The long ride over the weekend and the prospect of longer rides two days in a row in just two-and-a-half weeks has been making me think more about distance lately.

We’ll do 100 miles the first day of the MS 150, and 77 the second day. That’s a lot of riding. But for some folks, those are just walks in the park.

I’m talking about randonneurs.

Randonneuring is marathon cycling. But not only do you have to complete long distances, you have to complete them within a certain time frame. In that way, it resembles an auto rally more than a race.

Randonneurs will go 200, 300, 400, 600 or 1200 kilometers in one ride. For the metrically-challenged, 200k is 125 miles, more or less. I’ve done 100 miles once, and thought that was as far as I’d ever care to go. That’s the kind of ride randonneurs stage to introduce new riders t0 their sport.

At first blush, randonneurs don’t look much different from the typical club ride. They’ve got bikes, and helmets, and lycra jerseys, and spandex. But upon closer inspection, there are some notable differences.

Cyclists ready to leave for yet another leg on the 1400 kilometer London-Edinburgh-London ride.

Randonnees, the rides put on by randonneurs, are unsupported. So each rider has to carry food and drink, and enough in the way of tools to make roadside repairs if the bike breaks during the ride. The rides start before the sun rises, and keep going after the sun sets. So the bikes are equipped with head and tail lights. If it’s really long, arrangements might be made for rooms at motels along the route, and riders take turns flopping on the beds for only two or three hours of sleep.

As the day warms up, riders will likely shed some layers of clothing, so they often use large saddle bags or rack-mounted bags to carry their extra stuff. Many carry smaller items, such as energy bars, a cell phone, a camera, and tire repair kits, in a handle bar bag. Because they ride rain or shine, randonneuring bikes are usually equipped with fenders, and perhaps somewhat wider tires than most club riders. And because it’s important to stay comfortable after being in the saddle for 12 hours on end, many randonneurs use the old-fashioned Brooks leather saddles, sometimes even sprung versions.

A Rivendell Bleriot outfitted for randonneuring. Note the fenders with leather mud guards, the Brooks leather saddle, and the front and rear bags.

The bikes themselves are a little different, too. Speed is not the aim, although some are fairly speedy. Durability is of paramount importance, because of the lack of sag support. And to add to comfort, a certain style of frame is sought after.

The resulting bike looks like a throwback to earlier cycling times. But if form does indeed follow function, the randonneuring bike is a highly functional machine. Most often, it has a steel frame. It has drop bars, but they’re often mated to a threaded headset, and the bars are up at saddle height.

During a ride, cyclists have to check in at “controls” to have their brevet (bruh-VAY) cards stamped and signed. Sometimes, ride organizers slip in a “secret” control, to assure that riders don’t try to shorten the course. Failure to reach a control results in disqualification.

If you’re interested in randonneuring, you might start by checking out Randonneurs USA, the governing body of randonneuring in the United States. Their web site will point you to rides and to area clubs.

If you really get the bug, and want to do the big daddy, it’s the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) ride in France, run every four years. Next year, 2011, is one of those years. You have to qualify to ride PBP, and you do that by completing brevets of 200, 300, 400, and 600 kilometers during 2011. A brevet is a ride for which you are certified to have finished, and the record of your finishing goes to Paris. Even that might not be enough, though. Because of the popularity of the ride, each country is assigned a quota of riders, and once it’s filled, it’s filled.

For me, the allure of randonneuring is in the thought of covering so much ground on a single ride. But thinking about it and doing it are two different things. Talk to me after the MS 150 and we’ll see if I’m up for something longer.

Four Mental Skills You Need For Cycling

I posted a brief account on my club’s bulletin board about bailing on yesterday’s ride. My friend Judy responded: “Yes, that windy hill was a killer.  I had to really dig into my mental reserves to finish that.”

I guess what’s bothering me most today as I look back on the ride was that I didn’t dig deep enough into my mental reserves. The last rest stop turned out to be about a mile past where I quit. If I had been able to get to that stop, I’m sure I would have been able to stoke myself up enough to finish the ride — which ended only eight miles farther on.

Lately, I’ve only been concerned with the physical side of training. Overcoming the layoff imposed by my knee injury, gradually regaining strength and speed — those are things that I’ve been working on.

But I also need to get to work on my mental preparation for longer rides.

A lot of the material written about the mental aspect of cycling is geared toward racers. I think recreational riders can gain a lot from it, too.

British cycling coach Christine Jacklin says a cyclist must learn these mental skills:

Concentration. The ability to focus and stay focused. We lose concentration when we allow ourselves to become distracted. Sometimes the distractions are within ourselves. In my case, I rode with a minor saddle sore, and the long time in the saddle made it hurt more. It was easy to quit the ride, because I knew that would end the pain. Other times, the distractions come from without. A guy in a recumbent bike caught and passed me on a hill. I was stunned. Recumbents aren’t supposed to climb hills well, I thought. He pulled away and soon disappeared. It was demoralizing.

