Monday, January 28, 2013

Exploring the Houston Bayous

Last Saturday, I went on a very interesting bike ride. In an earlier post, I described how the City of Houston Proposition B passed overwhelmingly to fund development of bike paths along the Houston bayous. The Houston Parks Board is working with the public to build enthusiasm for this project. As part of that, they organized a small, informal bike ride to explore both what has been done to develop bike paths along Houston's bayous, what needs to be done, and what is about to be done. Those of us who attended were offered the opportunity to sign a petition in support of this effort as well as to write a letter of support to the Houston City Council. Although the Houston Parks Board is probably the leader of this effort, many city groups, especially cycling advocacy groups, are also involved. At some point, I "liked" one such group, Bike Houston, on Facebook, and it was because of that I learned of the ride. Here is the announcement:

The ride focused on the White Oak and Buffalo bayous as they passed through downtown Houston. Memorial Park is a jewel of the Houston park scene, near down town, enormous in size, and contains some nice paved bike paths and a large number of mountain biking trails:

Thus, it is no surprise that the ride began in Memorial park. About 15 cyclists in total showed up for this ride, some of whom are shown here at the start:

There was a range of ages, athletic abilities, and bicycles. Probably the most popular kind of bike was a mountain bike. (I rode my Surly.) We started out by riding on Memorial Park's paved paths, moved into the adjacent residential neighborhoods, and then explored a missing link that is going to be one of the very first projects to be done. In previous posts, I have described the White Oak Bayou Trail and mentioned a bike path that runs through a lovely neighborhood in Houston called the Heights. There is a several block gap between these two trails. It was smack in the middle of that gap where the ride took us, to a feature I fondly called "The Bridge of Death":

This is an old abandoned railroad bridge over White Oak Bayou on which the public is forbidden to travel. Not only does the public ignore that ban, but "volunteers" have placed some boards over the old timbers (which have 4 inch gaps between them) to make such crossing less deadly. I won't say we illegally rode or (in the case of the old and terrified) walked across this bridge, but somehow we ended up on the other side. Note the bridges in the distance; they are causeways that used to carry North Durham Drive and North Shepherd Drive over the same railroad line that used to go over the bridge. Just beyond these bridges is the start of the MKT trail, named after the  Missouri, Kansas, Texas Southern Pacific railroad that used to be here. (Most people, including Google Maps, call this the Heights Bike trail, but the MKT trail is the official name and is what the signs on the trail say.) What this imminent project will do is begin at the start of the White Oak Bayou Trail, about four blocks to the left of the picture, follow White Oak Bayou to this bridge which will be refinished as a pedestrian bridge, and then continue about five blocks straight ahead in the picture, under the bridges in the background and connect the 7.5 miles of the White Oak Bayou trail to the 4.5 miles of the MKT trail. The next picture shows our group riding the dirt path before we got to the MKT trail:

After this point, most of the ride was on very high quality paved bike trails:

As we approached down town Houston, the Heritage Trail branched off the MKT trail to provide an alternate path into down town, one which follows the White Oak Bayou rather than the old railroad line and thus is more attractive. This is a view of the Houston skyline from that trail:

The Heritage Trail terminates where it rejoins the MKT trail, which then continues to within a block or so of the Buffalo Bayou trail. As best as I can tell, there are no plans to bridge that gap because right of way issues have gotten in the way. According to the ride leader, right of way issues present one of the biggest barriers to development of these trails. The Buffalo Bayou trail is not new but is gorgeous, representing a significant aesthetic addition to down town Houston:

Although this trail is complete almost all the way back to Memorial Park, improvement continues to add trails on both sides of the Bayou and pedestrian bridges between the two sides. This is one recently completed bridge which is both beautiful and useful:

While researching this post, I came across the website for the Houston Bayou Greenways. It has an interactive map showing existing trails along bayous, trails which have been approved and funded but not yet built, and trails which have been planned but not approved and funded. This is a great summary of all these projects.

For those new to this blog, each week I am posting an update of my training results; see my previous posts for explanations of my aerobic training program, MAF tests, and this graph.

