Monday, December 30, 2013

Cycling for Fun

Me and my harmonica doing a Jonny Cash imitation on a fun ride back in '68.

I love getting comments on my blog, but sometimes they confuse me. A few weeks back, in response to a a post, in which I described my struggles with whipping my old body into some kind of useful condition, skiffrun commented:
Your goal has never seemed to be "do some rando rides," but instead has seemed to be "do training things and worry and blog about the training numbers." It seems you are getting all your "pleasure" out of the training tests. To do rando rides, you need to get the "pleasure" out of the actual RIDING and to heck with the numbers. 

The post on which skiffrun commented was the one of my posts that, for whatever reason, has generated more comments than any other. I responded to many of those comments, but not to skiffrun's. The reason I didn't is that, of all the comments, I found his the hardest to understand. I'm sure the barrier to understanding is entirely on my side of the dialogue, I suspect that any real randonneurs who happen to read skiffrun's comment thought to themselves "yup, that's how it is." However, I think I might finally be getting a sense of what skiffrun is saying. If I may attempt a paraphrase in my own words, it would be "We randonneurs really enjoy our brevets, but what you are describing is not what we do. Perhaps you would have more fun if you did it our way?"

Skiffrun is not the only commenter who seems to suggest that I am approaching randonneuring the wrong way. Implicit in some of these comments is the notion that I am making a mountain out of a molehill. For example, in response to a different post, an anonymous poster said "I think you are way overanalyzing things. Almost anybody can complete a 200 or 300k brevet--just keep the pace slow and steady, and eat way more than you think you should." Although true for many people, my problem with this generalization is that no two people are alike, what works for one may not work for another. We are not completely different one from another, that's why it makes sense to give each other advice. That said, we consist of subgroups, and advice relevant to one subgroup might miss the mark for another. For example, older cyclist (like me) have many limitations not shared by other cyclists. To further subgroup, older athletes who remained active in their sport throughout their life have more in common with each other than they do with the subgroup to which I belong, those oldsters who try to (re)join the athletic community at an old age after decades of neglecting their bodies. The peculiar characteristics of this latter subgroup may well put me outside the "almost anybody" who can complete a 300K brevet by riding slow and eating right, and skiffrun gets that. As he says later in his comment "if you end up only doing 40-milers, or 20-milers, because that is what you can do repeatedly and enjoy the ride, that will be a success!" I couldn't agree more, and the topic of this post is what fun rides might be available to me that "I can do repeatedly and enjoy the ride."

Let me start by repeating that I have enjoyed the two 200K brevets I have completed very much. However, what I have learned about myself since I restarted cycling in 2008 is that for me to complete one of these requires long, careful preparation and that riding one takes a lot out of me, such that I have to allow plenty of time (months) to recover. Is this too high a price to pay? I confess that, in my mind, that is still an open question. Arguments in favor of continuing to ride brevets to the extent I can, even as few as one 200K brevet a year, are that I find the long preparation for them fun in and of itself and that I have not found a group of riders I enjoy riding with more than randonneurs. The arguments against continuing is that they might be such a strain for me, given my genes, age, and history, that their harmful effects could outweigh their benefits, even factoring in how much fun they are. Stay tuned as I ponder this dilemma.

Modesto Roadmen, 1966, having about as much fun as we can stand.

If my only fun ride was one 200K brevet a year, that clearly wouldn't be enough. Fortunately, I also enjoy riding by myself (e.g. while preparing for a brevet) and riding with my wife on weekends, but I would still like to ride with groups more often than once a year. So what shorter group rides are available to an old man in Houston, Texas?

In the first place, 200 kilometers is not the shortest distance randonneurs ride. My club, the Houston Randonneurs, and our sister club, the Lone Star Randonneurs, run a number of 100K and 137K rides that start within driving distance of my home. What has kept me from participating in these heretofore is two things. Firstly, because I was focused on longer rides, these shorter rides conflicted with preparation for longer rides. Now that I have convinced myself that rides longer than 200K are beyond my abilities, and that even 200K represents a stretch, perhaps I should turn my attention to these shorter rides. Secondly, these rides are on weekends, and because I am retired and my wife is not, weekends tend to be reserved for activities with her. My longer brevets also took Saturdays away from my wife, but since I never managed to ride more than one brevet per year, this had not become an issue. If I do a larger number of shorter rides, it will. My wife can complete a 100K ride, so maybe we could do these together. A dream of mine is to get a tandem, which might facilitate this. The advantage these shorter rides have compared to the other kinds of rides I am considering is that they allow me to ride with the randonneurs whose company I enjoy.

