Thursday, December 4, 2014

Mapping My Way

Due to the need for specialized medical treatment, my older son, Michael, and his wife have been living with my wife and I for the past several weeks. Michael happens to be an exceptional computer programmer and more generally, has knack for getting computers to do what he wants them to. He has recently become interested in a company called Mapbox, which provides a more sophisticated alternative to Google Maps for individuals and companies who want to develop custom mapping products. Both to show me the potential of this company as well as to become familiar with their latest programming interface, he undertook the task of taking all the accumulated GPS data from my Garmin 500 cycle computer and displaying it on a map. This is what he came up with:

The above graphic is dynamic; all the controls on this map work. Most importantly, you can zoom in and zoom out using the + and - buttons and can move around on the map with your mouse. Feel free to play around with it, at any time you can go back to the starting version of the picture by reloading this page in your browser. However, for purposes of this blog post, I have created static versions below so that what I am talking about corresponds to what you are looking at.

I have posted maps of my rides before by using the Garmin supplied software, "Garmin Training Center", to "view" a ride in Google Earth. Garmin Training Center has its own built-in map, but it is rather crude. Here is what the Tour de Pink looks like on the built-in Garmin map:

If you view that same ride in Google Earth, you have a lot more options in terms of what you see and what you don't see. I pick a set of options to look as much like what Michael did with Mapbox as possible, and that looks like the following:

So what can Mapbox provide that Google Earth cannot?
  1. Mapbox allows me to display ALL of my rides on one map. All three maps show the same Tour de Pink route with its characteristic arrowhead shape, but the Mapbox version also shows the overlap between that ride and my 2013 brevet, and where they all are relative to my regular training rides. This was our original motivation for undertaking this project.
  2. Mapbox provides a much greater range of options than Google Earth, both in terms of the map background and in terms of how the ride data is displayed on that background. Michael tried several backgrounds before selecting the one he used, a nighttime-looking satellite image. What he and I like about this background is that it is subtle enough to allow one to clearly see my rides while still allowing one to see the geographical context of where those rides took place. 
  3. Also possible because of the flexibility of Mapbox,  Michael was able to include an effect wherein as the same route is ridden again and again, the map displays the route with brighter and brighter lines.

This map is centered just west of the City of Houston, Texas, where I live. The "loop on a stick" image to the left of the picture represent my most recent 200K brevet (the "stick") and the Tour de Pink (the "loop".) They have similarly bright lines because each has been ridden twice, the brevet all in one day, as it is an out and back ride, and the Tour de Pink in two successive years (2013 and 2014.)  If you look closely, you will notice that the stretch where the Tour de Pink and brevet overlap is brighter than the rest of either of these rides. Much more obvious is how bright some of the rides to the right are. The two separated sets of rides represent Terry Hershey/George Bush parks in the middle and the White Oak and Braes Bayou trails to the right. If you zoom in on the active map at the top of the post, you can identify the Rice Track as an extremely bright oval. In addition to these very bright sections, there are many fainter sections representing rides done one or two times. If you zoom all the way in on the bright sections, you can see that they are made up of many close together lines representing individual rides along the same route.

To make the point about "all the rides on the same map" most dramatically, I zoomed out on the map until it included all of the United States:

I have been riding mostly in Texas, but when I would visit family in Washington DC or California, I would oftentimes be able to squeeze in a bike ride. I circled the rides in these three areas so you can see them more easily. If I then zoom in on the rides around my Dad's house in California, you can see my rides there:

Everything up until this point, Michael did without programming (except for some optional data cleanup.) You do not need to be a programmer to do any of this, any computer savvy person could create their own customized display and directions for doing so are given at the end of the post. But Michael wanted to do more. Rather than just layering all the rides together, he wanted to be able to look at single rides, subsets of rides, and what the pattern of my rides looked like over time. This required some programming. The result was the following three part graphic:

The top part of the graphic is a map with all my rides layered on it, similar to the first graphic at the beginning of this post. Just below that is another representation of my rides, as a bar chart with the horizontal (X) axis representing the date the ride was done and the vertical (Y) axis representing the length of that ride. These two parts are connected. If you hold your mouse over a ride on the map, all the days that route was ridden are highlighted in pink on the middle bar chart, and vice versa. At the bottom of the bar chart are two sliders. Only the rides ridden on the dates between the two sliders are shown on the map. This allows one to control which rides are shown.

The third and final part of the graphics are a series of controls on the bottom. By clicking on the words "Houston" or "West University" or "Antioch" (a.k.a. California) or "Washington DC" zooms in on that part of the map. (Because the graphic is limited to a small size in this blog post, it sometimes is necessary to zoom out with the "-" control on the map to see the rides.) Clicking on the words "Last 30 Days", "Last 90 Days", "2013", "2014", and "All Time" display the rides done during those times. (The last one, as you might guess, shows all the rides.) This has the same effect as the sliders below the bar graph. The last two controls, "Build the Map" and "Sliding 30 Day Window"are rather clever animations. The first adds rides to the map, one at a time, in the order they were ridden. The newest addition is highlighted in pink. The second shows all the rides ridden during a 30 day window, and the window slides forward in time. Honestly, playing with this graphic is the best way to understand it.

The above tiny window really does my son's program a disservice. If you have a large screen (and a fairly fast computer), you should really take a moment and play with it all on its own, in all its glory.

How to Put Garmin Data onto a Mapbox Map
- by Michael Steffen

This blog post from Mapbox explains the basics of importing GPX data into Mapbox Studio and styling it.

This project required a few additional steps:

  1. Garmin Training Center exports data as a TCX file, a format that Mapbox Studio doesn't support.  So I converted the Garmin TCX file into the more standard GPX format with the excellent free tool GPSBabel.
  2. I wrote a little python script to clean the GPX data by (i) eliminating user-uploaded routes that aren't rides actually ridden -- Garmin mixes these in with the rides data; and (ii) removing segments that were clearly where the GPS had been left on after a ride for the car ride home (identified, in this case, as segments at the end of a ride where the average speed was >30 mph). The script is available here.  It uses Tomo Krajina's very nice gpxpy library. If we had wanted a completely programming-free version, this step could have been skipped.
  3. I customized the Mapbox styles in Mapbox Studio, using the Mapbox satellite layer, the Mapbox streets layer, and the rides data. The styles I used are available here. The key to the rides style is that each ride is actually three lines -- a base line in semi-transparent blue, a "heat" overlay in a more transparent white, and then a wide, blurred "glow" overlay, in a yet more transparent white.  As the rides layer on top of each other, they build up the glow effect.

The inspiration for the final interactive graphic came from the "Urban Layers" website; I borrowed both concepts and some code. All the code used by the final graphic is available on Github.

Friday, November 21, 2014



My older son, at age four, readying a new blog post. (Or maybe he is just playing on the computer, an original 128K Mac running OS 1.)

