Fixing Flats Faster

I’ve always considered myself to be pretty competent when it comes to fixing flats. I’ve had enough of them that, while they will be forever a pain in the patootie, they don’t ruin my ride like they might have done several years ago.

But my confidence in my flat fixing ability was challenged earlier this month, when I had a spate of them within a relatively short time. I had three flats in two weeks. It turns out that my rear tire had worn so badly, the cords showed through in two places.

What vexes me is this: I take too long to fix flat tires.

I think I go about it just as most other folks would. I shift into the smallest cog and the smallest chainring, then take off the wheel. My seatbag contains three tire levers, and I usually need only two to get the tire out of the rim. I’ll pull the tube out, keeping the other side of the tire inside the rim, then I feel around inside the tire to see if I can find any bits of glass or metal or whatever that might have caused the flat.

I take the replacement tube from the seatbag, and blow a little air into the valve to give the tube a little shape, then fit it inside the tire. Once I’ve got the tube inside, it’s time to grab the part of the tire that’s outside the rim and pop it back in. As always, I have a little trouble getting the last three inches of the tire over the rim, so sometimes I’ll use one of the tire levers to help with that (Yes, I know — could cause a puncture in the tube). Pump up the tire, put it back on the bike, clean up after myself, and I’m off.

I can do this in five minutes. Well, I have done it in five minutes maybe once. More often, it takes 15 minutes. But when I had the flats this past month, I noticed it took me a full half hour to get underway again.

What gives?

I can’t pinpoint the exact cause of my slowness. But two weekends ago I realized that tire changing was not being done as efficiently as in the past. Whatever the cause, I have to get quicker at the whole roadside repair routine, so I can get moving again quicker.

I suppose I could practice, and build my speed that way. Have you ever practiced fixing flats? (Okay, when I started biking seriously a few years ago, I really did practice it — but only once, and never since.) But really, I’d rather wait until faced with the real thing before I dirty my hands doing that chore.

So, readers — I’m asking for help. What kind of techniques do you use to fix a flat quickly and get out on the road where we wanted to be in the first place. What’s the best part of the routine to cut the amount of time I would spend getting the tire changed?

A Noob Goes To The Races

The Bike Noob has never contemplated racing, but guest poster Jeff Hemmel has — and he did more than contemplate. Jeff tells about his first race, during his vacation this summer in upstate New York.

So there I was, sandwiched between a breakaway pack of 12 riders, pedaling nearly as fast as I thought humanly possible, looking at the last 90-degree corner of what had been 30 of the fastest, most hardcore miles I had ever ridden. All around me faces were dead serious, jerseys were filled with sponsor logos…legs were shaved. And then there was me, a noob, riding my very first race, jersey a plain and unassuming blue…and no real game plan what to do next.

What the hell was I thinking?

To get to that answer you need to backtrack to late July, 2010. That was when I first came up with the idea of actually trying to contest a race while vacationing in Upstate NY. Long story short I chickened out, but vowed to try again in 2011. After all, this race was perfect…it started in a picturesque riverside town, it had some of the hills that I love (and hopefully most riders would hate), and was a fundraiser for a good cause.

Most important, no one knew me. If I choked, I could fade into the background, my pride shielded by my outsider’s anonymity.

I can’t really say why I did it. Most likely it’s because, like it or not, I’m somewhat of a competitive person. While two years ago I was simply content to hang with the Sunday morning group ride, lately I had been trying to actually contest the end-of-ride sprint. I have no aspirations of signing up for every race that comes along, but I wanted to test myself, if only this once.

Which is why, this July upon arriving in New York, I not only began to rack up my usual mileage in the hills, but frequently found myself visiting the race website…mapping out the route…even watching it fly by on Google Earth. And yes, a few days before the event, traveling about 90 minutes north to plop my bike on those roads and actually riding the course. That I made about 10 wrong turns and ended up turning a 30-miler into a nearly 50-mile reconnaissance isn’t the point. The point is I took it seriously and prepared. If you looked closely at my bike at the start, you would have even seen a little piece of masking tape on the stem, labeled with various mileage points and whether the race was turning left or right.

