Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Cycling Heights Boulevard

Extracted and edited from the official City of Houston Bike Route map. The blue line going top to bottom in the center is the Heights Boulevard bike lane, the topic of this post. Notice that about a third of the way from the bottom it crosses a green line which branches on either side; these are the White Oak Bayou, MKT, and Buffalo Bayou Bike Trails, respectively. (Dotted lines are planned bike paths that are not yet completed.)

I have previously mentioned Heights Boulevard and its magnificent bike lane as part of the route I take to Canino's Farmers' Market. In the past, my wife and I have sometimes bicycled to Canino's to do our shopping, but due to road construction in the area, that is not currently safe. Besides being part of the route to Canino's, Heights Boulevard also crosses the MKT Bike Trail, making it an important entree into the Buffalo Bayou trail of downtown Houston. However, from where we live, there are better ways to get to Buffalo Bayou. So, until recently, the facts that Heights Boulevard is less than two miles long and that it doesn't currently connect to any other routes we were using caused us to neglect it. That all changed with the reopening of the White Oak Bayou trail, yet another route accessible from Heights Boulevard. Last week, my wife and I rode down Heights Boulevard on our way to White Oak Bayou and we were astonished by some new sculpture that had been installed there. We didn't stop and take pictures then, but a few days later I was back out there and was able to photograph both these new sculptures as well as some other aspects of this bike lane.

Let me start by getting the bad news out of the way. Although the Heights Boulevard Bike Lane is magnificent (unlike virtually every other bike lane in Houston), sometimes people abuse it. My brother-in-law is a UPS driver, so I hate to start by picking on them, but I will:

UPS truck, parked smack in the middle of the bike lane.

It has been my experience that UPS drivers are fairly casual how they park. The driver above, for example, parked right in the middle of the bike lane. To get around him, I had to swing into traffic, an action which is both unsafe and annoying to people driving cars. It was not all that a big deal, but it is also not an uncommon occurrence. As I was returning from my ride, I saw a UPS truck (I don't know if it was the same one or not) doing exactly the same thing on the other side of the street, though in that case blame was spread around a little by the FedEx truck right in front of him. Seriously, I don't want to pick on UPS drivers. I am a big online shopper and thus a beneficiary of their services. Further, they may block the road but never for long; they are usually on their way (and out of mine) in under a minute. My point is more general. People view a bike lane as common ground available for whatever uses present themselves, such as a place to put garbage cans for pickup:

The automobile lane is on the left, a parking lane is on the right, and a bike lane in between, right were the trash cans are.

Now to the good. Besides the clean, wide, and well-marked bike lane, Heights boulevard is blessed with a beautiful, wide green space down the middle (more on that later), gorgeous Victorian homes, and a vibrant cafe scene:

Don't let the cars out front fool you, this cafe, like all in this wonderful neighborhood, actively solicits bike traffic with an attractive bike rack out front:

Besides noting the bike rack, note that not everyone puts their garbage cans in the bike lane.

There is a green space down the middle of Heights Boulevard which is more than just a traffic divider. It is more like a long if somewhat narrow park. This park has a well-used jogging trail but it also contains public displays. One of the most famous of these is a memorial for local residents lost in World War II:

These features, as lovely as they are, have been there since we first started riding Heights Boulevard. What has it done for me lately? Last week, as my wife and I crossed under Highway I10 and into the neighborhood of The Heights, we noticed an odd sight in the green space on Heights Boulevard:

"Oh dear!" said my wife, "What has happened to that poor church?" "I think it might be a sculpture." I said, and within a block or two, all doubt was removed by an encounter with a giant, patch-work dog:

In case anyone is worried, no, my bike is not leaning against the sculpture.

