Great Explorations

Guest poster Jeff Hemmel hits the hills over Thanksgiving.

This past Thanksgiving I found myself in Asheville, North Carolina, the same place I had dragged my bike to several years back with mixed results. What I envisioned then were glorious climbs in the mountains; the reality turned out to be several days of misread directions that never got me to my intended goal. Sure the rides were still fun, but they included making a wrong turn and actually riding several miles on an Interstate highway, almost making it to the Blue Ridge Parkway only to find the road I was on turn to dirt…and constantly finding my knee warmers falling to my ankles. Hey, I’m a Floridian. Until then, I had never even worn them, much less understood how they were supposed to fit.

This time was different. I researched my potential routes, I knew how to properly wear cool weather cycling gear, and although I didn’t bring my own bike, I had a decent rental. My goal? To climb something much bigger than the Intracoastal Waterway bridges that are a highlight of a ride at home.

To be honest, I’m a decent climber. I actually enjoy the challenge, and I’ve discovered I’m fairly good at it. But the climb that I chose in Asheville was both steeper and longer than I had done before. The first, Elk Mountain Scenic Highway, would take me up a lengthy Category 2 (in cycling the lower the number the harder the climb), narrow road with multiple switchbacks. The next, Blue Ridge Parkway, would only throw a steady Category 4 increase at me over the miles, but continue almost as long as I wanted to keep riding. Both also had the unnerving aspect of few or no guardrails, absolutely no shoulder or bike lane, and frighteningly steep drops off the side of the road in many areas. Not to mention the irony of their names (highway, parkway) not matching their tiny, two-lane reality.

View from peak of Elk Mountain Scenic Highway. There was a “TT FINISH” spray-painted on the roadway here…maybe I’ll come back and try it! (Hard to tell from this persective, but this is actually a pretty decent drop, and that valley is WAY down below.) 

Still, I absolutely loved them. I climbed the same route both days I had my bike, winding my way up thousands of feet of elevation. On the second day, I even tacked on some additional mileage on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was cold, the skies were a mixture of grey clouds and occasional sunshine, and the leaves that just weeks earlier had probably been magnificent in color were now mostly dull, brown, or gone. But still, it was some of the best fun I’ve had on a bike in a long time. The views were fantastic, and the roads surprisingly quiet. A really cool break from my everyday routine.

Funny thing about climbs, they also include descents. Heading back into the city on the aptly named Town Mountain Road, I discovered the sheer thrill of a steep, switchback-filled descent, even if my rental did have sketchy brakes. It was awesome — and frightening — all at the same time. I’ve done steep descents before, but they were relatively straight. These curved back and forth like a roller coaster ride.

At one of the scenic overlooks along Blue Ridge Parkway…

I’ve often said running is an easier sport when you travel, simply because all you need is a pair of sneakers. But a bike truly lets you get out and explore, covering distances under your own power you’d never experience if not for the wheels below.

What about you, have you ever discovered a great ride far away from home? Ever rented a bike in a strange town and discovered something terrific? Let’s hear your stories.

Old Man Shades

My prescription shades. At the MS150, 2009.

Ever since I began biking, I’ve worn my prescription sunglasses. For the most part, they’ve been fine. But they’re my distance prescription only, and I need a bifocal for reading. So whenever I looked down at my bike computer, the numbers were blurry. And lately, the distance prescription has been getting a little fuzzy. I even asked readers of this blog for advice about replacing them.

Last summer, Pat and I were on a group ride together. At a rest stop, I noticed the ride leader Kathleen’s sunglasses. They were the big plastic kind that you slip on over your prescription glasses. Maybe not the most attractive eyewear, but effective. I asked her about them.

“I broke my prescription sunglasses,” Kathleen said. “With these, I can wear my regular glasses, and put these right over ‘em. And if I ever break ‘em, for just 20 bucks at Wal-Mart, I can get a new pair.”

