Let the Training Begin!

Finally, I’m back in the swing of things. It’s Spring Break, and I have a week off! I got on the bike Friday, and have ridden each day since then.

It’s important that I do so, because I’ve committed to a bike ride at the end of the month that will involve some challenging hills. It’s not a race or anything — just a semi-organized ride over some roads in Northwest Austin that I’ve never ridden, but have always wanted to.

But my lackadaisical attitude this winter has set me back, fitness-wise. If I’m going to ride hills — and on a ride whose mileage is not a challenge — I need to start training for hills.

Today, I did. I headed out through my immediate neighborhood and worked my way over to Convict Hill, a place I’ve written about before. I used to climb Convict Hill regularly, in both directions. But I haven’t been there in weeks, and I hadn’t ridden it in weeks before the last time I rode it. I knew I’d be pushing myself.

Sure enough, I was. I’m still not quite over the hacking cough that’s been bothering me for the last week, but I’m almost over it. It’s not badd enough to keep me off the bike, anyway. But when I hit that hill, I could tell I hadn’t been there for awhile.

Where I could climb it in the big ring before, I struggled in the small ring today. But I rode all the hills on the route, even if slowly, and reminded myself of where I need to be in a couple of weeks, fitness-wise. If we hadn’t had to be at an event in the afternoon, I’d have ridden longer.

When I pulled up to the garage and hopped off the bike, I was anxious to see just where I stood, according to Strava. How did I do today compared to previous rides on that route?

I’ll never know. I had one of those pesky Strava fails. It registered exactly zero miles on the ride. (Before I could delete it from my account, one of my wise guy friends gave me kudos.) I retraced the route on Map My Ride, and it came out to 17.4 miles. Problem is, I have no idea how long it took. I didn’t check my watch when I started, and I didn’t bother to bring the cheap bike computer along on the ride, because Strava is always there.

That’s okay. I intend to ride every day this week, so I’ll have a chance to cover the route again soon. In the meantime, it’s fun to have something to shoot for.

Rollers, Rollers, Rollers

That squeak turned out to be a worn chain. I’ll get a new one this week. In the meantime, I lubed it up and headed out to meet my biking buddy Maggie for a Sunday ride.

I didn’t want to go far because of the chain. She had done a longish ride the day before, and wasn’t up for a long one, either. We set off for Buda, about 15 miles away. When we ride there with the A’s, we often get there in record time. This week, we lazed our way along.

On the outskirts of the small town, we took a bio break at the Walgreen’s. That’s a favorite stopping point for both of us, because the water fountain by the bathrooms always runs cold.

“Where should we go from here?” Maggie asked. We have a routine route — head for the historic downtown area, then make a choice between turning toward Cole Springs Road or heading out on the road past the cement plant. Cole Springs is the more scenic, if rougher, road. The cement plant road is slightly uphill for three miles, and we prefer to take it on the way back, where we can rack up some real speed.

The bike was rolling well with its freshly-lubed chain. I suggested a route we hadn’t taken yet — one I hadn’t ridden in four or five years. We’d turn in the opposite direction, cross under Interstate 35, and pick up the country roads.

Almost as soon as we crossed east of the Interstate, we hit the rollers. This land might be called “Blackland Praire,” but it’s anything but flat. Rollers can be fun, though. Work a bit on your way up, then coast at anywhere from 20-25 mph on your way down. This went on for several miles.

A typical view as we approach more rollers on Turnersville Road.

A typical view as we approach more rollers on Turnersville Road.

A left turn sent us north, but still up and down hills. We saw a dog stick its head out from a driveway some distance ahead, and got ready to fend him off. But he apparently called his friends, and as we got closer, four other dogs dashed out onto the road, charging us and barking loudly.

Two of the dogs were little things, and a shouted, “Stay!” was enough to stop them in their tracks. The first dog we saw looked friendly enough, and hung back, but a brown and white pooch bared its teeth and made some threatening moves. Maggie pulled out her water bottle, ready to squirt. But her yells kept that one away, too — until I drew even with him. He let me get a little ahead, then came after me. I yelled, but that didn’t faze him. Finally, I built up enough speed, and we were far enough past his place, that he stopped.

