20 Over 20: How to Get Fit Cycling Without Even Trying

I not only a bike noob. I’m a bike geek.

Part of what appeals to me so much about this sport is the technology and opportunities to measure and test and repeat. Bike computers and Strava have been the best things that ever happened to my physical fitness. Because every time I go out for a ride, I have incentive to push a little harder a little longer.

To keep myself pushing both up and down hills with no coasting, I watch my average speed. I’ve got my own goals and bars that I set for myself. Depending on the route I’m taking, I know that I should be able to average 18.5 or 19.0 or more.

A bar that’s pretty high for me is to average over 20 mph over 20 miles. I’ve done it lots of times in a group, but it’s tough to do solo, especially with some hills in the mix.

Sometimes everything comes together — a day of rest, some tailwinds, a well placed cyclist to chase down and get the competitive juices flowing — And today I was 11 miles in, at the point where the loop turns back toward home and I was averaging 20.5. I knew I had some good uphills to get back home plus headwinds, but at that point I committed myself to keep it above 20.

It was a struggle, especially with a few stop signs and traffic, but I pulled it off. And the workout I got was like when I’m chasing down the crazy-good cyclists in the local club A group rides.

I pushed harder, got a better workout, just by playing head games with myself. That extra effort to simply keep the average up over an arbitrary number turned a good workout into an amazing one. And I get all the bonus accomplishment feels to go with it.

None of this would be possible without a good bike computer to keep tabs on the numbers. I have a Garmin Edge 510 paired up with a heart rate monitor and cadence/speed sensor. There are lots of alternatives. Even your smart phone running Strava will do the job. Though you need a handlebar mount for your phone to be able to watch the numbers.

And if you don’t use Strava, give it a try. If you’re worried about how you look to your friends and others, don’t. You don’t have to compete with anybody but yourself. Your goals are your goals. You don’t have to compare. Just be honest with yourself.

There is, however, something to be said about the accountability and support you get interacting with a community like Strava. Getting comments and kudos (likes) go a long way.

If you’re going for fitness this is how to do it. You have to push. No coasting. And lay off the “granny gears”. With all due respect to actual grannies.

Get Some!

Here are some of the things mentioned in this article.

Garmin Edge 510 GPS Bundle And Mount

Garmin Edge 510 GPS Bundle And Mount

The Garmin Edge 510 Bundle Version comes with a premium heart rate monitor and speed/cadence sensor, along with all the trimmings of the regular 510.

Cycling Has Made Me a Better Driver

The ride Sunday morning had been an uneventful one. Four of us set off for Creedmoor, southeast of Austin. We found that one of the country roads we take to get there had been partially graded to prepare for resurfacing, and was not in good shape for cycling. If we go that way again, we’ll have to figure out an alternate route. One of the highlights along the way is an exotic game ranch, featuring lots of African deer and antelope, zebras, ostriches and emus, and other critters.

The animals take off when I stop and get out my camera. But the guy on the left shows off his long horns. (Click to enlarge.)
The animals take off when I stop and get out my camera. But the guy on the left shows off his long horns. (Click to enlarge.)

It’s only about 17 miles to Creedmoor, but for some reason, every group I ride with tends to stop there for a long time. We take turns going in to buy fig newtons, top off our water jugs or buy Gatorade, and use the facilities. Finally, I asked everyone if we planned to go home at all today.

Not sure why we spend so much time here -- it's a rather nondescript convenience store stop.
Not sure why we spend so much time here — it’s a rather nondescript convenience store stop.

We take a different road back than out. Thaxton Road takes us past lots of single-wide and double-wide manufactured homes, but also some anomalies.

A fancy ornamental fence in front of a house in the country.
A fancy ornamental fence in front of a house in the country. Picture from Google Earth Street View.
A cute, well-cared for cottage on a stock pond. Picture from Google earth Street View.
A cute, well-cared for cottage on a stock pond. Picture from Google earth Street View.

On the way home, one of the group peeled off to head for his house. The remaining three were spread out, with me bringing up the rear. With just two miles to go, my ride nearly ended. A driver poked his nose from a side street on the right into the bike lane, looking to make a left turn. But for some unfathomable reason, he only looked to his right. I was traveling at about 20 mph, and it looked like he would pull out right into my path. I moved out of the bike lane and into the traffic lane, so his chances of seeing me were better. At the last moment, he looked my way, saw me, and slammed on his brakes.

I passed in front of him, and gave him an appreciative wave, wondering at the same time if he’d ever received any drivers’ ed. I was reminded of a woman on my block who was supervising her grandson while he rode his bike through the neighborhood.

“Left, right, left!” she called as he went by. Meaning, of course, that he should first look to his left, then to his right, and make a final check to the left  before riding through an intersection.

The car driver I encountered could have used a refresher like that.