And so it went, block after block, amazing sculpture after amazing sculpture:

These are not all the sculptures on Heights Boulevard, there are more

Bicycling through pristine wilderness is glorious, but given a city as full of charm as Houston, urban cycling ain't bad either. In my opinion, this is urban culture at its best.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

White Oak Reopened At Last

Despite being entirely surrounded by the City of Houston, my home is in the independent municipality of West University Place. As a result, I don't get to vote for the Mayor of Houston. If I did live in Houston, I would almost certainly have voted for its current mayor, Annise Parker, and perhaps would even have written a check to her campaign. One of the many reasons I support her is that she supports cycling. That said, I am not blind to the fact that she is a savvy politician and that her position on any issue will be impacted by politics. Thus, her support of cycling focuses more on photo ops and publicity and less on actually facilitating cycling than I would prefer. From my childhood, I have a memory of reading a joke in Readers Digest Magazine about materials for a partially completed but inactive highway improvement project on which someone had spray-painted "Take me home, boys, the election is over." That's how I feel about this extension to the Braes Bayou trail:

This construction began shortly before Houston's last mayoral race and now sits inert. Even if it were under active construction, I'm not sure I see its purpose. Perhaps there is some master plan by which this will connect the wonderful Braes Bayou trail to something else, but from where I sit, I see very expensive construction that will only add a few blocks to this trail. This is especially ironic as the Braes Bayou Trail is interrupted right in the middle by two short dirt sections which are becoming less and less rideable with use, sections that could be paved at relatively low cost. Perhaps I don't have all the facts, but it seems to me that paving these dirt sections would have a much greater impact at much lower cost, but perhaps because it has fewer publicity opportunities, this option is not being pursued.

Similarly, the re-opening of the White Oak Bayou trail, one of my favorites, seems to me to be a case of political M√ľnchhausen Syndrome By Proxy, wherein politicians create a problem so they can get publicity from fixing it later. I discovered the White Oak Bayou trail in September of 2008, a month after I restarted cycling, and it became my go-to ride. My one criticism of this trail was that it was short, only 5 miles long. Thus, my 28 mile out and back ride on this trail consisted of 10 miles on the trail and 18 miles on city streets which vary from pleasant to terrifying. In July of 2011, I was ecstatic to see that this trail was being lengthened. That extension had not yet been completed, but it ultimately added 2.5 miles to the trail, changing the equation to 33 miles, 15 on the trail, 18 on the streets. However, in December of 2011, even before this extension had been completed, the trail was closed at the 2 mile point:

Dirt piled on the White Oak Bayou trail, completely blocking it.

The closure seemed justified, to facilitate important improvements on Highway 610, but in fact the only reason the trail was closed was so that dirt from the construction could be stored thereon. One might have thought that somewhere less disruptive could have been found to store the dirt. Although a detour around this construction was provided, this detour was, in my opinion, unacceptable. Signage on the trail indicated it would be closed until 2013, a one to two year closure depending on when in 2013 it reopened. Of no surprise to me, the trail remained closed through the end of 2013 and into 2014. Although closure received no publicity of which I am aware, there was a major story in the Houston Chronicle about its reopening:

The same stretch of trail as is shown above, now cleared of dirt.

Cynicism aside, my wife and I rode it last weekend, a few weeks after its re-opening, and had a wonderful time. We have missed this trail and are delighted by its return. The reopening coincided with the peak of the wildflower season. By the time we rode, the wildflowers were past their peak, but still quite attractive:

Bluebonnets at the bottom of the photograph and coneflowers at the top.

I started this post the way I did to make it clear that, despite my negative comments, I think Mayor Parker is as good as it gets in terms of political support for cycling. There are major extensions planned of White Oak Bayou trail which, unlike the extension to the Braes Bayou trail I wondered about above, will add significant value because they will connect The White Oak Bayou Trail to the MKT and Buffalo Bayou Trails, connections that will vastly extend safe riding opportunities. Some in Houston's cycling advocacy community worry that Mayor Parker is more interested in providing off-road opportunities for cycling than making it safer for cyclists to use the roads. I don't know if this is true or not, although that I do know she signed the safe passing law, a law which definitely makes road use by cyclists safer. In my opinion, safe cycling on roads is essential to make cycling in Houston possible and will be for the foreseeable future. That said, it doesn't take much imagination to look at existing bicycle/multi-use trails in Houston and at obvious extensions of those trails, and to see how easy it would be to produce an interconnected web of bike paths that would make a century ride, all on car-free trails, all within the city limits of Houston, entirely possible. I can't wait!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Recovery Stories

From Joe Friel's Blog post of this April 2:

Q: Why should a runner resist the temptation to run day after day, with little or no breaks?

