Sunday, April 14, 2019

Eroica California 2019

The Zombie at Eroica California 2019. I am the rider in the back, wearing the light blue Bianchi jersey, number 740. Photo by Steve Light.

Last year I decided not to attend Eroica California after having set it as one of my main cycling goals for the year. This was a big disappointment, especially after my friends who did attend came home with glowing reports, but last year I really had no choice, I was ill with pneumonia. This year I also decided to skip but my reason was much less persuasive. For a variety of reasons, I had done nothing to prepare a bike or bikes for that event. However, thanks to friendly persuasion by my High School riding buddy Roger, I decided at the last minute to ignore my lack of preparation and just go.

What is Eroica California and what should I have done to prepare? Eroica California is a version of the original L’Eroica started in 1997 by Giancarlo Brocci to celebrate the values of the cycling of the past (the name L'Eroica comes from the italian version of the english work "heroic", one of the values to be celebrated) and to encourage the protection and preservation of the last gravel roads in Tuscany. Thus, Eroica involves riding old bicycles over hilly gravel roads. How old are we talking about? As old as possible, but the cutoff is that bicycles ridden in Eroica must be from 1987 or earlier, that being the year when racing bicycles started experiencing a dramatic transformation. Thus, the problem was not my fitness, I am about as fit as I can get these days and the ride I did at Eroica was not particularly difficult. The problem was having an acceptable bicycle. To explain why I did not have such a bicycle, I have to say a bit more about Eroica.

The 2019 California version of Eroica consisted of three main events:
  1. A new ride on Saturday for modern bikes, Nova Eroica. 
  2. The traditional Eroica ride for old bicycles on Sunday.
  3. The Concours D'Elegance on Saturday in which old bicycles are displayed and judged.
My current everyday road bike, a 2011 Bianchi Volpe, was ready to go and would have been legal for the first event, Nova Eroica. However, there was only one route for Nova Eroica and was was beyond my physical abilities. It was 82 miles long, which I might have been able to manage, but also included 6400 feet of climbing which is way beyond what I can do. Besides, the whole point of Eroica is a celebration of old bikes, to do only the new bike event seemed silly.

There are four routes for the second event, the traditional, old bike ride on Sunday:
  1. PIEDRAS BLANCAS: 35 miles long with 1500 feet of climbing and 5 miles of gravel roads.
  2. SANTA LUCIA: 75 miles long with 5700 feet of climbing and 20 miles of gravel roads.
  3. LA VIA DELLO SCALATORE: 82 miles long with 6400 feet of climbing and 25 miles of gravel roads.
  4. HEROIC: 110 miles long with 8300 feet of climbing and 30 miles of gravel roads.
1960 Bianchi Specialissima
The Piedras Blancas route was well within my capabilities. If anything, it was too easy. The problem was the bike. The Volpe was too new for this ride. The bike I had planned to use for this ride, my 1960 Bianchi Specialissima (hereafter, "Bianchi"), was the right age, but was not ride-ready. It's not that it wasn't rideable at all, I regularly ride it for my sprint workouts, but it was not ready for a ride on the open road. The issues were as follows:
  1. It has sew-up rather than clincher tires. This means that if I get a flat, it is difficult to change on the road. This is not a problem for my sprint workout because that ride is close to home. If I get a flat, I can walk home. That is not a realistic option on the open road.
  2. The handlebars are too low. This is tolerable for a 45 minute sprint workout, but the longer the ride, the more uncomfortable this becomes.
  3. The lowest gear is too high. This is fine for my sprint workout, the course I selected for this ride avoids steep hills. But on a ride with serious climbs, the lack of a low gear would be a problem.
  4. I had put modern "clipless" pedals on this bike to make it more convenient to ride. To be legal, I would have to put the original pedals with toe clips back on. I did not originally see this as a problem but to my surprise, this turned out to be the biggest of the four problems.
I had known for a year that I wanted to attend this ride, how is it that I had not remedied these issues? One answer is that I had things to do that had to take precedence, and simply had not gotten to it, but there is more to it than that, and to explain what, I need to turn to the third and final event of Eroica, the Concours d'Elegance. Besides dressing up in vintage-looking cycling clothes and riding a vintage bike, I wanted to show my bike in the Concours to see what the other riders and the judges thought of it. To do that, I should leave it in its original condition which would preclude fixing the above problems. So, during the last year, I went back and forth. Should I make the Bianchi more rideable or should I leave it in its more or less original condition? I could never decide, so did nothing.

