Friday, November 1, 2019

Sad Surly Story

The Zombie, riding his cronenberged 1967 Hetchins Mountain King in the 2019 Gold Hills Metric Century

"It's springtime for Hetchins and vintage bikes, it's winter for Surly, so sad!" - To the tune of "Springtime for Hitler", apologies to "The Producers"

One thing I did not mention in my post about the 2019 Golden Hills Metric Century is that I rode it on my newly resurrected Hetchins. It wasn't supposed to be that way. Way back in 2018, in preparation for my first California metric century,  The Art of Survival, I decided I had neglected routine maintenance on my poor Surly Crosscheck for so long that I needed to do that ride on my Bianchi Volpe. Until then, the Surly had been my go-to bike,  the bike I rode unless there was some reason not to. After that, my Volpe became my go-to bike. Once I took care of the deferred maintenance on the Surly, my Volpe needed maintenance, so I swapped the Volpe for the Surly. This was a few weeks before the 2019 Golden Hills metric century and so the logical thing to have done was to ride Golden Hills on my newly overhauled Surly. But when I rode the Surly, I did not like the way it felt. So a plan was born, I would ride Golden Hills on the Hetchins, even though its gears were not as low as I would like, even though it had attachments for only one water bottle, even though I did not have a rack to carry the warm clothes I would need at the start of the ride.

How did the Hetchins do? It did great! As I have posted before, the lack of low gears on some of my bikes has turned out to be less of an issue than I initially feared, and once again, gears were not an issue on this ride. Some of the other potential issues which I mentioned earlier never materialized; the shift levers never slipped and the "soft" wheels held up fine. As for the lack of water bottle cage and rack, I figured out how to stash both warm clothes and a second water bottle in my jersey pockets. I have come to love the way the Hetchins rides and I continued to enjoy that during Golden Hills. Also, the Hetchins is a remarkable, vintage bike and I got to show it off. All and all, the decision to ride my Hetchins, initially forced on me by circumstance, turned out to be a huge win.

But what was wrong with the Surly? It had been my go-to bike nine years! Well, therein lies a story. It turned out that a lot of what I didn't like about my overhauled Surly was the saddle. I have come to prefer a well broken in Brooks B17 saddle so much so that I almost can't ride anything else. Unfortunately, I only have one of those and at the time my Surly came home from the bike shop, the it was in use on the Hetchins. I had a newer B17, less well broken in, that I put on the Surly, figuring it was close to being broken in and that it was about time to finish the job. So one problem was that the saddle was too hard. I made allowances for the hard saddle, but my intuition told me there was more wrong than that, and it turned out I was right. Another problem was not the saddle itself, but adjustment of the saddle. In my blog post "Saddles and Bike Fit" one adjustment I did not talk about was the tilt of the saddle, the extent the saddle is level, has the nose pointed up, or has the nose pointed down. I always thought that saddles should be level and I don't recall tilting of the saddle ever being an issue before. It was not that the saddle felt wrong on the Surly, it was that I felt like I had way to much weight on my handlebars. That was surprising, because weight on the handlebars is normally caused by low handlebars (relative to the saddle height), and my Surly has the highest handlebars of any of my bikes. When I thought about what else might cause that feeling, it occurred to me that if the nose of the saddle were too low, I might tend to slide forward, putting weight on the handlebars. When I looked back at the Hetchins, I noticed that the saddle was not quite level, the nose pointed up just a bit. Once I adjusted the tilt of the saddle on the Surly with the nose slightly up to match the Hetchins, the Surly became much more comfortable. (A number of cyclists on the Internet note that being more comfortable with the nose a bit up is yet another peculiarity of B17 saddles.) Had I figured this out sooner and/or if I had moved the broken-in B17 from the Hetchins to the Surly, I might have decided to take the Surly to Golden Hills, a decision that, in retrospect, would have been a lost opportunity to enjoy my Hetchins.

My Surly is much more comfortable now than when I brought it home from the shop, but I still prefer my Hetchins - by a lot! Why is that? Again, part of it might be the difference in saddles. The B17 on the Hetchins is well broken in, the one on the Surly still has a ways to go. If so, that should be a self correcting problem, and to that end, I am going out of my way to put miles on the Surly and its still-hard saddle as well as slathering that saddle with Brooks Proofide. However, I think there is more to it than the saddle. Back when I was in High School, the Modesto Roadmen had a belief that different bikes had different feels when ridden, some better, some worse, and that there was no way we could tell by looking at a bike how it would feel. I remember that we found that Raleigh bikes usually rode better than we expected, for example. As a scientist, I have to believe there is no magic to this, and as I have come to learn more about bicycles, I have learned some things that are less apparent but impact ride quality. One set of things, visible but perhaps not obvious, is frame geometry. Another which is entirely invisible to the naked eye but apparently has a big impact on ride quality is the kind of steel tubing used to make the frame; that tubing can be made from different grades of steel and the walls of that tubing can have different thicknesses. I think some of that is going on between the Hetchins and the Surly. Gebhardt at Veloro Cycles has suggested that wheels and tires might be a factor as well. The Hetchins feels quite lively, whereas by comparison, the Surly feels like a brick. This is not new. Although the Surly was my go-to bike for nine years, this was despite it having a bit of an unresponsive feel. Part of the reason this did not bother me more at the time was that the only bike I had to which I could compare it was my Bianchi Specialissima, and the fit of the Surly was so much better as to more than compensate for any difference in frame feel.

Seat firmness, width, and handlebar height


The not-yet-broken-in and thus hard B17 saddle may not be the only problem with my Surly, but it is definitely a problem. I have previously discussed how I position my saddle when adjusting my bikes. Another set of issues that arose while doing those experiments concerned seat width and firmness. Of course, choice of a saddle is a very personal decision, what works for one cyclist may not work for another. What I am going to talk about here is one cyclist (me) and the comfort of the same saddle on different bikes.

I am going to talk about four saddles and four bikes. The saddles are a well broken in leather Brooks B17 (old B17), a second B17 still in the process of being broken in (new B17), a synthetic Brooks C19, and the same saddle in a narrower width, a C17. The bikes are my 2010 Surly Cross Check (Surly), my 2007 Bianchi Volpe (Volpe), my heavily modified 1967 Hetchins Mountain King (Hetchins), and my 1960 Bianchi Specialissima (Specialissima). There are some small differences in the geometry of these bikes which might be relevant, but I have no hypotheses about those so will not be discussing them. What I will be discussing is the differences in the height of the handlebars relative to the height of the saddle on these four bikes. My working hypotheses are:
  1. A softer, wider saddle can be more comfortable than a harder, narrower saddle.
  2. A harder saddle can be comfortable if it is wider.
  3. The lower the handlebars, the less weight will be on the saddle and the harder and narrower a saddle that can be comfortable.
None of my saddles are recommended for racing by their manufacturer, Brooks. The C19 is recommended for "Commuting .. in an upright riding position" (which is how I use it*.) The C17 is recommended for "City [and] travel ... hard riding in an angled riding position." The B17 is recommended for "Touring, Trekking and MTB (mountain biking)". The C19 is the widest saddle at 184 millimeters. Next are the two B17s at 175 millimeters. The narrowest is the C17 at 164 millimeters. Brooks advertises that the Cambium line to which the C19 and C17 belong do not require breaking in. I would rephrase that as cannot be broken in; both are much harder than a broken in B17. Using my fingers to judge, the newer B17 is the hardest of my saddles, the C17 and C19 are slightly softer, and the older B17 is clearly the softest.

My Specialissima has the lowest handlebars of the four bikes; they are 1⅜ inches lower than the saddle (low). Next is my Volpe with handlebars ¾ inches below the saddle (medium low). My Hetchins has handlebars 1¼ inches above the saddle (medium high), and my Surly has handlebars 2¼ inches above the saddle (high). I broke in my first B17 on my Specialissima with its low handlebars back in 2008, riding rides of up to 2 hours before the saddle was broken in with no bad consequences. In 2019, I rode the 2 hours of Eroica California on my Specialissima and the new B17 with no problem. When I recently put that same saddle on my Surly with its high handlebars and rode 34 miles on it, it felt very uncomfortable and I ended up with saddle sores. On the other hand, the old B17 feels good on all four bikes at any distance I have ridden, including a 10 hour ride on my Surly with its high handlebars. This suggests that low handlebars can make up for a hard saddle.

When I was first setting up my Hetchins (medium high handlebars) after its rebuild, I found that I could not correctly position a B17 saddle on it with the seatpost it had. I tested my C19 which I borrowed from my commuter and found that it could be positioned correctly, and that it felt comfortable during a 1 hour ride. Based on Brooks recommendations, I purchased a C17 for use on the Hetchins (returning the C19 to my commuter) but found that in a 1 hour ride is was less comfortable than the C19, and at the end of a 2 hour ride found it quite uncomfortable. This suggests that the reason the C17 is uncomfortable is a combination of being hard and being narrow. I borrowed a different seatpost so I could put my old B17 on the Hetchins and rode it that way for rides of up to 5 hours in perfect comfort. Noting that my Volpe had lower handlebars (medium low) than the Hetchins, I tried the C17 on it. It felt better in a 1 hour ride on the Volpe than the Hetchins, but not good enough that I would want to try it for longer rides. I then tried the C17 on the Specialissima (low handlebars), and found that it was comfortable for a 1 hour ride, confirming the hypothesis that a harder saddle can be comfortable when paired with lower handlebars.