Motivation. The ability to focus on a goal and work toward that goal. My goal is to finish the MS 150 next month. I forgot to give equal weight to finishing the 65-miler yesterday.

Getting up for the ride. A little stress and pressure can be a good thing, and force us to perform at a high level. I’m afraid I went into the ride looking at it as a fun thing, but not appreciating the challenge of riding 65 miles when the longest ride I’d done this year was only 36.

Self-confidence. This may be the most important mental skill of all. It’s your belief that you can do it. A rider with self-confidence will give 100 percent, focus on the task, and keep going. It’s good to remind yourself that you’ve done long rides before. During the ride, I turned that around. I remembered my first metric century, and how I kept going despite the discomfort of a poor-quality saddle and a clunky old bike. But instead of using that experience as a spur to keep going, I asked myself why the discomfort I was feeling today was so much worse. Apparently, a lot of riders have similar feelings — especially where hills are involved. “Oh no, not another hill!” was a common refrain throughout the day. In one case, I was able to pass two college-age girls who otherwise should have blown my socks off, simply because they let themselves be overcome by the prospect of having to climb yet again. I should have used that experience to bolster my confidence, and not give in to other distractions.

Okay, so I’m going to start riding with a nod to the mental side of things. Today was a good start — the wind was as brutal as yesterday’s, but I didn’t let it get me down. Whenever I caught myself easing off, shifting to an easier gear, I immediately shifted up and pumped harder. It was a good ride.

Oh, and one more tip: Smile when it gets tough. Some coaches say that can trick your brain into thinking you’re having fun.

Don’t Rush Your Comeback

As readers know, I’m going to ride the MS 150 from Houston to Austin in April. It will involve 100 miles the first day and 77 miles the second. But my recent knee problems put a crimp in my training plans for the ride.

I hoped to get back on track with today’s LBJ 100, a ride at the ranch of former President Lyndon B. Johnson out in the Texas Hill Country. I opted for the 65-mile ride.

Conditions at the start were darn near perfect. Temp of 51°F (10.5°C) and a sunny morning. I forgot my camera, so had to make do with my crummy cell phone camera, but this is what it looked like at the start, as Luci Baines Johnson welcomed the riders.

Luci, the former president's daughter, is up there somewhere under the flags.

Several of my usual club suspects were there, and I looked forward to riding with them.

Joe and Donald (looking down), Joe's wife Judy and Donald's wife Pippa.

But it was apparent that my layoff and gradual resumption of biking after my knee trouble was going to keep me at the back of the pack. Joe and Donald passed me and disappeared at about three miles in. Pippa and Judy caught up to me, and I stayed with them for a little bit, but they pulled away at about six miles. So from then on out, it was just me — and all the other riders on the road.

Rest stop at the Willow City school, no longer in use. (See, I do stop at rest stops!) Local civic groups keep it going as a community center. I have no idea who the guy in the shot is.

After about 35 miles, I was getting tired. But there was no problem keeping on, because we had a nice tailwind and lots of downhills. I refueled at the rest stop in Sandy, Texas, and made the turn back to the west.

This leg was right into the wind, which had picked up throughout the day. In addition, the road was a gradual uphill most of the way. In Sandy, they said I had 12 miles until the next rest stop. I stopped on my own about seven miles down the road, and rested under a nice shade tree. By now, the temp had climbed to around 80 (26C). At 12 miles, there was no sign of a rest stop. But I saw another biker pulled off to the side of the road, and I joined him to finish off my water bottles.

It turned out he was calling his wife to come get him. He had planned on doing the 44-mile route, but missed a turn and wound up on the 65. She was there in minutes with a large pickup truck. He invited me to put my bike on the back, too. I took about two seconds to decide. I hopped in the truck with him.

So, my longest ride of the year so far, but something of a disappointment, nevertheless. Because the MS 150 is coming up in about three weeks, I rushed my training for longer distances. Increasing distance each week and the long ride each week by 10 percent is something I don’t have time to do, so I have to push it. But today, I pushed a bit too far. Tomorrow, a shorter ride, but I’ll ride hard.

Triple vs. Compact Double — Again!

A distant relative has been going through the same biking metamorphosis that I went through a few years ago. He wants to get a new road bike, to replace the hybrid he’s been riding. But he’s agonizing over the purchase.

The main hangup, apparently, is whether to get a bike with a triple crankset or a compact double crankset.

Two Shimano 105 cranksets: A compact double on the left, a triple on the right.

We’ve looked at this issue before, but it never seems to lose steam. Most veteran bikers will tell you that a compact double, usually a 50-tooth large chainring and a 34-tooth small one — coupled with a cassette that goes from a 12-tooth cog to a 26, or 27, or 28 — will serve just fine. There aren’t many hills that can’t be climbed with that setup.