"ratty old tennis shoes"
As Eroica approached, I was leaning more and more towards not attending. I had been emailing my high school riding buddy Roger about going since last October, and when, 16 days before the event, I mentioned to him  I was thinking about not going, he urged me to reconsider. If I were to go, there was no longer any time to make significant changes to my Bianchi, I would have to take it as-is. The one change the rules required me to make is to put the pedals with toeclips back on, and that I did. Replacing the pedals was easy. Using them was another story. Not only have bicycle styles changed, but shoe styles have changed as well - shoes have gotten much wider. The only pair of shoes I had that would fit into these pedals was a ratty old pair of green canvas tennis shoes. What I was most worried about was the lack of low gears (which turned out to be no problem at all.) So, green tennis shoes and all, I did a short ride around my neighborhood, going up the steepest hills I could find. To my surprise, the aggressive professional bicycle racer gears were no problem. A few days later, I took this bike (green tennis shoes and all) out on my go to Alpine ride, 23 miles and 1400 feet, and again, the gears were simply not an issue. This was also a test of the too-low handlebars. If I could ride with them for 23 miles without too much discomfort, I should be able to make it through 35 miles. This left the sew-up tires as the only remaining issue. Not only were the tires sew-ups, but they weren't in great condition either. I did have replacements, but putting them on takes time and I concluded that I would just have to trust the ones that were on there. Worst come to worst, the ride was supported and I could just get a ride home on the sag wagon if I had a flat. With all of that to worry about, my chosen 35 mile Piedras Blancas ride went from "too easy" to a wise choice. If something was less that perfect, I might be able to put up with it for 35 miles.

A cut in the sew-up tire on my Bianchi
The good news is that because I hadn't done anything to my Bianchi, it is all set for the Concours d'Elegance, right? Unfortunately, no. If I wanted to show my Bianchi to best effect, I should have cleaned and polished it and replaced the ride-legal but definitely not period-correct padded handlebar tape with old school unpadded cloth tape. What I had was a bike that was suboptimal both for display and for riding, which I guess is what "going despite my lack of preparation" means.

With the bike taken care of, I had to find something else to worry about, so I worried about my costume. Costume? Eroica has been described cosplay (think Halloween) for cyclists, so you are not only supposed to ride a period-correct bicycle, but dress in period-correct cycling gear of which I had none. A quick email to Roger confirmed that I could get away without a costume, I could just wear whatever clothes I had. "Besides" Roger said "there are lots of vendors there, maybe you can buy something on Saturday for the ride on Sunday." Nonetheless, I looked online to see if there was anything I could do beforehand, and found an "Eroica" jersey that, by paying a fortune to have rushed shipped, could get in time. I figured the jersey is a big impact item, so was worth the effort. I had planned to leave for the event Friday after lunch. As I was packing Friday morning, I remembered that I had a vintage TA water bottle,which I thought would be a nice touch, so went down to the basement to retrieve it. While down there, I stumbled across all my cycling clothes from the 1960s. Of course I am much too fat to wear most of them, but among these clothes were my old cycling shoes. I would have expected the leather to have been ruined by 30 years in a hot Houston attic, but they appeared to be in pretty good shape. Would they fit? They did! Not only did they look much better than the green tennis shoes, but they should also be much more functional. I applied saddle soap generously to try to preserve and soften them and threw them in my suitcase. But because of this last minute running around, I was going with gear I had not had time to test.

