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.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Randonneuring: A Slacker's Journey

Once again, the photos in this post have little to do with the text. In this picture, I am helping teach my older son (the younger one still a glimmer in my eye) how to ride a bike. As you will see in the next picture, he has gone on to become an avid cyclist and we enjoy riding together whenever we can manage it.

In my last few posts, I have been discussing the motivation problems I have been experiencing with my cycling. There are a lot of causes for these problems; my recent recognition of my limitations as a cyclist, the brutally hot Houston summer, my boredom with the limited number of routes available from where I live, and a confusion as to what I am trying to accomplish. I am still planning for a third 200K brevet1 in November, but do not have a clear idea as to how I want to prepare for it, except that I want to try something new. I ride my bike for many reasons, but for the remainder of this post, I will focus on the goal of preparing for the November brevet. The topic of this post is how I have been working around my motivation problems, the implications for a November brevet, and what I have learned over the last couple of years about training. Some of these lessons are as follows:

My older son, about 18 years later, dipping his bike in the Pacific Ocean at the conclusion of a trans-continental bike ride he completed as part of a fund raiser benefiting Habitat for Humanity.

What training plan to follow?

  • Everyone is different. We are born with different genes, we have lived our lives differently, and we are different ages. Boy oh boy does age matter! These differences have two consequences:
    1) Training can help me reach my maximum potential, but that maximum potential is what it is, not what wish it to be. By now, I pretty much know my potential, and all the training in the world will not change that. The best I can hope for is to be able to ride at my potential on occasions when want to and to stay healthy the rest of the time.
    2) The training program that works for you won't necessarily work for me.
  • Randonneuring1 is not racing. It requires endurance, not speed. It is (or at least can be) year round, so the techniques of peaking and periodization so critical for race training do not have the same applicability to randonneuring (which is not the same as saying that randonneurs have the same level of fitness throughout the year). I feel like most training plans, even when they are nominally written to prepare for a brevet, are overly influenced by the training plans produced for racers.
  • As a corollary to the above, preparing to ride a first brevet is not the same as the preparation required to be ready to ride brevets on a regular basis. The approach I used to prepare for my first two brevets were "first brevet" approaches. I am now searching for a year round approach.
  • The second training book I read was The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing. The central message of that books is that it is beneficial to spend a large fraction of one's training riding slowly, a message that my own experience strongly supports. I find that when I ride long training rides, if I reduce my speed, I get close to the same training benefits but with a lot less fatigue and a lot less risk of overtraining.
  • What's true for the training is even more true of the ride. One piece of advice I have gotten over and over again from my readers is that, when riding a brevet, I should keep my speed down. Sometimes that is easier said than done. A lot of the fun of a brevet is riding and chatting with fellow randonneurs, and so I am motivated to stay with them, even when they are riding a bit faster than I might on my own. Even so, knowing that slowing down helps has served me well. If I reach the point in a ride where I feel like I am tiring too quickly, I wave my companions a sad farewell and push on at my own, slow pace.

My younger son is faster on a bicycle than I am and is a good sport about riding with us when we ride as a family, but his heart is elsewhere, as shown in the next picture. Here is is on our 2010 family vacation, bicycling in Maine.

How much to train?

  • I have learned the hard way that there is nothing more destructive than over-training. When in doubt, train less. Once I get overtrained, it takes me weeks or months of rest to recover. Not only does that rest reset my fitness to a very low level, but those weeks or months are lost time. By comparison, if I cut back on my training prematurely, I suffer a modest reduction in fitness and lose at most a week or two.
  • Getting fit happens much more quickly than I had imagined, and for me, much more quickly than the training plans to "prepare for a first century" might suggest. Don't get me wrong, I think for a cyclist who has no experience with long rides, these plans with their 10% per week increase in distance probably are wise. It is very possible that the only reason I completed my first brevet was because I followed such a plan. However, reading the blogs of randonneurs, people who ride long rides on a fairly regular basis, I note that these folks seem to prepare for a brevet with one or two long rides, with the increase in distance from one of these rides to the next being as much as two-fold. Although it may seem like this is not enough training and that the big jumps between rides would be stressful, the advantage is that they don't tire themselves out training. Although I am just starting to experiment with such approaches, my experience so far suggests that they may work for me.

