Large Scale Shops, Small Scale Shops

Guest poster Don Blount wonders which one you prefer?

On a recent Sunday I took my bike to a local store of Performance Bike, the national bicycle company, for a derailleur adjustment.

It is one of two bike shops in my area that I use.

The other, the Bicycle Café, is a small mom and pop shop in nearby Lodi, Calif. I actually prefer this shop, although I use Performance nearly as much.

It’s the difference between a large scale national brand and a small scale local retailer.

It is fair to say Performance serves a general market. The staff there is friendly and helpful. The bike mechanics regularly share knowledge and since my bike is a Performance-brand Scattante CFR Comp I get priority when I come in. (Free adjustments for life!)

The products I purchase are warrantied so that if I do not like them or they do not perform as advertised, they are returnable – no questions asked.

But the staff turns over quickly and sometimes I have to hunt to find a familiar face.

The three-year-old Bicycle Café serves a more specialized market. When I first walked in, the bikes there had names that were totally foreign to me like Campagnolo, Orbea, Time and Guru. That is not too surprising because I was still relatively new to biking.

But this is a place where they make you feel at home. I know the owners, met their kids and see them at a variety of cycling-related functions.

The staff, which has also had some turnover, is helpful and friendly and has never let me know how little I know about biking and how much they do. They too aid me in my search for products and knowledge. Service is impeccable including pickup and drop off of my bike for service. They set up group rides and are actively involved in the cycling community. And the owner is knowledgeable, an encyclopedia of biking information and skills – he builds frames among other things. And I trust him without question when it comes to handling my bike. And I can go there and hang out to talk biking just for the sake of talking about biking.

One of the few things that can be offsetting here is price. Some of their prices are out of my price range. But there aren’t many places I can go where they would allow me to hold a $7,000 bike frame. And it is located a bit out of my usual circle of travel, so it has to be a destination trip.

But I enjoy going to the Bicycle Café when I can, what I thought was a chichi place is quite warm and comfortable. Performance can’t be the same thing — too big, too much volume. But I am still tied to both places by service and bikes. And I will continue to use both as it works for me.

I’m Through With Centuries

Now that the Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred is done, I’ve had time to reassess my long-distance biking efforts. My conclusion: I’ve ridden my last century.

This represents a major turnaround in my thinking about cycling. When I started in mid-2007, I thought the goal would be to continually build mileage and do longer and longer rides. My first big organized ride was 50 miles, which was a major accomplishment then. It was quickly followed by a metric century, and a couple more 50s. My goal was to work my way up to an Imperial Century ride (100 miles).

I did my first one in October, 2008. In 2010, I did two of them — one on the first day of the MS 150 from Houston to Austin, the second a repeat of the 2008 ride. The Hotter ‘n Hell was my fourth.

I realized after the first one that no matter how many centuries you have under your belt, these are challenging rides. If done well, the rider will have prepared for the rides with adequate training — including building up to the 100-mile distance by working in some long rides in the month immediately before the century. And by long rides, I don’t mean 45 or 50 miles — or even 65 miles. I mean 75 or 80-mile rides.

Interval training helps, too, because when you build up your speed you’re also adding to your endurance. It’s easy to go online and find lots of training plans for century rides, both for beginners and for riders who want to finish strong — maybe post a personal best.

For others, century rides are just the beginning. The shortest distance randonneurs ride in a sanctioned brevet is 200 kilometers — about 125 miles. But they’ll do 300K rides (180 miles), 400K (250 miles), and 600K (375 miles) — all in one year. I read several randonneuring blogs, and I admire the fortitude and stick-to-it-iveness of randonneurs. But while I once thought that might be where my own cycling would be heading, I know it’s not now. The accomplishment of riding a 300K ride isn’t important enough to me.

My friend Barbara, whom I mentioned in my account of the Hotter ‘n Hell, has an ambitious goal: to ride a century in each of the 50 states. Go for it, Barbara! I won’t be joining you.

My problem is that I prefer the idea of the century ride more than the doing of the century ride. I have never yet put together a training program that really got me prepped for the ride. That meant that when I got there, I was able to finish the 100 miles, but I was worn out at the end. After the latest 100-mile extravaganza, I wondered why I did this kind of thing.