I actually had some experience with those kind of sunglasses. But I always associated them with old people. My late father had several pair. His were the solid dark green kind that made him look like the subject of a satirical cartoon about Florida retirees. He was constantly offering to give me a pair. I vowed to avoid them in the interest of personal dignity.

But two summers ago, while we were on a driving vacation, my prescription sunglasses really started to bother me. When I left our hotel one evening to drop my wife off for some shopping, I realized I had left my sunglasses in the room. Rather than go back to the hotel to retrieve them, I went to a nearby Wal-Mart and checked out my options. The old man shades were there, but they were better than the ones my dad had worn. These made an attempt at style, with black rims and shaped lenses. I bought a pair.

Pat thought it was pretty funny that I would wear them, and for a long time, I only wore them while driving, where they wouldn’t be obvious. If anyone noticed that I was wearing old man shades, who cared? They were past me and out of my life in a second or two anyway.

After the episode with Kathleen, I thought about wearing those shades myself while on the bike. My first couple of experiences with them weren’t good. They sat on top of my regular glasses, and pressed them down into my nose. The bridge of my nose was sore after riding for an hour or two.

But I’ve since gotten new prescription eyeglasses, and although they are almost the same as the ones they replaced, the old man shades sit more easily on them. No nose pinch anymore. Two weeks ago, I decided this would be the way I would go.

Sleek and stylish. Yeah, right.

So I guess I’m officially an old man now. But I don’t care. They work. And, I can even read the small lettered information on my cyclocomputer. I wore them on the club ride last weekend, and no one said anything — at least to my face — although I recognize they could have been chuckling to themselves on the inside. I’m going to keep wearing them.

I do, however, make one concession to style. At the university where I work, they stay in the car and I wear my old prescription shades around campus. Can’t have my students thinking I’m more of a codger than they already do.

How Many Bikes?

I thought I’d piggyback on the theme of the last post about getting a new bike by asking the question, How Many Bikes? That is, how many bikes do you think you need, and how do you use them?

Now, I’m well acquainted with the old joke about the number of bikes you need equalling n + 1, where n is the number of bikes you already have. But seriously, how many do you need?

I’ll start. I have three bikes, my Allez, which I use for 95 percent of my riding. It’s a road bike, and goes on road rides. I do not use it for grocery runs or other utility types of riding. Then there’s the mountain bike, an old Trek hardtail. Since I am not a mountain biker, I tend to use this for errands and shopping, if I use it at all. Mostly, it just hangs in the garage. My third bike is the old steel Raleigh 10-speed, which I had long thought about upgrading, just to do it.

Lately though, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Trek isn’t being used much for errands and shopping. I’d just as soon be rid of it. And the Raleigh — I doubt I’ll even get around to fixing it up. Vintage bike collectors tell me it’s not worth much anyway, and one has tried to dissuade me from putting money into it.

So that leaves me with one bike — the Allez. And that’s fine with me. It does what I need it to do, and does it acceptably well. As I alluded to in my last post, I’d be happy with something better, but there’s really nothing to dislike about the Allez. As the song says, I think I’ll keep her.

How about you? Do you find a need for more than one bike? How do you use yours? Or do you find that your bike collection is missing one, because there’s a certain biking role that’s not being filled by any of the ones you currently have? Given the kinds of riding you do, what would be the optimum number of bikes to own?

“I Need a New Bike”

A little scene happened on our Sunday club ride that I think lots of riders can relate to. (Names have been changed to protect the writer of this blog).

I sat down at one of the tables outside the Starbucks where we begin our rides. Two women came over to me.

“Hi,” said one. “I’m Lanie, and I’m going on the B ride today. This is my friend, Melanie.”

Melanie wore a jersey from a well-known bicycle training studio.

Lanie turned out to be the wife of one of our club’s A riders, Milt. But she hadn’t ridden much on her own. Melanie was there to lend moral support. The ride would be on a rural road with rolling hills. I welcomed them both, and promised that the ride would not be too fast for them.