We turned at a busy ranch road, that led past the local landfill. It’s a huge operation, and its claim to fame is an exotic game ranch around the back side. But this time, a beautiful large African antelope of some kind was right next to the road, behind a fence, of course. I would have stopped for a picture, but the animal was skittish. He backed away when Maggie drew close, and I figured if I stopped, he would run off. I kept going.

Turn again, past some back holes on a golf course, and up and down more rollers. Suddenly, I was having trouble catching Maggie, who was pulling away from me. I realized it wasn’t my bad chain — it was my bad fitness. The previous night, I went to bed an hour earlier than usual, since we were planning an early start this morning. But the dog barked to be let out at 3:45 a.m., and I never got back to sleep. Now, I was feeling it. The tiredness just washed over me.

We had a civil conversation with some guys in a Boss 302 Mustang while waiting at the light to cross I-35 again. They thought what we were doing was dangerous, because the intersection is always busy with heavy traffic. We explained that this was the only way for us to cross the highway, and we’d grit our teeth and get through it as best as we could. Of course, the unspoken subtext was that we weren’t supposed to be riding on the roads. As I say, at least the conversation was civil.

Two miles farther on, I called for a stop at a convenience store. We don’t usually take a break there, with only about eight miles to go before reaching home, but I needed to recharge. Some Shot Bloks, Fig Newtons, and ice water, and I was good to go.

Still had to climb the backside of Davis Hill. By this time, the food from the stop had kicked in, and I had little trouble. “I hate that hill,” Maggie said, and I agreed. I pedaled well all the way back, but later at home, was knocked flat by cramps in my thighs. I got to the kitchen, made myself a good lunch, then conked out on the bed for two hours.

Rollers are fun, and are a good conditioner. But next time, I’ll make sure I tackle them with a full night’s sleep under my belt.


Thinking About Hills

Anyone who has read Bike Noob knows I’m not much of a hill climber. In fact, if anything, my hill-climbing ability has decreased in the past couple of years — I’m getting older, you know. Yeah, that’s it. (All right — I still haven’t managed to get my weight down to that level where hills are doable — but I think I’ll stick with the age angle.)

But it’s spring, believe it or not (It must be — we’re under our second wind advisory in a week! It was tough out there today!), and as we point toward our nice weather riding (It will come again, I promise), a lot of us will add hills to our training regimens.

Yes, even I climb hills in training. But the hills I climb close to home aren’t anything like the really challenging hills we’ll face on some of our targeted rides.

One that I think I’ll try to handle — maybe in the fall, after I’ve had lots of time to train for it — is Fulton Ranch Road. It’s not too far from Austin, and has been part of the 100-mile version of the Livestrong Ride here. It’s got a grade that I think is just within my abilities, but the problem is, it’s a lot longer than most of the hills around here. To whet your appetite for some warm-weather climbing, here’s a YouTube video of the hill.

But Fulton Ranch Road pales in comparison to the real monster. That’s the Westernport Wall in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. Its 31 percent grade — that’s 31 percent! — is steep enough that the road is closed to motor traffic. But bikers are welcome to take a stab at it. And to make matters worse, the Wall is only part of the story. It comes in the middle of a triathlon! If you can get to the top of the Wall without clipping out and walking, you get a brick with your name incribed added to the rough and uneven surface of the road.

Makes my .4-mile jaunt up Convict Hill look like a walk in the park. Maybe by the end of summer, it will be!

The Hills, Revisited

Guest poster Don Blount is back again, this time regarding his never-ending battle with the hills.

BlountOnBikingNo mea culpas from me. No apologies either. I previously have called hills evil and I am not backing down from that statement.

Well, at least not until they apologize for throwing so much hate in my direction.

Hills, and their partner Gravity, worked against me greatly.

They made climbing torture and frequently stripped me of my dignity. You ever tried to look cool pushing a bike up a hill while wearing cycling shoes?

But of late, climbing has become much easier.

I can comfortably do rides that I could not handle a few months ago. I can look at the scenery and even talk to other riders at times. I can do rides I would not have attempted previously.

This is not because of any change in the hills as they have made no concessions. It is because I lost a boatload of weight and improved my fitness.

Now that I can ride in the hills, I have plenty of climbing planned.

On Jan. 2, I was part of a group of six who rode a route that is part of the Amgen Tour of California . We started in Danville , rode to the summit of Mt. Diablo , descended down the other side of the mountain to Walnut Creek for lunch. We then rode back up to a junction a few miles from the summit before returning to our starting point.

