What Does “Car Back” Mean to You?

It happens every time more than one cyclist is riding on the roads. Sooner or later, one will raise the call, “Car back!” It’s an important warning, because whenever we cyclists tangle with two tons of metal, we’re going to lose — so it’s a good idea to minimize any possibility of car-bike contact.

However, I’ve been concerned lately by some behavior I’m seeing on the roads.

If cars aren’t around, cyclists tend to ride side-by-side and have rolling conversations. This social aspect of cycling is one of the things that attracts people to the pastime. We’re not just out riding — we’re spending some quality time with our friends.

Harrisburg (PA) Patriot-News

Nothing wrong with riding side-by-side. The law says it’s fine, too: Persons operating bicycles on a roadway may ride two abreast. (Texas Transportation Code, 551.103c)

However, in that same paragraph, the law states: Persons riding two abreast may not impede the normal and reasonable flow of traffic on the roadway. Here’s why we (or at least I) yell, “Car back!”

Now, what’s supposed to happen when that call is raised? I like to see cyclists out in the middle of the lane ease into single file. A person operating a bicycle on a roadway who is moving slower than the other traffic on the roadway shall ride as near as practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway (551.103a). Riding in single file accomplishes two things: It lets the overtaking vehicle pass, which will free up the lane more quickly so cyclists can resume their chats; and it creates goodwill between cyclists and cars.

Here’s what I see sometimes: The rider on the inside of the lane (closest to the center line) moves closer to the line of cyclists along the edge of the roadway, without getting into the single file. The overtaking car swings wide to pass. In the most egregious cases, the rider doesn’t even attempt to make way for the car.

We can’t be doing that, folks. Things are tough enough out there between drivers and bikers without adding to the animosity. And yes, drivers can be prats sometimes (often?). That doesn’t justify antagonistic behavior.

So the next time one of your co-riders cuts loose with a bellowing, “Car back!,” do what you’re supposed to do. Stop the chatter, ease into single file, wait for the car to pass, then resume the conversation. You’ll finish your ride with a lower stress level.

Snippets From a B Ride

The emails flew fast and furious last evening. Our usual time to leave for the Sunday club ride is 8:15 a.m., but the forecast called for temps in the 30s at that time. I had planned to go, but wimped out when I saw the prognostication. Looks like a lot of others did, too — including some A riders. We had 13 in all for the B ride this morning at 9.

One of the problems we have in Texas is that the weather is rarely that cold when we ride, so most of us don’t have the kinds of warm cycling clothes our Northern brethren have. I was feeling a bit out of place in my red long-sleeve jersey (over a short-sleeved club jersey) and screaming green vest, because our club kit is white, blue, and yellow. Most riders had at least a club jersey on the outside. Then Jerry D. pulled into the lot.

“I’m glad I called you to coordinate clothing,” I called to him.

Bike Noob (left), Jerry D.

“Why, we’re the Gay Blades today, aren’t we?” he retorted.

Lots of chatter before the ride about clothing. Many wore glove liners, multiple layers, booties, ear muffs. Then there was Brian, our club Canadian. He showed up in a windbreaker over a short-sleeved jersey, and shorts. “It’s nice to ride without 10 feet of snow on the ground,” he said. The temperature when we rolled out was 38 degrees (3C).

One of the reasons I enjoy the B rides is that ride leader Jordan insists on keeping them “pleasurefests,” as opposed to what he calls the “sufferfests” of the A rides. But some A riders joined our little group this morning. David V., a Cat 3 racer and the club bike mechanic, said he’d done a hard hills workout the previous day, and wanted a recovery ride. There was New York John, and Marianne, who rarely rides with the club. She brought Tom, a friend of her husband’s, who was fixed up with a less-than-perfect bike. It wouldn’t shift out of the big ring. That didn’t seem to bother Tom, who is visiting from Boulder. Pippa, another A rider, was there to keep Judy company. Judy would normally ride with the As, but has been recovering from two broken bones in her wrist, suffered during a fall (don’t brace!).