Heart Rate, Training, and Over-Training

In the end, I will find that can ride the brevets I want to ride or that I cannot. That said, it would be nice to have some indicators along the way that I was on the right track. Similarly, since it is so important that I avoid over-training, it would be nice to have indicators of chronic fatigue that would help me head that off. One obvious indicator is how I do on training rides, and this seems to be a popular one among randonneurs. An idea I see expressed fairly commonly is "I went out on a long ride to check my fitness, and found that I am ready for my next brevet." If, some weeks before my November brevet, I can complete a 90 mile training ride in relative comfort, then that suggests I am ready for a brevet, whatever came before. An indicator that I use a lot is heart rate. I have gone into a lot of detail on this topic in the past and expect to revisit it in the future, so in this post, I will just note the following:
  • If I am feeling tired and wonder if I should ride or not, and if I notice that my resting heart rate has been falling, I will use that as additional evidence that I should rest.
  • The result of a MAF test2 is expressed as "miles per hour" but really is about heart rate; it is how fast I can ride at a fixed heart rate. I find that when I am prepared for a brevet, my MAF test score is over 16 mph. I find that the only thing that will increase my MAF test score above 15 mph is long rides. However, I find one or two long rides is sufficient to increase my MAF test score.

This is my younger son's chosen sport, picking up outrageously heavy things. This photo was taken at the Collegiate National Powerlifting Championships. Although he doesn't ask me to pick up outrageously heavy things, he does suggest that it might serve me well to incorporate strength training into my routine. As it happens, virtually every cycling training programs I have looked at agrees with him. Maybe when I conquer my motivation problems with cycling, I can work on my motivation problems with strength training, followed by managing my eating and drinking habits so I can loose a superfluous 40 pounds.

Does blogging help?

I does! There are in fact three ways that blogging has helped my cycling in general and randonneuring in particular:

  • It adds to the fun. One thing builds on another, writing the blog makes me excited to ride, and when I have a fun or exciting or encouraging ride, I want to blog about it.
  • It helps me organize my thoughts, this post being an example. I have changed the conclusions of this post several times during its writing, each change reflecting a clearer understanding on my part of where, in fact, I am in my cycling.
  • I have gotten great comments from my readers, for which I am extremely grateful. Many of the ideas in this post came first from suggestions contained in such comments which I then tried out for myself and frequently found to be helpful.

What's the Plan?

For the past six to eight months, riding on the Rice University bicycle track has become a cornerstone of my cycling. Especially now that the dreaded Houston summer has arrived, a quick ride on the track first thing in the morning when it is relatively cool keeps me riding without overtaxing my motivation. My wife bicycles to work, the Rice Track is on her way, so we leave home together but at the last moment, she continues on to work while I turn off to the track. When I first started writing this post, I felt that this routine was an unfortunate compromise driven by my motivation problems. However, as I have thought things through, it is beginning to seem to me that, completely by accident, I may have hit on a good way to work towards an November brevet. This current phase of my cycling began when I restarted riding after taking off a month to recover from a failed attempt to prepare for a brevet last November. Since then, I have tried three training plans which I will refer to as Block 1, Block 2, and Block 3. In Block 1 of my training program, I rode MAF tests four or five days during the week and one or two recreational rides with my wife on the weekend. I found that my MAF test scores improved rapidly for the first six weeks of that schedule, but that that there was no additional improvement thereafter. That is not necessarily a bad thing, maintaining fitness has its own value, but I wanted to see if I could do better. Block 2 of my training replaced three of those MAF tests with one 50 mile long ride and one fast ride, a 30 minute time trial2. As noted above, the long ride has not survived the coming of summer. Nonetheless, I was able to learn from the five weeks that I completed of Block 2, and this is what I learned:

  • This schedule seemed like it was too taxing for me to sustain. I base this on subjective feelings of tiredness, falling resting heart rate, and a decline in the speed of my fast ride. The first two weeks of Block 2 caused me no problems, but fatigue seemed to build up thereafter.
  • On this plan, my MAF test scores went up and down, but the ups were over 16 mph, a high I had not otherwise been able to reach. The first of those highs came after a single week of Block 2. This suggests to me that I will need to do some long rides before November, but not very many and not long before.
  • Starting from a base where my longest ride was not much over 30 miles, a 50 mile ride was tiring but certainly not agonizing; there was never any serious doubt about finishing one of these rides. I most definitely felt like I could have ridden longer. This suggests to me that my plan of rapidly increasing the length of my training rides before the November brevet is feasible.