As I said, competitive…and yes, maybe just a little bit anal.

My race day plan was simple — to spot the guys who looked like they were the most serious, and not let them get out of my sight. I figured I’d either burn out and limp to the finish at the back of the pack, or maybe, just maybe, surprise everyone (including myself) and hang on to the finish.

Well, this looks daunting.

At the start, the latter option didn’t look too promising. A well-organized team jumped away from the 100-plus rider field only a mile into the race, and I fought to stay with them, watching my speedo settle in about 26 mph. Their intent seemed to be to drop as many people as possible right off the bat, and I was almost certain I would be next. Somehow I stayed close, even joining their paceline so I could say I did my share of the work and at least earn their respect before my flameout. Miraculously, however, that moment never came. As I survived mile after mile my confidence grew and I knew I could hang with them till the finish, especially as their speed settled down slightly. As to any pipe dreams of actually dropping the pack on a climb and soloing to victory a la Andy Schleck, however, I knew I didn’t have a chance. This group was strong, and even if I found myself with an advantage on a climb, I knew they’d reel me in with ease once things flattened out.

I'm in there somewhere.

So, I I fought my impetuous instincts, rode smart, and just tried to fit in…a guy with hairy legs in a generic jersey in the midst of a bunch of logoed-up team members looking clean and mean. With about three miles to go, a three-man breakaway leapt ahead, but somehow we reeled them in about a mile from the finish. Still together at mile 29, all that remained was a bunch sprint — a scenario I had really hoped to avoid given my utter lack of racing skills. Heading into that 90-degree lefthand turn about 100 yards from the finish, I took the inside line, only to be cut off by the rest who kept up their speed and swept through the corner. I hit my brakes, lost momentum, and watched as that team led their leader out to the finish. It was actually pretty impressive.

And I still managed to finish first in my age group.

The best news for me? I did okay. I triumphed over the nerves of 2010, finished upright (the primary goal of any first-time racer a friend reminded me before the race), and was greeted at the finish line by my daughters and wife…three people in town who did recognize me.

Finish line greeting.

That’s a victory in any noob’s book.

Sync’ing Odometers

I’m on my third cyclocomputer since I started riding. It’s a Cateye V2c, and is the best of them all, because it’s wireless and has cadence as well as the usual assortment of current, average and maximum speed readings. It gives me everything I want to know about a ride (Okay, being able to see the percent grades of my favorite local climbs would be nice too) without involving the steep cost of a GPS unit.

However, I do have a minor gripe: accuracy. I’ve noticed that with each computer I’ve owned, I get different distances for the same route.

My benchmark ride is a trip from my house to the Austin Veloway, three laps of the track, and back home. It’s my 15-mile ride. To be precise, it’s 14.9 miles — 2.8 from my house to the Veloway, three laps at  3.1 miles per lap, or 9.3 miles, and 2.8 miles home. But my computer clocks it at 14.7.

Now, you adjust your computer according to the outside circumference of your tire. A 23 mm tire should have a circumference of 2096 mm, and the instruction book that comes with the computer suggests setting it to that number. But tires flex, and since my computer’s sensors are on the rear wheel, which carries the most weight, I thought I would measure by hand.

I positioned the bike on the garage floor so the rear wheel’s valve was perpendicular to the ground. A black Sharpie made a hash mark on the floor. Then I got on the bike and pushed off with my feet for one rotation of the tire. Used the Sharpie to mark the floor again. When I measured the distance between the two marks, and converted from inches to centimeters, then reduced, I got — 2096.

What I thought was odd was that on my previous tires, which were 25 mm, my hand measurements also came out to 2096. So my computer readings were consistent.

Earlier computers clocked different numbers, though. A Cateye Strada measured 15.1 miles for that benchmark Veloway distance.

I’ve alluded to my finickiness when it comes to record keeping. I had to come up with a way to get accurate readings from the computer. The obvious way is compare it to a known distance.

