Rainy day ride

Well, the ride with my bike club didn’t happen today. It rained overnight, and was misty this morning, but the forecast said it would clear, then rain again this afternoon. I decided to chance it, so rode over to Starbucks to see who would show up.

About 15, in fact. I was still a bit leery about riding in such wet conditions, but almost everyone else seemed fine with it. A couple seemed hesitant about going on a planned 45-mile jaunt and being far from home if the skies opened up.

The ride leader called us to get ready, when my cell phone rang. It was my wife, Pat. She’s training for the Hill Country Ride for AIDS again this year, and was going out with a group of riders she regularly trains with. But today, she was the only one to show, and didn’t know if she should ride on her own in the wet, or if she should just go home. I told her I would join her, and we would decide what to do.

I made my apologies to the ride leader, and headed out. She was just a mile or so from where we were going to start, so we met up quickly. We decided to do Mopac, and assess conditions as we went along.

Traffic on Sunday mornings is usually light along this stretch, and today it was even lighter. It was warmer today than it had been lately, about 70. But the mist made the going unpleasant. I pulled off at a cutout at the top of a hill, and waited for her to catch up to me. We decided to keep going. A convenient arterial street about two miles out would get us back home if conditions got worse. When we reached that street, we were fumbling with sunglasses we could no longer see out of, but agreed that we could head out to 1826, turn around, and when we got back to this spot on the return leg, assess again.

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It’s hard to tell from the photo, but it was misting heavily at this point.

I reached 1826 well ahead of Pat, who struggles on hills. A group of club riders passed me and turned north on 1826. It’s a road I don’t ride in nice weather, let alone crummy days like this one. It’s narrow, curvy, and hilly with no shoulder, and cars travel it too fast. I suppose there’s safety in numbers. At least we weren’t the only idiots out today.

The rain picked up on the return leg. Still light, but now more of a nuisance. When we got back to the arterial street, we decided to head home. The road crud kicked up by my rear tire had spattered the back of my white jersey (what was I thinking?), and we both needed a warm shower.

At around 11 a.m., I drove past Starbucks on my way to the grocery store, and there were the club members back from their ride. It appeared they had cut it short, too.

Another step toward improvement

I just got back from almost four hours in a classroom. What a way to start the weekend! But it was a good thing, because it dealt with bikes. I went to Road I, a class offered by the League of American Bicyclists.

The League offers several classes in different aspects of bicycle riding. Road I is their most basic. It concentrates on training new riders to ride safely in traffic, but also includes such skills as basic maintenance, on-bike skills and crash avoidance techniques.

The class met in a meeting room tucked behind the storeroom of a local REI, the outdoors co-op. Six students showed up – about the number I’d guessed would be there. They had a variety of biking backgrounds: a couple of mountain bikers, a new commuter, some club riders. One thing they all had in common – including the two instructors – was that they were all women. I was the only guy in the room.

Some of the instruction was really basic: These are the recommended clothes to wear while biking, this is a helmet, these are two different kinds of shoes, etc. To the instructor’s credit, she quickly surveyed the room, and passed over these items in short order. Much better was a PowerPoint presentation explaining such things as proper lane position when riding on city streets. The presentation featured videos of bikes moving through traffic, “taking the lane,” and instruction on how to deal with different situations encountered on the road, such as approaching freeway on and off ramps, railroad crossings, and emergency moves.

Class was capped off with a 30-question multiple choice test over what we’d just learned (I missed two. In school, that’d still be good for an A.).

Road I is a two-part class. The classroom session is followed on Saturday morning by a five-hour on-bike session, actually practicing the techniques we heard about tonight. But, bad news: tomorrow’s session has been cancelled! The instructor is out of town on business, and our classroom teacher won’t be available. I’ll have to wait until the end of April to get the on-bike part. Disappointing, yes, but I did come away with new information, and I’ll be putting it to use in my next several rides.

ABC

The bike club I joined in January was profiled in a neighborhood newsletter as having A, B, and C groups. The A group could be classified as the “serious” bikers – fast pace, long distance riders on high-end bikes. The B group would be what I call the “15 mph crowd” – those who like to ride, and have pretty good road bikes, but just can’t keep up with the As. The C group would be parents on hybrids, kids, oldsters on cruiser bikes, people who ride short distances for fun and a little exercise.

Lately, discussions on the club’s Yahoo! group about As and Bs have been getting contentious. A couple of self-described B riders have used the term “weenie” to label the Bs. Others have taken umbrage at that – they want to be respected for their decision to ride for fun and not get roped into speed contests.

