Thursday, October 31, 2013

Brevet Attempts: Two Successes, Two Failures

Once again, I am attempting to leaven a dry and picture-less blog post with irrelevant pictures. For this post, I selected some pictures of my participation in bike races in 1968, an upbeat topic to balance the downbeat topic of this post. I have been unable to reconstruct what race this picture shows, but I am the rider half-off the picture to the left in white with blue and red trim, version 2.0 of the Modesto Roadmen jersey. I am riding the Hetchins I purchased for my bike tour of Europe during the summer of 1967, repurposed for racing.

Last week, I abandoned my fourth brevet attempt. To date, attempts one and three succeeded, two and four failed. In both 2012 and 2013 I successfully prepared for a brevet in May, but then failed when I attempted to prepare for a second brevet in November. (All four attempts were for 200K brevets.) The two obvious and related questions are why did attempts two and four fail, and what do these failures suggest for the future?

For those new to this blog, a brevet is a non-competitive challenge ride conducted under the rules of randonneuring as sanctioned nationally by Randonneurs USA (RUSA) and internationally by Audax Club Parisien (APC). RUSA's FAQ on their website is an excellent first introduction to this sport. A 200K brevet is 200 kilometers or 124 miles long, must be completed in 13½ hours, and is the shortest of the sanctioned brevets. The most common lengths for brevets are 200, 300, 400, 600, and 1200 km. People who are good at this will do many brevets over the course of a year, typically one each month, a 200K/300K/400K/600K series each year, and may also do multiple 1200K brevets in a year, so what I am attempting is nothing exceptional to say the least.

What background to I have coming into randonneuring? From the ages of 14 through 21 I was a fairly serious cyclist, a less serious but regular cyclist from 21 to 30, and then from 30 to 60, essentially quit cycling and exercised sporadically at best. In 2008 I restarted cycling, became more serious by 2010, and since 2012 have been trying to break into the sport of randonneuring. This blog was created to document that attempt.

This is the start of a criterium held in the Northern California city of Santa Rosa in 1968. I can barely be seen just under the tree in the left ⅓ of the picture. Much more interesting is the gentleman officiating the race in a spiffy panama hat, at the far right of the picture. That would be the great Wally Gilbert, one of the top officials of the Northern California race scene and a great friend of the Modesto Roadmen. He and Bob Tetzlaff, a top level racer of the day, took us under their wing and got us signed up as an ABLA sanctioned club.

Why Did My Last Brevet Attempt Fail?

I have yet to start a brevet and fail to finish. When I say a brevet attempts failed, I mean that I was unable to complete the training regimen I designed to prepare for that brevet and so never registered for the event. Although I have varied my training for each of my four attempts, all four attempts required that I complete a series of weekly long rides of increasing length leading up to a ride of at least 90 miles before the brevet. In both failed attempts, I completed an 80 mile ride but was unable to complete a 90 mile ride. I do not know with certainty (and probably cannot know with certainty) why my last brevet attempt failed; there may, in fact, be a combination of reasons. However, I can suggest some possible reasons for this failure (hypotheses) and suggest which of these I find intuitively more likely.

In thinking about all the possible causes for this failure, the obvious first possibility to consider is that I lacked the will to succeed, that I gave up. There are many discussions on randonneuring websites of people who have or have not completed brevets provided as morality tales on how important it is not to give up too easily. Every ride will contain some moments that are easy and fun and some that are unpleasant indeed. If one abandons an attempt at the first sign of unpleasantness, one will miss out on the satisfaction of completing a ride, that satisfaction making the suffering along the way worthwhile. That said, both times I abandoned my 90 mile training ride, I did so in response to another shibboleth; "listen to your body". Both times my body was telling me it was exhausted; not that I couldn't finish the ride, but that it would cost me dearly to do so, leaving me weaker rather than stronger. If I were riding in a brevet, especially one that was important to me, I might push on with the understanding would make up for it later with a long rest before resuming training. However, feeling that way while training is a clear message to me that the time for a rest is now, not later. So for the moment at least, I will reject the hypothesis that I failed due to not trying hard enough.

That's me, front and center, in my Modesto Roadmen jersey, leading the pack in the 1968 Santa Cruz bike race. I remember this course well, it was one of the nicer courses. It did consist of multiple laps, but they were long laps which headed out into the country and then back through town. Parts of the course were along the ocean, and as you can see from the stairs in the center of the picture, the course was quite hilly.