About three miles into the ride is our first challenge: Davis Hill. It’s an ordinary hill, that can be tough for newer riders. The problem is, there’s a stoplight just before you make the turn for the hill, and hill begins immediately. “The difference between As and Bs on Davis Hill,” said my friend Rick, “is that the Bs shift down and try to spin up the hill, and the As get out of their saddles and attack the hill.”

I attacked today, but I was huffing and puffing, and sitting down again by the time I got to the top — when to my left, Tom glided by. In the big ring. Not a care in the world. Okay, I won’t worry about him today, I said to myself.

We crossed Interstate 35, and were headed for the country, when David V. and New York John caught and passed us. We had taken a major road to the I-35 junction, one that had a short stoplight. David and John had taken a side street, but their stoplight was a long one. “I don’t know why you Bs complain about As going too fast,” said David, “when you leave us behind.”

Out in the country, I found myself next to Laura, who’s become a regular on the B rides. She was ecstatic over her recent bike fit. “I feel so much more power than I used to,” she said. Her husband Mike, one of our A riders, had taken her to a prominent local racer who fits bikes at a local bike shop. “He put some things on my shoes that keep the angle natural,” Laura explained. “The fit took about two hours. When Mike asked him if I already had nearly a good fit, he said I wasn’t even close. I can really feel the difference.”

At the turnaround in Creedmoor, Jordan asked me to explain the return route to everyone. We were riding a “lollipop” route, with the same out and return, but a nice loop in the middle. “When we get to the 90-degree right turn on the way we came,” I said, “look for the fork onto Thaxton Road. Take that.”

Back on the road, I was near the rear to keep tabs on one of our slower riders. Sure enough, when we got to Thaxton Road, Judy and Laura blasted by without turning. Several of us raised a shout to get them to turn around. I kidded Judy about missing the turn even after the route had been explained at the rest stop. She was unapologetic.

“When people start telling me directions, it’s like the teacher in the ‘Peanuts’ strip,” she said. “All I hear is Wah-wah-wah-wah-wah.”

I’m glad she didn’t miss it, because Thaxton Road was repaved last year, and it’s nice. The highlight for me is a turn at the top of a hill. We get to blast down into a subdivision on a smooth, wide two-lane with no traffic. I made sure everyone was behind me, and started down, pedaling hard in the big ring. At the bottom, I waited. And waited. I could see back to the top of the hill. Apparently they had decided to gather there to wait for slower riders. Eventually, I saw them coming down. When they finally caught up to me, I asked who had the highest speed down that hill. I had hit 34.8 mph. I figured at least a couple could go faster than that.

“I rode the brakes all the way down,” said one. “That was scary,” said another. “No way I was going to look at my computer going that fast,” said a third.

Two miles from the finish, we passed several of the fast group fixing a flat at the side of the road. We kept on to the finish. They caught up to us a few minutes later. Marianne had been the flat victim.

“A screw went right through the middle of my tire,” she said. “I got screwed, and I couldn’t even enjoy it.”

The outside tables at Starbucks were full. The A ride had come in after a trip out to the Formula 1 race track being built in Austin. The chatter was loud, full of laughs. Several passers-by stopped to ask about the club, its rides, average speed. We urged them to come out next week. It looks like the B rides will start at 9:15 for the next couple of months — everyone seems to like leaving then, instead of the earlier time. A good day in the saddle — the kind of day that makes me want to ride again.

Comedy of (Mechanical) Errors

Guest poster Jeff Hemmel finds that sometimes, rides just don’t go as they’re planned.

Just as in life, some days on the bike go smoothly…while others make you wish you had just stayed home. Proof? I offer a glimpse into today’s ride…or as I’m calling it, the comedy of mechanical errors.


Text friends (or at least the short list of friends who also work from home and thus can ride on a weekday morning), see who’s ready to ride. One’s out, one’s not responding. Begin mindless wandering on Internet.


Still no response, so come up with a solo plan. Just for grins, I’m going to tackle several Strava segments in the area and see if I can post some ridiculously fast times so everyone will think I’m a cool cyclist. Haven’t heard of Strava? It’s a GPS-based, mileage-tracking app with a social-media component…but let’s face it, it’s really just a way for people to compare themselves to others and convince themselves they’re cool cyclists.


