Sunday, December 2, 2018

Listening to My Body

Recently, I have been doing some longer rides on the commuter bike I inherited from my wife through the flat neighborhoods on the east side of the peninsula. The ride illustrated on the map (shown in the lower half of the figure) went from my house in San Carlos to the house where my father grew up in Palo Alto (shown in the upper half of the figure), an approximately 20 mile ride round trip.

This blog does not have a large number of readers, most of my posts top out at 50 to 100 visits. A handful of these are regular readers, mostly or entirely friends and family (howdy!) and I suspect the rest are people who found a post via a google search. I hope they found what they were looking for, but even if they did, I suspect few of them found a reason to become regular readers. If that's the case, why do I keep posting? My younger son Matthew says "If you want to think, write" a saying I find to be very true, and this post was a perfect example. I started out writing one thing, but as my writing forced me to think things through, I ended up going an entirely different direction.

I initially anticipated that this post would discuss a recent review of the history of the development of a recommended exercise regimen by the medical community, with the goal of underlining how uncertain we are that the current recommendations are optimal, but when I dug into it, I realized everything worth saying in that paper is contained in this sentence. Don't get me wrong, the core advice of the medical community, "exercise lots", is quite solid, it is just the details that remain to be solidified. In fact, there is a recent paper reinforcing the "lots" part which has been picked up by the press (CNN for example),  that I may review one of these days. The bottom line for me is that I am trying to bicycle as much as I can, and therein lies the story for today.

As long time readers of this blog will know, I have done a fair bit of reading in the exercise literature, and one enduring lesson I have gleaned from that reading is that the best way to bicycle as much as possible is not to go out every day and ride until I drop. Doing that would lead to overtraining and, much less riding in the long term. Rather, I have to develop a sustainable exercise plan, one that I can maintain month after month, year after year. Many cyclists, including some who have commented on this blog, have found objective criteria to help them develop such sustainable plans, things like resting heart rate. I have tried a lot of these, and the only metrics that have worked for me are subjective:
  1. Measuring my speed on a standard ride.
  2. Monitoring my feelings; aching legs, general lethargy, lack of enthusiasm, and mood.
(Even though it may not seem so, speed on a standard ride is subjective. If I have more enthusiasm, I may ride harder and be faster for that reason, not because I am fully recovered, which is what I am testing for. In the end, subjective criteria are the only ones that have worked for me.)

Last August, the last time I talked about my riding schedule, I said: "I increased my riding from three to four rides a week ...[and]... I seem to be handling four days a week OK." (The "rides" I am referring to are identical repeats of my go-to ride, a 23 mile ride with 1300 feet of climbing.) That continued to be true for two more weeks, at which point I noticed that not only was I feeling more tired, but, it "seemed like" the speed at which I could do these rides was getting slower, not faster. Why do I feel the need for the "seemed like" qualifier? It is because there is a great deal of day to day variation in how fast I can do this ride, so that I cannot conclude from one or two slow rides that I am riding too much. It was only after I saw a pattern over a few weeks where my rides were significantly slower on average that I seriously wondered if four rides a week was too much. The problem is that even two weeks of rides is a very small number, statistically speaking, so it is hard to be sure that my rides had really gotten slower. On the other hand, I really couldn't wait much longer than two weeks to make a correction to my routine, should a correction be necessary. While writing this post, I actually went back and forth a few times, sometimes thinking I had overinterpreted the data, that my rides had not gotten significantly slower, and other times thinking that I had gotten it right. As of this writing, I'm thinking I got it right, but that explains the "seems like" in my characterization. So, combining apparently slower rides with a higher incidence of aching legs, low enthusiasm, and general lethargy, I decided to cut back from four of the hilly 23 mile rides a week, to three of those rides plus one shorter, flatter ride. Of course, as always, life intervened and I had to adjust my ride schedule to work around those interventions, but for four weeks, I rode schedules that attempted to approximate that goal, and it seemed like my ride speed was recovering.

On the surface, this all seems like good news; I determined I was riding a bit too much and successfully adjusted my schedule. However, the decision to cut back on my riding felt like a real setback. Four 23-mile rides a week doesn't even come close to the volume of riding I was doing just five years ago when I was participating in 200 kilometer brevets*. Had I really gone so far downhill in those five years? Why, all of a sudden, is seven hours a week too much, when five years ago, I sometimes did that much in a day? There are many possible explanations, each with their own implications for how I ought to be riding. Maybe, at my age, five years older is significant. Maybe, illness and death of my wife is still affecting me. Maybe, I have not yet thrown off all the effects of my pneumonia of last winter. Maybe, other sources of stress in my life are impacting my ability to ride. Against this background, my older son Michael came up with another possibility. "I can't believe you do this same ride over and over again. I think you are just getting bored. Boredom can feel like tiredness, you know." That didn't seem right to me, but he is a very smart man, so I took his advice seriously. With that in mind, when the opportunity came to ride a second metric century with my friend Roger came up, I jumped at it despite having little time to prepare. How little? Well, my speed may have come up a bit, but my subjective feeling was still one of tiredness, so because my body was telling me it was more in need of rest than training, I did only one 39 mile long ride two weeks in advance to prepare, followed by two relatively easy weeks. The metric century went well, I was very tired at the end but had no trouble finishing, so this minimalist training plan seemed to work, though there is, of course, no way to be sure that a different plan might not have worked better.

The metric century was one response to boredom, but another, driven not just by boredom but also inspired by the Peninsula Bikeway ride I took a while back and by my interest in easier rides that still met my medical prescription for 300 minutes of moderate exercise a week, I started exploring routes through the beautiful neighborhoods on the eastern flats of The Peninsula, the ride shown at the top of this post being one. So does this mean I have become a slacker, just easy rides and minimal training going forward? Not at all, I will continue to listen to my body, and if I am feeling strong, will try upping my mileage again, perhaps seeking out some bigger challenges. I am not yet sure if my son was right, that what I was calling fatigue was actually boredom, but I do know that introducing more variety into my riding has been an extremely pleasant change, so I intend to do more of that. The metric century is a very popular distance for group bike rides, and I like being able to participate in one of these at short notice, so I may try to work one longer ride into my weekly schedule such that I could ride a metric century with no extra preparation at all. Stay tuned to see how this all works out.

* A brevet is just a bicycle ride. Brevet is what randonneurs, a kind of bicycle rider who specializes in long distance challenge rides, calls one of their challenges. A 200 kilometer ride is their shortest brevet, the other common distances being 300, 400, 600, and 1200 kilometers.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Golden Hills Metric Century

Last May, I rode the "The Art of Survival" with my Modesto Roadmen buddy, Roger. During that event, Roger shared with me his ambition to ride a metric century (100 kilometers or 62 miles) once a month. It sounded like a great plan to me, within my capabilities while still being a challenge that encouraged me to go for a little excitement in my cycling. The plan was that, since Roger invited me to "The Art of Survival", it was my turn to come up with a ride near where I live, in the San Francisco Bay area. Well, stuff happened (doesn't it always) which kept me busy, so I kept not getting around to a second metric century, but I never gave up. Finally we managed to arrange something in October, a metric century near Modesto, the city where Roger and I met. The Event was the "Golden Hills Century", which in addition to its eponymous century (100 mile) ride, featured additional shorter rides including the metric century that we rode. The ride started and finished in the tiny, unincorporated town of Knight's Ferry. Knight's Ferry is a bit of a tourist destination both for it's recreational rafting as well as for its scenic, historic covered bridge:

...featuring its own historic plaque:

Knight's Ferry is also a popular cycling destination for rides starting in Modesto, and in fact the two rides I did with Paul, another of my Modesto Roadmen buddies, did just that. The nearest incorporated area, the City of Oakdale, also has a charm of its own. It claims to be the "Cowboy Capital of the World" (a claim some of my former neighbors in Texas might dispute) and is also a cycling hub. The ride was sponsored by the Stanislaus County Bicycle Club and benefited the Second Harvest Food Bank of Modesto. (Modesto, Oakdale, and Knight's Ferry are all within Stanislaus County, thus the name of the club.) Roger and I both drove to Oakdale the night before so we had dinner together, and then met again in the parking lot designated for the ride, got signed in, and at 8 am, started the ride. Here is a picture of Roger with some of the other riders just before the start:

The route went through the rich, agricultural landscape of the San Joaquin Valley and featured almond orchards, vineyards, and cattle ranches. But why is it called the Golden Hills century? The ride went along the edge of the San Joaquin Valley which meant it was in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and thus featured rolling Hills; there was about 2,000 feet of climbing in the ride (and my legs felt every foot of that.) The golden part is a bit of a euphemism. California is actually a fairly dry state, and its Central Valley is technically a desert, it's agricultural richness comes entirely from irrigation. Thus, most of the year the hills are covered with dry grass which, if you have the right attitude, are Golden:

One of the best part of the ride for me was the memories it brought back of my high school days cycling with the Modesto Roadmen. A lot has changed in the fifty years since then, traffic has gotten much heavier for one thing, and the land is much more developed for another, but enough stayed the same, like road names, that I was in close to a perpetual state of nostalgia. My family was brought to Modesto by the phone company who moved my dad there in 1961 and we lived there a total of six years before the phone company moved us along. In contrast, Roger has deep family roots in the area - some of his family were among its first settlers. As a result, he lived there much longer than I did and had even more memories.

Roger was a much stronger rider than me last May, and the same was true for this ride. (Given my current understanding of my fitness, that is unlikely to ever change.) Thus, I spent the ride desperately trying to say with him, often glued to his back wheel, or more often, failing to do so and riding off the back. Roger was very kind and always waited for me (though I assured him he didn't need to) but as a result I didn't take as many pictures as I would have liked, as I was too busy chasing. However, towards the beginning of the ride when I wasn't quite so tired, we came across the Robert's Ferry covered Bridge, and I couldn't resist. Unlike the Knight's Ferry bridge, this is not a carefully preserved historic landmark, but a fully functional working bridge that the farmer's in the area drive through every day, and yet it is charming nonetheless:

The ride was well organized. There was snacks available at signup if you hadn't had a chance to grab breakfast, the 65 miles featured four rest stops, three which provided bathrooms, water, and snacks, and the fourth which provided all that plus "lunch." The lunch was plentiful and excellent (I pigged out on the wonderful seasonal strawberries) and is in quotes only because a second, hot lunch was provided at the end; one ride, two lunches! The map was good, there were arrows on the road throughout the route, flagmen were present at all busy intersections, both the volunteers and riders were friendly, and the whole thing had a wonderfully comfortable vibe. I would most definitely participate in this ride this again despite the horrific traffic I had to drive through to get there, and would recommend it without reservation. Here is a map of the ride:

How about my preparation and fitness? Something I have talked about a little bit on this blog, that I hope to cover in more detail in the future, is that I feel like my body can tolerate very little training these days. Even just the 300 minutes of riding my doctor insists I do for my health leaves me pretty tired, so I felt that resting for this ride was as important as preparing for it. I made two change to my schedule to get ready. Two weeks before this ride, I replaced one of my 23 mile rides with a 39 mile ride. The week after, I reduced both the intensity and the volume of my riding to allow for recovery. My thought was that I was trading off between fitness and exhaustion, and that given that, this schedule was probably the best I could do. There is no way to be sure if my thinking was correct, but given the totality of my experiences over the last year and then over the last ten years, my best guess is that it would have been hard for me to do much better. At the start of the ride, I felt as good as I have for a long time. At about the 40 mile point, my legs got quite sore and I had a lot less "push"; if Roger pulled ahead of me on a hill, there is nothing I could do about it, no matter how hard I tried. By the end of the ride, my legs were completely exhausted. After a two hour drive home, I fell into bed almost immediately for a long, deep sleep. That said, there was never any doubt I would finish, and I enjoyed the ride immensely, even at the end. How best to prepare for challenging, fun rides, and what my limits are in that regard is something I think about constantly. Preparation for this ride represents my best guess for how to do so at present, stay tuned to see how my thinking evolves.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Recovery Time: A New Variable

Figure 1

I recently came across a website I found interesting: Training Science. Normally, this is not the kind of resource to which I am attracted, it is neither a professional scientific study nor is it by an author I know and trust. The reason this site caught my eye is because the views it expresses tended to align with conclusions I had come to on my own. Two such conclusions are that genetics dominates everything else (including training) in determining athletic performance and that for most people, less is more in terms of training. In fact, agreement with my prior prejudices should have been a reason to avoid this resource rather than seek it out. The reason to avoid this site is confirmation bias, the tendency that we all have to seek out data that agrees with our prior beliefs and to avoid data that contradicts those beliefs when an effective search for the truth would have us do the opposite. Thus, I may be giving this site more weight than I should because it agrees with my prior beliefs. Despite that, I will proceed, but will do so with caution.

Training Science advocates for a number of controversial opinions. For example, it questions the importance of VO2max and of lactate threshold for predicting real world athletic performance. It does provide legitimate, scientific references for many of its assertions, making it no worse than the newspaper reports that have been inspirations for a number of my blog posts, and as in those cases, I have followed up by reading the references and evaluating them critically. In this post, I am only going to discuss one of their iconoclastic opinions; that many people ought to be exercising significantly less often than what is commonly recommended, and the reference they cite to support that assertion.

This is the assertion from Training Science:

"[W]hen the subjects were training just 3 days per week it took an average of .9 of a day for the subjects to recover.  ...  recovery time increased to 3.6 days when they increased training to 5 days per week.  ... It would seem that even though the subjects were recovered enough to repeat a previous performance, they were not completely recovered ... [and] if you choose to workout prior to full recovery, it will take you even longer to recover.  If you persist in training prior to recovery, your level of fatigue will grow and along with the increasing level of fatigue will come a slower rate of recovery and a decrease in your rate of improvement (and I would add an increase in the risk of injury)."

The reference they cite in support of this assertion is "Effects of training frequency on the dynamics of performance response to a single training bout" by Thierry Busso, Henri Benoit, Régis Bonnefoy, Léonard Feasson, and Jean-Renélacour. J Appl Physiol 92: 572–580, 2002. Figure 1, shown at the top of this post, comes from that reference, and illustrates the important numbers Training Science would like to use from this study. Specifically, tn = the time it takes to recover sufficiently from a ride so that you have the same performance as you had before the ride, and tg = the time it takes after a ride to maximally develop the increase in performance that the workout provides. This figure reminded me of so many diagrams I had seen in so many training articles; this is accepted dogma in the exercise community as to what the training response looks like. Virtually all such articles then go on to recommend that, after a workout, one should wait for a time tg between one workout and the next, so that each workout can "build" on the increase in performance from the previous workout. At first, I thought the scientific paper referenced by Training Science was a simple quantitation of this conventional training advice. When I looked closer, things got less clear, and by the time I finished evaluating this scientific reference, I felt like the authors at Training Science didn't really understand this very complicated paper, and that the paper said much less of practical value than Training Science thought it did.