A compact gives you a little less oomph at the top end, but unless you’re a racer, it shouldn’t matter. I ride a compact double, and I’ve hit speeds of nearly 40 mph (okay, on a downhill — but still) and am able to cruise in the mid-20s.

But there are some hills in my area that I have trouble with — most anything steeper than 16 percent. I know some of the fault lies with me. I need to lose more weight. I need to train harder to conquer those hills. I need to stop aging.

Or, a triple crankset might be just the ticket. Triples often come in 52, 39, and 30-tooth rings. Sometimes the big ring is only a 50. That arrangement is most beneficial in the low ranges, when the 30 is coupled with the 28-tooth cog.

Some high-end bikes come with triple cranksets.

The $3,300 Specialized Roubaix Expert comes in both compact double and triple versions.

One way to look at the issue is to look at your shifting. During a discussion of double vs. triple on Bike Forums, one poster said his goal is to minimize shifts on the front rings.

“When I run out of high gears in the small ring,” he wrote, “shifting to the big ring on a compact usually requires shifting down two or three cogs in the rear to put me in the right gear for the situation. When I run out of low gears in the big ring, similarly, I may need to shift up several gears in the rear when I shift to the small ring.

“A triple gives me the smooth transitions of a regular double and a granny ring for the lower gears I need for the really hard climbs.”

As for me, I’m hanging onto the bike I have for awhile. That means I’ll just have to learn to handle the big hills with my compact double. But if I’m ever in the market for another bike, you can bet I’ll opt for a triple

Oh, and my relative? He lives in Florida, where the biggest climb he has is a freeway overpass. I recommended he get the compact double.

Rest Stops on Organized Rides

Saturday, Mrs. Noob and I are entering our first organized ride of the year. We’re going to do the LBJ 100 in Stonewall, Texas, on the ranch of former President Lyndon B. Johnson. Pat’s doing the 30-miler, I’m doing the 65. (There’s no 100-mile ride. It’s called the LBJ 100 because the inaugural event was in 2008, what would have been LBJ’s 100th year.)

Anyhow, I got to thinking about previous organized rides I’ve been on. One of the attractions has always been the rest stops. They’re usually spaced just far enough apart that about the time you’re ready for a break from pedaling, you come upon one. They’re a chance to stop, stretch your legs, maybe sit in the shade and rest, if need be, and replenish your stores from the selection of food the rest stop volunteers put out for you.

A busy rest stop about 30 miles into a ride.

I’ll almost always grab the chunks of banana, or maybe an orange wedge. Once in a while, I’ll take one of those little peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. There’s usually a nice selection of salty snacks, like goldfish, or pretzels, or potato chips — not all that good for you nutritionally, but they replace the salts you lose through perspiration.

However, a lot of riders I know skip most of the rest stops. On a 65-miler like I’m doing, they may stop at one, and that’s mainly to refill their water bottles. Then, they’re back on their bikes and down the road.

Oh, they replenish. They usually pack their own food in their jersey pockets. So they can grab an energy bar of some kind, maybe a banana of their own, or some pre-packed trail mix type stuff they brought from home.

Their concern is that they waste too much time at rest stops, and could just as well eat in the saddle, and eat stuff that they know will agree with them.

After several years’ experience with organized rides, I’m starting to come around to that way of thinking. I used to spend way too much time at rest stops, to the point of having cooled down and requiring some easy warmup pedaling once I got back on the bike. Rest stops usually pop up every 12-14 miles or so, and I’m used to going much farther than that without stopping, on my longer weekend rides. I suspect that this weekend, I’ll stop for only three out of the six stops on the route. I’ll keep my time to the bare minimum, refilling my bottles, grabbing some food, but not a lot, and getting going again.

What’s your take? Do you welcome the breaks in the ride? Do you partake of rest stop food, or do you bring your own? And if so, what?

Speedplay Pedals – Are They For You?

One of the welcome side effects of my recent bout with gout had nothing to do with pharmaceuticals. Rather, a cornucopia of information about selecting the right pedals flowed my way, as friends, acquaintances, and downright strangers offered their ideas about how to combat or prevent knee trouble.

It’s all in the pedals, they said. Specifically, Speedplay pedals.

We’ve looked at Speedplays before. In any discussion of pedals, Speedplays have their loyal adherents.

The main attraction is the amount of float they offer. It’s called “free float,” or non re-centering float, and allows the foot to follow its normal path through the pedal stroke. One of my fellow club members says that feature can really benefit bad knees: “Most pedal systems these days allow for some natural ankle rotation, but Speedplay is one of the few systems that allows for ‘free’ float, meaning that there is no resistance due to the pedal trying to move your foot back to a centered position if you tend to rotate too far. This can be good for knees that have been aggravated by a poorly positioned cleat – cycling is actually one of the best rehab activities for knee injuries.”

