I joined a bike club

I learned entirely through accident – by reading the neighborhood newsletter, which I never do – that my neighborhood has its own bike club. Who’d a thunk?

They maintain a group site on Yahoo! where I learned all about them. There are A, B, and C class riders in the club – A being the “hammerheads,” or fast bikers, B the 14-16 mile-per-hour crowd, and C the beginners, families, hybrid riders, etc.

Looked good, so I mailed in my $30 family registration along with my and my wife’s signed waivers for club-sponsored group rides (if we’re hurt, we don’t hold the club liable).

They have regular no-drop rides on the weekends, with Saturdays being the faster of the two. I opted to show up for one of their Sunday rides. About 13 were there. We rode city streets to the far southeast corner of town, then headed out into the country. As the new guy, and the guy who was inexperienced in group riding, I opted to hang off the rear and see how the ride shaped up. One of the regulars, who styles himself as the club “sweep,” hung back with me and gave me tips on drafting. It was a pleasant ride, with lots of chatter about bikes and other things. I felt like I could keep up with them without any trouble. Then we hit the country.

It took me a few minutes to realize what was happening. But after a few minutes, only one other rider was anywhere near me. We were far behind, and could see a rainbow of bike jerseys topping a far-off hill. At the 20-mile mark, they stopped and waited. I caught up, downed a big gulp of water, and ate half a granola bar. Then they were off again. It looked like they were not going to use this as the turnaround point, but just keep going. Once again, I found myself with the same biker who had been alone with me when we first hit the country. He, too, was frustrated that he couldn’t crack a 15 mph average, but we were both on steel bikes (I still had the Raleigh at this point), and we weren’t in their league.

Finally, we hit a t-intersection, and none of the other bikers had waited to point the way. “Which way?’ I asked. “Left,” he said. We turned. And we didn’t see a soul for the rest of the ride.

Eventually, we made it back. Well, I did. My new biking friend turned off to head home before we got back to the local Starbucks where our rides begin. A few of the original group were finishing up their lattes, and I stopped to let them know we had gotten back all right. At that t-intersection, the group had turned right, and waited for us at a country store about a half mile down the road. After a half hour, they gave up on us and came home. Total distance for the day: 47 miles, and it was tougher than a metric century I had done back in November. But we had achieved one distinction: In the year and a half the club had been around, we were the first to ever be dropped in an organized ride.

Mopac

The first real “road” ride I did when I started biking last summer was Mopac.

Mopac Expressway (also known as Loop 1) runs south-to-north through Austin, west of the downtown area. By the time it gets down to my part of town, traffic has thinned out considerably, which makes it an attractive ride venue. It’s still a divided four-lane highway. It also has wide shoulders.

On weekend mornings, Mopac south of Slaughter Lane hosts many bikers. The ride along this section of the expressway is simple: Go south a couple of miles until Mopac turns west. It becomes Texas 45 at this point. There’s still a marked shoulder, but the paint line that defines it presses toward the curb as you approach some entrances to residential subdivisions. The road here has some long uphills. Stay on the wide shoulder all the way out to Ranch Road 1826.

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Just before you get to 1826, check traffic and cross into the left shoulder. At the junction, you can turn left, and stay on the shoulder for the northbound 1826 traffic. It was recently resurfaced. In about 100 yards, you’ll reach the eastbound lanes of Texas 45. Cross the traffic lanes and pick up the shoulder. This is the start of a downhill section, which features two or three nice descents. It’s fairly easy to top 35 – even 40 mph along this stretch.

Once Texas 45 reaches Mopac, you follow the curve around to the north, and several uphill climbs to the stoplight at LaCrosse. Here, you have the option to turn right and head for the Veloway – just a quarter-mile down – or turn left on LaCrosse to the southbound lanes of Mopac, and do another Mopac loop.

From my house, it’s about 2.5 miles to Mopac. The out-and-back loop is 8.12 miles. If I do three “Mopac Loops” I’ve done 29+ miles.

It’s not my favorite ride in the area, but it’s convenient if I want to get out on the road.

Spin class

If it’s up to me, I’d rather ride. But when the weather turns sour, an alternative is called for.

Two weekends ago, Saturday morning dawned with a downpour. I wasn’t going to be able to get out on the bike at all. But my wife recently joined a high-end fitness club, and she invited me to use one of her guest passes to come to a spinning class.

