Mid-summer Adjustments

Summer is not shaking out the way I’d planned. I’m worked roughly half days, in the mornings, and was looking forward to doing some regular riding when I got home in the afternoon.

But afternoons in Central Texas are ridiculously hot right now, and the thought of getting out on the bike when it’s 98 degrees (37C) is unappealing.

So I was glad to get Friday morning off and hit the road for the club’s weekly ride to the zoo.

What I didn’t realize is that the turnout for the ride is made up of A riders. I guess the B’s are all working or don’t want to try to keep up with the fast guys.

After about three miles, it became apparent that I would not be keeping up with them, either. I was way off the back. Luckily, I had company. My friend Rick, who had just returned from a week in Colorado where he climbed several peaks (on his bike), was ready for an easy ride. He stayed back with me.

That was good for me, but I felt bad for him. He could have kept up with the group with no trouble. But I was glad he stuck around. After 28 miles of hilly riding, I was wiped out.

Saturday, I decided to make my ride somewhat easier than normal. I opted to skip the hills I usually include there, and do a trip through the neighborhood instead. It’s easy to put together a 22, 25, 27 or more mile ride just by sticking to area streets. Not having to worry about holding anyone else up made my work easier, too.

So when Sunday came around, I had some doubts about the day’s ride. The club was taking Fitzhugh Road, which I haven’t been on for some time. The traffic on Fitzhugh, which is out in the country, has really picked up lately as more people move their residences out there. But since we planned to start the ride at 7:30 instead of the normal 8:15, I figured traffic would be lighter, so I decided to go.

My friend Maggie met me at the start. We didn’t have to worry about keeping up with the A’s, because she had some equipment adjustments to make. By the time we pulled out of the parking lot, the A’s were just dots on the horizon.

That was fine. We set our own pace. Fitzhugh is made up of roller after roller, which we fly down and labor up. An intersection about 17 miles out is a natural turnaround point for us.

Fitzhugh Road. Google Street View. (Click to enlarge.)

Fitzhugh Road. Google Street View. (Click to enlarge.)

I really felt good Sunday. The uphills didn’t sap my energy as they so often do, and as they did Friday. I reached home after the ride tired, but still alert. We beat the worst of the day’s heat, and in fact, the light wind in our faces on the return leg felt a bit cool.

I didn’t have a single Strava trophy on the route, which I figured was a good thing. It meant I didn’t push it too hard. At the same time, I noticed a marked improvement over my Friday ride. While a lot of my riding acquaintances around the country find themselves at the peak of their riding season, summer here is a time to throttle back and get ready for the bigger rides to come in fall. Based on my weekend performance, I think I’m in good shape to do that.

Getting Hot

We’ve had a real break so far this summer. It wasn’t until last week that we had our first 100 degree (38C) days of the season. We had enough rain in June that the grass in my yard is uniformly green.

These conditions are markedly different from the summers we’ve had around here in recent years. The worst was the summer of 2011, when we hit 100 nearly every day for three months straight.

The problem is, the severe drought conditions that began that year have never abated. We’re still in extreme to exceptional drought conditions. But riding has been great.

We decided to add some miles to our usual B ride, and go south to 5-Mile Dam. That’s a county park on the north edge of San Marcos, about 28 miles south of Austin. We knew the heat would be a challenge, although we weren’t expecting another 100 degree day, but things looked promising as we started off at about 8 a.m. The sky was overcast. A slight breeze cooled things a bit.

I set an easy pace, figuring we’d need to save something for the trip back. But by the time we reached 5-Mile Dam park, things were heating up. I wanted to get a picture of the dam on the Blanco River. We rode up to the spot in the road where we could see the dam, and I was shocked.

While Austin had some decent rains the previous week, the Hill Country got nearly nothing. The Blanco was dry. I’ve never seen the dam in this situation before.

Five-Mile Dam. I'm used to seeing water here, if not pouring over the dam, at least flowing. Dry is an understatement. (Click pix to enlarge.)

Five-Mile Dam. I’m used to seeing water here, if not pouring over the dam, at least flowing. Dry is an understatement. (Click pix to enlarge.)

Looking back upstream. Water is ponding in some spots, and a few people are even trying for fish. Still quite picturesque.

Looking back upstream. Water is ponding in some spots, and a few people are even trying for fish. Still quite picturesque.

But the pavilion at the park was still serving up cold, cold water from its fountains, and we refilled our water bottles, grateful for the break.