Critical Analysis of Busso et al.

This study involved six subjects, a very small number. They were men in their 30s who were not participating in an exercise program prior to the study. In the study, they first exercised for 8 weeks, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, took a week off, and then exercised Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday for four weeks. Exercise involved riding a stationary bicycle. During the study, the maximum power the subjects could generate was measured on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. As one would expect, that increased with exercise. This is the raw data from the study:

Figure 2

This figure could not be simpler. A-F are the six subjects, and each maximum power measurement is plotted as a function of time after the start of training. Maximum power (which I refer to as performance) is the highest average power the subject could maintain during a five minute test. The training program is diagrammed on panels E and F; LFT is the 8 weeks of training 3 days/week, HFT is the four weeks of training 5 days a week, with one rest week in between. Just looking at this raw data, there are two obvious stories one could tell. The story Training Science would have you believe is that the rate of increase of performance went down when training was increased from 3 to 5 days a week. This story is perhaps best supported by subject D, for whom a plateau in improvement seems to begin at about the same time as HFT. However, there is a second story, offered as an alternative by the authors of the study, who note that in any training program, progress plateaus, there is only so good an athlete can get no matter how long they train. This story says that there is not much difference between training 3 and 5 days a week. Rather, there is just the natural plateau in improvement that occurs after several weeks of training. This alternative story is perhaps best supported by subject F, for whom the plateau in performance begins well before the initiation of HFT. The authors confess that a limitation of their study is that the High Frequency Training occurred immediately after the Low Frequency Training, and so the first impacted the second, allowing for these two alternative stories.

The above two stories are both based on the raw training data and do not provide nor use tn and tg, the recovery times shown on Figure 1. Where do tn and tg come from? they come from a mathematical model that the authors of this study and others developed over the years. To model figures like Figure 1, they use this equation:

Figure 3

pn is the maximum power a subject was able to generate on day n which is determined by the amount of exercise done for each day i, starting on the first day of the study, up until the day before day n. p* is the the maximum power that subject generated before training, w is a function defined in the paper, and the remaining values are the parameters whose values are varied to make the model fit the raw data for each subject, shown in the Figure 2, by adjusting them using a best fit algorithm. Once they had the value of these parameters, they used them to calculate the recovery times tn and tg  as follows:

Figure 4

I confess I have not "checked their calculations" and thus am unable to independently evaluate their model. That is the bad news. The good news is that I do not believe it is necessary to do so in order to evaluate the relevance of this paper to development of a practical training plan, an evaluation I will describe below. That said, here are the results of those calculations:

Figure 5

The X axis on these graphs is the day after start of training, and the Y axis is the calculated recovery times. The authors of this paper suggest that tn is the time it takes after a single workout for performance to return to the value it had before that workout. Training Science uses the increase in tn during weeks 10 through 13 as evidence that training 5 days a week is worse than training 3 days a week.  Are they correct? What should we make of this data? How should we decide?

Let's start with a reality check. Note that Figure 1 does not describe the experiment done in this paper, the results of that experiment are shown in Figure 2. Rather, Figure 1 is a "cartoon", a visual description of what the authors suggest their results might mean. There are two important points to understand about Figure 1. First, that it is an assumption of the authors that the tn they calculate corresponds to tn shown on Figure 1 and that the tg they calculate corresponds to the tg shown on Figure 1. Second, even if the authors model is completely correct,  Figure 1 is not drawn to scale. As drawn, Power is shown to increase by about 20% after a single workout. Assuming their model is correct, the actual amount of increase after one workout is closer to 1%. Assume that tn and tg are what the authors think they are. Note that tn is about one day, an entirely reasonable number. Looking at Figure 1, it would appear that tg would occur about 2.5 days after a workout. However, tg calculated by the authors is much longer, about 10 days, an entirely unreasonable number. Does it seem likely that performance will continue to increase for 10 days after a workout? If we assume the consensus of the training community is correct, that the time between workouts should be tg, it certainly does not seem reasonable to assume that one should exercise only once every 10 days!

The authors provide a third reality check. If it is "bad" that tn increases from about 1 day to about 3.5 days when training is increased from three days per week to five, then we should find that serious athletes have training schedules that match their measured value of tn. In contrast to this expectation, the authors reference a previous study in which a value of 23 days was measured for tn for one such athlete. Based on that, the authors suggest that, rather than suggesting a value of frequency of training, tn might relate more to the time that a successful athlete should rest (taper) between a training regimen and an important competition. This either means that the conventional wisdom of the exercise community, that the interval between training sessions should never be less than tn and ideally should be tg, is wrong, or else the tn and tg calculated in this paper do not correspond to what is shown in Figure 1.

The Bottom Line

I do not believe that the reference cited by Training Sites supports their argument that increasing training from 3 days a week to 5 is harmful. I think the reference they cite is of significant long term theoretical interest, but at this stage of its development offers little of practical value to an athlete. Do I disagree that 3 days a week is better than 5? As it happens, I neither agree nor disagree, I think "it depends", but that is just my opinion, I know of no scientific study supporting or refuting that assertion. I think the guidance offered by the exercise community, which includes Training Science (once you understand that Science has little to do with their common sense recommendations) can provide a good starting place and valuable sanity check for designing a training program. At present, I see no evidence that the scientific community has much to offer in the way of practical training advice, though I believe progress is being made and that could well change in the future. Finally, I believe we are all different, and any training plan has to be tuned to our specific set of interests and capabilities, and in the end, I am left with the only guidance I have found useful for such tuning, listening to my body.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Peninsula Bikeway

I talk a lot on this blog about my "GoTo Ride", a 23 mile ride through the Santa Cruz mountains. The name I use for that ride in my training notes is the Alpine ride, because it goes south from my house to Alpine Road, and then back home again. That ride is actually my goto ride only when I want a workout. When I want an easy, recovery ride, I have another goto ride, listed as the Neighborhood ride in my notes. This 5 mile long ride is so named because it goes around my neighborhood, mostly in the town of San Carlos. but dipping into the neighboring city of Redwood City at its southern end. It was while crossing into Redwood City that I encountered this sign:

(This is the kind of notice that must, by law, be placed before any kind of road construction or repair is begun.) I was intrigued! Would Bayside Stripe & Seal be painting new bike lanes? Something more? Why was this limited to Redwood City? Can't San Carlos get a little bike lane love? Shortly thereafter, Facebook supplied the beginnings of an answer:

So I went. It turns out, all that Bayside Stripe & Seal was doing was "sign toppers", a little sign that attaches to the top of an existing street sign, in this case, the sign shown at the top of this post. The long term plan is a high quality commuter bike path running north-south between the cities of Redwood City and Mountain View. The city workers championing this project felt that having something in place Right Now would help move things along, so they took advantage of bike paths where they found them, quiet neighborhood streets, when bike paths were lacking, and whatever was there when all else failed, to create an "interim" bikeway. All that interim bikeway required was the aforementioned sign toppers to mark the way, and voila. The purpose of the "launch event" announced on Facebook was two-fold: the lesser goal was to run group rides along this interim bike route, to introduce it to the community, and the greater goal was to get that community together to discuss the long term plan:

The cities of Redwood City, Menlo Park (where the event was held), Palo Alto, and Mountain View had clearly put a lot of effort into the event. Note the custom sheets of paper for collecting longer suggestions, in the foreground, and the giant map and sticky notes in the center of the picture, for collecting quick comments on particular parts of the route. If you look closely at the above picture, you will see different color lines weaving their way along the map in the center of the picture. These represent the three long term and the existing interim routes for the ride. The three proposed long term routes are along the railroad right of way (too noisy and ugly!), along El Camino Real (too busy and ugly!) and along Middlefield Road (hmmm...) The Middlefield Road route is the one farthest to the east, and thus farthest to the left on the map in the above picture, in red. Note the bright orange sticky note in the middle of the map. That one's mine, advocating for the Middlefield route. In addition, the city workers had created something like a dozen posters describing every aspect of the project, which they set up around the park. Here's just one:

Finally, there was an array of other activities, as is shown on this "Welcome" poster:

(For the city workers, this bikeway is part of a larger effort to get people moving around their cities using anything but cars, thus the Caltrain schedule.) For me, one of the highpoints of the event was the opportunity to chat with the city employees who are doing the hard work and making the decisions needed to make cycling infrastructure happen. They were available for conversation both on the ride and during the event. The specifics of how they were thinking about the project and how they reacted to the thoughts from the experienced cyclists in the group were of interest, but so was their explanation of the realpolitik that they have to navigate as they try to get something done. I learned that the current city council of Redwood City is expected to be turned out en masse this November as a reaction to traffic problems in the city and residents' hostility to the introduction of more cycling infrastructure, for example. They also talked about the complexity of funding sources, the long time that it takes to go from an idea to its fruition ("ten years"), and the difficulties of building a collaboration between the different cities needed to create a useful bike route. The City of Atherton, smack in the middle of this project, is not yet on board, nor is my home town of San Carlos. I was encouraged to attend the planning meetings of my city government to show them that there are voters in favor of cycling infrastructure, a suggestion I hope to take.

But this is a biking blog, what about the ride? The original start site in San Carlos was revised to join an existing group, so we started at the high school in Redwood City. This is our group at the start:

I decided that the appropriate bike for this ride was my Public commuter bike with the step-through frame I inherited from my late wife, in the lower left corner of the picture. There were a variety of bike and rider styles represented, from lycra and carbon fiber to heavy duty police bikes and electric bikes. Electric bikes were especially popular. Among bike brands, Public was a popular choice. We picked up riders along the route, and our group got larger and larger as we went along. When we got to the event, we were joined by another group which had traveled from Mountain View in the south. An idea of the group size can be gotten from the Bike Valet parking station:

(This represents maybe half the bikes, the other half were parked at other locations around the park.)

The ride to the event along the interim bikeway was a twisty little maze of passages, all different. Some parts were delightful, winding through interesting neighborhoods. Others were terrifying, weaving in and out of heavy traffic. The city workers on the ride were the first to acknowledge that the existing signage, the street toppers, were just a start, that more and better signage would be highly desirable. Using just the existing signs, I doubt I could follow the route again, even having ridden it once. My bottom line is that I gain little or nothing from this interim route. There was no organized ride back, so I opted to try the proposed Middlefield Road route, to give it a look-see. I knew from Google Maps that part of that route already had bike lanes, but that other parts did not. It turned out, that made a big difference. Middlefield Road is fairly busy, so even where there was bike lines, I might not ride it recreationally, but would be comfortable riding it for transportation. Where the bike lanes vanished, I felt sufficiently insecure that I probably would avoid riding it in the future. Of course, choosing the Middlefield Road route for the final bikeway would mean adding the missing bike lanes, so this route should be judged in that context. Here is my final route there and back, courtesy of Strava:

I'm really glad I attended this event! I learned a lot about the process by which the cycling infrastructure I use and love is created, and enjoyed hanging out with my fellow cyclists. I am definitely going to keep my eyes open for other group rides.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

California: The First 300 Days

My first ~300 days of cycling since moving to California. Blue rides are "Pace" rides, ridden at my fastest comfortable speed. Green rides are "Recovery" rides ridden very slowly. Red rides are "Brisk" rides where I go all-out. Yellow rides are "Long" rides where covering a lot of miles is the goal. The numbers in the MON through SUN columns are how long the ride was in minutes. The grey, Miles column is total miles ridden for the week. Given the impact of hills on how hard and how fast a ride is, I switched to recording my rides in miles to recording them in minutes when I moved, the Miles column is a holdover from my Texas days. In the min/wk column is the total number of minutes for the week. I highlight those weeks where I met the medical community's minimum (green) or optimum (yellow) recommendations for minutes of aerobic exercise per week.

On June 10, 2017, Agi, my wife of 42 years, died and with her, the life I had been living. Since then, I have been trying to put together a new life, one based based on my new reality. Good news, it looks like bicycling is part of my new life, but just as my life is changing, so is my cycling.

The first step in creating my new life was to move from Houston, Texas, where Agi and I had lived for almost 30 years, to California's San Francisco Bay Peninsula where my two sons live with their families. I have now been cycling in California between ten and eleven months. I considered if I should delay this post for another month or two so that it could be about my first year of cycling in California, but I have things to say now, and a year is a completely arbitrary time period in any case, so this is the story of my first 300 and some odd days cycling in California. What have I learned while designing the new cycling plan for my new life?
  1. "Man Plans, God Laughs." Guess what? I still have a life, and it still gets in the way of cycling. Over a year after her death, I am still enmeshed in dealing with my wife's estate and establishing a stable life in California (health care, daily maintenance, etc.) Also, lucky me, I have purpose in life! My older son has two children, one two years old, one two months old, he and his wife can most definitely use my help, and helping them gives both meaning and joy to my life. So, whatever cycling I do has to fit around that.
  2. "Cycling is Essential for my Health." By the fall of 2016, Agi still had 8 months to live, but the writing was on the wall. Even so, being the wife that she was, she worried about me, about my health, and insisted that I find a doctor (my previous one having retired), that I schedule a physical, and that she be there during the physical to make sure I was properly cared for. My new doctor realized, to nobody's surprise, that I was clinically depressed. (The anticipated loss of a spouse will do that.) I was very lucky (or clever?) in my choice of doctors, because she also realized that, despite the widespread use of medication to treat depression, anti-depressants were the wrong choice for me, and to my delight, prescribed bicycling as my treatment. Thus, whatever other reasons I might have to ride or not to ride, I have to ride to maintain my mental health (not to mention the many benefits of cycling for my physical health.)
So how has that played out over the last 300 days? I arrived in California on September 18, 2017, moved into my rental house on September 22, and by October 10, was sufficiently settled to start establishing a cycling routine.  One thing I have learned about myself is that I find making decisions, even simple ones, difficult. If I am to maintain a riding schedule, I have to have a "go-to" ride that I can do without thinking about it, and shortly after moving to California, I found such a ride. Although it was about the flattest of the pretty rides I could find (I really don't want to ride the Freeway access roads), it is still pretty hilly, with 1300 feet of climbing over its 23 miles. It usually takes me between 1:45 and 2 hours to complete and my average speed varies between 11 and 13 mph. Because of the hills, this ride is a mix of light (downhill), moderate (flat), and vigorous (uphill) exercise, as defined by the medical community. Compare that with my MAF test ride, my go-to ride at the end of my stay in Houston. That ride was completely flat. 45 minutes were spent on the Rice Track, riding with a heart rate monitor so I could remain strictly within the bounds of moderate exercise. Another 45 minutes were spent riding to and from the Rice Track, which was done slowly, qualifying as the light exercise disdained by the medical community. My speed on the Track averaged between 14 and 16 mph, but I claim that the slower speed of my current ride is due to the hills, and in fact, that my current ride is significantly more strenuous even with its lower average speed. For the first four weeks after restarting, I repeated that go-to ride three to four times a week, meeting or exceeding the medical community's optimal recommendation for aerobic exercise. For the next five weeks, my older son Michael was able to join me on my rides, and as a result, my riding became more varied, more challenging, and more fun. At that point, life intervened and my cycling collided with one thing after another. First, there was holiday travel. Next, there were out of town guests. And just when I thought I could settle back into my routine, my granddaughter Julia ended up in the hospital with an Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) infection. Although this experience was scary and disruptive, she was never in any great danger, and at the end of the week, was home again. But of course Michael, her mother Robynn, and I had all been thoroughly exposed, and developed RSV infections ourselves. I will discuss the impact of that infection more below, but briefly, my cycling was disrupted for 10 weeks. In the 17 weeks since then, I have done a pretty good job maintaining a schedule, with the exception of 1 week where I was babysitting Julia full time because she had an illness which kept her out of daycare. Overall, on a week by week basis, I have met the medical community's optimal exercise recommendations about 50% of the time, the minimal recommendation about 75% of the time, and have managed to get in at least some riding about 90% of the time.