Several years ago, I zeroed the computer at the entrance to the Veloway. As I mentioned, it’s 3.1 miles around. But a circuit of the track clocked exactly three miles on the Cateye. So if I was a tenth of a mile short for three miles, that meant that I could simply add a tenth for every three miles ridden. If the computer showed I rode 18 miles, I could add six-tenths to that distance for an accurate reading.

This jury rigged system actually worked. When I rode the MS150, the Cateye clocked the second day’s distance at 74 miles. Divide by three = 24.6 — so I could add 2.5 miles (round up the .46), and get 76.5 miles. The official route map showed the distance at 77. Getting closer.

It’s been awhile now, and I’ve been adding my tenths. But I decided last week to check the accuracy of my system again. This time a 3.1 mile lap registered 3.05 miles on the Cateye. Half a tenth off from the previous readings. That meant I could now add a tenth for every six miles ridden, instead of every three.

When I compared a couple of recent rides using this method to maps created on Ride With GPS, the new system came pretty close.

I think you’ve gotta be a certain type of personality to go through the machinations I do just to get what might or might not be an accurate measure of distance traveled. A twisted type. That’s me — accurately.

The Hills, Part II

Guest poster Don Blount continues his account of his struggle with the hills.

Part II

On a recent Saturday I joined a club ride, a roundtrip starting in Wallace, Calif. to Mokelumne Hill, Calif.

I thought this would be a route of about 40 miles with some 3,000 feet of climbing. I thought this would be a good test as I had completed rides of this length with just a little less vertical. In reality the ride was really 48 miles with 3,400 feet of climbing.

We started the day and I was fine. I rode from the middle to near the rear of the pack and stayed within my comfort range.

So far so good.

For a short time I had forgotten that hills are evil, and they hate me. I was actually enjoying myself!

We eventually came to a series of three long rollers. I made the first two but never recovered for the third. As Phil Liggett would say, I had cracked. And in short order, the group was long gone.

A rider riding sweep came upon me and asked if I was dizzy – I was walking or maybe even just standing at this point. She encouraged me to walk and would later tell me that I was weaving when she found me.

The sweeper continued on and disappeared over the hill. A bit later another rider came over the hill toward me. It was the cavalry. He and another rider paced me to the rest stop a few miles away.

I ate a Clif Bar, drank water and a Dr. Pepper and rested. I felt fine.

We left and I thought I would be in good shape on the return trip as the heavy climbing was behind me.

And I was fine most of the way, until we hit the last big climb of the day just after traveling over Pardee Dam, which  borders Calaveras and Amador counties in Northern California. Did I mention that the temperatures had risen and it had become quite toasty?

Now I had never before experienced leg cramps and after this day, I pray that I never do again.

The contractions in my quadriceps and hamstrings were so painful I thought the alien was going to burst through my skin. I unclipped and tried to stretch my legs. I massaged them. I pounded them. I stopped and walked. Yet the cramps came and went as they pleased.

I could not ride the inclines. I struggled to ride the flats. And I hoped my whimpering was inaudible. Any substantial stress on my legs brought on hellacious cramps.

Somehow I made it back to the starting point with the group. I purchased a 32-ounce Gatorade from a convenience store and drank it in what seemed like 30 seconds.

My legs cramped on my drive home and with less than ½ mile to my house, I pulled over because of the cramping.

Yet, I had survived the ride. In reflection people were right. Riding in the hills had brought variety to my workouts, made me a stronger rider and contributed to a weight loss. I would continue to ride them. That night I ordered an 11-28 cassette. I need to be prepared for my next time out.

Yes, I am going to continue riding in the hills, even if they hate me.

The Hills, Part I

In a two-part guest post, Don Blount expresses thoughts I’ll bet many of us share when it comes to climbing hills.

Part I

Beautiful scenery goes along with riding in the hills, including this view of Camanche Lake in Amador County, California.