I figured to take an easy pace on the return, since the day was warming rapidly. What I hadn’t considered was that the pavement radiated the heat back in our faces — and with a tailwind coming back, we were much warmer than we would normally be.

The heat took all the starch out of me. I trailed by an increasing margin, and only stop lights and passing trains were able to let me catch up. Our rest stops became more frequent — every five miles or so — always under the shade of a spreading tree. It was slow going.

Clearly, our mild summer has been great for biking, but not so great for conditioning. It looks like our mild weather is over for the time being, and our typical summertime heat is settling in for the long haul. I can see I’ve got some hot riding ahead.

Natural Selection

We were thundering down a semi-rural road on our weekly ride. The road was deserted, for a change no cars or trucks were on hand to buzz us.

Off in the distance, we saw a bicyclist turn to cross the road at a right angle. Although the road was empty, traffic does travel fast: 55-60 mph, and sometimes faster. It’s a two-land road with no shoulder. We thought the cyclist was putting herself in some danger.

But she got to the opposite side of the road, and as we got closer, we could see she had taken out her phone, and was using it to take a picture of something.

Just before we pulled even with her, she put the phone away, got back on the bike, and started pedaling in the same direction as we were going — without checking to see if any traffic was coming up behind her. (We were — she never knew we were there, until we passed.)

“Not only that, but did you notice she had both earbuds in her ears?” asked Maggie from behind me.

“Yeah,” I answered. “Earbuds, and no check on traffic before getting back on the road.”

Maggie smirked. “She’s making it easy for natural selection to weed out the stupid ones.”

Road Bikers vs. Mountain Bikers

mtbA couple of weeks ago, I mentioned a conversation we had while on a mountain bike ride. Another mountain biker had stopped to chat with us, and we talked for a good 15 minutes before he moved on.

“That’s why I like mountain bikers,” said my friend Maggie. “They’re more sociable than road bikers.”

Are they?

The club we’re in is a road biking club, although some of the members mountain bike, too. We never organize any mountain bike rides to supplement the road biking we do during the week. Some of the mountain bikers will put together an ad hoc ride among themselves, but there won’t be a general call to the membership to join a mountain bike ride.

Meanwhile, because of our weekly road bike rides, a large social circle has developed. Many of us see each other outside of riding activities, and many have developed close friendships.

But Maggie maintains that mountain bikers are friendlier. She’s gone so far as to say road bikers are “elitist.”

In her experience, mountain bikers are more willing to talk with new riders about the sport, more willing to offer advice and coaching, and generally nicer to be around.

I’ll echo her comment about them being more willing to share information. Earlier this year, I headed out to a trail I hadn’t used before. At the trailhead, I wasn’t sure which way to go.

I asked a mountain biker nearby. He looked like he had a lot of trail miles under his belt.

Instead of the expected, “That way,” and a point to the start, he told me of the protocols on that trail, what to watch for, and offered some encouragement.

Okay, so that shows that I’ve been lucky enough to meet some nice folks who happen to mountain bike.

As a group, though, are they more sociable? What do you think?


A New City Trail

Had a change of pace for today’s ride. Maggie suggested we check out the South Walnut Creek Trail. It’s a brand new trail the city has just completed on the east side of Austin.

The trail is about 15 miles long, and it’s concrete all the way. On this quiet Sunday morning, the trailhead at Govalle (Go-valley) Park had only a few cars in the parking lot.

Govalle Park. This Google Streetview picture was obviously not taken in the middle of summer.

Govalle Park. This Google Streetview picture was obviously not taken in the middle of summer. (Click all pix to enlarge.)

We took our bikes off the rack and got moving. The trail is easy. Mostly flat, but lots of curves. At some places, it crosses city streets at level grade, but elsewhere, it passes under highways. In any case, you don’t have to stop at all along the way, unless you really want to.

Typical view along the trail. From the City of Austin Walnut Creek Trail System website.

Typical view along the trail. From the City of Austin Walnut Creek Trail System website.

Railings along some parts of the trail keep cyclists from going over the edge and down a short cliff.

Picture from the City of Austin Walnut Creek Trail System website.

Picture from the City of Austin Walnut Creek Trail System website.

Some of the bridges are narrow. Cyclists have to be alert for oncoming traffic, especially on the curves, which are often blind.

We had a couple of close calls when we couldn't see oncoming cyclists, and they were taking the curves too tight.

We had a couple of close calls when we couldn’t see oncoming cyclists, and they were taking the curves too tight.