Another group has begun breaking down the Bs into B+, B and B-, or “wannaBe” groups, which has put some into high dudgeon over the whole labeling thing. One of the organizers of the club’s Sunday ride, which is open to anyone, takes issue with classifying riders at all. “We’re all one club,” he says.

Some self-classified B riders say they just want to make sure other riders of their caliber are on the Sunday ride, so they’re not left far behind on their own (These are no-drop rides, but it’s been known to happen). Other self-classified B riders are trying hard to become part of the A group, and are training hard to get it done.

It’s been awhile since I’ve ridden with the club. My last ride with them was in late January, and was a great experience. I got to see a route I hadn’t ridden before, and while there was no way I could keep up with the better riders, I did fit in with a group that was content to travel more slowly than the ride leaders. But I had bike issues and weather issues in February, and was out of town two weekends in a row in March.

This Sunday, I hope to join them again. I have a good idea who I can ride with, and who will leave me behind quickly. The longer distances the club rides will challenge me to build my mileage, and for now, endurance is what I’m after – not speed.

So, I guess I’m a B rider. Don’t care. I want to ride, not race. We’ll see if the ride breaks up into two distinct classes of cyclist. If it does, maybe I’ll just have to make friends with the ones at roughly the same level as I am – and we’ll all know that despite well-intentioned “one club” protestations, we really do fall into separate and unequal rider classifications.

Bandanas or sweat bands?

When I first started biking last summer, one of the big irritations was the sweat that kept dripping off my brow and into my eyes. Then I rode with an experienced biker friend, who tied a bandana around his head as a sweatband. I tried one on my very next ride, and I was hooked.

The bandana was easy, quick, and available. I had a good half-dozen tucked away in a drawer. Most are the old-fashioned red ones with the black and white pattern. One is similar, but purple. One was issued by a local building supply chain, and has logos of all the brands they carry. The newest one was pilfered from my dog, who wore it at Christmas a couple of years ago. Its pattern is red chili peppers.

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Emily the beagle and her (now my) chili pepper bandana.

I was hooked because the bandana worked. No sweat in my eyes. None even on the brow. Loved it. There’s only one problem: because they’re rather thin cotton, they absorb moisture quickly. At the end of an hour’s ride, my bandana is saturated. Not a big deal, because the ride is over. But after an hour and a half, or two hours, it’s dripping again. I suppose I could pull it off at a rest stop and wring it out — and I have. But that got me wondering: Is there a better solution?

The local bike shops have several alternatives. One is a full skull cover, that you tie behind your head. It has a sweat band sewn into the bottom hem. If you wear it, you look like a pirate, until you put your helmet on over it. Or, there’s just a plain headband that’s got some elastic for stretchiness. These things run from $10-$17, altho there do seem to be some you can get for as little as $5. Should I stick with the bandana, or try something new? Or do you have a different idea?

Easter ride

I had to get out on the bike this morning, because it was a gorgeous day in Austin.  Bright and sunny, but breezy, and temps in the low 60s.

My mileage has been off lately, so I figured this would be a good day to go a little farther than usual.  I opted for Mopac, and figured I’d take two circuits of the route.

It was terrific.  At first.  With a north wind at my back, I hit 30 mph on a slight downhill stretch.  But when the road turned to the west and became slightly uphill, I started to struggle.  Still, I made decent progress.  I always look forward to the turnaround to head east, because there are some nice downhill stretches there where you can really let it all out.  Not today.  The wind had shifted a bit to the northeast, and was hitting me in the face.  I also had to pay more attention than usual to broken glass along this part of the route.  Luckily, the tires came through intact.

When the route turned back north, the wind really hit me.  This is the toughest part of the route for me, because it has more uphills.  I can usually take it easy on the downhill parts, but today the downhills were like uphills because of the wind.  Pushing the bike downhill at 11 mph into the teeth of a gale is not fun.

The stoplight at the top of the last hill gave me a minute to catch my breath and down some sports drink.  I considered heading home, but remembered my quest for more mileage, so I went around again.  If anything, the wind had picked up by now.  By the time I got to the northbound leg, I was struggling.  And to add insult to injury, two small groups of riders sailed by me, pedaling at what appeared to be an easy cadence.  They must have been going 20 mph.  I was at 13, and slowing.  I stopped at the top of a hill to drain the rest of my drink, and just rest awhile.  I was at the 17-mile mark, and told myself that if I were in an organized ride, I would have pulled off at a rest stop by this point anyway.