And I came to the conclusion that I don’t need to. Most of the group I participated with in the HHH last weekend did the 100 kilometer version. These folks are all experienced cyclists, and most of them have done centuries in the past. They’ve just reached that point in their cycling that four hours on the bike — the time it takes to finish a metric century at roughly a 15 mph average — is challenge enough for them. And you know what? I think that describes me, too.

So I intend to keep riding. I’ll bet I continue to put up mileage totals similar to what I’m doing this year. I’ll ride hills — I’ll even practice to get better on them. I’ll do speed work occasionally. My long weekend rides might increase their distances, and I’ll work in more in the 50-mile plus range. But from here on out, my cycling is going to be fun, not work.

The Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred

The Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred in Wichita Falls, Texas, is considered a must-do ride for people in this region of the country. Over its 31-year history, it has grown into what it bills as the largest ride of its type. I’ve always wanted to ride it, because…well, it’s just one of those events you’ve gotta do. This year, the stars came together for me, and it turned out to be one of my cycling highlights. My good friends Russ and Debra have been going to the HHH for several years. They rent a recreational vehicle to have complete independence over the weekend. When they invited me along, I jumped at the chance. Several of us joined Russ and Debra. Their friend Toni took the 350-mile ride up there with us.

Bike Noob, Toni, Debra and Russ ready to hit the road. Russ said this unit was the smallest available at the RV rental place. (Click all photos to enlarge.)

Yeah, we were living in the lap of luxury for this trip. Our friends and fellow club members, Jerry and Maggie, met us in Wichita Falls, along with Nancy. Even in a bus the size of ours, that many people bunking in created some interesting living conditions.

When three bikes are stowed inside, traffic patterns are a challenge.

We carried Debra and Russ’s bikes on an outside rack. When we got to the RV parking area, they were coated with road dust. An early order of business was to get everything shipshape.

If you want a clean bike, call Debra.

The weekend is about everything bike. A big bike expo crowds the convention center. Ride organizers put on a carbo-loading spaghetti dinner the evening before the ride, and then we went outside to watch some of the criterium racing that was part of the weekend.

Just some of the people at the spaghetti dinner. Service was available for four hours.

Sanctioned criterium races ran Friday evening and Sunday morning. A 100-mile road race was also part of the weekend’s events.

The weather forecast is always on everyone’s mind as ride morning breaks. Because August in Texas is hot, hot, hot, the ride starts just after 7 a.m. That meant 12,000 cyclists got up at the crack of dawn, and many (including yours truly) headed back to the arena for a big breakfast. Then, we rode a few blocks in the dark to the starting area. We all grouped in the starting grid for the second group of 100-milers, even though only Nancy, late arrival Barbara, and I intended to ride the full 100 miles. I thought I had Russ talked into joining us, but he opted for the 100K along with the others. Tandems took off first, then the official start came at 7:05, for the fast 100-milers. Our group was held back until 7:25 before we got the go-ahead.

Looking back at some of the starters about half an hour before the cannon sounds.

And they’re off! (Photo from the Wichita Falls Times-Record.)

The only similar experience I’ve had on a bike was at the MS 150 from Houston to Austin. The group didn’t really start to thin out until well after the second rest stop, 20 miles into the ride. Nancy, Debra, Toni, and Barbara got well ahead of Russ and me right off the bat. The two of us rode together until we reached Iowa Park, about 10 miles out of Wichita Falls. There, the route made a left turn and crossed some railroad tracks. Just as we made the turn, the gates started coming down and we could see a long freight train heading our way. Russ shot across the tracks before the gates lowered all the way. I was trailing, and had to make a split-second decision. I decided to go around the gates — something I’ve never done in my life. Good thing the freight was moving slow.

The split between the 100-mile and the 100K routes came soon after. I was torn when I saw Russ turn off on the 100K route, but I plunged into the 100-miler, and soon picked up a nice paceline. The southeast wind blew briskly at our backs, and pushed us along at around 23-24 mph.

I had planned to limit my time at rest stops to about five minutes, but it was apparent that that wouldn’t happen. At rest stop 2, the first one I used, I stood in line for food, then stood in line to refill my bottles, then stood in line for the porta-potties. It took almost a half hour before I was back on the bike. Barbara and I had agreed to meet at that rest stop, but I couldn’t find her, so I got going again. She sent me a voice mail minutes later that she had waited around for me for 10 minutes, then assumed I had gone on ahead and hit the road. We didn’t see each other again until I caught up to her at the 74-mile rest stop. She had had two flat tires, which slowed her down. But she was just leaving as I arrived, so I never saw her again for the rest of the ride.