As usual, the pack held together for the first few miles, and Lanie and Melanie did a nice job of hanging with it. Both were well ahead of me. But I caught up to them at a stoplight that everyone else had managed to miss. From there on out, we made a compact group, along with Brad, another B rider.

We reached the rollers. Lanie dropped off the pace. She had trouble climbing the hills. At one point, a sheriff’s patrol car caught up to us, passed me, and sat behind Lanie as she struggled up another hill. We were barely traveling at walking speed. I shifted down to my easiest gear to maintain my position behind the squad car. The deputy was very patient behind Lanie, and finally turned off on the first side road that we reached.

“I thought he was going to ticket you for riding too slow,” I joked.

“I know,” she exclaimed. “These hills are killing me.”

The rest of our ride — about a 30-mile round trip — went smoothly. Melanie showed she could leave us behind whenever she wanted, but mostly stayed back with Lanie. With only three miles to go, we had to negotiate two tough hills in a semi-suburban neighborhood. When I told Lanie we had just climbed the last hill, she didn’t believe me.

Back at Starbuck’s, Lanie talked about her riding.

“That was a hills route,” she said. “Milt told me it was mostly flat, with some easy rollers. If I’m going to keep riding routes like that, I need a new bike.”

“What kind do you have?” I asked. I hadn’t paid close attention to what she was riding. She did a double take.

“I don’t know,” she answered.

“What kind of drivetrain do you have?” I continued.

She stared at me. Melanie jumped up and went over to the bike. Lanie followed. In a minute, they were back.

“It’s a Specialized Dolce with a triple chainring, Shimano 105,” Melanie said.

“It’s got a carbon fork, and a carbon seatpost,” Lanie added.

“Well, that’s a decent bike,” I responded. “Your drivetrain is one level up from mine.”

“I’ve got about 250 miles on it,” said Lanie. “Milt says when I reach 1,000 miles, we can talk about a new bike.”

“You don’t need a new bike,” Melanie chimed in. “Just ride more. And ride more hills.”

“Ugh. I’m too old for that,” said Lanie. “This getting old is for the birds.” (She later admitted to mid-50s.)

The A riders started to arrive. When Milt pulled in and sat down, we told him about Lanie’s new bike strategy.

“That’s fine,” he said. “When you get 5,000 miles on it, we’ll talk about a new one.”

We all laughed, and Lanie grimaced. Melanie mentioned riding hills more again. I sipped my egg nog latte and mused about the common desire cyclists get after they’ve ridden awhile. A new bike will solve everything.

I don’t need a new bike. I’d like one, of course, but I don’t need one. We have better things to spend our money on now anyway. But I remembered that I’ve been in Lanie’s shoes before. Almost as soon as I started riding, I decided that with the “right” equipment, I could become pretty good. I pored through catalogs and bike company websites, drooling over carbon fiber wonder bikes that weighed a feather and sped like rockets. But I learned that it’s not the bike, it’s the engine.

I’m sure Lanie will get a new bike one of these days. She’ll take it out and ride the rollers with us again. And she’ll find that regardless of the level of equipment she has, the rollers are still hard.

A Secret (Drink Mix) Worth Sharing?

Have trouble staying hydrated on rides? Guest poster Jeff Hemmel may have a solution.

Like I suspect most of you, I rely a lot on sports drinks. I may start my ride with a bottle of water but ultimately, especially in my Florida climate, I’m reaching for something more potent. And I don’t like any of them. The tablet-style mixes may be convenient but their fizzy “texture” makes me gag. I find other mixes weak and watery, with a strange artificial flavor. I’ve settled on cheap, Gatorade powder, although I find its syrupy sweetness gets old fast on anything but a short ride. It’s also packed with sugar and calories.