How long does it take to break in a B17? The consensus of the community seems to be about 500 miles, but that is not my experience with the new B17. I have over 600 miles on it and it still feels much harder than my old B17 (which has well over 30,000 miles on it.) Is it possible that this is saddle to saddle variation rather than a lack of breaking in, that the new B17 will never be as comfortable as the old B17? Brooks leather saddles are known for such variability. Another possibility is that I waited too long to break in the new B17 - I purchased that saddle in 2012 and didn't complete my 500 mile break-in period until 2019. Only time will tell what the future holds for my new B17.

In summary, my experience, though certainly not a scientific study, did I support my hypotheses: a relatively hard C19 saddle is comfortable where an equally hard but narrower C17 is not. A not yet broken in B17 can be comfortable paired with low handlebars but not when paired with high handlebars. And a relatively wide, very soft, well broken in B17 will be comfortable on a wide variety of bikes. Using these parameters will help me pair the right saddle with the right bike depending on how I decide use them, but only time will tell how this will all play out.



* I purchased the C19 for a fifth bike, my Public commuting bike which has an upright geometry not easily comparable with the four road bikes considered here. This bike ought to put more of my weight on the saddle than any of my other bikes. That said, this saddle and bike combination are comfortable for up to 3 hours further suggesting that the C19 is a comfortable saddle, despite being hard.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Training for the Golden Hills

Left to right, Dave, Roger, and The Zombie, at the lunch stop of the 2019 Golden Hills Metric Century.

Last year, I posted a detailed description of the Golden Hills Metric Century* with lots of pictures. I heartily recommended the ride back then, and this year I enthusiastically repeat that recommendation. If you want a description of The Golden Hills Metric Century, look at that older post. In this post, I will be talking about the new training plan I tried for preparing for this ride and how this year's ride went for me.

My goal for the 2019 Golden Hills Metric Century was to have a comfortable ride from beginning to end. I came up with that goal after having a miserable finish in the 2019 Art of Survival Metric Century, and then looking back, realizing that I had ended up more or less miserable by the end of the all three metric centuries (100Ks) I have ridden since moving to California in 2017. The only thing I could think to try was to vary my training, to try to come up with a training plan for a 100K that worked better than what I had done before.

The standard plan given in many cycling books to prepare for a long ride (typically a century) is to increase the length of the longest ride each week by 10% until you reach a distance equal to 67% to 75% the distance of the challenge ride (e.g. 67 to 75 miles for a century) two weeks before the challenge. That is what I did the two times I prepared for 200 kilometer (124 mile) rides in 2012 and 2013, and that is what I did to prepare for my first 100K after moving to California, the 2018 Art of Survival Metric Century. So why mess with this widely accepted strategy? A number of reasons:
  1. As noted above, I found the 2018 Art of Survival Metric Century hard despite following the standard plan.
  2. I frequently suffer from overtraining, a build-up of fatigue which causes my performance to get worse with training rather than better, especially since moving to California. To prevent that, I am looking for something easier than the standard plan.
  3. The standard plan is, strictly speaking, designed for one challenge ride a year. Might I be able to repeat it twice in the same year, say six months apart? Maybe, but it certainly isn't designed for riding a 100K a month, what I am trying to do.
  4. Way back in 2012, when I first started reading about preparing for 200 kilometer and longer rides as part of the sport of randonneuring, I came across riders who had very minimal training protocols, often with the long ride of each week being, not 10% longer than the previous ride, but 100% longer (twice as long.) That is, these riders would have as their longest training ride a 100 kilometer ride a week or two before their first 200 kilometer brevet (challenge ride.) It seems that real world cyclists don't always follow the standard plan.
If the standard plan anticipates one challenge ride (e.g. a 100K) a year, what does the exercise community recommend for someone who wants to do a 100K a month? What first endeared me to the book "Distance Cycling" by Hughes and Kehlenbach^ was that it had an answer to that very question. Specifically, it had a plan for riding a 200 kilometer ride every month. This is not a plan for the meager 100K I was attempting, but it seemed a simple matter to scale their plan down for 100K, and that is what I did. (I have posted a long, detailed description of this scaled down plan.) However, a key component of the Hughes and Kehlenbach plan (and of my version) is that I have to actually ride that 100K each month; it is not only the goal for the month, but also an essential part of the training program for the next month. So what was I to do if for some reason I couldn't ride a 100K one month? Other than the 100K itself, the longest ride in this plan is 55 kilometers,  more than half of a metric century. I remembered those randonneurs who were increasing their weekly mileage by factors of two, and thought, "That might be OK. Don't worry about a missed 100K, you have enough preparation anyway." So that's what I did for my next two 100K's, the 2018 Golden Hills 100K and the 2019 Art of Survival 100K. It sort of worked, I finished both these rides, but they were painful by the end, especially the 2019 Art of Survival. However, given how much trouble I was having with overtraining, I was nervous about the 10% a week plan which, if followed strictly, would have required 6 to 7 weeks of increasingly hard rides to get ready for a 100K. And then Coach John Hughes (of Hughes and Kehlenbach) made the suggestion that older riders like me might be better off skipping every other long ride in the standard plan. That is, rather than doing a ride 10% longer every week, do a ride 20% longer every other week, so that is what I tried. Here is the training plan I used for the 2019 Golden Hills 100K:

The rides in blue are shorter rides ridden at a speed slightly harder than I expect to ride in the 100K. The rides in green are ridden at an easy pace. The rides in yellow are the rides that get increasingly longer. The highlighted yellow ride in the lower right corner of the figure is the Golden Hills Metric Century for which I was training. I have idealized this diagram a bit, e.g. by moving rides by a day or two to make them line up for clearer presentation. I present the length of rides in miles rather than the more modern minutes because I think that better shows my intentions.

Two questions raised by my plan: What kind of riding was I doing to be ready to start this program? Why are the increases between the longest rides more than 20%? My normal riding schedule is four rides a week with the longest ride being 23 miles, but as I have posted here before, life happens, and that makes my riding more erratic than I might like. The week before starting this program, I did no riding at all. I had a houseguest who did not ride, so we hiked instead. The two weeks before that I did no ride longer than 11 miles. The reasons were that my younger son was getting married which was most definitely one of the high points of my life but did disrupt my cycling, and as luck would have it, I was also fighting off a cold, so I decided discretion was the better part of valour and rode less. However, seven weeks before starting this schedule, I rode The Death Ride, one of the hardest rides of my life, and surely some of the fitness from that carried forward. All of that said, this is not my first rodeo, I have been through such disruptions many times before, and have a pretty good idea how quickly my body loses fitness and how quickly I can get back to my usual schedule. I also know that going from my usual 23 mile ride to a similar 34 mile ride represents an easy transition for me, despite being an almost 50% increase in miles. (I think the 20% increase limitation is less relevant at these low mileages.) The last two increases are about 25% when the plan calls for 20% increases. My intuition told me that this was close enough, and the results indicate that my intuition was right.

So how did it go? I have never had a training plan work better, so that went very well indeed. As to how the ride went, that is a bit more complicated. Stress was a big factor for this ride. After having done so badly in the Art of Survival last May, it was very important to me that I redeem myself, so the seven weeks of training for this ride were as stressful as I have ever found a training program. For some reason I found the logistics of organizing the trip (arranging a hotel, etc.) stressful and as a result, I had trouble sleeping the two nights before the ride, so went into the ride with sleep deprivation. As an experiment, I tried carrying my bike in the trunk with the wheels off rather than on on the bike rack and fussing with the bike the morning of the ride was another stressor. I got delayed a bit at the start and everyone was much faster than I, so I was alone from the beginning and I was worried about staying on route. Maybe because of all this stress, I started feeling tired early on the ride, which made me wonder if I would fail in my goal of having a comfortable ride, or perhaps even not be able to finish at all. And finally there was Roger and Dave.