Another hypothesis is that my failures are the result of illness, either something as benign as a mild infection or perhaps something more serious. I consider this hypothesis rather unlikely, and in any case, I'm about to have my annual physical so worrying about it would be a waste of time.

The two related hypotheses I think are most worth exploring are 1) that I am training incorrectly or 2) that more than one brevet a year is currently beyond my capabilities. These hypotheses are related because if more than one brevet a year is beyond my capabilities, then almost by definition, attempting to train for more than one brevet a year is training incorrectly. The training plans I am following are very conventional and are similar to those recommended by a number of coaches; I have not yet seen an actual coach recommend a significantly easier plan for training for a 100 mile or 200 kilometer ride than what I am doing. (The training needed to complete these two distances is generally considered to be similar.) That said, training plans need to be individualized, and not everyone can complete every training plan; the fact that I cannot complete a training plan generally recognized as necessary for a 200 kilometer ride more than once in a year suggests that as the (current) limit of my abilities.

In my next post, I will discuss recent changes I have made in my training, why I made them, what they tell me about my ability to go beyond one brevet a year, and where I might go from here.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

To Patch or Not To Patch? That Is the Question.

Tubes with punctures, waiting to be patched

Early in my zombie-esque return to cycling, I was riding with my older son, a very accomplished cyclist, and he managed to surprise me. We were having something of a bad luck ride with lots of flat tires and he noticed a patch on one of my inner tubes. "That explains it," sez he, "patching tubes never works. You need a new tube." Both of my sons are very wise and I always listen to them carefully when they offer me advice. In this case, however, I was inclined to disagree based on both theoretical and experiential grounds. But as I said, I take them very seriously so I did some online research. As it turns out, the question of whether to patch bicycle tubes is quite controversial. Here is one example of a blog post followed by a discussion on this topic:

An extract from the Bike Noob Blog. I truncated the post and moved up a couple of illustrative comments.

Having given this topic serious reconsideration, I still come down in favor of patching. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I worked in a bike shop back in the 1960s. My boss and mentor, who I refer to as BB, firmly maintained that a properly applied patch was at least as strong as the original tube, an assertion I have seen repeated by other experts. That is my theoretical basis for patching tubes. Experientially, I don't know that I have ever seen a patch that I applied properly fail; the patched tube my son disdained was loosing air from a new hole some distance from any previous patch. That said, I both have had patches fail and chosen to discard tubes, and I thought I would add my experiences to the online dialogue on this topic.

A few months ago, I was doing my Braes Bayou ride when I encountered a former colleague sidelined by a flat tire. He was riding the old 27x1¼" tires with shraeder valves, whereas I was riding 700C tires with presta valves, so I was unable to offer him my spare tube, but I did offer to help him patch his tube so he could continue his ride to work rather than walk his bike home. The problematic word was "help." Presumably because he was embarrassed at needing my assistance, he insisted this be a collaborative project and so the patch was not applied with the care I believe is necessary for reliability. Consistent with that, when I spoke with him later, I found that the patch had failed (but not before getting him to work). Even when I am patching my own tube, I don't feel I can do as good a job by the side of the road as I can in my garage, so I always carry a spare tube (typically multiply-patched) as well as a patch kit. If I have a single flat, I replace the tube and patch the old one when I get home; the patch kit I carry covers the rare, multi-flat ride. If I am on a more serious ride (such as a brevet) I will carry two tubes to further reduce the need for roadside patching.

An example of a patch kit I carry. From top to bottom, left to right are Instructions, the box everything fits into, a tube of rubber cement, a grey piece of tubing of unknown function, sandpaper, and a collection of patches.