Cosplay, Zombie Style
I made the four hour drive to the town of Cambria where the event was held, checked into my motel, had a late dinner, and fell into bed. Early the next morning, I was waiting in line for the restaurant to open so I could get breakfast before the 7:30 am time announced for setup for the Concours. I made it there by 7:30 am to find a square marked out in the field with a sad-looking sign, lots of my fellow displayers, but no officials to be seen. 7:30 am turned into 8:30 am, and still no officials, still no idea what we should be doing. This was my first clue to the disorganization which characterized this event. I don't mean to pick on the organizers, from the rumors I heard they were struggling with the difficulties associated with moving to a new venue this year, so no complaints and no blame, but disorganization was the reality. So we waited. And we waited. We finally found the officials, who were in the middle of a heated argument. The head guy didn't like where the bikes were going to be displayed, and everyone was struggling with the logistics of moving them to where he wanted it to be, so the schedule kept slipping. Eventually, they picked a location and we all went there to set up.

I noticed everyone had racks for holding their bikes upright. It turns out I was supposed to have brought a rack. Fortunately, one of the other participants noticed my dilemma and had a spare rack which he offered to loan me, an offer I eagerly accepted. So I got my Specialissima set up on the borrowed rack and waited for something to happen. As the hours wore on, I visited the vendors. I found a Bianchi cap to match my Bianchi jersey. I found period correct gloves and period correct wool cycling shorts. I had gone from no costume at all to perhaps the best costume I have ever had for any event of my life. Meanwhile, folks were looking over the bicycles. Mine was far from the most popular, even I could see I was outclassed by some of the other entries, but it did get some attention. The decorative head badge on the front was the subject of a number of photographs. Eventually, the judges got to my bicycle. "It's filthy." they sniffed. "Your padded handlebar tape is not period correct. The saddle is clearly a replacement." So no prize for my prized Bianchi, but I learned a lot that will help me to do better if I participate again next year. Now it was time to rush back to the hotel to get the bike ready to ride for the next day.

Steve, who saved my bacon 
by loaning me a rack.
While I was off with the vendors spending a fortune on period-correct cycling clothes, I got a phone call from my friend Roger, who was waiting for me at my bike. He was there with his wife Janet, who I met last year when I attended the Art of Survival, Janet's brother David who was in my class in High School but whom I hadn't seen since, and his wife Sarah who I was meeting for the first time. Roger and David bicycle together frequently and are stronger riders than I and they were there to ride the 75 mile San Lucia route. They had rented a house to stay at, a big upgrade over my modest motel room. As I was waiting for the will of the judges, they left to check into their house and get their bikes prepped. Back in my hotel room, just as my bike was ready, I get a text: "We are drinking gin and tonics, come on over!" Cocktail hour was followed by dinner at one of Cambria's many gourmet restaurants.

As I dressed for my ride the next morning, everything fit and looked even better than I had hoped. All except the shoes. They hadn't seemed quite so tight the day before. I biked from my motel to the start of the ride and deliberately positioned myself near the back of the group so I would not be in the way of faster riders. The police escorted us through town to the turnoff onto Highway 1, one of the most beautiful roads in the state of California. It runs along the Pacific coast and features stunning views of the ocean. The weather was flawless and I found I was feeling really strong. I spent the first part of the ride passing people, always a fun experience. But oh did my feet hurt! Our one rest stop was at the historic Piedras Blancas lighthouse which is where the short gravel section of the ride was located. Despite the gravel, the instant I got there I pulled off my shoes. The other riders, seeing me hobble over gravel in my bare feet while using the restroom and getting my progress card stamped commented "that must hurt!" "Not as much as the shoes" I answered.
My Bianchi being judged.

An important function of supported bike ride rest stops is nutrition, it is a place where riders fuel up so they can keep going. Although I was far from the last person to arrive at the rest stop, they were already out of food. I was going to have to make it back on the ample supply of calories around my waist. The route was not quite an "out and back", the return ride featured some detours down along the shore and went past where we entered Highway 1 to add both miles and climbing. I noticed that a lot of riders were missing these detours and wondered if there should have been signs help riders stay on course. It turns out that was the plan, but the organizers were so far behind schedule the ride was over before the signs went up.