In other posts to this blog, I have discussed two large group rides (hundreds to thousands of riders) I have enjoyed, the Tour of Houston and the Tour de Pink. I fully intend to repeat these two particular rides in 2014, and have my eyes open for more such rides. Riding with my adult children is always fun, and the recent large group ride I did with them in Virginia, the Back Roads Century, was special indeed. For 2014, we are looking into doing RAGBRAI as a family team, though the obligatory camping might be beyond what my wife and I can still do. Something I have looked at but so far avoided are the rides sponsored by Critical Mass and the like. In addition to their cannonical ride held the last Friday of every month, this same group of people hold several other rides each month, many spontaneous. On the one hand, they seem like relaxed and friendly rides, well within my capabilities, but long enough to be fun. On the other, these seem to be party oriented and most definitely not my demographic. What I have not enjoyed so much are typical "club" rides, either with the Houston Bicycle Club or the Stanislaus County Bicycle Club. The problem with these rides for me is that they are not usually all that long but include a lot of rest stops and are ridden at a pace I find very fast, almost like a race from rest stop to rest stop. I am well aware that these are kind of ride that the majority of road cyclists enjoy most, I just happen not to be one of them.

But life cannot be all fun and games. As I noted in my post on Cycling for Health, because cycling is my sole source of aerobic exercise, The American College of Sports Medicine wants me riding at least five days a week, those rides done at a moderate effort and averaging an hour in length. Between the perils of urban cycling and the constraints of time, there are just not that many fun rides I can do. A couple of years ago, my wife and I gave up our second car and my wife started commuting to work by bicycle. We are trying to spend as much time as we can together, so I have been riding in to work with her and then spending another 45 minutes going around and around and around the third of a mile bike track at Rice University. I do confess this is boring, but what keeps me going is the regularity of this routine. Like brushing my teeth and washing the dishes, this is something I do without thinking too much about it, and so it gets done, and hopefully as a result, I will stay healthier and perhaps even be better able to engage in fun rides.

This is my 77th blog post. My first 69 assumed that I might be able to work up to a relatively normal randonneuring career, one including an annual super brevet series and perhaps a 1200K randonnée. How to reach that goal was one of the organizing themes of this blog. Even though I always allowed for the possibility that this dream might be too ambitious for an old man like me, it was not until Blog Post 70 that I accepted that the dream was over. Perhaps what skiffrun was really telling me was that the problem all along was the whole notion of having a dream. Perhaps, instead of using my rides to reach a goal, I should have just gone out on rides and let what happened, happen. Will I change the title of this blog from "The Zombie Cyclist" to "The Nihilist Cyclist?" Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Front Page, Above the Fold

Alternate Title: Is it finally time to have an adult conversation about bikes and cars?

Today's post is on a very serious, very sad topic, and I hope my title doesn't trivialize it. On December 1, Chelsea Norman, a 24 year old employee of Whole Foods Supermarket, was bicycling home from work in a dedicated bike lane when she was killed by a hit and run motorist. At first, the Houston Chronicle covered this as a relatively minor story buried deep inside the newspaper. However, as the reaction of the Houston cycling community to this tragedy has grown, coverage has grown along with it, and the report of the memorial ride for Chelsea was sufficiently newsworthy to make the most prominent part of the newspaper, on the front page of the first section, on the top half of the page (above the fold) where everyone who even glanced at the paper saw the story. The driver who killed Chelsea has not yet been identified. If they are caught, they are likely to be severely punished, but only because this accident was a hit and run. Not so for the driver who struck another cyclist some months back here in Houston. Fortunately, this earlier cyclist did not die but he did sustain injuries that could limit his activities for the rest of his life. To his credit, the driver who struck him stopped and rendered aid, and has been most apologetic and regretful. However, in describing how the accident occurred, the driver mentioned that he had a significant visual impairment that prevented him from seeing the cyclist. Despite having seriously injured another person due to driving with a known condition that made it unsafe to drive, the driver has received no punishment for the accident. These are but two stories. Such stories, many tragic beyond belief, are repeated on a regular basis in every part of the United States.

What is the meaning of these stories, what are they telling us? We should all know by now that automobiles are one of the most dangerous elements of modern life. Wars make the news and citizens are appropriately horrified by their casualties, but even during the peak of fighting, the death rate due to automobile accidents in the participating countries usually exceed the casualties of war by a large margin. As cyclists, we should all know that because of our relative lack of protection (whether we are wearing a helmet or not), we are more exposed to this danger than most. This is an issue which society ought to address globally, and I for one welcome the day when Google's self driving cars replace error-prone human drivers. But I would like to focus on one specific part of this problem. I noted above the driver who, due to a known visual impairment, injured someone seriously but was not charged with any crime. Bike Snob has been relentlessly documenting the extent to which automobile drivers suffer few if any consequences in auto-bicycle accidents. Why is this? One explanation I have heard, which rings true to me, is that the police are reluctant to bring charges because they have learned that juries, consisting mostly of automobile drivers, are unlikely to convict. One reason for that is that the jurors identify with the driver and not the cyclist, but more than that, it is apparent to me (and probably most of you) that most drivers don't really believe that cyclists belong on the road. At the risk of being one more boring voice in a long litany, that is the issue I would like to address.

On a recent ride, I was stopped at a red light. A car came up behind me and was obviously impatient, pushing up closer and closer to me, apparently trying to signal me to  ...  do what? I had no idea. At some point, they lost patience, came around me on the left and made a right turn in front of me. The turn itself was legal, right turn on red being legal in Texas, but the coming around me was not, nor was it safe. If I had been a car, this never would have happened, and that's the point. Had I been a car, the driver behind me might have been annoyed at the delay, but would not have blamed me, but rather seen the delay as just bad luck. However, in their mind, as a cyclist, I did not belong on the road in the first place, and because I was on the road nonetheless, it was my fault they could not make their right turn.