A: It always concerns me when someone tries to set a record of running some pre-determined number of days without a break. That's not good for either physical fitness or mental health. Typically, something bad is going to come of this.

But this advice is for runners and I am a cyclist. Perhaps it doesn't apply to me? Not so. In the introduction, Friel says:

The topic is a critical one for runners due to their propensity for injury. But recovery is also of great importance to athletes in other sports. 

Well, guess what I just did? I went 11 days without a rest day. Why would I do such a thing? Partly it was an experiment, and partly it was the vagaries of day to day life. I don't (yet) own an indoor trainer, I am insufficiently motivated to begin a ride in the pouring rain, and for the two days of the weekend that belong to my wife, I am never sure how much riding she will want to do. Knowing that, I hate to miss a ride when one is possible, worrying that I might then miss the next four or five due to circumstance. As it happened, for five days one week, every day was nice, so I rode 5 days straight. The following weekend, my wife chose to ride both Saturday and Sunday. The following week, Monday through Thursday were beautiful days and I continued to ride, resulting in eleven straight days of riding. The twelfth  day was also nice, but I could both feel the effects of fatigue subjectively as well as see them in my results, so I reluctantly chose not to ride on a perfectly nice morning. To make my point about circumstance, my wife then chose to skip riding both days of the weekend, giving me three days off when I was looking for one.

So that's the vagaries of life, what's the experiment? I am currently trying to figure out how my body responds to exercise and recovery. I had been collecting a lot of results suggesting that riding multiple days in a row, up to 5, is beneficial. The experiment was, "how far can I push that?" In my post "Stories We Tell Ourselves" I argue that such an experiment is very difficult to interpret; there are so many explanations one can give for any set of results, it's hard to know what to believe. With that warning in place, this post is my current story on days on and days off.

Bob Weinberg
My postdoctoral training advisor, Bob Weinberg, would get annoyed at those of his trainees who were too lazy to graph their data. To be fair, we didn't have computers to graph our data way back then, we had to use pencils and graph paper. So a lazy trainee would stare at the raw numbers from their experiment saying "I don't need to graph it, I can see the pattern." Bob would berate them until, with eyes rolled, they put pencil to graph paper, and, as often as not, their eyes would go from rolled to bugged as they realized that Bob was right, they had completely missed what their experiment was trying to tell them. The human brain understands pictures much better than it does numbers. So too with me and my training results. (You might have been wondering when I was going to get back to bicycles.) I always was a diligent grapher, even back in the pencil and paper days, and today, all my rides are graphed the day I complete them. That said, there are many ways to graph the same results, and figuring out what is going on sometimes depends on finding the best way to look at it.

I was first attracted to the MAF tests of Dr. Phillip Maffetone because he promised that they were good indicators of overtraining, something about which I worried a lot. Since I started riding them in 2012, I have not found that to be so true in general, but it seemed to be true last week. Note the four rides circled in red on the graph below:

Those were rides 8,9,10, and 11 in my unbroken series, and each was slower than the one before. This is very unusual! I have never seen rides with serially decreasing speeds like this, and there were no alternative explanations, such as increasing winds, for the decreases. What I usually see when I do rides 3 to 5 days in a row is that each ride is faster than the one the day before. This declining series, combined with my subjective feelings of fatigue, were what convinced me not to ride on Day 12. Based on this, I tentatively concluded that I need at least 1 rest day each week. However, when I looked carefully at the data in preparing this post, I noticed the previous 5 rides, circled in yellow. Although these were not decreasing, they were also not increasing.

One additional point: The black, straight line through all the blue points is the best fit line Excel draws; is is the average rate at which my speed is increasing or decreasing. The upward slope of this line indicates that my results are improving, but when I look at it closer, it looks like they were increasing faster at the beginning and then leveled off. To my eye, the "plateau" phase are the rides circled in green. What I then did was divide this into two separate graphs and had Excel fit the best straight line to each separately. First I plotted the rides outside the green circle, the ones I thought were improving:

Excel agrees they are improving, and at a rate of about 0.06 miles per hour per day. Over the 40 days of riding shown on this graph, my average speed increased by 2.4 miles per hour. I then plotted the rest of the data:

The line fit by Excel was almost perfectly flat. (Because it fell on top of the 15 miles per hour line on the graph, I highlighted it in purple to make it visible.) In summary, my original view of the data that my speed had been increasing at a rate of 0.02 miles per hour per day over the last 100 days is probably wrong. Rather, my speed increased at 0.06 miles per hour per day, from 12.6 miles per hour to 15 miles per hour over the first 40 days, and then has been varying around that average for the 60 days since. As all the experts would have told me, because I didn't change my training plan, I stopped improving.