Another club member, who uses Speedplays, says that free float feels different than any other pedal: “With Speedplays, you initially feel like you are skating on ice until your feet find the angle they want to be at (yes, I dangle participles). Two rides max and you will be dialed in.”

Not all of them have unrestricted float. Yet another club member (as you can see, my fellow clubbies love to talk about pedals, as well as other accessories) weighs in with this opinion: “The fact is that most of us don’t need as much rotation as Speedplay allows, which is why they introduced the Zero model, which allows you to reduce the range of motion to match your pedaling style. They’re remarkably easy to set up, and have solved pretty much all of my knee issues, including those caused by having too much available float.”

Speedplays come in four basic models, the Light Action, Zero, X, and Frog. Each is available in titanium, stainless, or chro-moly. The Zero is considered a pro-level pedal; the Light Action a recreational pedal; the X an ultralight version, and the Frog, a mountain bike pedal that has been adopted by roadies as well.

The Frog looks different than the other Speedplays, because its cleat can be recessed in the sole of the shoe, like a Shimano SPD cleat. That makes walking around in them easy.

So, what’s NOT to like about Speedplays?

Penny-pincher that I am, I passed on them because of price. MSRP generally ranges from $115 for the cro-mo versions to $325 for the titanium ones. But a lot of bikers who spend their money more wisely than I pass up other fripperies and put their money where it will do their cycling the most good.

Some riders don’t like the “rocking” sensation they get from the pedals. But Speedplay apparently has dealt with that. One of the guys from the club says it’s a thin steel shim, and it stops the lateral rocking motion:  “I highly recommend them to ALL Speedplay users – $10, and they’re called the ‘Carbon Sole Protectors.’ They also stiffen the cleats and provide a harder surface contact patch between the pedal and shoe.”

It’s clear that those who use Speedplays generally love them. Another acquaintance has had a long-term love affair with them: “I had an ACL rebuild and have been riding Speedplays for the past twelve years. That, plus ibuprofen, has kept the inflammation to zero. Still riding the original pedals and on my third set of cleats … Just keep ’em out of the mud!”

Okay, I’m interested, because of their potential to solve knee problems. But I’m not about to make the switch yet, because my Shimano SPD-SLs offer me a wide platform, and they’re comfortable. I wish they had more than six degrees of float, though. Maybe if I save my pennies, in another year Speedplays will be worth considering.


It’s fascinating what you can learn from the cycling community.

Last week, I was battling a painful bout of gout in my left knee. I couldn’t bend the knee without it hurting, and I walked with a pronounced limp.

That’s all in the past now. A steroid injection into the knee and some time on the bike has done wonders. I’m walking normally again. The more time I ride, the better the knee feels.

But while I was laid up, I got lots of interesting advice. One item didn’t apply to my gout, but it’s interesting enough that I’m going to look into it anyway. It’s called the Kneesaver.

The idea behind the Kneesaver is simple. It’s an extension to the pedal axle, just 20, 25 or 30 mm long. The company says that added width to the pedal (what it calls the “Q factor”) can reduce or eliminate pain in the hip, knee, ankle or foot.

The Kneesavers web site (www.kneesaver.net) has testimonials from satisfied users, but I put more stock in the unsolicited testimonials from riders in my club whose experience I respect.

One said he bought them to help alleviate pain in his hip that came on after a crash.  Not only did the pain go away, he said, but his knees felt younger, too (he’s in his upper 50s). When he started riding his “rain bike” during colder winter weather, the hip pain came back. He moved the Kneesavers over to his rain bike, and the pain went away. “A wider stance on the pedals will more closely approximate your ‘at rest’ standing position and that’s where you will have the most comfortable knee rotation,” he said.  “It’s an old guy thing.” He was so happy with his experience that he’s buying another set for his wife.

Lending even more credibility to the worth of Kneesavers is a comment from another club member, who happens to be a physician. He also complained of hip pain after long bike rides. “What put me onto it was I noticed that long rides on our tandem didn’t give me this problem,” he said, “so when I checked I discovered that the Q on the tandem was an estimated 30% wider–because they use a MTB crankset (MTB cranksets have a significantly wider Q). When I measured my ‘standing Q’ it was 10cm wider than my road bike, so I increased it the minimum.”

One thing to watch for if using pedal extenders is the increased possibility of “pedal strike” in corners. You can’t lean the bike as far without the pedal hitting the ground. But since we’re supposed to corner with the inside pedal up, that shouldn’t be a problem.

This post is not to be considered an endorsement for Kneesavers. I haven’t tried them yet.  But I’m not getting any younger, and anything that keeps me going in comfort is worth a look.