My cell phone rang.  It was my wife, reminding me that we had a tee time at noon.  She was a little perturbed when I told her I was still 20 minutes away from home, and it was already 11:10 (She had done the double Mopac loop yesterday, when the wind was lighter, and today was thinking not about bikes, but about golf).  I hustled home, and we got to the course late, but there weren’t a lot of golfers out today, so we got on the course with no trouble.

My totals: 21.2 miles, time 1:23:47, avg. speed 15.2 mph.  Conclusion: As much as I like to think I’m improving, I’m still a biking newbie.

Bum cream

The question arises periodically, on Bike Forums, in my club’s Yahoo! group, and just in chats among fellow bikers: Do you use chamois cream?

This is goo you rub into the chamois of your riding shorts or tights. The chamois (SHAM-ee) is the pad that cushions your tender bits against the rub of the saddle. It used to be leather, but is now made of synthetic fabric, but still retains the old name. Some people like to smear a liberal dose of the cream directly on themselves, as well.

The big names are Assos cream and Chamois Butt’r. We’ve had a couple of jars of Assos cream, and like it. There are drawbacks to the Assos product, though. One is that it uses menthol. Once you come into contact with it, your bottom will tingle for awhile until your attention turns to the road. The other is price. It’s $17 a jar! You go through it pretty fast. I stopped buying it for that reason.

Chamois Butt’r comes in a sort of squeeze tube. It’s not mentholated. Price runs about $14-15. This is what we’re using now, but we’re still experimenting. So far, I’m happy with this product.

Performance Bike has its own name brand of chamois cream, as does its corporate cousin, Nashbar. The Performance cream goes for $8.99, Nashbar’s $7.99. Then there’s Body Glide, Queen Helene’s Cocoa butter, and even Vaseline.

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We’ve got some of the Performance stuff, which seems a bit thinner than the Chamois Butt’r. Seems to work fine, though. Haven’t tried the rest yet.

Is chamois cream really necessary? I used to diligently apply it before every ride — even short 6-8 mile jaunts in the morning before work. I’ve come to believe it’s not needed on those short rides. Now, I won’t use it unless I know I’ll be out for more than an hour. I’m aware of plenty of riders who don’t use it at all.

Some sensible advice I’ve seen recently is to pay attention to the fit of your saddle, the fit of your shorts, the quality of your chamois — and maybe on long rides to hit the restroom of a convenience store along the way and wash yourself off. Then, you might not need to mess with creams at all.

Thoughts, anyone?

 

Riding or training?

I suppose we all want to get better as cyclists. What “better” amounts to will be different for each of us. We could get faster, of course, or improve our endurance. We could become more skilled at biking maneuvers such as drafting, riding in a paceline, riding in traffic, etc.

I’d like to get better at all of these things. It doesn’t have to happen right away, but over time, I’d like to see some improvement. And I know how to improve: set a goal, figure out what steps to take to reach that goal, and take those steps.

Problem is, I haven’t committed to improvement. I ride. If my speed averages a little more than my last ride, that’s enough improvement for me. If I ride a little farther than I have been lately, that’s improvement, too.

I’ve got several books with sample training schedules, where the distance and effort are ramped up over a period of several weeks. I know that if I were to pick one of those schedules, or develop my own along those lines, I’d show improvement. But I haven’t.

Biking is still a recreational pastime for me. I really enjoy hopping on the bike and heading out for a bracing hour-long ride. I’m still new enough at it that regularly riding will get me headed in the athletic and fitness direction I want to go.

So I’m going to hold off on a scheduled training regimen for now. As the weather becomes milder and the days become longer, I’ll be able to ride more often. Maybe then I’ll be at the point where I’m setting biking goals, and start to train seriously to attain those goals.

When looking over my riding stats for yesterday’s post, I noticed that I am getting better. My average speed has gone up. My average ride is a little bit longer. That’s all I need. For now.

Logging mileage

How far did I go today?  After several longish rides last summer (longish meaning about six miles or so), the question became more important for me to answer.  Not for any pressing need, but just to satisfy my own curiosity.

In the course of mining the web for anything bike related, I came across Bike Journal.  It’s a place to log your rides online.  You can enter the ride date, distance, ride time, average speed, ride type (flat, hills, etc.), and bike.  Those are the six default columns for data.  If you buy a premium membership for $20 a year, you get many more columns, and the ability to customize the look of your journal.  You can also take a look at others’ journals and see what their riding is like.

