Saturday, February 21, 2015

20,000 Miles and Counting

"You should be proud of yourself for sticking to cycling so long" my wife told me the other day. I don't, in fact, feel all that proud. I know of too many people who have done so much more; I feel like my accomplishment is only impressive when compared to my otherwise miserable record of maintaining an exercise program. What I do feel is relief that I have found something I can stick with. Recently, I passed a minor milestone: 20,000 miles of cycling since I restarted cycling six and a half years ago; I know this would not be much of a milestone for many cyclists, but it is for me. I am using this milestone as an excuse for a retrospective evaluation of how my second cycling career is working out.

When I restarted cycling in 2008, I had two reasons for doing so. The first was that I had come to realize that my health was at risk due to my inability to stick to a regular exercise plan, and I was hoping that cycling would be the solution to that problem. The second was that I remembered the joy that cycling had brought me in the past, and I hoped to reclaim that joy. In my last post, I discussed my exercise history before I restarted cycling. I detailed how I embarked on exercise programs involving swimming, weight lifting, and running, and in each case, I abandoned the effort within a year. My dirty little secret is that the same thing happened with cycling. Although I restarted cycling in August of 2008, within eight months, I had virtually stopped and did not really restart until May of 2010. Granted, there were some very powerful forces that caused me to pause my cycling. My wife became ill at the end of 2008 and was in the hospital most of January 2009, so it is perhaps not surprising that I only got in a single bike ride that month. Her treatment continued for another year and a half, a regimen of treatment sufficiently debilitating to keep her from riding. The lack of her companionship, the distraction caused by my worry for her, and the time I spent with her while she was being treated discouraged me from riding as well. In addition, my beloved Bianchi Specialissima turned out to be unreliable. The main problem was the sew-up tires, but in addition, it seems to be something of a bad luck bike. The Surly Cross Check I purchased in 2010 has turned out to be, by comparison, an extremely reliable work horse. Knowing my bike will always be ready is a tremendously powerful motivating force to keep me exercising. Having said all that, when I actually look at my cycling history, it is apparent that my wife's health and my Bianchi's reliability issues only partially explain my lapse in cycling. Sometimes, I just loose motivation.

I have ridden 21,000 miles since I restarted cycling in 2008, but less than 1,200 of those miles were ridden before May of 2010; my cycling re-start in 2008 may have been a false-start. Yes, I got my bike repaired, but it turned out to be a bike I could not rely on long term. Yes, I managed a ride or two every week, but then completely stopped riding for a year. Perhaps I really restarted cycling in 2010, a re-re-start if you will. But even since 2010, my record has been far from perfect; I have gone as long as three weeks without a ride. The difference between cycling and all the other kinds of exercise I have tried is not that I never backslide in cycling, but that when I do, I have always managed to restart. Looking at it that way, 2008 might, in fact, be the correct start date to use, and in that case, it won't be much longer before my second cycling career will be longer than my first.

So how am I doing towards meetings my goals of better health and more joy? Joy is pretty much by definition entirely subjective, which makes it both easier and harder to evaluate. It is easier, because there is no math to do. It is harder, because it is totally unclear what an evaluation consists of. What I can say is that my joy is at constant war with the four horsemen of the spudocalypse: boredom, terror, misery, and despair.

War On Joy

Boredom: The joy I felt when I test-rode an inexpensive bicycle at a bike shop back in 2008 had two sources. The first was the physical pleasure of being on a bike, the sun on my face, the wind in my hair. The second was the fun of exploring a new neighborhood, in the best way that can be done, on a bicycle. In the last six and a half years, I have ridden over 900 rides. 273 of those rides have been around and around and around the ⅓ mile Rice track. The only thing more boring than that are the 4 rides I have done on my trainer. Even so, the wind in my hair, the sense of speed, and the sound of my tires is occasionally enough to bring joy to my heart, even circling the Rice Track. I also have ridden Braes Bayou 244 times, White Oak Bayou 132 times, and through Terry Hershey/George Bush parks over 100 times. The City of Houston has 16,000 miles of roads, not to mention the country roads in the surrounding areas, why do I keep riding the same routes? In a word:

Terror: As an old man, I worry about being attacked by dogs, murdered by brigands, but most of all, crushed 'neath the wheels of the iron behemoths with whom I "share" the road. The vast majority of the 16,000 miles of Houston roads are too busy or otherwise unsafe to use, or if not, there is no safe route to get to them. I ride the same routes over and over because they are relatively safe, relatively pleasant rides close to home.

Misery: Houston's humidity makes hot weather feel hotter and cold weather feel colder. On one of my trips to California, I failed to bring warm enough cycling clothes. An unexpected cold front had come through and when I got up in the morning to ride, it was in the mid-fifties outside, much too cold for the short sleeves and shorts I had with me. Or so I thought. I decided to give it a go, and to my surprise, it was quite comfortable. In retrospect, that is because humidity is low in California, dry air does not pull the heat from your body in the same way the humid air of Houston does. As I write this, it is 37 degrees out, and rather than ride in with my wife, I will wait until later in the day when the temperatures are more reasonable before my ride. While the residents of colder climes laugh at what a wimp I am, not riding when it is a balmy 37, Houston's hot and humid Summers hold a candle to none. And then there is rain. I read in my Randonneurs USA Members Handbook that, as a Randonneur, I should set my alarm for 3 am on the coldest night of the year, turn on my sprinklers, and sit under those sprinklers to practice changing a tire. If that is true, then I am not a Randonneur. Should I be trapped in a downpour, I will usually finish the ride, but I am too much of a wuss to start a ride in the driving rain.

