Thankful for Cycling

“Oh, I need this,” cooed Pat, as we headed out from home on a Sunday morning ride.

“This” was a bike ride. We’d just gotten home late last night from four days on the road for Thanksgiving. It was great. We stayed with our son and daughter-in-law and our brand new grandson — our first grandchild. So, we had lots of time for family bonding, lots of time sitting around watching their 70-inch TV screen (some action scenes made Pat nauseous), and lots of time eating more than we should have. It was great.

I got out for a couple of walks. The first day we were there, I set out to circle a large soccer-baseball complex near their house, and found that there was no quick way to do it. I wound up walking about four miles, and in the unseasonably mild Minnesota weather, I was soaked through with sweat when I got home.

Saturday’s weather was more seasonal. I walked a little over a mile to see a bald eagle nest near their house, and was treated to the sight of two eagles — one that flew about 50 yards from tree to tree while I looked on. I was a lot more bundled up for this walk, with temperatures in the low to mid 20s (-3C) and a biting wind. But it was better than the previous day, when we went to the movies. While we walked from the parking lot to the theater, the 25 mph wind cut through our jackets, and without hats or ear protection, we were really cold.

Now, I know hearty northerners ride in these conditions. On my walk to the eagles’ nest, a cyclists passed me, bundled up in a heavy parka, thermal cycling tights, thick gloves, and a skull cap. Tough guy, I thought. But we’ve lived in Austin for 12 years now, and our blood must have thinned out. My personal cycling cutoff is at 40 degrees (4C), and I’m mighty chilly even at that temperature.

So our ride this morning was a pleasure. Even with a brisk south wind, we pedaled easily over to the Veloway and did some laps. Good crowd out there today. Pat has been dealing with some work-related challenges, and she was glad to get on the bike, because ideas and solutions seem to come to her much more readily while cycling than while poring over a computer screen in the home office. As they did today. When I peeled away from her a couple of blocks from the house to continue my ride, she was already eager to get back to try out some things that came to her on the ride.

I tackled some local hills, and found that the pounds I tacked on over the holiday made themselves felt. Okay, I slipped from my careful eating campaign, and I’ll have to renew my efforts in that regard. But to ride in a short-sleeved jersey and shorts on a 65-70 degree (20C) day in November is something I’m thankful for at this time of year.

Pulling the Train

Out on my Saturday morning neighborhood ride, I headed over to the Veloway to add some extra miles before heading home. The Hill Country Inline Skating Club was out in force, with a big event for them. There were more inline skaters than cyclists on the Veloway this day.

I started my first lap, and saw a lone skater ahead of me. He appeared to be going at about my speed, so I decided to try to catch him. A small rise slowed him down, and I went past, but soon heard the telltale “swish, swish, swish” of his skate’s wheels right behind me. I looked over my shoulder, and his face was about three feet from mine! Talk about drafting!

I smiled at him, he smiled back, and I set down to business. I had pulled skaters before, and it’s lots of fun. Amazing how fast they can go. We finished the first lap, and he stuck with me for another.

“Hope you don’t mind if I draft,” he said.

“No, but are you in an organized event? Is it allowed?” I answered.

“Just friendly competition,” he said. “Drafting is allowed.”

“Let’s go then,” I said.

Three inline skaters were in a paceline ahead of us, their legs in sync with each other. I got us behind them, then pulled out to go past. They all laughed, and pointed at their buddy behind me. But the next thing you know, the “swish, swish, swish” was louder, more intense. I glanced back, and they had all fallen in behind. Now I had four skaters in tow, and I felt some pressure, because these guys were fast.

They looked like elite racing cyclists — all muscle and sinew, wearing the same kind of lycra kit and helmets we do. The middle guy of the three was rather stocky, compared to the others, but every bit as fast.

I pushed hard into a brisk north wind, around a couple of hairpin turns, and signaled that I was moving left, around a couple pedaling leisurely on their hybrid bikes. Then came the short, steep hill that is the landmark for the back half of the Veloway. I downshifted, and turned into the hill, as I saw the leader of the skaters pull even with me on my left.