My average performance has finally started improving, but some of that could be due to improvement in the weather. Next week I will discuss my training results in more detail, but briefly, 1) I believe that there are many factors that influence the results in a MAF test so I am fully expected to see these results to go up AND down in the future and 2) for many reasons I believe that overall my performance as measured by a MAF test is improving overall.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Houston's B-Cycle Bike Share Program

My older son and his wife live and work in Washington DC and I visit them fairly frequently. In 2008, DC launched what I believe to be the first bike share system in the US. Bike share systems provide bicycles for a fee for short term use to supplement the public transportation system by providing transportation for short distances. Wikipedia has an excellent article on the concept and its execution around the world.

Although DC's first system was more or less a failure, in 2010, DC launched its replacement, the Capital Bikeshareconsidered by some to be the most successful bike share program in the US. In a recent visit, I could not help but notice the system. When I discussed it with "the kids", they told me that they thought it was too expensive to be useful to anyone but tourists. It was a surprise then, when a few months ago my daughter-in-law told me that she had been using Capital Bikeshare to get to work. Apparently, when she factored in the (lack of) proximity of her work to public transportation and the actual cost of other alternatives, Capital Bikeshare made sense. It was with that as a backdrop that it caught my eye when our city of Houston began its own bike share system, B-Cycle.

The system in Houston is undeniably in its infancy, having only 3 stations where bicycles can be obtained or returned and 18 bikes compared to the 175 stations and 1670 bikes in Washington DC. Out of fairness to my city, ours was clearly described as a pilot program. That said, the event that sparked this column is that, thanks to a partnership with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, the Houston system is about to be expanded to 24 stations and 200 bikes. Here is a map of the expansion from the Houston Chronicle article on this expansion:

How successful is this system likely to be? Honestly, I have no idea, but will be eagerly watching to see. It is somewhat less expensive than the DC system. The billing structure is similar for the two. One purchases a membership which covers short trips, 30 minutes or less in DC and 90 minutes or less in Houston. An annual membership in Houston is $50 as compared to $75 in DC. (Shorter memberships, as short as a day, are also available.) In Houston, trips over 90 minutes are billed at $2 for each additional 30 minutes, and in DC, trips over 30 minutes are billed at $1.50 for each additional 30 minutes.

Another factor that will influence the success of the Houston system has nothing to do with bike share itself and depends on the "bikeability" of the city. I have commented on Houston's bikeability in previous posts and will continue to do so, but there is now a more objective and comparative measure provided by the Walk Score website:

"Somewhat Bikeable" doesn't sound so good, nor does a score of 49/100. How does Washington DC do?

What is worse, DC is not even the United States most bikeable city:

Clearly, there is nothing I would like more than to see Houston get better. However, in defense of where we are today, I will ask you to look back at the maps and notice the color code: green is the most bikeable and red the least. The difference is partially in how intense the green of the DC city center is compared to Houston's city center, but even more that Houston is a big, sprawling city, and although the downtown/midtown/Medical Center region is reasonably bikeable, the vast outlying areas are not and bring down our score. In that spirit, I would like to conclude this post with a picture from the Houston B-cycle Facebook page taken on one of the prettiest pieces of Houston's cycling infrastructure, the bike paths along Buffalo Bayou in downtown Houston which I plan to cover in a future post:

See previous posts for explanations of my aerobic training program, MAF tests, and this graph. My average performance is still not improving, but I continue to think this is not significant. As I said when I first posted one of these graphs, the reason I am presenting the data this way is because there is so much "noise" in the data caused by weather (among other things). Over time, I believe the noise will begin to average out as the number of tests increases. Philip Maffetone, author of the training program I am using, predicts that performance should start to improve "after two or three months". Please stand by.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Old Bikes, Part Deux

I continue to think about what happened to the "road bike" between when I stopped paying attention in the mid 1970s and 2008 when I once again started looking at bikes. In this post I am going to look at a few bikes that happen to be sitting in my garage, pack-rat that I am, in that context.

