Friday, August 24, 2012

Cycling in Houston, Texas: An Overview

Skyline of Downtown Houston, adopted from a montage from Wikipedia Commons.

When our family was getting ready to move from Boston, MA to Houston, TX about 25 years ago, close friends of ours who had grown up in Houston and who knew about our interest in cycling, warned us not to try to ride our bikes in Houston: "Texas drivers are not used to bicycles. They'll kill you." they said. I was in my cycling interregnum at that point, so their warning really didn't make any difference. I went bike riding with my boys a few times, but basically I had no occasion to test their advice. However, when I decided to take up cycling again 4 years ago, I recalled their warning. I carefully plotted out the 5 mile bike ride from the bike shop where I picked up my renovated Bianchi to my home to avoid as many busy streets as I could. (The trip was pleasant and uneventful, and these carefully chosen streets have been part of the venues of many subsequent bike rides.) Since then, I have been amazed and grateful for the many cycling opportunities afforded by the City of Houston, the County of Harris, and various other government agencies. This post is an overview of cycling opportunities in Houston. I plan to go into some of these opportunities in more detail in future posts.

Braes Bayou, near Texas Medical Center.  The bridge is part of the Multi Use Path along the bayou.
A nickname for Houston is the Bayou City. What is a Bayou? According to Wikipedia, it is "an extremely slow-moving stream or river (often with a poorly defined shoreline), or ... a marshy lake or wetland". Although this may have once been true for Houston bayous, many of Houston bayous look like canals to me. This is presumably the result of their having been modified for flood control. That notwithstanding, the three main bayous of Houston; Buffalo Bayou, White Oak Bayou, and Braes Bayou, have been utilized by local governments as sites for recreational multi-use paths which are heavily used by walkers, runners, skaters, and cyclists. These trails vary from 5 to 20 miles in length and are completely free of traffic. The number of cross streets is reduced because of the limited number of bridges that cross the bayou. In some cases, the cyclist needs to face traffic when crossing these streets, but in other cases, the bike trail goes below the bridge used by cars making the crossing car-free and safe. There are also two or three similar paths built on the site of abandoned railroad lines.

There are a number of streets with dedicated bike lanes in Houston. These bike lanes are not of very high quality; they are narrow and the surfaces are often uneven and dirty. Nonetheless, they can sometimes make the difference between an unacceptable degree of risk and a relatively safe ride. For example, 43rd Street is a very busy and fast road, carrying large trucks moving at 50 miles an hour, but because there is a bike lane between the White Oak Bayou trail and highway 8, this provides a very acceptable extension to one of my standard rides. Finally, there are signed "bike routes" with nothing special about them except for the sign. I suppose these might have long term benefits for making drivers aware of cyclists, but personally I have not seen that these provide much in the way of short term benefits.

Variety of cycling infrastructure near downtown Houston.  Multi Use Paths are in grey or green, bike lanes are in blue, and signed bike routes are in red or orange.  A high resolution PDF of the Houston cycling infrastructure can be obtained from the Houston Bikeways Program
Of course, bicycles are vehicles and, in most cases, have the same right to use the roads as do cars. Despite my friend's warning from 25 years ago, I have found Houston drivers to be reasonably accommodating for the most part, and Houston is filled with wonderful and varying neighborhoods with many low traffic streets perfect for even nervous cyclists like my wife and I. These streets are neither formally recognized nor documented, so one simply has to ride around and find them on one's own. What is safe and car free depends very much on time of day and day of the week as well. One of my early discoveries was that downtown Houston, a death trap during the week, is completely empty and a delightful place to ride early Sunday morning.

Two other interesting bits of Houston cycling infrastructure are the Alkek velodrome and the Rice University bike track. I regret to say that in 25 years, I have never been to the velodrome, but it looks very interesting and visiting is high up on my to do list. The Rice track, on the other hand, is a facility I use all the time. This track is carved out of a parking lot, is about a third of a mile around, and is completely flat (e.g. it lacks the banked corners of a velodrome.) Despite the lack of banking, riding at my old man pace, I have never had to slow down for the corners. The Rice bike track is my favorite place to do my least favorite cycling, interval training.