It has been more than two weeks since my last post, and there are a couple of reasons for that:
  1. Life continues to be complicated. As I mentioned in my last post, my Dad is doing better at the moment, but my older son continues to struggle with his health. Also, it has been exceedingly cold out, at least by the standard of spoiled Houstonians. All of this I find demotivating.
  2. Last week, I planned a really cool post based on a project of my convalescing son that shows off my ride data in fun, new ways. However, my son continues to find ways to make it even cooler, so asked me to delay showing off his creation.
Thus, I decided to use this week to provide some miscellaneous updates.


My friend "Peter" and I, on a recreational ride back in 1966. The photo was taken by a third friend, "James", who was riding as he took it, which probably contributed to the blurriness of the picture.

Despite distractions leading to motivation problems, I have not given up on a brevet on December 13, but my fitness is not where I had hoped it would be. It has been a while since I posted any MAF test results, so I will make up for lost time. The picture below summarizes my MAF test results from the last 11 months.

I have previously discussed MAF tests ad nauseum, so all I will say here is that I am assuming they are a measure of fitness, that higher is better. At the beginning of 2014, I had gone a long time without riding, so I did several weeks where a daily MAF test was my training ride (MAF Test Only). For the first six weeks or so, I improved dramatically on that regimen, but eventually my results plateaued. In response to that plateau, I significantly increased the intensity of my schedule by replacing two MAF test rides with one long ride and one fast ride each week (Long + Brisk). That had the desired effect of effecting improvement beyond the previous plateau but the undesired effect of being exhausting; I could not maintain that schedule. When I backed off, my performance fell, and before I could experiment with a more moderate schedule, I had to take a break in training to visit my Dad in California (Overtrain, Calif). When I returned, I trained with my wife for the 60 mile Tour de Pink, and as a result , I reached the highest level of fitness of the year, a level of fitness I had only previously seen just before riding a brevet. This was very encouraging! Before I could take advantage of that, however, my son became ill and my Dad started falling, causing me to visit California again, but this time for three weeks and with little time to bicycle. Since my return, I have attempted to regain the fitness I had before I left (Claw Back Fitness) with some success but also some setbacks. I have just over three weeks to get ready if I am to ride a brevet this year, we shall see how that goes.


Me during my snarky college years. My friend "ER" and I were out on a ride in 1968 or so and decided to take some posed pictures to prove how clever we were.

A while back, I posted about the growing extension to one of my favorite hike and bike trails, the Braes Bayou Trail. That extension keeps growing to the point where I am beginning to be able to guess where it might be going. The extension actually departs from Braes Bayou, which it could have continued to follow, to branch off and follow Keegan's Bayou instead. Looking at the satellite photos on Google Maps, there are existing dirt paths along parts of Keegan's Bayou, and if I imagined the longest possible extension that could be plausibly built, it is the segment in red on the map below.

For perspective, the part of the Braes Bayou trail I most frequently ride is shown in green. Sometimes I mention I ride this same trail to the east, despite some unfinished, rather dangerous dirt sections (that seem like they would be easy to fix.) That segment is shown in blue. As you can see, as appreciated as every bit of new trail is, this extension is not a game changer by any means. It is not that long, nor does it facilitate the crossing any busy highways or other significant barriers. I suspect its only effect will be to make my standard Braes Bayou ride a couple of miles longer, not a bad thing at that.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Home Again

Continuing construction on the extension of the White Oak Bayou trail connecting it to the MKT trail.

I have been back home in Houston for two weeks, after three weeks in California taking care of Dad. He is doing much better now, so I was able to cancel my return trip to California scheduled for last Saturday. In theory, I could have attempted a 200K brevet on that Saturday, given that I was not out of town after all, but I didn't. The reason I didn't is because I am far from recovered from that trip. Interestingly, I firmly believe that the biggest impact to my form1 was not the interruption in training (though I was unable to do any cycling at all for the last 12 days of that trip) but from the stress of the trip, stress that has pretty much the same impact on me as overtraining. As regular readers know, I have been trying to do a version of Iron Rider's recovery based training. Unlike Iron Rider, I cannot use my resting heart rate as a guide to my state of recovery, so I have been detecting incomplete recovery by the subjective feeling in my legs, sleep disturbances, grumpiness, and susceptibility to minor illnesses. As always, I watch my MAF test scores as well. For the past two weeks, all of these indicators have been sending me exactly the same message; take it easy. So that is what I have been doing. It is not so much that I have not trained enough for a 200K brevet on Saturday, it is that a 200K brevet would not be taking it easy.

I am developing a long term fascination with the hows and whys of fatigue. When I first returned from California, subjectively, I felt pretty good. The day after my evening arrival, I went for a short, easy ride with my wife. The second day, I rode a MAF test. My score on that test (14.9 mph) was much below what I had been doing before the trip (16 mph) but I felt fine, "in need of speed" if anything. As a result, I rode intervals with my son and daughter-in-law on the third day. I then took a rest day, but after that I felt extremely tired, especially in my legs, a tiredness I have not been able to shake. If my exhaustion is due to my trip to California, why did it take a few days to manifest, at least subjectively? Perhaps relevant, my first MAF test was my worst. Although I continue to feel tired, my MAF test results have improved, almost back to where they were before my trip (15.5 mph). Maybe I was tired from the beginning, but the same stress-response that caused that tiredness was masking the symptoms; as the stress subsided, I both started to recover but also felt the effects. As of yet, I have no answer to these questions, but I am bowing to my feelings and taking things easy. As I have been cycling easily around my usual haunts, I have noticed some changes to the Houston cycling infrastructure, including progress on the extension of the White Oak Bayou trail, shown in the picture at the top of this post.

Rice Track

My daughter-in-law completed her first-ever triathlon while I was in California. Before I left, I rode with her on some of her training rides, including some intervals on the Rice Track. Just before I left, workmen moved the barriers around the track as we were riding, forcing us off the track. When I returned, I noticed the barriers were down. I asked one of the regulars if they knew why, and he told me that the workers had moved us off the track so that they could park equipment there, and when they did, they damaged the track. When I looked, sure enough there was a minor, dinner-plate sized indentation in the track, carefully marked (and obscured) by a traffic cone. The track was shut down as part of a dispute between Rice University and the construction company as to who was going to pay to repair the "damage." It was slightly scary using the track without the safety barriers, occasional Rice commuters would drive across the track on the way to their parking spot, but it was usable. That didn't last for long, however. First, Rice University upped the ante by placing barriers across the track to close it for good:

Then, the construction company repaired the dinner-plate-sized damage by replacing almost a quarter of the track:

However, all is well again, the Rice Track has now been returned to full functionality.

Braes Bayou

While waiting for Rice Track to be repaired, I took to riding Braes Bayou. I was most excited to see that the Do Not Enter sign had been removed from the new trail extension so I rode the extension to see what I could see. Unfortunately, at this point, the extension does not go far. Within 50 yards or so, I ran into a work crew completing the next stretch of trail. I will be curious to see how far this extension goes, once finished. This is what it looks like now:

The workmen are closing a short gap in the trail extension. I wonder what is on the other side?