There was a recent thread on the listserv for my bicycle club, the Houston Randonneurs, about signs that were put up by residents on one of our more popular rural cycling routes. These signs argued that cyclists should be banned from this road because it has no shoulders, a speed limit of 60 miles per hour, and is winding, making overtaking and passing dangerous. According to their logic, the cyclists were creating a dangerous situation, the conflict between fast trucks and slow bicycles. The false logic here rests on the incorrect premise that a speed limit somehow guarantees a minimum speed. Legally, the speed at which one should drive is the maximum speed that is safe; the posted speed limit is not a promise of a safe speed, but rather a guarantee that any vehicle, even under the most ideal of conditions, will be driving unsafely if they drive faster. That is,  you may never drive faster than the speed limit, but you must often drive slower. The farmer in a pickup truck pulling a trailer full of horses complains that when they come around a corner at 60 miles per hour and suddenly see a cyclist, they cannot slow in time. What if, instead of a cyclist, they should see an automobile accident in the middle of the road, or a slow moving tractor pulling farm machinery? If the nature of their vehicle, the curves in the road, and their speed prevent them from slowing or stopping when necessary, then legally, they are driving too fast. This has absolutely nothing to do with bicycles.

Another part of the above narrative is that hard working farmers, trying to earn a living, are prevented from carrying out their work by cyclists who are just having fun. On the surface, this seems like an argument with some merit, but once again, carry it forward to its logical conclusions and ask yourself if people would be willing to live with those conclusions. Years ago, when I was involved with the Boy Scouts, I would frequently find myself driving east on highway I10 into Houston on Sunday afternoon after a campout. Much of the time, traffic moves along nicely on I10, but because it is a common route for Houstonians returning from recreational activities, it would fill and slow to a crawl on Sunday afternoon. This was irritating to everyone on this highway. Supposing the truck drivers who were tired of having their schedules ruined on Sunday afternoon made the case that they were trying to earn a living and ought not to be slowed by people who were just playing. If this argument prevailed, the State Police might note obvious recreational drivers (folks pulling boats, cars filled with boys in brown uniforms) and direct us off I10 so that trucks could drive unimpeded, causing us to get home many hours after we had planned. Can you imagine the uproar that would result? The tradition in our country is that why you are using the roads does not influence if you can use the roads, and once again, this has nothing to do with bicycles. Besides, the tragedy that inspired this post involved a cyclist commuting home from work. Some people on bicycles are working, some are playing. Some people in cars or pickup trucks are working, some are playing. There is no difference.

Another argument used to argue that cyclists do not belong on the roads is that cars pay gas tax whereas bicycles don't. This argument is false for two different reasons. In the first place, it is a broadly applied and accepted agreement in our society that the use of publicly funded resources is not limited to those who pay the taxes to create and maintain them. When we and our children were younger, we did a fair bit of family camping, often at State Parks. State parks have an entrance fee, but this does not cover all or even most of the cost of the parks. Rather, much of cost of state parks is paid for from general funds. Texas does not have a state income tax, but relies on a sales tax. Imagine the uproar if the Texas State Parks allowed families to camp there only in proportion to the amount of sales tax they paid, that families had to collect sales receipts to earn entry into a park. In fact, Texas State Parks are available to non-residents of Texas who pay little or no sales tax. Suppose one argued that because roads are paid for by gas taxes, they are different, they should only be used by those who pay gas taxes. Are we to ban electric cars from the roads, allow preferential road use to those who drive gas guzzlers compared to those who drive hybrids? Anyway, the second reason that this argument is false is that the roads are only partially funded by gas taxes, a substantial part of the funding comes from general state revenues which cyclists pay just like everyone else. Given how little wear and tear a bicycle causes to the roads, it could be argued that cyclist are already paying more than their fair share.

A final red herring I would like to dismiss is that cyclists deserve what they get because they ignore the law, running stop lights and refusing to yield the right of way when they should, for example. Of course some cyclists sometimes break the law. But in fact, where it has been studied, the rate at which automobile drivers break the law is higher than the rate at which cyclists break the law. Nobody is perfect, nobody should break the law, but it is certainly not the case that cyclists are the cause of the problem.

There are many things we could do to increase cyclist safety. However, I think driver education is one that could be particularly helpful. I think for most of us, attitude adjustment can be a powerful force for improving our behavior. For example, if we hear that only suckers give money to charity, our donations will almost certainly be less than if we hear that everyone gives money to charity, that it is a normal and accepted part of being an American. Similarly, I think if state and local officials calmly, repeatedly, and regularly explained to automobile and truck drivers that cyclists have a right to be on the roads, belong on the roads, and in some cases are required to be on the roads (as opposed to riding on the sidewalk for example) and that sometimes, automobile drivers will have to slow down behind a bicycle or wait to pass until it is safe, and that this is a normal and expected occurrence, automobile-bicycle interactions would become calmer, more pleasant, and most importantly, safer. Ways this could be communicated include being part of the drivers license written test and the manual used to prepare for that test, in public service announcements, and in special mailings. Nothing is perfect, there would always be people who would refuse to accept this message, but I cannot help but think that significant improvement would result.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Cycling for Health

Modesto Roadmen, 1967

It is widely accepted that exercise is good for health. But how much exercise? What kind? Is it possible to exercise too much? One of the main reasons I restarted cycling five years ago was for the health benefits, so these kinds of questions are important to me. When I began writing this post, I worried that basic health considerations would be beneath the considerations of a randonneur1. They may be for most randonneurs, but I was surprised by how relevant these considerations turned out to be for me.


