Highlights of 2011

Well, here we are again — at the end of another year. I suppose it’s as good a time as any to take stock of my biking, where it is, and where I want it to go from here.

It looks like I’ll finish the year with about 3,750 miles. I thought I would fall well short of the 4,000 I rode last year, but it turns out that if you ride a lot, even if the rides aren’t all that long, the miles do pile up. And since I hadn’t set a mileage goal at the beginning of the year, I have to be satisfied with what I’ve done.

Today was a good example. Nice day, 67 degrees (19C), sunny, moderate wind from the south. My wife wanted to go for a ride, and suggested a Mopac loop. That’s a tad over 13 miles round trip from our house — a good ride for her, but not enough for me. (Funny story about today’s ride: Before we left the house, she noted it was 66 outside, and was anxious to get going. I was a little surprised when she wore her new long sleeved jersey with the windstopper panels and the brushed insides. Then, about five miles into the ride, she asked to stop so she could shed her neck gaiter and her full-fingered gloves. I suggested that when temps are in the 60s, she can get by with a short-sleeved jersey and arm warmers, and maybe shed the arm warmers halfway through the ride.)

However, as we were wrapping up, we got into an involved conversation about her work, and the next thing you know, I’m pulling into our garage and putting the bike away. I hadn’t even realized that I was supposed to take off and do another 10 miles or so. Okay, today will be my easy day, and I’ll ride a little stronger Friday and maybe Saturday.

I’ve already blogged about my relatively short rides this year compared to 2010. And looking back, it seems I had planned to ride longer this year. One resolution by the wayside.

In addition to not riding long, I realized that except for a metric century way back in March, I never really pushed myself on the bike this year. I never felt really done in after a ride. The rationale for that is that I’m a recreational rider, and I’m not out to kill myself by training hard. But no training means no improvement. I do enjoy riding for riding’s sake, and not pushing really hard, but it’s obvious I have to do more.

So, what are my resolutions for the New Year? I don’t do formal resolutions as a rule, but I think we all have to have some idea of accomplishments we’d like to pursue during the year. So here’s what I’m thinking:

  • Some century rides. At least two. I did none this year. Targeting a goal like that will force me to train more.
  • Randonneuring? The shortest brevet is 200 kilometers (about 125 miles). I’d like to try one once, to see if it’s something I’d like to do regularly.
  • New routes. My riding is predictable. I need to get out and ride in areas I haven’t been to before. I can do that and still stay reasonably close to home.
  • More organized rides. There’s a 180 for you. I decided I’d do fewer this year, and I did. But I found that I missed them. I always enjoy myself on these things, and they often provide the exposure to routes I haven’t ridden before. My wife and I will be doing one on New Year’s Day.
My weight is exactly where it was last year at this time, and two years ago at this time, and…you get the idea. So is weight loss a goal for the coming year? Nah. If I say it is, then don’t do it, it will be another unachieved goal. If, by some stroke of good fortune, I do lose some weight — well, then I’m ahead of the game.
So, that’s where I’m headed in 2012 — more time in the saddle. I hope you’re able to ride a lot, too. Have a happy and prosperous new year.

The New Old Crank Set

As we neared the end of the year, some issues with my bike started cropping up. Because I am me, I immediately diagnosed them as problems with the front derailleur. Because I am me, my diagnosis was 100 percent wrong.

The problem was a noise — a sort of a creak — that started whenever I pedaled in the small chain ring. When I shifted to the big ring, it was quiet. On a club ride two weekends ago, I spent as much time as possible in the big ring, just to keep from hearing the noise. But some hills were involved in that ride, and riders near me were treated to a “creak — creak — creak” noise whenever I applied power or started climbing.

I dropped it off with our club’s bike mechanic, who was surprised to be seeing me again so soon. He’d just done some work on my rear derailleur. The next day, he sent me his verdict: bad crank arm and bottom bracket. My mind  brought up memories of  an incident that happened on a New Year’s Day ride. My left crank arm fell off. Having to tighten it before each ride after that got old fast, so I got some blue Loc-Tite and smeared it into place. Once it cured, no more crank arm problems.

Don's crank set.