Even more unfortunate than the short extension, at least for me personally, is that when I stopped to photograph the current status of the trail, I dropped my wallet. When I got home and found I was missing it, I was in total panic! I mentally went through the months required to cancel and replace all my credit cards, replace my drivers license, replace all my medical insurance cards, etc. Worse, at that point, I still thought I was going back to California; how would I board a plane without my drivers license? I rushed back to where I thought I had lost it and ask the work crew, who had not seen it. Fortunately, a wonderful (but anonymous) fellow cyclist found it, read my address off my license, and bicycled out of their way to my home to return it. And people say that the bicycle culture is dead!

In retrospect, I wonder if the trail was actually open for business, or if someone just turned the sign around? Look at these two pictures and decide what you think:

There used to be a sign here saying "SIDEWALK CLOSED". It is now gone.

Or is it gone? This is the same location from the other side. Do you think some enthusiastic user just turned the sign around?
I very much appreciate all the cycling infrastructure development going on in Houston, but I wish I better understood why certain projects are selected, and others ignored. Although I hope that the Buffalo Bayou extension shown above results in significant new riding opportunities, knowing what I do about the local geography, I worry that it won't. Towards the other end of Braes Bayou, there is an opportunity to significantly improve the riding experience, and for many riders, offer a much longer ride, at what I would have thought would be very low cost. (I have noted this opportunity before.) There are two dirt gaps in this trail as it passes by Texas Medical Center and Herman Park. One is a very short and very steep hill that might be difficult to fix economically. The other is longer and, to me, more problematic. This second stretch seems trivial to fix. While the Rice Track was being fixed, I decided to explore it, to monitor its status. When this stretch of trail was first opened, the dirt stretch was quite manageable. However, with use, it has become deeply rutted, make it difficult for me and impossible for my wife to navigate. In my most recent traversal, I noticed that someone had dumped gravel in the ruts, which helped a little. However, as the dirt transitions to a paved stretch, there is a major curb. I was approaching this curb riding into the rising sun, and noticed it only at the last second. Had I not noticed it, I could have had quite a spill. Why not just pave this stretch, I wonder? This is what the curb looks like:

1) Form results from the opposite effects of fitness (how well trained I am) and fatigue (how tired I am.) Form is defined as my actual ability to ride, all things considered, at that point in time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The de Anza Reconnect

It was three weeks ago I last posted to this blog. (It seems like forever.) In that post I said:
"[M]y plans for a 200K brevet in November are on hold, perhaps to be abandoned. I will ride as much as I can in California, but between the needs of my father and the absence of my familiar cycling environment, training for a brevet may be more than I can do. But who knows, I will ride as much as I can, substituting intensity for distance, and depending on how quickly my sister and I can get Dad settled, I will see how long it takes me to get back home and what my fitness looks like when do."

Well, getting Dad settled turned out to be much more of an adventure than expected, so much so that I extended my original stay by a week and will be going to California again at the end of next week. Even if I were fit enough for the November brevet, I will miss it anyway as a result of this trip.

But every cloud has a silver lining. Although I did not get much riding in (three rides in three weeks), I did manage to explore some new routes, and to my delight, found that a major gap in the local trail system had been filled! The map below shows large parts of two major trails in the Brentwood/Antioch/Pittsburg region of California: The Marsh Creek Trail (which I have blogged about before) and the de Anza Trail.

Click on map to see a larger version.
Notice the trail labels with a yellow background showing the de Anza, Marsh Creek and Big Bre[ak] trails. From Dad's house, I can catch the Marsh Creek Trail and ride it until it joins the de Anza trail, but where the blue circle is, near the center of the picture, there used to be a gap in the de Anza Trail which prevented me from getting very far. This visit, when I rode that section of trail, I found that the gap had been closed. Here is the new section of trail, going under Highway 4, that has just been completed:

The de Anza trail follows the Contra Costa Canal, so I expected it to be flat. To my delight, this was not the case, as shown by this warning sign:

The climb up to this sign was quite significant for an old man from flat, flat Houston. I always find it difficult to capture hills in my photographs, which is why I included the sign, but I think you can see the trail winding downhill in the picture. But how can this be? The law of gravity would seem to dictate that canals must be close to flat. There are two explanations. The first, which explains the hill shown above, is that the trail briefly departs from the canal and goes over the hill where the canal cuts through it. The other explanation, shown in the next picture, is pumping stations:

Notice how the trail rises to the right of the cement building. On the other side of the building, the canal is significantly higher than it is on the side you can see. (The canal is flowing front to back.) The cement building contains a pumping station that allows the canal to flow upstream, thus providing us cyclists with some modest but nonetheless enjoyable climbing.

I never know how much time I will have to bike when I visit Dad in California. Often, I am going because of some kind of problem that requires my help, and that help may not leave any time for riding. This will be the case when I go back next week. However, if I do have time to ride, there are a lot more trails for me to explore. In terms of brevet riding, the last brevet of the Houston Randonneur's calendar is a 200K on December 12. Will this finally be my 2014 brevet?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Hanging It Up

This picture illustrates a number of points in this post: 1) The hanging bike illustrates the title of this post; once again, the vagaries of life have interrupted my randonneuring plans. 2) My dad's work clothes to the upper right of his walker. We were sad when Dad was driven to use a walker, making the use of his work clothes a thing of the past. Now, we just hope he can return to the walker. 3) The bike itself. My carefully crafted plans to prepare for a 200K brevet in November may be at risk, but even while taking care of Dad, I have a bike to ride.

"Man proposes, God disposes."1 For my first two brevets, in 2012 and 2013, I used long, rigid training plans to prepare. As regular readers of this blog know, I selected a much more relaxed training plan to prepare for a 200K brevet this November. It is so flexible, it should be resistant to most of life's surprises. Surprise! A few weeks ago I received a text from my sister: "Dad has fallen." A few days after that, "Dad has fallen again, and is in the hospital getting x-rays." I am delighted that the x-rays revealed no broken bones, but what about the next fall? My father-in-law died from such a fall. So, I post this from Dad's home in California where I am staying to both share in Dad's care as well as to help him plot the next stage of his life.

I prepared this post before leaving Houston; Dad's technology resources do not lend themselves to preparing a blog post, nor do I have access to my library of pictures and cycling data here. That being so, this may be the last post for a while, which is its main message. That, and that my plans for a 200K brevet in November are on hold, perhaps to be abandoned. I will ride as much as I can in California, but between the needs of my father and the absence of my familiar cycling environment, training for a brevet may be more than I can do. But who knows, I will ride as much as I can, substituting intensity for distance, and depending on how quickly my sister and I can get Dad settled, I will see how long it takes me to get back home and what my fitness looks like when do. Stay tuned.