Finally leave the house, heading toward the downtown route favored by the local cycling club. Approach the first segment I’m targeting, bordering a local country club. Pop a caffeinated energy gel into my mouth and get ready to hammer. Instead, realize I have a flat and curse the loss of precious, Strava-busting momentum. That makes two flats in about three days in the same tire…or two more than I’ve gotten in about the entire last year.


Remove the tire, lay my bike on the grass, and begin my inspection. Yes, I know that guy on YouTube does this process in 45 seconds, but I’m actually trying to find out what caused the flat…not just have it repeated another couple miles down the road. After two minutes of tentative feeling around inside the tire (does anybody really want to discover the cause with their bare fingers?) I find a tiny piece of glass. It’s buried, so I spend the next several minutes trying to dig it out.


Overcome the revulsion I have about putting something in my mouth that has been produced in a factory and attempt to blow a little bit of air into the tube to give it some shape. Nothing’s happening. Un-strap my Lezyne mini pump (hey, like a Boy Scout I’m prepared), then spend the next several minutes in frustration trying to unscrew the air hose which is housed within the pump body for storage. Curse myself for not greasing the threads.


Finally pump a little air into the tube, then start wrestling with the tire. After thousands of miles it’s decided to snap itself back into a kinked, twisting figure eight that my frazzled brain simply cannot decipher. Nice elderly lady stops by to offer assistance…obviously she’s never seen an experienced cyclist change a tire before.


Grab CO2 cartridge and let ‘er rip, anxious to get on with my ride. The tube begins to fill, then quickly the gizmo fails, adding a few greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and causing me to whine like a baby about my now-frozen hands. No spare cartridge, so go back to the mini pump.


One thousand, three-hundred-and-twelve pumps later and I’m exhausted. My tire is just on the firmer side of mushy. I’m obsessed with this Strava thing so I soldier on, ignoring the fact that I’ll soon be passing through a little rougher side of town with no spare, no patch kit, and no other tough-looking guys in badass Lycra. Okay, I do ponder for a moment who I can call should I have another problem…and wonder how long my puny self and expensive road bike will sit unnoticed while said person comes to pick me up.


Start to roll once again and realize my tire is mush. Stop, un-strap pump once again, and pump another thousand times (give or take). Tire pressure is now maybe an optimistic 70-psi.


Once again get underway, but aft water bottle is jumping wildly with every pedal stroke. Inspect and discover the cadence magnet on my crank arm is now inexplicably colliding with the remounted mini pump, which in turn is springing the bottle in question. Pedal in weird, half-arcs until I find a park bench…where I proceed to stare at the situation with all the knowledge and experience of a guy who just took 30 minutes to change a single flat tire.


Give serious consideration to the theory that a crank arm that can handle all the force generated by a Tour de France winner just bent under the weight of a 16-pound bike frame sitting on a well-manicured fairway. Un-strap pump, put it in my jersey pocket, give up on being king of the GPS-tracking-app mountain, and head home, completing a whopping 16 miles…in 1 hour and 37 minutes.

I did finally solve the mystery, or at least the part of it that didn’t involve my own incompetence. The pump bracket has mounting slots, rather than boltholes. Though the bolts seemed tight, the bracket had somehow slid to the left…just enough to derail my best-laid plans.

Hmm…maybe those Strava guys did it.

Moisture Wicking Base Layers

During warm weather here in Texas (which is about eight months out of the year) I like to wear just a cycling jersey next to my skin. But if the temperature gets below 70 degrees (21C), I add a base layer.

I haven’t been too particular about what kind of base layer I use. I’ve got three. Two are polyester items from Jockey, a sleeveless and a t-shirt. I have since added another t-shirt from Performance, which fits looser than the Jockey items.

A Craft base layer t-shirt.

The whole idea behind moisture wicking fabrics is to pull moisture from your skin and cause it to evaporate quickly, keeping you dry and comfortable. My experience is that there is something to that, but it doesn’t work as completely as the catalogs would have you believe.

When I get back from my rides, my base layer is usually soaked. There doesn’t seem to be any area on it that isn’t wet with sweat (admittedly, I am a heavy sweater). The moisture does transfer from the base layer to my other clothing layers. If I’m wearing a windbreaker over my jersey, the windbreaker is usually wet, too.

