Bike-Chasing Dogs…And Dog-Chasing Bikes

hemmelsride3By Jeff Hemmel — Let me say first, I love dogs. Truth be told I’m not so big on cats, but dogs are my kind of pet. Just not when they’re chasing me on my bike.

Most of the time, that’s not an issue. Leash laws and traffic combine to make things pretty quiet animal-wise on my typical ride. Every summer, however, I get the chance to escape to the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate NY. And while I absolutely love the climbs, the scenery, and the lack of traffic, I don’t like the increase in furry friends I encounter during the course of my ride.

About two weeks ago, I was just beginning the steep, lengthy climb back home when a particularly ferocious dog seemingly came out of nowhere. The dog’s timing couldn’t have been better. Given the abrupt steepness of the hill, I couldn’t outrun him. The road was also narrow and I was approaching a blind curve, meaning I didn’t want to chance making a turn and speeding back downhill. I had no time to grab my water bottle and give him a squirt, and was sure if I attempted to slow and unclip I’d either let him take a chomp or fall. With every turn of the pedals my calf inched closer to dog chow.

So I let instinct take over. I yelled. Then, unable to speed away, I hit the brakes, causing the dog to briefly shoot past. I can’t call what happened next any masterful plan – it was more like pure rage. But I planted my front wheel right on the dog’s tail, like Lance pouncing on Bradley Wiggins. Muttley veered left and I followed. He veered right and I followed again. The look on the dog’s face was sweet revenge, as he clearly didn’t like the idea that my spinning tire was not threatening to take a bite out of his miserable behind. Yes, it would have been a disastrous fall had I actually hit him, but all I could think of at the time was how delighted I was to be turning the tables. Instead of a dog chasing a bike, this was now a bike chasing a dog. Take that, canine.

It worked, albeit briefly. The dog finally broke away, and I rode past, stringing together a combination of curse words that I don’t think even a linguistics professor could decipher. As the dog sat down, I turned my attention back up the road. And that’s when I heard the unsettling sound of nails against pavement.

Yup, the angry pup was answering the bell for Round Two, and I hadn’t even had the chance to rest up in my corner. This time around I lunged for the water bottle, almost wiping out in the process. Problem was he was now attacking from behind, so every twist to see where he was caused me to wobble dangerously in the road. Eventually he made a lunge, and I got him with a decent squirt. One more and he ended the chase.

In the moments that followed, the reality of what had happened began to set in. Fortunately no cars had come along at the same time. I’d hate to think what could have happened had I been worried about both the dog and traffic. I also began to think about how close I came to falling while frantically twisting from side to side to track the dog once he attacked again from behind. I was furious…and scared.

And wondering what to do the next time around. I’m sure fellow Noob readers have had similar close calls. Any suggestions? I’m wondering about keeping a small air horn in my jersey pocket. Think a deafening blast at close range would scare him off?

Does anyone bottle the scent of a vet’s office?

The RunFar Time Trial

Every other Tuesday from April – September, a company called RunFar puts on a time trial in Austin. It’s an 8.12-mile course along the Mopac loop that I ride so often. But this, as they say, is the “Ride of Truth.” Riders are welcome to come out and see how they stack up against their goals, their previous personal bests, or that character who shows up all the time, and always seems to get the better of you.

I rode the time trial in May, and I’ll do it again next month. But in the meantime, I took a video camera out to this week’s event, and maybe was able to capture some of the atmosphere. Cameo appearance by my friend David at the end.  Temperature: 102°F (39°C).

Thinking of Fat Cyclist and Susan

Since I’ve begun blogging, one of my inspirations has been the Fat Cyclist. Despite the funny name, he’s been engaged in serious business — caring for his wife Susan, who is terminally ill with cancer.

While trying to look after her needs, along with those of their four children, Fatty (Elden Nelson) writes entertaining posts about his biking exploits and raises tons of money for cancer research.

His posts have been funny, sad, angry, hopeful. He writes one of the few blogs that can make me laugh out loud.

But the laughs will be muffled for awhile. Susan is slipping away.

They are in my thoughts.

Biting off more than we can chew

I bonked today. But so did four of the six who started our Sunday morning “B” ride.

It started out routinely enough. We were going to do a well-known biking route, the “Tour de Austin.” As the name implies, it’s a ride through the city, hitting local landmarks like Lake Austin, the University of Texas campus, the Texas State Capitol, and some funky neighborhoods. Because our club’s membership comes from extreme southwest Austin, we don’t do the ride much. In fact, today was my first time.

Because of that, I arranged for my friend David to lead the ride today. He figured it would run about 40 miles, after he cut off a large loop at the north end of the route. We started promptly at 8:15 a.m., and enjoyed an almost traffic-free ride down one of the main arterial roads that leads out of our area.

