Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Braes Bayou Ride

The bicycle route that I ride probably more than any other is a 17 mile ride starting from my home going about a mile on city streets to a hike/bike path along Braes Bayou, to one end of the path, and then returning home the way I came.  The reason I do this ride so often is that it is very convenient, starting as it does at my front door, and because it is relatively safe.  I say "relatively" safe as most of the ride is on a traffic-free path, but the part of the path I ride does have 9 road crossings each way which range from easy to hair raising, depending on time of day and day of the week.  I can extend this ride when I choose by not returning home the way I came, but to continue past my entry point and continue the other direction for 5 or so miles through Texas Medical Center to the University of Houston and Mac Gregor Park.  This eastern end of the path is in many ways prettier and more interesting than the western end I ride more often, but I prefer the western end because it has fewer hazards.

The multi-use path along Braes Bayou is certainly nice, but it is not the prettiest of all Houston rides.  For one thing, Braes Bayou is one of the least natural of Houston's bayous, having been completely lined with concrete:

The path exists on two levels, one about half way down the bayou at the junction where grass turns to concrete (shown above) and one along the top of the bayou, shown below:

In most place, the path takes either the upper or the lower route, but occasionally both are available and the rider has a choice.  Similarly, over most of its route, the path is on one or the other side of the bayou, crossing back and forth as it follows the bayou.

As can be seen in the above pictures, this tends to be a sunny ride.  There are a few trees, but over most parts of the trail they provide very little shade.  There are, however, a few stretches of this trail that are more wooded:

Despite the somewhat industrial and barren look the concrete lining gives the bayou, it is home to fish and water birds.  (Houston is perhaps the best place in the United States for bird watching due to our location on many of the bird migration routes.)

Upgrades are constantly being made to this (as well as other) trails.  Recently, a series of very attractive steel brides were added to the hike/bike trail to allow pedestrians and cyclists to enter and leave the trail from neighborhoods on the opposite side without struggling with traffic:

The following picture shows a much more spectacular hike/bike bridge currently under construction:

This will replace a current bridge which is somewhat daunting on a bicycle:

...with something which will be much more attractive:

I for one am grateful for the many bicycling opportunities available in Houston as exemplified by the Braes Bayou hike/bike trail.  Although I certainly believe that bicycles belong on the roads, having the opportunity to relax and ride car free is much appreciated.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Life and the Tour de Pink

It has been more than two weeks since my last blog post, and for that I sincerely apologize!  Last weekend, my wife and I rode in the Tour de Pink.  Tour de Pink is a charity ride that raises money to pay for mammograms for women who cannot afford them.  I had planned to write about this ride at some point in the future but not for this week's (or actually, last week's) post, but it so nicely illustrates why this post is late I could not resist posting it now.

Last year was the first year either my wife or I had ridden in the Tour de Pink.  It was the first charity ride either of us had ridden, and more importantly, one of the first group rides either of us had ridden.  Up until then, we had thought we didn't like group rides, that we preferred to ride by ourselves.  However, we had such good time last year we resolved to ride it again this year.  There are seven different distance options for this ride ranging from 12 to 100 miles:

Last year, we rode 47 miles, a personal best for my wife.  This year, we decided to attempt 63 miles, another personal best for her and a metric century.  We followed the tried and true approach of increasing my wife's mileage by 10% a week, shooting for a final training ride 75% as long as the ride, or 48 miles.  At the same time, I was hoping to ride another 200K in October, so I did my long(er) rides on Thursday, and we did her long rides on Saturday, this schedule reflecting that I am semi-retired and work for myself and that my wife works full time as a professor at one of the local medical schools.  As luck would have it, my wife had a grant deadline two weeks after the ride.  Grant deadlines in the academic world are all consuming so this definitely complicated training, but we persisted and she reached her training goals.  The grant deadline affected not only her but me as well because I took advantage of an understanding boss to help her write the grant and so Sunday, September 9, the day I was schedule to put up my last blog post, I instead spent the day working on my wife's grant.  For variety, I had been using my Bianchi for shorter rides, and the following Tuesday I hopped on as usual, and for reasons I still cannot understand, went right over the top of the bike, leaving me skinned up and shaken and my poor Bianchi with a bent front wheel.  Between doing penance by trying to fix my Bianchi, working on the grant, and being discouraged and disappointed at my clumsiness, I did no riding last week.  Needless to say, the blog post that was due the previous Sunday didn't get much attention either.  However, I encouraged myself that I probably could use the rest, 63 miles was a significant ride, and that I might not be so far behind in my training thereafter.  On the morning of Saturday, September 15, the day before the ride, we got a phone call that a close friend had died, and that the funeral was the next day.  Shamefully, it took us a full hour to convince ourselves that we simply could not miss the funeral, that we were going to have to miss the ride.  In our defense, we were not only worried about missing our ride, we were worried about letting down our team and our donors who had supported us.  Once we resigned ourselves to that, however, we did a quick back of the envelope calculation and realized that if we rode 12 miles - but no longer - we could drive out to the ride, get our pictures taken with the team, ride the 12 mile course, drive home, shower and change, and get to the funeral on time, which is what we did.  Here is our "official" picture from the ride:

So what is the moral?  Firstly, it is to say that I take my reader(s) seriously and to let you know that I believe  I owe you an explanation when I miss a post.  Secondly, it is to try to provide some perspective to help me take the inevitable ups and downs of life in stride.  Since restarting cycling in 2008,  my efforts to get more out of cycling and to become a better cyclist have suffered many setbacks, from equipment failure to the limitations of being older to competing responsibilities to the illness and death of friends and family.  It is certainly not that I have it any harder than anyone else, but rather that, like everyone, I simply have to accept what comes along and to take as much joy as possible from every ride, even when it is a 12 mile ride on a day that 63 miles were planned.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Riding Comfortably for 200 Kilometers

Both the 200 km brevet I rode in May and the longer training rides leading up to it involved a fair amount of discomfort. To help control that, I took ibuprofen during these rides, but to my mind that is a stop-gap, not a solution. Some of that discomfort was muscle pain in my legs which hopefully will be improved by more training. However, much of the pain was not in my legs, but in my neck, arms, shoulders, and hands. And then there were the saddle sores. Since my brevet, I have been experimenting to see what I can do to make my bicycle more comfortable for long rides.  In this post, I will describe the experiments I am performing to learn what I can do to make my bicycle more comfortable for long distance rides.

After the brevet, I tried to maintain my conditioning by continuing my 90 mile training rides. As I have previously discussed, this did not work as a training strategy, but I was able to use the two rides I completed to do some important experiments. The first ride I completed on my Surly as ridden the the brevet. The second ride I completed on my Bianchi Specialissima. There were a number of differences between these two bikes:
1) The Surly had 18 speeds and index shifting using shifters on the brake levers. The Bianchi had 10 speeds and friction shifters on the down tube.
2) The handlebars on the two bikes were a bit different; those on the Surly seem wider and have some unusual bends in them.
3) The Surly had the plastic saddle it came with. The Bianchi had a well broken-in Brooks B17 saddle.
4) The Surly had 28 mm tires inflated to 90 PSI. The Bianchi had 23 mm tires inflated to 120 PSI.

Point 1, the difference between index and friction shifters, matters remarkably little to me. When I switch from one bike to the other, my reflexes take a few miles to adjust and on the Bianchi, I tend to shift less often. However, I have not noticed much difference in performance, comfort, or utility. On my brevet, the index shifters on the Surly came out of adjustment, so I had to stop and figure out how to adjust them. This would not have happened on my Bianchi. It is sort of like the difference between a guitar and a violin. If your guitar ("index shifters") gets out of tune, you have no choice but to stop playing and tune it. On a violin ("friction shifters"), you simply adjust your finger position. I think if I were to build another brevet bicycle, I would build it with friction shifters simply to get the better reliability (and lower cost). That said, this has little impact on long term comfort.

Point 2, the difference in handlebar shape, is a good example of the difference between long term and short term comfort. In the short term, I definitely prefer the shape of the handlebars on my Bianchi, and as a result am looking for different handlebars for my Surly. However, I can't say that I notice any difference in my long term comfort due to the shape of the handlebars.