SOME REFERENCE DATES: I attended High School from 1963 through 1967, and that was the time of my peak interest in road/racing bikes. From 1967 through 1971 I was an undergraduate, and maintained a fairly high interest in bicycles and cycling. In 1971 I started graduate school and found myself much busier, although I still managed to do some biking. In particular, I had a girlfriend (who is now my wife) with whom I liked to ride. In 1973 or so I helped her purchase a new road bike, so I had a brief immersion in what was going on at that point. In 1976 I finished grad school and began my entry into the work world with a postdoctoral fellowship and at that point my cycling essentially stopped for over 30 years. My two sons were born in 1981 and 1989, and as they grew up, I purchased bikes and went on the occasional ride with them, but didn't re-immerse sufficiently to get a clear an idea of what was going on. It was only in 2008 when I restarted cycling and started thinking about a new bike that I became aware of how much things had changed.

1973 Gitane: This is the Gitane we purchased for my wife:

The most striking thing about it is how similar it is to the bikes that were available when I was in High School - it is a classic cheap French 10-speed of the era. It has a lugged steel frame, but the tubing is heavy and uncomfortably stiff and the lugs are crude. The one thing that dates it as being Grad School rather than High School is not part of the original bike at all - it is the derailleur:

This bike originally came with a Simplex Prestige derailleur. However, we wanted to provide lower gears to help my wife climb the mountains of Vermont. To do that, we had to upgrade to something new: a Japanese derailleur - a SunTour GT. Not only could it handle lower gears than the Simplex, it was more rugged and shifted much better. This was my only hint of the coming domination of the bike market by the Japanese during the mid '70s to the mid 80s that I otherwise missed.

1993 Giant:

What a piece of trash! I described my wife's Gitane as a "cheap bike", but it is still giving us good service. (My younger son rides it when he visits.) This bike is useless. The only reason I keep it (besides being a pack-rat) is that if we need to patch up some other bike, we might be able to scavenge some parts. That said, 1) my older son loved this bike and rode it everywhere between 6th and 12th grade and 2) this bike was purchased at a Local Bike Shop, not a department store.

Technologically, this bike is still not all that different from what I rode in High School. The two features that show off its more recent vintage are that it has six gears in the back rather than five, and the cotterless/alloy cranks. These represent two different kinds of evolution. Six gears in the back simply didn't exist when I was in High School, so this is something new. Alloy cotterless cranks existed when I was in High School, but only on the highest quality bikes; the less expensive bikes had steel cranks that were held to the bike by cotter pins. Bicycle evolution (like the evolution of many consumer products) is characterized both by the introduction of new features as well as the migration of high end features to lower end products.

1979 Centurion:

I list this bike last rather than in the middle where it belongs by date of manufacture because it came to us last. My older son purchased it used for $75 in 2009 when he knew he would be visiting us frequently so he would have a bike to ride in Houston. What a gorgeous bicycle (and at what a price!) This bike was my first exposure to the Japanese bikes of the 1970s and 1980s. The overall quality in terms of look and feel of this bicycle is every bit as good as my Bianchi Specialissima, if not better, but there is not a European part on it. I have only two regrets about this bicycle: 1) it has had hard use which has caused some damage to the frame and 2) it is WAY too big for me. My son is 6 inches taller than I am, and it is on the large side for him.

I simply have to share a few of the gorgeous details of this bike. First, it has a similar derailleur as the one we put on the Gitane:

It is a different model, but very similar in appearance. Interestingly, I think this is the same derailleur I found on an old Bianchi Volpe I featured in an earlier post. The shifters that came with the SunTour derailleurs are some of the most attractive I have seen, bar none:

Next, there is the alloy cotterless crank. Although steel cottered cranks are a thing of the past and all road bikes now have alloy cotterless cranks, few of them are as beautiful as the Campagnolo crank on my Bianchi Specialissima. In my opinion, the Japanese ones on the Centurion are:

I am not a fan of the circular chain guards some bikes have, and if this were my bike, I would take this one off the Centurion. That said, it is the most attractive of these I have ever seen. (The pedals are not original. The bike came with some gorgeous pedals with toe clips, but I replaced them with these inexpensive clipless pedals because that is what my son uses.)

The brakes are of some interest for a couple of reasons:

Firstly Dia-Compe has now acquired some cache in the Retro-Grouch (1) corner of the cycling world. Second, they are side-pull brakes. This illustrates a third kind of bicycle evolution: fashion. When I was in High School, center pull brakes, like these on my wife's old Gitane:

...were considered superior to side pull brakes, just as large flange hubs were considered superior to small. As time passed, this reversed, and I am sure it will reverse again.