1) A translation from "The Imitation of Christ" by the German-born Thomas à Kempis (c.1380-1471). I claim this proverb is religion neutral. Either take it at face value or use God as a stand-in for fate, luck, nature, the perversity principle or Murphy's Law, as you prefer.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fitness Smorgasbord

I was the team photographer for the Berkeley Wheelmen while I was in college in the late 60's/early 70's. This is a picture I took of the sprint at the end of a road race. I have included it here to illustrate the concept of training rides ridden at a brisk pace (e.g. intervals.)

Even though I am not an expert on cycling or training, I do value my own experience. That said, there is an extra confidence that comes when I meet a fellow traveler who has come to the same conclusion I have. This happened to me while reading a recent column by Lovely Bicycle. I had been speculating about the efficacy of using brisk training (intervals) to prepare for long rides and she speculates about the same thing. Additionally, Bicycling magazine has weighed in on the topic. As a follower of Bicycling on Google+ (yes, somebody actually uses Google+) I am offered articles on new training plans at least once a week. Examples include "Interval Training for Weight Loss - Burn More Fat", "Ride Faster in Three Days Per Week", and now, in "Quick Cycling Workouts for Power and Endurance." The last article presents a schedule of intervals that Bicycling Magazine claims will improve endurance. Honestly, I cannot tell if they are saying these specific interval schedules are good for endurance or if intervals in general are good for endurance. I hope it is the latter, because the intervals I have been doing don't look anything at all like these.

Another lesson I think I have learned is that it is much better to slightly under-train than to slightly over-train, that when in doubt, I should train less. Recently, Bicycling published an article about Meredith Miller, a professional cyclocross racer, who claims "she doesn't train." An actual reading of the article suggests something closer to what I have been finding; a valuing of resting over training. Once again, it is a comfort when I have made a discovery on my own and I am wondering if it is true or an illusion, to read about someone else making the same discovery.

When I restarted cycling, one of my first influences was Philip Maffetone. He advocates the virtue of training at a low heart rate, roughly Zone 2 on the Zone 1 through Zone 5 system I use. Zone 2 is a relatively easy ride; the test for the proper level of effort is that one should be able to talk in complete sentences while riding in Zone 2, but not sing. Since first encountering Dr. Maffetone's ideas, I have remained both interested and skeptical. Thus, it was of great interest to me when, once again, Bicycling Magazine published an article about the great success Tour de France veteran Fred Rodrriguez had with a training plan consisting entirely of training in Zone 2.

One of the most seductive fallacies in statistics comes from failing to correct for multiple sampling. In a statistical analysis, the result can often be expressed as a P value, corresponding to the chance that the result observed could have occurred by chance. The most common cutoff for statistical significance is P=0.05, meaning that there is only 1 chance in 20 that the result being tested is due to chance. However, if you do 20 different experiments, you are likely to see such a correlation even if all of them are random. Bicycling magazine publishes so many different training plans and articles about training, I have to wonder if I could find one to support almost any training idea I ever had; is this support even meaningful? One the other hand, the article by Lovely Bicycle may well be the only training article she ever published. That one I can take to the bank!

News Flash

On of my most common rides starts at my front door, goes about a mile on city streets to the middle of the Braes Bayou multi-use trail, and then heads west on that trail to its termination at Gessner Road. This is a 17 mile ride, round trip. About four or five months ago, I noticed construction at the end of the trail that promised to lengthen this ride, a welcome change. Unfortunately, after the initial construction, everything seemed to stop. Thus, I was enormously excited today when I got to the end of the trail to see that the previously dirt extensions were now paved:

This trail extension is not yet open, but it seems we are getting closer. I can't wait!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Tour de Pink 2014

Teams are a big part of the Tour de Pink. This is the team my wife and I rode for, the University of Texas Medical School, Houston (UT). From left to right is the zombie himself (team member by marriage), his wife (faculty at UT), our team captain (faculty at UT), and two UT graduate students. Not shown due to late arrival is the sixth member of the team, another faculty member. All teams, including ours, vary in size year to year. This was one of our smaller years. And yet, we were just about in the middle of all the teams in the amount of money raised.

This is the fourth year my wife and I have ridden the Tour de Pink, a ride that, besides being a delight to ride, supports an excellent charity. I have written about the Tour de Pink twice before, in 2012 and 2013, and I won't repeat myself in this post, so refer to those earlier posts if you'd like additional information about this ride. At least over the four years we have been riding, the ride changes very little year to year, the routes for the various distances are exactly the same for example.

My son and daughter in law are visiting us. My son was ill and was unable to join the ride, but my daughter in law grabbed her bike, joined us, and completed the 63 miles with no training. What a champ!

I had been aware of the Tour de Pink for some time because Baylor College of Medicine, where I worked, was a major participant. I could have ridden it as early as 2008, and don't really know why it took me until 2011 to finally do so. For that first year, my wife and I didn't do any special training for the ride. Our weekly long ride was usually in the 35 to 40 mile range, so we figured 47 miles was well within our grasp as it proved to be. In 2012, we set our sights on the next distance up, 63 miles, and were well trained for that distance when life intervened at the last minute, limiting us to a 12 mile ride. In 2013, we were finally able to train for and complete a 63 mile ride. My wife was beat by the end, not due to lack of training, but due to the heat. She resolved that, in future years, she would not try any of the longer routes, but work on riding faster so she could finish earlier in the day, thus beating the heat. That turned out to be a non-issue this year; the weather was delightfully cool, staying between 60 and 70 degrees for most of the ride. Should we have tried for a longer ride? That would require longer training rides, and although we were lucky and had cool weather on ride day, most of our training rides were done under extremely hot and humid conditions, discouraging us from making them too long. Our longest training ride this year was 48 miles, and with that as a base, my wife was able to complete 63 miles at a personal best average speed of 14.5 miles per hour. However, by the end, she was ready to finish; I do not think it would have been wise for us to try for a longer ride this year, even with the perfect weather.

As the sun rises to the right of the next picture, we begin the ride in the same way as the past three years, with the Star Spangled Banner and the riders released longest riders first.

This is the start of the race with the start marked with the same display I have shown in prior years. My wife is Team GPCR (an esoteric scientific reference that delighted her teammates), I am in front and to the right of her, looking to the right, and the woman hidden in shadows with no bike is the "starter" for the 63 mile group.

Last year, I raved about the mini-sausages at Pit Stop #5, but had not gotten a picture of them. This is remedied this year, in the next picture, which also shows some of the other treats.

Whenever a lot of people gather in public places to do something, there is a natural tension between the worthiness of the activity and the enthusiasm of the participants and the tendency for such a large group to be a bit of a disruption. People living near the pit stops are not, in general, delighted to have bicycles dumped on their lawns. This year for the first time the organizers addressed this problem by providing bike racks of a novel design. The bike is supported by hanging either the handlebars or seat over the cross bar. This completely solved the problem, no more loose bikes on neighborhood lawns.

My daughter in law, exasperated at having her picture taken. I actually am including this picture not to exasperate her but to show the bike racks.