Damn! I missed a shift, and three of them went by me. The original drafter had apparently fallen off the back. At the top of the hill, I pedaled hard, determined to get back in front and resume the draft. They had a different idea. As I drew even in the left lane, instead of glomming onto my wheel for a free ride, they started racing me!

Now we were on the back straightaway, with a nice tailwind. I couldn’t relax. The wind helped them as much — maybe more — as it helped me. I got ahead at a sweeping right turn, and they lined up behind me again. Up a rise, around a bend to the right, then left, then right — and then into a testy uphill segment. I downshifted, and the three went by me again — this time, to stay. I watched as they drew further ahead, not able to make up any lost ground on them.

They made the last turn toward the start-finish line. I peeled off across the parking lot, since my two laps were done. I could hear the announcer on his bullhorn call their finishing times — 1:39-something. Yipes! That meant they probably did a 10-lap race — 33 miles — and still had enough oomph at the end to clock 22 mph speeds on the flats.

It reminded me of the time a skater passed me on the Veloway about a year ago, and I pushed hard just to stay with him — I couldn’t pass him, no matter how hard I tried. At the end of the lap, he congratulated me for keeping up. Huh? It turned out he was some kind of inline champion.

It’s a lot of fun to be drafted by these guys — but less fun to be passed by them.

Do You Adopt a “Car” Mentality Behind the Wheel?

I had just begun my Tuesday evening ride, one I hope will now become a regular occurrence, now that daylight lasts longer (Hey, DST begins this weekend, doesn’t it?).

I was on a gentle downhill leading past a strip mall to a stoplighted intersection. I was in the bike lane here. Just before the intersection, a right turn lane allows drivers to bypass the light. The light was red, and about a dozen vehicles were stopped for it. But one guy, anticipating that he would take the right turn lane at the corner, was as far to the right as he could go. So far right, in fact, that he blocked my bike lane.

I had no bailout. Both traffic lanes were blocked by stopped vehicles. There was no choice but to stop behind the big Chevy Tahoe (It’s always one of them, right?) and wait for the light to change.

Okay, it was just another routine car vs. bike incident in suburban America. I was headed to a more bike-friendly place: the Austin Veloway.

Now, to get onto the Veloway track, you have to cross a gravel parking lot. it’s the only tricky part of the ride. Bike tires carve small ruts in the soft gravel and dirt surface, and a gate blocks the entrance to the track, so riders have to negotiate an opening between the gate and a berm, marked by a post and a large rock. My wife hates it. She considers it to be dangerous.

In this shot from two summers ago, my wife (in orange top) crosses the parking lot toward the Veloway gate. The surface at the opening is quite rutted.

My tires are skinnier than hers, and I’m always careful crossing the lot. Usually, other bikers are leaving parked cars to start their rides, or are coming off the track into the lot. There’s always a chance the dirt will grab your slow-rolling wheels and cause a fall.

Sure enough, this evening that very situation happened — a biker was coming from the left after pulling his bike off his car rack, and a lady was coming through the opening into the lot. I slowed as much as I dared. And then, a car that had been parked on the right side started backing up.

Now surely, the driver could see that there was bike traffic in the lot — even looking through the bike on his rear bike rack. But he didn’t stop to let me and the other bikes pass. He kept backing. The biker on the left sped up quickly, and shot through the opening. The woman who had just come through the opening stopped. I swerved left, to give the backing car a wide berth.

When he’d backed up as far as he needed to be able to turn his wheels and pull out toward the lot entrance, he stopped and made his turn.

Unbelievable. Just minutes ago, this guy had been on his bike riding the Veloway — presumably one of we band of brothers on two wheels. But now that he was driving a car, he was more of a mind with the Tahoe driver I had encountered earlier.

What is it about getting behind the wheel that causes some people to leave their cyclist selves behind?

Is it just me — or have you run into similar situations? Vent in comments.

Social Media and Bicycling

This evening was the first Run Far Time Trial of the year in Austin. It’s run every other Tuesday from now through September. I didn’t ride it tonight, because I’m pointing toward this weekend’s MS 150, but I did head out there for my usual Tuesday evening Veloway ride.

I won’t go into details about the time trial itself, because I’ve written about it once or twice in the past. For me, being there held the prospect of putting some faces with the names of people I see all the time on social networking sites.