There was a free, astonishingly delicious pasta lunch at the end of the ride, I purchased an exceptional local beer to wash it down, I took off my ill-fitting shoes, and was in heaven. After a shower back at the motel I got another message from Roger and Janet and David and Sarah inviting me to dinner at their house. Next morning, I packed everything up and came home.

So in balance, how was it? My legs were strong, the weather was perfect, and I was riding through some of California's most beautiful scenery. Spending time with my friends Robert and Janet and David and Sarah was wonderful. It was fun getting into costume and pretending to be a bicycle racer from the 1960s. Despite the lack of preparation, my Bianchi was a joy to ride and I felt like I was exercising some of its capabilities for the first time in quite a while. Granted, I rode the easy route, but that said, the lack of low gears was simply not an issue.

Cruel Shoes, ca. 1967
On the other hand, there were my shoes. The agony of my feet didn't ruin my ride, but it did take it down a notch. That said, the shoes are correctable, this is a problem I would not have were I to go again next year. The organizational problems also didn't ruin the experience, but they were discouraging, and this is not just my opinion. There is a long thread on the Classic and Vintage bike forum about this year's Eroica and a big part of that thread is complaints about the lack of organization. Compared to other group rides, this is an expensive event, so it has to be a bit special to justify attending. But don't the old bikes and the Concours provide that? Maybe. I admit, my lukewarm "maybe" has more to do with me than with the event, but the fact is that my enthusiasm for the underlying concept of Eroica was a bit deflated after attending. In the first place, there is a logical problem with the concept. For most of us, pretending we are professional bicycle racers from the 1930s or 1960s is irreconcilable with the reality of our aging bodies. If we were truly authentic in our choice of routes and equipment, most of us would collapse in the first few miles. If we modify our bikes to be realistic (e.g. lower the gears), we would not be authentic. Also, for whatever reason, my enthusiasm for vintage bicycles was reduced by this event rather than being stimulated. My first true racing bike was Peugeot PX-10 from the 1960s, a bike which I loved dearly and regret selling to this day. At the Concours, I encountered a very similar Peugeot. It's owner told me it was for sale. "How much?" I asked. "$500." A steal! And yet, my heart sank. I really didn't want this bike at any price. I wasn't my old PX10, and this made me realize that my attraction to vintage bikes had everything to do with my memories of High School and riding with my friends in the Modesto Roadmen and very little to do with old bicycles in general. As I think about it, whether I go back next year or not depends on Roger and Janet and David and Sarah. If they go, I go. The best part of the event was hanging out with them.

Left to right, Sarah, David, Roger, and Janet

If I do go again, what would I do differently? First, I don't think I should use my Specialissima as both a display bike and a riding bike. I think it could be made very comfortable, but doing so would take it very far from its origins, leaving it good enough to meet the rules for participating in the ride but hopeless for the Concours. So, either I have to find another bike for the ride, or give up on the Concours. Whatever bike I chose for the ride, and whatever clothing I select, should be ready weeks in advance so that I have plenty of time to test them and I don't run into problems like I had with the shoes this year. I was lucky with my sew-ups, they survived for 35 miles despite being in rather rough shape, but I would not want to count on that again, certainly not if I opted for a longer ride. So whatever bike I ride should have clincher tires so I can easily fix any flats along the way. Finally, despite the fact that the gears on the Bianchi worked fine for the short ride I did, I definitely would want lower gears before attempting a more challenging ride. One argument in favor of purchasing the PX10 at this year's event was that it had suffered repairs and upgrades over the years that rendered it problematic as a display bike but left it with lots of potential as a comfortable but Eroica-legal riding bike and I am still wondering if I should have grabbed it for that reason alone. But, "A man's got to know his limitations" [1]. Frankly, I have way too many irons in the fire these days, I don't need another project bike. And who knows? Maybe one of those other irons will pan out. Stay tuned.