The next picture shows me and my wife at the finish. The tents in the background is where lunch was served. You can also see the tables provided for eating lunch.

Every year a goodie bag is provided. Constant each year is a water bottle and a T-shirt, with the rest of the ingredients varying from year to year. In my opinion, the contents this year were the best ever. Among them were not one but two blinkie-lights, shown below. Since everybody was given them, and since assembly began before dawn, the vast array of blinking lights was truly awesome!

Events can be fun because they are completely novel, or because they are friendly and familiar. Tour de Pink definitely falls into the latter category. By and large, the route is great, with wide shoulders, low traffic, and pleasant scenery. By now, I pretty much know where I am at any point along the route, and how far it is to the next pit stop. And best of all, I am starting to know enough of the regulars that I have a set of old friends to greet here and there along the way. Stay tuned for my report on the 2015 edition of Tour de Pink.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Thoughts About Fatigue

The Zombie and one of his fellow Modesto Roadmen in 1965, at the very beginning of their cycling careers, exhausted from an overly-ambitious bike ride.

What is fatigue? On the surface, this seems like a dumb question. Everyone knows what fatigue is. However, as I have been "training" over the past three to five years, as I have thought and read about this question, and as I compared my personal experiences to what I read, I have continued to wonder about the following questions:
  1. Is all fatigue the same, or are there different kinds of fatigue?
  2. What are the underlying physiological causes of fatigue?
  3. What are the best responses to fatigue? Does it differ depending on the kind of fatigue?

In response to question 1, I have tentative concluded that there are different kinds of fatigue. One reason I suspect that is that recovery from fatigue occurs at very different rates, depending on its cause. This makes me suspect that fatigue, like pain, is a symptom that can be a signal for a range of underlying conditions. At one extreme, there is the fatigue and rapid recovery (seconds to minutes) that occurs between intervals of interval training. I believe that this fatigue is fairly well understood. Fast twitch muscle fibers are active during the interval, using either creatine phosphate or carbohydrate as fuel. There is only a few seconds of creatine phosphate available, so it is soon exhausted. When carbohydrate is used as a fuel during intervals, it is metabolized anaerobically, generating lactic acid, which contributes the the sensation of fatigue. During the rest between intervals, aerobic metabolism regenerates the creatine phosphate and metabolizes the lactic acid, which allows me to ride the next interval.

The need to regenerate the fuel for fast twitch muscle fibers is not the only kind of fatigue I experience during interval training. After half an hour or so, I cannot do any more intervals, rest period or no. In fact, it will be two or three days before I can do intervals again. Why is that? The conventional explanation is that muscles are damaged by the intervals, and that days are required to repair the damage. I confess that it doesn't make sense to me that something as natural as exercise should damage muscles, but everyone seems to believe it is so, so I guess I have to accept it as true. However, this raises a further question: does muscle damage result only from the intense effort of interval training, or does it result from easy rides as well? My experience suggests that, if not the same thing, then something similar happens on slow rides, albeit at a slower rate. After I complete a day of intervals, my legs feel tired for the rest of the day; it is difficult for me to walk up stairs, for example. If I do a long ride at slow speed, I have the same sensation. Also similar is that it takes me days to recover from a long ride. If anything, it takes me longer to recover from a long, slow ride than it does from an interval workout. In fact, I have the subjective impression that long rides are the hardest to recover from and are the biggest cause of overtraining. This difference in recovery makes me wonder if fatigue from a long ride is signaling a different underlying cause than fatigue from an interval workout.

Another well known kind of fatigue that has a similar recovery time is bonking. This results from exhaustion of the glycogen reserves in the muscles. I happen to be fairly resistant to bonking, but have bonked once or twice and for me, despite eating extensively, I did not recover until the next day. This seems to be what others experience as well. The oft given advice to eat constantly on a long bike ride is intended, I think, to spare the glycogen reserves rather than to replace them, as the speed of replacement would appear to be too slow to be useful. I think bonking is a bad thing and should be avoided, but I suspect that it does not have a lot of long term consequences, and thus I will not discuss it further.

The kind of fatigue that is the most puzzling to me is that associated with overtraining. For me, this can take weeks to months to recover from. The classic explanation given for overtraining is illustrated in the following two figures (both from the Runner Academy website):

This first figure is the classic description of training; for each time you train, you first lose fitness and then regain even more fitness. If you train again during this period of increased fitness, you will become even more fit the next time. Almost everything about this cycle will vary from person to person, but typically it takes 2 to 3 days after a workout to reach peak fitness, and that you can repeat this cycle about 10 times before your fitness stops increasing and plateaus. The next figure describes what is thought to go wrong when you overtrain:

The classic explanation is that overtraining results when a subsequent workout is attempted too soon, while fitness is still depressed. The notion is that, when you do this, each cycle is worse than the one before, not better. With all due respect to Runner Academy, it is my fervent belief that this explanation must be incorrect, or at the very least oversimplified. Here are the ways my experience differs from the above two graphs:

  1. Just prior to experiencing overtraining, my progress looks like the first figure, not the second. Training works fine at first but, without changing the workouts or the time between workouts, my performance declines precipitously, not gradually as shown in the second figure.
  2. If one estimates timelines on the second figure, onset of overtraining and recovery take about the same amount of time, about 10 days. For me, I go from performance increasing from workout to workout, as in the first graph, to a precipitous decline in fitness between one week and the next. However, return to baseline fitness takes at least a month.
  3. If it were true that overtraining results simply from damaging muscle faster than they can be repaired, then training would simply be about damaging muscle at this fastest rate. This would lead to an optimal level of fitness that could be maintained indefinitely. What virtually every modern training book acknowledges is that this is not the case, all of periodized training is based on this not being the case, and this is very much not my experience. Rather, it is very easy to reach a level of fitness that cannot be sustained. Having reached that level of fitness and won a race or completed a brevet, you must then rest before striving for that level of fitness again.
All of the above implies that there is something other than the maximum rate of muscle repair that becomes limiting when you train for months. One explanation for this commonly given in the exercise community is adrenal fatigue; that the adrenal gland becomes exhausted and is unable to produce adequate levels of hormones. As readers of this blog know, I am a card carrying member of the medical establishment, and the medical establishment firmly rejects this hypothesis. That said, it does have the advantage of better explaining overtraining, and so even if adrenal fatigue is incorrect, then any alternative explanation must involve something similar.

Even though I have no credentials as a coach, I am going to offer a speculative explanation for overtraining. To that end, let me start with a result from animal studies. It is known that you can take half the blood from a rabbit without killing it, it will recover and be perfectly healthy afterwards. In fact, if you take half the rabbit's blood on Monday, you can do the same again on Tuesday. However, if you try it again on Wednesday, the rabbit will die. The reason is that the rabbit has "stem cells" that it can use to regenerate half its blood in a single day. However, once these stem cells are so used, it takes many weeks for them to regenerate. I wonder if, in successive cycles of super-compensation, I am using up muscle stem cells, and that once these stem cells are exhausted, I cannot recover from training until those stem cells have been replaced. As we get older, we lose the ability to replace stem cells, which would explain why training is so much harder for me today than it was 40 years ago. Of course, this is just wild speculation with no experiments whatsoever to back it up, but it is an idea I find intriguing.