The landscape in North Texas is featureless. But it’s the mostly flat ride that attracts so many first-time century riders.

The Bike Noob still going strong at about 60 miles. Honest, I do not normally ride with my elbows locked.

Oilfield services is an important industry around here. This is a pumpjack graveyard.

The sun broke through the overcast skies at about 1 p.m., and the day heated up quickly. It wasn’t Hotter ‘n Hell, but the strong wind made it windier than all get out. Even so, one rider I talked to at a rest stop said his Garmin was showing a surface temperature of 107-111 degrees (41-44C). Obviously, that was because of reflection from the road surface.

By now, the route had turned east, and the wind was hitting us from the right front quarter. It made the going tougher, but I could still keep up a 15 mph average. I stopped at every rest stop to top off my bottles with ice. As the day wore on, ride organizers set up new rest stops at closer intervals — so you never had to ride more than five miles without a break.

I was starting to slow. My butt was sore on the saddle, but I could see lots of other riders stand up to shake out the soreness as well. The SAG wagons did a land office business. Actually, I saw my first load of riders sag out at about 38 miles into the ride, which amazed me. Why sign up for 100 miles if you can’t do half of that? But now, after 75 miles, it seemed that I was passed every 15 minutes by another pickup pulling a trailer loaded with bikes and a bunch of guys (always guys) in the back. And a lot of these guys looked like they were real bikers, too — big guys who probably went out too fast and couldn’t finish.

At Burkburnett on the border with Oklahoma, the route turned south  onto the I-44 frontage road, and dead into a strong wind. Cyclists dropped to their lowest gears and made slow headway. I caught up to Roy Jones from San Angelo, whose blog — “Pedal Pushers” — I read. “This isn’t any fun anymore,” he said.

Despite the rest stops every five miles, the scorching sun and the fierce wind forced cyclists to rest whenever possible. Some just stopped along the roadside and stood over their bikes, heads drooped into the wind.

“You okay?” I asked one.

“Yeah, fine,” he barked back. He didn’t look fine.

The route was wide open, with no shelter from either sun or wind. A clump of trees off in the distance beckoned. They turned out to be part of a roadside rest stop along the Interstate, but worn-out cyclists filled it. Many flagged down passing SAG wagons, but they were all full, and wouldn’t take on anyone else. I got back on my bike and slogged ahead.

Worn-out cyclists make their own impromptu rest stop under shade trees along I-44.

The effect of the wind and all the stops showed itself while I was at the next-to-last official rest stop. A volunteer strode through the tent, and announced that if we wanted to finish the ride, we had to leave the rest stop immediately, or be sagged out. Heck, I hadn’t even had a chance to get one of the sno-cones they were handing out there.

After another three miles, we hit Sheppard Air Force Base. This has always been a treat for the riders, and this year for the first time in a long time, the 100-mile ride was routed through the base. A highlight was riding past a collection of jets — a B-52 bomber, F-15 fighter, T-38 trainer, A-10 Warthog — cool stuff. A little farther down, the cadets lined both sides of the street, cheering for riders and high-fiving.

Cadets at Sheppard Air Force Base hand out water and cheer on riders five miles from the finish.

Five more miles to go. I passed a few more riders and turned onto the same street we had left earlier that morning. I turned into the convention center area, passed under the big balloon arch, and was handed a medal signifying my accomplishment.

It was a bittersweet feeling. I intended to finish this century strong, unlike others I’d done in the past. But I didn’t put in enough really long training rides, which hurt my endurance. The wind was something no one could prepare for. My on-bike time: just over seven hours. But I crossed the finish line nine hours and 39 minutesafter starting — pretty miserable. My average speed over the last 20 miles couldn’t have been more than eight miles per hour.

Still, this was a great event and I’m glad I finally did it. Many thanks to Russ and Debra for sharing their RV and the rest of the gang for putting up with me. Thanks also to Development Counsellors International — the marketing group for Wichita Falls — for comping my entry fee. I’ll be back — but it might be for the 100K next time.