That’s why my curiosity was piqued last summer when the rumors started swirling about pros using a new, not-for-sale drink mix. Like many of us, pro riders were getting sick — literally — of their sports drinks, resulting in upset stomachs and dehydration. The riders in question happened to be working with Dr. Allen Lim, the renowned sports physiologist who worked with Garmin and later Radio Shack. Lim tried just about every drink on the market; none proved a winner. Cut a syrupy drink with water? It doesn’t work. The sugar might be right, but the electrolyte content gets too diminished. Lim called in a friend, Stanford professor Dr. Stacy Sims, and the two began to develop their own home-brew that had less calories, more salt, and featured absolutely no artificial colors or flavors.

All this wasn’t for resale — this was to hydrate pro riders, many of whom had drink-related sponsors. That’s how the drink ultimately got its tongue-in-cheek name: Secret Drink Mix. Only after more and more people heard of the mix and wanted to buy it did the pair ultimately offer it up for sale through a website so low-key you almost had to be a cycling insider to find it.

Apparently there are no anti-caking agents or preservatives, so they sell these tins to keep the stuff dry and from turning into concrete.

Interesting story, but what matters to the recreational rider is how it tastes…and works. The first thing I noticed about SDM was that it actually has a clean, almost refreshing taste. It’s not watered down, but light, with no syrupy sweetness that will haunt you after the first bottle. It tastes like fruit because, well, that’s what it is. Flavoring is provided by freeze-dried fruit powder. While the weather was still hot, I noticed a drank a lot more of SDM simply because I wanted refreshment, not because I knew I had to force myself to hydrate.

I also noticed I felt a little fresher after my longest rides. At first I chalked it up to my imagination, but then I noted those empty bottles. I think I was simply staying more hydrated. As Lim recommends, I was using my drink for hydration. Serious calories came from Clif Bars or the like. (There’s some interesting science to back up that assertion if you want to do a little searching on the Internet.)

The ultimate test is what happened after I used up my free sample. As it’s not cranked out by a sports drink behemoth, SDM is expensive, about $1 per bottle. I went back to Gatorade, but now knew what I was missing. So yup, I actually bought a pound of mix. As a family man with other things to pay for, I plan to ration it for bigger rides or the occasional race. It’s that good. The only other minor downside is the mix’s ratio. It’s 500ml per 16 ounces of water. Most water bottles hold 21-24.

SDM also comes in these single-serve packs. They’re pretty generous…threw in a handful of other flavors with my order.

For those of you not satisfied by your drinks, I’d suggest you give it a shot. There are codes on the Internet (SDMFACEBOOK) good for about 15% off. Reviews have been quite positive.


Aerobars on Group Rides = Bad Idea

It seems that whenever I show up for an organized ride, the pre-ride announcements always include a caution not to use aerobars in a group. And then, a few miles into the ride, I usually get passed by riders down on their aerobars. That’s not a great idea, as this video illustrates:

In the slow-motion replay, it’s pretty clear that the rider who crashed was on his aerobars. They gave him a little edge in speed, and he was about to pass the second rider in line when the second rider moved slightly left, to pass the lead rider. Aerobar man couldn’t control his bike and grabbed the drops, but his momentum caused his front wheel to overlap the second rider’s rear wheel, and they touched. The rider behind always comes out worse in these situations than the rider in front.

In this case, Mr. Aerobars almost saved himself. It looks like he got things back under control until he veered off onto the gravel shoulder and did an endo. But that’s not the whole story.

In the slow-mo, we see that the two bikes touched wheels not once, not twice, but three times before the rider slowed enough to separate himself from the other bike. And the force of those touches — especially the third — was enough to do serious damage to the front wheel. Half the spokes on one side of the wheel had broken. In a blowup of the video, we can see how the third touch knocked the wheel askew. The rim is clearly out of line with the hub.

So, two no-nos are apparent after watching this incident:

1. Don’t use aerobars on group rides (or in a paceline).

2. Don’t overlap the rear wheel of the bike in front.

A couple of my biking friends also noted that riders should consider sturdier wheels, too. One suggested 36 spokes on the rear and a minimum of 32 on the front. I don’t know how many fast roadies would go for that, but after seeing the video, I’ll continue to be happy with my relatively heavy rims.

