Riding Alone, Riding Slow

I enjoy my Sunday morning club rides. It’s good to be with a group, good to see riding acquaintances, good to chit chat while riding.

I also enjoy riding alone, and do most of my riding that way.

But that creates a problem — when I ride alone, I loaf.

Take last week’s club ride as an example. By 10 miles into the ride, I was off the back of the group and riding solo. I didn’t think about my pace, but just enjoyed the route through Texas Hill Country. It wasn’t long, though, before I was caught by several clubbers who had stopped to refill water bottles at a convenience store. They breezed past me. Some of them were A riders, so no big deal there. But others were regulars in our B ride, and I knew I could keep up with them.

I picked up the pace a bit, and did just that over the next five miles or so. Coming back on the return leg, I found myself on my own again — my own fault for taking a little longer at the turnaround than the rest of the group. After pedaling alone for seven miles, I caught up to them at a convenience store, where we always take a rest stop.

“You’re doing great today, Ray!” said a couple of the riders.

“I can’t be. I’m not keeping up with you,” I replied.

“No, really — when Judy says you’re doing great, you’re doing great,” said her husband.

I went in to refill my bottles. When I came out, they were already waiting at the stoplight on the corner to ride the last 10 miles home. I sat on a curb and drank some water and ate a fig bar. That meant I’d be on my own again for the last leg of the ride. I took it easy.

Yesterday, on my regular Saturday morning route, I paid a little more attention to my progress. I climbed a favorite hill in the big ring, as I have been doing lately, and beat by previous best time by one second. Later, on a difficult stretch that looks flat but isn’t, I kept my speed at least one mph higher than I normally do. But when I finished the 28-mile route, my average speed was only 14.5 — no great shakes.

Today, the club wanted to do a hills ride. In this heat? No thanks. I went off by myself to the southeast, on a route that features some rollers, but nothing difficult. Sure enough, on the way out I did a mental assessment of how well I was doing. I was doing fine, really, in terms of riding steadily, but my average speed was on the low side again.

I  can ride well with B-level cyclists, but I have to have them nearby so I can feel challenged. It doesn’t matter if we as a group are trying to hit a certain speed, or if we’re just riding. As long as others are around, I’ll put out more effort. Once I’m by myself, my ride becomes a pootle in the park, so to speak.

The Hotter ‘N Hell Hundred is in two weeks, and I know I’ll do fine — because I’ll be in the middle of about 13,000 other riders. I won’t be lacking for inspiration to keep up the pace, and I’m looking forward to it. (Oh, by the way, I have decided that I’ll do the 100K ride instead of the 100 miles. It’ll take me about four and half hours to finish the metric century, and I think that’s plenty of time in the saddle.) But if I find myself out on a country road with no other cyclists nearby, I know my speed is going to fall off.

Do you need that feeling of being challenged by other riders, or are you capable of pushing yourself even when no one else is around?

Training With “Fartlek”

I was in the middle of my regular Tuesday ride at the Veloway today when it occurred to me that I had written about this ride early in the life of the Bike Noob blog. Tuesday is my “fartlek” ride. And since most current Bike Noob readers probably haven’t seen that three-year old post, I’m going to resurrect an edited version of it.

Back when I was a runner — okay, I was never anything more than a jogger — interval training was considered the way to go to train for a race. I entered my share of t-shirt runs, and sometimes I even got serious about training for them. But intervals put me off. They seemed too regimented — too serious.

Then I read about an alternative method of training. It’s called fartlek — from the Swedish for “speed play.” A fartlek trainer runs at a certain pace, or tempo, for awhile, and then turns on the gas and runs hard for awhile. The bursts of speed are not over set distances, and recovery times are always different. That’s the kind of training I enjoyed doing.

I thought about that on today’s ride. I had fully intended to do intervals. I even had the fast sections mapped out in my head. I knew approximately how long my recovery times would last. But when I started my first interval, I just couldn’t get enthusiastic about it.

Then it occurred to me — do fartlek. I started pulling on the pedals through a twisty inclined stretch, a little less than a mile. At the high point, I backed off. I rode through a relatively flat area without pushing hard.  On another twisty incline I stomped on it again, and held the fast pace for almost another mile.  On an ess curve that features a right-angle left followed by an acute-angle right, I laid the bike as far over as it would go without falling (great fun).  Then I coasted back to the start.