The best luck I’ve had is with the Performance tee. I think that might be because the item doesn’t cling to my skin and make me look like I’m wearing a sausage casing. There are folds and wrinkles that I think might help with moisture transfer. After a brisk ride Sunday morning, I was perfectly comfortable sitting outdoors in cool weather as we relaxed at the coffee shop.

So that makes me wonder: Have you had different experiences with different types of base layer? Have you got some that are your go-to items for certain weather conditions, or are they all pretty much the same as far as you’re concerned?

Now, I must admit that I’m not a real student of the properties of different wicking fabrics. I’ve worn polyester. I haven’t owned a wool base layer, or a wool jersey. I haven’t used high-end base layers, like those from Craft or Helly-Hansen. So I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences, and see if there is a real difference in base layer wicking properties, or if they’re all pretty much the same.

Cheating Death

No, nothing serious. But lately, I do feel at the end of my rides as though I have cheated death. Each time.

It’s a combination of things, really. For instance, on Saturday’s ride with my wife. Out on the shoulder of a four-lane divided highway, there’s a spot where a bridge crosses another road. At this point, the shoulder is pretty cruddy, with lots of gravel and debris. I usually move just into the traffic lane until I’m over the bridge, then go back onto the shoulder.

But Saturday, a pickup decided he wasn’t going to let me into his lane. I heard him come up behind me. I held my line. He passed within a foot of me. Another similar incident, where the car wasn’t quite as close, happened later on the same ride. I chalked it up to a typical day on the bike.

On Sunday’s club ride, we were out on Fitzhugh Road again, and I was sticking close to my friend Penny, who is coming back from surgery. Fitzhugh is our “roller” route, and is challenging for fit riders — let alone someone who’s just building her endurance. I seemed to be constantly shouting, “Car back!” as traffic was heavier than it often is. The cars are better than they used to be at slowing and following behind us until the way ahead is clear on the two-lane, shoulderless road. Two cars tucked in behind Penny as she labored up a hill, waiting until the road ahead was safe to pass. But a third vehicle, a Hummer, wasn’t about to wait. It braked hard behind the other two cars, with a short squeal of its brakes. As soon as the way cleared, and the cars were able to move around Penny, the Hummer gunned it, squealed its tires again, and passed her — again leaving no more than a foot of space between it and her. The experience rattled her, sine Fitzhugh’s roller are tough enough without having to contend with impatient drivers.

On the return trip, I rode with Rob, a strong rider new to our Sunday outings. “I almost bought it on the way out,” he said. “I hit one of those damp patches on a curve, and my rear wheel wanted to break away. I just got it under control.”

A sheriff’s patrol car raced by in the oncoming lane, lights flashing. Minutes later, it was followed by a fire truck, this time with siren blaring. The guy next to me muttered, “Hope that’s not one of our people back there.”

The thought was still with us when we heard sirens again. This time, a county paramedic unit roared by. Up ahead, we pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store. A state trooper was parked in his squad car. Judy, one of our other riders, chatted with the trooper through his car window.

“It’s okay,” she said, pulling away from the squad. “A guy fell off a ladder.”

“Good,” said my friend David, when we told him about it after he caught up to us a few minutes later.

It was a sentiment we all shared. We weren’t glad some local was hurt — we were glad it wasn’t one of our cycling group.

Cycling is a great pastime. Like many others, I chafe when I’m kept from getting out on the road for several days. But it seems to me that riding the roads is getting dicier. I don’t cycle with the verve I once did — rather, I am super careful of both road conditions and motorists. I still love riding, but I want to make sure I don’t realize my mortality any sooner than necessary.



Two Cycling Viewpoints

An interesting discussion flared up on our club’s email board this week. It all started innocently enough. The club president posted that riders new to the club shouldn’t worry about getting dropped on club rides.

“For some part of nearly all of my rides I could fairly be said to have been dropped,” he wrote. “The fast movers [they are NOT all guys] will head off into the distance while I am apparently not bright enough to wait for the slower riders.”