Bike Journal has built up quite a biking community in the years it’s been in operation.  It was just this month that the owner of Bike Journal cut back the number of data columns you get for free, and pushed harder for premium memberships.

I had been logging my rides on an Excel spreadsheet as well, and customized it to match what my Bike Journal data looked like.   I added columns for maximum speed, my weight(!), and a  description of the ride.  I keep monthly totals and year to date totals.

So, how am I doing?  Well, that’s why I keep these stats — I’m trying to find out.  My average monthly mileage is somewhere between 100-125.  In the five months of 2007 for which I kept records, my total mileage was 567.2.  Average speed: 13.9.  It’s a baseline to build from.

If I keep to my current average, I’ll rack up about 1200 miles this year.  Not much, compared to an older friend of mine, who did 2200 miles last year.

However, I don’t feel compelled to pile on the miles to match his number.  I’ll try to build throughout the spring and summer, but mainly to get ready for organized rides.  And to try to get a handle on my weight, which is around 214 these days.  I’d love to get it below 200.

I can see a time when logging my rides will seem like a silly thing to do, but that’s probably a couple of years away.  In the meantime, I just realized by reviewing my stats that I’m behind my normal monthly pace.  I have to get out and ride some more.

Saddles

Saddles are a sore point with most cyclists (pun intended). It seems to be an article of faith that upon purchasing a new bike, the first thing you do is get rid of the stock saddle, and put on something else.

Sadly, there’s no “best” saddle recommendation available. Since everybody is built differently, everybody has a saddle that is going to be the best fit for them. The problem is, how do you find it?

When my wife started training for her charity ride last year, her old saddle began falling apart. It was an Avocet gel saddle, and she liked it quite a bit. The local bike shop suggested the Specialized Dolce Gel to replace the Avocet, and despite what looked like an odd shape, my wife found that she liked it.

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The Specialized Dolce Gel saddle.

Back when she had first put the Avocet on her Trek hybrid, I grabbed the Trek’s saddle for the Raleigh. It was a gel saddle, and I figured it would be more comfortable than the stock seat.

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The Trek gel saddle.

I was right. For casual rides around town, and even some longer rides on asphalt “rails to trails” bike paths, it was fine. But on my 50-mile organized ride, it put me in agony with 15 miles to go. I went shopping for a new saddle right away.

Performance Bike, the online bike catalog store, has two brick-and-mortar stores in Austin. They carry a good variety of saddles, ranging in price from more than $200 to quite reasonable. The saddles with cutouts intrigued me. The cutout — to relieve pressure on sensitive areas of the bottom — seemed to make sense. I got the Forte Classic saddle. Forte is Performance’s house brand, and I assumed I was taking a risk of sorts, but the saddle won.

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The Forte Classic.

But this one never really worked out. Although I rode it in the metric century, I was very uncomfortable during the last 10-15 miles. I had had the saddle for about a month at the time of the ride, and thought I would be accustomed to it by now. Didn’t happen. I was making plans to buy a new saddle when I bought the new bike instead.

The Specialized Allez Elite comes equipped with Specialized’s own Alias saddle. It’s part of the “body geometry” line of saddles, which come in different widths for different sized butts. The saddle is the firmest I’ve ever ridden. But firm doesn’t necessarily mean uncomfortable.

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The Specialized Alias saddle.

The wings of the saddle hit my sit bones dead on. All I have to do to get comfortable is stand up on the pedals for a little while, or slide a little bit back or forward on the seat. That’s enough of a change to keep me feeling energized. The “Body Geometry” line of saddles has different width sizing, so the buyer can get a saddle that’s 155 mm across, 143 mm (the default, and the one I have), or a narrow 130 mm saddle. This was an eye-opening sensation. It caused me to rethink my attitude toward saddles — that they must be gel, or wide, or whatever. This saddle works. It’s the stock seat for this bike.

Don’t be afraid to try several different kinds of saddles before finding the one that fits you. And check with the store for their return policy. Maybe after riding on your new saddle for a little while, you might discover that it doesn’t feel so good 20 miles from home. Many bike shops will exchange saddles within a reasonable trial period. Others won’t. Ask.

Metric century

A metric century is a 100 kilometer (62 mile) bicycle ride. It’s a common goal for cyclists to complete a metric, because it’s a good barometer of where you are in terms of endurance, fitness, and speed.