Roger and Dave? Roger is my good friend from high school with whom I stay when I ride Art of Survival, and with whom I have ridden my three previous metric centuries. Dave is his brother in law and cycling buddy. I was at Eroica California 2019 with Roger and Dave, but did not ride with them because we rode different routes, so I have never ridden with Dave. But Roger and Dave ride together a lot, and Roger tells me they are pretty evenly matched, so I kind of knew what to expect from Dave. I totally love riding with Roger, it is one of the biggest attractions of my 100K rides. However, there is a problem: Roger is a much faster rider than I am. We had discussed our 100K plans for the year, and Golden Hills was not on Roger's list, so I thought I would be doing it alone. I knew I would really miss him, but not having him there would give me the opportunity to ride at my own pace. Besides training, another important factor in finishing a ride comfortably is how you ride it, pacing being an important part of that. And then, at the last minute, Roger and Dave decided to come. I was overjoyed! I was so looking forward to seeing them. On the other hand, I was also a bit worried. Would trying to keep up with them throw off my pacing? The solution to that problem was that Roger and Dave's ambitions had grown; they were riding not the 65 mile 100K, but the full 100 mile century. Interestingly, my 100K and their century traversed similar routes. Relative to my 100K their century had a 15 mile extension about 20 miles into my ride and a 20 mile extension at about 55 miles into my ride, so a plan was hatched. Because I do better when I start slow and increase my effort as I go along, I would not try to keep up with them at the beginning of the ride. By the time we got to the lunch stop (40 miles into my ride), they would have ridden 15 miles more than me, so their longer route should more or less cancel out my slower pace and we could regroup. At that point I would be fully warmed up and I would try to stay on their wheels until our routes diverged again near the end of my ride. They started a bit late, and we agreed I would go on ahead because they were going to pass me anyway. I have already described how grumpy I was at the beginning of the ride, but it was even worse than I said. The roads were in poor repair, the traffic heavy and on and on. I knew this was all my mood, and fantasized about posting a second review of Golden Hills, a review of Golden Hills while in a Bad Mood to balance out my review from last year, Golden Hills while in a Good Mood. And then Roger and Dave caught up to me. We rode together for a few minutes before they rode off into the distance, and it was as if the clouds had parted, letting in the sun. All of a sudden, the ride was good. My mood dropped a bit when they left, but not to its previous low. I started enjoying the ride more and found a bit more strength and started picking up my pace. We regrouped at the lunch stop, and then we started off together. It took me to the limit of my ability to stay on their wheels, but I found strength I didn't know I had and experienced the joy of catching up to and even passing other riders rather than having everyone pass me. There were many moments when I felt that there was no way I could keep up with them until the divergence of our two routes, but I did, and took great satisfaction in that accomplishment.

But how did I do objectively? Did I accomplish my goal of having a comfortable ride from beginning to end? I have already answered the second question, there were moments of unpleasantness at the beginning of the ride, so no, I did not have a comfortable ride from beginning to end. But maybe that was the wrong way to express my real goal. Maybe I should have described my goal as to "not fall apart at the end of the ride", and that goal I accomplished. Objectively, my performance on the ride was almost exactly the same as last year, with an average speed of 13.3 miles per hour, quite good for me. (As an objective measure of how much faster Roger is than me, he rode more miles than I did and averaged 15.3 miles per hour.) But last year I only trained one week for the ride, as opposed to three hard weeks this year, doesn't that make last year's training plan better? When I was imagining this ride, thinking Roger would not be there pushing my pace, I was expecting that it would be slower but more comfortable this year. The fact that I rode this year at the same average speed but much more comfortably than last year is a big improvement in my opinion.

So what did I learn? I certainly learned that my new training protocol works well for me (thank you, Coach John Hughes) but I also relearned of some things of which I needed reminding. I was reminded of the power of mood and the impact it can have on the quality of the ride. The beginning of my ride was miserable only because I had gotten myself into a bad mood. I was reminded that although I am an introvert, I do benefit from social interactions. The improvement in my mood when Roger and Dave passed me was startling in its intensity. When I restarted cycling back in 2008, I did a lot of riding with my wife, who sadly is no longer with me. Since moving to California, I have done most of my cycling alone. I am now wondering if I would be happier if I joined a club so I can ride with others more often, and I am actively looking into that.

In summary, I am very pleased with my new training protocol. It got me better prepared for a 100K than ever before while not driving me into overtraining. That said, I never actually evaluated the "100K a month" plan I developed so meticulously (I will discuss why in a future post) so I would still like to give that approach a try. Stay tuned.



* The official title of the ride is the Golden Hills Century. This event features a Century (101 mile ride), Metric Century (65 mile ride), and other ride lengths as well. Strictly speaking, a century is 100 miles and a metric century is 100 kilometers or 62 miles, but in practice it is hard to design a route that hit these mileages exactly, so a century is greater than and approximately equal to 100 miles and a metric century is greater than and approximately equal to 62 miles.

^ I have posted several times about this book, so I wanted to link to one of those posts here. Normally that would have been the first post in which I reviewed this book, but back then, I underappreciated it. Over time, this book has really grown on me such that it currently is almost the only training book I use.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Do As I Do, Not As I Say

Author "Coach John Hughes"

John Hughes is my current favorite author of training books for cyclists. Thus, it caught my attention when I learned he had published a new article on Road Bike Rider entitled "I’m 70! Yikes!!! Lessons from my Journey Through Life". Because I like Hughes and because I too had just reached 70, I looked forward to his article with enthusiasm. As I read it, I became even more enthusiastic because I found that what he said rang very true to me. Here are two especially relevant excerpts:

"Ride, don’t train. I don’t own a heart rate monitor, power meter or sophisticated bike computer. My friend John E. and I ride year-round in Colorado and we have two rules: no passing anyone and always stop for a meal. This means we’re always riding at a conversational pace. Of course, if it’s frigid we may just ride to the cafĂ©, have breakfast and ride back.

Ride less, recover more. In my 30s and 40s I could put in big miles with only a couple of recovery days a week. Now I rarely ride more than 100 miles in a week with only one or two climbing rides."

Like most authors, Hughes promotes his work, so his (free) article contained a link to one of his latest (not free) eBooks: Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process

Based on my enthusiasm for the article, I purchased the book. But when I read it, I was disappointed. Why is that? What I liked about the Hughes article was that the overall tone and impression it gave was realistic - it spoke to the limitations I am living with these days. What disappointed me about his book was the overall tone and impression it gave was the same panglossian "rah rah" pep talk that every training book I have ever read has, that you can do anything you put your mind to. Mind you, if you read the book carefully, that is not strictly what it says, but that is certainly the impression I got from reading it, and I bet I am far from alone in getting that false impression. So what is it that I wanted the book to say? If I were to write a training book (a task for which I am completely unqualified) it would include the following:
  1. You may not know what you are capable of as a cyclist. If you are a beginner, you almost certainly don't know. You may be capable of more than you think. However - and this is really important - you may be capable of less!
  2. The most important thing you have to master as an athlete-in-training is how to listen to your body. Your body will tell you when you reach your limits, but only if you listen.
  3. None of the training plans in this book are meant for you. We put them in here firstly as illustrations and examples of what training plans look like and how and why they are constructed, and secondly because we have found these particular plans work adequately for a reasonably large percentage of cyclists. However: If you are better than the average cyclist, these plans will not take you to your full potential - you can handle a more challenging plan that will take you to a higher level of performance. Much more importantly, if you happen to have less stamina or training capacity than the cyclists for whom they are intended, these plans will be too hard for you, and if you try to follow them, you will end up getting worse, not better because...
  4. ...it is much, much better to train too little than too much.
  5. So, every training plan in this book starts with an introduction describing the minimum cycling experience that the typical user of that plan would have and then, emphasize the signals that your body might give you at various points in the plan that the plan is too hard for you, that you should try a different plan and perhaps even chose a different goal.
If I am right, why are virtually all training books written in the same way, a way which I find objectionable? I think there are two reasons:
  1. Nobody likes a downer. You sell a lot more training books by emphasizing all the amazing things you can do by following the plans in the book rather than by warning the reader that depending on your specific situation, none of that might be possible.
  2. Arguably, one of the most important functions of a coach in encouragement. From that perspective, it makes no sense to write a training book any other way than the way they are written now. Sure, there will be some people for whom the book simply doesn't work, but a realistic book that took that into account would by necessity lack the rah-rah aspect and thus would be useful for nobody. Or nobody but me.
Two final reasons I found the book disappointing:
  1. The book I was hoping for was "How to train on a bicycle when you are 70." What this book is is "How to train when you are 20-50 so you can live to be 90: a bicycle is neither sufficient nor necessary and you may even be better off without one." More specifically, a lot of this book was a representation of the American College of Sports Medicine's recommendations.
  2. A large fraction of the book is taken up with "stories" from individual cyclists, what we in the biomedical research community disparagingly refer to as anecdotes. I haven't measured this, but by eye, my guess is that these anecdotes, which I find utterly useless, take up over half the book.
So did I find the book worthless, am I sorry I spent $15 on it? Quite to the contrary, I definitely found several pearls of wisdom in this book, more than enough to justify what I paid. What I found useful in this book was a mix of two kinds of ideas:
  • Ideas I already knew or believed, but for which it was nice to get confirmation.
  • Ideas that were new to me. 
Unsurprisingly, the line between these two is not always clear. In my division below, sometimes it was hard to know into which category to put an idea. In general, even if I knew most of an idea, if there was some part that was truly a revelation to me, I put it under new ideas.