Monday, April 1, 2019

Go To Sprint

The Strava segment that is the core of my new, Go To "Tamarack Sprint"

A year and a half ago, in my second post from California, I described my Go To ride, a ride I could do without thinking about it so that when my motivation is low, I am more likely to ride. That ride, which I still do frequently, is 23 miles long and has 1300 feet of climbing and takes me just under 2 hours to complete. My name for that ride (which comes from the name of the road at the far end) is the Alpine Ride. Since then, I have developed other Go To rides which I can do depending on my training needs and mood.

My second Go To ride is an evolving ride that I actually started developing before the Alpine ride, a ride I call the Neighborhood Ride. I think this is my first time describing this ride, I assume because it is a ride that is so simple it gets no respect. As it has evolved, however, it is a ride that has become quite valuable. It all began with first ride from my new home in San Carlos, a shakedown ride around my neighborhood (thus the name of the ride) only 2 miles long and was a celebration of being sufficiently unpacked to manage a ride. Over the months, I tried new routes, initially trying to find a comfortable route that took me about 30 minutes, as I had read somewhere that aerobic exercise should last for at least 30 minutes to be medically valuable. Later, I played with the route to get it above 60 minutes so that by doing 5 of these rides a week I could meet my medically mandated 300 minutes of aerobic exercise. I almost always do these rides on my Public Bike. (I describe this bike and why I like it in this post.) This is the current route for this ride:

My third Go To ride, a somewhat flexible set of similar rides, was inspired by the route of the interim Peninsula Bikeway. I describe the basic route for this ride, which again is named for the road (path) at the far end, Stephens Creek, in this post. Again, I usually do this ride on my Public Bike. This route is relatively flat but is long, so I do this one when I want to work on my endurance but don't feel like working too hard.

And now, please welcome my fourth Go To ride, the Tamarack Sprint.

A couple of posts ago, I said:
 "I have recently been enjoying riding my 1960 Bianchi Specialissima ...  [and] ... there are some stretches of this neighborhood ride a few blocks long where there is less traffic overall and virtually no cross traffic, so these might be places I could enjoy the speed of this beautiful bike and practice sprinting."

The Tamarack Sprint is the short stretch of road I settled on (shown at the top of this post) for this purpose. The workout for which I selected this ride comes from "Intensity Training 2016" by John Hughes [1]. Hughes suggests that a Health and Fitness rider like me might benefit from two different kinds of fast workouts: a VO2max workout (Zone 5b) and Sprint workout (Zone 5c) [2]. These workouts are at a higher level of effort than I reach during my other rides, and so I hoped they might provide me with unique benefits. Here is what these workouts consist of:
  • VO2max: Start with 1 to 3 repeats of 1 minute to 2 minute very hard rides separated by 2 minute to 4 minute recovery. Work up to 2 to 4 repeats of 2 minute to 3 minute very hard rides separated by 4 minute to 6 minute recovery.
  • Sprint: Start with 1 to 3 repeats of 10 second to 20 second all out sprints separated with recovery periods 5 minutes or longer. Work up to 2 to 4 repeats of 30 second to 40 second all out sprints, keeping the recovery period at 5 minutes or longer.
My Tamarack Sprint is a VO2max workout, albeit one on the shorter side. As of the date of this post, my best time for the Tamarack Sprint is 58 seconds, with most times being just over 1 minute. My recovery time is determined by how long it takes me to circle around from the end of the sprint back to the start, and that is about 4 minutes, again within range for a VO2max workout. Currently, my ride consists of 18 minutes of warm-up, 3 repeats of the "sprint" (hard ride) [3], then 16 minutes of cool-down. (Hughes recommends 15 minutes of warm-up and cool-down.) Part of the warm-up consists of 2 repeats of the loop containing the sprint done at low speed. If you look at the figure at the top of the post, you can see that my "Recent Efforts" falls into sets of 5: 2 slow, 2 fast, and then a fifth which is the fastest. The first 2 are warm-up followed by 3 repeats of the VO2max workout. Hughes suggests that the third effort should be the hardest, so that is what I do.