Block 3, which is what I am doing at present, is much more random. If I find myself feeling tired, I take a day off. Otherwise, I head out to the Rice track and depending on how I feel and what my recent schedule has been, I do one of several rides. When I am looking for an easy day, I ride a MAF test. When I am up for a hard day, I ride a 30 minute time trial. And when I get to the track and find that my new cycling buddy is there, we make an ad hoc decision as to what sounds like fun. Maybe we just ride round and round the track and chat, providing a workout harder than a MAF test but easier than a time trial. Or maybe we decide to pretend that we are still the young guys we clearly remember being and we tear around the track as fast as we can go, dividing our effort into intervals2 as suits our mood, a workout even harder than the time trial. This is what I do during the week. On the weekend, I ride with my wife. These rides are slower, usually between 12 and 13 mph, and vary in length between 17 and 35 miles. Despite being slow, I really feel these rides contributing to my fitness.

Note that Block 3 dispenses with the long ride (except what I do on the weekend with my wife) but does include a couple of fast rides. I have never had any objective evidence that such fast rides help me in the slightest. I am doing them to fight boredom and as an experiment. I figure doing two fast rides a week for several weeks in a row in the absence of any long rides should provide the best evidence to date as to their value.

None of the weekday rides I am currently doing take more than an hour and a half, warm up and cool down included. The actual time I spend on the track is sometimes as short as half an hour. How will all this short riding help me complete a 200K brevet in November? This is an experiment, of course, I cannot be certain that it will. That said, the rationale for the experiment is that my goal during this summer is to maintain a base level of fitness and as much enthusiasm as possible while remaining as well rested as I can. My wife and I plan to ride in the Tour de Pink again this year, on September 14. As we have for the last two years, we plan to ride the 63 mile route. My wife will need to prepare, and I will accompany her on all of her training rides. Some time between the 63 miles of the Tour de Pink and my Brevet on November 1, I will complete a 90 mile training ride. That will be my training, that and all the base training that I am doing now and will continue to do between now and November. Will all the fast riding I am doing help me complete that brevet? I have no idea, but I cannot imagine it will hurt. Stay tuned.


1) A brevet is a long distance challenge ride, most commonly varying in distance between 200 kilometers (200K or 124 miles) and 1200 kilometers (744 miles). The sport of completing these brevets is called randonneuring, and those of us who participate, randonneurs. The challenge is to complete the distance. There is a time limit, but it is quite generous, requiring a successful randonneur to maintain an average speed of less than 10 miles per hour, so this is about endurance, not speed.

2) A MAF test is both a training ride and a way to measure the progress of my training. It consists of a warmup ridden to slowly increase my heart rate from its resting rate to the lower end of heart rate zone 2 over at least 15 minutes. Then, I ride in zone 2 for 45 minutes, and my score is the average speed I maintain during that ride. How fast I ride is governed by my heart rate. If it goes above zone 2, I have to slow down. Zone 2 is defined as moderate exercise by the American College of Sports Medicine and is a level of effort that allows me to talk in complete sentences, but is too vigorous to allow me to sing. For me, zone 2 is a heart rate between 130 and 140 beats per minute. At the end of the ride, there is a cool down period where I ride slowly enough so that at the end of 15 minutes, my heart rate has dropped to 110 beats per minute.

   A 30 minute time trial is similar in that it is both a training ride and a measure of progress and the result is my average speed. Like a MAF test, it includes at least 15 minutes of warm up and cool down, though it is not possible to get back down to the same slow heart rate as with a MAF test. In this case, my speed is not governed by my heart rate, I ride as fast as I can maintain for 30 minutes. If I push myself as hard as I can, I will be riding near the top of zone 4, which for me is a heart rate of 160 to 165 beats per minute.

   I use the word "interval" the same way as pretty much everyone else in the exercise community; interleaved periods of riding very fast separated by periods of riding very slow to rest for the next interval. There are probably as many different interval patterns as there are cyclists, but what I have been doing is intervals of one to ten laps separated by two to four rest laps. Short intervals are ridden in heart rate zone 5. The highest heart rate I have observed to date is 181 beats per minute.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Bianchi v. Surly

Some of the geometric elements of a bicycle. The head tube (not labelled on this figure) is the short tube at the front of the frame.