As I have posted before, I am a card-carrying member of the medical establishment, so my point of departure was to get online and search for the position of the medical community on these issues. During my career in medical research, I, like most other biomedical research scientists, derived most of the funding for my research from the National Institutes of Health, so that's where I started. The National Institutes of Health consist of 27 institutes, each specializing on a specific aspect of human health and disease. Because of my age, I started by looking at the offerings of the National Institute on Aging (NIA). To get a more general perspective, I also looked at the offerings of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the parent organization of the National Institutes of Health. Finally, I did some general web searching. The problem with general web searching is separating the sense from the nonsense, so I carefully considered the sources I came across. One source I found was the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). This is a professional association of researchers, personal trainers, physicians, and educators who work in the area of sports medicine, and as best I can tell, is well respected. Two other associations for physicians associated with sports medicine are American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine and the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. I do not yet know how these organizations relate one to another, but I started with ACSM and purchased the book they developed for the general public, "Complete Guide to Fitness & Health." This book is extremely basic, has a strong focus on the part of the general public who has yet to develop any exercise program, but does provide a foundation of basic information about what is known by the biomedical research community about the fundamentals of exercise and health. In that context, it is comforting that what I read in this book agrees with material provided by NIA and HHS, and I will use this book as a foundation for this post.

Recommendations of the ACSM

I may be marginal as a randonneur, but by the standards of the ACSM, I am "established", at the top of their scale in terms of exercise experience. As such, their recommendation is that I engage in at least 200 to 300 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercise or at least 100 to 150 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic exercise or any combination of the two. Moderate exercise should be done at least 5 days per week, vigorous at least 3 days per week, and again can be combined. The levels of exercise are defined as follows:
Exercise sufficiently intense to prevent singing but to allow talking.
Exercise sufficiently intense to create an inability to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.
Using the above definitions, my MAF test bike rides2 are moderate level exercise. (I rechecked this again today, I can talk in complete sentences while riding a MAF test but cannot sing.) According to the ACSM, I should only count the moderate part of the exercise, not the warmup and cool-down which makes my MAF test 45 minutes long. If I ride MAF tests the recommended minimum of five days a week, this would mean I would need to ride a minimum of three in a row (e.g. three days of MAF tests, one day of rest, two days of MAF tests, one day of rest) and this would add up to 225 minutes per week, at the lower end of the minimum range. To reach the top of the minimum, I would either need to increase the length of all five MAF test rides to 60 minutes or increase the number of rides to six or seven per week.3

Readers of this blog have suggested more than once that I may be underestimating the intensity of my MAF test rides. I'm not sure why I am giving that impression, perhaps it is because my heart rates are unusually high for a person my age. (I reached a heart rate of 179 during some recent interval training, whereas using the formula provided by ACSM4, my maximum possible heart rate would be estimated to be 164.) Besides cycling, an exercise I do fairly often is a brisk, 3 mile walk. Brisk walking is generally recognized as "moderate", where brisk is defined as a pace of at least 3 miles per hour and typically 3.5 to 4.5 miles per hour. (I usually walk between 3.5 and 4 miles per hour.) Yesterday, I wore my heart rate monitor while walking to compare it to my MAF test ride. By the end of the walk, my heart rate was at 135 beats per minute, smack in the middle of the range I use for my MAF test rides. Personally, I am convinced that my MAF test rides rate as moderate intensity exercise. Thus, whatever I am doing right or wrong in my training, riding too many MAF tests is unlikely to be my problem.

Exercise News

A career as a research scientist have left me with two convictions:
  1. Science is much harder to do correctly than it looks.
  2. The media, even prestigious newspapers such as the New York Times, do an unreliable job of reporting science.
I am attracted to news stories on the latest scientific findings on exercise as much as anyone, but when I stop to think critically, and especially when I take the time to research the background of the story, I become very skeptical. A recent example, published in the New York Times was entitled "Why A Brisk Walk Is Better", reported the research of Paul Williams and Paul Thompson, published in the journal PLOS One. (PLOS stands for Public Library Of Science.) The problem with the New York Times Article is that it falls afoul of the cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy; they assume that because people who walk faster live longer, walking faster will make you live longer. The alternative explanation is that people with health conditions which will ultimately lead them to die early also don't feel well and as a result, walk more slowly. It is even possible that if these people forced themselves to walk faster, doing so would cause them to die sooner. When I followed up on the New York Times article by reading the PLOS One article, it was clear that Williams and Thompson had not made this mistake, that they understood the limitations of their data. It was the reporter for the New York Times who made the false conclusion, perhaps to make their article seem more exciting.