I did five laps, and did fartlek for four of them.  Each time, my fast and slow sections were different.  I got the training benefit without the regimentation that takes the fun out of biking.  Tonight, I can feel it.  I fell asleep in front of the TV.  I’m going to bed earlier than usual.  This might partly be because I slept poorly last night, but it’s also because I had a tough workout.  I like the feeling.  I plan to do it some more.

Captain Slow

James May ("Captain Slow")

Last week, I rode with my friend David. It was a standard Saturday morning ride in our area, but with one difference: I’ve gotten faster than him over the last year or so.

“You really should ride with the A group,” he said, referring to our Sunday morning club rides. “Challenge yourself.”

I was sure I wasn’t ready for that yet. The A group consistently leaves me in the dust after several miles into the ride. But this weekend, there was no scheduled B ride. And although I wasn’t crazy about the proposed route, I knew I could break away from the group at a convenient intersection and go my own way. That’s what I told the ride leader I would do.

It’s always fun to start off with a big group. There’s a lot of chatter, and the pace is moderate as we get our legs warmed up. Today’s route took us up a longish hill, a turn onto a street of apartments and condos, then out to Southwest Parkway — a six-lane, divided highway with a wide shoulder.

Before we got to Southwest Parkway, I was off the back. Once I turned onto the highway, the group was out of sight around a bend. When I got up to that bend, they were out of sight for good.

The route turns onto Barton Creek Blvd., a favorite of mine. It’s a wide, smooth road through an upscale residential area. It rises and falls, with lots of curves. I’ve hit my highest speed ever here, and even today I easily cranked it up to 35 right off the bat. But a ferocious wind from the southeast — at my right rear quarter — made me keep my speed in check.

The monster we call Hail Mary Hill was just ahead. I finally got to the point last year where I could pedal all the way up it. It was slow going, in my 34 x 28 gear, but I always finished. Not today. I walked the bike up the hill. When I reached the church parking lot at the top for the usual rest and recover stop, the group was already gone.

I made my way home against a 20 mph headwind.

What’s changed? Last year, I built up mileage early, because I was training for the MS 150. I wasn’t in it this year, so I haven’t been piling on the miles. I do hill work, but my neighborhood hills — as much as they have helped — haven’t prepared me for the bigger grades. I’ve only recently started riding with the club again. Most of my riding up until about mid-May was on my own, or with maybe one other person.

Finally, I turned 60 this year. I know, that’s not an excuse. In fact, there were at least two guys over 60 on today’s ride. They had no trouble keeping up with the pack.

But for me to get back to where I was last year, I’m going to have to work a lot harder. And frankly, I don’t think I want to. The riding I do is keeping me reasonably fit. When I’m out of the club milieu, I can hold my own against most other riders I come across. If I decide to continue riding with the club, it will be on B rides, with slower riders. I’ve never been able to keep up with the A’s — even last year — and I’ve concluded it’s not worth it to me to put in the effort to do it.

The British TV show “Top Gear” has a co-host named James May, who is always getting ribbed by the other co-hosts for his slow driving. They call him “Captain Slow.” If that becomes my new nickname too, well — I’m OK with that.

Speed

The weekend approaches, and with it, the promise of longer rides than I get in during the week. Some hills will be involved, especially on Sunday’s ride, and that will probably bring my average speed below my average. (?)

I’ve always considered myself a 15-mile-per-hour rider, which is why I ride with the B group on club outings. But I’m not really sure how much faster I’ll have to go to bring up my overall average.

Reader Don from California says he considers himself to be a slow rider, but since he usually rides alone, he has no one to measure against. “On an average ride I’m in the 17 mph range,” he says. See ya, Don. I’ll watch as you leave me behind. Don wonders if he would go faster if he rode with someone.

But then he asks the key question: “I also wonder if speed matters?”

Well, of course it does. Man, I track my ride stats like pitchers track their ERA. And I’m kinda concerned. It looks like I might not be a 15 mph rider after all, if you believe my Bike Journal stats for June:

SpeedYikes! I’m only a 14.79 mph rider. Yeah, I see where I pushed it a couple of times, but those were when I was deliberately pushing it.

I averaged 15.47 on my century ride last fall, and I know I’m a better rider now. I’m having trouble accounting for this apparent slowdown. Should I be worried? Or should I be like Don, and wonder if speed matters?