I was pleased about that, because I liked this setup. Guest blogger Don Blount had sent me the crank set after I’d posted about needing 172.5 mm cranks instead of the 175s that came with the bike. The shorter crank arms let me deliver more power to the pedals. But it turns out my fix was only temporary, and in the long run it did damage. The bike mech summed it up:

“The noise issue appears to have been started by a degrading crank.  The non-drive crank arm appears to have worked loose over time.  This damaged both the crank arm by wallowing out the splines and, because it allowed for play on the crank, ended up damaging the non-drive bearing on the bottom bracket.”

The only way to fix the problem, he said, was to replace both the crank and bottom bracket. Yech. But I had a solution, sitting right in the garage — the original crank set and bottom bracket that came with the bike.

The original.

He put them on, and I was rolling again the next day.

Because Christmas intervened, and we were out of town for five days, I haven’t ridden it much yet. I have gone out on some short rides with my wife, and really pushed hard today when we did Veloway laps. I will have to lower the seat a bit — maybe not the full 2.5 mm the new cranks have added to my pedal stroke, but enough to keep that twinge away from my knee — and futz with the saddle, because lowering it means I have to put it back a bit, too. Heck, I haven’t had the bike fitted for almost two years. Maybe it’s time to do it right and make an appointment to get it done right.

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Click to embiggen.

Christmas was a modest affair around our house. Pat set a low gift expense limit, so neither of us went overboard, but we both got what we wanted. I got some new wool socks, because I like the ones I have so much. But these are truly high-tech socks. They’re even sized for each foot. And they tell you which one, right on the toe. Makes me feel like being in kindergarten again, when we had red ribbons tied to our right shoe so we would be able to learn left from right.

The “Woo-woo” Ride

“Woo-woo!” exclaimed my wife, about a half mile into our morning ride. “I feel better already.”

We were both on our bikes for the first time in several days. In her case, a couple of broken spokes had knocked her rear wheel out of true. I had to replace my crankset. Our bike mechanic had finished the work the day before.

We were concerned about getting out this morning. When we went to bed the previous night, we were in the middle of a heavy rainstorm. But now it was sunny, a little cool still, perhaps, at about 44 degrees, and the streets hadn’t started to dry yet.

Pat rides mostly for exercise. She doesn’t “train” for anything– she just rides. I could tell she was enjoying the morning.

“This is a good stress reliever for you after yesterday,” I observed.

“After yesterday, and after Tuesday, and after Monday…” she retorted.

We rounded a corner and started an easy climb.

“Woo-woo!” she called again.

Yesterday, she told me she had seen Santa Claus at the Performance Bike store.

“That’s funny,” I replied. “Why, only Monday, I saw him at REI.” I think it will be a bike-themed Christmas this year.

I hope your holidays are filled with biking things, too. I won’t be posting until Christmas is over — probably Tuesday. Then, I can tell the story behind my bike’s latest trip to the shop.

Have a very Merry Christmas.

Doc’s All-Natural Chamois Cream–A Review

What do you use down there? Guest poster Jeff Hemmel has some stuff you might not have heard of.

I used to ride sans anything slippery in my shorts, then followed my local bike shop owner’s suggestion to try chamois cream as I began to put in more and more miles. Now, spending a LOT of time in the saddle every month, I’m a believer in that weird glop known as chamois cream.

I’ve tried quite a few, even did a little “chamois cream shootout” for this blog a year or two back. But my new favorite is a lesser-known brand dubbed Doc’s All-Natural Chamois Cream (www.docscycling.com).

All you Texans will probably appreciate the fact that Doc’s is actually made in the Lone Star State, but what I liked about it is that Doc’s is made by, you guessed it, an actual doctor. A practicing physician who is also a Cat 2 racer, this Doc wasn’t thrilled by the price and questionable effectiveness of chamois creams he found on the market, so he decided to whip up his own. Doc’s All Natural Chamois Cream lists no artificial or petroleum-based ingredients like so many chamois creams, but instead relies on stuff like Witch Hazel and a strong concentration of Tea Tree Oil to fight grunge, and Aloe and Coconut Oil to prevent chafe and keep your skin happy.