I wanted to see the inside of the club, so I agreed. Quite the place. I got a locker in a very posh locker room, and changed into cycling shorts and a jersey. Most spinners wear padded cycling shorts – something I didn’t know. The “spinning studio” is on an upstairs level, with dark wood floors and subdued lighting. The instructor recognized that I was not a regular, and came over to make sure I fitted the “bike” correctly.

A spinning bike is not like the exercycles you might find in the same workout room as the stairclimbers. These put you in a riding position closer to what you would find on a road bike. You can increase and decrease resistance by turning a knob, if you want to create the sense that you’re climbing hills.

The room filled quickly. Of the 40 bikes, about 35 were taken. An older gentleman in full team kit took the bike next to mine, and started spinning slowly. The instructor encouraged everyone to spin easily, to warm up before class.

My wife made it a point to get me two earplugs. She said I’d need them when class began. As usual, she was right. The instructor plugged her iPod into the sound system next to her bike, and cranked it up. Throbbing techno music blasted from speakers throughout the room. The sound was so clear, I had to check several times to make sure my earplugs were actually holding.

The instructor said she was going to tax our anaerobic thresholds, and leave us gasping. We started pedaling faster. I was sweating in no time. She told us to back off, spin easily for a minute, then she hammered down. We cranked up the resistance, we stood up on the pedals. The gentleman who had started slowly next to me was pumping like crazy – going faster than the pace the instructor set. I plopped back into my saddle. “Don’t you dare back off!” she yelled, pointing at me.

That’s pretty much how the rest of the session went. A series of mad dashes and gasping easy periods. When it was over, I was soaked through. We sprayed disinfectant on the bikes and toweled them off. It wasn’t biking, but I thought it would be a useful substitute if the weather failed to cooperate in the future.

Downstairs, I spent ten minutes in the steam room, followed by a cold shower – then a Mediterranean breakfast in the club’s cafe. I suppose fitness clubs do have something to offer. I’ll have to have my wife get more guest passes.

A new bike

My wife and I had agreed that my birthday present this year would be a new bike. I was just getting tired of pushing around the heavy Raleigh. My problem, though, was to figure out just what kind of bike to get.

Carbon would be interesting. But carbon bikes start around $2,000, and I couldn’t make myself spend that kind of money on a bike. I’ve been at it for less than a year, and what if I fall out of love with biking, and give it up in six more months?

Do I look at components, and go for the best I can buy within my budget? That’s not a bad idea, but it soon became clear that for $1,500 or less, which was my self-imposed price point, I’d be getting Shimano 105 derailleurs and shifters – the middle ground of Shimano’s line.

How about geometry? I’m in my 50s, and the old Raleigh stretched me out more than I wanted. The new, more upright geometry with sloping top tubes – “compact geometry” – might be the way to go.

Then there’s fit. Much of the information I’ve seen over the past several months argues that all those other things really don’t matter if the bike is a bad fit. It was also obvious that on my budget, I could get a lot more bike if I bought it online, from one of several companies that offer great deals. I’d have to do a small amount of assembly work myself, but I’d get a heckuva bike for the price. But I’m all thumbs, and those who advised to get a bike from a local bike shop (LBS) made sense. You pay a premium for service, fitting, and free tuneups for a year, but it’s worth it.

Okay. LBS, compact geometry, $1,500 limit. What to buy? My first target was the Specialized Roubaix, which has gotten a lot of good press since its introduction some years ago. But they started at about $1,600, and with the extras I planned to get, that just wouldn’t work. Specialized has a more entry-level road bike, the Allez, with basic components like Shimano Sora. Jamis and Felt offer bikes that have a nice combination of components at a decent price. Trek has two models that interested me – the Pilot, which is all about upright geometry, and the 2.3 – also featuring a compact frame, but with more emphasis on speed than comfort.

Bicycle Sport Shop in Austin stocks both Specialized and Trek. But it turns out they’ve dropped Trek’s aluminum frames, and only handle carbon. The choice, then, was easy.

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I picked the Specialized Allez Elite. Shimano 105 rear derailleur, Tiagra front. Compact crank, with 50 and 34 tooth sprockets. Compared to the Raleigh, light as a feather. Some of the other components are low end. I added two water bottle cages, a seat bag, and Shimano SPD-SL clipless pedals. The salesperson agreed to swap out the standard white saddle for a black one at no extra charge. Once the shop had mounted all the accessories, it was time to be fitted.