Ideas I Already Knew, but for which I Appreciated Confirmation:
  • Overreaching and overtraining are the result of an accumulation of ALL FORMS of stress, i.e., multiple hard workouts *PLUS* non-training stresses: "How much stress you can handle depends on the presence of other stressors in your life. Some stressors can be reduced, e.g., by getting enough sleep or a good diet. Some stressors can be managed, e.g., the stress of constantly having too much to do. Some stressors can’t be managed, but you can deal with the consequences by reducing training stress."
  • Every rider should take at least one day a week off the bike.
  • You want to be fully recovered before the next hard day.
  • During a hard workout, you should always stop while feeling as if you could have done more that you could have ridden another 10 miles or you could have done one more interval.
  • It is much easier to avoid overtraining than to recover. When in doubt about how much or how hard to exercise, listen to your body and do less.
  • Of the different types of exercise, cardiorespiratory exercise is the most important. Always include cardio in your weekly exercise. [This is in the context of the 5 kinds of exercise recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine for a healthy old age, Cardiorespiratory Exercise, Resistance (Strength) Exercise, Flexibility Exercise, Balance Exercise, and Weight-bearing Exercise.]
Ideas Partly or Entirely New to Me:
  • For Older Riders working up to a longer ride (e.g. a century), it might make sense to have every other week be an easy week.
  • The weekly long ride should not be more than half the total weekly riding. 
  • Compared to riders in their 20s and 30s who can handle three or four hard training days a week, riders over 60 usually can only handle one or two hard training days a week.
  • The key indicator [of overtraining] is declining performance. ...If you’re not riding as fast or climbing as well for several days, for example, watch out! The other key indicator is your mood. We all have a day here and there when we blow off a workout. But if you think, “I really don’t want to train!” for several days, watch out! ... You may have heard that these are indicators of overtraining: a change in morning heart rate, or a change in body weight, or a change in how fast your heart rate drops after a hard effort. However, research shows that there is little correlation between any of these and overtraining."
  • [Training for a long ride, e.g. a metric century] "If you were in your 50s, had been riding for about 10 years and your annual volume was over 5,000 miles (8,000 km), you probably could ramp up faster at 15% per week. If you were in your 70s, had been riding fewer years and/or your annual volume was less than 3,000 miles (5,000 km), you should ramp more slowly -- at about 5% per week."
  • I had rejected periodization as a training strategy I wanted to use. Hughes presented periodization in a new way that inspired me to give it another look.
  • Some benefits of cardiorespiratory exercise only occur in older subjects if they do vigorous rather than moderate cardiorespiratory exercise. This is not true for younger subjects. This was a totally unexpected assertion, one which I want to investigate more critically, and if true, will definitely change how I ride my bike!
  • "Cycling is easy on your joints because it is not weight bearing and, for that reason, you need to supplement it with weight-bearing exercise ... Recent studies of post-menopausal women indicate that walking does not prevent bone loss because it doesn’t overload the body more than the skeleton is already accustomed to carrying." [I had known that I ought to be supplementing my cycling with weight training and probably stretching, but weight bearing was a new one for me.]
So does any of this change how I am riding? Yes it does. I am currently training for the 2019 Golden Hills Metric Century, and for a variety of reasons, felt that I should try a different training schedule than what I had been using recently and I have incorporated a number of ideas from this book into this new schedule. I plan to blog about this in detail in a future post. Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Saddles and Bike Fit

Comparison of the rail clamping regions of three saddles:  the Specialized Avatar, the Brooks Team Pro, and the Selle Italia Turbo. The Brooks Team Pro has the same rail configuration as the Brooks B17, and the other two saddles are meant to be representative examples of typical, modern saddles. The measurements are in centimeters, not mm as shown in the picture. The picture is from Tallrider on Bike Forums (@drtallrider on Instagram).

I have been testing my resurrected Hetchins to see how rideable it is. When I started this project, my big concern was if the frame was simply too large for me. Had that been the case, it would have been a deal killer. Good news, I realized within minutes of picking up the bike that the frame, though large, is quite rideable. Of course, issues sometimes appear on longer rides that would not have been noticed on the 3 mile ride home from the bike shop so I decided to ride it 100 miles or so before making any big decisions. One decision that could not wait was what to do about the saddle. The saddle from the Centurion donor bike, despite being a Brooks, was a cheap model which I found uncomfortable. I borrowed a Brooks B17 from my Bianchi Specialissima, put it on, and went for a 5 mile ride, only to find that the B17 was positioned too far forward. I had run into a similar issue just over a year ago when I transferred the B17 from my Surly Cross Check to my Bianchi Volpe in preparation for my first metric century, replacing the (rather uncomfortable) modern saddle that came on the Volpe. When I did so, I found that the B17 felt too far forward. This surprised me at the time, and to understand why this was, I got on line only to find this was a known issue with the B17. As can be seen in the illustration at the top of the page, the shape of the rails underneath the Brooks B17 has two potential problems:
  1. The part of the rails where the seatpost attaches is very short front to back, providing virtually no front to back adjustment.
  2. The clamping area is relatively far back on the saddle, resulting in a more forward than normal saddle position.
This problem is sufficiently well known that special "long setback" seatposts are manufactured specifically for the ever popular Brooks B17 saddle.

Why would Brooks design their saddle this way? One thing to bear in mind is that the design of the B17 remains unchanged since the 1890s when it was first introduced, so perhaps this problem results from bicycle geometry evolution. I would have to say, though, that my experience so far does not support that. I have put B17s on four bicycles, two modern and two vintage, and it worked out of the box on two, one vintage and one modern but was too far forward on the other two, again, one modern, one vintage. My 1960 Bianchi Specialissima originally came with a Brooks B17, so perhaps it is no surprise that a (new, replacement) B17 worked on it. After my first 200 kilometer brevet ride, which I rode on my 2010 Surly Cross Check, I developed saddle sores, so before the second one, I replaced the Surly-provided saddle with a Brooks B17, and it fit fine too. When I transferred that saddle onto my 2006 Bianchi Volpe, however, it felt too far forward, the same experience I just had with my 1967 Hetchins.

What accounts this this bike to bike variation? Two factors that spring to mind are differences in the seat tube angle of the frame and differences in the setback on seatpost that came with the bike. Normally seat tube angle is a piece of information provided by the manufacturer, but because all my bikes are older, that was not an option for me. I could measure this angle, but getting measurements that are sufficiently accurate for potentially small differences seems problematic. Measuring the setback on various seatposts seems easier, and I may do that at some point, but have not yet done so. So, as of today, I don't know exactly why this saddle fit fine on two of my bikes but is too far forward on the other two.

What does it mean to say  that the seat is too far forward? How is that determined? To begin with, I have to confess to being quite ignorant about bike fit, I have always adjusted my bikes by how they feel. When I had the problem with the seat feeling too far forward on my Volpe, I assumed the problem was the distance between the seat and the handlebars, e.g. that I might have been able to correct it by purchasing a longer handlebar stem that would move the handlebars forward, away from the seat. It turns out this is incorrect. (I have noticed on bike forums that I am not the only one with this misconception.) The issue is the positioning of one's body relative to the crank and pedals. Thus, the correction I made on the Volpe, changing the seatpost, was the right one, moving the handlebars would not have solved the problem. I believed the seat was too far forward not due to any measurements, but only because it felt too far forward. I did worry if this judgement was subjective; I have had the experience of a bike feeling like it fit perfectly one day and badly the next despite not changing anything in between. So, my first response when the B17 felt too far forward on the Volpe was to try to get used to it. Only when that didn't work did I change the seatpost.

What could I have measured? What is the proper position of the saddle relative to the crank and pedals? Conventional wisdom, summarized by the acronym "KOPS", is Knees Over Pedal Spindle. According to this rule, with the cranks parallel to the ground, a plumb bob extending from the knee should pass through the spindle of the pedal. However, not everyone agrees this is optimal. Besides theoretical objections, there is the observation that triathletes often ride bikes with the saddle very much farther forward than that. Who is right? To my knowledge, there is little definitive scientific evidence on this subject, so perhaps my approach of putting the saddle where it feels best is not such a bad idea, especially given my interest is not on maximum speed and efficiency, but rather on a fun, comfortable ride.

Someone whose advice I have come to trust is the late, great Sheldon Brown. Although he died in 2008, much of what he said retains its value and as a result his website is being maintained and updated by his disciples. Of all the things I read in preparation for writing this post, his article, Revisionist Theory of Bicycle Sizing. was the one I found most helpful. This is what he says:
"On a bicycle, much of the rider's weight should be carried by the pedals, but if your saddle is too far forward, your legs alone can't support your upper body, so you'll wind up leaning on the handlebars too hard. ... Different cycling styles involve different amounts of pedal force. Racers obviously apply more force to the pedals, more of the time. The usually recommended position for a racer is the "KOPS" position, which usually works out well with seat tube angles in the 73°-75° range. For recreational riders, who don't tend to pedal as hard or as much of the time, a more relaxed position, with the saddle farther back is likely to be more comfortable. As the saddle goes back, the handlebars will generally move back and up to avoid an excessively sharp bend in the torso."

So after all that, here is the Zombie's Guide to Subjective Bike Fitting:
1) Adjust the saddle height so that your leg is almost straight at the most extended part of the pedal rotation.
2) Adjust the forward-back position of the saddle so that it is comfortable. This might require changing the seatpost.
3) Adjust the forward-back position and height of the handlebars until they are comfortable. This will require changing the stem.

So what should I do about my Hetchins? One approach is to purchase a long setback seatpost. Another is to purchase a more modern saddle. I definitely wanted to try these solutions before purchasing components that might or might not work, and to that end, I moved my Brooks Cambium C19 from my Public Bike to my Hetchins, and that solved the "seat too far forward" problem. (It also felt reasonably comfortable.) The Brooks Cambium comes in various widths, C19 being the widest, which I have on my Public Bike because conventional wisdom states that the more upright the seating, the wider the saddle should be, and my Public Bike has a fully upright seating position. I assumed that the C17 size would be about the same width as my preferred Brooks B17 and thus more appropriate for the Hetchins, as it is a road bike with a more aggressive seating position, so purchased that. When I tried it, the front-back position was fine but the saddle felt very hard. I tested it for rides of increasing length, and at the end of a 23 mile ride, concluded the C17 is just not comfortable for me on that bike set up as it is. So, I solved one problem but created another, a story which is beginning to come up frequently on my Hetchins restoration project. I plan to blog about the comfort of different saddles in a future post, but in order to make the Hetchins comfortable to ride, I was back to trying a B17 saddle with a long setback seatpost, which I borrowed from my Bianchi Volpe. This worked great! With this seat and seatpost, the Hetchins is comfortable for at least 39 miles, the longest ride I have tried on it so far. With no sign of discomfort at that distance, I am guessing it is as comfortable as any bike I own. Problem solved! Or at least that problem.