Even if you take the time to refer back to the original article, and only draw conclusions from what is there, not what a newspaper reporter might add, my experience as a research scientist makes me unwilling to draw too many conclusions from any single research publication. Science is not successful because scientists never make mistakes, we most certainly do. Rather, science is successful because it includes a mechanism for the correction of mistakes, but this mechanism is only partially effective at the time a single paper is published, many such papers contain flaws or are even completely wrong. Over time, the scientific community checks and rechecks conclusions until a firm, relatively reliable consensus is reached. Thus, it is much more reliable to form one's opinions from compilations of results, such as ACSM's "Complete Guide to Fitness & Health", rather than from single research papers.

One final point I would like to make is to observe that the reason that the medical establishment has so little to offer us athletes is the result of how difficult research in this area is. The reason the study of Williams and Thompson cannot be used to determine if I should walk faster is because it is a retrospective, observational study. The authors went to walking events and ask walkers to voluntarily provide information for the study. Seven years later, the Social Security database was used to determine which of these walkers had died, and that was compared to the data about each of the walkers to ask questions such as "is there a greater percentage of deaths among slow walkers as compared to fast walkers?"5 As noted above, the problem with this approach is that you don't know if people who are more likely to die walk slowly, or if people who walk slowly are more likely to die. To avoid this problem, medical research, e.g. to determine the value of a new drug, uses randomization. The people who agree to be part of the study agree to be randomly assigned to the arms of the study, they don't know if they will be given the new drug or (e.g.) sugar pills. Thus, if a difference is observed, it cannot be alternatively explained by the difference between people who might choose a new drug as opposed to those who do not. This is essential for making a believable conclusion but is very hard on the participants. Imagine you have incurable cancer and sign up to try a new, experimental treatment. The reason you sign up, more likely than not, is that you hope the new treatment might save your life. However, to be allowed in the study, you have to agree to take a 50% chance you will not be given the treatment at all. How many of you would agree to participate in a study of interval training where, depending on the toss of a coin (figuratively speaking,) there was a 50% chance you would have to agree to sit on the sidelines while the other half of the group rides intervals? Randomization, essential for a firm conclusion, can only be justified where the expected health benefits are substantial. The medical community cannot justify the effort to help me ride a 200K brevet1, nor would I be likely to accept the constraints (randomization) their help would require.

Is it possible to exercise too much?

It is certainly possible to overtrain as I have discussed repeatedly in this blog, but that is not the question I am asking here. Suppose one trains effectively from a performance point of view, do athletes who choose to participate in particularly demanding events (e.g. 1200 kilometer bicycle rides1) harm rather than help their health? Again, my attention was caught by an article in the New York Times, in this case a regular column, "Ask Well", which solicits health questions from readers. The question being answered was "Is life expectancy affected if you do 'extreme' exercise like ultra­marathons, iron­man races, etc?" The expert The New York Times tapped to answer the question was Dr. James O'Keefe, who used appropriate caution by starting with "The short answer is, we don’t know" but finished by saying "my professional opinion is that if you are exercising to improve life expectancy and long ­term cardiovascular health, be moderate about it. More is not better." Dr. O'Keefe has published extensively on this topic and, to me, his position seems to be that training and competing in very long endurance events can be harmful to your health.

In this case, unlike the previous case, my examination of the original research articles behind the New York Times article did not reveal a difference. Also, the conclusion is supported by not one but several scientific publications. However, Dr. O'Keefe is an author on all of them which in general all come from the same research group. This brings me to another caution: multiple publications do not in and of themselves to confirm a conclusion. Scientific consensus comes from the debate between different groups of scientists. It is both common and appropriate for a single group to have a particular point of view which they defend vigorously.

What is my opinion, do I think it is possible to exercise too much? I don't have one, I am going to go with Dr. O'Keefe's first statement, "we don't know", which unfortunately is the consensus of the scientific community on so many issues of importance to us athletes. Dr. Phil Maffetone, author of "The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing", the book that got me started on MAF test rides, has weighed in on this issue on the "Natural Running Center" blog, and his response makes a lot of sense to me. To summarize, he argues that everyone is different, it doesn't make sense to come up with one recommendation to fit everyone, that the best thing each of us can do is to listen to our bodies. And that's all I have to say about that.


1. For an explanation of randonneuring in general and what a brevet is specifically, see the Randonneurs USA website.

2. My MAF test rides consist of a warmup of about 20 minutes ridden at a heart rate less than 130 beats per minute, a 45 minute ride maintaining my heart rate between 130 and 140 beats per minute, and a cool-down of about 20 minutes designed to get my heart rate back down to no higher than 110 beats per minute, typically ridden between 9 and 10 miles per hour. My speed during a MAF test ride varies between 13.5 and 16.5 miles per hour, depending on the state of my training.

3. Of course, there are many ways to train and most people would probably argue that a training regimen consisting only of MAF tests would not be optimal. For example, if I have any hope of riding a brevet, I will need to include one long ride each week into my training regimen which would cause me to easily exceed my recommended weekly minimum of 300 minutes of moderate exercise.