Implicit in the above is that if patching is to be successful, it must be done correctly. There are many descriptions of how to patch a tube by people much more expert than me, and in general, I find the instructions that come with many patch kits pretty accurate, so I won't try to repeat these instructions in detail, but just emphasize a few key points:
  1. Use only bicycle tire tools to remove the tire from the rim so you can remove the tube. These tools have been designed not to damage the tube, something that is all too likely if you use a screwdriver or other makeshift tool. (This caution applies if you are patching OR replacing a tube.)
  2. Somehow note or mark the tube and tire so that, once you find the hole in the tube, you can inspect the tire in that spot to find and remove what caused the hole. (Note that it is easy to flip the tube so that the tube and tire no longer align.) You actually want to carefully and thoroughly run your fingers along the entire inside of the tire looking for problems, but you want to concentrate on where the hole was. Often, the object will have fallen out so you never will be able to find it, but you want to be completely sure that is the case, because if you leave it in, you will get another flat.  This is probably the most troublesome step, in my experience, and once again, this is necessary whether you patch your tube or replace it.
  3. Once you have removed the tube, carefully inflate it until it starts to swell a bit. Then, inspect it by running your hand over its surface or by running the tube next to your cheek (which is more sensitive than your hand) or by immersing it in water to find where the air is coming out. If you use water, carefully and thoroughly dry the tube. Mark the site of the hole, it will be difficult to find later.
  4. Use sandpaper to thoroughly abrade a region around the hole larger than a patch. Apparently, bicycle tubes are produced by injection molding which causes two problems for patchers, a release agent used on the mold is left on the tube which will prevent the patch from adhering and the mold leaves seams which can prevent the patch from fully contacting the tube. There may be other reasons for abrading as well, and apparently it is important to keep the abraded site free of contaminants such as finger grease; don't touch the abraded spot. I find that it is impossible to remove the seams completely with sandpaper, but that the patches are flexible enough to work anyway. Some experts advise using a razorblade or X Acto knife to cut off the seam, others find this results in cutting holes in the tube. Because I feel like I would be in the latter camp, I have never tried this approach.
  5. Apply enough rubber cement to cover the abraded area. Let the cement dry completely. I think not doing this is the most common mistake people make because it is counter-intuitive, and it is my impression that not letting the rubber cement dry completely will almost always result in a failed patch. It only takes a few minutes for the glue to dry, but do be sure it is completely dry by touching it around the outer edges (away from where the patch will be) to make sure it is not still sticky.
  6. Carefully apply the patch centered over the hole. The dried rubber cement is now a contact adhesive, so you will only have once chance to get this right, the patch cannot be moved.

A marked hole in a tube about to be patched next to the permanent, silver Sharpie, my favorite tool for marking holes.

Not only do I wait until I get home to patch my tubes, I find it is more efficient to do a bunch of them at one time, so I let them pile up and keep a stock of patched tubes to replace those which are newly punctured. The little patch kits, like that shown above, are great as a backup to be carried on rides, but are frustratingly inefficient in the assembly line I use; they contain very few patches, the kit runs out of patches before the rubber cement is exhausted, and with the cost of the box, etc., they end up being fairly expensive per patch. Thus, I was very excited to discover that I could purchase patches in bulk packages of 100. However, I still needed the rest of the kit. I went to a teachers' supply store and picked up an old fashioned bottle of rubber cement and cut a few squares from ordinary workshop sandpaper I had lying around. Here is my production line patch kit:

Interestingly, the bulk patches I purchased are labelled "cold patch." The obvious contrast is to a "hot patch" which I remember from my youth in the 1960s. Hot patches used heat to vulcanize them to the tube being repaired rather than rubber cement. The bike shop where I worked had an electric device which clamped the patch to the tube and then heated it to create a bond. This device was too expensive for teenage riders like me, but later I found consumer grade hot patch kits at Western Auto that contained a simple, mechanical clamp and patches that consisted of a rubber patch attached to a small metal container containing a flammable compound. To use these, you clamped the patch where it was wanted, lit the compound, waited for it to burn out and cool, removed the clamp, and peeled the metal container off the tube leaving the patch. Apparently these have been taken off the consumer market, at least in the United States, due to the noxious fumes they generated and/or other safety considerations. There are contemporary alternatives to the rubber cement patches as well. The first are patches that use chemical vulcanization, apparently using an alternative to rubber cement which uses a different chemistry. I have no experience with these, but the few comments about them I read either compare them unfavorably to hot patches (by retrogrouches) or else argue that they are vastly superior to the rubber cement-based patches I use. The second are glueless patches which have adhesive on the back like tape. I have not tried these either, nor am I likely to. Virtually all the comments about them are negative. My guess is that a lot of people who believe that tube patching isn't reliable have experience with these patches. Apparently, they may not even be marketed as permanent patches, but rather just a way to get home.