Big Ride Logistics

The Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred is Saturday in Wichita Falls, Texas. It’s a ride I’ve been wanting to do ever since I took up road biking five years ago. Not because it’s a fantastic, must-do route — it’s mostly flat and featureless — but because it’s one of those happenings where the event is the thing.

Wichita Falls is on the north edge of Texas, near the Oklahoma border, so the first consideration is getting there. Then, with thousands of cyclists converging on this city of just over 100,000, finding a place to stay can be tricky. Most hotel rooms in a 50-mile radius are booked up soon after the previous year’s ride.

I got lucky. Two friends from my club, Debra and Russ, rented a large RV for the trip. So that’s two birds with one stone. We can get there and we have a place to stay. RV parking can be found close to the center of activity near the ride start, and we will be able to easily get to the packet pickup, the bike expo, the pasta dinner the night before and the breakfast the day of.

We left Austin Thursday to make the six-hour drive. I did all my prep work earlier this week, and while I might not have the fastest bike in the field, I’m sure I have the cleanest. Weather looks like it will be a non-issue this year. Instead of hotter ‘n hell August temperatures, the forecast calls for a high in the mid 90s (35C) and a 30 percent chance of rain. Even if there is no rain, perhaps an overcast sky will keep things semi-cool.

After hemming and hawing over the last month or so, I decided to go ahead and do to 100-mile ride after all. I’m concerned that I haven’t done enough long rides leading up to it, but when I compare my mileage stats this year with what I did prior to my previous centuries, I’m right in the ball park. My only concern is that I’ll be trashed in the last quarter of the ride, which will make things miserable — but we’ll see. I’ll have a post on the outcome Sunday night.

Bar Tape — A Quick and Easy Fix

Guest poster Don Blount has some suggestions about changing your bar tape.

I recently changed handlebar tape from a synthetic leather tape that looked great but provided absolutely no padding, to something not as flashy but much more comfortable. It was a quick, easy job.

Old tape on left, new on right.

Changing bar tape is an inexpensive way to give your bike a different look, from black to red, white or blue, you can accessorize your ride.

I stick with black tape. It matches my bike and doesn’t show dirt easily.

For some, taping handlebars can be frustrating. But with a little practice just about anyone can handle this job.

Here are a few quick tips I received from a bike mechanic to get a clean, professional-looking job:

Start the tape at the bottom of the bar. And instead of starting the tape with a half-inch or so hanging over the end of the bar, align the tape with the edge of bar. This will provide a clean look while eliminating the task of trying to stuff the tape in the bar end and getting the bar end plug to stay in.

Don shows how he wraps electrical tape around the base of the bar plug.

Many handlebar tapes come with a sticky backing, which helps it stay in place. If it does not have this backing, you can use a small piece of electrical tape to hold it in place.  This will be out of view when the bar is wrapped. You can also wrap pieces of electrical tape around the inside of the plug, the part that goes inside the bar, to help it stay in place.

And, with a few exceptions, remember to wrap over the bar and away from the frame, this tightens the tape naturally as you ride. Look at how you twist your hands in the drops and this will help you determine how to wrap the bar. If you turn you hands in, wrap in that direction and vice versa.

Also, use the small rectangular piece that comes with the tape to cover the bottom of the brake levers. Finally be sure to stretch the tape as you wrap but not as if you’re playing tug of war, and check your work so you don’t leave gaps.

Conquering That Hill

I was planning to do a 50-mile or so flat ride southeast of town today, but some of my fellow club members did that ride Saturday, and they were headed for the hills today. That’s okay, because the route allows a convenient turnaround for me and other B riders at about the 17-mile mark. I figured 34-35 miles of hills would equate to 50 miles in the flats, so I showed up.

It was a morning for riding we haven’t seen around here in a long time. Rain came through last night, and the sky was heavily overcast, with temperatures in the low 70s (22C). No wind. Conditions were perfect for a fast ride, and the peloton took off like a pack of scalded dogs. I knew they’d be held up by stoplights along the way, and while I pedaled briskly, I didn’t push myself. I was the only B rider to show up this morning (apparently, the cloudy skies had enough promise of rain that they scared some riders off).