I am currently riding four bicycles:
  • A 60 year old department store 3 speed with nothing to recommend it except that both the risk and consequences of it being stolen are low. I use it when I need to ride the 3 or 4 miles to Texas Medical Center for a meeting. Other than that, nothing needs be said about this unfortunate bicycle.
  • A 1960 Bianchi Specialissima. This bike is very similar if not identical to the Bianchis that were being ridden in the Tour de France that year. This is the kind of bike I used for both racing and touring in the 1960s and 1970s. I am currently riding it once a week or so.
  • A 2010 Surly Cross-Check. This is marketed as a "do-everything" (except race) road bike, is the bike I used to complete my two 200K brevets, and is my go-to bicycle.
  • A 2006 (more or less) Bianchi Volpe. Similar in concept to the Cross Check, this model has been in continuous production since at least 1987. It has evolved, of course, from 6 cogs in the rear to 10, from a lugged to a TIG welded steel frame, but it has always been a steel frame, do-everything bike. My Volpe lives in California so that I have something to ride on my periodic visits there. I haven't been able to do side by side comparisons with my Cross-Check or the Specialissima, so I won't be discussing it as much in this post, though I will mention it once or twice.
My first impression when I got my Cross-Check was that it rode very similarly to my Specialissima. However, I have modified both of these bikes over the years and during the same time, differences which failed to capture my attention at first have made themselves apparent. As a result, when I recently returned to my Specialissima after some time off of it, I noticed some differences. Since then, I have tried to explain these differences both by researching the Internet and by making measurements of the two bikes, and in this post, I report on what I have learned.

Twitchiness, Trail, and Bike Fitting

Something I noticed right away is that the handling of the Specialissima seemed twitchier than the Cross-Check. A topic which is fairly hot in the randonneuring community1 is that of "trail", a measure of how far the front wheel trails behind the extension of the steering tube of the front fork. This is determined by a combination of wheel size, angle of the head tube of the frame, and rake of the fork. Most bikes have a trail of 50 to 65 mm. However, many randonneurs favor a bike with a lower trail than that, something in the range of 45 mm or so. Because I am interested in randonneuring, I wondered what the trail on my two main bikes were and if that might have something to do with twitchiness? The Cross-Check has the reputation of being a medium trail bike, and when I measured trail directly, I came up with a trail of 57 mm, smack in the middle of the medium range. However, I was shocked to measure a trail of 92 mm for my Specialissima, well outside the range of anything I had ever heard of! In my confusion, I consulted the cognoscenti of Bike Forums. They looked at a picture of my Specialissima and immediately they noticed that the angles of the front tube and seat tube were very different; the front tube was much shallower (farther away from 90 degrees.) This would explain the high trail I measured.

The picture of my Specialissima I shared with Bike Forum members.

Why would the frame designers at Bianchi do such a thing? A few different opinions were offered, but the one that rang most true to me is that it was a way to prevent toe overlap in a relatively small frame. Toe overlap is when you turn the front wheel sharply, like when you are track-standing while waiting for a light, or just starting up. On some bikes, the wheel will hit your toe if the pedal is all the way forward. You never turn the wheel that sharply when you are riding normally, so some people don't find toe overlap a problem at all, but others, me included, don't like it and some government agencies consider it a safety hazard. Let me explain what trail has to do with toe overlap. The fundamental problem is that I am short, 5 foot 6 inches. The average man is 5 foot 9 inches. There are many different dimensions and angles that can be varied on a bike frame (as in the diagram at the top of the post), but when a manufacturer describes the various "sizes" of bikes they make, they normally express that as the length of the seat tube. The average sized bike for the average sized man with average proportions has a seat tube 56 cm long. I normally ride a bike with a seat tube which is 52 cm long. There are many issues a manufacturer encounters when they scale an entire bike to accommodate different sized riders but perhaps the biggest is that you can't change the size of the wheels proportionately; wheels only come in certain sizes, and they are not freely interchangeable even among the available sizes. If I had purchased a Surly Long Haul Trucker instead of a Surly Cross-Check, Surly would have reduced the wheel size from the 700c wheel provided on the standard 56 cm frame to a 26 inch wheel on my 52 cm frame. The problem is, available tires for 26 inch wheels are fat, which is fine for a touring bike like the Trucker, but which is undesirable for many riders of a road bike like the Cross-Check, me among them. As a result, Surly couldn't change the wheel size on my tiny Cross-Check so they had to change something else to make it work. What they did was make the frame proportionately longer front to back. Something I had noticed, going back and forth between my Specialissima and my Cross-Check, is that the handlebars feel farther forward on the Cross-Check. This explains why. On the Specialissima, instead of pushing the handlebars forward, they "tilted" the front wheel away from the pedals by reducing the head angle to avoid toe overlap. However, this created the very high trail and the handling which I am describing as "twitchy." Finally, on the Volpe, they just scaled everything (except the wheels) and let the chips fall where they may. My Volpe has toe overlap.