She put the bike on a trainer, and had me put on my bike shoes and get on. Once I started pedaling, she looked at my riding angle and leg extension. I stopped, and she held up a large clear plastic angle finder to my leg. We were trying to get a 35-degree bend in my leg at the bottom of the pedal stroke. She raised the seat a bit. I pedaled some more. She had me stop with the pedals at nine o’clock and three o’clock, and dropped a plumb bob from my forward knee. “This bike was made for you,” she said – no changes necessary there.

I got the bike home, changed into my cycling clothes, and took it out to the Veloway for a shakedown cruise. Verdict: I’m going to like this bike.

The Veloway

I live in Austin, Texas, which has many opportunities for biking. In the southwest corner of the city, where I live, it doesn’t take long to get out to some lightly-traveled country roads. Austin sits right on the boundary between mostly flat prairie to the east, and the Texas Hill Country to the west.

But one of the best rides around isn’t out in the country. It’s the Veloway, a track built especially for bikes (and inline skaters).

The Veloway was built as part of a metro park. It’s a paved asphalt road, running 3.1 miles in southwest Austin, near the intersection of Mopac Expressway and LaCrosse. It’s right across the street from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Bikes entering the Veloway must cross a gravel parking lot (It’s the only place on the trip where you have to watch for nasties that can puncture your tires). You steer between a gate and a large rock, and you’re on the track. It runs in a clockwise direction overall, but has plenty of left turns, too. Once you’re on the Veloway, watch out for riders coming around from the right for another lap. Ease out onto the track, and find your pedaling rhythm. The first part of the ride is mostly flat, with a slight rise leading to a right-hand sweeping curve, which then lets you build speed as you hit a slight downhill. At the bottom of the slight slope, you have a fast left curve. You’ll probably be over 20 mph at this point. Then the track starts to rise almost imperceptibly, except that your legs can feel the increased resistance, and you have to downshift two, or three, or even more times to handle the upward slope.

The pale yellow line traces the route of the Veloway.

Then you get to a welcome landmark, the “Caution – Snake Crossing” sign (I’ve never seen any snakes use the marked crossing, although you can bet they’re lurking back in the underbrush). It’s welcome, because after a right curve, there’s a sharp left turn leading up a short hill, and then it’s downhill. Start pumping hard, shift into your highest gear, and go. You’ll be up around 25 mph or higher, but then you have to deal with a 180-degree hairpin turn. Downshift, go wide, turn into the apex, and accelerate out. You can pass folks here who took the hairpin cautiously. Then you power into a wide left turn, another 180-degree bend, and accelerate through a flat stretch to the next hairpin. You’ll come out of that into a fast, flat section which ends with an abrupt, short but steep hill. Downshift, hit the hill, stand up on the pedals, and you’re at the top.

A fast, flat section leads you back to the same route you took on the way out, but your route bears left, into another barely noticeable upslope. Fast downhill esses bring you to another rising incline, and the speed really scrubs off here. But at the top, you build speed to take a quick right, a quicker left, and an  even quicker right, which leads to the last brief uphill before you arrive at the parking lot and the entrance to the Veloway. My favorite ride is 2.8 miles from the house to the Veloway, three laps around the track, then back home. It’s just under 15 miles total, and takes just under an hour.

As you might expect, all kinds of bikers use the Veloway. It’s a popular place for parents to bring their kids, because it’s safe, and away from traffic. Plenty of adults on mountain bikes and hybrids like it, because it’s an easy and challenging ride all at the same time. Hammerheads in full racing kit run practice laps there, and you’ll find plenty of weekend warriors in biking clothes, too. Despite all that, it’s rarely crowded. Weekend mornings seem to see the heaviest use. Even then, you’ll never find yourself in a crowd. The Veloway is Austin’s cycling jewel. It would be great to have one or two more, so this biking experience would be easily accessible from all over the city.

Clipless pedals

As I mentioned earlier, one of the bike upgrades my wife made on the advice of her training buddies was to go to clipless pedals. (It’s an unfortunate name, since you wear a special cleat on the sole of your bike shoe that clips into the pedal – but it’s called “clipless” because it is not one of those old-fashioned toe clips that attaches to regular platform pedals.)