I have always suspected that hills hate me. Maybe not when I am walking or driving a car, during those times they seem friendly enough. But the moment I approach a hill while riding a bike, it seems that hill’s goal becomes to not allow me to get up to the top of it. Sometimes it throws me down with a vengeance, causing me great pain and suffering.

Being a peaceful man, I usually take the path of least resistance and avoid hills. That’s easy enough where I live as I can ride for miles and not approach a grade of more than 4 percent.

For the most part, I am fine with this. I do not consider myself a climber. At 5-feet, 9-inches tall and 194 pounds, I am much more comfortable on the flats and inclines. If it is short enough for me to power up with my compact crankset and 12-25 cassette, then I am game to ride it.

But people keep uttering the benefits of riding hills. “Hills will make you stronger,” they say. “Hills will make you a better rider.” And they always end with the same words: “To become stronger in the hills, you have to ride in the hills.”

To get to real climbs with grades of 8 or 9 percent or more, I have to travel about 23 miles east to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern California.

Rarely are those hills friendly and allow me to leave with my dignity. Most of the times they are hard and determined to show me that I am not welcomed there.

So wanting to test my fitness I joined a late May club ride of 40 miles with about 2,300 feet of climbing. I survived but barely. Most of the ride I had a good look at just about everyone’s back.

After that ride I decided to commit to becoming better in the hills. A few weeks later I returned alone and did a similar solo ride of about 40 miles with 2,300 feet of climbing. I completed it.

I became a student of climbing. I read what I could find I watched videos. I watched real climbers. I meditated on climbing and channeled those who had worn the polka dot jersey.

And I went out on the club ride that kicked my rear earlier. I was in better condition, I used what I had learned, and I completed the ride successfully. Progress I thought. Maybe the hills did not hate me after all? Maybe it was time for another test, a club ride?

I put it on my schedule but oh, how little did I know that deep down hills are evil.

Watch Bike Noob for the second part of Don’s saga of the hills.

Salute to Paris-Brest-Paris

Last month, it was the Tour de France. This weekend, another French ride I will probably never do kicks off in a suburb of Paris. It’s the Paris-Brest-Paris, the granddaddy of all the randonneur rides. If your idea of fun is to ride 1200 kilometers (745 miles) in 90 hours or less, from a suburb of Paris to the westernmost city in France and back, with 6,000 of your closest friends from all over the world, this is your event.

En route in the 2007 Paris-Brest-Paris.

PBP is run only once every four years. The last time it was run, in 2007, I had just discovered road cycling, and had not heard of it. The number of entries goes up every year, although some of the larger countries must deal with quotas. This year, smaller countries that didn’t meet their quotas transferred their unused slots to those that exceeded their quotas. The ride’s organizers say no one was turned away. Riders have to qualify to ride PBP, by completing the randonneur series of a 200k, 300k, 400k, and 600k ride all in the same year.

Villaines La Juhel, the controle roughly halfway between Paris and Brest.

With 6,000 riders, the starts are staggered. Sunday evening, the first groups of 400 leave periodically, starting at about 4 p.m. Different riders use different tactics to complete the ride. Starting at 4 p.m. means you’ll have about four hours of daylight, then ride through the night. The ride will take approximately three nights and two days. Other riders wait until early Monday morning to start. They’ll probably be part of the 84-hour or 80-hour groups.

Grab some sleep wherever it's convenient.

How do organizers keep track of what group you start in? The same way as in any randonneuring event — brevet cards. Riders have to check in at controles along the way and have their cards stamped to prove they complete the route.

Brevet card. Note that in addition to the regular controles, riders must check in at several "secret" controles. This is to make sure no one tries to cut the ride short.

The accompanying pictures are from the 2007 event — which was rainy and chilly. More than a quarter of the riders did not finish. Usually, DNFs are about 15 percent of the field.

For me, three to four hours in the saddle is enough. I’m plenty happy to get off the bike and relax after that much time pedaling. But if you’re an endurance fiend, and want to do the endurance ride with the most cachet of them all — Paris-Brest-Paris is the one you’re aiming for. “Bonne route.”