It looks like the rider was not seriously hurt, I’m glad to see.

It’s Zone 2 Time

Okay, here we are in November. In most of the country, it’s pretty chilly now. Lots of bikers are moving to their basements, setting up their trainers, and starting the winter ritual of putting in stationary miles.

For those of us in milder climes, the cooler weather is welcome after a blistering summer. But even though we get to ride outdoors year round, it’s time to start thinking differently about riding.

It’s time for Zone 2.

For those not familiar with training zones, they’re based on heart rate. Zone 1 is the easiest, at about 55 to 70 percent of lactate threshold heart rate. Your lactate threshold is the point at which you realize you’re working hard, with heavy breathing and a burning sensation in the quads, according to cycling coach Joe Friel. Zone 2 is roughly 70-85 percent of max. These percentages vary depending upon where you get your coaching advice, but above 85 percent you’re in Zone 3, and Zone 4 can run from 94-99 percent of max. Zone 5 puts you in world of hurt territory, where you’re riding at 100 percent or more of your lactate threshold heart rate.

Now, why would we want to train in Zone 2, a relatively easy pace? Because we’re at that time of year where speed doesn’t matter. Most of us aren’t training for a race, or an organized ride, or even an extra long ride. What we’re really doing is building our base for the next season’s riding. In addition, the slower pace will have your body burning fat rather than glycogen.

Heck, that’s the kind of riding I tend to do most often anyway. In Zone 2, I have to remember to shift into really easy gears when climbing hills, because I don’t want to reach the top huffing and puffing. In fact, when I’ve done Zone 2 training in the past, I’ve always pedaled in easier gears, because I can spin at a higher cadence that way.

In another sense, Zone 2 time is a relief, because I know I don’t have to push it. I just have to get out there and put down some miles. The more I can do that, the better prepared I’ll be come spring, when it will be time to start pointing at some riding goals.

The Mileage Obsession

Barbara on a ride earlier this year.

On an almost summer-like Hill Country ride this morning, I caught up to my friend Barbara with several miles to go.

“I want to do 100 miles this weekend,” she said. “I’m at 91 right now. It’ll be close.”

I knew she had done a 60-mile organized ride the previous day. I thought our ride today would finish at something less than 40 miles.

With about a mile to go, I was in front of the group. I turned into the circle drive in a park where we start our rides, and stopped at my parked car. Our ride leader, Debra, was right behind me.

As I loaded the bike into the back, it occurred to me that something was odd.

“Where’s Barbara?” I asked Debra. Then I saw her.

She had ridden past the circle drive entrance and headed out to the highway. Then she turned around and headed back. Once again, I watched her ride past the circle drive.

“She’s trying to get her 100 miles,” said Debra.

Barbara came back to our circle drive, but rode past our cars and did another lap. Then, with thumbs up and a smile on her face, she pulled up to her car and dismounted.

“Got it,” she said.

She showed me her computer. It read 40.6 miles for the day’s ride. My computer showed 39.6. She squeezed one more mile out of the ride to reach her goal.

“I wanted to ride 5,200 miles this year,” she said, “but I’m out of town several weeks, so that’s not realistic. I’ve got 2,500. I want to see if I can get to 4,000 by March 1st. I think I can do it.”

I looked at Debra. “She’s mileage obsessed,” I said.

We all went out to lunch together after the ride. Barbara and Jerry, another member of the day’s group, compared ride data from their smart phones. She uses an app called My Tracks. Both were upset that they had forgotten to turn off the app at the end of the ride, and it was still registering data during their drive to the restaurant.

“Top speed, 51 mph,” Barbara said with a grimace. “That’s no help.”

I asked if they log their mileage apart from their phone apps.

“Well, it’s on the cyclocomputer,” she said. “That’s how I know what I rode this weekend, and how I’m doing at reaching my yearly goal.”

“I enter my ride data on Bike Journal,” I said.