I do confess that when I found out that my Specialissima had a compromised frame design, I was heartbroken. The bicycle that was the apple of my eye now seemed spoiled. I am slowly getting over that but it has sparked in me a new interest in alternative sized wheels, like the aforementioned 26 inch and the ever so trendy 650b. Final point: my wife is 5 foot 3 inches tall. Think what these scaling problems do to her bike. In her case, I have even toyed with the idea of 24 inch wheels made for childrens' bikes.

Handlebar Height

In response to pain in my arms and shoulders after my first brevet, I decided to raise the handlebars on my Cross-Check, and ended up raising them by about three inches. In a previously posted picture, it looks like the tops of the handlebars on the Specialissima are now almost as low as the bottoms of the handlebars on the Cross-Check. To determine if this was true, I compared the relative height of the bars and seats on the two bikes by measuring the distance of each to the ground. According to this measurement, the Cross-Check bars are about 2 1/2 inches higher than its saddle, whereas the Specialissima bars are almost 2 inches lower. By comparison, last time I was in California, I measured the Volpe, and on that bike the bars are about 1 inch lower than the saddle. The Cross-Check feels very comfortable and I can easily ride on the drops for up to an hour at a time. (I have not had occasion to try much longer. Given a choice, I am more comfortable on the tops of the bars.) The handlebar height on the Specialissima now feels distinctly uncomfortable to me. I use this bike to ride a 30 minute time trial once a week, which includes another 45 minutes or so of warm up and cool down, and the handlebars are just tolerable for that. Interestingly, the Volpe, whose bars are only an inch higher, feels much more comfortable, pretty much OK for 50 miles, the longest ride I have tried on it.

To put this into perspective, I rode my Specialissima with the bars positioned as they are now from Boston to Montreal in 1972 and for a week long tour, averaging about 50 miles a day, in 1978, and it felt fine. The problem with the bars only manifest itself when I restarted riding in 2008, at age 59. You get stiffer when you get older, believe me.


Up until now, I have always said that the Specialissima felt peppier than the Cross-Check but that I was unable to detect any difference in actual speed. I was suspicious all along that the reason I could not measure a speed difference was all the variables that affect the speed of a ride, things like stop signs and traffic lights and how tired and/or fit I was on a particular day (not to mention my enthusiasm and mood) were creating so much "noise" that it hid the real difference in speed. I have now concluded that is true. My best estimate is that the Specialissima is about 0.5 miles per hour faster than the Cross-Check. Based on my experience, this difference would be very difficult to detect on a road ride with the aforementioned signs and lights, but I have been doing a lot more riding on the Rice Track which has no stops at all. Further, a lot of my rides are MAF tests where I ride at a fixed heart rate, removing mood and enthusiasm from the equation. Still, there is day to day variation due to fitness and fatigue but I have now done enough MAF tests to have a good sense as to how those will play out on any given day and although I have not done a lot of back to back comparisons, I now have done enough to be pretty confident that the Specialissima is faster, though I would not bet the farm that it is exactly 0.5 mph faster.

Why is the Specialissima faster? Is it because it is lighter? That seems unlikely, especially on the dead flat Rice Track, but I weighted both bikes anyway. I have a rack on the back of the Cross-Check to support a trunk bag full of spare parts, lights, locks, jackets, and the like. I took the bag off the Cross-Check but left the rack on. The Specialissima doesn't even have a rack. The wheels and tires on the Cross-Check are heavier, and there are other non-fundamental differences as well. This is not a "fair" comparison, whatever that means. All that said: Specialissima: 24 pounds, Cross-Check: 30 pounds.