Almost everything I have described so far is within the city limits of Houston. There are a number of delightful country rides within a few hours by car. Again, this is a mixed bag. Some country roads are very busy and fast and I don't feel comfortable riding them. Drivers seem to agree, and tend to be annoyed and unfriendly towards cyclists on such roads. There are others, however, where you can ride for an hour and never see a car, and the drivers you do see are more relaxed and accommodating. On some roads, bicycles vastly outnumber cars on weekend mornings. I have become a real fan of the Texas countryside; it is somewhat barren by East Coast standards, but once you acquire a taste for it, it is teaming with wildlife and the small towns have an authentic country look and feel which I have not found elsewhere.

Texas countryside.  One of the bike rides near Fredericksburg.  Yes, farm animals are on the road.
The City of Fredericksburg, Texas is about four and a half hours' drive from Houston, so strains the definition of "Cycling in Houston", but nonetheless deserves special mention as the self-styled "Bicycling Capital of Texas". Local cyclists have created a unique resource consisting of 18 well documented bike rides in the area varying between 19 and 88 miles in length. Information about these rides is available on the web and as downloadable PDFs. In addition, this website contains a wealth of information on safe cycling practices for the area, housing options, local attractions, and the like. Early in our return to cycling, my wife and I spent a lovely long weekend in Fredericksburg, rode a few of their routes, and found them to be everything promised.

One advantage Houston has over many cities is that one can bicycle here year around. The coldest days in winter do require warm clothing, but none are so cold as to preclude riding. Truth be told, however, summers can be brutal. The bicycle club I belong to, the Houston Randonneurs, schedules a brevet once a month. However, the July brevet begins at 6 pm and is run during the night, and there is no brevet scheduled for August. Nonetheless, summer rides, especially in the early morning, are possible.

It seems that Houston is always under construction. In terms of cycling infrastructure, this is both a blessing and a curse. On the good side, Houston's cycling infrastructure is continuously getting better and more extensive. One of my favorite rides is the multiple use path along White Oak Bayou, and the day I reached the "end" and found a couple of more miles of path, including a lovely iron bridge and some of the prettiest parts of the bayou, was a good day indeed. On the bad side, construction either of the cycling infrastructure itself or of adjacent areas frequently compromises the infrastructure. The White Oak bayou path, the Terry Hershey park path along Buffalo Bayou, and the Rice track are all more or less compromised as I type this.

In summary, I am sure that many cities have more impressive cycling infrastructures than does Houston. Nonetheless, due in large part to two cycling friendly mayors in a row, Houston is a fine place to be a cyclist.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Another Brevet?

In mid-February of this year, I decided I would attempt a 200 km Brevet two and a half months later, at the beginning of May. As I previously described, by following a standard training protocol, I was able to successfully complete the brevet. What I hoped and expected would happen then is that I would have permanently reached a new level of fitness such that from that base, I could work towards longer brevets. My experience since then has been quite different.

I took it easy the week after the brevet and when I then returned to the 90 mile training rides I had done the two weeks before the brevet. When I did, I found each of these rides harder rather than the previous one rather than easier. In response to what I interpreted as over-training, took one week completely off the bike and then took it easy for the next two weeks. When I then started increasing mileage again, from 36 to 40 to 44 miles, I felt rested, which was good, but also felt like I was right back to where I started; that nothing had improved due to the previous training cycle, that to work my way up to a 90 mile training ride in preparation for a 200 km brevet was going to be just has hard the second time as it was the first. That was discouraging and caused me to revisit training schedules for randonneurs, with an eye this time for what a schedule looks like over multiple brevets and multiple seasons.

Here is what I learned:

1) I had expected to be able to do too much, too soon.

My textbook for training for the 200k was the book "Long Distance Cycling" by Edmund R. Burke, Ph.D. and Ed Pravelka. To prepare for my brevet, I extended their 10 week plan for preparing for a century to cover the 124 miles of a 200K brevet. I planned to attempt a 300k brevet two months later. When I found that I could not do that, I read the next chapter in "Long Distance Cycling"on training for a double century (since 300 km is 186 miles, getting towards a double century). It says "You need a solid foundation before increasing your training to the level this requires. ... we don't recommend striving for this level until you have at least 3 full years of cycling behind you ... even though you may have knocked off a century or two without much problem." In retrospect, what I was attempting was unrealistic, especially for a 63 year old man in the steam bath that is Houston, Texas in the summer.

Confirming this was some advice I got when I chatted with the other riders at the May 200k brevet. Hearing that this was my first brevet, one suggested that I "not rush it", that is, to not increase my brevet activity too quickly, but to allow some years work up to my goals, e.g. a 1200K or a Super Randonneur award. I listened to that advice, but didn't think 300 km in two months was "rushing it". Apparently, I was wrong.