Point 3, the difference in saddles, is an even better example of the difference between long term and short term comfort. When I first purchased my Surly, I fully intended to put my Brooks saddle on it. However, once I rode on the plastic saddle it came with, I found I liked it very much and kept it. Besides being comfortable, I liked that I didn't have to worry about it getting wet in the rain. When I switched back and forth between my Surly and my Bianchi, I found the Brooks somewhat squishy and odd feeling; if anything, I preferred the Surly's plastic saddle. The first evidence that the Brooks might have advantages came from the brevet itself. After the brevet, for the first time in my life, I developed saddle sores. They did not bother me on the ride and they never got very bad, but I had read enough about them to know to be exceedingly careful. In the weeks after the brevet, I found that almost every time I rode, they would flare up. However, I started noticing that the Surly's plastic saddle seemed to cause the flareups whereas the Brooks did not. I have just put the broken-in Brooks from my Bianchi on my Surly, and am eagerly waiting to see if this prevents saddle sores in the future. (By the way, this means my Bianchi now has a brand new, hard as a rock Brooks B17 saddle. 34 miles down, 466 miles to go before it is broken in.) There are many saddles on the market, including some specifically designed for randonneurs. Clearly this is a very personal decision and in my reading I came across many different recommendations for saddles which were good, and saddles which were bad. I decided to try a B17 because it probably received more favorable recommendations than any other single saddle, because I knew I found it comfortable to at least some degree, and because I had one in hand, all broken in, to try. If it doesn't work as well as I hope, I will try others.

Plastic Saddle that came with my Surly Crosscheck.  This saddle retails for about $50 and gets fairly favorable reviews.

Brooks B17 currently on my Surly Crosscheck.  This saddle retails for about $100 and is probably the single most recommended saddle by randonneurs.

Point 4, the difference between the tires, was, to me, a very interesting confirmation of what I had been reading. My Surly came with 32 mm tires inflated to 75 PSI. Even before I swapped them for 28 mm/90 PI tires, and even before I replace the very skinny, very hard tubular ("sew-up") tires in my Bianchi with clinchers, I was surprised at how little difference there was in the speed of the two bikes. Although subjectively, the Bianchi seems a bit "peppier", the speeds I find myself riding on the two bikes continue to be very similar. For short rides, I do not notice that much difference in ride quality either, and have been known to take the Bianchi onto dirt roads. However, when I did a 90 mile training ride on the Bianchi, by the end of the ride I was finding the rough ride of its hard tires very unpleasant. This experiment has definitely made me a believer in fatter, softer tires for brevet riding.

One thing that is the same for the two bikes is that on long training rides, my neck, arms, shoulders and hands become very sore. This is probably as limiting a factor to how long I can ride as the exhaustion of my legs. Because the two bikes are the same in this regard, I have to look elsewhere for hints as to how to solve this problem. From my reading, I learned that pain in the neck, arms, and shoulders is a sign that one's handlebars are too low, and that as one ages, one becomes less flexible and needs the handlebars raised higher. At first, I thought I might be out of luck raising the handlebars on the Surly because it used a threadless headset; the handlebars could only be as high as the fork stem. However, while bicycling in Maine, two of the riders that brought their own bikes (a Bianchi Volpe and a Surly Crosscheck) both had extenders on their threadless headsets to raise their handlebars beyond what the fork allowed. Thus, for about $25 I purchased an extender for my Surly and am testing higher handlebars. This job is not complete because I found I will need to extend the brake cables to make this work, but without yet having accomplished that, I have already gotten some height increase on the bars. One other benefit I hope to get from this change is access to more hand positions, which might help with hand pain and might provide some more efficient riding options. With the handlebars at the height they came, I found the dropped position on the handlebars unusable. I hope that, by raising the bars, I will be able to use the drops, giving me options for both efficiency and for comfort.

The handle bar extender is the slightly shinier black piece with two screws right below the stem.  It can add over 3 inches to the handlebar height.  If you look closely at the front brake cable as it approaches the brakes you can see that it is strained.  For that reason, the stem (and thus handlebars) are not as high as they can go; there are still two spacers above the stem.

This picture shows the current height of the handlebars on my Surly.  They are now just a bit higher than the saddle.

One assumption implicit in the above is that the Surly is my long distance bike rather than my Bianchi. The reasons this is so (at least for the moment) are as follows:
1) My Bianchi is an heirloom and I do not want to risk ruining it, so am reluctant to take it out too much or under harsh conditions.
2) As noted above, the tires on the Bianchi are too hard.  It might be possible to put wider, softer tires on the Bianchi, but I haven't tested that yet.
3) the Surly currently has lower gears than the Bianchi and it is not clear that the Bianchi can accept lower gears.  Even if it could, adding them would be taking it even further away from its pristine heirloomishness.
4) The Surly is generally easier to have repaired and maintained.

As I continue to experiment with the Surly in attempt to make it more comfortable on long rides, I will report my experiences on this blog.