What other issues remain with my Hetchins? To begin with, calling this bike a Hetchins might be a desecration of the Hetchins name. Rather than building up this frame with a set of components carefully selected to create an optimum bike and to match the characteristics and features of the frame, I built it up from components that came from (and thus were selected for) a completely different bike, a 1970s Japanese Centurion. I did it this way so I could test the frame size at reduced expense, but the downside is that some Centurion parts might be less than optimal in their new home. This kind of mismatch is responsible for many of the issues that affect the rideability of my Hetchins (Hetchurion?) For example:
1) The downtube shift levers slip. The shifter levers from the Centurion are held on by a clamp, and on the Centurion frame, there is a small braze-on on the downtube to keep this clamp from slipping. The Hetchins frame lacks this braze-on, thus the slipping. Instead, the Hetchins frame has braze-ons for shift levers mounted in the ends of the handlebars.
2) The gears are not as low as my old body needs in the hills of California.
3) Shifting into the largest cog (lowest gear) on the freewheel is not as smooth as I would like. When I find myself on a hill, I can have difficulty getting into that gear. I am getting a bit better at this with practice, but if I could make it work more smoothly, I would.
4) Gebhard, after he completed the build of this bike with parts from the Centurion, warned me that the rims and spokes from the Centurion were made of soft metal, and might not be very durable. In fact, after 120 miles of riding, the spokes are still making creaking noises. In my experience such creaking noises are common on a newly built or aligned wheels, but that goes away fairly quickly, way before 120 miles. Thus, especially in the context of Gebhard's warnings, I find these noises disquieting. It is possible that these "soft" wheels would work for me, as I am a very low power rider. However, my son has expressed interest in using this bike, and he is a much more powerful rider than I, so it might be wise to proactively rebuild these wheels with sturdier spokes and rims.

In addition to the above, my Volpe wants its seat and seatpost back, so I should purchase a new Brooks B17 saddle and setback seatpost. On the other hand, although I had previously posted that the brakes on the Hetchins grabbed, this problem has gone away with time presumably as a result of the brake pads wearing in, thus, this is no longer a problem.

When the downtube shift levers first slipped, I took the Hetchins back to Gebhard, and he repositioned and tightened them. He also readjusted the rear derailleur, but it still doesn't work the way I'd like. We talked about the above issues, and discussed some possible directions we could take. The good news is that I learned he has access to a large selection of vintage-compatible parts, making this project much easier. The bad news is, as I have thought about this project, I have ended up back where I started when I first brought the rebuilt Hetchins home. I'm still not sure what I want to use this bike for, so I am not sure what I should do to it. What Gebhard and I discussed was replacing both the front and rear gears (new freewheel and crankset) to provide a low gear of 25 inches, as low as any bike I own, as well as putting on bar end shifters, the seatpost, and saddle. The derailleur would have to be changed as well as the derailleur from the Centurion will not handle this gear range, but I have a derailleur which might do. As I have thought about it, this set of upgrades does make sense, in that it makes the bike generally rideable, but I still want to think about it a bit more. For example, if I wanted to save some money, I could leave the crankset as-is and just replace the rear gears, giving me a low gear of 33 inches, low enough for most rides that I do, and depending on how I use this bike, that could make sense.


Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Death Ride...

My son Michael on the left, and me at the top of Ebbetts Pass.

...or From Seventeen to Seventy, How I Just Can't Stay Away from Ebbetts Pass.

Full disclosure, I did not complete The Death Ride this year (or any other year for that matter). What I did do is to participate in The Death Ride by taking the opportunity to climb Ebbetts Pass, one of the five mountain passes that constitute this epic event. Yes, I was legally registered and did pay my $140, but I think the phrase "complete The Death Ride" should be reserved for those hardy souls who manage to ride all five mountain passes, all 129 miles, and all 15,000 feet of climbing of this challenging ride, a group of which I am not and never will be a member.

The Official Map of the Death Ride

Exactly what is The Death Ride? Also known as "The Tour of the California Alps", it is a group ride which has been held every year since 1981. This ride starts just outside of Markleeville, California, a town nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains at an elevation of 5,531 feet between three mountain passes, Carson Pass (8,580 feet), Monitor Pass (8,340 feet), and Ebbetts Pass (8,730 feet). The route varies a little from year to year, but this year's route was fairly typical. From the start at Turtle Rock Community Park, it goes over the western slope of Monitor Pass (pass #1), down the eastern slope, back up the eastern slope of Monitor (pass #2), back down the western slope, up the eastern slope of Ebbetts Pass (pass #3), down the western slope, back up the western slope of Ebbetts (pass #4), back to the start, then up the eastern slope of Carson pass (pass #5) and then back to the start to complete the ride. Registered riders who are not up to the full ride are given the option of doing lesser rides of four, three, two, or as in my case, one pass. The official one pass ride would have been to the top of Monitor pass and back to the start, but for a couple of reasons (listed below) I decided to ride Ebbetts Pass instead. I'm pretty sure nobody cared, the organizers are very strict about some of their rules, but this appears not to be one of them.

The crowd signing in the day before the ride. 3,500 signed up for the event. It was with some apprehension that I noticed I was the fattest guy in the room.

Why did I, a man just 14 days short of his 70th birthday, chose to attend this particular event? The main reason is that my older son Michael has been excited about this ride ever since he learned of its existence, and has wanted to attend it with me. A second reason is that there is a cycling tradition of "riding your birthday", which this year would have meant riding 70 miles on the day of my upcoming 70th birthday. I certainly could have done that, 70 miles is not that much longer than the 62 mile metric centuries which I have been riding recently, but it seemed like it would be more fun to deviate a bit from the strict interpretation of "riding my birthday", and instead acknowledge this big birthday with a much more fun (and challenging) ride, even if it was not 70 miles and not on the exact anniversary of my birth, so Death Ride it was. Finally, this ride allowed me to wallow in a bit of nostalgia. One of my earliest big rides, my first Mountain Loop back in 1966, I rode when I was seventeen years old. It went (among other places) over Monitor and Ebbetts passes, so The Death Ride gave me a chance to revisit the scene of that event at the age of seventy. One reason for riding Ebbetts Pass rather than Monitor Pass is that Ebbetts is the prettiest of the three passes in The Death Ride, but another is that I have a photograph from 1966 of my bike leaning against the sign atop Ebbetts Pass and riding it this year gave me an opportunity to recreate that photo:

On the left, the bike in front is my Peugeot PX10, at the top of Ebbetts Pass in August of 1966. On the right, the bike in front of the sign is my Bianchi Volpe in July of 2019. One obvious difference is that, in 1966, my bike was loaded down with camping gear, compared to my stripped down bike in 2019. If you look very closely, another difference is the gears. The low gear on the PX10 (if memory serves) was 47x28 for a 45" gear, compared to my Volpe with a 28x32 for a much lower 24" gear. So why was this year so much harder than 1966?

So if I didn't complete the 129 mile Death Ride, how much riding did I do? I rode 49 miles, completed 4,500 feet of climbing, and spent 5 hours doing so. Although this is a subjective estimate, I feel quite strongly that this was the second hardest ride of my life; I was so exhausted at the top, I started crying, something that has never happened to me before. In a beautiful coincidence, my guess as to the hardest ride of my life was on the same 1966 ride that went over Ebbetts Pass, but back then it wasn't the Ebbetts Pass part of the ride that was hard, it was an earlier climb up Old Priest Grade. Ebbetts Pass is both longer (6 miles vs 2 miles) and gains more elevation (2,088 feet vs 1,313 feet) but is much less steep (6% average vs 14% average) than Old Priest Grade, a climb which occurred on the first day of our five day Mountain Loop. Most of the group chose an easier, parallel route up New Priest Grade (6% average steepness) but my buddy Paul and I dared each other to ride the much steeper Old route, which left us totally exhausted. Back then, at a ripe old age of 17, I was completely recovered by the next morning after spending the night sleeping on the ground (no mattress).

The Zombie, riding up towards the pass wearing his Raulston Strokers jersey

This is the second challenge ride in a row that I found difficult to complete. What does this say about my training? Subjectively, I feel like the two experiences were very different. In the run up to my previous challenge ride, The Art of Survival, I was tired almost all of the time; I felt like I was struggling with overtraining. I certainly had tired days in the run up to The Death Ride, but they weren't unrelenting like my earlier experience, and in general, I felt I was managing my fatigue pretty well. In fact, the two training rides up Kings Mountain I did to specifically prepare for the Death Ride were the fastest of the four times I have ridden that climb. My experience preparing for and riding The Art of Survival made me feel like I had lost fitness since moving to California in 2017. My experience preparing for and riding The Death Ride, as tired as I was at the top of Ebbetts Pass, made me feel like I was as fit as I have been since that move. That said, compared to everyone else, I was pretty slow. According to Strava, my speed was in the bottom 7% of people of have climbed Ebbetts Pass. (Similarly, my best time up Kings Mountain is in the bottom 5%.) What all this says to me is that I have now reached my peak, this is good as it is going to get, with one possible exception. I am certain that if I were able to lose 40 pounds, an amount I could lose without jeopardizing my muscle mass or fitness, my time up these climbs would improve immensely. (My doctor is strongly encouraging me to do just that.)