I found Doc’s while looking for a product similar to Dave Zabriskie’s DZnuts, which I like but find too expensive for regular use. Doc’s follows a similar all-natural route, but gives you an 8-ounce jar for about $20, less than half the price of DZnuts and on par with bike shop standbys like Chamois Butt’r. At first glance Doc’s product seemed just a tiny bit thinner in consistency than some lubes, but after months of use I’ve had no problems with saddle sores, even at the height of the summer, so guess I’m a believer.

Yes, I realize there are cheaper alternatives, from Bag Balm to Aquaphor. But I like the natural ingredient idea, particularly on something I use often, and appreciate that Doc’s appears to wash cleanly out of my shorts. A jar has also lasted me quite a while, so my “cost-per-ride” has been pretty cheap.

Currently the product seems to be available at a few Texas bike shops. The rest of us can find it on Amazon.

Challenging Yourself

The emails started flying back and forth Saturday night: “Anyone up for a B ride Sunday?” “Something like 35 miles?”

Several of us were up for it. The forecast called for cool, but not cold, weather, with little wind. By the time I turned in Saturday night, it looked like we had four committed riders. Since the As were doing an off-the-wall hills excursion, we were ready for a trip out to Creedmoor southeast of Austin.

I was the first of the B riders to show up at Starbucks, and was pleased to see that Jordan would be joining us. He just moved back to Austin after several years in Washington, DC. Jordan started the B rides in this club years ago, and gave them the moniker, “Killer Bs.” He was fresh off the Saturday club ride, which tends to be a fast one, and was looking forward to going at a B pace.

Then we got a surprise. Hugo showed up and said he would do the B ride. Hugo is a fast, fast A rider, but is recovering from knee surgery from two weeks ago. He wanted an easy paced ride to work his way back into A ride shape. His wife, Janis, joined us, letting everyone know that she’s slow on hills and we shouldn’t be expecting too much from her.

By the time we were all assembled, we had eight people in the B ride group. That’s high for us. I was excited to roll out of the parking lot onto the roads. Conditions were excellent: overcast, 50 degrees (10C), and not expected to change in the next few hours.

The first six miles are pretty easy. They’re mostly on flat or slightly downhill suburban streets. One exception is Davis Hill, a challenging — but not difficult — climb three miles from the start. Unusual for me, I led the ride all the way to a stoplight six miles into the ride. Jordan pulled up next to me.

“Man, the pace you’re setting is faster than the A ride yesterday,” he said.

“It’s been mostly downhill,” I replied. “I thought the pace was pretty moderate.”

“They spend more time warming up,” he noted.

It didn’t take long before I wasn’t in the lead anymore. Janis roared ahead on a long, gentle incline — and got so far ahead she missed a turn. No problem, since our routes converged a little farther on.

Now we were out in the country, hugging the side of a two-lane road to make way for the heavier-than-usual traffic. At an intersection, barricades partly blocked our way. They declared the road ahead to be closed, except to local traffic. We decided to press on. But Buddy, who had zoomed well ahead of us early in the ride, came back to us to say we would have to carry our bikes across a muddy stretch. We quickly backtracked to the intersection, and turned onto an alternate route.

That route — Bradshaw Road — has a lot more hills than the one we’d planned. Bigger hills, too. Next thing I knew, I was bringing up the rear, watching the others gain ground as they climbed. Janis, the poor climber, led the way.

For the last leg into Creedmoor, we were on the same farm-to-market road I took when I got separated from the group in October. Non-stop rolling hills, but I gained ground on the others. I was happy to see the convenience store where we stopped to regroup.

The store in Creedmoor.

Jordan made sure everyone got some Fig Newtons.

When bikers stop, they talk about bikes. Jerry D. shows Janis and Hugo some of the features of his beautiful steel DeRosa.

Heading back on a different set of roads, I tried to stay at or near the front so riders wouldn’t miss turns. We sailed over country roads, down a newly-repaved hill (smooth as glass, an easy 34 mph) and through a subdivision. Out in the country again, several others jumped ahead and soon put a gap between us and them. I pulled even with Buddy.

“For a B ride,” I said, “they’re really burning up the road.”

Then I took note of the riders at the front. Hugo and Janis, but also New York John, and Jerry D. Heck, all four of them are A riders. No wonder we were moving quickly. I was going between 19-21 on a road I normally cover at 15-17. It was exhilarating to me to catch them at the Interstate highway and take the lead again, once more to guide them through some unfamiliar twists and turns.

