Life-Bike Balance

John T, a biking friend of mine, got in touch last week to tell me he’s back on the bike. He’s trying to build up his leg strength and cardio fitness after not riding all winter. Winters being as mild as they are in Austin, I was surprised to hear this from him, but he said he got tied up attending to his two elementary school-aged boys.

“I wonder how many folks with elementary-aged kids ride regularly — consistently,” he asked. “There always seems to be something else I need to do.”

That’s something I haven’t considered. My wife and I have been empty-nesters for almost 20 years now, and we can pretty much come and go as we please. John T thinks people in my age group are best suited to ride recreationally.

“It may be just me, but most cyclists that I talk to or meet on the road or Veloway don’t have kids or they are older,” he said.

My circle of cycling acquaintances is mostly limited to the members of my club, and John may be on to something there. We do skew a bit older, with most people having grown children who no longer live at home. I envy some of the retired members who have regular group rides on weekday mornings.

A few who do always seem to struggle to juggle their biking routines with baby-sitting routines. One member is close to my age bracket, but adopted several years ago, and so has to deal with the kinds of scheduling demands that affect people 20 years her junior. Sometimes, she cuts a Sunday club ride short, in order to get home and relieve the sitter. Other times, she bows out of the club ride altogether, because she’s unable to come up with a sitter.

Another newer member of the club is a single woman with an 11-year-old at home. She turns out for the Sunday club ride regularly, but if we go a little longer than usual, gets antsy. She has no problem with him being on his own during the morning, but she wants to minimize that.

Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, has been in the news lately because of her book, “Lean In,” about women in the workplace. One of her comments that’s getting attention is her assertion that there is no such thing as life-work balance, especially when the working woman is also caring for children.

Of less import, perhaps, but one that concerns us all, is whether we can find life-bike balance. Is it possible to make time for biking amid all the other distractions and demands of our daily lives?

Let me know what you think. How’s it all working out for you?

The Dangers of Cycling

“While I was lamenting my problems with my sore ribcage, something a lot more serious happened to a good friend of mine. It was last Saturday morning, on one of our club rides.

A group had gone out to Kyle, about 23 miles south of town, and made their usual turnaround stop at a gas station/convenience store. The road through Kyle was repaved about a year ago, and is quite smooth, with a generous shoulder. The Line was moving at about 20 mph, according to one of the riders. It had started to rain. The road was slick. The day was chilly. Because of the wind, the group formed a sort of paceline.

Just before reaching a stoplighted intersection, the lead rider saw two obstacles in his path. One was a car bumper, the other something unspecified. The rider pointed out the car bumper on the right, but did not point out the object on the left. He led the way between the two, expecting those behind him to follow in his tire tracks.

Apparently, the rider behind him braked. The third rider in line swerved. The front tire of the fourth rider, Jerry, touched the rear tire of the third bike. Jerry went down in a heap, and the next four riders went down in a pile.

Jerry suffered a broken femur. A passer-by who turned out to be a nurse treated him for shock until paramedics arrived, and he was taken to an emergency room in Austin. On Sunday, he underwent surgery to repair the break, and is getting close to leaving the hospital as this is posted.

The experience triggered a flurry of posts on the club’s Yahoo group. Debra, whom I ride with on B rides out in the country, had some simple, straightforward advice: “Don’t ride in pacelines.”

The second rider in the line posted that no single thing caused the crash, but suggested some lessons to be learned from the mishap:

  1. Avoid riding in the rain if at all possible (not an option in this case)
  2. Provide more buffer space from other riders (in front and laterally)
  3. Ride slower – not a race – especially in inclement weather
  4. Yell out any road debris and signal behind you

To which, the club president reminded everyone that our club rides are not races, although they might assume an “aggressive” pace from time to time.

Others cited communication as being the most important factor. The lead rider called out the road debris, but did not signal. The second rider signaled, but did not call out. Another member pointed out that calls don’t travel very far anyway.

One of our more experienced members advised that the rider in front should stay focused on the road and try to lead the group around the hazard, rather than point it out and miss it by an inch or two.

Still another said the leader shouldn’t be too diligent at pointing out trouble. “Pointing out every gum wrapper will make your little ducklings less likely to notice the massive boulder they’re about to endo over,” he wrote.

The club president noted that there are only a few group riding configurations. Since it’s inevitable that we will line up behind each other at some point in a group ride, it’s important to be able to handle those situations.

He’s going to arrange for a cycling coach to conduct some paceline drills for the club.