Despite being rejected by the medical establishment, the adrenal fatigue hypothesis explains more than my stem cell hypothesis. To explain why, I need to describe one final piece of the puzzle; that things other than cycling affect cycling performance. If I am ill or stressed at work or worried about something, my ability to train is reduced; I overtrain sooner and respond less well to exercise. Thus, there must be some global reservoir of energy in our bodies that is shared by everything we do. We can deploy that energy for training, for work, to deal with problems at home, or to fight off an infection, but energy deployed for one purpose is no longer available for others. As a member of the medical establishment, I do not believe that the reservoir of energy is the adrenal gland, but I do have to say that some such reservoir must exist.

I remain puzzled about the underlying causes of fatigue, especially the long-term fatigue associated with overtraining. Fortunately, I think my ignorance is of little practical consequence. So long as I rest when fatigued, I think I can avoid the consequences of overtraining, even without understanding its cause. Just over a year ago, there was an interesting discussion on this blog about the "Recovery Based Training" approach developed by Iron Rider. Iron Rider has found that he can use changes in his resting heart rate to guide him as to when to train and when to rest. I have not been able to use my resting heart rate for this purpose, it does not change depending on my level of fatigue the way his does. However, I have been using other measures of fatigue; persistent muscle tiredness, being unusually grumpy, and disappointing performances during training; for the same purpose. I have been trying to pay close attention to my level of fatigue and moderate my exercise accordingly. I feel like this has been helpful, but have not been doing it long enough to be sure. I will be reporting on my experiences in future posts, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

New Training Page

The Modesto Roadmen, training, ca 1967.

This week, I put my effort into a static page on training rather than a weekly post. I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Influences and Sources

Pre-zombie, looking ahead to when, after years in the wilderness, he will rejoin cycling, start a blog, and search for influences and sources for that blog.


Last week in my 100th post, I looked back at this blog. Originally I had a section on what other blogs had influenced this one, but last week's post was already too long and the section on influences was growing alarmingly so I decided to describe my influences and sources in this separate post.

Influences are blogs and other websites that inspire me to do something similar. When other people describe their cycling experiences online, I want to do the same. Sources provide information. I have no interest in developing my own version of Wikipedia, for example, but I frequently use information from Wikipedia in this blog. A blog is a particular kind of website with a particular structure. Since you are here, I assume you know what that is. There are other kinds of websites with an essentially endless variety of structures, and although blogs are characteristic, there are no hard lines separating blogs from any other websites; websites can have an almost any degree of "blogishness."


There are many websites about cycling that I have found useful and/or entertaining at one time or another. Listed here are ones that I think were the biggest influences on this blog.

Bike Snob: One of the most popular of the bike bloggers. The main purpose of his blog is to be funny, but there is a remarkable amount of information and wisdom among the humor. He has also written three books and I have purchased all three. Besides showing me what a bike blog can be and providing me with hours of amusement, Bike Snob helped orient me within today's bike culture.

Lovely Bicycle: I enjoy her blog very much, I think mostly because of the quality of the writing and her personal perspective. Her main contribution to my blog was another example of what a bike blog could be.

Crazy Guy on a Bike: A vast, sprawling, iconoclastic website, certainly not a blog, though it sort of provides a blog for non-bloggers. It has many sections but in my opinion its heart is its journals, a place where long distance bicycle tourists post daily updates on their tours, with pictures. As I say, these are sort of like a blog, except there is one blog per tour and just like the tour, the blog comes to an end. There was a time when Crazy Guy on a Bike was a major addiction of mine as I followed the adventures of various cyclo-tourists, vicariously riding with them on their tours. It has been a while since I have been there, I think I am over it.

Tim and Cindie Travis: Now it is just Tim Travis, he and Cindie split after years of bicycling the world together. To me, things have not been the same since. When I discovered this couple, how they married, lived on 25% of their income until they saved enough money for a multi-year, around the world bike tour, I was entranced. The link above is to their/his old school website. Over time, they embraced Twitter and Facebook, but the site is still there. When they started riding in 2002, they found they could make enough from their website to more or less cover their expenses allowing them the option to cycle forever. Forever? Marriages end. Family members die. Tours pause...and then end. But still, what a dream!

Randonneur Ride Reports: (too many to link to). When the Randonneuring community puts on a major event, riders are encouraged to post personal descriptions of how their ride went. Just one example of many is this report page from the Cascade 1200 Grand Randonnée. Some reports, like these, end up on the website for the event. Others end up scattered hither and yon, on a rider's personal blog, for example. In addition, a rider will sometimes write a report for an event that does not have its own web presence. When I first discovered randonneuring and thought that it was something I might like to do, I devoured as many of these as I could find.


Bike Forums: Over the years, when I have asked Google questions about cycling, as often as not Google would take me to Bike Forums. It is a classic forum, a type of platform that significantly predates blogs, and is a place for cyclists to talk to each other, to ask questions, to give and receive advice. Recently, I wanted to ask my own question rather than just learn from the questions others had asked over the years, and to be able to do so, I joined. I am glad that I did.

The old school website of Pamela Blalock and John Bayley, husband and wife, randonneurs extraordinaire, was a major source of information about randonneuring. When I started reading them, that was their only web presence. They have since added a blog, which has become their new focus, but their original site is still there and referenced from the blog for its informational articles. When I was totally disoriented by the new, new world of cycling and was desperately trying to wrap my head around this thing called randonneuring, Pamela, with her clear and direct style and her willingness to meet beginners where they are, made it all clear.

Sheldon Brown: Old school, down to earth, brilliant and wise about all things cycling. When Sheldon created his website, the web was brand new and his site was revolutionary.  Sheldon created his site both to share his wisdom and to service the needs of the bike shop where he worked, Harris Cyclery. Sadly, Sheldon is no longer with us. Harris Cyclery has a slick, commercial website. And yet, his website even in its current, frozen form remains as unmatched and irreplaceable a resource as ever. And do you know what? At the top of Harris Cyclery's slick, new website is a link to Sheldon Brown's original site for those who prefer it. I am a regular mail order customer of Harris Cyclery, and Sheldon's original site is where I shop. Besides just answering question after question after question, Sheldon's main influence on me was as a familiar face to allow me to maintain my equilibrium as I got used to what cycling had become.

Wikipedia: As usual, the comic strip XKCD says it best.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

100th Post

Zombie, photographing himself, photographing himself.

This is my 100th post since starting this blog back in May of 2012. I thought I would use it to look back at what I have done, to revisit the goals that I had when I started, and to briefly consider what my goals might be going forward.

What's This Blog About?