How does this new theory on my training overall affect my thinking about the slow rides circled in red? What I think happens during this plateau phase is that if I take off a couple of days, I drop to the low end of the average, around 14 miles per hour (the first of the rides circled in green.) If I then ride for 3 to 5 days in a row, my speed will increase to somewhere between 15 and 16 miles per hour (the rides circled in green.) If I continue riding six days and taking off one day each week, I can keep my speed relatively constant in the 15 to 16 miles per hour range (the rides circled in yellow.) However, if I fail to take off at least that 1 day, my speed will drop despite my riding (the rides circled in red.) I do not consider these conclusions final, they are simply the stories I am telling myself today (my working hypotheses.) That said, they are totally unsurprising and I would bet they are correct.

What does this all mean in the big picture? It's way too early to say. I started my current training regimen at a time of despair when I realized that the cycling goals that had been driving me for four years were not attainable and that I needed a temporary training schedule that would keep me from abandoning cycling altogether. I picked daily MAF test rides because I had good experience with this schedule in the past and because it satisfies the healthy living exercise recommendations of the American College of Sports Medicine. I hoped this schedule would keep me healthy and give me a base from which I could build in the future. Over the last few years, I had developed the impression that I need at least one rest day a week, and my experiment confirms that. Recently, I have been feeling that it is time to change my training routine, and looking at the data confirms that as well. All I need to do is figure out a training plan to which to change and build up enough enthusiasm to actually make that change. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Seals & Bearings & Hubs, Oh My!

For me, working on bikes is part of the fun of cycling. Although I used to be pretty good at it back in the 60's (I did all my own maintenance and worked in a bike shop), the evolution of technology and my lack of recent practice have set me back. In fact, one factor contributing to my non-cycling between 1979 and 2008, especially towards the end of that period, was that my Bianchi Specialissima had accumulated enough problems to be unridable, and fixing it just never happened. The decision I made that cut the Gordian Knot was to take my Bianchi to Daniel Boone Cycles and have them fix it. The cost to do that was high, but the net result was that I was riding again. In the end, my Bianchi turned out to be too high maintenance to keep me riding, so I supplemented it with a Surly Crosscheck, an extremely reliable and versatile bicycle. However, I have tried to keep my Bianchi running and I enjoy riding it when I can. This post details recent trials and tribulations pursuing that goal.

My Bianchi Specialissima after the work described in this post. Some time ago I (temporarily) replaced the Campagnolo toe-clip pedals with inexpensive SPD-compatible clipless pedals on sale at Harris Cyclery.

The first reliability issue I had with the Bianchi were its sew-up tires. Shortly after I started riding, I was out on a ride and had a flat. I was carrying a spare which I put on, but when I got home I realized the spare had slipped on the rim causing it to become abraded, ruining the tire. A mistake I had made was that I had not pre-applied glue the spare. Glue for sew-ups stays tacky for a long time so if there is "dried" glue on the tire and "dried" glue on the rim, some adhesion will occur even in the absence of fresh glue. (Fresh glue needs to dry for 24 hours before being used, so re-gluing on the road is not considered an option.) Whether pre-gluing the spare would have been enough to prevent the problem and allow for a safe ride home, I don't know. I do know that between 1965 and 1979 I rode exclusively on sew-ups, including on multi-day tours, and must have dealt with the issue of tire changes on the road somehow, but I can't remember how. When I researched the issue on the web, the answers I found were all more or less "you can't do that." Before I had a chance to figure this out, I had an accident that ruined my back rim, preventing me from cycling for four months until I acquired my Surly.

My bent sew-up rim with the point of damage circled in red. It has a tire on it because I am currently using this old rim to stretch new sew-up tires, a necessary step before mounting them.