I’ve written before of my aversion to pacelines. But if the paceline drills happen, I’ll probably sign up.

Slow Recovery

It’s been a disappointing week. I thought I had been making a good comeback from my fall two weeks ago. Last Sunday, I did an easy 32-mile ride with no bad consequences. But Monday, I developed some pains in my side.

I had been having these feelings pretty much since the fall, but they were minor. I mostly concentrated on that huge bruise I blogged about last week, and then a hip pointer made itself known. Football players (American football) and hockey players get these, from banging the point of their pelvis bones against something hard. Most of the time, it’s not there, but when I bend my left leg a certain way, the pain is enough to make me jump.

Then on Tuesday, I decided to do my after work ride. It’s a 19-20 mile jaunt through my neighborhood. This time, as soon as I got on the bike, I could feel that pain in my side again. It feels as though something under my ribs is bruised, and if I bend at the waist a certain way, it’s quite painful.

On the bike Tuesday, that ache was with me throughout the ride. Instead of 19 miles, I cut it short and did only 12.

“You should see the doc,” said my wife, when I told her what had happened.

Luckily, my doctor keeps evening hours on Wednesday, and booked me an appointment that evening. He’s always been supportive of my biking, because of the changes it’s made in such indicators as blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Of course, this is a negative effect.

He had me do some stretches, which didn’t hurt. He poked and prodded my sides, and found the quarter-sized spot on my left ribcage that triggered the pain. It’s where the rib meets cartilage, and he told me the cartilage is the damaged part.

“In my professional opinion,” he said, adopting a pedantic tone, “you’re banged up.”

There is nothing to be done. “Even if you had a broken rib, we wouldn’t do anything,” he said. “We’ve stopped wrapping ribs. It turns out that can cause pneumonia.”

He did recommend heat. And anti-inflammatories, which I’d already been taking. But it looks like it will be several weeks before the aches and pains go away.

I dug out the heating pad, and it does work. Saturday, I got on the bike and repeated the ride I had started Tuesday. This time, I did the whole 19 miles. My torso felt fine.

I rode again today. The only time it feels sore is when I stand to pedal up a hill, so I rode a mostly flat course. But I can ride without pain.

I’m looking forward to riding again Tuesday after work. My time in the saddle is really down this year. I’ve got some catching up to do.


Sign of a Caring Bike Shop

What makes a good bike shop? In the past, we’ve noted some qualities, such as taking the time to learn your needs, treating you like a regular person rather than someone to sell something to, and knowledgeable mechanics.

A member of my bike club had one of the good experiences the other day, and let the rest of the club know about it. This particular bike shop is one of our club’s sponsors. We wear their logo on our jersey sleeves, and enjoy discounts at the shop. But it’s easy to take them for granted. My friend Buddy wrote that after about 12 to 14 miles on the bike, his foot went numb. Buddy picks up the story here:

“[It] has now progressed to foot pain anterior/superior to my arch. It was getting to the point where pain was not subsiding by the next day.

I finally decided I needed new cycling shoes. I took my current pair in to Bicycle Sports Shop this past Saturday expecting them to sell me a new pair, but I experienced quite the opposite. The sales assistant inspected my shoes and he quickly observed my insole was not optimal but there was still plenty of wear remaining on them.

He went into a full length discussion about the importance of proper fitting of shoes. He measured where my my instep was in relation to my shoe fit and marked it, he measured the type of arch I have using a thermal sensor, he measured how my feet pronated/supinated and whether their natural position was vargus or valgus.

Then he reset/repositioned my cleats, fitted and installed a proper Specialized arch insole according to my measurements, and inserted the proper wedge shim based on how my feet align under my knees. All this and the store was really busy. He could have easily just sold me a new pair of shoes and I never once mentioned that I was a member of [the club].

I figured it would take at least two or three cycling evolutions to see if I gained any benefit, but I tested them out today first time doing about 25 mi and OMG!  Just experienced slight numbness in the foot, no pain, and the apposing chronic slight knee pain and nagging lower back pain that I thought were just age related did not even occur!  I will definitely continue my patronage there for any future cycling needs.  And I will not mention any other competitors by name,  but the previous establishment I went to  basically just told me to ‘Match my shoe size and leave a little extra room in case your feet swell.’  Glad I shopped around.”

When your bike shop goes the extra mile for you, don’t take them for granted. Take your return business to them.


Bicycling In Large North American Cities

What is it that prompts people to ride bikes more in some cities, while in others, biking lags noticeably behind? Two academics did a report on the topic for the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, and it comes up with an answer that we’ve heard before.