4. Your maximum heart rate is defined as the highest heart rate it is possible for you to reach. It is difficult (and perhaps unsafe) to reach that heart rate and in particular, it is very difficult if not impossible to reach this heart rate while bicycling; most athletes can reach a higher heart rate running than they can cycling. Maximum heart rate is known to decline with age and so there are a variety of formulae for estimating your maximum heart rate that all have the form of some standard maximum with a value subtracted that depends on age. The simplest, and perhaps least accurate of these is (220 - Age). For a 64 year old, this formula would estimate a maximum heart rate of 156 beats per minute. ACSM uses the formula (206.9 - (0.67 x Age)). The problem with all these formulae is that every person is different; two people of the same age can have maximum heart rates differing by as much as 60 beats per minute.

5. This study is way more complicated than my simple statement would imply, of course. Throughout this paragraph, I have dramatically simplified the issues in pursuit of clarity, without, I hope, distorting the main point.

Monday, December 9, 2013


A sew-up (tubular) tire dissected. At the top is the rim tape, which for a sew-up is first glued to the tire and then to the rim. This tire has been used (and punctured) and you can see the staining from the aluminum rim on the tape. In the middle is the black (butyl) inner tube. I actually did not know if this particular tire had a latex or a butyl tube until I opened it up to repair it just now. Unlike a clincher tire, where the tire only covers three sides of the tube and has a wire or kevlar bead to hold it to the edge of the rim, in a sew-up, the tube is completely surrounded by the tire which is held together by the stitches on either side of the tube and then glued to the rim. I had to cut the stitches to get at the tube to repair it, and will have to re-stitch the tire when I am done.

My second 10 speed (road bike) was a Peugeot PX10, and like all high end road bikes of the 1960's, had "sew-up" (tubular) tires. Most sew-ups contained inner tubes made from latex, which can be recognized by its light tan color, as opposed to the black color of the more common butyl rubber tubes. This was done because latex is thinner and softer than butyl rubber and thus has lower rolling resistance; it makes for a faster tire1. The problem is, latex doesn't hold air as well as butyl rubber and latex tubes need to be re-inflated every day. Sew-ups were also expensive. As a solution to both of these problems, Clement, the largest vendor of sew-ups, marketed the Clement 50, a relatively inexpensive, rather heavy sew-up tire which had butyl tubes. Because of the butyl tubes, you could go up to a week without pumping up your tires. Thus, besides saving money, Clement 50s had an advantage as an every day training tire in that you could just jump on your bike and ride without the delay and hassle of tire inflation. This seems like a small thing, but small things like that often make a disproportionate difference and what many of us found is that not having to inflate tires often made the difference between going for a ride or putting it off until tomorrow.

When I purchased my first modern bike, my Surly Crosscheck, one goal was a fuss-free ride to facilitate "just jumping on the bike" but life is more complicated than that. One can be motivated by convenience (Clement 50 tires with butyl tubes) but also by performance (ultralight, ultrafast, silk sew-ups.) As practical as it was, I found my Surly a bit drab. It was not particularly heavier and no slower than my much less practical Bianchi Specialissima, but it was way less exciting. One thing that particularly bothered me were the tires. The Crosscheck is a cyclocross bike, and as such, comes with wide (32 mm) knobby tires, which to my retrogrouch eyes looked clunky. (Also, I found that the buzz the knobs made on pavement annoying.) So, the first modification I made to my Surly was to replace the tires it came with with skinnier (28 mm) tires with smoother tread. I didn't think too much about which tires to buy so long as they were skinny and slick and just got whatever the guy in my local bike shop (LBS) told me to buy. I no longer have any memory of what brand of tires these were.

By the time I rode my first 200K brevet two years later, those tires needed replacing. This was discovered when I took my Surly into my LBS for a pre-ride tuneup so again, they just put on whatever they had around in 28 mm width, which happened to be Specialized Armadillo tires. I rode these for my first brevet and for all the riding for the next year, until my second brevet a year later, at which point I wanted to try some 32mm Grand Bois Extra Léger tires. I had been reading Jan Heine's blog who argues that the most important upgrade you can do on a bicycle is the tires, and promotes his own brand of of tires (the Grand Bois) as the best. In fact, I loved these tires and successfully rode my second brevet on them, though I was not able to confirm any performance improvement of them over the Armadillos. What was somewhat ironic about this choice is that it was a retreat to a wider tire that I was so eager to abandon a few years earlier.

Specialized Armadillo

Grand Bois Extra Léger

As much as I loved riding the Grand Bois tires, they are quite expensive and appear to be fragile; their low rolling resistance comes from the use of a very thin sidewall and tread. Also, I read in a number of reviews that these tires should be aged for a year before use. Thus, I used these tires for a ride or two before the brevet (to make sure they worked), for the brevet, and then a few days afterwards replaced them with the old Armadillos with the plan of putting the Grand Bois back on for the next brevet both to save them for events and to give them a chance to age.