I still wanted to ride my Bianchi, so a few months after purchasing the Surly, I purchased inexpensive clincher wheels from Harris Cyclery. Although these made my Bianchi ridable for almost two years, I had two problems with them, one immediately, a second one a year and a half ago. When I ordered the wheels, I knew they were not quite the right size, they were made for a rear drop-out spacing of 126 mm instead of the 120 mm of my Bianchi, but Harris Cyclery said that this wider back wheel should still fit into my frame, and it did. However, because of the difference in size, the rear gears were shifted away from the derailleur by 6 mm. This required a derailleur readjustment which was not a problem, but as a result, my very old Campagnolo Gran Sport derailleur which previously could just barely accommodate a 26 tooth rear sprocket could now not quite accommodate a 26 tooth rear sprocket, meaning I had lost my lowest gear on a bike which already suffered from a lack of low gears. Besides the practical consequence, I found this esthetically unpleasing, just as I found the stretching of the frame needed to get the wheel in unpleasing, and promised myself that I would fix this some day by cutting 6 mm off the rear axle and spacers and re-centering the wheel. In the mean time, I had found some old sew-up rims on E-Bay and planned to repair my broken sew-up rear wheel which I could use while working on the clincher wheels. While waiting to get around to that, I bent the clincher rim on the front wheel, taking my Bianchi out of service.

The good news is I just now succeeded in building my first wheel in 40 years - once again I have two functional sew-up wheels for my Bianchi. However, there are two problems. The first is the problem of changing sew-ups on the road, discussed above. I am carrying a pre-glued spare and we shall see if that works. The second problem is freewheels and gear ratios. I own two freewheels that fit my Bianchi. The one I had been using had cogs varying between 14 and 26 teeth, the one that came with my Bianchi, that I had not used since 1970, has cogs varying between 14 and 20 teeth, a ridiculously narrow and ridiculously high range of gears. When I went from sew-ups to clinchers, I transferred the 14-26 tooth cluster. When I finished repairing my rear sew-up wheel, I went to do the reverse. To do that, I needed to remove the nuts from the axle because they get in the way of the freewheel removal tool. I don't know how the experts deal with this, but I used the technique we always used back in the 60s; I put a wrench on the nuts on either side of the wheel and turned them counter-clockwise. This causes the nut on one side or the other to come off. If the nut on the wrong side comes off, no problem, just pull the axle out, grab it with pliers in the middle (where there are no threads to be damaged) and use a wrench take the nut off the other side. Removing the nuts would also give me the opportunity to shorten the axle and spacers to change the wheel from 126 mm to 120 mm. As it happened, the nuts on the wrong side came off. When I went to take the axle out, it wouldn't budge. Foiled again by the evolution in bicycle technology! The new wheels use sealed, cartridge bearings (as does my Surly.) These bearings are wonderful, they run smooth, require little adjustment and no maintenance. After very long use, when they finally wear out, you simply replace the whole unit. However, part of the way they are held in place is by collars on the axle which prevent the axle from being removed without removing the bearings, an action which is likely to destroy the bearings (and is normally only done when you are replacing them.) Until I figure out how to solve this, the only way to use my sew-up wheels (my only functional wheels at present) is with the ridiculous 14-20 tooth freewheel.

Obviously I am a lousy photographer, after several attempts this is the best picture I got of the very narrow 14-20 tooth freewheel on my Bianchi.

How does it ride?

Gluing on sew-up tires is a bit of a production. After reading several peoples' opinions on the Web, I settled on applying two pre-coats of glue to the rim, one pre-coat to the tire, and then the final coat when I mount the tire. Each coat of glue requires 24 hours to dry, so it was three days before I could try the bike. The first day I rode it I just rode around the block, adjusting the derailleurs and fixing any issues that arose. My first impression was of a very uncomfortable bicycle! Part of that is that it had been a year and a half since I had ridden the Bianchi and I had gotten very used to the Surly. The handlebars on the Bianchi are narrower and it handles very different; by comparison to the Surly, the Bianchi feels squirrelly. A second issue was the saddle. Both the Surly and the Bianchi are equipped with Brooks B17 saddles, but the saddle on the Surly is well broken in, whereas the saddle on the Bianchi only has about 50 miles on it and is hard as a rock.