What’s your average speed? Do you even track it?

Sometimes you chase rabbits…

Got out to ride in the morning today, while the weather was still reasonable. It’s been getting really hot around here lately, and riding in the afternoon is not pleasant. But today’s run, along the Mopac time trial route, was great. I have to pass a school to get to the start of the route, but yesterday was the last day of school, so I didn’t have to thread the needle between SUVs parked against the curb, and impatient drivers trying to get by me. It was nice.

Out on Mopac, I hit the lap button on my cyclocomputer, just to compare what I did in the time trial two weeks ago with what I would do when not pushing it. Up ahead in the distance, I saw two bikers, and wondered if I’d be able to catch up to them.

After climbing the only decent hill on the route, I could see that I wouldn’t. They had put some ground between us. I settled back into a comfortable pace.

I made the turn at the ranch road, and hit the return route. The two riders were dots in the distance now, but another solitary cyclist (what’s the literary reference there?*) came into view.

My favorite part of the return route is a long downhill. I got aero, but into a brisk wind I wasn’t setting any speed records. However, the solitary cyclist was making even less headway than I was. I made him my rabbit, and set off on the chase.

At the bottom of the hill, we lose a lot of speed. I shifted into an easier gear and kept the legs pumping. I could see his jersey now — orange — and tried to get close enough to read what it said.

Turning north, we hit a series of lesser hills. He wasn’t trying to push up them. I was. A Camelback covered the logo on his jersey back, but that didn’t matter anymore. “On your left!” I called. As I pulled even with him, I looked over an said a pleasant, “Good morning.” He stared straight ahead and didn’t reply. Hmmph! I accelerated away from him, up the next small hill.

At the top of the route, the neon orange line that signifies the end of the time trial still stood out on the curb. I clicked the lap button again, and turned right to head for the Veloway. When I looked back, my rabbit was far behind.

Every once in awhile, you just have to see what you can do against other bikers. This guy wasn’t in a race, but I could see from his expression when I passed him that he wasn’t too pleased about it, either. I think I also had about 20 years on him, agewise. I was satisfied that the chase, the catch, and the pass had been good for my ride today.

I’ll have to hunt rabbits more often.

*Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist,” from “The Return of Sherlock Holmes.” See Wikipedia entry.

How fast have you gone?

This evening after work, I hit the Veloway for my usual Tuesday night ride.  My friend David was waiting at the entrance, and we started a small ring ride, not particularly aiming for any speed.  We kept up a steady pedal cadence, passed a few bikers, and got passed by more.  It’s a ride I’ve built into my weekly schedule, and I look forward to it.

A Blackburn Delphi 2 from the Nashbar catalog.

A Blackburn Delphi 2 from the Nashbar catalog.

But the ease of the ride got me thinking: What about really trying to go fast?  I’ve found myself in situations on nice downhill grades where I try to wring every last tenth of a mile per hour out of my bike.

For me, anything over 30 mph is fast.  I know I’m on an interesting stretch of road when my speed tops 36.  But once I get to about 38, things get a bit problematic.

My Specialized Allez is a terrific bike, but it can be a little twitchy.  At high speeds, it feels a tad unstable, although that often has something to do with the condition of the road surface.  Oddly enough, getting down in the drops doesn’t seem to help.  I find myself trying to relax as much as possible, and let the bike take over.

The highest speed I’ve ever hit is 39 mph.  I’ve done it twice.  The first time was on an organized ride, and I can’t remember where I clocked that number.  It just registered as the top speed on my cyclocomputer, and I discovered it when I checked it at the end of the ride.  The second time was on a Sunday morning club ride.  We were on a rolling hills section through a nice residential neighborhood.  The street was wide and smooth, and gave us a view far ahead in the distance.  I saw no traffic ahead, and cranked the bike as fast as I could.  I saw the 39 come and go, and thought it was pretty cool.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the fastest I ever go.  For me to attack the speed barrier, I think I’ll need a more stable bike.  My old steel Raleigh was a joy to ride on a quick downhill — it was rock solid.  But I never did get that bike up above 35.  

I’m also at the point where speed is not an important goal.  Hey, I’m no spring chicken anymore, and we tend to get a little more cautious — er, prudent — in our old age.  A blowout last spring on a high speed downhill will do that to a guy.