The high average speed was taking its toll. Buddy, who led early, was starting to cramp and fell back. Big Steve muscled his way up the remaining big hill, me on his wheel, mashing hard. Jordan seemed to be recovering well from yesterday’s ride, and managed to keep pace with the four As the rest of the way back.

Once we were all at Starbucks, warming up with hot chocolate, talk turned to the ride.

“What a great route!” exclaimed Hugo. “It was just the ride I needed.”

He had ridden the whole way in the small chainring, to keep pressure off his recovering knee.

I felt good. I rode that route at a faster pace than I usually do, and while I fell back a few times, I was with them at the end. It once again was a reminder that riding with faster riders will make you faster. I don’t think I’m ready to rejoin any A rides, but I might be challenging myself more often from here on out.

Glasses in the Rain

I was really looking forward to the end-of-semester break. My riding has fallen off in recent weeks, and the coming down time would give me the opportunity to rack up some miles on the bike.

My wife and I rode a whopping nine miles yesterday, amid spatters of rain.

Today, I am confined to the house, as waves of showers move north across Central Texas. After our rainless spring and summer, we need the moisture. But it sure interferes with my ride plans.

I’ve indicated before that if I’m out on a ride and get caught in a shower, it’s no big deal — I’ll soldier on home and not make much of it. But if it’s raining and I’m still in the house, I won’t be heading out to do a ride.

And my reason for not wanting to ride in the rain might not be what you expect. It’s not because I’m concerned about falling on wet pavement. I’ve done that before, so I’m extra cautious when I ride out there. It’s because of my glasses.

It doesn’t matter if they’re clear eyeglasses or dark sunglasses, they’re going to get spotted with raindrops. And that makes visibility an issue. I don’t like to be in a situation where I run the risk of hitting something that I couldn’t clearly see, because my glasses are covered with water.

These glasses have enough spotting after a couple of minutes in the rain to limit one's ability to see.

Maybe that’s a stupid reason not to ride. I know plenty of cyclists do go out and brave the rain. So here’s a question for them: How do you keep your glasses clear of water?

I use a method that kind of works: I use my index finger like a windshield wiper, and rub it across the lens a time or two. Sure, it’ll smear the lens a bit, but it also clears off the droplets, and I can see again. The glasses will need attention once the ride is over, but that’s no dig deal — they’d probably get cleaned anyway.

One old trick I’ve heard of is to smear some spit over your lenses. It sounds disgusting, but there apparently is some merit to it. However, I’ve also heard that the spit trick is really to be used when the lenses fog over. Up to now, I’ve only used my finger in those cases, too.

So how about it, veteran riders? What do you do to keep your glasses clear on a rainy day ride?

Time to Ride

I graded my last final projects, turned in the grades to the Registrar,and am now officially done with school this semester. With time on my hands, what do you suppose I’m going to do? I’m going to ride.

That is, I’m planning to ride. I picked up my bike from my neighborhood mechanic today after leaving it in his hands overnight. He says the shifting problems I’ve been having are the result of some corrosion on the derailleur. In other words (unspoken) I do a lousy job of keeping the grime off my bike. He’s right, of course. I did a thorough cleaning job Sunday before running it over to him, but he can always manage to find a Ray-induced problem area.

Anyhow, the bike is back and shifts like a champ. But I didn’t ride today, because the late afternoon was a heavy overcast, it could rain any minute, and my wife had some honey-dos for me to take care of. Unfortunately, the rest of the week looks just as yucky, with rain predicted right to to the weekend. But temperatures will be mild.

So I’ll probably be getting in some wet weather riding. But I’ve gotta do it. I want to maintain my level of fitness (or should I say, recover my level of fitness) to start putting in some decent rides come spring.

My Saturday Ride

Although our club ride is on Sunday morning, a group of members called a Saturday ride this week. They planned to meet at 9 a.m. and take a moderately paced ride (14-16 mph) to a town south of here, then double back, for about 45 miles. That would be a good pace for me, and not as fast as the A group rides on Sundays, so I went to bed Friday night planning to join them.