What is the efficacy of my go-to ride for managing depression? Despite the fact that exercise is commonly prescribed for depression, as far as I know, there is no data indicating how much and what kind of exercise, so probably the exercise recommendations for general health should be used. The recommendations for general health are at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week, ideally twice that. After lots of reading and soul searching, I have decided that my go-to ride, despite its uphills and downhills, qualifies as moderate exercise as defined by the medical community. By doing three of my go-to rides a week, I meet not just the minimum recommendation of the medical community, but the ideal recommendation, and I am currently managing four of these rides a week. More subjectively, I know my mood is better when I ride, and it seems that riding more provides more benefit. When I started riding after the RSV infection, I spent three weeks doing easy rides around my neighborhood, just meeting the minimal medical recommendation. I then ramped up to the optimal recommendation, and it was only then that my family started commenting on how much my mood had improved.


I have briefly mentioned my RSV infection in two previous posts (in March and again in June) but I wanted to summarize the whole course of this illness, and in particular, talk about some lessons I learned along the way. Michael, Robynn, and I first developed symptoms about a week after exposure (the week of 1/29/2018) and at first the symptoms were flu-like and severe. For those few days I wisely and appropriately stayed off the bike but as the illness retreated into more cold-like symptoms, I decided I was mostly over it and started riding again. Even though I started slowly, 30 minute rides around my neighborhood, it quickly became apparent that this had been a mistake; every time I rode, my infection got worse, so I stopped riding entirely for two full weeks. I slowly and carefully restarted cycling, starting once again with short rides around the neighborhood, and at first it seemed to be going fine, but as I began ramping back up to a normal schedule, my infection went from "upper respiratory" to "lower respiratory"; it turned into pneumonia. Typical pneumonia, caused by a handful of specific microorganisms, is a serious illness which often required hospitalization. What I had was atypical pneumonia, of which RSV is a well known cause. It is much less serious disease which usually does not require a hospital visit. Even so, I found that exercise, normally a health benefit, was, in the face of this pneumonia, quite the opposite.

Once I realized I had pneumonia, I stayed completely off the bike for almost four weeks until all pneumonia-like symptoms had gone, and that worked. I spend three weeks doing easy, neighborhood rides, and then ramped up pretty quickly so I could participate in "The Art of Survival", a group ride with one of my high school cycling buddies, and now have returned to my "normal" schedule of three or four of my 23 mile go-to rides a week.

This is as sick as I have been for as long as I can remember. I have known for a long time that fighting an infection and exercise compete for the body's resources, but this particular episode brought that lesson home in a much more powerful way than ever before. As I first began working on this post, I had grandiose ideas about how to explain the theoretical basis for this competition, but the more I pursued that idea, the more I realized how little I knew, and for that matter, how little the medical, scientific, and exercise communities know. Thus, I am going to take a more practical approach, describing my experiences and the immediate conclusions I draw from them, with little attempt at any kind of theoretical explanation. I have a bad habit, on this blog, of over-interpreting one or two personal experiences, and I am probably doing that again. On the other hand, I sure don't want to go through this again, and so I will try to learn what I can from my experiences, and here are my conclusions to date:

Listening to my body is important, but sometimes my body is wrong. In this case, I am guessing my body underestimated the infection I was fighting. Had it correctly understood its severity, I would have experienced symptoms which would have strongly discouraged me from exercising. However, when I went for bike rides before I was fully recovered from my infection, the cycling felt great, and I felt like it was doing me a lot of good. It was only days later that I noticed my infection getting worse. Based on this experience, the next time I have an infection, I will stop exercising altogether until I am truly symptom free, even if I feel like a ride. Even then, I think I should restart cycling slowly. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, to make sure that I am really over the infection and to minimize the damage caused by exercise should I be mistaken. Secondly, even if I am over the infection, this slow start probably is a more effective way to regain fitness and good health than to try to return too quickly to my optimal routine. An experience I have had repeatedly, over many years, is that a very modest amount of exercise provides a disproportionate share of benefits.

Stress and Fatigue

I am following the medical community's guidelines for the amount of aerobic exercise I should be getting by cycling at least 300 minutes a week. As I hope to discuss in a future post, these guidelines rest on pretty shaky evidence and are somewhat controversial even within the medical community. In addition, the primary reason I am being so diligent about exercise is for mental health, something not covered by the standard medical recommendations. I have commented that my mood seems to improve more with higher levels of exercise, why limit myself to 300 minutes a week?

In the first place, I am not limiting my cycling to the medically recommended 300 minutes. I can obtain that 300 minutes with three of my go-to rides per week, but four weeks ago, I increased my riding from three to four rides a week. I did that for reasons that, in retrospect, seem suspect. Admit it, seven is an awkward number of days to have in a week. If I ride three days a week, most rides are every other day, but once a week, there is two days between rides. (It turns out it is very helpful for maintaining my routine to ride on the same days of the week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday for example, so simply riding every other day doesn't work for me.) When I was riding three days a week, I felt like the first ride after two days off the bike was harder than the other rides, and so decided to try eliminating that gap. That meant, instead of having two days between some rides, I now do two rides back to back, with no rest day in between, and I am definitely more tired on that second day in a row. Looking back, I am less sure that two days off the bike was as harmful as it seemed at the time, it may not have been harmful at all, but I seem to be handling four days a week OK, so am sticking with it for now. That said, there are limits to how much I can ride. As noted at the beginning of this post, I have a life to lead that is not just about cycling, and cycling makes me tired. At present, I am riding in the morning to take advantage of cooler temperatures, and despite getting home fairly early in the day, I find that I am unable to get much work done, I'm just too tired. Thus, everything I need to do needs to get done in three days of the week I don't ride. Sadly, there seems to be only so much exercise my ~70 year old body can handle.

I have already discussed the devastating effect of illness on my ability to exercise. Another thing that affects my ability to ride is stress. I am an introvert, so one common source of stress for me is human interaction. Don't get me wrong, I love being with people, I am often the last guy to leave a party, but I pay a price; the next few days, I am exhausted. (The difference between an extrovert and an introvert is that extroverts gain energy by interacting with other people, while introverts lose energy.) Other things, like driving, I also find to be stressful. Two recent events really brought the impact of stress on my cycling  home. The first was a delightful trip to my home town of Modesto. My older sister Alice had a school reunion there, I drove her, and while she was at the reunion, I had brunch with two of my high school cycling buddies, Paul and Eldon. Afterwards,  Alice and I visited the grave of our younger sister, Deana. I then drove Alice home, had dinner with her and her family, and then drove a final two hours back to my home in San Carlos. Before I had time to recover from that trip, I participated in a once in a lifetime opportunity, a cemetery consecration, again involving driving and human interaction. Although I did not miss any rides due to these events, I definitely felt their effect; my legs ached and my speed was reduced for my next several rides. Although nowhere near as harmful as illness, stressful events make me tired without providing any training benefits, so definitely take their toll.