I’ll continue to enjoy the sensation of speed.  But breaking the 40 mph bar is not on my radar.  How about you?  Do you make a conscious effort to go as fast as you can on descents?  What’s the fastest you’ve ever gone?  What did it feel like?  Is there an even higher speed somewhere inside you?

“Fartlek” for bikes

Back when I was a runner — okay, I was never anything more than a jogger — interval training was considered the way to go to train for a race. I entered my share of t-shirt runs, and sometimes I even got serious about training for them. But intervals put me off. They seemed too regimented — too serious.

Then I read about an alternative method of training. It’s called fartlek — from the Swedish for “speed play.” A fartlek trainer runs at a certain pace, or tempo, for awhile, and then turns on the gas and runs hard for awhile. The bursts of speed are not over set distances, and recovery times are always different. That’s the kind of training I enjoyed doing.

I thought about that today when I was out for my regular Tuesday ride on the Veloway. I had fully intended to do intervals. I even had the fast sections mapped out in my head. I knew approximately how long my recovery times would last. But when I started my first interval, I just couldn’t get enthusiastic about it.

Then it occurred to me — do fartlek. I started pulling on the pedals through a twisty inclined stretch, a little less than a mile. At the high point, I backed off. I rode through a relatively flat area without pushing hard.  On another twisty incline I stomped on it again, and held the fast pace for almost another mile.  On an ess curve that features a right-angle left followed by an acute-angle right, I laid the bike as far over as it would go without falling (great fun).  Then I coasted back to the start.

I did five laps, and did fartlek for four of them.  Each time, my fast and slow sections were different.  I got the training benefit without the regimentation that takes the fun out of biking.  Tonight, I can feel it.  I fell asleep in front of the TV.  I’m going to bed earlier than usual.  This might partly be because I haven’t had a real bike ride in a week, but it’s also because I had a tough workout.  I like the feeling.  I plan to do it some more.

I feel the need — for speed

I’m not a fast cyclist. That’s why I ride with the B riders in my club — we just can’t maintain the 18+ mph pace the A riders typically set on our Sunday morning rides. I enjoy going fast, but the descents that let me do that don’t come along all that often. Besides, right now, I’m training for endurance, not speed.

But this evening was different. I hit the Veloway for my usual Tuesday night ride. (Unrelated aside: Road Rash, a blog on the Austin American-Statesman site, did a piece on the Veloway recently. Here’s the link.) My plan for the ride was to hammer the uphills, which are gentle, but still make you work. I would back off on the downhills and flats.

I got through the first mile, which includes one of those uphill stretches, and then hit a fast downhill. I was moving at a good clip, so I decided not to ease off to ride the descent easily. Instead, I kept up the power, and pedaled hard for the first lap (3.1 miles). I finished the lap in just about 10 minutes, 20 or 30 seconds faster than my usual time around the course.

I slowed to an easy spin to get out my water bottle and take a drink. Two cyclists flew past me, one after the other. I put the bottle back in its cage. What the hey — the chase was on!

I figured I’d try to match their pace, which seemed faster than mine on the lap I’d just completed. It looked like they were going to match each other’s pace, without racing. I became third in line. The guy in the Slipstream jersey passed the guy in the Airborne jersey, and I followed. Airborne shot me a look of disdain. We went up the one steep hill on the Veloway, then hit a fast flat section. Our speed was 24 mph. I usually ride 20-21 through here.

Then, my least favorite part of the loop — a curvy incline that scrubs off your speed quickly. I tried to match the pedal strokes of Slipstream, and kept it in the 15 mph range. Usually I slip to 12 here.

On the last section of the course, I passed Slipstream. The ess curve, then the end. I slowed to take another drink. Slipstream went by — his pace hadn’t slowed a bit. Then Airborne passed, looking straight ahead. What the hey — here we go again!

There’s no point in relating a turn-by-turn account of the next lap — or the one after. I never passed those two guys again, but I did stay close. I finished four laps around the Veloway, and figured I’d try to maintain my speed on the three-mile ride home.

Total distance: 17.76 miles. Avg. speed: 17.65 mph (Yes, it took me 22 seconds longer than an hour to complete the ride). Fastest average speed ever for a ride of an hour or longer. Pretty wimpy for the A riders out there, but by keeping up a decent pace through the entire ride — without tiring — I was breaking new ground for me. I’m looking forward to trying this kind of ride again — sometime.