After a few miles, we found ourselves riding along farmland. Interesting thing is, this land is still within the city limits.

See the cyclists ahead of us?

See the cyclists ahead of us?

In other parts, we passed dense woodlands. Again, we’re still inside the city.

Hard to believe there are light industrial sites just a few blocks away.

Hard to believe there are light industrial sites just a few blocks away.

After going nine and a half miles, we could hear gunshots nearby. They sounded like shotgun blasts, but we could see nothing because of dense brush at the side of the trail. We concluded the shots were coming from a shooting range, but felt more comfortable turning back.

That meant our ride was only 19-plus miles for the day. That was fine with us. The temperature was heating up fast, Maggie’s back was bothering her, and the presta valve on my rear tire broke. I could ride, but I could feel the soft tire holding down my speed. No matter. We got back to the park fine, and made plans to come back again.

The trail is billed as a transportation alternative for people who live on the east side of Austin, an historically disadvantaged area. On a Sunday morning, we saw only recreational cyclists like ourselves. Whether it becomes a mecca for commuting cyclists, or a favored route for just-for-fun riders, we welcome its addition to the city’s cycling infrastructure. This will be an idea place for my wife to bring her hybrid. We’ll be back again soon.

Big Ride for the Death Ride

Our pal Don Blount is at it again, as he prepares for his big ride of the year. Here’s his account of a little(!) training ride.

BlountOnBikingTo prepare for big rides, you have to train for big rides — and often that training is painful. On Saturday, July 12, I am riding the Tour of the California Alps Death Ride. It is 129 miles (207.6 kilometers) with 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) of climbing over five mountain passes.

I have done a number of “big” rides to prepare for the Death Ride, including two double metric centuries and two century rides.

But I had never ridden at altitude, so two weeks before the Death Ride I headed up to the mountains to do a few training rides.

I joined my buddy Paul, who is also my doctor, and is experienced riding up in the mountains. He also climbs like a billy goat. The most I would see of him would be his back as he climbed waaaaay ahead of me.

Our plan was to do an 83-mile ride (133.6km) with 11,000 ft (3,353m) of climbing over four of the five mountain passes that are included in the Death Ride – both sides of Ebbetts Pass and both sides of Monitor Pass.

Mountain views can be spectacular. (Click pix to enlarge.)

Mountain views can be spectacular. (Click pix to enlarge.)

We started at 8:55 a.m. from Hermit Valley, Calif. at about 7,100 ft. (2,164m) elevation and we gained just under 1,600 ft. (487.68 km) within the first 5 miles (8km) to the summit of Ebbetts. Riding at altitude was difficult. I felt that no matter how deeply I breathed in that I could never take in enough air. This would be more problematic later in the day.

We headed down the other side of Ebbetts, dropping about 2,800 ft (853km) in 13 miles (21km). The views would be spectacular, the downhill riding fun.

My friend Paul channels Martin Short with a "There Amigos" pose while taking a break during the descent of Ebbetts Pass.

My friend Paul channels Martin Short with a “There Amigos” pose while taking a break during the descent of Ebbetts Pass.

Monitor Pass was next. These two climbs were difficult. The first gained 2,400 ft (731.52km) in about 9 miles (14.5km), then dropped into a canyon that we had to climb back out. This back side of Monitor Pass was a bear. It would take me nearly two hours to ride just nine miles. But that nine miles included 3,100 ft. (945m) of elevation gain.

I learned or was forced to learn to keep moving; to not stop and lean over the bike but to get off and walk. Mentally this was tough to accept but pushing my bike at two miles (3.2km) per hour was better than standing still; at least I was still moving. PHOTO MONITOR_PASS (CAPTION: DON BLOUNT LOOKED FRESHER THAN HE FELT AFTER SUMMITTING MONITOR PASS ON THE SECOND BIG CLIMB OF THE DAY)

Don Blount looked fresher than he felt after summitting Monitor Pass on the second big climb of the day.

Don Blount looked fresher than he felt after summitting Monitor Pass on the second big climb of the day.

After climbing the last side of Monitor we headed into Markleeville, Calif. for lunch.

The final climb, over the other side of Ebbetts, would be the toughest of the day. It was hot and long. Starting from about 5,604 ft. (1,708m) of elevation, we would ride 17 miles (27.3km) and gain 3,000 ft. (914m). It would take me nearly two hours and 22 minutes to summit. Again, I stopped and walked several times. And three times someone stopped and asked if I needed assistance. I declined in part because I wanted to “HTFU.” I also wanted to punish myself by not taking the easy way out. And I did not want the mental image of quitting when I came back on this route for the Death Ride.