After her first ride with the clipless, she raved about her ability to add power to her pedal stroke by pulling up as well as pushing down. Less happy for her was the nagging feeling that she’s permanently attached to the bike. When riding, she’ll try to time upcoming stoplights so she doesn’t have to disengage her cleat at the corner. Instead, she’ll slowly ride up to the light and try to hit it just as it turns green. When she gets home, she pulls the bike onto our lawn to stop and disengage, so that if she falls, she’ll hit soft grass instead of hard concrete.

I was persuaded by her experience that clipless was a necessary addition to my bike. I bought a set from Nashbar, the large online bike shop. They have their own branded pedals, which are cheaper than all others I’ve come across. I had them installed at a local bike shop when the bike was in for other servicing, attached the cleats to my new bike shoes (Exustars – a relatively cheap Chinese brand also sold by Nashbar), and went out to practice. After clipping in and out on both left and right pedals (there – I used “clipping” while talking about “clipless” pedals. It’s awfully hard not to) I went out for a ride on the Veloway – a 3-mile paved bikeway about 3 miles away from my house. They were terrific. I instantly felt that additional pulling power on the upstroke. I can’t prove it, but it felt like I was going faster than usual. I returned home feeling good about the purchase.

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Two views of the clipless pedals on my bike.

Then, I turned into my driveway, slowed, tried to disengage – and did the famous “clipless fall.” That’s what happens when you don’t twist your heel out to the side firmly enough, and the cleat doesn’t come loose from the pedal. Still attached to the bike with both feet, you feel yourself slowly tipping over, past the point of recovering your balance, and wind up on your side on the driveway, still straddling the bike. By then, the cleat has come out of the pedal. Swell. On the plus side, since your speed is zero, the road rash (or “driveway rash”) is not as severe as if you fell out on the road.

Since then, I’ve had only one more clipless fall, (edit: make that two) and have learned that it’s a rite of passage all new clipless riders have to go through. I guess with only two to my name, I’m doing better than a lot of cyclists. I’ve become more adept at disengaging, and am diligent about doing it as I approach stoplights. My remaining clipless problem has to do with clipping back in once I get the green light. I can never seem to get the pedal in the right position. As the picture shows, its normal resting position is with the rear down, toe up. The trick is to guide your toe over the pedal, which pushes it forward, and allows the cleat to click in. it’s a trick that takes practice, and I’m still not good at it. As one biking acquaintance said, “Practice, practice, practice.”

My riding inspiration

So how was it that I decided to get into biking, after never really considering it much before?

My wife.

She’s president of a professional organization that sponsors a local charity ride, and figured that as president, she’d better be a visible participant in the project. It’s a well-organized ride, and provides training rides four months before the event. They start small, and work up to substantial mileage.

At the beginning, six-mile rides left her huffing and puffing. By the month of the ride, they were after work pick-me-ups. On the weekends prior to the ride, she rode 25, 28 and 28 miles.

The effort is all the more impressive because of her bike. She rides a 15-year-old Trek hybrid. It’s heavy and slow. But she learned a lot during the training rides. She bought padded bike shorts and a jersey, and a friend “demanded” that she ditch the styrofoam helmet she owned since the early ’90s. The ride trainers also suggested she swap the knobby tires on the hybrid for narrower, smoother tires. And last but not least, she got clipless pedals and real bike shoes.

Her sister came down from Dallas to be at the finish, and the two of us drove out to the park where the riders would come in. On a narrow county road just before the park, there she was – her red biking jersey really stood out. But she was walking her bike, not riding. We pulled up alongside, and she told us she had fallen at a water crossing a few hundred yards back. She couldn’t disengage her pedal cleat fast enough as she approached the water, and went down. Injuries were minor–a few bruises and some “road rash,” and as we pulled our car into the parking area, we could see her get back up on her bike for the finish. We parked the car, grabbed the camera, and hurried to the finish line, but by the time we got there, she was already in the finishing chute with a big smile on her face.

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Nearing the finish.

In the finishing chute
In the finishing chute. Her friend and ad hoc trainer, Scott, is right behind.

The ride was undoubtedly the most athletic thing this middle-aged woman had ever done in her life, and it left her with a great sense of accomplishment. It also proved to me that with a little effort, I could get there, too.