One of the great things about biking is that you see things you would never see from a car. I’ve lived in this city for nine years, but we rode through neighborhoods I’d never seen before. We came out at Austin’s big riverfront park, Zilker Park, and crossed the Colorado River (Lake Austin) on a pedestrian bridge (it’s okay — bikers use this, too). Then, we rode along the river through some swanky neighborhoods, until we reached the base of Mt. Bonnell.

It’s not really a mountain, just a high promontory overlooking the river. David and Penny decided to take an alternate route. We remaining four headed up the 16-20 percent grade. Granny gear all the way, but we got to the top.  A bit past the summit, we had our choice of directions — left or right. We had to meet David and Penny at a coffee shop in the area. Even though I had never done this ride before, I suggested we go left.

A twisty 16 percent downhill run took us out to Rt. 2222. One look at the speeding traffic and lack of a bike lane convinced us we’d (I’d) made the wrong choice. Back we went — this time up the hill. One of us rode all the way up. Three of us walked.


It turned out we were only a few blocks from the coffee shop, and our downhill-uphill excursion never had to happen. The day was heating up, too. We reached the coffee shop and took a half hour to cool down and fill ourselves with liquids and food before starting out again.

Now we were on relatively flat streets heading for the UT campus. I felt some of my strength coming back, but it wasn’t all there yet. I tried not to think about it, but enjoyed the sights.

stadiumDarrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium at the University of Texas.

capitolLined up (sort of) at the Texas State Capitol.

Once we left downtown and re-crossed the river, it was uphill again. Not brutally steep, like Mt. Bonnell, but gradual and long. I was falling behind the group. By this time, the temperature was around 95°F (35°C), and we were all starting to feel it. We refilled our water bottles at a drive-in restaurant, and slogged on.

But it was no good. David slowed to come back to me and ask if I was doing all right. “I need a stop,” I said. We pulled up in a shady spot. Penny was done in, too. I called my wife to come pick us up. We rode another quarter-mile to a major intersection, where Penny and I peeled off from the group, and waited for the ride home.

Later, I found the rest of the group didn’t do well, either. One strong rider had to get back, and took off on his own. On a steep hill three miles from the finish, David cramped up badly and had to stop. A local homeowner, who gave her name as Laurie, saw he was in distress and brought wet towels and lots of water to help. David has now named the hill the Col de Ste. Laurie.

Everyone eventually got back, after a 40-mile trip that turned out to be closer to 50 for the Mt. Bonnell climbers. Clearly, we bit off more than we could chew today. The combination of hills and heat simply wore us down (As I write this at 8 p.m. local time, the temperature is still 100°F (38°C)). We think we’ve gotten used to the heat, but it keeps biting us. I think when this record-setting summer finally turns to fall, we’ll do a lot better.

Review: Retül 3-D Bike Fitting System

I remember the “bike fitting” I got when I bought my bike. The salesperson put the bike in a trainer, I put on my bike shoes, climbed on, and pedaled a little bit. Then she measured the angle of my knee when the pedal was at the bottom, made an adjustment to the seat, and told me the bike was “made for me.” There are better, albeit pricier, ways. Jeff Hemmel reviews one.

HemmelsRideBike fitting is part art, part science. Traditional fitting involves static measurements and some basic tools, like a plumb bob and ruler. My local shop sized me for my bike; later, another shop graciously fine-tuned things like cleat and seat position. Still, I never felt completely dialed in. Some of my issues may have been due to past injuries, including an ACL reconstruction and herniated disc. Others, however, were just my obsessive-compulsive wonderings, like why I never felt comfortable riding in the drops, or why my left leg often brushed the top tube. Eventually I went looking for an advanced bike fit. After all, even the priciest bike is no good if the owner doesn’t feel comfortable riding it.

Every shop seems to offer a name-brand fitting program nowadays. I chose Retül, a system that’s claim to fame is that it looks at a cyclist’s position dynamically, while the rider is actively pedaling. Small LED sensors are placed at key points of your body — wrist, elbow, shoulder, hip, knee, ankle, heel and the ball of the foot — and then a special motion-capture device tracks these positions in three-dimensional space as you pedal, relaying the info to a computer the fitter uses to analyze the data. In this way a fitter can analyze before and after positions, seeing just what works and what doesn’t as you actually ride, rather than sit stationary atop the bike.

“It’s better information,” explained experienced fitter Paul Williams, who conducted my personal fit at Clearwater, Florida’s Outspokin’ bicycle shop. “I can only make a rider’s position as good as I can with the information I have. The old-fashioned way was static, a tape measure and our ability to work with you to hold your body in the positions we were looking for. Now we don’t have to do that, we can measure you while you’re in motion, and it’s accurate, it’s repeatable.”