The crowd at the top of the pass. The crowds were so great there had to be "traffic control" at the top to prevent those of us taking a break there from blocking the riders going over the top from both directions. The organizers provided chairs for the riders along with food, drink, bathrooms, and a bike repair facility. The Ebbetts Pass sign can barely be seen in the center of the picture.

How was the ride for my son? He is a much better cyclist than I, and it is a measure of his love for me that he stayed with me all the way to the top of Ebbetts Pass. Once we got there, he found me a seat in the shade, made sure I had food to eat and water to drink, and then headed down the front of Ebbetts so he could climb back up to collect his second pass. This gave me an hour and a half to recover before we headed back to the start together, where I hopped in my car to drive back to where we were staying, and he headed off to conquer Carson Pass for a grand total of three passes, 80 miles, and 9,500 feet of climbing.


A recurring theme of this blog is the important role friends play in my cycling experiences. This ride was no exception. One of my son's best friends from High School (who is also named Michael) owns a home a few miles from the start of The Death Ride, and we stayed with him. He is also a very good cyclist. He completed The Death Ride, all five passes, all 129 miles, all 15,000 feet of climbing. He started about a half an hour before we did, but because we skipped Monitor Pass, I was resting at the top when he rode over Ebbetts pass. He stopped by to see how I was doing and then headed off after my son. He and my son got back up to the top from the other side at the same time, so I got to see him again. The picture above is of Michael the first time up the pass.

Dinner at Michael's. From left to right, my granddaughter Julia, my daughter-in-law Robynn, my grandson Elliott, me, and our host Michael. My son Michael was taking the picture.

The ride was on Saturday, and Michael suggested we come up on Thursday to spend a little more time at altitude to acclimate, which we did, and then stayed through Saturday night. I left the next morning, my son, his wife, and his two children who had come along, stayed the rest of Sunday to enjoy the mountains and came home Sunday night. The time we spent with Michael would have been well worth the trip even in the absence of the ride.

Would I recommend this ride? Am I planning to go again next year? I would highly recommend this ride to anyone fit enough to do however many passes they chose to do. Back when I was describing the Eroica California ride, I commented "this is an expensive event". Actually, when I looked back, that was not true. All of the group rides I have attended have roughly the same entry fee, somewhere between $100 and $150, and The Death Ride is no exception. The organization was impeccable (especially impressive given that 3,500 riders participated), the food at the rest stops was plentiful and exactly what my body wanted, but what made this ride special was the closed roads over Ebbetts and Monitor passes. The absence of cars made the ride much more comfortable and fun. Whether I do it again has nothing to do with the ride, which could not be more attractive, but with my aging body. I barely made it up one pass this year. What will next year bring? Will I lose weight and get more fit, or will the passing of another year reduce my fitness just enough to make even one pass too much? I have no idea, I'll just have to wait and see.



Saturday, June 1, 2019

Art of Survival: Barely Survived



"With every mistake we must surely be learning
Still my guitar gently weeps." - George Harrison

Last year, I rode the Art of Survival Metric Century with my Modesto Roadmen buddy Roger, and this year I did it again. Last year, I knew I was going into this ride underprepared as I had just recovered from pneumonia which had made it impossible to train until the last few weeks before the ride. I avoided any major illnesses this year and have been training pretty continuously, so should have been in better condition than I was a year ago. Coming into the ride, I did notice symptoms of overtraining but thought I might have gotten over that just in time. I also tried to compensate for that overtraining by taking it easier in the runup to the ride than I did a year ago, figuring that reducing tiredness was more important than trying to maximize fitness. As a result of that decision, my preparation this year was less than last, a change which I had hoped would improve my performance. Unfortunately, last year I forgot to track the ride so I cannot make a direct, objective comparison between my performance last year and this, but based on my subjective impressions, I am pretty sure my performance this year was worse, not better than last. The direct comparison I can make is to the Golden Hills Century I rode last October, which I did track and which is almost the same length with about the same amount of climbing as the Art of Survival, which I rode significantly faster (13.3 mph vs 12.2 mph, a huge difference.) In short, I was very disappointed with my performance this year and found the ride quite painful, especially at the end. Quite a mistake! What did I learn?

The obvious conclusion, one which is very much on the table and which I take very seriously, is that I need to train more extensively for these kinds of events. And yet, I cannot ignore my repeated experience of more training leading to worse performance. Also, my preparation for the Golden Hills Metric Century last October was no more extensive than for the this year's Art of Survival, an argument against the "train more" conclusion. In fact, it is possible to argue for the opposite conclusion, to argue that I trained too much, not so much in the weeks before the ride, but in the months before, that the overtraining I blogged about recently was still with me, that my poor performance was because I had not yet recovered from that overtraining. So I trained too much or I trained too little, that about covers it, right? Not quite. A third possibility is that training was not the issue, that I just had a bad day. The idea is that I have developed a relatively optimal training schedule, and that most of the time I am as fit as I can be, but there will be day to day and week to week variation. Finally, maybe it is a mistake for me to ignore the overwhelming consensus of the training community in favor of periodized training. I have decided to forgo periodization, a training plan with periods of hard training leading up to key events and periods of easier (nor no) training to recover, but rather maintain a constant level of fitness over the course of the year. What if I took it easy most of the time, but then made a concerted effort to prepare for an event like this? Could I reach a higher level of performance? Even if that worked, is this something I would want to do? How would it impact my health?

One last question: why is Roger so much faster than I am? He is about the same age as I and we had similar abilities as cyclists back in High School, suggesting a similar genetic contribution to our fitness. That is, of course, an overly simple way of looking at things. We could be genetically different in how we age, I may just have aged faster than he has. Also, he has maintained his fitness over the course of his life as opposed to me who took a 30 year vacation from exercise during the middle of my working and parenting years, a vacation that might have that permanently impacted my current athletic potential. But there is a third, more obvious difference; I am fat and he is not. The drive home from Roger's home in Cedarville gave me seven hours to reflect, and I concluded that it might be time to supplement my training with efforts to improve other aspects of my health, to eat better, lose weight, and significantly reduce my drinking. Of course, immediate upon arriving home, I opened a beer, so who knows how that will go; diet control is not my strong suit.

At this point I worry that that, contrary to George Harrison's hopeful lyrics, I am learning nothing at all. Because I am drawing so many contradictory conclusions from my poor performance, this might render all these conclusions meaningless. That said, I am going to chose to be an optimist and claim that I may be learning slowly, but I am learning. If I am learning, that should be evidenced by changes is how I train going forward. So, what am I going to try next? Honestly, I don't know yet, I am still thinking about it carefully. What I can say is that the disappointment with my performance at Art of Survival 2019 will heavily influence my thinking about training going forward.

So is that all this ride was, a total disaster whose only virtue was as a "learning experience"? Not at all! From 1966 through 1969, Roger and I were fellow Modesto Roadmen and I count him among my close friends from High School. But then didn't see each other for 47 years, until the Modesto Roadmen 50th Reunion, and we both agree that we didn't have nearly enough time there to get to know each other again, with everything that was going on at that event. It was not until last year's Art of Survival that we really reconnected, and having reconnected, have become very good friends. Friendship requires periodic renewal, and our friendship was renewed a few months ago at Eroica California 2019, and yet again at this event, the 2019 Art of Survival. Even if I had not been able to start the ride, much less finish it, the time I spend with Roger and his wife Janet made the event very worthwhile. But I did finish it. As disappointed as I was with my performance, any ride I finish, especially one as long as a metric century, I should count as a success, not a failure. And besides being a success in and of itself, this ride is an integral part of my second cycling career, now 11 years old. This second cycling career is the best thing by far I have ever done for my health. Finally, despite my lack of fitness, the Art of Survival is one of the most fun rides out there, one which I encourage everyone to try.

I would like to make one last point about the Art of Survival, one about its name. Last year I assumed this was just another macho name that we cyclists love so much, my upcoming Death Ride being a good example. This year, I learned that there was more to the name than that. One of the rest stops is at the site of a camp used during World War II to imprison innocent US citizens of Japanese descent. The whole ride goes through territory occupied by the Modoc tribe who have lived there since long before the arrival of european immigrants. Like all native american tribes, the Modoc tribe survived brutal treatment at the hands of these european immigrants and the Japanese-Americans survived their unfair imprisonment. The name of the ride is in honor of their survival. I really appreciate the effort the organizers have taken to remind us of their stories.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Hetchins Rides Again


Gebhard Ebenhoech of Veloro Bicycles LLC, who lovingly brought my Hetchins back to life. Veloro Bicycles is located at 910 Main Street in Redwood City, California. Their website is www.velorobicycles.com. Gebhard can be reached at gebhard@velorobicycles.com or 650-241-1060. If you have a 1967 Hetchins (or a similar bike) you'd like restored, Gebhard would be delighted to help you. He has an extensive collection of old tools perfect for working on vintage bikes. (He also sells fully modern high end racing bikes, if that's your fancy.)