The final feature I would like to show off on this Centurion is the lovely workmanship around the rear wheel dropouts:

I found this model of Centurion, the Super Elite, in an old Centurion catalogue, confirming its manufacture in 1979. This was their second tier racing bike, below the Semi-Pro. This model of Centurion used the highly regarded Champion steel frame tubes, but on this model, only the three main tubes were double butted:

As I researched this bike, I noted that both Centurion and Diamond Back were made by the same manufacturer. Originally, the Centurion brand was used for their road bikes, and Diamond Back for their Mountain Bikes. Eventually, the Centurion brand was dropped and Diamond Back was used for all their bikes. Proof that I am a pack-rat is that among the bikes in my garage is a Diamond Back, purchased for our boys before they were old enough for a road bike:

While preparing this post, I did a lot of research on road bike history. Rather than delay this post (which is already two days late) or make it even longer than it is, I will save my "Integrated History of Road Bikes" for a later post.

MAF Test Results

This the latest update on my MAF tests, with four new data points:

I am getting worse at half the rate as last week, which I guess is good? Stay tuned.

By the way, for readers of my review of the Garmin 500, I had a second case of data loss on my Garmin unrelated to any of the previously suspected causes. I am also ready to confirm that the difficulty this model sometimes has locating its satellites, another common criticism of this model. My bottom line remains the same, this is far from a perfect product, but remains adequate for my needs.


(1) "Bike Snob Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling" by Bike Snob NYC, ISBN 978-0-8118-6998-0, page 76

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Garmin Edge 500 Cycling Computer

SUMMARY: I have been using a Garmin Edge 500 cycle computer to enable my trial of Philip Maffetone's training regimen and this post describes the good and bad of that device. In short, the Garmin is adequate for my needs but is certainly not perfect. The impatient can safely skip the introduction of this article which provides some context for my judgements.

INTRODUCTION: Back in the mid 20th century during my first cycling career, cycling computers did not exist and very few people had any kind of speedometer or odometer on their bicycles. Because my kids bought them, I became aware of cycle computers well before I restarted cycling and when I did, one of my first accessories was an inexpensive Cateye Strada cycle computer:

I paid less than $40 for it back in '08 and it added a lot of fun to my riding, allowing me to track how far I had ridden and what my average speed was for each of my rides. As I gained experience and talked to other cyclists, I developed an interest upgrading to a Garmin Edge 500:

Weight control was a major goal of my cycling, so I set a weight target and promised myself I could buy the Garmin once I reached it. When I did, I went to Amazon to order one, but when I read the reviews, I was somewhat discouraged. Granted, most of the reviews were positive but there were a significant number of very negative reviews complaining of a "downgrade" of the GPS functionality relative to older models, of a screen difficult to read, but the most common and worrisome complaint was that buggy software on this model often lead to data loss. As a result, I delayed my purchase.

The Cateye has its own data loss problems. It lacks the ability to upload its data to a computer, so the opportunity for data loss is less than the Garmin which does have this capability. However, this device is controlled by "clicking" the entire computer as one giant button to switch between modes, and the normal reset mechanism is to "click and hold". Unfortunately, on bumpy roads this can be triggered accidentally, resetting the device and discarding your ride up to that point. (There appear to be other ways to trigger an accidental reset, but I have not been able to pin them down.) In particular, my Cateye reset it self on my one brevet to date, losing the data for that ride. This is particularly problematic on a brevet because the directions one follows are in terms of distances along the route. Once my Cateye reset, I no longer knew how far along I was and thus when I should turn. The complaint about the Garmin is that it loses data between the completion of a ride and uploading it to a computer. I am unaware of any cases of a Garmin Edge 500 losing data during a ride.

When I began trying the Maffetone training regimen, I needed a heart rate monitor. The Garmin is able to be connected to a heart rate monitor whereas the Cateye is not. I had not been able to find a better alternative to the Garmin Edge 500, so I swallowed my concerns and ordered it. In addition to the computer itself for $250, I needed to separately purchase a heart rate monitor for about $40. In addition, I wanted to be able to track cadence, so I purchased a cadence/speed detector as well for about $40. I also purchased a mounting bracket for about $10, but that turned out to be unnecessary because two came with the computer.