Williams began our two-hour session in a decidedly low-tech fashion. He asked about my riding style, experience and goals. He also brought up the subject of injuries or problem areas. Next I hopped up on a padded table, where Williams did a little bending and manipulating to get an idea of my flexibility and body mechanics. He then turned his attention to both my shoes and bike, setting everything — cleats, handlebars, seat, shift levers, etc — in a neutral position, from which we could then begin to tweak the bike to fit my body.

With everything set, the bike was locked in a trainer, I was bombarded with Velcro tabs for the various LEDs, and the LED-equipped wiring harness was attached to the left side of my body. After a good warm-up, Williams started recording the data.

RetulHemmel, wired.

Every so often, we’d stop to make a change. Following each and every adjustment I’d once again start pedaling at a decent cadence, the improvement, or lack thereof, shown in the data being collected on Williams’ laptop. Many positions and angles had known “target” numbers Williams was trying to achieve for best results, and the computer could record how I measured up during repeated revolutions. Some changes were dramatic. My saddle was shifted rather substantially, and my stem was flipped from its former positive to a new negative angle. Others were rather subtle, like a small repositioning of a shift/brake lever or minor tweak in cleat position. The data being generated, however, displayed a quantifiable difference. Still, the information was just a tool. It took an experienced fitter like Williams to put it to best use.

Once everything seemed good, the platform my bike was loaded upon was spun 180 degrees, sensors repositioned on my right side, and the process started anew. Amazingly, I was quite symmetrical. Both Williams and I expected problems thanks to my knee complications on the left-hand side, but apparently I’ve done some self-correction. A tracing of my left knee from the front showed a more pronounced wobble than the right, but it was within limits. A few more subtle changes followed until both of us were satisfied with the results and I hopped off the bike.

“Every fit is different,” explained Williams as we looked over the results. “We’re just working with you, the athlete, to make this the best possible fit we can so you can enjoy your bike, not get injured, ride fast, and be aero. We’re trying to create the perfect storm of all those things.”

He next produced a very cool tool called the Zin, a wand-like device that essentially digitized my bike’s geometry into the Retül program, where it would be combined with my biomechanical fit data. As he touched the Zin to various points on my bike, a stick-figure representation was being formed on the computer’s screen. With the exact measurements of these reference points, I could now exactly reproduce my position should something get changed or I decide to experiment down the road.

probePaul Williams with the Zin.

The proof of the system’s value would be proven not in the shop, but on the road the following day. My primary concern was comfort. Everything felt good, with no pain or problem spots. I also felt faster and more efficient, a feeling that was verified during a familiar 30-mile ride. The most-welcome change was that I was now comfortable riding in the drops; before, I avoided it like the plague. The change gave me an additional option on the bike, letting me generate more power and be more aero when desired.

Like most advanced fittings, Retül isn’t cheap. Average cost is around $250 for a two-hour session. Most dealers slash that price with the purchase of a new bike. As to whether the investment makes sense for a noob, Williams offered a compelling argument, beyond simple comfort. “I would rather have a new rider go through the fit before they’ve acclimated to a poor position, so that you don’t have to unlearn bad habits,” he explained. “A good position can help you learn good habits. Your body will do what comes naturally if you just give it the opportunity.”

My final take? Retül doesn’t make the difference, a good, experienced fitter does. What Retül offers, however, is a quantifiable, real-world look at how you measure up on your bike. In that way, it just may be one of the best instruments currently in a fitter’s toolbox.

For more information on Retul, or to locate a Retul fitter in your area, visit

Riding in pacelines

PaceA paceline in nice, cool weather

A couple of weeks ago, the B ride from my club started 45 minutes ahead of the A group. Since we rode the same route, we had a chance to watch them pass by us while they were heading out to the turnaround.

The first six riders had formed a paceline, and what a sight they were! Really moving fast along a country road, and visibly putting distance between them and the less organized group following.

Paceline riding is something I haven’t done much. In the MS ride, I latched onto a couple of small lines, and found that I could keep up with them, but I only got to pull once. They quickly fell apart.

Apparently, most of the riders I encounter haven’t done a lot of paceline riding either. We tend to bunch up in clusters, rather than lines. Even in a bunch, there’s some wind blocking, but it’s nothing like it could be if we were in an organized line.

But then again, one thing I do know about pacelines is that you must be confident in your co-riders. If you don’t know how they’ll behave when you’re wheel-to-wheel, it’s probably not a good idea to form a line with them.

Watching the Tour has inspired me to try to get into some pacelines again. There’s plenty of info online about how to do it, such as this item from, a site featuring articles by experienced freelancers.