Despair: A running theme on this blog has been how I had dreams of becoming a successful randonneur1, earning an R12 award, completing a brevet series, and then flying to Paris to ride PBP, and how those dreams were crushed beneath the reality of my physical limitations. When I blogged about my previous exercise attempts, I described how in each case, I improved rapidly. That seems not to be the case with cycling. Within a few months, my typical "long" ride was 30 miles and on my best days, I could average 15 mph. Today, my typical long ride is 30 miles and on a good day I average 15 mph. There is much to be said about that, and I will say it in a future blog post, but the bottom line is that I have not felt like I have improved as quickly or as much as I expected, and that takes the wind out of my sails.

Joy: I don't know if it is apparent, but I did a lot of number crunching in preparation for this post. I was horrified but not really surprised at how often I had ridden the same old routes. What was a surprise is how many rides I had done that I had never done before, the kind of exploration that brings me joy. If you had asked me, I would have said there were 5 or 10 such rides. In fact, there have been 40; the back roads of Virginia, the river delta of California, the island paths of Martha's Vineyard, the Maine Coast. In the next section of this post, I am going to discuss how successful my more than 850 pure training rides have been at keeping me healthy. But besides keeping my healthy, they have kept me in shape so that when the opportunity for an exciting new ride comes along, I am ready.

Health and Fitness

There are more theories of exercise than there are athletes creating them. The good news is that, as best I can tell, there is a wide range of activities and training plans that adequately meet the requirements for healthy living. I have read the recommendations of the US Government, of the American College of Sports Medicine, and on the web pages from a variety of medical organizations, and fortunately, there is a consensus. For health purposes, exercise can be divided into three intensities; Light, Moderate, and Vigorous. Moderate Exercise is the equivalent of a brisk walk. Light exercise is less than that, perhaps a slow stroll. Vigorous Exercise is the equivalent of running. The recommendation is that everyone should get a minimum of 150 minutes a week of Moderate Exercise or 75 minutes a week of Vigorous Exercise or any combination of the two. (It is unknown if light exercise has health benefits.) Ideally, one should get 300 minutes of Moderate Exercise or 150 minutes a week of Vigorous Exercise a week. That exercise should be distributed over the week; cramming your 300 minutes of exercise into the weekend provides fewer health benefits than distributing it over the week (see below).

For purposes of this post, I made some conservative assumptions to simplify analysis of the cycling data I have been collecting since 2008. First, I assume that all the bicycling I do is moderate exercise, even though some of it is clearly vigorous. Second, because I track miles I ride, not time, I assumed an average speed of 13 miles per hour to convert miles to minutes. Over the past year (52 weeks), I have exceeded 300 minutes of exercise for 41 weeks and 150 minutes for 8 weeks; I have met or exceeded the minimum aerobic exercise guidelines 94% of the time. All of this occurred during a period of discouragement with regards to my career as a randonneur and in a year where I made 4 trips to California and spent 6 weeks there helping my ailing father. Since 2008, I have averaged 283 minutes a week of aerobic exercise, an average that includes approximately one year in which I did almost no riding. Since my re-re-start of cycling in 2010, I have averaged 362 minutes a week. Since beginning randonneuring in 2012, I have averaged 441 minutes a week. I think cycling is providing me with enough aerobic exercise for health.

How about the distribution of that exercise? I have already discussed that in terms of the percentage of weeks I met the guidelines, but how about days per week? Am I a weekend warrior, or do I properly distribute my exercise? That depends on when I look:

Before I retired, I was a classic weekend warrior; most weeks I rode on the weekends, but not during the week. Once I retired, I rode almost every day, most commonly 4 or 5 days a week. In retrospect, while I was working, I should have found some way to commute to work by bicycle. A 2004 study found that getting enough exercise, but getting it all on the weekend, provides some benefits to some people, but spreading that same exercise out over the week provides more benefits and provides benefits to all groups studied.


Developing a training program to allow me to continue as a randonneur is clearly a work in progress, a work that I have discussed ad nauseum on this blog. I just want to discuss one statistic in this post. My Randonneurs USA Members Handbook says that I should be riding at least 5000 miles per year to prepare for randonneuring. As part of my compulsive record keeping, I keep a running average as to how many miles I have ridden during the previous 12 months. At present, that average is at 4636 miles, less than the desired 5000 but perhaps understandable given that I have not been preparing for a brevet during that time. At the peak of my brevet training, I hit 5572 miles from August 2012 through July 2013. At the time I rode my first 200K brevet in May of 2012, I had accumulated a mere 3522 miles during the previous year. Since starting randonneuring in 2012, I have averaged 4967 miles per year, not quite there but pretty darn close.


Preparing this post has been a very motivating experience. I have a dour personality and so, before I prepared this post, my overall impression was of a cycling career full of lapses and setbacks. However, when I crunched the numbers, I feel like I am doing pretty well. Pulling together this post also helped me remember and clarify why I am doing what I am doing; it is easier to drag myself over to the Rice Track for yet another ride when I remember that I am doing that to stay healthy and to be ready for a fun ride when one becomes available. Although I was pleasantly surprised by the number of fun rides I have taken, I feel like that is a number I should try to increase. How I propose to do that will be topics of future posts; stay tuned.

1) Randonneur, randonneuse, brevet, R12 award, and PBP are all terms having to do with the sport of randonneuring. I have posted extensively on this in the past, and there is an excellent summary of that sport on the RUSA website.

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