My Bianchi parked in front of my Surly. Overall, the dimensions look fairly similar to my eye. The glaring difference is the height of the handlebars - the tops of the Bianchi handlebars almost line up with the bottoms of the Surly handlebars.

A third issue has to do with a change I made to the Surly over a year ago; I added an extender to raise the handlebars by 3 inches. If you look carefully at the picture above, you can see the extender on the Surly in the rear and how it raises the handlebars. When riding the Bianchi, the handlebars feel very low and the distance between the seat and the handlebars feels short. (When I first started riding the Surly, the distance between the seat and handlebars felt too long.) Looking at the picture, I can't see that the seat to handlebar distance is really different but what is crystal clear is how much lower the Bianchi handlebars are than those on the Surly.

The proof is in the pudding. Having made sure the Bianchi was working OK, the next day I rode it rather than my Surly on my daily MAF test ride. The heart rate monitor I am currently using is independent of the bicycle so didn't need to be moved. It is easy to move my Garmin Edge 500 Cycle Computer (speedometer) from bike to bike, but moving the associated cadence sensor is harder so I did not do that. I have previously noted that, although the Bianchi feels faster than the Surly, when I compare the speed I measure on standard rides on the the two bikes, the actual speeds seem about the same. Because of day to day variation in MAF test results, I can neither confirm nor deny this assertion based on one ride, but I have no reason to change my opinion on this point. The saddle was definitely hard, but was tolerable for 90 minutes of riding. Since it takes 500 miles to break in a Brooks saddle, I am now 70 miles down, 430 miles to go. And, as expected, the gears were ridiculous; I did the entire ride in my lowest gear (61 inches) and the unavailability of lower gears noticeably compromised by cool down ride home. If I keep this bike as a show bike, it certainly is rideable as-is. However, if I want to use it as an alternative to the Surly for longer rides, changes will have to be made.

Future Work

To make my Bianchi useful for serious riding, I feel like I need to do three things; raise the handlebars, lower the gears, and put on clincher tires. 

To raise the handlebars, I could either purchase a stem extender like I did for the Surly or purchase a taller stem:

On the left, a stem extender available from Rivendell Bicycle Works.
On the right, taller stems available from Harris Cyclery.

The taller stem would certainly be more elegant, but it is also more expensive and might not result in handlebars that are as high (or high enough.) I am still weighing these two options.

I have two ideas for how to put clincher tires on my Bianchi. The obvious one is to repair the clincher wheels I already have. However, I am having trouble fixing the bent front rim. As per Sheldon Brown's website, I do not plan to use just spoke tension to fix it because that would result in an unacceptable variation in tension spoke to spoke. Rather, I am trying to bend it back roughly into shape before fine tuning it with the spokes. However, I have been unable to do so, it just won't budge. If I give up and purchase a new rim, then I have to consider the time it would take to rebuild the wheel and I would still have the problem of the back wheel having a 126 mm axle spacing rather than 120 mm and the impact thereof on the gears (discussed above). I will probably keep fussing with these wheels just to amuse myself, but I think there is no guarantee they can be made to be satisfactory.

My second idea for how to put clincher tires on my Bianchi is to cannibalize some parts from my wife's old, unused Gitane. The 27x1¼" (ISO 630) wheels on that bike won't fit the Bianchi, but the hubs from those wheels will. In particular, the rear hub has a 120 mm width like my Bianchi. If I remove the old rim and spokes and replace them with 700C (ISO 622) rims and spokes of the appropriate length, the resulting wheels should fit perfectly. However, freewheels are not interchangeable between the hubs on the Bianchi and the hubs on the Gitane; the Gitane uses French threads and the Bianchi English, so I would have to use the Gitane freewheel. The freewheel on the Gitane has cogs varying from 14 to 32, a much larger range than my old Gran Sport derailleur could handle. It is possible, however, that the SunTour derailleur from the Gitane would work on the Bianchi. If so, that would not only provide me with clincher wheels, but acceptably low gears. I had previously considered this solution but had balked due to the bastardization of my Bianchi this would entail. However, as I gain experience and become more comfortable with bike mechanics, such bastardization becomes less permanent. With relatively modest effort, I could restore the Bianchi to its original configuration any time I wished, especially now that its original sew-up wheels are functional. Stay tuned to learn the fate of my long suffering Bianchi Specialissima.