Friday, April 10, 2015

The Houston Bike Club

The home page of the Houston Bike Club website

I have been on three rides with the Houston Bike Club (HBC), my wife, two. In their ride FAQ, HBC says:

The HBC has a variety of rides. The most common are the countryside rides where we ride on country roads well outside the city. We also have EZ rides which are slow paced social rides in town. There is a group named the Dirty Dozen who ride a century (100 miles) once a month. Orientation rides are for new members and beginners.

The first ride we did with the HBC, which my wife and I did together, was an "Orientation ride." We both found it very easy, too easy to be worth the long drive to get to it. I did the second HBC ride by myself, one of their "countryside rides." My plan was to ride with the slow group, to see if it might be something my wife could enjoy, but in my confusion, I ended up with the fast group, a group too fast for me. Both the good and the bad news was that a couple of the riders from that group stayed with me which got me home but also made me feel bad that I had "spoiled their ride". They were very friendly and gracious and never suggested I had done so, but I knew anyway. That experience was sufficiently discouraging that it was almost four years before we tried again. Recently, however, my wife has been more daring and enthusiastic about bicycling and suggested we give the HBC another try. So, a couple of weeks ago, we showed up in Columbia, Texas for their 37 mile Columbia to Fayetteville ride:

The HBC map handed out at the beginning of the ride.

By now, I have become fairly familiar with the roads this ride traversed. My second HBC ride was from New Ulm to Fayetteville, and covered many of the same roads. A few years back, my wife and I did a ride with our son and daughter-in-law that started in Columbus and went to Freisburg, a very similar route. Most recently, the last 200K brevet I rode included these roads exactly. Thus, I knew about the rolling hills on this course, but somehow I failed to put two and two together and consider what effect this might have on my wife.

We drove the hour from Houston to Columbus and showed up in plenty of time for the 8:30 am start. There were about 15 riders there from the HBC, about the same as the last time I rode with them. Although the average age of the riders might have been a bit younger than my wife and I, it would not be by much; we were definitely in the same demographic as the HBC riders. This time, I was quite careful to make sure we ended up with the slow group. As it turns out, the "slow group" is the wives; the husbands ride fast and long, the wives ride separately, slower and shorter. I can see how this division might arise organically and naturally, and I can see how it might work for this obviously tight-knit group, but it did make me feel a bit out of place in the slow group. That was somewhat ameliorated by the fact that I was obviously there to "take care of my wife", but made me wonder how this would work out in the long term. When we discussed joining the club, my wife and I wondered if we might form the nucleus of a new, even slower group. From our charity rides, we know there is a big chunk of cyclists like us, slower than the HBC, but are unaware of any clubs that are "our speed." Could the HBC become that club by including a new subgroup? Having seen how close the group is, and how well they have worked out their logistics to suit themselves, I wonder if that is possible. So, as we headed out of town, I was very curious to see if my wife would be able to keep up.

The slow group consisted of four women from the HBC and my wife and I. Normally I council my wife to start slow; I find that starting too fast can be disproportionately tiring. Given that the goal of this ride was to determine if this was the club for us, in this case, I suggested she push herself to keep with the group. At first, she was able to do that, but with each rolling hill, she found it harder, and by the time we got to Fayetteville, the other riders were almost out of sight. Once in Fayetteville (a beautiful Texas country town, complete with an antique sale on the town green), the group did not seem inclined to hang out for long, so after a bathroom break and a chance to eat the peanut butter sandwiches we had brought with us, it was time to head back. There was no hope of keeping with the group on that return trip, we were on our own from the git-go. As the ride continued, my wife became so exhausted that I began to worry about her. As we nervously traversed the narrow and heavily travelled bridge back into Columbus, I sadly concluded that the results of this "experiment" were clear; this was not the group for us, we had to keep looking to find our club.

When we got back to where we had all parked our cars, I was surprised to see that most of the group were still packing up for the drive home. In some of their literature, there was talk of a lunch at the end of their rides. I suppose it was possible that they all went to lunch as we were dragging ourselves back into town, but that seems unlikely; as slow as we were, I doubt that there was time for a lunch between when the rest of the group got back and when we did. It seems more likely that we were not as far behind as it seemed.