About a month ago, the Armadillos wore out. Although they were fine tires, I had felt a bit uncomfortable that I had no say in selecting them, they were the choice of my LBS. So this time around, I wanted to actively select a tire. While reading posts from long distance touring cyclists, I saw repeated recommendations for Schwalbe Marathon tires, so I ordered a set in the 28 mm width from Amazon with the idea that if these were good enough for around the world cycling, they should be good enough for fuss-free cycling around town.

I don't know how I will feel about my Schwalbe Marathons in the long run, perhaps I will never get another flat and that advantage will trump everything. However, if I had it to do over again today, I would not order these tires2. In the first place, they were the most difficult tires to mount of any I can remember. Reviewers do warn of this, but I did not appreciate the extent of the problem. Apparently, Swalbe is well aware of the issue and makes a special fluid and tire irons to mitigate it. I did get the tires mounted without the fluid and with my standard tire irons and the effort involved was significant but not a show stopper. However, I worry about what will happen if I do get a flat and have to remove these tires on the road.

A second, perhaps more serious problem I have with these tires is how they handle. An advertised feature of these tires is a strip of a blue material between the tread and the casing put there to increase puncture resistance. This also increases the weight of the tires which this is not an issue for me given the weight of the rest of my bicycle and, much more importantly, my body. The rolling resistance of the tires seems fine to me as well. The issue I have is that sometimes, when cornering, there is an uncertain feeling, like you are about to loose traction. (I am not particularly aggressive while cornering.) I never have lost traction and it is my sense that this is an illusion rather than a true limitation of the tires. That said, I am suspicious that this feeling is caused by the blue strip under the tread. I suspect that this strip makes these tires stiffer and less responsive to the road, creating the disconcerting feeling, but that is just a conjecture. To put this all into perspective, I had put the original knobby tires back on my bike for a few days between the time I had noticed that the Armadillos were worn out and the Marathons arrived, and they feel dramatically worse to me than either of these tires, so the Marathons don't so much feel bad as they feel not as good as the Armadillos.

Tire Width

27x1¼" (32 mm wide) tire on the left, 700C 28 mm wide tire on the right. I claim the 28 mm tire is noticeably skinnier (as it should be.)

The same 27x1¼" (32 mm wide) tire on the left, but a 700C 32 mm wide tire on the right. I claim these are relatively similar in width.

Fat tires are in these days, and have been for a while. My wife's Surly, purchased in 2010, has a decal on the rear stays reading "Fatties Fit Fine", which offended her until I explained it referred to the tires. I have read the studies saying that fatter tires at lower pressure can have both a more comfortable ride but also lower rolling resistance than skinnier tires. That said, my sensibilities were formed in the 1960s when skinny tires were in; we believed that the skinnier the tire, the higher the tire pressure, the faster the ride, so when I see a fat tire today, my aged brain thinks "slow and clunky".

Back in the 1960s, there were four general sizes of tires on our radar. This was a bit complicated by the fact that Schwinn bikes used different sized tires as everyone else, but the grouping works nonetheless.

Regular one speed cruiser bikes used fat tires that were labelled 26x1¾" (Schwinn) or 26x1.75"(everyone else.) I had a bike with this size tire that I used for my paper route. These correspond to ISO 54-571 and 47-559, respectively, which means they were 54 and 47 mm wide. For perspective, modern 650B tires, extra-fat tires especially designed for dirt road randonneuring, are rarely more than 42 mm wide. On the other hand, those old 26x1.75" tires fit onto the same rim as the tires used on modern 26" mountain bikes. In that context, the 1.75" width is near the higher end of for a width of these tires, but would be no where near the widest.

On the right is one of my new Schwalbe Marathon tires (700Cx28mm). On the left is a 700Cx23mm clincher I have on my Bianchi Specialissima. The tire on the left is much skinnier (and thus to my eye, more attractive) than the one on the right.
Three speeds, sometimes called "racing bikes" back in the 1960s, used a distinctly skinnier tire. The local bike shops would discourage these for children, claiming they were too delicate. Both Schwinn and other bikes designated these tires as 26x1⅜", but the tires were different sizes and non-interchangeable, ISO 37-597 and ISO 37-590 respectively. However, both were 37 mm wide, a very wide tire for a modern road bike but a very typical tire width for a 650B tire used for dirt road randonneuring.

This time the comparison is to the same Schwalbe Marathon tire but now to a sew-up on my Bianchi Specialissima. To my eye, the sew-up is even skinnier than the 700Cx23mm shown above.

Cheap ten speeds had tires marked 27x1¼" which are ISO 32-630 and 32mm wide. Expensive ten speeds had sew-up tires which varied somewhat in width but typically were 23 mm wide and correspond to a 23-622 ISO size. We knew that the sew-ups were skinner and could be pumped up to higher pressures (over 100 PSI vs 70 PSI for the 27" tires) but thought of both of these as skinny. When my wife and I first started riding together in the early 1970s, she had a three speed, felt the tires were fat and slow, and upgraded to a cheap ten speed, which she and I felt had skinny tires. Note that these 27x1¼" tires are 32 mm wide, the width of the fat tires that came on my Surly, to which I objected. When I was installing my 32mm Grand Bois, I knew they were fatter and wanted to compare them to what I had been riding. I noted this was nominally the same width as 27x1¼" tires which I considered "skinny", and thought that had to be a mistake, but when I put them side by side, I found that the widths are the same. To this day I have no idea why a 27x1¼" tire looks fairly skinny to me, but that a 32 mm wide 700C tire looks fairly fat when both are 32 mm wide, and that the difference between a 26x1⅜" tire and a 27x1¼" tire (37 and 32 mm, a 5 mm difference) seems big, whereas the difference between a 27x1¼" tire and a sew-up (32 and 23 mm, a 9 mm difference) seems not so big. Note that this discussion is esthetic. The only tires whose width I selected entirely rationally are the Grand Bois.


