indeed exactly as I'd hoped this morning, 32 degrees (a bit chillier than expected) and spitting rain. Yum -- somehow I always manage to find a sweet little groove in-between the raindrops, and chug away like the roleur I fancy myself to be (but really am not). So it was this a.m., rolling steadily by snowy farm fields, the wind very chilled after passing over them, the rain spattering my glasses to a filthy film, the skin around my face and ears chilled deeply despite liberal pre-ride applications of Vaseline. All was right with the world. Could have used a buddy or two to make that stretch between 50 and 80 percent -- the longest mile, always -- a little more cheerful, but that's a nit not to pick.

Reminded once again of my deep gratitude for the progress so many companies have made in creating soft baselayers and glove liners out of virgin wool.  Nothing, but nothing, works as well, especially once wet. Just having it on makes me feel safe and warm and strong out there in the challenging weather.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Belgian Weather

38 degrees and spitting rain and/or sleet tomorrow morning. Belgian weather, and some of my favorite to ride in.

I'm spitting on my palms and rolling up my wool baselayer sleeves. Hope my buddies don't wimp out.