Biking Videos

I watch a lot of videos pertaining to biking — not so much the pro cyclists, although I watch those too, even when it’s not Tour de France time. But I prefer to watch videos about everyday folks who like to do the same things you and I do: ride our bikes.

The first video was called to my attention to promote the Marfa 100, a ride out in the funky west Texas town of Marfa, which benefits the public radio station out there and the Livestrong Foundation.

The next video was created by our frequent guest poster Jeff Hemmel. Although Jeff lives in Florida, he spends part of every summer in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, enjoying the cooler weather and the hillier cycling terrain. Here’s a look at the countryside he frequently travels.

I’m open to showing others’ videos on this site — but they must be about biking, and I won’t take just any poorly-executed video that’s shot as an afterthought. So get out there with your camcorders, run the video through an editing program, and send me a link to it. Whether I continue this feature depends upon your reaction to it.



Riding Across A State

Now that RAGBRAI is over, I’m thinking about getting into a ride across state myself. What’s RAGBRAI, you ask? It’s the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa — the granddaddy of all the cross-state rides.

Cyclists dip their tires in the Mississippi River, the traditional way to end RAGBRAI.

In all, about 40 states have some kind of cross-state ride. They’re pretty neat, because they offer a chance for cyclists who do not tour on their bikes to sample a long-distance, multi-day trip. Typically, these rides offer sag support, medical attention, bike repair, meals, and rest stops. A day’s ride can be anywhere from 40 to 100 miles, but usually run about 60 miles.

Most of the time, riders will camp at a large group campground each night. Some rides make arrangements with area motels to take cyclists who are not the camping type.

One of these years, I’m going to do RAGBRAI. The 2011 version has already wrapped up. Their website is already anticipating next year’s ride. The catch is, RAGBRAI is so popular, it limits the number of cyclists who ride the whole trip to 8,500 — and fills that quota with a lottery. So you might not get in.

But there are other options if you don’t. Most of the other cross-state rides aren’t as famous as RAGBRAI, but worth considering nonetheless. Here’s a sample.

California Coast Classic: Sept. 17-24. An eight-day trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Dick Allen Lansing to Mackinaw (Michigan): Aug. 31-Sept. 4. Five days from Lansing to the tip of the Lower Peninsula, with an option to continue up to Sault Ste. Marie.

One Awesome Tour Bike Ride Across Nevada (OATBRAN): Sept. 25-Oct.1. Starts and ends in Lake Tahoe.

Bicycle Ride Across Tennessee (BRAT): Sept. 11-17. The 22nd annual. Overnight camping in state parks. Figure 8 loop west of Nashville.

Tour des Trees (Virginia): Oct. 2-8. Ride from Virginia Beach to Washington, DC and plant trees along the way.

These are all still scheduled, so if you want to ride one, act fast. Most of the cross-state tours seem to happen in spring, especially June. Some worth considering are the Oklahoma Freewheel: June 10-16, 2012; south to north across the state; Biking Across Kansas; Great Annual Bicycle Adventure Along the Wisconsin River (GRABAAWR); June 16-23, 2012; Bicycle Ride Across Nebraska (BRAN). You can also cross a state in one day in the Ride Across Indiana (RAIN), which goes from Terre Haute to Richmond — 160 miles.

The idea of crossing a state appeals to me — much more than riding across the entire country. I’ll be putting several of these on my bucket list. If you’d like to scope out even more options, the fine touring blog Biking Bis has a whole section devoted to them.

Have you ever done one of these cross-state tours? What do you think?



Riding Easy is Hard

Today I figured it was time for an easy ride. Lately, I’ve been pushing it hard, doing hills, doing intervals — or fartlek — but generally, including a lot of fast or strenuous riding. Obviously, that can’t continue, and I do bear my overall condition in mind.

So I rode over to the Veloway. Although there are stretches where I tend to really hammer it, I told myself that today I wouldn’t watch the computer, wouldn’t pay attention to cadence. I would just pedal around a few times and head home.