I’ll also bet a lot of Bike Noob readers know something about pacelines. How about sharing your insights on it? Let’s all get better together.

I don’t think I could handle this

If you’re an addicted Tour de France watcher, as I am, you’ve probably seen Jens Voigt eat the pavement on the downhill run from Petit St. Bernard during Stage 16 in the 2009 Tour de France.

If not, here it is.

He broke a cheekbone and had a concussion, but his injuries are not life-threatening. How would you handle a crash like that? Would it mean the end of biking for you?

I know he gets paid to do this, and he is among the elite of the elite in cycling. But a crash like this would send me to the swimming pool, or the badminton net, and I’d put my bike up for sale.

I was playing around this morning in the “downhill tuck” position, where I scrunched down over the top tube with my hands in the drops. It really works. Even on a gentle downhill, I pulled away from my wife, and she was concerned about my ability  to hold my balance. But that was at a blistering speed of about 17 mph. At 40+ mph, no thanks.

It’s like watching baseball. I’ve played a lot of ball in my life, but when you face a 95 mph fastball, and the best you can throw is 55 mph, you know you’re in a different league. I’ll continue to watch and marvel at these guys, but I’ll never entertain fantasies that I can ever approach what they do.

Addendum  July 31, 2009: Here’s a YouTube clip of Jens speaking from his hospital bed. Recorded July 26.

Le Burrito ride

Our usual Sunday morning club ride had a twist today. Instead of meeting at our neighborhood Starbucks and heading out from there, we went into Austin just south of downtown to Bicycle Sport Shop, one of the bigger bike shops in town. BSS has a club of its own called the Austin Flyers, and their Sunday ride today was the annual “Le Burrito” ride.

Yes, I know the correct article before “burrito” is “el,” but what big bike race is going on across the pond? They’re using the French article “le,” to add a little je ne sais quoi to the proceeding. Chipotle was a title sponsor of the Garmin-Slipstream team last year, and they’ve kept up their interest in bike racing. Everyone who came out for the day’s ride would get a free Chipotle burrito at the end, and could wash it down with free beer from an area microbrewery, Real Ale.

The parking lot at BSS is generous, but I figured the places would be gone soon, so I got there early. The first person I saw was Mike Weiland, he of Mike’s Bike Blog, which I read regularly. He was doing the 60-mile ride today, while I would do the 35. We caught up for awhile, then went about our ride preps.

By this time some of my club pals were showing up. It looked like we would have a good showing at the ride. I looked out over the crowd of bikers as they gathered in the staging area at the end of the parking lot, and my friend David mentioned that the BSS web site had said 324 riders had signed up. There looked to be some walk-ons, too. What we won’t do for free food and beer!

The ride itself went into the countryside southeast of the city, an area where we sometimes do our Sunday club rides. But getting out of town from BSS required a trip down South 1st Street. Not a big deal, except the street was a lot hillier than I’d remembered, and the hills came right away, before we were warmed up. That stretched out the peloton quickly. By the time we reached the gas station/convenience store rest stop at the 18-mile halfway point, I was ready for the break.

The day was quite humid, but not as hot as it’s been around here lately. Still, I felt drained, and managed to drop off the back of my group on the return leg, which would involve a route through the city I’d never taken before. I got caught by some Austin Flyers riders, and followed them back to the shop, where the burrito feed was well underway.

BSSLining up for burritos and beer at the end of the ride.

PairFellow club members Penny and Bob with their post-ride sustenance.

The Flyers assured us all that they’d bring back the ride again next year. I think we’ll be in the field for that one, too.

Mixing it up

As I’ve mentioned before, I used to be a runner. Actually, I was never fast enough to be called a runner — I think 10-minute miles are more in the realm of jogging.

Anyway, I gave it up a couple of years ago because my knees just couldn’t take the pounding anymore. That’s when I started biking.

Biking’s been great for me, fitness-wise. I’ve got better endurance, a lower resting heart rate, and my waist size is down two inches.

But biking has some disadvantages, too. It’s not a weight-bearing exercise, so although my thighs and calves look like those on a 20-something, my upper body looks like it belongs on a 58-year-old. Which I am.

But I stick with biking as my only real exercise. Lots of folks I know mix it up — they run, or swim, or lift weights, or do something in addition to biking.

I don’t.

None of those other activities excite me much. Weight lifting is a turn-off, swimming bores me (not that I’m much good at it anyway), and although I enjoy golf, come on, there’s no way that qualifies as exercise. By the way, I walk the entire 18 holes and carry my bag, too.

Do you supplement your biking with other forms of exercise? What do you do? Do you do more than one other activity?  What’s the mix of biking vs. that other stuff?