In total, the ride was 49.44 miles (79.56 kilometers) with 6,138 feet (about 1,871 meters) of climbing in 3 hours 57 minutes.

Summit of Mt Diablo in Mt Diablo State Park near Danville, Calif.

Summit of Mt Diablo in Mt Diablo State Park near Danville, Calif.

And it was something I would not have attempted a year ago.

But as I do these rides, I keep in mind that Hills and Gravity are tricky. They are just waiting for the right moment to ambush me. It could be on an extended climb or a climb with a steep grade or even a series of rollers. I am not letting my guard down. I plan to continue working at riding and climbing.

And I keep in mind what I was told by Bennie, a member of my bike club. He would know about climbing as much as anyone. A few years ago he climbed a million feet in a year. He consistently tells me: It gets better the more you climb BUT NOT EASIER.

The B’s Beat the A’s

Well, not in the realm of speed. But the Sunday morning club ride turned out to be a real morale booster for at least two of us B riders.

We were going to head out on a route I’d been wanting to do for some time, but for some reason never got around to it. I had ridden it last about three years ago, and recalled that it approached 50 miles. It also features a few hills.

Twenty-four riders set off at 8:15 on an overcast day, with temperatures hovering in the low to mid 60s (18C). As usual, we quickly separated into a fast group, a less fast group, and the B riders. Four of us made up the B contingent today: me and Maggie, who has been riding with the club for a couple of months, and two newcomers, Mark and Victoria. Actually, Mark qualified as an A rider, but he was content to stay back with Victoria.

By the time we reached the rural part of the route, we couldn’t even see any riders ahead of us anymore. I directed Mark to turn right onto a road that leads around the back side of a country club, hoping that was the way the A’s went — not that I thought we’d ever see them again.

But in a few minutes, we came upon several riders alongside the road. Janice, who is usually near the front of the pack, had hit what she called a “crevasse” in the asphalt — a big crack that swallowed her rear wheel. The tire was badly damaged, and she was lo0king for someone with a boot. I carry a piece of a ride number to serve that purpose. It’s made of a Tyvek-like material, and it’s no problem to cut a ride number in thirds, and stuff them into the seat bag.

Too bad I hadn’t done that recently. I came up empty. Jerry (not the same Jerry who broke his leg in a fall a couple of weeks ago) did have one — a nifty little unit the size of a credit card he bought from Park Tool. Janice made do with it — “I really needed several today,” she said — and abandoned the ride to head home.

A mile or so up ahead, the A’s had all gathered to wait for Janice to catch up. When I told our ride leader that she would be turning around, we all headed out in a big group again. Then the fun really began.

Satterwhite Road is a rural road in Hays County that gets a lot of bike traffic on Sundays. It’s fun, because of its rolling hills. I was following Maggie at speed down one of the hills, when the road surface at the bottom just didn’t look right. It changed in an instant from semi-smooth old asphalt to torn up. It looked as though a giant scraper had been over it, ripping up the old asphalt and leaving only what was underneath — hard-packed dirt, gravel, and stones.

We all hit the brakes and rode gingerly through the mess. Two riders flatted along here. Whenever we hit a stretch of asphalt that hadn’t been torn up, we rejoiced — only to round a bend and get hit with another bad road surface. This lasted for several miles, when finally we could turn onto a new road.

I saw the A’s up ahead, waiting at an intersection. It looked like they were going to take a shortcut back home. But Maggie and I had discussed our ride options, and she wanted to go a little longer. We shot past the startled A’s and kept going. Our route added probably six miles to the one they chose.

After a rest stop at the convenience store in Creedmoor, we set out for home. Maggie had to pick up her son from a sleepover at noon, and we would be hard-pressed to get back by then. We both pushed it harder than usual, taking turns at the lead.

Our route passed the exotic game ranch behind the big landfill, and the animals were out in larger numbers than I had seen before. Lots of small deer and antelopes, but also ostriches and emus, a zebra, and a number of scimitar oryx — African antelope with long, curving horns. Magnificent!

Just before reaching the Starbucks where our ride began, Maggie and I peeled off in different directions, she to get her car and me to head the last mile home. This afternoon, the club president posted his summary of the ride. The A’s did 41 miles. The B’s — Maggie and yours truly — did 48! I believe this is a first. The B’s have never ridden farther on a club ride than the A’s. In the overall scheme of things, not much perhaps. But it was a little feather in the cap for Maggie and me.