When I pulled in, it turns out there was some sort of organized ride going on. A group that benefits kids had set up a tent and a food and drink table. An ice cream truck tootled away in the parking lot. Lots of people of all ages, mostly in street shorts and cotton t-shirts, pedaled mountain bikes and cruisers around the three-mile track.

I thought the conditions were tailor made for me to do my easy ride. But some of the riders, adults who seemed to be associated with the group, were real bikers. How could I tell? Well, they wore lycra jerseys and padded biking shorts and rode road bikes. I’ve got a problem when I see folks like that on the Veloway — or anywhere, for that matter. I suddenly feel the urge to catch and pass them. I started my first lap, took a swallow from the water bottle, and set out after two guys about 100 yards ahead of me.

It took me all of five seconds to remind myself that today was an easy ride. I shifted down to the small chain ring and rode at a moderate pace. Heck, if you’re going to go easy, go easy. I was going easy, but I sensed that it still wasn’t easy enough.

Then, two guys passed me. I knew they were coming, because I’d seen them when we were opposite each other at a hairpin turn. I expected to be passed. But the second guy — he never should have passed me. He was a big guy with an awkward pedaling style. His knees pointed outwards and he seemed to be one gear lower than he should have been. I applied a little more pressure and drafted him.

Uh, this is an easy ride, remember? I backed off, and watched him pull ahead. Well, at least I could take satisfaction from passing the little girl on the mountain bike.

No I couldn’t. I passed her and felt like a schmuck. The only consolation I could take was that if I hadn’t passed her, I’d be going so slow I’d have trouble staying upright.

That was pretty much the story of the day. I did four laps, 12 miles total — 18 for the round trip from home. I remembered what was drilled into us at a clinic last fall when we had to stay in Zone 2. It was hard then, too. Twice, I passed “real” cyclists. Each time, I recognized the error my ways and slowed down to get repassed by them.

When I turned into my driveway at home, I figured my easy ride had been a bust. I knew I pushed harder than I should have. But the computer said I averaged 14.9 mph for the trip. I compared that to past rides I’d done on that same route. My average turned out to be 16.2. On a couple of occasions earlier this year, I averaged more than  17 mph. OK, I guess I did go easy — sort of. But man, that easy pedaling — that’s hard.

Training With “Fartlek”

I was in the middle of my regular Tuesday ride at the Veloway today when it occurred to me that I had written about this ride early in the life of the Bike Noob blog. Tuesday is my “fartlek” ride. And since most current Bike Noob readers probably haven’t seen that three-year old post, I’m going to resurrect an edited version of it.

Back when I was a runner — okay, I was never anything more than a jogger — interval training was considered the way to go to train for a race. I entered my share of t-shirt runs, and sometimes I even got serious about training for them. But intervals put me off. They seemed too regimented — too serious.

Then I read about an alternative method of training. It’s called fartlek — from the Swedish for “speed play.” A fartlek trainer runs at a certain pace, or tempo, for awhile, and then turns on the gas and runs hard for awhile. The bursts of speed are not over set distances, and recovery times are always different. That’s the kind of training I enjoyed doing.

I thought about that on today’s ride. I had fully intended to do intervals. I even had the fast sections mapped out in my head. I knew approximately how long my recovery times would last. But when I started my first interval, I just couldn’t get enthusiastic about it.

Then it occurred to me — do fartlek. I started pulling on the pedals through a twisty inclined stretch, a little less than a mile. At the high point, I backed off. I rode through a relatively flat area without pushing hard.  On another twisty incline I stomped on it again, and held the fast pace for almost another mile.  On an ess curve that features a right-angle left followed by an acute-angle right, I laid the bike as far over as it would go without falling (great fun).  Then I coasted back to the start.

I did five laps, and did fartlek for four of them.  Each time, my fast and slow sections were different.  I got the training benefit without the regimentation that takes the fun out of biking.  Tonight, I can feel it.  I fell asleep in front of the TV.  I’m going to bed earlier than usual.  This might partly be because I slept poorly last night, but it’s also because I had a tough workout.  I like the feeling.  I plan to do it some more.