After I completed a 50-miler, a metric century was a logical next step. Conveniently, one was coming up in five weeks — the “Wurstride,” on the first Saturday in November, 2007. It’s conducted in conjunction with the annual Wurstfest in New Braunfels, Texas (wurst is the German word for sausage, and New Braunfels loves to celebrate its German heritage). The ride starts in Austin, and follows little-used country roads on a roundabout way to New Braunfels, which is only a 40-mile drive by Interstate highway.

Because I had trained for the 50-miler, I felt I was in good shape for 100K. I tried to ride often, and did a 30-miler one Saturday. But an attempt at a 40-miler the weekend before the race was cut off at 17 miles, after my second flat of the day. Now I was concerned that I might not have enough stamina to finish a 62-mile ride.

The ride started in the parking lot of a local utility in Austin. I had a new rear tire and tube, after the flats the week before, but something seemed out of whack. The tube was actually bulging out from the tire! I took it to the SAG tent run by a local bike shop, and a mechanic I’d dealt with before checked the trueness of the wheel, deflated the tube, remounted the tire, pumped it up, and I was ready to go.

But as soon as the ride began, I sensed a problem. The rear tire was bumping on every revolution. I tried to check on it as I rode along, which is a dicey thing to do when surrounded by other bikers. I figured out that the tube was bulging once again, just as it went bang!

Just a mile into a 62-mile ride, and I’m trying to fix a flat along the road. I could see that I was in for a long, lonely day trying to catch the pack, and started wondering if it was in the cards for me to finish. Then one of the SAG wagons came along, driven by the same bike mech who had tended to the tire earlier. He immediately recognized the problem. “I put 100 pounds in your tire,” he said, “but with this wheel, it shouldn’t take more than 70.” He found a new tube, put in 70 pounds, and I was on my way — last in a field of about one thousand riders.

I pulled into the first rest stop, about 10 miles from the start, took only about five minutes to get a sports drink, then set off again. That put me ahead of a couple dozen riders who lingered at the rest stop. Now we were out in the country, southeast of Austin, and I had a lot of easy downhill stretches to make up lost time. I didn’t push it, but a steady pedaling pace sent me past many other cyclists.

The weather was warming up, and at the second rest stop, I pulled off my windbreaker, rolled it up, and stuffed it into the back pocket of my cycling jersey. I planned not to take more than 10 minutes at rest stops, and was soon in the saddle again.

The county roads in Hays and Caldwell counties were chip seal, and rough in some spots. We rode past cotton fields that had just recently been harvested, and clumps of cotton lined the road. By the time I reached the third rest stop, at the halfway mark in Martindale, I knew I would finish the ride.

My cell phone rang as the route headed east of San Marcos. It was my son, calling from Minnesota to wish my wife a happy birthday — he’d hit my number by mistake. When I told him where I was and what I was doing, he was astounded, and got off the phone so I could concentrate on dodging the traffic.

Now, I was feeling the distance. There were hills along the route, nothing long or steep, but enough to make me work hard. I was still riding the steel Raleigh at the time, and it took some strong legs to handle the inclines. A cluster of four riders passed me going up a small rise. On the downhill side, I sailed past them. But at the next upslope, they went by me again. This passing back and forth kept up until the fifth rest stop.

Getting to that stop was a trial. It was along Interstate 35, at the point where the route crossed the highway and continued west and south to New Braunfels. But one of the longer hills of the day led to the rest stop, and by the time I got to the top, I felt like all the starch had been taken out of me. I tried to stick to my 10-minute rule, but in this case, I think I took a few more.

The rest of the trip wasn’t too bad. The ride organizers put the rest stops closer together in the last half of the ride — only about seven miles apart. I had put a new saddle on the bike after the Rip Roarin’ Ride, but hadn’t adjusted to it yet, and my butt complained. Much of this part of the ride found me coasting, with my weight on my feet, so I could just lift off the saddle. That helped.

The ride ended in a large city park in New Braunfels. Riders were treated to free beer and sausages. I was surprised at how good I felt. After a few minutes of walking around, my bottom didn’t bother me at all. Our bikes were loaded onto trucks, and we boarded buses for the return trip to Austin.

I didn’t set the world on fire, finishing 5 hours 26 minutes after starting. But deducting 10 minutes for each of the seven rest stops gave me 4 hours 16 minutes in the saddle, for an average speed of 14.59 miles per hour. I was satisfied with that. I knew it would only get better from here.