Stoplights — Bike Ride Spoilers

The main club ride today was scheduled to make a run into the city. It would skirt downtown and go north on some well-traveled bike routes.

I’ve done most of this route in the past, but it’s not one of my favorites. The turnaround point is about 25 miles out, and it’s all urban and suburban riding — nothing in the country. I had suggested a country ride to Creedmoor, but at the Starbucks gathering point, some of the other Bs thought tagging along with the A ride would be fun. So we set off in an impressive looking group of 28 riders.

That group strung out and some of us were losing contact with the front pack by about nine miles into the ride. We had had some online discussion about one of the streets, which has been closed on and off over the last few weeks. Some said we needed an alternate route to get around the construction. The club president said he drove that street the afternoon before, and it was open. Unfortunately, he posted that info at 7:15 in the morning, and I didn’t see it.

We got to an intersection with Lamar Blvd., a major north-south artery in town, and watched with downcast faces as the peloton shot across. The red light held up about six of us. It turned out to be a long light. By the time we got rolling again, any trace of the main group was long gone. We found our way up to Barton Springs Blvd., which would take us to the pedestrian bridge over the Colorado River.

At Barton Springs, another red light. Two of us got across the street before the light turned red, but the others got stuck at the intersection. We waited. Then, another red light on our street separated us again. The three of us in front waited. Finally, we got up to the pedestrian bridge. It’s a lower level of the freeway bridge that crosses the river, and is used by both pedestrians and cyclists. On this gorgeous Sunday morning, it was packed. I unclipped from my right pedal so I could put my foot down in an instant if needed, and pushed on only my left pedal to weave through the crowd.

Cross the bridge. Turn left, power up a hill past an uninterrupted row of cars, many of which could block us with opening doors. We kept a careful lookout, but got to the next light with no trouble. Another long stoplight, then we could turn onto a road with a decent shoulder and make some time. Any hope of catching the main group had long since disappeared, and we continued on as a fractured group of six.

But at another turn onto Shoal Creek Blvd., who should we see but New York John. He was waiting for us, because his son-in-law was one of our group.

“What the f***!” he yelled. “I’m waitin’ for my son-in-law, and the whole f****n’ B ride shows up! I t’ought youse was goin’ to Creedmoor! Ten f****n’ minutes I’m waitin’ here! Why the f*** are youse guys so f****n’ slow? Aaagh, now I been dropped! Let’s get f****n’ movin’!”

I love New York John.

He set a quick pace up Shoal Creek, even though there was no way we would catch the As. He might be 65, but he’s slightly built, and rolls his carbon fiber Specialized Roubaix with the best of them. Shoal Creek is a road through residential neighborhoods, and sure enough, stoplights pepper the route. Sure enough, some of us got caught at them.

Stoplights can be your friend. John and the others were stuck at one at Anderson Lane, and we three laggards caught up. About a mile later, we saw a peloton heading toward us. It was the A group.

We did a U-turn, heedless of traffic in the area, and latched onto them. Luckily, they pulled into a convenience store a minute later, and we got to take a much-needed rest.

It was nice to feel the pull of the peloton on the way out. I was in the middle of the pack, chatting with a couple of A riders and our club president. But we had some guests with us today, and they picked up the pace. The group fractured again. This time, the club president stayed back with us. He got caught by another stoplight, too.

By the time we reached Mount Bonnell, it was just Buddy, Jan and me. “We don’t have to climb Bonnell,” I said. “We can stay on this street, which is plenty hilly, and meet them a little ways on.”

The club president caught us a mile down the road. “We waited for you at the top,” he said. “It was literally only 50 yards to the top — you could have come with us and bombed down the nice downhill.” We turned into a gas station for a quick break — and the rest of the ride flew by us.

After crossing the pedestrian bridge over the river again, we got onto the frontage road of the Mopac Expressway. Buddy was starting to slow, bothered by cramps in his quads. I stayed back with him, but that noble gesture was driven by self-interest. By now, I was tired, too.

One last stoplight on Escarpment Blvd. I made it through — Buddy didn’t. He pulled into Starbucks a few minutes after I did. We agreed that we’d done well this day — 3500 feet of climbing over about 50 miles. Both of us were pleased with the results, but we agreed that without those pesky stoplights, we would have done a lot better.

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.