Isn't it boring to ride exactly the same ride four times a week, week in, week out? For some folks, it is. My son Michael, after riding with me for just a few weeks, has announced that he will never go on that ride again. I, on the other hand, am pretty resistant to boredom, as evidenced by the years I spent riding 5 or 6 MAF tests every week, week in and week out, each one consisting of 40 or 50 laps around the Rice track. Also, this boring schedule is my fallback, not my plan. In my first post after arriving in California, I announced my plan to attend Eroica California that year. That plan was disrupted by my bout of pneumonia, but a plan it was. When I ride with my son, he often takes me on beautiful new routes, and those rides, though not organized, are most definitely fun. Although I was not able to participate in Eroica, I made up for it by riding The Art of Survival with my friend Roger a few months ago. During my visit with him, he mentioned that his goal was to ride a metric century (a ride 100 kilometers or 62 miles long) every month. Given that he is a much stronger rider than I am, and given how much trouble I had riding a 200K brevet (a ride twice that long) this seemed to me to be an excellent aspiration, one more in line with my capabilities than some of the harder goals I have set for myself in the past. There are many ~60 mile rides available, supported group rides like The Art of Survival, populaires with a randonneuring club, and casual rides, like a ride to the coast and back my son has been wanting to do. If I could figure out a way to complete a ~60 mile ride of one kind or another every month, this would add to my fun both by giving me a goal and by providing variety. I have thoughts about how I could change the regular cycling routine I do for my health to support such an ambition and look forward to discussing that in a future post. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Blue Jersey Revisited

Peter Sagan, winning Stage 13 of the 2018 Tour de France. He is wearing the Green Jersey, given to the winner of the most "sprint" points.
A few years ago, I wrote a semi-satirical post proposing the creation of a new definition of the winner of the Tour de France, called the Blue Jersey (as opposed to the current winner, called the Yellow Jersey). To this day, this remains one of my favorite posts, both because of its humor as well as because of its underlying serious intent. For many of the intervening years, circumstances have kept me from watching The Tour, but this year I made an effort to restart. Doing so made me rethink my Blue Jersey post. Don't get me wrong, I still think the Blue Jersey is a great idea, but being realistic, it is unlikely to happen in my lifetime, so in this post I am focusing on how I can change my attitude towards The Tour so to maximize my enjoyment.

Anyone at all sophisticated in the ways of The Tour is probably rolling their eyes at my naïveté by now; clearly my understanding of the tour is so limited! That's OK, this blog has never been for the sophisticated, but rather for the naive like me; I hope that my simple discoveries will help us better understand the cycling world we love, even if we don't understand it all that well. So for those readers, here are my thoughts:

To be honest, a big part of what motivated my Blue Jersey post was my frustration that one of my favorite riders, Peter Sagan, had no chance of winning the Tour, despite being one of its best riders. (This is because there are many separate skills a bicycle racer can have, sprinting, climbing, bike handling, time trialling, and a particular subset of these are needed to win the Yellow Jersey. As brilliant as Sagan is as a bicycle racer, his collection of skills are not a good match for the Yellow Jersey competition.) The goal of my proposed Blue Jersey was to make it possible for a wider range of riders, not just the climbers, to win. When I tuned in for the 2018 edition of the Tour de France, Peter Sagan had become perhaps the most famous rider in the tour. Had he become a climber and learned how to "win"? No, he was still the same general purpose rider and sprinter as he had always been, but he was leader of his team, and among the highest paid riders. Rather than compete for the Yellow Jersey, he was competing for the Green Jersey (which he won). Did that mean that Sagan had elevated the Green Jersey to be a worthy competitor to the Yellow Jersey? At first, I thought he had, and had an idea for what I thought was going to be an easy post; how, by looking at the other prizes offered at the tour, I could get many of the benefits of my Blue Jersey idea without having to take control of the Tour de France. In contrast to my expectations, this post turned out to be one of the most difficult ones I have written. I have deleted everything and rewritten it from scratch several times. This is only slightly due to the fact that I was watching the Tour as I wrote it, that events on the road changed my opinion as I wrote. Rather, I had the fascinating if unnerving experience of, time and time again, sitting down to write with what I thought was a clear idea in my head, and then reading what I wrote, only to find it did not match the idea in my head at all. Did I finally get it right, in this, the final version? I don't think so, I think I simply became more realistic.

Just a little bit of background: The Tour de France is essentially 21 separate bike races. The winner of the overall race is the rider whose total time for all 21 races, added together, is the lowest, and that rider is given a Yellow Jersey to acknowledge that fact. In addition to this overall winner, prizes are awarded to the winner of each of the 21 individual races, as well as a Green Jersey for the rider accumulating the best finishes at sprint lines at the end of each race as well as various intermediate points on some of the stages, a Polka-Dot jersey for a similar contest with points awarded at the top of mountain climbs, and a White Jersey which has the same criteria as the Yellow Jersey except it is given to the best young rider, who must be less than 26 years old. In addition to Jersey prizes, there is a team prize given to the team whose top three riders each day have the lowest total time, and a subjective prize given to the most "combative" rider, the rider who stirs up the action and makes the race exciting.

Four important points:

  1. The various prizes are in conflict one with another; if you try for one award, it usually makes it more difficult to compete for other awards. So, each rider and each team have to decide which awards are of most interest to them, which is determined by some combination of how prestigious the award is and how realistic it is for that team or rider to win that award. 
  2. Bicycle racing is a team sport. In 2018, 22 eight-man teams competed. For a rider to win a prize, it is usually the case that other members of his team have to sacrifice their own ambitions to help him to so. 
  3. If a team has a rider who could realistically win the Yellow Jersey, their team will almost certainly designate him as their leader, and any efforts they make towards any of the other awards will be secondary, making sure they do everything they can so that rider can win. A team without such a rider will consider other goals; winning the Green Jersey, going after stage wins, etc.
  4. The Tour de France was created in 1903 to sell newspapers. It was then and is now a commercial enterprise trading in publicity. To survive, a professional team needs to attract $ponsor$, and sponsors are attracted by the prospect of good publicity for their organization. Thus, anything that gets good publicity for the team's sponsor is a win.

My most important insight about The Tour was that it is more a carnival of bicycle racing than a single race. Sure, the winning of the Yellow Jersey is without a doubt the main event, but there is so much more to watch. If we consider the 21 stage wins, the four Jersey prizes, and the two non-Jersey prizes, that means there are 27 prizes to be won. Of the 22 teams at the Tour, half of them (11) won no prizes. The maximum number of prizes any team won (Quick-Step Floors) is 6, and Team Sky, whose Geraint Thomas was the Yellow Jersey winner of the Tour de France won two other prizes for a total of three prizes. But many of those 11 teams with no prizes to their name were winners too. Often, their riders were active during the race, charging ahead of the other riders in attacks that were to no avail in the end, but they nonetheless inspired the fans and got publicity for their sponsors.