RESULTS: When I first tried the Garmin, I was most favorably impressed. It addresses a lot of minor frustrations I had with the Cateye. It has an easier to read display, the display is vastly more configurable, and there is a lot more data presented on each screen. The optional cadence/speed detector, which measures the speed at which the crank and rear wheel move, is much easier to adjust to work correctly on my Surly than the speed monitor of the Cateye. Both the optional heart rate monitor and the optional cadence/speed detector were detected by the Garmin quickly and simply. Garmin provides both web-based and local (runs on your computer) software for viewing ride data. Download and installation of the local software, "Garmin Training Center" were quick and trouble free. The web-based software also seems good, but I have had no incentive to give it more than a quick glance.

As quickly as I found so much to like about the Garmin, the major deficiency of the Garmin became apparent almost as quickly; its flakey software. It wasn't until later that I experienced data loss, but other symptoms of flakey software, from bugs to misfeatures, became apparent almost immediately:

  • When I installed the cadence/speed detector, the Garmin immediately turned over authority for distance and speed to this device rather than using its GPS. However, when I tried to set the wheel size (necessary for getting a correct distance), distance was always way off. It was only when I set the option "determine wheel size automatically" (e.g. from the GPS) did it start working. This is despite the fact that the wheel size Garmin determined was very close to what I had been inputting.
  • Having "heart rate too high" and (to a lesser extent) "heart rate too low" alarms are critical for the Maffetone workout. As best I can tell, the only way to set these on the Garmin is via heart rate zones. As is apparent to readers of this blog, I have had occasion to adjust these. As best I can tell, the only way to adjust these is via Training Zone on the connected computer. This process is misdocumented and erratic; getting the changes to "take" is a trial and error process that only sometimes works.
Both of the above issues are annoying but can be worked around. What was most discouraging is when, after a few weeks, I came back from a ride, went to upload my data, and found that the Garmin had lost it. This is the dreaded data loss problem that a number of people had commented about on Amazon. Some people experience this, some don't. People who do have tried to figure out what causes it. Hypotheses include trying to keep too many rides (more than five or six) on the Garmin (rather than uploading them to Training Center and deleting them from the Garmin) or pressing the lap button too often. It is true that I used the lap button more than usual on the day I lost data, and that I had about a dozen rides on the Garmin. Since then, I have avoided using the lap function and have been diligent about removing old data. It has only been a week or two since that first data loss, but I have yet to experience a second one. Truly, data loss is annoying but doesn't keep me from using the Garmin for Maffetone training. So long as I can monitor my heart rate while I ride, I can train properly, and if I make a mental note as to the miles completed during my 45 minute ride, that is all the data I need to record a MAF test result, even if the Garmin loses the data before I can upload it to Training Center.

I'm sure there is a lot I have left to learn about the Garmin. It has a wealth of features and it is easy to overlook or misunderstand some of them in the short time I have been using it. I expect my opinion of this device will evolve.

CONCLUSION: If I had it to do over, would I still purchase a Garmin Edge 500? Honestly, I am not sure. I certainly would diligently investigate alternatives. However, if I found nothing better, it is definitely acceptable, and in many ways, lots of fun. I think the major difference between those who love and hate it is expectation; those who love it don't expect perfection, those who hate it are annoyed at the buggy software for a rather expensive bicycle computer.

MAF Test Results

After struggling a bit as to how best to track and present the results of my MAF tests, given how much day to day variability there is, I hit upon the following:

I am using Microsoft Excel to plot all of the test results, not just one per week, and to calculate a trend line. What is shown on the above graph, is that after 22 days, 9 tests, and 13 rides (non-test rides are not shown on the graph), my average speed is decreasing by approximately 0.05 MPH per day. I am not yet concerned about this because I don't believe I have been doing the training long enough to get a clear result and because I know things that have affected the rides (weather, general health, family activities that have interfered with training) that are not shown on the graph that might explain why some rides are faster than others. If, at the end of January, I feel I have been able to execute the training program with reasonable diligence and performance is still declining, I will re-evaluate.