Despite my best attempts to do patching correctly, there are times when I do get repetitive flats. Is my son right about patching being unreliable? I do not think so. Usually when I have a flat that will not go away, it is from one of two causes:
  1. The object that caused the flat was still in the tire and I missed it.
  2. The tube has gone bad. This usually happens around the valve stem, and usually I can identify this problem before trying to patch the tube.
People who choose not to patch tubes throw them away at the first puncture, of course. Those who do patch sometimes have limits on how many times they will patch a tube (see, for example, the first comment in the Bike Noob blog at the top of this post.) Because I believe properly applied patches in no way reduce the reliability of a tube, I do not ever discard tubes because they have too many patches. The times I discard tubes are when they have gone bad, as described above, or if they have a slow leak that I cannot find. (I am actually suspicious that slow leaks often represent a tube gone bad rather than a really small puncture.)  Up until now, I have not paid much attention to the brand or quality of tubes I buy. I pick up whatever the bike shop carries, or if I am placing a mail order for something else, whatever the mail order place is selling. I don't recall ever have been given a choice at either bike shop or mail order vendor between higher or lower quality tubes. Recently, I noted that Compass Bike Shop (a local bike shop if you live in Seattle, but a mail order vendor for me) is pushing expensive tubes from Schwalbe, a well-regarded manufacturer of high end bicycle tires with the claim that they are less likely to go bad. I am currently a bit low on tubes and so am tempted to order some of these. They are definitely more expensive than the tubes I have been buying and if they turn out to be less prone to going bad, this will make the economics of patching even more compelling.

MAF Test Results

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

I will be discussing my training results in detail in a future post. In my current training regimen, I am only doing one MAF test a week. Thus, there is not a lot new on the MAF test front since last week. That said, I continue to be perplexed by what is (not) happening with my MAF test results.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Back Roads Century

The Back Roads Century is one of the premier cycling events in the mid-Atlantic region, and is also considered one of the most beautiful rides in America. - The Back Roads Century Website.

My wife and I frequently travel to Washington, D.C. on business, and because our son and daughter-in-law live there, we try to see them when we do. When we told them we would like to see them the weekend of September 22, they suggested that we ride the "Back Roads Century" together. Unfortunately, my wife could not because it conflicted with her business meeting, but the remaining three of us did.

Thank YOU, Potomac Peddlers, organizers of this ride! Unfortunately, I did not think to get a screenshot of the website until the event was over, but I think it still captures the beauty of the venue and professionalism of the event.

Although billed as a century, five routes of different lengths were offered: 25, 30, 50, 65, and 100 miles. All routes started and finished in the charming town of Berryville, in the northwest corner of Virginia. We opted for the 65 mile metric century:

There were 2,300 riders who attended this year's Back Roads Century, enough to nearly overwhelm the small town of Berryville. The morning of the event, highways leading into Berryville were backed up for miles with cars waiting to get into the parking. During the event, bicycles so crowded the roads that it was difficult for cars to pass. But all of this was managed with competence and grace by the volunteers and, in the end, rather than being a minus, this all contributed to the excitement.

The rest stops provided all the usual amenities, but in addition provided touches well above and beyond the usual. Case in point, the medieval musical group at our first rest stop at Burwell-Morgan Mill:

One special feature of the rest stops was that, in addition to the usual water, gatorade, bananas, oranges, and peanut butter sandwiches, some rest stops featured a unique snack specialty such as tomato sandwiches or Italian ices. The Burwell-Morgan Mill rest stop featured "fresh boiled potatoes:"

Both my son and daughter in law work in the government, and while at the first rest stop, they ran into a colleague of theirs, a completely unexpected but delightful encounter. He was also doing the 65 mile route, so the four of us chose to finish the ride together. As expected, my son and daughter-in-law had a lot in common with him and so the three of them had a lot to talk about. Less expected, so did I.  He had recently been high up in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House and I am a scientist. Not surprisingly, given where we met, he also turned out to be an avid cyclist. Between the two, he and I had plenty to talk about. To complete the participant pictures, I have added two more photographs which include me and my daughter in law.

Top, a friend of my son and daughter-in-law we met on the ride standing next to my son. Bottom left, my daughter in law and son. Bottom right, me and my son, wearing the matching Raulston Strokers jerseys he designed and had made.

The Fairview Church rest stop was roughly the half way point as well as the geographical high point of our ride. It featured food and drink, bicycle repair, and bathrooms; everything a cyclist en route could want. Depending on their very different speeds, cyclists came in and out over many hours. Furthermore, this particular rest stop was only used by those following the 65 mile route. Nonetheless, this moment in time snapshot suggests how busy it was and by implication the magnitude of the Back Roads Century.