On the drive home, my wife was shocked and horrified by the conclusion to which I had come, vis a vis our place in the HBC. "I had fun!" she said. "I want to do this again!" Is that possible? A flatter route would have been easier, and there are many flatter routes on the HBC calendar. The ride certainly would have been easier on a tandem, should we ever get it together to purchase one. Although I have expressed pessimism about how much my wife and I can improve our cycling speed or endurance, perhaps there is some room for improvement there as well. Perhaps it is possible.

Finally, I would like to compare the different kinds of group riding experiences we have had over the years. The first group ride in which we participated was our vacation in Maine with the bicycle tour organizers, Summer Feet. We picked their easiest ride, and found that we were among the slower riders, but certainly not the slowest, and had no difficulty completing the rides in a timely fashion. When we ride the Tour de Pink or the MS150 training rides, we are again among the slower riders but not the slowest. At the beginning of the ride, it seems that everyone is passing us, but by the end of the ride, we are passing some of those same riders who had passed us earlier. I have ridden twice with my high school bicycling buddy, Paul, in Modesto California. The second time, we rode with some of his friends from the Stanislaus County Bicycle Club. They reminded me a lot of the men of the Houston Bicycle Club. They were older (like me) but rode much faster than I do. The style of riding seemed to be a series of races from rest stop to rest stop. When I ride with the Houston Randonneurs (HR), there are often times when I cannot keep up or when I am towards the back of the group, but the style of riding is very different. The second ride I did with them, we all stayed together for the first 45 miles, and it was a most enjoyable ride with lots of friendly conversation. Towards the middle of that stretch, we happened to bump into a group from the Houston Bike Club. One of their members was quite chatty and rode along with us. At one point, he suggested we all stop together and socialize, but then his face fell. "Oh that's right" he said, "you folks never stop." To me, that is the big difference. Rather than race from rest stop to rest stop, randonneurs just roll out the miles, mile after mile, with rest stops few and far between. I strongly prefer the randonneuring style of riding, which is why I am so sad I have not been able to participate in randonneuring as much as I would like.

And then there is the bikes. On my second ride with the Houston Bike Club, one of the other riders looked at my bike and commented "That's a nice touring bike you have." (In fact, it is not a touring bike at all. It is a low end, somewhat ad-hoc randonneuse.) Although the remark was friendly, I somehow felt bad. On both country rides I have been on with the HBC, most or all of the other riders were on carbon fiber racing bikes with skinny tires and narrow-range gears that probably cost 3-5 times as much as my Surly. A close friend of mine, who also favors this kind of bike and who knows me well enough to be blunt, tells me plaintively "David, you can afford a good bike! Lift mine! Lift yours! Don't you feel the difference?" He cannot conceive that there may be reasons I have the bike that I do; that I might prefer it to one like his. The Houston Randonneurs sport a much more eclectic mix of bikes than the HBC. Again, mine is probably the least expensive out there, but on a Houston Randonneurs ride, I see plenty of frames made of steel or titanium and fewer made of carbon. Gear ranges are wide, fenders are not uncommon, nor are leather saddles, and many bikes sport relatively fat tires. The charity rides we have participated in exhibit an even broader range of bikes. On these rides, the distribution of bikes seems to be bimodal, with one group of riders on the carbon fiber racing bikes, and another group riding anything and everything from mountain bikes to cruisers to classic steel framed bikes from the 1960's, 70's, and 80's.

So what are my wife and I to do? The HBC are "Roadies" as defined by Bike Snob. I am more of a "Retrogrouch", and in this matter (and this matter only), my wife follows my lead. We will always be a little self-conscious about our bikes in this group and they will always be too fast for us. Even if we get a tandem, we could only keep up with the wives, which is fine for my wife, but makes me feel like a bit of an interloper. What about my simpatico buddies in the Houston Randonneurs? Even on a tandem, even attempting only the shortest, 200K/125 mile rides, the HR is almost certainly too much for my wife. (It might be too much for me.) Charity rides are great and I suspect they will always be part of our mix, perhaps an increasing part, but they are somewhat seasonal, quite crowded (thousands of riders compared to the 10 to 15 riders on an HBC or HR ride) and tend to use the same roads over and over. We are still playing it by ear and will just have to figure this out as we go.

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