Some other random observations:

  1. What was fun to watch depended on how the race was going and varied over the course of the race. Team Sky is criticized for their boring racing style, and I have to agree with that criticism. It is hard to argue with success, but I got a lot less fun from Team Sky than from many of the other teams. To my great surprise, a similar phenomenon occurred with Peter Sagan. Once it became mathematically impossible for him to loose the Green Jersey competition, I became much less interested in the Green Jersey. (That said, Sagan is a very entertaining rider, Green Jersey or no.)
  2. Team Sky's boring style was nonetheless instructive to watch. Luck plays a huge role in the Tour, but there is a lot one can do to make one's own luck. By having what was clearly the strongest team at the tour, Sky could put in extra effort to keep themselves at the front of the group to avoid crashes, and because they always stayed comfortably ahead, they didn't have to take chances to win (see Point 3).
  3. I actually was appalled by the chances the riders felt they had to take to advance their ambitions. If the risk is to win time or loose the race altogether, I consider that fun, but as is often the case, if the risk is to win time or to become seriously injured, perhaps even die, then I start getting uncomfortable. In a number of the stages, the winning rider was the one who took the most chances racing downhill, around tight corners that might or might not be slippery, going 50 miles per hour with no meaningful protection. Skill cannot protect you if the corner is, without warning, slipperier than you expected. I was shocked at the number of riders who had to abandon the race due to injuries, some of them serious contenders for the Yellow Jersey. One of the popular riders shared my views, and advocated for rules to reduce risk. The commentators dismissed him with the argument, "you can't change that, it's bicycle racing." Perhaps we can.
So that was my Tour. How was yours?

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Art of Survival

When I restarted cycling after my move to California, I set a couple of goals for fun rides. In the first place, I had my eye on some of the shorter rides organized by local randonneuring clubs. In the second place, I hoped to attend the 2018 running of Eroica California, a celebration of classic bikes, the perfect place to show off my 1960 Bianchi Specialissima. A few months ago, I posted that I had learned how hard that ride actually was and cancelled my plans to attend. What made that most disappointing was that I would miss riding with one of my old friends from the Modesto Roadmen, Roger. Roger did attend and sent me glowing reports. I would have been overwhelmed with regret, except that, as things turned out, there was no way I could have gone. In early March, I developed "walking pneumonia." I discovered that any attempts to ride, even on days I was feeling well, inevitably made the pneumonia worse, so took a month off the bike to recover, and Eroica fell right in the middle of that month. At the end of April, Roger suggested another ride we could do together, "The Art of Survival", a relatively easy metric century near where he lives in far northern California. I had just restarted cycling after the pneumonia, I only had a month to prepare, so it was a stretch, but the thought of missing another ride with Roger was too much to bear, so I signed up.

Back in 2012 through 2015, when I was still thinking about 200km brevets, one thought I had was that the very deliberate preparation I had done for my past brevets, the standard recommendation of all the experts, was not the best for me. The long, slow ramp up in distance, 10% a week, resulted in a lot of riding that left me fit but very tired. I noticed that, in contrast to the advice of the experts, many actual randonneurs ramp up much more quickly, often by a factor of two, resulting in a lot less miles of training, which promised less exhaustion. If I was to prepare for the Art of Suffering, my lack of time left me no choice but to try such a plan. My standard ride is 23 miles. Conventional wisdom said I needed to work up to a ride of at least 41 miles to prepare for a 62 mile metric century, though randonneurs might consider a training ride of 31 miles to be adequate. With only three weeks to prepare (leaving a recovery week before the ride), I ended up doing long rides of 28, 34 and 47 miles. Because this came right on top of my post-pneumonia restart, these rides left me very tired. This was such a unique experience, coming off the pneumonia, having so little time, riding with a much stronger rider (see below), that it is hard for me to evaluate how well this new plan worked, but I think I would definitely try it again.

California is a big state. Back in Texas, we used to say "The sun has riz, the sun has set, and here we is, in Texas yet." California is almost as big as Texas, and in fact, due to its shape, is much longer in its longest dimension, so it was a seven hour drive from my home in "Northern" California, to the northeast corner of California where Roger lives. I arrived for dinner on Friday evening and we got up at an obscenely early hour on Saturday morning to drive to the ride. Despite having grown up in California, this part of California has a geography different from anything I had seen. As I was approaching his house, I noticed steam rising from some of the fields, and wondered what that might be. Roger told me it was volcanic, there are hot springs all through the area, and evidence of volcanism was a central feature of the ride.

The Art of Survival was a fairly typical supported group ride. There were multiple routes, varying between 29 and 113 miles, rest stops featuring a delightful selection of snacks (including freshly cooked pancakes at one), and a lunch at the end. The Tule Lake region, where the ride was held, is a big potato growing region, so potatoes were heavily featured at the lunch, and one of the prizes we got was a five pound bag of potatoes. I purchased the ride jersey, which is attractive and of high quality; I am currently using it as my every day riding jersey. In short, this was a great ride and I would recommend it to anyone. Yes, it is very far off the beaten track, but if you have time to explore this delightful and largely unknown part of California, you will not be disappointed.

Tule Lake is both a lake and a town near that lake, the start and finish of the ride was in that town. This is a very rural part of California with low and declining population, and Tule Lake, though one of the larger towns in the region, is a small town. The region around the town is flat, but a few miles from town is the Lava Beds National Monument which is hilly. The 45 mile ride makes a big loop around the town and lake and is relatively flat. The metric century we did is essentially the same ride except that it adds an out and back extension into the hills of the National Monument, turning around at its visitor center.  Essentially all of the 1,400 feet of climbing is in that out and back section. Lava flows and the resulting caves is a central feature of this monument. One of the scenic lookouts overlooked a lava flow a mere 1,000 years old; vegetation has made only the barest beginnings in its return to the area. History is also a big attraction in this region. Native Americans live in this region, and there are many stories of the clash between these tribes and the colonizing Europeans. Tule Lake is also the site of one of the detention camps where Japanese Americans were held during World War II; one of the rest stops was as the site of this camp. Finally, the "Emigrant Trail", the route that wagon trains took in the middle of the 19th century to get to California, goes through the region, and there are lots of historically interesting sites from that time.

At the start, the ride was very cold, in the 40s. I ended up wearing all of my cold weather cycling gear. By the end, it was much warmer so I ended up removing layers at each rest stop. Roger is a much stronger rider than I am, so I realized in the first few minutes I was in trouble. I know that if I start out a long ride too fast, I will blow up. However, if I was to stay with Roger, I had no choice, and blow up I did, at about the halfway point. Roger was very kind, but by the end, in a moment of frustration, accused me of being a "whiner", and I cannot deny that I was whining big time. I was fairly delirious at that point, so my memories are vague, but I do remember giving Roger instructions for the burial of my body.

The ride by itself fully justified the trip, but even so, the best part of the trip was not the ride but rather getting to know Roger and his wife Janet. I had known Roger quite well in High School as he was very active in the Modesto Roadmen. He and I bicycled from Modesto to Atascadero to the 1969 Great Western Bike Rally and I did not see him again until the Modesto Roadmen reunion in 2016, so this was only the second time I had seen Roger in over 45 years. Janet was a student at the same High School as Roger and I, and in the same class as Roger, two years behind me. Janet's brother David was in my class, and is now one of Roger's favorite riding companions. Originally, I wrote that I had gotten to know Roger and Janet "again", but in fact most of becoming who they are happened in the 45 years we went our separate ways, so it was more like getting to know new friends than reconnecting with old ones.

Roger works for the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency, and has developed a deep knowledge of the geography and history of the region. Besides history and bicycling, Roger's other hobbies include being a handyman and a fine carpenter. About 15 years ago, Roger and Janet decided their house needed a little refurbishing. As the project started to stretch out past the few months they initially budgeted, they purchased the house next door and moved in there to free up their house for more extensive work. It was at the house next door where they were living, where I stayed with them; they hope to move back into their magnificently remodeled house "any day now." Roger and Janet hired contractors for some of the work, but did much of it themselves, including the design, which is truly amazing.