2) Fitness is not a simple, monotonic, upward progression. Staying at the peak of fitness is a major stress that cannot be sustained.

One of the readers of this blog commented that, once he was in shape, he did not follow a training protocol as intense as what I had outlined because it was too hard on his body.

This is also stated very clearly on a how-to page of the website of the British Columbia Randonneurs Cycling Club: "In qualifying for PBP here in British Columbia, your training will have peaked in early June (to meet a July 1 entry deadline), but PBP is not until late August. Should you try to maintain your conditioning through the summer, or take a time out and rebuild again later? For PBP 1995 I made the mistake of trying to maintain my early-June conditioning through the summer. The results... training fatigue and injury! In the PBPs since then I've taken a break and then jumped back into training in July." (Eric Fergusson

In fact, this notion is implicit in the periodization approach to fitness common to many sports, including cycling. I have summarized the phases of an annual periodized schedule from the Ultramarathon Cycling Association Website:
"Transition: Can last a few weeks or a couple of months. It is a time for active rest, to repair your body and regain mental freshness.
Foundation: Occurs during the late fall and early winter months in which the cyclist accrues base mileage.
Preparation: A time to focus the training effort, gradually increasing volume (time on the bike) and intensity (how hard you ride). Training becomes gradually specific to your goal events.
Peaking: Focuses on the specific demands of your goal events. It is a relatively short period that achieves top form."
(Janice Tower,

3) There is more than one way to (not) prepare for a brevet.

I highly recommend the following webpage from the British Columbia Randonneurs Cycling Club: Training For Randonneur Cycling by Eric Fergusson
It outlines every imaginable training schedule (including not training at all) used by successful brevet riders. I haven't found anything specific to take away from this mountain of experience except encouragement to experiment and to find my own way to prepare for this sport.


I'm still trying to put all the pieces together and to fill in the gaps to come up with a long term training plan and some realistic goals for brevet riding. In fact, I am wondering if brevet riding is even what I should be doing. I enjoy it very much and I was able to complete a 200 kb brevet, but perhaps the long term wear and tear of such long rides is too much for my aged and neglected body. For now, I am planning on a second 200 kb brevet in October, and depending on how that goes, perhaps a 300 km in November. Depending on how those go, I will re-evaluate.

Besides the training issues discussed here, there were other issues that arose from my first brevet, and I will discuss those in a later post.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

It's Not About the Hybrid

In a previous post, I wrote about a cycling vacation we took in Maine where we rented bicycles.  It was a wonderful, well organized trip.  The only flaw was that my wife and I found the rented bicycles difficult to handle.  I speculated as to the cause, and one speculation was that we simply don't like hybrid bikes.  On our recent vacation on Martha's Vineyard, we rode borrowed hybrid bikes and had a wonderful experience.  Thus, I no longer feel that the problem with the rented bikes was that they were hybrids.

The bicycle I borrowed was a 1990's Specialized.

One of the most objective complaints I had against the hybrid I rented in Maine was that it was not stable enough to allow me to stand while climbing.  One of the rides we took on the Vineyard was somewhat hilly, hilly enough to allow me to try standing while climbing, which I could do comfortably and easily.  In general, I never felt unstable on this Specialized.

My wife rode two bikes on the Vineyard.  The first belonged to our hostess:

The second had belonged to our host and hostess's son before he outgrew it:

These were a matched pair of Schwinn Frontiers, about 10 years old.  My wife, who fell on the bike she rented in Maine and who, in general, felt insecure on it whenever she rode it, felt comfortable and secure on both of these bikes she rode on the Vineyard.

In summary, the three randomly chosen, inexpensive, hybrid bikes we rode on the Vineyard were perfectly adequate. This contrasts with the bikes we rented in Maine, where two out of four of the bikes were barely adequate to inadequate. To be fair, it is difficult to be sure I am comparing apples to apples; the bikes we rode on the Vineyard might, in fact, be considered mountain bikes not hybrids; they have 26" wheels and fat tires.  The reason I classify them as hybrids is because they have no suspension.  At some level, however, this argument becomes circular; the bikes we found unsatisfactory are different from the large number of different kinds of bikes we find satisfactory.  I only hope the very nice folks who ran the tour and provided the bikes in Maine noticed the problem and are thinking about it at least as hard as I am.