Besides being heavier, the Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires I currently have on the Cross-Check were selected for durability, not speed. For example, they have a thick plastic strip down the middle to minimize punctures. The features that increase durability in general increase rolling resistance and thus decrease speed. I do have my Grand Bois Extra L├ęger tires that should be very fast that I could test on the Cross-Check, but another disadvantage of my Schwalbe tires is that they are very hard to get on and off the wheel, so this test may not happen for a long time. The Specialissima has sew-up tires, glued to the rims, paper thin, pumped to 120 pounds pressure. One can get faster sew-ups than these, but these ain't bad. This certainly could be part of the difference.

I complain about the low handlebars on the Specialissima. Low handlebars are uncomfortable but they also decrease wind resistance. On the other hand, I ride on the tops of the Specialissima bars and the drops of the Cross-Check bars, positioning me as low or lower on the Cross-Check. That said, there is more to posture and wind resistance than just bar height, so this could well be a factor.

Bottom line, I don't know why the Specialissima is faster, but I am glad that it is. My least favorite ride of the week is my 30 minute time trial. It takes a lot of motivation to get me to ride that hard, and being on my beloved Specialissima is just one more voice in my head shouting "Shut up, legs!"

1) Randonneuring is a kind of long distance cycling. To learn more about it, see the RUSA Website.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Fear Itself

I am extremely fortunate to still have the companionship of my 92 year old father and the wisdom he shares with me. Among the many things he has been able to teach me are the symptoms of getting old, an enterprise in which he is almost 30 years ahead of me. A number of years ago, a symptom about which he warned me was increasing apprehension about almost everything. This is a symptom that, at age 64, I am definitely starting to experience, especially on the bicycle. What is insidious about this symptom is that it makes it hard to tell truth from fiction; when is fear reasonable and justified and when is it unreasonable and disabling? I find that if I am off the bike for even a few days, the idea of jumping into traffic for a ride feels intimidating. Fortunately, this sensation dissipates fairly rapidly and by the end of the ride I am enjoying myself. That said, the rides I am willing to do are fairly stringently limited by the streets on which I am willing to ride. This fear has not been helped by a series of articles in the Houston Chronicle documenting bicycle fatalities in our city. This lead me to ask the question, how dangerous is cycling, actually?

When I started looking into this, one of the first things I came across was an amusing infographic that had some very surprising results. It suggested that cycling was more dangerous than bungee jumping, for example while being much safer than canoeing. As I looked at this graphic, I realized that, as amusing as it was, I was not quite sure what it was telling me nor was I sure I believed it. Fortunately, as I kept searching, I came across what appears to be a very well researched blog post on bicycle safety. The blog, "Mr. Money Mustache",  is about frugal living and early retirement, but the writer has identified automobiles as a major enemy of frugality and bicycles as its friend, and thus the post about bicycle safety. Using government statistics, the author calculates that bicycles are about 6 times more dangerous per mile than cars. I found this statistic comforting because I understood how it was derived, it intuitively made sense to me (my gut tells me that I am safer surrounded by 2,000 pounds of steel than sitting on my bike protected only by a light plastic helmet), and yet the news is not as bad as I had feared. In fact, as the author points out, one is inclined to drive many more miles than cycle (due to the higher maximum speed of a car, among other reasons) so that if I am worried about my safety, it might make more sense to give up the car rather than the bike. But, wait, there's more. If you factor in the health benefits of cycling, the health benefits are greater than the accident risks so that riding my bike is actually making my life expectancy longer, not shorter.

Even if I take such statistics at face value, these are averages and there are many things that can make an individual cyclist (me) more or less safe than average. The Ohio Bicycle Federation, a cycling advocacy group, has their own blog post on bicycle safety. It makes many of the same kinds of activity to activity comparisons as the infographic with which I started albeit with better explanations of what the comparisons are actually comparing (e.g. injuries per exposure hour) but one statistic I found particularly interesting concerned the impact of my behavior on my safety. The article notes that roughly half of car-bicycle accidents can be attributed to unsafe behavior by the cyclist, and finds that a safe cyclist is about twice as safe as an unsafe one. Thus, it makes sense for me to ride as safely as I can, but I also don't have to fear that the occasional lapse in best behavior will have a catastrophic effect on my safety. Similarly, one might think that where one cycles will affect safety. When I moved to Houston from Boston, I was warned by Houstonians that cycling in Houston was much less safe than in Boston, as Houstonians were "not used to cyclists." Thus, it was no surprise this year when Outside Magazine advised its readers not to cycle in Houston, as Houston has the worst drivers of any city in the US. However, statistics tell a different story. Here is an actual comparison:

Granted, this is per resident, so the apparent safety of Houston might be due in part to the relative paucity of Houstonian cyclists, but I take comfort from it nonetheless.