A year ago, I blogged about how, almost exactly 50 years after I sold it, I got back the Hetchins I used to tour through Europe during the summer of 1967. Or rather, I got back what was left of it, a frame, and not even all of that original. I wrote how I was disheartened by how large the frame turned out to be, that I was far from sure I would be able to ride it. In that post I suggested "My son acquired a 1970s Centurion which he is not using, and to my eye, it looks like many of the components on that bike would be compatible with the Hetchins frame. Could I temporarily build up the Hetchins with parts from the Centurion so that I could see how rideable the resulting bike would be and to what extent I could modify the fit with changes to the stem, for example?" That is exactly what I did, and it is rideable indeed! There is not much spare standover (I can put both feet flat on the ground while standing over the frame, but just barely) so it is probably good that I am done having kids, but except for that one unimportant detail, the fit couldn't be better.

Why did it take me a year to do this? I am indecisive by nature, a trait that has gotten significantly worse with age and with the loss of my wife, and simply trying to decide on a plan kept me actionless for much of that time. Should I try to swap the parts from the Centurion myself, or should I pay someone to do it? What should I do about wheels? I was OK with stealing parts from my son's bike since everything was reversible, but my Hetchins came with 700c wheels and the Centurion had slightly larger 27" wheels, so I assumed I would have to rebuild the Centurion's wheels if I wanted to use them, a less reversible step. I have been thinking about building a set of 700c clincher wheels for my 1960 Bianchi Specialissima as a practical alternative to its sew-up wheels, so maybe I could use the same wheels for both? One barrier to building such wheels is that it is hard to find hubs with the now obsolete 120mm spacing (modern spacing is 130mm). I have my wife's old Gitane, which is basically a throw-away at this point, and thought about stealing the hubs from it. As Eroica California approached this year and I thought what bike I could ride in that, I started down that path. Alas, somewhere during its long and eventful life, the Gitane's rear axle had gotten bent, killing that idea. So that got me looking at the Centurion wheels again. I put the Centurion up on my bike stand and pulled the wheels to look at them. I can neither remember nor imagine why, but I then pulled out the Hetchins frame and put the wheels on it. To my astonishment, I discovered that when Mike, the Hetchins' former owner, had the frame rebuilt, he had it rebuilt for 27" wheels - the Centurion wheels fit perfectly as-is! Doing this also allowed me to test the standover, and I fit over the frame, another encouraging result. I had been forced to make a bunch of rapid decisions in order to go to Eroica, so I took advantage of my brain temporarily being in decision mode, called Veloro Bicycles, and took them the Hetchins frame and the Centurion. At that point, it was two weeks before Eroica, and I briefly wondered if the Hetchins could be put together in time to be my ride for that event, but Gebhard disabused me of that notion. He warned me that he tends to be slow, so having given up on riding the Hetchins for Eroica, I assured him that time didn't matter at all, and thus was a several month long project born.

So how is my resurrected Hetchins? Gebhard's work on the bike was amazing! That said, the Hetchins is what it is and ain't what it ain't, which is true of the Centurion as well. This Hetchins of today is not the 1967 Hetchins I remember (while wearing my rose-colored glasses.) It definitely is not as pretty as it was. The ornate Hetchins decals and the delicate gold pinstriping of the lugs are long gone. Gebhard recommended not putting the head badge back on yet, so that is missing as well. The components from the Centurion are all Japanese copies of Campagnolo parts, and to my eye are of equal or better quality. However, a chain guard on the outside of the front gears and a pie plate (spoke protector) on the inside of the rear gears don't do much for the appearance. So far, I have only ridden it home from the bike shop, a grand total of three to four miles, and I will have more to say about the performance when I have ridden this bike more, but what I have noticed already is that the brakes grab a bit. Can I get new pads for these very unique, very dated brakes? Gebhard warned me that might not be easy. In terms of shifting, modern bikes with their indexed shifting are simply better than the best of the classic drivetrains. That said, the drivetrain from the Centurion is definitely the best of its day, and shifting is not bad. The range of the gears is limited, however. The front gears are OK, 52 and 39 teeth, but the rear cluster is quite narrow, 14 to 24 teeth. The low gear on this bike is hardly lower than my Bianchi Specialissima with its notoriously narrow racer gearing. Even my commuter bike with an internal gear hub has two gears lower than the low gear on the Hetchins. The saddle from the Centurion is mediocre at best.

So that's the bad news, what about the good? To put things into perspective, the point of this whole project was to determine if this bike could be made to fit me. If it could, then it would be worth thinking about putting more money into it to bring it closer to my dream bike. The best thing about the current build of this bike is that the fit is wonderful, so mission accomplished. I can even use the drops (lower part of the handlebars) something that is quite uncomfortable on most of my bikes. Again, I will have a better feel for how good the fit is when I have put a few more miles on the bike (I told Gebhard I wanted to ride it 100 miles before making any decisions) but so far, fit couldn't be better. A lot of what is less than wonderful about the bike is potentially fixable. If I replace the rear 14-24 gears with a 14-32 cluster purchased on EBay, the gear range won't be spectacular, but would match my internal-gear commuter bike and my Bianchi Volpe in the middle front gear, the one I use most of the time. If I replace the rear gears, I can have the ugly pie plate removed at the same time. If I wanted even lower gears, I can replace the front cranks for $200 to have gears as low as any bike I own. I am most definitely replacing the saddle with Brooks B17, even before riding those 100 miles, especially since I can temporarily borrow one from one of my other bikes.

What is the future of this bike? It is way too soon to say, but at present I can imagine a few broad directions I could go. Almost certainly the best use for this bike is a bike to ride at Eroica California. It is a comfortable bike that meets all of Eroica's retro-requirements. The two things to consider fixing for that purpose, assuming I want to ride some of the more challenging rides, is lower gears and perhaps wider tires (for the unpaved sections of road.) Assuming that is the purpose of the Hetchins, here are some possible (non-exclusive) plans for it:

  1. Leave it pretty much as-is. That is Gebhard's recommendation. He is definitely of the "is what is is and ain't what it ain't" school. Attempting to replace the rear gear cluster would probably fit on this path. (Attempting? Gebhard has warned me that one never knows with old derailleurs; what works on paper may not work on the bike.)
  2. Maximize appearance. This would involve undoing what Gebhard has done to get back to a bare frame, which I would ship off to a high end restorer for stripping and repainting and adding back the gold pinstriping, adding replacement Hetchins decals, and putting back the headbadge. At that point, one would need to look with a critical eye at all of the components. Is the chain guard on the front cranks unacceptable? What else needs to be changed? There is no way this Hetchins can be restored to original condition, the motorist who ran a stop sign and ran into it, necessitating a frame repair, made sure of that, but I could make it look pretty while giving it an age-appropriate feel.
  3. Modernize the bike. The first step on this path is to spread the rear triangle on the frame from its current 120mm to a modern 130mm which would allow me to use more available modern components. At that point I would have to decide, do I go for full-modern appearance, or do I want to maintain the appearance of period correct? One example of the hard choices this decision requires is that almost all of the best modern drivetrain components are black as opposed to period correct components which are silver.

So, exciting times ahead! Right now, I am days away from the Art of Survival metric century which I will ride on my Bianchi Volpe, so my Hetchins is sitting sad and alone in the garage. The first opportunity I have after I get back, however, I will take it out on my Alpine ride, 23 miles and 1300 feet of climbing. I know its gears (and my legs) can handle the hills because I recently completed this ride on my Bianchi Specialissima which has about the same gear range. Depending how that ride goes, I will come up with other rides to test this bike. I wonder what I will decide to do with it?

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Fatigue Debt

This is supposed to be me looking exhausted. Do I? Well, I was exhausted whether I look it or not.

"Dear Zombie, Dear Zombie, you have no complaint, you are what you are and you ain't what you ain't. ... Signed, Dear Abby" [1]

I am almost 70 years old, I should be thankful I can still ride a bike at all, not upset that I cannot ride it like I was still 17. Still, no reason to surrender, and thus this post. What can I figure out that allows me to do as much cycling as possible within the constraints of my aging body?

Even if I am not surrendering, being 70 can be discouraging. By the second post on this blog (back when I was a youngster of only 62) I had already mentioned an issue which has become a recurring theme: I am constantly and repeatedly disappointed in how much less I am able to accomplish on my bike than I hoped I could. Over and over again, I am forced to scale back my ambitions, only to find they are still too high. What makes this so discouraging is that each new repeat of this phenomenon is a surprise. You would think I would have learned by now, but no. Over and over, I sadly face my failure, scale my ambitions down to a new low being certain that this time they are ambitions I can meet, but no, over and over, they are still too high. And guess what? It just happened to me again. I think there are three issues that aggravate this tendency. The first is that problems don't show up immediately, but develop over time. I am able to train for and complete a 200 kilometer long brevet ride, but am so tired afterwards it is a year before I can do it again. I develop a training plan, and for the first four to six weeks, I feel great, but then my fatigue starts to build. The second issue is that, because I love cycling so much, I tend to "cheat" without being aware I am doing so. I have a training plan that seems to be sustainable, but then decide to introduce some sprint workouts, "just for fun", "just when I feel like it". What was a sustainable plan has just become significantly more taxing. Finally, it is my firmly held belief that there is a third issue: that it is very difficult to predict how much stress and thus fatigue a new kind of ride will produce. I will address this third issue in more detail below.