Then, just a quarter-mile beyond, a pickup truck drew even with me as I came upon another intersection. I knew this wasn’t going to be good. His turn signal was flashing, and he was going to turn right. I don’t trust pickup trucks. I hit my brakes, and eased into the traffic lane behind him. Sure enough, he braked hard and turned right. If I had stayed in the bike lane, it would have been a classic right hook.

Two cases, two times I anticipated what the drivers would do, and saved myself from a potential disaster.

I’m not sure that would have been the case five or six years ago. But since I started riding a bike, I’ve become a better driver.

When I’m on the road, I’m a lot more aware of what’s going on around me than I used to be. I used to be proud that I checked my rear view mirror every 15 seconds; now I do it even more often. And it’s not just the rear view mirror. I’m constantly scanning around me, even the oncoming traffic on the other side of the road divider. You never know when some clown is going to lose control and cross the median into your path.

In Texas, I think there’s something genetic that keeps drivers from signaling their turns. I’ve gotten pretty good at reading minds, and anticipating what drivers around me are going to do. Most often, they pull around to pass me on the right — even if I’m going down the Interstate at 80 mph.

My heightened awareness behind the wheel doesn’t mean I’m a little old octogenarian tootling along well below the speed limit. A good driver won’t hold up traffic, but also won’t dart in and out of lanes, just to wind up only two car lengths ahead by the time we reach our destination 15 minutes down the road. Instead, I’m part of the traffic, trying to be as predictable as possible.

I’m the same way on my bike — predictable. Drivers might not pay the closest attention to me, but once I’m in their sights, they should have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to do. But I never really worried about being predictable in the car until after I’d ridden the bike for awhile. When you ride with heightened awareness, that rubs off onto your driving, too.

Top Gear – and Bicycles

I have a confession to make. I love the British TV show, “Top Gear.”

Yeah, it’s all about cars. Mostly, cars that most of us can only dream about: super fast, super sexy sports cars that can go over 200 mph, or powerful SUVs that gobble up tough off-road terrain like it was smooth asphalt. Fuel economy? Traffic congestion? Road safety? Those things don’t exist for the “Top Gear” crew.

The "Top Gear" crew: Richard Hammond, James May, and Jeremy Clarkson. From Phil Guest, Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Top_Gear_team_Richard_Hammond,_James_May_and_Jeremy_Clarkson_31_October_2008.jpg
The “Top Gear” crew: Richard Hammond, James May, and Jeremy Clarkson. From Phil Guest, Wikimedia Commons.

So I was pleasantly surprised Monday evening while watching the newest episode of the show, to see that it was going to do something on bikes. Specifically, bike safety. The hook for the episode was that hosts Jeremy Clarkson and James May would make a public service announcement about bike safety.

As you can imagine, it didn’t turn out well for cyclists:

A panel of reviewers that included prominent cyclist Chris Boardman, rejected that one. So, Clarkson and May decided to get a first-hand look at the challenges cyclists face. They hopped on bikes — May on a Brompton and Clarkson on a hybrid — and rode in traffic through London’s West End.

Advancing the theme of their failed PSA, Clarkson noted, “The light just went red, so that means go when you’re a cyclist.”

Other observations: Right turns (the equivalent of left turns in the U.S. and Canada) are dangerous — so they picked a route that included only left turns. Buses are the biggest problem, because they do not look out for cyclists. “All bus drivers think they’re Lord God Almighty,” Clarkson complained. If biking could be made more attractive to the public, they’d commute more on bikes, and there wouldn’t be any need for buses, he said. (Public transit is another “Top Gear” no-no.)

They discovered another problem for bikers: sore bottoms. Apparently, chamois cream isn’t what it’s cracked up to be — “Have you ever put toothpaste on your testicles?” Clarkson wailed.

At one point in the ride, Clarkson dropped his chain, and the pedantic May berated him for riding a bike that was obviously not maintained correctly.

And after three hours of riding, they figured they were now fully paid-up members of the cycling community, as they sat outdoors at a coffee shop, drank their lattes, and read the Guardian (probably the last paper Clarkson would be caught reading).

So, they went back for some more tries at bike safety videos.

One of Clarkson’s showed a man returning home after a day on the job. “John works hard,” the announcer said, “which means he can afford to drive a car. That means he gets home to his family safely every night.” The closing shot showed a mangled bike lying in the road.

May had a similar take. His spot featured adults  in a children’s playground. A man rode by on a bike. Voiceover: “You stopped playing with children’s toys when you grew up. So why ride a bicycle? Act your age. Get a car.”

It’s all in fun. But “Top Gear” is a highly-watched program in Great Britain, and is seen in something like 170 countries around the world. Its anti-bike message is not innocuous. It would be nice to see the show recognize that cycling is a legitimate alternative to gas-guzzling motor vehicles.

In fairness, several seasons ago, the crew staged a commuting challenge that pitted a bike against an SUV, a speedboat, and public transportation. The aim was to cross London during morning rush hour. Host Richard Hammond rode the bike. The bike won.