But after answering the dog’s bark to be let out three times before 6 a.m., I finally relented, and let her into bed with us. That calmed her down, and she was soon fast asleep. As was I. So much so, that when Pat shook me awake, it was already 8:30. No way I would be ready to ride with the gang this morning.

We puttered around the house, lazily drinking coffee and eating a light breakfast while reading the paper (and for me, some websites). Then Pat said, “I need to take a bike ride.”

This was unusual for her. She’s not a fan of the cold, and he temperature was 43 degrees (6C). But the wind appeared to be relatively light. We got into our cold weather cycling gear and made ready to hit the streets.

“Where do you want to go?” I asked.

“Let’s head out to Mopac,” she answered. That surprised me, too. It’s pretty wide open along that road, and even though the wind was light at our house, I knew it would blow along the highway. But going that way would also give me a chance to get in my usual Saturday morning ride.

More often than not, I take the same route on Saturday mornings. It’s a route that keeps me close to home, but features a variety of different riding conditions: the shoulder along Mopac, the Veloway, and a run up to Convict Hill, which lets me do a little climbing. We set out.

Pat leads the way out to Mopac.

Once we got to Mopac (short for Missouri Pacific Railroad, which used to run near this route), the going was easy. I realized the wind was out there as usual, but this time, it was coming from the north — at our backs. Even making the right-angle turn to the west kept the wind behind us. I guess it was more a northeast wind today.

Mopac. Pat doggedly pushes to the top of Escarpment Hill.

I always wait at the top of Escarpment Hill for Pat to catch up to me. Her heavy steel hybrid is not an agile climber, but it always gets to the top. We set out again, and did our usual stop for Pat to rest a bit and grab some water when we hit the turnaround at Ranch Road 1826.

The new convenience store at the turnaround. We don't stop there. We've only gone 6.5 miles by this point.

Going back, the wind was in our faces. On the downside of Escarpment Hill, my bike computer barely registered 25 mph. I’ve been as fast as 35 down this hill, and commonly do it at about 32. The wind was showing its stuff.

I waited for Pat again, and asked if she wanted to add a Veloway loop to the ride. Access to the bike track was at the next intersection, but she opted to head home. It wold be a good ride for her, of just over 13 miles. I told her I would continue on.

My route now took me farther north, toward Convict Hill. I ride a two-lane road to get there, and am able to stay in a bike lane most of the way. This morning, I was a bit creeped out, though. When I stopped to make an adjustment to my equipment — my seatpost-mounted water bottle cages had started to come loose — a black Escalade turned onto the street in front of me, then turned into the driveway of the first house. Instead of getting out and going inside, the couple sat in their vehicle with their engine running, watching me. When I took out my camera to snap a picture of the road, they must have really wondered what manner of  commie spy this guy on a bike was. After all, the temperature hadn’t warmed up much since we left our house — and normal people don’t do outdoors things in weather like this. I put my camera away, deliberately took a long, slow drink from my water bottle, and then pushed off. I still don’t know if they went inside — this was not an Escalade neighborhood — or if they continued on their way.

The Escalade watched me from just out of sight to the right.

I headed for Convict Hill, a nice uphill for about a half mile, and worked my way through the neighborhood at the top. After negotiating several smaller hills, I got to charge down into the wind — so I was only able to hit 29 mph.

Because I hadn’t done a Veloway loop, I decided to add a few more miles by going farther east — back through the area where the Escalade had watched me. No Escalade this time, and I made it home without any further incidents. Total distance: 27.3 miles. Average speed: 14.4.

This is my usual Saturday morning ride, although if Pat isn’t along, I start on Convict Hill, then do Mopac, and finish up with a Veloway lap. The distance is the same either way.

Oh, and the club’s Saturday morning “easy” ride? They wound up getting caught in a small town parade along the way, became separated from each other, and so raced the rest of the way. They averaged 18 mph for 50 miles, into a headwind for the second half of their trip.

Winter Weight Gain

Throughout the summer, my biking weight stayed close to constant. Oh, I gained and lost a few pounds here and there, but it was within a narrow range a little above 200. I was satisfied with that.

That was summer. Now, it’s winter. Even in frying pan hot Texas, we’ve got cold air coming down from the north, and I’ve been bundling up on rides lately. But I’ve also been eating the kind of comfort food that is so well suited to cold weather. And an unsurprising thing has happened since Thanksgiving — I’m once again putting on my winter weight.