1. It is possible to purchase latex tubes for modern, clincher tires.

2. For those who need a reason to use their LBS, this is one. The tire selected by my LBS is the one which, in retrospect, I would now purchase; an advantage of using one's LBS is that you get the benefit of their experience. However, the fun of working on my bike is an important part of cycling for me and well worth the problems that result from my relative inexperience. Someone who just wants a bike to ride may well come to a different conclusion.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


It has been over two weeks since my last post, and for that I apologize. It is probably no coincidence that it has also been over two weeks since I have sat on a bike. A while back I blogged that, since my previous cycling goals had proven to be unobtainable, I was by necessity suspending training until I had a new cycling goals towards which to direct my training. I hadn't planned no riding, but between weather and home projects, that's what happened. By this morning, I was itching to ride, and realized that my subconscious had come up with a new cycling goal, a short-term goal to be sure, but a goal nonetheless. My current cycling goal is to learn through a series of experiments how my body responds to training.

Up until now, I had been setting my cycling goals based on what I wanted to do, more or less assuming that I would be able to devise a training regimen to allow me to reach those goals. I no longer believe that, so I have stood the paradigm on its head; I will determine what is possible, and then use that as a filter to select feasible aspirations.

The model I have developed based on my reading of the training literature is that there are a series of processes required to recover from the fatigue resulting from training, and that these different processes take very different amounts of time. Some recovery is completed in minutes, some in days, and some takes weeks or longer.  Consider, for example, interval training. The time between intervals (minutes) allows me to recover for the next interval, but there are only so many intervals I can do in a day before I need some days for recovery, and if I train too hard week after week, my performance starts to decrease rather than improve, indicating a need for rest over weeks or months. My goal is to determine how much training I can tolerate and how much rest I need. In this discussion, I use the words form, fitness, and fatigue in the same way Joe Friel uses them.

I've read that two important factors in reaching a goal are:

  1. Making the goal specific.
  2. Having metrics for progress towards the goal.

In terms of making the goal specific, I plan to begin by measuring the impact of the training rides I do to improve my distance cycling on residual tiredness. I will begin with one of my standard rides known as the MAF test: 15 minutes warm up in heart rate Zone 1, 45 minutes in heart rate Zone 2, and 15 minute cool down such that I am at the low end of Zone 1 by the end. In terms of metrics, I will use resting heart rate and subjective feelings as my metric for fatigue. Although the primary goal of this experiment will be to measure fatigue, I will also record my speed during the 45 minutes in Zone 2 as a metric for increased fitness due to the training effect of the previous rides.

These particular experiments come from two observations I made just before taking my two week sabbatical:

  1. I found that, when done carefully, my resting heart rate measured in bed before getting up in the morning appears to be fairly reproducible. It is between 62 and 64 beats per minute (bpm) when I am well rested and have abstained from alcohol. When I am tired, my resting heart rate decreases. A heart rate of 60 bpm is a good indicator that I am not fully recovered from the riding of the day before, and anything below that is a strong indicator of significant fatigue.
  2. Two weeks ago, I did MAF tests on Monday and Tuesday. Monday morning before the first ride, my heart rate was 63 bpm. Tuesday morning after the first but before the second ride it was 60 bpm. Wednesday morning after two rides in two days it was 57 bpm. This suggests that it takes me more than 24 hours to recover from the fatigue generated by a MAF test.
The initial questions I will be asking are:
  1. Is my preliminary result from two weeks ago reproducible?
  2. How long does it take for my resting heart rate to return to normal? If I skip a day between MAF tests, is that sufficient?
  3. As an alternative to skipping rides on the days between MAF tests, I will test the effect of doing an active recovery ride, a 30 minute ride in Zone 1, on my rest day. How does my recovery after an active recovery ride compare to that after a rest day?
  4. What happens as I continue this routine? As I increase fitness, do I need less rest after a MAF test, or does tiredness accumulate so that I need more rest?
  5. If I find I need less rest after a MAF test as time progresses and my fitness increases, I will increase the length of one of my weekly Zone 2 rides at a rate of 10% a week. How will this affect my rate of recovery from fatigue (and increased fitness as measured in a MAF test?)
  6. I assume I cannot increase the length of my training rides indefinitely without experiencing fatigue that won't go away. One approach recommended to manage that is to not monotonically increase the length of the ride, but rather to increase for two or three weeks followed by a rest week. I will test this schedule as well.
I expect a lot of unexpected results from these experiments and as a result, I expect this plan to evolve. What will remain constant is the goal, to determine the effect of training on the body I have today. Stay tuned.