By the way, the report is fully two years old, so I’m not trying to call your attention to new findings. But it’s likely most Bike Noob readers haven’t heard of or seen the report, so its results could be of interest.

The two researchers, John Pucher of Rutgers University and Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech, aggregated cycling data from nine major North American cities over two decades, roughly 1990-2010. The cities in their study were Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Montreal, Portland, San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington. Those were picked because they already had a strong biking culture. Other major cities such as Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Detroit and Memphis were deliberately left out, because of their low rates of bicycle commuting and cycling facilities.

The rate of cycling was higher in these cities than in the rest of the U.S. or Canada, at least doubling over the two decades of the study. But the percentage of female riders was down, falling from 32 to 23 percent in the years between 2001-2009. The age group that showed the largest increase in the rate of cycling was the 40-64 year olds.

Bike commuting was up in those cities, by 64 percent in the U.S. The percentage of commuters who use bikes rose from 0.4 percent to 0.6 percent — a less impressive number.

Bike fatalities dropped in both the U.S. and Canada — by 66 percent up North, and 21 percent in the States. In fact, the researchers found the fatality rate in Canada to be a third of that in the U.S. Serious injuries also fell. Canada was down 40 percent, the U.S. 31 percent.

Perhaps the main finding of the study was that levels of bicycling positively correlate to the availability of bike lanes and/or bike paths. When cities have those amenities, cycling is three to four times higher than cities that do not. In surveys, cyclists indicated that they prefer segregated bike paths to bike lanes. Most cities have built both, and combining the two gives cyclists more flexibility in planning their trips. But cyclists were split on whether they prefer bike lanes or paths.

All nine cities in the study have been adding to their networks of bike lanes and bike paths. The study notes that bike lanes are growing at a faster rate than paths, by as much as ten times more in Chicago and New York, but even three times as fast in Washington and Minneapolis. “The increased focus on bike lanes,” write the authors, “might also reflect a shift toward promoting daily, utilitarian cycling, and away from the previous emphasis on recreational cycling.”

Cycle tracks, which are popular in Europe, are just starting to be built in North America. Cycle tracks are on-street bike paths separated from motor vehicle traffic by barriers. They’ve been built along some streets in New York, partly as a response to motorists who block bike lanes.

However, it’s the off-street bike paths that get the most use. Most of these are multi-use paths, and are mainly used for recreational cycling. Other bike amenities noted in the study are residential streets with traffic calming features (street narrowing, chicanes, speed humps) and bike boulevards, which give priority to bikes over cars.

The study is subtitled, “Lessons for New York,” and concludes that although New York has built the most bikeways in recent years, it has failed at integrating bicycling with public transit and bike parking.

The report concludes that while biking is enjoying growth, its growth is limited to the few dozen cities that have policies to promote cycling. In the U.S. South, from Texas to North Carolina, cycling rates are still extremely low. The cities that are undergoing a biking Renaissance offer great examples for other cities to follow.




Letting Maintenance Slide

I was looking forward to this morning’s ride. It would be my longest since the crash last weekend, and while I knew my hip would be able to handle it, I still craved some longer than usual road time.

I went through my usual procedures prior to a ride, topped off the air in my tires, and pulled out of the driveway. And about a mile down the road, it hit me — I hadn’t lubed my chain.

bike-chain-lube-162f48Now, I’m pretty good about doing that. I try to lube it once every two weeks. But there are times when it just doesn’t get done. This time around, I think it’s been about a month.

My problem is, I’ve never really set a routine for maintenance of the bike. Often, I’ll grab a few stray minutes before the Sunday morning club ride and run the chain through a rag, then apply the lube. What I really need to do is set a time, like Saturday afternoon, where I give the bike more attention than just the chain.

Besides the chain, the bike could use a thorough washing. Last week’s wet weather left lots of grime on the wheels and tubes, and while I flicked a towel over them to get the worst of the gunk off, I can’t honestly call my bike clean right now.

Luckily, my indifferent maintenance hasn’t caused any problems yet. The bike performed well on today’s ride. Okay, sometimes the shifts weren’t as smooth as they could be. But overall, I’m satisfied with the way things are. They just can’t keep going along this way.

It looks like we’ll be having nice weather for the rest of the week. I’m sure some day I’ll set aside an hour and give my bike the kind of attention it deserves.

Biking Through a Bruise

My fingers next to the bruise give an idea of its size.

My fingers next to the bruise give an idea of its size.