Last, but certainly not least, is a photograph of the bike I rode. As usual, I rented this bike from the Big Wheel Bike Shop in Arlington, Virginia. The last time I got a bike from them, both the saddle and the handlebar height were a wee bit aggressive for my aging body. I had been reading on the Rivendell Bike Shop website about why I might want my handlebars high and how to achieve that. For the bikes Rivendell designs and sells, the answer is to get a larger frame size than normal. When I reserved my bike, I tried that strategy; I ordered a 54 cm frame rather than my usual 52. When I walked into the shop, the staff took one look at me and said "This is not happening, the bike you reserved is to big for you!" I explained my thinking and they explained that modern frames are not designed that way; a larger frame would have exactly the opposite effect of what I wanted. Not only did they give me a properly sized frame after I had ordered the wrong one, the bike they gave me was a better model than what I had paid for. As for the saddle, I brought my own well-broken in Brooks B17.

Although I managed to miss both of the life-defining cultural events of my youth, the Woodstock and Altamont music festivals, within the narrower world of cycling, I was fortunate enough to have attended three runnings of the Great Western Bike Rally. I feel like the Back Roads Century is on that scale, a significant event in the cycling world. I am so pleased that my son and daughter-in-law suggested we attend, and as a result, that I was able to experience this unique event. I would strongly recommend the Back Roads Century to any of you who might have the opportunity attend; you will not feel like your weekend was wasted.

MAF Test Results

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.

The plateau in my results continues, and as it does so, becomes more perplexing. I will be discussing this along with other training results in a future post.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Tour de Pink 2013

A few weeks ago, my wife and I rode in our third Tour de Pink. This charity ride raises money to provide mammograms for women who could not otherwise afford them, detecting breast cancer while it still can be cured. Both the entry fee as well as the donations riders are required to raise work to this admirable end.

We rode the Tour de Pink in 2011 before I started this blog, so it never got posted. We rode 47 miles that year. The ride in 2012 was interrupted by the death of a close friend, and the post I did on that ride was more about cycling around the ebb and flow of life than the ride itself, a 12 mile ride being all the situation would allow. This year, we rode 63 miles, a lifetime record for my wife. To catch up a bit, here are pictures of us from the last three years:

My wife, me, and our friend SN, at the 2011 Tour de Pink
Me and my wife at the 2012 Tour de Pink
Me and my wife at the 2013 Tour de Pink

The ride started at 7 am, dawn at this time of year in Texas. The start and finish were at the Texas A&M University Prairie View campus, about an hour northwest of Houston. There were lots of decoration and enthusiastic students cheering us on:

We rode our usual Surly Crosschecks, me with my big bag on the back to haul anything either of us might need along the way. I like propping the bikes up against each other like this, it saves finding a fence or other object against which to lean them or laying them flat on the ground, which I find kind of creepy.

Teams are a big part of this ride. In fact, in Houston's Texas Medical Center (the largest medical center in the world), a number of teams form just for this ride. The jerseys my wife and I are wearing (shown above) are for one such team, that for Houston's University of Texas Medical School. The riders below are one of the larger such teams, that from Methodist Hospital's Cancer Center:

Pink is the color of this ride, as reflected in the balloon-based sign announcing one of the rest stops:

The picture below shows one of the rest stops (called "Pit Stops" by the organizers) which are found every 10 miles or so along the route. Besides the usual bananas, oranges, and PB&J, his one featured fresh cooked mini-sausages - yum!

Almost certainly the biggest challenge for the Tour de Pink is the heat. To help combat that, all of the rest stops featured bandanas soaking in ice water. You take one out of the ice water, put it around your neck, and off you go to the next pit stop.

Another feature of the "pit stops" is bicycle repair stations manned by the local bicycle shops (LBSs). This one is run by "my" LBP, West End Bikes:

The next picture is of rider wearing one of the iced-bandanas, perusing a copy of the route map, with special attention directed toward the difference between "You Are Here" and "Finish." The various routes have stayed the same for at least the last three years, and last year I posted a scan of the route map.

And finally, the one feature no pit stop can do without, especially for us older riders:

My wife was very well prepared for this ride, the longest bike ride of her life but no preparation can completely protect you from heat. Wisely, she has decided to cap future rides at 60-some miles, but to train for speed so that she can finish before it gets too hot. All and all, a truly wonderful experience, thanks to the organizers' enthusiasm and preparedness. Thanks, gang!

MAF Test Results

I have no new MAF test results since my last post, so there is nothing to report this week.