A number of years ago, I developed an almost crippling fear of flying. Since travel was part of my work, this was a real problem. What made this so embarrassing is that I have always fancied myself as an extreme rationalist, and before this happened to me, I had no sympathy for those afraid to fly, knowing that flying is one of the safest forms of transportation. Fortunately, this fear went away as mysteriously as it appeared, but not before teaching me how irrational such fears can be. Thus, I do not expect the research I did for this post to make my fear of cycling just go away, but I do think it will help, and in any case, I now know that the right thing to do is to push past that fear, knowing that it is irrational.

Thursday, July 3, 2014


Taken at a bike race in Alta Sierra, California in 1967, one of my first bike races as a Senior rider. I was still trying to race on the Hetchins touring bike I purchased for my Tour of Europe in 1967. I picked this picture because somehow it says "malaise" to me.

There has been a pause between this post and the previous one, and as with most pauses in my postings, this reflects a problem with my cycling. Such problems are occasionally physical but are more commonly mental. Of course, physical and mental are interconnected, but usually I can classify any slump I am in as predominantly one or the other, and the current is predominantly mental. In the larger sense, this slump has been going on for about eight months, since I failed to prepare for a 200K brevet last October.  (The Randonneurs USA website explains bevets and randonneuring.) However, there have been ups and downs, and right now I am pretty much focused on the current down which has been going on for about six weeks.

So what's the problem? The problem is that I cannot get into a training (or riding) routine, there is always some reason not to ride:
  • My performance is falling instead of improving, I must be overtraining. 
  • I need to go to California to take care of Dad. 
  • I have household chores to do or I need to help my wife with her work or I need to participate in one of my volunteer activities. 
  • It's too dang hot! 
All of these reasons have a greater or lesser amount of legitimacy, but I feel like in the past, when I was motivated, I overcame greater obstacles to riding than these. Why not now? I think there are a couple of reasons:
  • Once I realized that the occasional 200K brevet is my limit as far as randonneuring goes, I fell into a "been there/done that" state of mind. With nothing new to look forward to, the oomph is just not there to juggle around the interruptions and put up with the heat/cold/rain/traffic. I suspect many of my fellow randonneurs would argue that I should just enjoy the rides for their own sakes and not try to make them an accomplishment. If I take that attitude, then I guess I would have to say that a 200K brevet is just too dang hard! I don't think I can complete one without pretty careful training, training which would violate the dictum of "just ride." 
  • As one of my readers commented a few slumps ago, there is nothing special about 200K. Bike riding is about bike riding, for whatever distance you enjoy riding. Problem is, there are a limited number of route options leaving from my front door, and I have done them all, again and again and again and again... (I plan to discuss this at greater length in a future post) and getting away from the oppressive traffic of the sprawling city of Houston is a significant investment and burden on the environment.
  • I previously mentioned my sciatica. I have had it diagnosed but there has been a hitch in getting it treated, so for now, I am living with it. The pain is not terrible but it is fairly continuous and I confess that weighs me down. (This is new since my last brevet.)
So what am I doing about it? I don't want to stop cycling, at least not without replacing it with an equally good exercise. I need this for my health!
  • The inspiration for this column came from this morning. I was scheduled to resume my Block 2 training cycle with a 50 mile ride. I simply couldn't face the heat. What I have been able to do is to ride in the early morning (to avoid the heat) on the Rice Bike Track (to avoid the crazy Houston traffic). Figuring that anything is better than nothing, I put on my cycling clothes and rode in to work with my wife, turning off at the track. I did this knowing it was less than ideal; I can only stand to go around that third of a mile track so many times. Both to change things up and to up the amount of exercise, I decided to do a fast ride. I had originally planned a 30 minute time trial, but when I got there, there were a few friendly riders out there with whom I could barely hang by gluing myself to their wheel and I ended up with what I think and hope was a pretty good workout.
  • I just bought myself a cycle trainer:

    I figure it is one more way to ride, a way not affected by weather. I have heard that these make the Rice Bike Track seem interesting by comparison so it is not a panacea, but I am hoping that every little bit helps.