I’m still feeling the effects of that fall I had a week ago. I’ve got the biggest bruise on my hip that I’ve ever had, and it was quite painful to start with. However, one nice aspect of our sport is that it seems to help in recovery from these kinds of injuries.

The crash was odd in that I wasn’t moving all that fast. In fact, I was just slowing to make a turn when the rear wheel slid out from under me. But the full force of the impact fell on my left hip. I must have hit the pavement a lot harder than it first seemed, because two days after the crash, I had trouble rising from a chair. It felt like the whole left torso was bruised as well, although I could find no marks.

How did I treat the big bruise? It turns out that I did everything wrong. The recommended treatment for a bruise is to stretch and ice the affected area after the workout. In my case, I felt so good after riding this week that I did nothing except shower. For pain, acetaminophen is the recommended treatment — not ibuprofen. I gobbled ibuprofen two or three times a day.

Sitting for awhile, while watching TV, exacerbated the pain. Moving eased it. Except for Sunday, the day after the crash, I have been on the bike every day — sometimes pushing myself to climb a small hill a little bit faster, or do some intervals. Without fail, I felt better once I got home.

In one regard, I was lucky. I wasn’t bruised anywhere that came into contact with the bike. So when I ride, I feel like a normal person. It’s only after I’ve been stationary for an hour or more that pain becomes a problem.

Bruises heal themselves in seven to 10 days. My bruise is still impressive, in terms of the area it covers, but I can tell the coloring is already starting to fade. I expect to be back to normal in another couple of days. But in the meantime, I think I’ve healed a little faster by exercising those muscles under the bruise than I would have if I’d done nothing.

Want to Lose Weight? Try Short Sprints

We all probably have different reasons for riding bikes. It keeps us fit, it’s fun, it’s good for the environment, yadda yadda — but I’m sure we’ve all heard stories of people who ride and throw off all kinds of weight as a result.

I gotta be honest — that hasn’t happened to me (although I’m sure it’s not biking’s fault). But then, I happened upon a report of a study done in Australia that tried to find the least amount of exercise you can do for the biggest impact. Forget long slow distance. It’s sprinting.

sweatyThe researchers studied 40 overweight men for 12 weeks — and put them on spin bikes. The men exercised three times a week, but their routines were strenuous — they’d sprint for eight seconds, then pedal easy for 12 seconds, then repeat — for 20 minutes. Now, I’ve done intervals from time to time in the past, but I’d go hard for at least 30 seconds before slowing down. It’s hard to believe that a repeat as short as eight seconds would have any effect.

It did. In the study, the participants lost an average of two kilograms of fat — about four and half pounds — and gained 1.1 kg in muscle mass. Spread over a week, you’re only working hard for eight minutes if you try this regimen.

What’s cool is that the fat loss came where it’s most critical — in the fat that surrounds internal organs and is linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. A control group that did no exercise lost no weight. Both groups were told to stick with their regular diets.

Although this study involved only men, previous studies have reportedly shown similar results in women.

On the bike yesterday afternoon, I thought I’d give the short sprints a try. I didn’t put a clock to it, but I did count off “One Mississippi, two Mississippi,” up to eight as I pedaled hard, then counted the same way to twelve while pedaling easy. It was weird. By the time I got up to full speed, it was time to back off. The twelve count goes by fast too, and I had to get up on the pedals again. In order to reach the speed I was targeting, I stood on the pedals for four seconds, then sat for the remaining four.

Eight seconds of effort doesn’t tire you out. But cumulatively, you feel it. I did the exercise over a mile-and-a-half stretch of straight road, then stopped when I came to a red light. That didn’t get me the 20 minutes of exercise the study participants did, but it did give me a feel for the effort. I have a hunch that 20 minutes would really make itself felt.

The short, fast sprinting is supposed to work on two levels: it releases a group of hormones that cause muscles to burn fat, and it keeps lactic acid release to a minimum.

Once I’m fully recovered from the effects of my fall (riding is really helping speed up that process, by the way), I intend to try the 8/12 repeats on a more structured basis. It’s a kind of riding I’ve never really done, but the novelty of the approach might make it interesting. I hope so. After my short sprint tryout yesterday, my weight today was one pound more.

Fall — Not the Season

So, just after I posted about picking up my training regimen, Central Texas was treated to a round of cool, wet weather. My Friday afternoon ride had to go by the boards, because I just didn’t want to get out in that drizzle. Saturday didn’t start out well either, with real rain falling for a bit.