“Oh, that’s a good idea,” she replied. “Then, if my cyclocomputer goes haywire, I still have the data.”

“And then I enter it into a separate Excel spreadsheet,” I added, “because Bike Journal doesn’t record everything I want.”

Everyone around the table looked at me.

Who’s mileage obsessed?” Barbara asked.


The Joy of Drafting

I was doing an afterwork ride this week at the Veloway,  when a couple passed me by. He seemed to be a little older than she, and seemed to be the more experienced biker. He was leading, and she was glued to his rear wheel. Obviously they were practicing something. Perhaps he was pacing her. They went by me easily, and I thought they’d be out of sight soon. But they weren’t going as fast as I thought. I soon found myself caught back up to them. I decided to latch on.

It looked like she was practicing drafting. She did a good job of keeping her front wheel about a foot behind his rear wheel. I tried to get as close to her as she was to him, but I’ve always been leery of following too close. Gradually, I closed the gap.

On a closed course like Austin’s Veloway, it’s easy to keep a paceline together. You’re not worried about traffic, and the kinds of road debris you encounter on shoulders just doesn’t exist there. I noticed both of them were down in the drops, pedaling in their big rings. I usually tour the Veloway in my small ring at a high cadence. I shifted up to match their style, and got down in my drops, too.

We glided around the course. The benefits of riding closely like we were showed themselves. On a flat straight stretch, we were hitting 24 mph into the wind. (Admittedly not a very strong wind this evening.) The woman glanced over her shoulder and saw that I was there, but made no gesture.

If I do ride in the drops, I do it for a relatively short period of time. This evening we stayed in the drops for the entire lap. They swooped through the last few bends before the end of the lap, then started a new one. I hung in there.

After three laps like this, I had reached the end of my ride. I still had almost three miles to pedal to reach home, and it would soon be time to eat. The couple continued for yet another lap. I peeled off and went through the gate, through the parking lot, and out onto the street.

The speed we had reached was, of course, higher and more sustained than I could have done on my own. Several times, I found myself soft pedaling because they were pulling me along. Staying in the drops allowed me to apply more power to the pedals without much increase in effort. The experience left me exhilarated, and I felt like I could do a lot more.

It was also much different from group riding on the road. I’m not crazy about long pacelines in traffic. For one thing, you can’t see any obstacles ahead. Even if people signal, when you’re tailing them so close, it’s often hard to miss debris. More importantly, I never feel sure I know what the person in front of me is going to do. I find myself concentrating really hard to anticipate what will happen next, and to keep my wheel from touching his, that it drains my energy really fast.

Behind two folks on a close course, it was different. I felt part of a team (although I didn’t take a pull — either did the woman) and was very comfortable riding as close as I did. I resolved to try to duplicate the way we rode on future visits to the Veloway.

I also resolved to ask permission in the future before jumping into a paceline.

The Roundtail Bike

Nowadays, I find that comfort on my bike is the most important thing I can aspire to. Perhaps that’s because I’ve spent so much uncomfortable time in the saddle. (Oh, and speaking of saddles, that Forte I put on the bike a few weeks ago is working out nicely. Who’d a thunk?)

So when I came across this oddball design this week, I had to stop for a closer look. It’s called the Roundtail, and instead of having a diamond-shaped frame, it uses two circular rings in the rear. They’re supposed to dissipate road vibrations before they make it up to the rider’s derriere.

Inventor Lou Tortola and the Roundtail bike.

The Roundtail is the brainchild of Lou Tortola of Windsor, Ontario, Canada. He claims it absorbs 60 times more road vibrations than a standard double diamond frame. I don’t know anything about bike geometry, but if one can get past the bizarre look, I can see that there can be some relief in the design. Despite the rings, the frames are sized traditionally.

Here’s a YouTube video showing the Roundtail out on a ride.

The frame reportedly retails for $2,000. That’s just the frame, mind you. I’m not endorsing the Roundtail — I don’t know enough about it yet. But it will be interesting to see if the design takes off.