One might reasonably say, "to know what this blog is about, read it" but I will try to briefly address the question from a different perspective. Although I restarted recreational cycling in 2008, it was almost four years later before I started blogging about it. My re-entry into the cycling world elicited within me a powerful feeling of jamais vu; that of the familiar seeming strange. To say that cycling is the most important thing in my life would be untrue and inappropriate, but cycling has been important to me. My entire social life in high school revolved around cycling. I toured endlessly. I raced badly. I worked in a bike shop to earn the money to fund a summer-long bike ride around Europe. As I moved through college and post-graduate training and work, my day to day connection to cycling faded, but its influence remained. So, when I walked into a bike shop in 2008, I expected to greet an old friend but instead found a bizarre stranger whose distant resemblance to that friend made the strangeness even greater. It was only after almost four years that the new friendship I had built with cycling, the old one being lost forever, was solid enough to write about.

And then there is randonneuring. My first blog post came two weeks after my first brevet. The tagline to that post was "As I learned about contemporary cycling, I purchased a new bicycle, a Surly Crosscheck, discovered the sport of randonneering, and in 2012, less than four years later, I completed a 200 kilometer brevet ride." This blog was supposed to be about, not that 200 kilometer ride, no, that was just a first step, but about a 1200 kilometer Grand Randonnée, the Gold Rush Randonnée, in California, in 2013. Instead, it turned out to be about my failure to reach that goal, and what that failure has taught me about myself, about exercise and training, and about genetics and aging.

Why Blog?

I do not blog to make money. Many bloggers do make money from their blogs, my most important influences1 in the cycling blogosphere make enough from their blogs to live comfortably. I am not opposed to making money, but I never considered it likely that I would do so by blogging. My primary reason for blogging is to keep a record of what I have been doing, thinking, and feeling with regards to cycling, and perhaps to clarify my thinking via the discipline of writing. Thus, this blog is primarily a journal. That said, I have made it public and even promoted it in a small way (as I will be discussing later.) I have to admit that a secondary yet significant reason I blog is in the hope that others will read what I have written and find it useful or interesting or entertaining.

The Stats

When I started my blog, the commitment I made to myself was to post once per week. By my manual count, there have been 116 weeks during which I could have posted since that first post, so I am 16 posts behind on my goal. That is an 86% success rate, a solid B. At first, I would try to "make up" missed posts by posting twice the following week, but I have given up on that. I will continue to make a serious effort to post each week, but if circumstances prevent that, I will try to do better in the future but will not look back.

As of August 9, 2014, my previous 99 blog posts have received between 2 and 989 views. This is a small readership indeed, so it is well that I am not doing this to earn money. The post with 2 views is last week's, so the low number of views may be because people haven't had time to find and read it yet. Even correcting for how long a post has been up, some posts are a lot more popular than others. My most popular post was my review of Joe Friel's book "Total Heart Rate Training", so I think Joe should get credit for that one. That said, 41 of my 99 blog posts have more than 100 views, and 6 have more than 500 views. The readership statistics survey I linked to above discusses things bloggers can do in increase readership, and I do very few of them. I occasionally look at my statistics to see what is popular and what is not, and I feel like there are fascinating hints there, but precisely what they are escape me. I would enjoy more readers, and so I am starting to think about what I might do to attract them.

On a popular blog, the comments section takes on a life of its own. Readers compete to see who can be the first to post a comment, inside jokes flourish, and commenters create "mini-blogs" within the comment section. The majority (78/99) of my posts receive no comments. The most comments a post ever received was 13, the next most was 6, and then 4. Of the 21 posts that received comments, 14 received 1 or 2, with the second comment often being my reply to the first. In the case of the comments on my blog, what attracts them is obvious: posts about my training. My fellow randonneurs hate the way I train and are eager to set me right. If you are still reading this post, then thank you, and let me ask you for one more favor. If you have never posted a comment to this blog, could you please do so? I am not trying to drive up my statistics, I am just trying to get a sense of who you are. Don't share anything about yourself you are not comfortable sharing, but if you could put something in the comment about what attracted you to this blog, how often you read it, and what you like about it, like less about it, or would like to see me write about, I would be most grateful.

Blog Topics

If I divide my posts into the following 6 the topics, this is how often I have posted about each one:

TopicPosts on That Topic
Training (Including reviews of books on training)33
History (Cycling in the 60s, etc.)17
Local Bike Culture (Bike Paths, etc.)15
Equipment (Bikes, cyclocomputers, etc.)14
Ride Reports13
Miscellaneous (Everything else)  7

Promoting The Blog

When I first started my blog, I made it public but did nothing to promote it. I was ambivalent about having strangers read what I wrote so took this ambivalent approach. I did mention the blog to a few friends and family, some of whom have become regular readers. A while back (I neither recorded nor remember when) I listed my blog with RUSA Blogs. RUSA Blogs is not affiliated with RUSA, the US randonneuring organization, but is put up as a service by a RUSA member and lists blogs published by RUSA members about randonneuring. Most of my readers find me via Google, but the second most common way people come to my blog is from RUSA Blogs. Similarly, when I joined Bike Forums, I mentioned my blog there, and have gotten a few visitors that way as well.

The Future of This Blog

Every week I stare at Blogger's blank white rectangle with despair. What can I possibly write about? Have I not said everything I have to say? It was a wonderful moment when I had the idea of mining my teenage years for posts (the series beginning with Cycling in the 60's: Mountain Loop) but I can't do that again; I have used up my legacy of cycling history. On top of that, I have lost the dream that inspired this blog in the first place, the riding of the 2013 Goldrush Randonnée. And yet, most weeks I manage to write about something. And in most cases, I feel like what I come up with is not just empty words. Reading over my past posts in preparation for this one made me realize that I like my blog. Finally, having experienced the tragedy of being away from cycling once in my life, I cannot imagine ever letting it happen again. Where there is cycling, there is life, and perhaps even a blog post.


1) I will discuss bloggers and other sources that have influenced this blog in a future post.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Sew-Ups and Sprints

Because this post is about two topics, I thought a picture of a tandem would be appropriate. Yeah, I know, there are three of us, but only two of us are pedaling. Left to right, a middle-aged Zombie displaying one of the few episodes of cycling during his 30 year dry spell, his beautiful wife, and his older son, his younger son having not yet arrived.

I am going to use this week's post to update a couple of the running questions I introduced in previous posts; changing sew-up tires on the road, and the effect of brisk rides on my fitness.