The bike Roger road was the classic Alex Singer he purchased back in the 1960s. He also has a Moots titanium mountain bike and a Moulton with 20" wheels that he uses to commute to work. Janet has a Caylor road bike, made by former Modesto Roadman Gunnar Caylor, a Moots mountain bike matching Roger's, and her Schwinn balloon tire bike from her childhood which she uses to ride around town. She has mostly stopped riding, except for these local rides. She came with Roger and me on the Art of Survival, but rather than bike one of the routes, she drove the course in their car, providing sag support. Janet rides the same size bike as I do, and when I saw her Caylor, it took my breath away - it is gorgeous! I told Roger to give me a ring if she ever decides she wants to get rid of it.

In summary, this was a wonderful experience for a sad old widower; a fun ride to add leavening to my regular rides, a chance to get to know old friends, and an opportunity to see a part of my home state that I had previously missed. Next time, it is my turn, and I am actively looking for rides in my area so that Roger and Janet can come and visit me.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Hetchins Comes Home

My Hetchins! (Or what's left of it.) It is being held by its owner of 45 years standing in his magnificently-equipt workshop.

There is a thought experiment in philosophy that imagines a very old and famous ship named The Ship of Theseus. As the result of repairs over the years, The Ship of Theseus has had every single part replaced at one time or another. Is it still the same ship? That is the question I asked myself as I looked at my Hetchins fifty years after I had last seen it. I had sold the bike to Roger of the Modesto Roadmen in 1968. In 1972, Roger sold it to Mike, the man holding it in the picture above. Mike rode it extensively, way more than I would have, so that the Hetchins has already had a long and useful life. Mike is a real tinkerer, so was constantly swapping out parts; the TA cranks were replaced with Campagnolo cranks, the wheels were replaced and so on. And then there was the day that an inattentive driver ran a stop sign and hit Mike while he was riding the Hetchins and bent the frame. A local frame builder1 replaced the rear triangle and bottom bracket. It was perhaps at that time that Mike made other changes to the frame, getting rid of some brazed-on fittings, adding others, to allow the use of cantilever brakes, for example. What's left of my original Hetchins is the three main frame tubes, the fork, and most of the beautiful detail work on the frame, including the gorgeous lugs. But all things must pass, Mike acquired newer, more functional bikes, his cycling habits changed with age and increasing traffic, and soon what little remained of his well loved Hetchins sat in the attic, a source of guilt rather than joy. At the Modesto Roadmen reunion in 2016, Roger told me that Mike would be willing to give me the Hetchins back, if I wanted it. With so much going on in my life at the time, I declined, but the subject came up again a few weeks ago, and this time I accepted Mike's generous offer; I drove up to his home in Santa Rosa, and picked it up.

The Hetchins, Switzerland, 1967. Notice how little seatpost is showing. We rode them big, back in the day.

So what is the big deal about this Hetchins? Hetchins is one of the most prestigious of the steel frame custom bike brands made back in the 1960's. They are so prestigious that there is a market in counterfeit Hetchins. For me personally, my ride through Europe in the summer of 1967 was one of the transformative events of my life, so this particular Hetchins has great meaning to me. And yet, I never loved this bike. When Spense Wolf and I designed it, the plan was an "all purpose" bike that would work for long distance touring, but which would also work as a racing bike when I got home. This sounds like a very silly idea today, but back in 1967, most bikes were general purpose; the same Peugeot PX10 that I used for racing, I used for our week-long bike camping trips in the Sierras. However, I carried a lot more luggage that summer than I ever had before, and Alf Hetchins designed the bike to do that. This resulted in compromises that made it a rather poor racing bike. Also, to be perfectly honest, as prestigious a name as Hetchins is, there are aspects to that bike that probably should be characterized as "mistakes." There was so much going on during the two months I rode this bike in Europe, and the bike was so heavily loaded, I don't think there was any way I could have had an opinion about the bike one way or another, it worked fine. However, when I got back and started racing, I found its performance disappointing. A few weeks after returning, I competed in the 1967 Tour de Graceada on this bike, I attended the 1968 Great Western Bike Rally on this bike, I competed in a race or three on it in early 1968, but by the 1968 Mountain Loop in August, I had sold it to Roger and purchased a Bianchi Specialissima.

Me, racing the Hetchins, 1968

So what am I going to do with it? Good Question! When I decided to take the bike back, my plan was to build it up as a maintainable, rideable, Eroica-legal bike. Although it would be extensively cronenberged2, I would make it look as much like my old Hetchins as I could by using silver rather than black components, for example, and I would stay within the Eroica guidelines. My thought was that would free me up to restore my 1960 Bianchi Specialissima to be a period correct display bike without worrying about keeping it practical, and riding Eroica on the Hetchins which would be equipped with very low gears to help me deal with the heroic aspects of Eroica. That plan survived until the day after I brought the bike home. Mike and I talked extensively when I picked up the bike, and one minor comment he made during that long conversation was that "the Hetchins was kind of big for me." He then went on to say that the frame size is 24 inches, and he normally rode a 21 inch frame. I found that comment alarming as I, too, normally ride a 21 inch frame. I commented somewhat lamely that "yes, we rode them big back in the day" but made a mental note to carefully measure the frame when I got home. For comparison, I measured the bike I ride every day, my Surly Cross Check. To my alarm, the distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the center of the top tube was an inch and a half longer than the same measurement on my Surly. If you look at photos I took of the bike while riding through Europe, you can see how little of the seatpost is showing, consistent with this measurement. That by itself is not a deal killer, it makes standing over the frame harder, but by lowering the seat, the bike should be rideable. The measurement that concerned me more was the distance between the seat and the handlebars. I find my Surly a bit too long in that dimension, so I was hoping the Hetchins was proportioned differently to make that distance no longer. Sadly, that was not the case; the distance between the center of the seat tube and the center of the head tube measured along the top tube is a full 3 inches longer on the Hetchins than on the Surly! If the Surly feels too long, how did I ever ride the Hetchins?
Hetchins Head Badge

Honestly, I have not decided what to do. Should I just hang it on the wall, a bit of memorabilia? Should I build it up for a member of my family who is larger than I? Should I sell it to a Hetchins lover? Would a Hetchins lover even want it, with its frame modifications, and would that be fair to Mike, who gave me the frame gratis? Is there any chance I could ride it after all? Three inches front to back is a lot, but maybe that can be corrected with the right handlebar stem. My original plan would have been very expensive, paying to have the frame professionally repainted (replacing the head badge which Mike gave me and the Hetchins decals) and outfitting it with high end components, and to do that without confirming the resulting bike would be rideable would be insanity, but perhaps a trial build makes sense. 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? So far, my time in California has been massively overbooked, and it doesn't look like that will change any time soon, especially with a second grandchild on the way, but maybe that won't last forever. For now, I think I should store this frame carefully and wait for things to play out. Mike will be disappointed, he was looking forward to seeing pictures of my build. Que Sera.

1) Kimo Tanaka, who is still building frames in Davis, California, under the name Innerlight Cycles.

2) I coined the term "cronenberged" to describe a bike modified to be very different from its original design. A Cronenberg is a highly modified human in the cartoon series "Rick and Morty", named after the director of a genre of horror movies that focus on human deformity, David Cronenberg.

Human Cronenberg
David Cronenberg