Austin has been trying to recover from the severe drought that hit in 2011, so when it rains — even a little bit — it’s cause for rejoicing. But that means the bike routine must be altered, with more rides at different times than one might be accustomed to.

So, at about 3:30 Saturday afternoon, I looked outside, took note of the fact that it had stopped drizzling, and that the streets were starting to dry off.

“I’m going for a ride,” I told my wife.

“Don’t knock yourself out,” she said.

The ride was easy enough. Sure, the streets were wet, but they had no standing water. I cruised up a wide suburban arterial, made a U-turn, and then turned off into a little neighborhood where I like to ride to add a bit of distance to this particular route. (And to gawk at the houses that I will never in my wildest dreams ever be able to afford.)

The neighborhood ends with a cul-de-sac. As I started a wide left turn to head back the way I came, I realized that it was a lot wetter here than it had been other places a long the route. Just as I reached that conclusion, I felt my rear wheel start to slide.

Crap. I’ve been here before. Once the slide starts, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. At least, I’ve never mastered a way to deal with it. That wheel went out from under me, and I hit the asphalt hard.

Now, when you’re falling, you must resist the natural urge to brace yourself or you can hurt your hand and wrist. Knowing you should resist and actually doing it are two different things. My hand went out and probably absorbed some of the impact. But as I lie there on the ground, I could tell that it was sore.

I picked myself up, brushed some water and dirt off my thigh, and did a quick assessment of the bike. Computer knocked askew, but no damage. The bang on my hip didn’t seem too bad — at least I think I’d been hurt worse in some other falls I’ve taken, including one in 2009 that was eerily like this one.

When you fall off a horse, you get back on — and I did. I thought I’d continue the ride, which is about a 20-mile loop on neighborhood streets and the Veloway. But by the time I reached the Veloway, my left hand was really bothering me. The heel of the hand — the fleshy padded part at the bottom — ached against the handlebar. I rode slower than usual, not wanting to test my luck against the Veloway’s still-wet curves. I made it home without further mishap.

Some Arnica rub on the hip, a couple of Ibuprofen, and I’m good to go. Sleep was fitful, since I kept rolling onto the sore hip, which woke me up each time, and I’m not sure about a Sunday ride. If I go, it’ll be short.

And I should probably start drilling myself in bike crash avoidance techniques.

Starting Spring Training

While surfing Facebook the other day, I came across a post from the folks at RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa — the granddaddy of all the cross-state tours) concerning training. Even though Iowa is under snow right now, the post noted it’s time to start training for the July ride.

Now, the folks in Iowa have a real disadvantage. There’s that snow I mentioned. It’ll be cold there for quite some time to come. But cycling coach David Ertl, who provides training tips for RAGBRAI riders, is right — it’s time to build up your base.

I, on the other hand, have been doing nothing but base building for several months. I’m lucky enough to be able to ride most days, even when it’s colder than I like (If I want to — sometimes, I prefer to roll over in bed and pull the covers more tightly over my head). But here we are at the beginning of March, and those base miles I’ve built up need to develop into something more.

I’m going to start by lengthening my weekend rides. The club rides I do every Sunday have been dependably in the 30-40 mile range. Now, it’s time to add some decent distance to those rides, and make them in the 35-50 mile range. I find that riding longer is the single best thing I can do to improve my cycling.

Then, lengthening the shorter rides of the week could be added in. That means more time in the saddle, and time doesn’t always cooperate. But my usual 20-mile ride on weekday evenings might have to extend to 25 miles or so. I mentioned Daylight Savings Time in the last post — that will really help with longer weekday rides.

Finally, adding in some hard riding. Last weekend, I attacked a hill that I’ve just been riding up during the winter. It left me gasping for breath. But I’ll keep working it from here on out. It takes me about three minutes to climb, and during last summer, I hit a personal best on that hill of 2:24. I’ll be working to get back to that time.

Intervals are not my favorite kind of riding, but I know from experience that they’re very helpful in building speed. I start out easy: 30 seconds all-out, followed by one minute easy pedaling. The 30 seconds will grow to a minute, then to two minutes. Once I get up to two minutes fast, two minutes easy, I’ll be where I want to be.

Does this sound like a change in riding philosophy for the Bike Noob? Maybe. But I just had yet another birthday, and I want to make sure I don’t let my age catch up to me. More rigorous training will help stave off the aging monster.

And heck, I just want to enjoy my biking. Certainly, just riding brings enjoyment. But riding well brings more enjoyment, because you can ride longer and stronger. So — let the serious spring training begin.