I was more than happy to reach the top. Paul was waiting, anxious to escape the mosquitoes that nagged him.

Returning to Hermit Valley and the car was bliss. The ride took about eight hours and 10 minutes. Total time out was just under 10 hours. Click here if you want to see my stats for the day.

The following day we did another ride of about 21 miles (33.8km) with 2,000 ft. (609.6m) of climbing. I actually felt much better this ride. Here are my stats for this “recovery” ride. Over the two days we would ride 104 miles (167.4km) with 13,000 ft. (3962m) of climbing. I left anticipating that the Death Ride would be hard. I guess that would be expected for any ride with “Death” in its name.

Felt Like Old Times

Judy, one of our club’s A riders, has been bothered by knee pains lately, so when she posted that she would like to do a slower-paced ride instead of the usual A riders’ sufferfest, I was interested.

She wanted to go at about a 14-15 mph pace, out to the gas station in Kyle, about 23 miles to the south. The main A ride had left at 7:30, and when we showed up for the 8:15 ride, we found about seven others who wanted to take the ride.

It started out briskly, with a run down the four-lane divided Slaughter Lane. At this hour, traffic was light. We turned onto Brodie, and I saw that instead of the 14-15 mph average Judy had advertised, we were cruising at 20+.

One of the newer riders packed it in at that point, deciding that he wouldn’t be able to keep up. Judy razzed the guy who had been setting the pace about going too fast. He said he wasn’t aware of the posted speed, and slowed down.

He dropped back, and I stayed on his wheel. I could feel myself being pulled along by his draft, and was glad not to be using too much effort so early in the ride.

The pace stayed steady. We cruised through Buda and out to Ranch Road 1626. I was a bit worried about my rear tire. It has a gouge in its tread, and I’ve bought a replacement, but after a day of yard work the previous day, I hadn’t bothered to mount it on the bike yet. I crossed my fingers that it would hold up through the ride.

As we approached Kyle, I took stock of my situation. I felt great. I was keeping up with the bunch (the remaining four in the group were all A riders) and I wasn’t working too hard to do it.

At the Kyle convenience store, I came across a weird combination I've never seen before. Hangover remedy?

At the Kyle convenience store, I came across a weird combination I’ve never seen before. Hangover remedy? (Click to enlarge.)

At the convenience store where we turned around, I treated myself to a PayDay bar, and noticed how short these folks make their rest stops, compared to us B’s. We’ll sit around for at least 15 minutes and maybe longer. Today, we were back on the road in 10.

Although the route is essentially an out and back, we do make a few variations. One of them is a run on Cement Plant Road. Its real name is ranch Road 2770, but since it passes a cement plant…

The nice thing about this three-mile stretch is that it’s a little bit downhill. I always look forward to it, because I can turn on the jets for awhile. But today, I was losing contact with the group. I had to pedal hard to close the gap, just in time to reach a section where we could cruise at 28 mph.

Cement Plant Road. It ain't scenic, but it's fast.

Cement Plant Road. It ain’t scenic, but it’s fast. (Google StreetView)

About a mile out of Buda, we were in a quick pace line, but I at the rear was moving faster than the group. I pulled out into the traffic lane, and stomped on it. The bike responded, no doubt helped by the light tailwind. I passed all four of them, and stayed in the lead until we reached the first intersection in town.

There some mutters of “sandbagger” under a few breaths, although most of them congratulated me on the move.

“You realize I’ll be toast for the rest of the ride,” I said.

I was a bit tired, but still managed to keep up the rest of the way back. Judy, her husband Joe, and I were the only ones left when we reached Starbucks. We grabbed an outdoor table in a shady spot, since the temperature had climbed. It wasn’t long before the A ride came in, and a little table for four was surrounded by 10 or 12 cyclists, sharing wisecracks about each other’s performance on the day’s ride, going off on tangents about any number of topics, and generally just enjoying the day.

When I joined the club six years ago, this is the way rides were. Lately, I’ve ridden apart from most of them, sticking with a few B-level riders, riding slower, not going back for the post-ride coffee klatch. My connection to the club was becoming weaker. Today, I reminded myself of the improvement that comes with riding with people who are faster. In fact, my Strava stats for the day included 14 personal segment records. It felt good to be back on track.