Why am I doing the VO2max workout and not the Sprint workout? Hughes says that you should work from slower to faster workouts, e.g. starting with the VO2max workout and then working up to the Sprint workout. However, I confess I did not come to it as logically as all that. I was looking for the safest, quietest street in my neighborhood where I could try some sprint workouts, and Tamarack Street seemed promising; a quiet neighborhood street with few cross streets. The first time I rode it as a sprint (this stretch of road is also part of my neighborhood ride), I had not figured out the workout I wanted to do. Part of Tamarack Road is one way, so I have to ride it north to south, and when I do, it is first uphill and then downhill. Racing downhill seemed both unsafe and unproductive, so I rode the uphill portion (2%-4% grade) as fast as I could. When I got home, I found that this was a Strava segment, so there was no effort required by me to track my performance [4]. However, that fixed the length of the "sprint/very hard ride", making it a VO2max workout. Yes, I could create my own Strava segment, but this one is already at the low end of what Strava recommends, so there is really no good way to use Strava to track the shorter, Sprint workout.

If I can't use Strava to track a Sprint workout, how can I do one? In the first place, I could simply not track it, just do a 10 to 20 second sprint every now and then and not worry about it. However, I could not help but wonder, if I wanted to track a Sprint workout, how would I? Just over a year ago, my Garmin cycling computer stopped working, and I decided to simplify my life and just make do with my cell phone and Strava. When I lived in Houston, I did 20 second sprint workouts, and tracked them on my Garmin, so I started to wonder if I should go back to using one. So I looked at my records from Houston to remember how I used my Garmin to track these sprints and to my delight realized that what I tracked was not how long a 20 second sprint lasted, but the highest speed I reached during the sprint (typically at the end.) That is something I may be able to do with Strava. I don't want to go through all the details of how a Garmin and Strava compare in this regard, I think I just need to try it and see how it goes. In any case, I don't feel like I am ready to add this workout yet, but in preparation for the arrival of that day, I am scouting the neighborhood for a safe, flat stretch of road I could use to see just how fast I can make that old Bianchi go.

So how are the VO2max workouts going? It has been interesting. Something I am learning about myself is how important it is that I not overdo my training, my performance suffers much more often from a buildup of fatigue than from a lack of training. I would have thought that three 1 minute sprints would not produce very much fatigue, but I was wrong. In the figure at the top of the post, you will note that my second set of 5 sprints was the slowest. That set was done one week after the first set. In contrast, the third set was done a month after the second, and fourth set was done a month after the third. When I do 1 set of these sprints a month (in the context of 3 to 5 other rides a week), I seem to be improving fairly steadily. However, 1 set a week is too much. Stay tuned to see if I notice any long term benefits from including these rides.


[2] The scale of ride intensities ("speed") I use in this blog runs from Zone 1 through 5a, 5b, and 5c. Zone 1 is an easy ride where I don't push my speed at all. In Zones 2, 3, and 4 I push increasingly hard. All the way through Zone 4, however, I am riding "aerobically", I can supply oxygen to my legs as fast as they can burn it. What defines Zone 5 is crossing that line; riding at Zone 5 can only be done for short periods of time before I have to stop and "catch my breath." It turns out that there is a lot of difference in the impact of riding at the high end of Zone 5 compared to the low end, so Zone 5 has been subdivided into Zones 5a, 5b, and 5c. (Hughes refers to these as Zones 5, 6, and 7.)

[3] In this post, I am using the word "sprint" to refer not only to Hughes "Sprint" workout, but also to the hard part of any set of intervals, e.g. the VO2max workout.

[4] The name of the Strava Segment, shown in the figure at the top of the post, is "Final Sprint." The record for this segment is 33 seconds, a big difference from my sluggish 58 seconds.