I like social media. Besides this blog, I use Twitter every day. I have two accounts — one is work-related and the other is dedicated to bicycling (my most recent Tweets appear in the right column here).  I’m also on Facebook. It doesn’t eat up as much of my time as you might think.

This afternoon, the Tweets started appearing about the time trial. My friend @weiland said he would be there, and @T_Starry replied that he would, too. Then @cyberjunkie21 said he’d join the group. I replied that I’d meet them there as well. We all posted what kind of jerseys we would wear.

I got to the Veloway, where riders check in for the time trial, a little early, and decided to take a lap. Most of the time trial riders had the same idea.

Rider takes a warmup lap on the Veloway before heading out on the time trial. The wildflowers are spectacular this spring. These are Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush.

Tim Starry, aka @T_Starry, aka Old Guy On Two Wheels.

When I got out to the parking lot, I saw @T_Starry right away. His coach from Austin Cycle Camp was explaining how to attach the timing chip. I first met Tim Starry through his blog, An Old Guy On Two Wheels, then met in person back in January at an MS150-Tour de Cure training ride. We follow each other on Twitter, and read and comment on each other’s blogs, but I hadn’t seen him since then.

While we were talking, an attractive woman pulled up on her bike and greeted Tim. She introduced herself as Patti Hill. I stuck out my hand and introduced myself with my real name. Her reply was polite, but lukewarm.

“I’m Bike Noob,” I said.

“Oh, Bike Noob! Hi!” @pattidhill answered with a smile.

Another rider stuck out his hand. “I’m cyberjunkie,” he said.

“Cyberjunkie! That’s terrific!” I exclaimed.

A man standing by laughed. “You guys are a lot more friendly when you use your phony names instead of your real names,” he said.

Maybe. It’s our common ground — a starting point. We joked about our Twitter pictures, talked about rides we’d been on recently. But it was time for them to head out on the time trial course. I resumed my easy laps of the Veloway.

When I finished, I found @T_Starry and @weiland back from their time trial runs. They exchanged stories about how it went. The southeast wind was tough tonight, and smacked riders in the face during a nice downhill when they’re supposed to be making good time. Tonight, it was a struggle.

They’re all great folks, and without social media, I doubt we’d have ever met, even if our paths crossed at various cycling events. Now that I’ve met their real selves, instead of merely their virtual selves, the connection is that much more meaningful.

Our Tuesday morning ride

During the school year, I’m off early enough on Tuesdays that I can get home, jump into my bike clothes, and take off for three laps around the Veloway. It’s a nice 15-mile ride, and I use it to work on technique.

But during the Texas summers, temperatures in late afternoon are unbearable for biking. Luckily, my summer class doesn’t start until 5:30, so I can ride in the morning.

Pat and I often head to the Veloway on Tuesday mornings. We wait until at least 8:30 or so, when the morning rush hour traffic has passed. I find these rides to be pleasant, low pressure affairs, and Pat gets some cardio work in by trying to keep up with me.

Our route to the Veloway takes us along Escarpment Blvd. The crepe myrtles that line the street are in full bloom now.

Our route to the Veloway takes us along Escarpment Blvd. The crepe myrtles that line the street are in full bloom now.

Our Veloway trips are the perfect ride for Pat.

Our Veloway trips are the perfect ride for Pat.

The Veloway is just under three miles from our house. Each lap is 3.1 miles, so a rider can make a Veloway excursion as long or as short as desired. If I’m riding with Pat, I usually go three laps. She goes two.

The Veloway is open to bikers and inline skaters. A sign at the entrance says walkers and joggers are prohibited, and not too many of them flout the rule. On weekday mornings, even bike traffic is minimal.

Pat powers up a slight rise.

Pat powers up a slight rise.

At about this point, I take off for my three laps. On our Tuesday ride, I’ll keep my chain in the small ring, and work on cadence. My goal is to stay above 90 rpm throughout the lap.

It's a good thing I pedal fast, so I can outrun the snakes. Actually, they never cross at the marked crossing. They're jaywalkers. Or jayslitherers.

It's a good thing I pedal fast, so I can outrun the snakes. Actually, they never cross at the marked crossing. They're jaywalkers. Or jayslitherers.