One of the really fast guys flatted about two miles into the ride. A few of us kept going, while the bulk of the group stood around while he changed his tube. We figured they’d catch us sooner rather than later. I had company in the form of Steve J., the state time trial champion of Texas in the 65-69 year old age group. He rode fast the day before, and was looking for an easy ride, so he was fine with loping along with me, chatting about a myriad of different topics.

We turned onto Barton Creek Blvd., which is a smooth, wide road through a (very) wealthy neighborhood. Here’s where the hills began in earnest, with a series of rollers that get higher as you go north. Sure enough, I was passed by the guy who had had the flat, then a couple more, and several more. We reached “Hail Mary Hill” at the end of the road in a group. This steep hill has caused me problems in the past, although I was able to climb it the last time I came through here, about a month ago.

Today, I hit the initial uptick for the hill with a surge of energy. Unlike past efforts, where I was loaded with doubts at the base of the hill, I knew today that I would climb it — and with no trouble. I shifted down, put more power to the pedals, and felt the bike surge forward — a bit. I wasn’t going to pass anyone today, since I carry a substantial weight disadvantage over most of these folks.

When I pulled into the church parking lot at the top of the hill, a couple of riders made remarks like, “You were climbing well today,” and “You had an easy time of it.” Hail Mary Hill is never easy, but I had an “easier” time of it than I ever have in the past.

I rode much of the rest of the ride with a 20-something cyclist who has had his cycling interrupted by work and school, and was happy not to race with the large group. The rollers went by with less effort than they have in the past. I didn’t have that fatigued feeling I often get on this route.

So why the big improvement? I include a decent, but not too tough, hill on some of my weekly rides. It’s got three or four short, steep segments and a long steady climb. I use a stopwatch on that long climb, and I’ve dropped my time by six seconds over the last two weeks — although I was eight seconds slower when I did it Saturday. Ever notice how a mediocre performance can presage a good performance in the next day or two?

Other than that, I haven’t done anything different. But I can feel that my legs are putting out more power. I’m sure the cooler weather today had something to do with it. Doesn’t matter. I’m just happy it’s happening — just in time for the Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred this coming weekend.

Getting to 3,000

Since I posted on Twitter the other day that I’ve now passed the 3,000 mile mark for 2012, I’ve had some inquiries from Bike Noob readers about my mileage goals. Had I planned at the beginning of the year to ride 3,000, 4,000, or 5,000 miles?

Actually, no. My high mileage year is just happening. I just ride.

Now, it’s not quite that simple. I was helped by the fact that as an academic, I get the first 2 1/2 weeks of January off. That let me rack up well over 400 miles in a month when lots of folks are cocooned in front of their fireplaces with steaming cups of hot chocolate.

In May, spring semester ends, and I could start riding more often for the next four weeks. I pedaled more than 550 miles that month — my highest monthly total ever.

But I think the main thing that helped me get as many miles as I have is following a more or less regular riding schedule. here’s how mine usually shakes out:

I ride Tuesday evening, for the shortest mileage of the week. Often, I’ll do fast laps around the Veloway. Sometimes, I’ll opt for easy laps instead. In either case, I’ll wind up with only 15-18 miles. I don’t often ride on Wednesdays or Thursdays, because I’m on campus later those days. Friday, I usually ride 20 miles; Saturday, 27-29 miles; and on Sunday, it’s the club ride. That could mean a distance of anywhere from 30-60 miles, most often 35-45. That routine gets me in the neighborhood of 100 miles a week on a regular basis. Heck, I should be riding 5,200 miles a year at that rate.

Of course, that won’t happen. Shorter days and colder weather in the winter months means I cut back on my weekly totals. I’ve ridden a 4,000-mile year only once, in 2010. It looks like I’ll do it again this year.

That pales next to the mileage totals some of my fellow club members post. Several are over 5,000 miles for the year already. Of course, they ride 30-40 miles on weekday evenings, and both of their weekend rides are long — anywhere from 60-100 miles.

Well, I don’t even have any desire to churn out that many miles. If anything, rather than piling up my mileage totals, I should concentrate on getting better. There’s lots of room for improvement. I could be faster; I need to build my endurance; I ought to spend more time riding hills than I do.

What I’ll probably be doing is the same old thing I’ve been doing all along. Just riding.

But I did some figuring the other day, and calculated that if I keep up my 100-mile weeks for the rest of the year, I have a good shot at reaching 5,000. Hmmmmm……