Changing Sew-Up Tires On the Road

My Bianchi Specialissima is currently sporting sew-up tires, and I have worried about changing those on the road. Thus, I have been only riding it at the Rice Track, because if I have a flat there, it is only a couple of miles home and I can walk that if necessary. I have been carrying a spare, pre-glued sew-up, but had no idea how a change on the road would work. As I previously described, the problem is that glue is supposed to dry for 24 hours before use. When I first started using my Bianchi in 2008 and 2009, it had sew-up tires. When I had my first puncture, I had a spare but it was not pre-glued and on the six or seven mile ride home, it rolled on the rim, ruining the brand new tire. Although I was now carrying a pre-glued tire, I had no idea how it would work. I just found out. About half way home from my latest (record breaking) 30 minute time trial, my front tire went flat. This was a bit of extra worry as it was my back wheel I had recently worked on and carefully glued, so I wasn't sure about the state of the front. As I tore off the punctured front tire, I could see that the glue was still sticky. To keep the spare tire from sticking to itself, I had covered the glued area with wax paper. The wax paper came off with difficulty, and again showed signs of residual stickiness. Mounting of the spare went easily as did inflation. I was very cautious riding the two miles to home so didn't really challenge the tire, but at the same time, the tire did not challenge me; it stayed nicely in place. This is certainly not evidence that I have solved the "changing of the sew-up on the road" issue, but it is comforting. I think I will take my Specialissima off the road for a bit now that the front tire is off and take the opportunity to replace the front spokes with stainless steel to match the back.

The Effect of Brisk Rides on Fitness

I have reported over and over that I have never seen any evidence of benefit gained from fast riding. Last week, for the first time, I have seen such evidence. As I described on this blog last week, I have been trying a new training regimen to beat the Houston heat that involves only short rides first thing in the morning (and thus no long rides). Because I had a willing training partner and in order to fight boredom, I ended up riding two brisk rides, one 30 minute time trial and one set of intervals, each week during the month of July. Last week, I set a new personal best for my 30 minute time trial and scored 16 mph on a MAF test, the first time I have done that during a period with no long rides. On top of that, subjectively, I have felt good. This suggests to me that brisk rides do provide me benefit. This will surprise nobody but me, conventional wisdom lauds the value of brisk rides, but this is the first time my experience has matched that wisdom. I don't exactly know how this will impact my future training, but it is one more bit of information that will help me decide.

Update on Houston Bike Paths

OK, OK, three people, three topics it is. Construction has started on the promised connection between the White Oak Bayou multi-use trail and the MLK trail. The current White Oak Bayou trail is 7.5 miles long. This connection will create a continuous trail of about double that, 15 miles, allowing for a 30 mile long round trip ride, all on trails. This photograph shows work starting at the current southern end of the White Oak Bayou trail, circling under the 11th Street bridge over the Bayou, extending the existing trail south to meet the MLK trail.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Garmin Troubles

This is a picture of the Modesto Roadmen after a local bike race, ca. 1966. Everyone except for me is holding a trophy. I am holding a repair tag for my bike which broke during the race. Since this post is about my broken Garmin heart rate monitor, I thought this picture was appropriate.

I first started using my Garmin 500 cycle computer with a cadence sensor and heart rate monitor at the end of November of 2012, though I did not post a review of that device until January of 2013. In that initial report, I described a few bugs with the computer but noted that as long as the heart rate monitor kept working, it served its function. By mid-February, after 3 months of use, the heart rate monitor stopped working. As I detailed in a blog post about a month and a half later, I got it working again after a lot of fidgeting. At the time, I believed that what fixed it was to replace the strap that came with the heart rate monitor with a compatible strap from Polar, a belief I maintain until today. At the same time, I bought a cheap, stand-alone heart rate monitor that worked only with its own wrist-watch, as a backup. It is well that I bought the backup, because within four or five months, the new strap also stopped working. As a temporary measure, I switched to the stand-alone. Because I was annoyed at the rapid failure rate of the straps, I was not motivated to buy another one, and so I have continued to use the stand-alone. This cheap heart rate monitor has been working without a single problem for the last fourteen months. In this post, I will explain why this stand-alone, as good as it is, is not an ideal solution, what I am using at the moment, and why I chose what I did. I think the failure rate for heart rate monitor straps I experienced is unacceptable and I hope I have found a solution for it.

All the heart rate monitors with which I am familiar work on the same principle. There is a strap that you wear around your chest which contains electrical sensors. These pick up the signals that control your heart beat from the skin on your chest. This part of the system is entirely passive, it is functionally just a pair of wires (though it is made from rubber and fabric). The signal this strap picks up is transmitted to an active electronic device that is attached to the strap, call it a transmitter. The transmitter can be built into the strap or it can be detachable and it contains a battery. This transmitter sends the heart beat data to a receiver. There are many kinds of receivers, bicycle computers and wrist-watches are the two types with which I am familiar. I have also heard of smart phones being used as receivers. At a minimum, the receiver displays the heart rate data so you can know how hard you are working. In addition, my stand-alone allows you to set upper and lower heart rate limits; the heart rate display flashes when these are exceeded. In addition to these features, my Garmin records the heart rate over the course of my ride for future analysis. Thus, one reason to use a heart rate monitor that works with my Garmin rather than continuing to use the stand-alone is to have these recordings.

Different Straps for Different Apps

I am aware of two kinds of straps for heart rate monitors. There are the expensive "comfortable" ones that are entirely made of a woven fabric, and there are the cheap ones where eight inches of the strap around the transmitter are made out of a stiff, heavy rubber. (This difference is strikingly obvious when you hold them, but I have been utterly unable to find any way of photographing the different straps which makes this difference apparent.) When I got the heart rate monitor for my Garmin back in 2012, I had a choice of either one, and figuring that you get what you pay for, selected the "better" one. The replacement strap I purchased after three months was also of the "better" style, but the stand-alone came with the cheap kind. When I first tried the stand-alone, I did so with some apprehension, but in fact did not find it noticeably less comfortable than the expensive, all fabric kind; the cheap Garmin heart rate monitor thus became an option. So here were my choices in June of last year when my second strap failed (along with their prices):

Stand-alone Polar with wristwatch$60*
Garmin Replacement Strap$33
Polar Replacement Strap$15
Complete Garmin Premium heart rate Monitor (strap & transmitter)$42
Complete Garmin Basic heart rate Monitor (strap & transmitter)$36

* I already had the stand-alone Polar for which I paid $40 back in 2013, but the current price is included here for comparative purposes.

So I ordered another Polar strap. At $15 a strap, I thought it might be worth just replacing the strap as necessary. Unfortunately, Polar had modified its strap design since the first one I bought so that the Garmin transmitter no longer fit. It is a small modification and I wondered if I might be able to grind off some excess rubber and make it work, but this is an idea I have yet to try. The Garmin replacement strap seemed too expensive if I were to be buying three or four a year. So, since I already had the stand-alone, I used that. As it worked for month after month after month, I began wondering about the "Premium" strap; perhaps that's the problem. So a few days ago, I ordered the Garmin Basic heart rate monitor with the heavy rubber segment and built-in (non-removable) transmitter. It works. I now have recordings of my heart rate data so I can, for example, more accurately measure my average heart rate during a 30 minute time trial. (With the stand-alone, I am reduced to glancing at the display now and then and making a mental note that is seems to be holding somewhere between 160 and 165 beats per minute.) How long will it last? As long as the stand-alone? Stay tuned.