Pat's always waiting when I finish. She struck up a conversation with this man, about his mouth-watering Trek FX 7.9 flat bar road bike.  All carbon, Ultegra equipped, and twice what I paid for my road bike.

Pat has a knack for meeting nice folks.

While I’m finishing my last lap, Pat finds a shady spot near the water fountain. She struck up a conversation with this man, about his mouth-watering Trek FX 7.9 flat bar road bike. All carbon, Ultegra equipped, and twice what I paid for my road bike. She found a kindred soul in him, since he also thinks it’s no sin to keep the kickstand on the bike.

This ride takes us about an hour to finish. Some people complain that the Veloway bores them, because you just go around the same track. But I love it. It mimics the kind of conditions you find on a country road, so you have to respond to a variety of situations. It’s fun to look at the other bikes, and wave at people we see regularly. I’ve seen deer, tarantulas, different kinds of snakes, roadrunners, and other critters. In the spring, wildflowers carpet the sides of the trail. I always look forward to Tuesday mornings.

Switching to 25s

Challenging day for a ride. Temp 73F (nice!), but wind from the south at 16 mph, gusting to 36. It was even blowier than last week, when I cut the ride short because the gusty winds made the bike seem unstable.

But I rode today anyway, because I have new toys. Actually, they’re a lot more important than toys. I bought new tires. The ones on the bike were showing signs of wear. The Specialized Mondo Pro on the front was the original tire, so it’s been on almost a full year. I felt it was losing grip, and the surface was cut up. The Vittoria Rubino Pro on the rear was a nice tire, but had flattened in the center of the tread, and was due for a replacement.

So I put on a pair of new tires. They had to have puncture resistance, and I decided that they had to be 700C x 25mm, rather than 23s. Nashbar had a nice price on just the tire I was looking for, so the bike now has a pair of Hutchinson Top Speed Kevlar Protech tires.

Why 25s? I mentioned a couple of months ago that one of our club members had switched to them, and liked them. That planted the idea. After reading more about the difference between 25s and 23s, I concluded that they were worth trying.

I figured my best bet on a windy day like today was the Veloway. It’s a three-mile circuit, so it would be into the wind half the time, but thickets of cedar and live oak that line the track block the wind somewhat, part of the time.

The ride over there was a taste of things to come. A gentle downhill a mile into the trip often gives me my highest speed of the ride, but today going into the wind, I topped out at 16 mph.

One benefit of the 25s was immediately apparent. They were more stable in the wind. I was also putting the good advice I got last week about riding in the wind to good use, and that helped — but the tires were the biggest change I’d made, and I was pleased to see the difference.

Once I got on the Veloway, another difference was evident. Better grip. I could attack the turns on the course with more confidence than I’d had with the old tires. I did five laps and then headed home, for a total ride of 21 miles. The 25 mm tires do seem to offer a softer ride than the 23s.

One of the arguments people use against 25s is that they have greater rolling resistance than 23s. According to Al Ardizone in the Feb. 5, 2009 edition of Road Bike Rider, that’s not true. He says 25s actually have less rolling resistance, and suggests riders use their weight to determine which size tire to ride. I’m still over 200 lbs., so according to his formula, 25s are right for me.

He’s also a proponent of lower tire pressures, for greater comfort with no loss of speed. Al suggests 85-100 pounds pressure. I had been running 105 lbs. in my old tires, and have the new ones at 100 now — recommended pressure is 87-101 lbs. I’ll decrease the pressure a bit on upcoming rides to figure out what’s right for me.

Interestingly, these might be last year’s model, because Hutchinson’s web site doesn’t list a Top Speed model. Their current Equinox seems to have the same specs as my tire. A check of Road Bike Review shows mixed reaction to the Top Speeds — some say they performed well, other say they’d never buy another pair. Anecdotal evidence is interesting, but a sample of only five reviews is not enough to generalize from.

So I’m looking forward to riding with the new tires. I’ll be watching closely to see if they’re as puncture-resistant as billed, and if they deliver increased comfort with no loss of speed. But after only one ride, I think I can safely say that I won’t be going back to 23s.