But he added that eventually the fastest of the slow riders will catch up to him, and they will pull each other to the next rally stop.

“At that point it is not at all unusual for some riders from both groups to talk about heading home while others continue to make tracks,” he continued. “Practically never do I ride home alone.”

Our main club ride is on Sunday morning. We meet at a local Starbucks at 8 a.m., and roll out at 8:15. Most of the riders usually fall into what I call the A group. They can maintain a pretty good clip. Last week, they averaged over 17 mph for a 50-mile ride. That’s a pace that would scare off newcomers.

He was called out by the club secretary, who lives some distance west of town and seldom does the Sunday rides, unless a group heads out to her neck of the woods to ride the Hill Country.

“This message is a bit misleading,” she posted. “I know if I rode with the group, I’d have to bust my rear to keep up, and then would eventually poop out and be dropped.  Not fun.”

She added, “Unless a person is a hammerhead (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), he/she won’t particularly enjoy the regular club rides.”

The president’s wife, who started out as a B rider but worked her way up to A level (athletic woman, she) chimed in with a valid point: “The reason the Sunday ride has become what it is, is because it has been the one consistent ride of the group [departing every Sunday] and these are the riders who have consistently showed up.” ‘Tis true. That may be one reason that the club has a reputation around town of being a bunch of hammerheads.

This has been an issue at least since I joined the club several years ago. I got tired enough of trying to keep up with the fast pace of the rides that I started calling for B-level riders to come out, and we’d do our own thing on Sunday. That met with some success, especially in the more temperate months. The fellow who began the B rides in our club has now rejoined after living elsewhere for several years, and he’s begun organizing B rides again. Turnout is starting to pick up — even bringing in some A riders who want to go easier on a given week, for whatever reason.

The controversy (perhaps too strong a word) may be situated in differing objectives for different riders. The president revealed his point of view later in his post: “Don’t pass up the opportunity to test yourself a bit,” he wrote. That seems to indicate a point of view that cyclists ought to strive to get faster, maybe to ride longer. But it’s just that point of view that puts off a lot of would-be members.

“I do love to ride, and love the workout it gives me,” the club secretary posted.  “I just prefer to get my workout a little more slowly.  I’m in no rush.  The social factor is a big one for me.  If I’m riding so hard that I can barely breathe, then I can’t talk either.”

That viewpoint is shared by most of those who call themselves B riders — including yours truly. Some riders want to physically improve themselves. Others like cycling for its recreational value. I just posted a B ride for Sunday, so whatever a rider’s tastes, we can accommodate them.

Is this yin and yang between different ability levels unique to my club, or does it exist in yours, too? Comments are open.

Time to Start Training

Monday was my last day off before the start of spring semester (Yeah, I know — we academics have it rough), so I was determined to get in a ride. Pat called one of our good local riding friends, because she had the MLK holiday off too, and we met at the Veloway for some laps.

Our friend Penny is coming back from a hip replacement, and is almost ready to rejoin our B-level club rides. But she has something more pressing on her mind right now. In March, she and her husband Rick will spend several days riding in the Big Bend area of West Texas.

The Big Bend is mountainous, so the routes they’ll be riding will be challenging, to say the least. Not only is Penny riding to come back from the surgery, but now she’s riding to train for her biking trip. And that lit the lightbulb over my head.

The Bike Noob riding a century several years ago. (Click to enlarge.)

It’s mid-January already! While I don’t have any multi-day mountain rides coming up, I do have some rides I want to do in March. And March is a whopping six weeks away. The easy riding I’ve been doing has been good at maintaining my base. Now I have to start doing something to boost both my speed and my endurance.

What am I going to do? I’m not really sure yet. That’s not really a problem, since I have gobs of training plans around here — both in cycling books and various online sites. I’ll come up with something that will work.

But I know I’ll be working on two different elements: increasing distance and riding faster. On weekends, at least one of my rides will be longer than I’ve been used to. I’ll be increasing that long distance each week, until I’m up to metric century snuff. During the week, I’ll get in a fast ride. My fast rides might involve intervals, almost certainly fartlek, or maybe just maintaining a higher average speed than I’m normally comfortable with.

But I’ll be riding with a purpose from here on out.