This is a pattern that I’ve gotten used to over the years. I slim down in the summer, and gain it all back — and more — in the winter. The saving grace for me is that when I ride, I know I can knock off some poundage. Just yesterday, I came back from a brisk 18-mile ride, hopped on the scale, and found I was down three pounds from the previous day. Now, I know those three pounds were back on by the time I’d finished off supper, but it was nice to see the needle on the scale move in the right direction for a change.

My wife gets into the same rut. She complains every year that she’s getting heavier around the holidays. But unlike me, she actually does something about it. She’s a terrific cook, and about this time every year she starts making meals that are light on calories and long on flavor. I can eat to my heart’s content, and still have a good shot at dropping some of that excess turkey weight.

So, I guess winter brings me the best of all possible worlds. We get to keep riding our bikes, even though we’re bundled up a bit more than usual, I get to keep eating well, and with any luck, I’ll start the riding season in March or so at a weight not appreciably higher than it was when I ended the serious riding season in October. I’m looking forward to the next few months.

What’s Black and White and Blocks Wind All Over?

After that no-ride weekend, I was looking forward to getting back on the bike. But being an adopted Texan, I have also become a weather wuss. My friends in Minnesota would be mortified that we tend to avoid riding in what to them seem like mild temperatures. But so it goes.

However, driving home from work today, I resolved that I would get out on the bike regardless of the cold. The dashboard thermostat read 39 degrees (4C), and there was a brisk wind blowing from the northwest. But the sun shone brightly, and by almost any standard, it was a beautiful day.

When I told my wife I intended to ride, she said she’d been bent over her computer keyboard all day, and was up for a ride, too. We started getting into our selection of cold-weather riding gear.

I pulled on a short-sleeved base layer and my long-sleeved jersey with brushed insides. Over that, my windbreaker. This has worked in 40-degree weather in the past, but not in the kind of wind we had today. I decided to rely on a time-honored method bikers use to block the wind: the newspaper.

Fabian Cancellara stuffs a newspaper in his jersey just before starting a descent in this year's Tour de France.

I grabbed a thin section from the morning’s paper that was still lying on our kitchen table, folded it over once, and jammed it down the inside of my jersey. The tight-fitting fabric seemed like it would do a good job of keeping the paper in place over my upper torso.

Pat put on the long-sleeved jersey I got her last month for her birthday. It’s a warmer garment than mine, and the panels over the chest are made of a nylon wind-blocking material. Over that, she layered an old fleece pullover.

We fished out our wool socks, put the toe covers on our shoes, and dug the full-fingered gloves out of the bike stuff box.

“Whoa!” Pat yelled, as we pulled out of our driveway. “Have a little cold!”

At the first stoplight a mile into the ride, we caught up to another cyclist. Pat and he chatted a bit as we all climbed a long gentle hill, and then he passed me and took off.

“He wasn’t going to let an old woman on a hybrid stay even with him,” Pat laughed. “But he did say he thought this was the nicest biking weather of the year. He must be from the Midwest.”

On the way back, we were dead into the wind. Aside from making my eyes tear, which I hate when I’m building speed on downhills, it didn’t have any effect on what I was wearing. The layer of newspaper was doing its job.

While waiting at a red light, though, Pat complained that her tights weren’t thick enough to protect her thighs. They were cold, and that made the arthritis in her hip flare up. She soldiered through the discomfort and we got home before the sun set.

Inside, I dug the newspaper out from my jersey. It was a bit damp, but not wet. It had done its job of blocking the wind nicely, although by the time we finished the ride, it had slipped lower on my chest and shifted over to the side a bit. Still, a successful experiment.

Closed cell foam is often used by campers as sleeping pads.

Our club president has his own variation on the newspaper as wind blocker: bubble wrap. Well, that’s what he calls it, but it’s really a thin layer of closed-cell foam. He cuts generous squares off a roll and fits them over his torso under his jersey. He likes to tell the rest of us on our Sunday club rides how comfortable he is in cold and windy weather. I used to pooh-pooh his foam trick, but after my experience with the newspaper I think he might be on to something.

Have you ever resorted to newspapers or foam or something else to keep you comfortable on a ride?