The one training book I still use, "Distance Cycling" by Hughes and Kehlenbach, says "The most successful athletes listen to their bodies rather than slavishly follow a plan. Keeping a training log will help you monitor your performance over time." For the past three months, I have been recording the same phrase over and over again in my training log: "still tired." At the same time, my performance is down. One advantage of having standard rides is that by doing the same ride over and over, week after week, my average speed on that ride becomes a useful indicator of how I am doing. During those same three months, my average speeds on standard rides has been consistently low. The concurrence of these two symptoms, feeling tired and riding slower, seems to me to be pretty unmistakable evidence that once again I am training more than my body can tolerate. How did this happen and how should I respond? The obvious answers to these two questions is "I rode too much" and "ride less." To see if these answers make sense, let's start with my reasons for cycling, which are, in order of importance, Health and Fun.

For Health (mental and physical), my doctor tells me I ought to be riding 300 minutes a week. There are many blog posts that I could write (and might write and to some extent have written) about the arbitrariness of this number, but that said, I can't think of a better one, it has stood the test of time, and it seems reasonable. Over the past year, I have averaged 334 minutes a week of cycling. It's hard to go much lower than that while still meeting my medical prescription. During the three months that I have been feeling tired and riding slow, I have averaged 360 minutes a week, a bit higher for sure, but it is hard to believe that a 10% increase is the cause of the problem. But maybe it's not about the minutes but the intensity. The 300 minutes a week are supposed to be ridden at moderate intensity, a somewhat loosely defined medical quantification. It would be easy to accidentally ride more intensely than I ought, accumulating much more fatigue than the medical community had in mind. In the past, some of my readers have suggested just that, that my "easy" rides might be harder than I think. So maybe the answers to the questions is not so much "I rode too much" and "ride less" but "I rode too fast" and "ride slower."

How did I manage to "ride too fast"? It took me a while to figure it out, but looking back at my training log, I think I may have found the villain: my new sprint workout. This may seem obvious, but the heart of this workout is three one minute sprints. It was very hard for me to believe that three minutes of cycling could impact my fatigue levels for weeks, but after thinking about it carefully, I think that is exactly what happened. I don't think that this sprint workout is bad per se, but I think that, at first, I did it too often, developed chronic fatigue, and have been trying to dig out of that hole ever since. What made this hard to figure out is that everything played out over weeks, and in that time frame, a lot went on to confuse the issue; I got sick, forest fires polluted the air making it unsafe for me to exercise, I had travel and other commitments which prevented me from cycling, and so on. A key insight that has helped me understand this complicated set of interactions is that not being able to ride is not necessarily bad for my cycling ability. I think that, ever since I got to California 20 months ago, I have been teetering on the edge of overtraining. I think I underestimated how much more difficult riding the hills of California is than the flats of Houston. I think I am still in the process of finding my steady state in California. What obscured this a bit is that periodically one of these interruptions would occur, forcing me to take the rest I didn't realize I needed, and I would unknowingly "pay back" the fatigue debt I had accumulated. What happened to change that? Two things, both good. First, my life in California is settling into a routine so I have fewer of these accidental rest breaks. Second, I think I have gotten much better about "listening to my body" such that I now recognize the symptoms of fatigue debt much sooner. I think my latest "setback" might actually be something more positive, a sign that I am more effectively reading the signals from my body so can more carefully modulate my exercise load and get back to a steady state.

What I think I did wrong is the following: In January of this year, I became interested in adding a sprint workout to my schedule. Many of the training schedules out there include one such sprint workout each week, so that's what I did. However, as many of my readers have noted, such schedules are not meant for a 70 year old man like me. For me, one sprint workout a week was too much, a fact I quickly recognized when my performance in week three was dramatically worse than in weeks one or two [2], so I reduced the frequency of these workouts to one a month. What I failed to realize is that I had, at that point, built up a fatigue debt, that I should not have just gone back to my old workout, but rather I should have gone back to an even easier workout until I had paid that debt back. Worse, I decided to participate in Eroica California in the middle of this already too active "rest" period, making my debt worse not better. Fortunately, I recognized my fatigue after Eroica and reduced my riding, but despite that, I have not yet fully paid back my fatigue debt. How certain am I of this explanation? Not very, it is only a best guess.

This brings me to the second question I opened this post with; How Should I Respond? Most experts would advise me to take a few weeks off the bike. I don't want to do that because of the medical benefits of riding 300 minutes a week. On top of that, I am committed to a metric century just three weeks from now. Fortunately, I don't think my fatigue debt is too deep and I feel like I have made some progress at paying it back, so I hope to be able to juggle these competing priorities. However, to be able to accomplish this I need a better understanding of the fatigue cost of my various standard rides, and here is my current best estimate for these costs:
  1. Very High: Sprint Workout.
  2. Medium: Alpine Ride.
  3. Low: Neighborhood Ride.
  4. Uncertain: Long Ride.
  5. High: Hill Climb.
These fatigue cost estimates are on a "per minute" basis. That is, if I were to repeat this ride for a total of 300 minutes each week, how much fatigue would I build-up or pay off? I think that 300 minutes a week of my Neighborhood Ride is below steady state; if that is what I do, I will slowly but surely pay off a fatigue debt. Obviously, the rate of payback will be slower than if I just took time off the bike, but doing it this way has the advantage of meeting my medical prescription and maintaining a fair fraction of my peak fitness. I believe that 300 minutes a week of my Alpine Ride is just below steady state, that I could ride that indefinitely and still not build up a fatigue debt. On the other hand, were I to ride 300 minutes a week of my Alpine Ride, I would not significantly pay back any fatigue debt that I had. I believe that my Sprint Workout is a huge source of fatigue, such that considering it on a per minute basis doesn't even make sense. I should think of this workout as a fatigue bomb, one with possible significant benefits but a workout I should only do when I am in a position to tolerate its fatigue impact. I current best guess is that under the most favorable of circumstances, I could not tolerate more than one of these workouts per month. Next, there is the Long Ride. Actually, this is not a single kind of ride, but rather a catch-all term for extending the distance of one of the other rides. Currently, there are two kinds of long rides I do. The first is done on the flats of the east side of the San Francisco Bay peninsula that are basically an extension of my Neighborhood Ride. The second is done in the Santa Cruz mountains that run down the middle of the Peninsula, and are basically an extension of my Alpine Ride. Is one three hour ride equivalent to three one hour rides? I don't know, which is why I put Long Ride into its own category. At a minimum, I think these have the same fatigue impact per minute as the Neighborhood and Alpine rides respectively. What I don't know is if they incur a fatigue debt greater than that. Finally, there is the Hill Climb, rides up Old La Honda Road or Kings Mountain for example. I am pretty sure these generate more fatigue per minute than my Alpine Ride but probably less than my Sprint Workout. For now, I will treat these rides like my sprint workout, as rides I will only attempt when my fatigue balance is in the green. Final point: my plan to ride a "metric century a month" [3] provides a lot of fatigue both from the ride itself as well as from preparation for that ride; experts agree that when preparing for a long ride, there is no substitute for long training rides. Since I am committed to a metric century in three weeks, I am going to have to somehow work some long rides into my schedule and deal with the fatigue later.

Given all that, what is the plan? I just completed a rest week during which I rode only Neighborhood rides and just barely met my 300 minute prescription. For the next two weeks, I am going to have to work in long rides, and I should get some practice on hills and on the bike I will be riding in my metric century, so these will be longer versions of my Alpine ride. There is no getting around the fact that these rides generate fatigue, so to minimize the impact of that, the remainder of my rides for those two weeks will be neighborhood rides selected so that my total time stays as close as possible to 300 minutes without going under. The metric century by itself will generate most if not all of my 300 minutes for the week in which I do it, so I will only do a few short neighborhood rides that week to keep loose. The first week after this ride will be a recovery week of just neighborhood rides barely totalling 300 minutes, with as many additional such recovery weeks as signals from my body suggest are necessary.

What about longer term? The next major goal I have is in July. My older son Michael had been urging me to ride "The Death Ride" in honor of my 70th birthday, and I have finally acceded to his urging; I am signed up to die. It really isn't as bad as all that, the eponymous Death Ride goes back and forth across five major Sierra Nevada mountain passes for a total of about 15,000 feet of climbing and over a hundred miles of riding, but for those of us of lesser fitness, there are options for doing fewer passes, and I am doing just one. That results in a ride no harder than my Kings Mountain ride, well within my capabilities. That said, I should be both rested and prepared for that ride which will take careful fatigue management. As of today, I have no metric century scheduled for June. Depending on how I feel, I could skip my June metric century if needed to manage fatigue. But as they say, no plan survives contact with the enemy, so stay tuned.



[1] Adapted from the song "Dear Abby" by John Prine

[2] In my previous post on this workout I talk about two workouts a week apart. Actually, there was a third workout of somewhat different design the week before these two.

[3] I plan a future blog post revisiting my plan of riding a metric century a month.