Saturday, June 1, 2019

Art of Survival: Barely Survived



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Hetchins Rides Again


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Fatigue Debt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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.



[1] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Magnum_Force

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.



[1] https://www.roadbikerider.com/register/intensity-training-2016

[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.






Sunday, March 17, 2019

Rerouting the Peninsula Bikeway

The Peninsula Bikeway with my modifications shown in blue.


[This is the second post in a series. See the first post for background on this one.]

My interest in rides through the flatter neighborhoods on the east* side of the peninsula and thus of this series of blog posts were inspired by a demonstration ride of the preliminary Peninsula Bikeway I attended last September. In this post, I describe how I developed alternatives to the route taken by that preliminary bikeway to make it more to my liking. Do these changes simply reflect the idiosyncratic tastes of a timid old man with too much time on his hands, or do they say something of general interest about the future of the Peninsula Bikeway? What is the purpose of that bikeway anyway? I spent a fair amount of time searching their website for answers that question, and there is a lot to unpack, perhaps even enough for a future post, but for the purposes of this post, I just want to abstract one bit:

"A high-quality bike facility ... [to make] ... possible travel for:
  • work,
  • school,
  • shopping,
  • errands,
  • fun."
I would have added health to that list, but fun will do for the purposes of this post. I am retired, so work is not an issue (nor is school), but it is for my kids, one of whom commutes by bike from Redwood City to Facebook in Menlo Park. Neither the original version of the bikeway nor my modifications will take him all the way there, but in a future post, I will describe how an easy extension will. As for shopping and errands, I shamefully admit I am still doing that by automobile. The why of that would be a whole blog post of its own, and it is something I am trying to fix. But when I think about shopping by bike, once again, the Bikeway will not take me all the way to where I shop, but it does give me ideas for getting there and I hope my suggested modifications adds more ideas to the mix. So we are left with fun. I find my version of the Bikeway more fun than the original, and hope you will agree.

How relevant is the Peninsula Bikeway, does it use the streets cyclists actually prefer? One way to answer that question is to look at the Strava Global Heatmap. To be fair, the Strava dataset is strongly biased towards recreational cyclists, whereas the target demographic for the Peninsula Bikeway is more the transportation cyclist (e.g. bicycle commuter) but with that reservation in mind, what does the Heatmap show? It varies. The roads of the Peninsula Bikeway are never the most popular north-south route in a given area, but over some stretches the the roads of the Peninsula Bikeway are fairly popular, while in others they are barely used at all. In some cases, I agree with Strava Heatmap, in others, I most definitely do not. Another way to look at the question is to ask the cyclists who commute from San Francisco to Google in Mountain View, who have formed a club, SF2G. They go beyond the scope of the Peninsula Bikeway by starting much farther north, but do ride its entire length. What route do they recommend? They recommend seven, three of which are in scope for the Peninsula Bikeway, and none of these overlap with it at all. Next, the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC) recommends a north-south route that runs through Redwood City, Atherton, and Menlo Park. Again, there is no overlap except at the very end where this route terminates onto the Peninsula Bikeway as it enters Palo Alto. Finally, there were the comments from experienced local cyclists on the demonstration ride which I will refer to below. (Briefly, they agreed with some parts of the bikeway and disagreed with others.) One last point: The SVBC route is different from all the SF2G routes, and all of these show up on Strava Global Heat Map but none dominates it. In summary, there are lots of ways to bike north-south on the peninsula and little consensus as to which is best. I have ridden many parts of the SF2G and SVBC routes, and I personally prefer the customized route described here.

One issue I struggled with while writing this post is that the bikeway I am improving is the "interim bikeway." The final bikeway will apparently not consist of quiet neighborhood streets as the interim bikeway does, but rather travel along less attractive routes, such as El Camino Real, Middlefield Road, or the Caltrain right of way. The Peninsula Bikeway website promises that "the design concept will consider how to improve intersections, driveway crossings, and other features" in order to produce a design that is "safe, comfortable and efficient." Depending on how successfully these goals are met, it is possible that I would prefer this new route to the current interim route, but it is also possible I might continue to prefer the interim route. In any case, it is estimated that it will be ten years before the permanent route is ready, so I think my remapping is not in vain.

The Peninsula Bikeway goes completely across the cities of Redwood City, Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and Mountain View in a North-South direction, starting at the northern edge of Redwood City and ending at the southern edge of Mountain View. I will discuss this route city by city.

Redwood City


The Peninsula Bikeway starts in Redwood City where I would have it start and finishes in Redwood City where I would have it finish, but I prefer other streets for almost everything in between. The Peninsula Bikeway jogs back and forth as it goes through Redwood City, ending up on Cleveland Street just before it gets to Jefferson Avenue. Jefferson Avenue is sufficiently busy that I prefer not to cross it without a light, and there is no light at Cleveland Street. The experienced cyclists on the Peninsula demonstration ride threw up their hands in exasperation and asked the ride organizers, "Why not Hudson Street?", so I tried Hudson Street and found it to be much better than the Bikeway route; it even has a bike lane along part of it (which the Peninsula Bikeway route does not), and there is a light at Jefferson and Hudson. My preference becomes even stronger when we reach Highway 84/Woodside Road, which I definitely would not cross without a light. The Bikeway crosses at Hess Road and then jogs east, riding on the very busy Highway 84 for one block before continuing south on Cypress Street. This is barely acceptable heading towards Mountain View, as there is a light at Hess, but unacceptable heading towards Redwood City, as there is no light at Cypress. In contrast, there is a light at Hudson, so again I agree with the experienced cyclists. Shortly thereafter, my route merges back with that of the Bikeway just before it exits Redwood City and enters Atherton.

Atherton


The Peninsula Bikeway does go through Atherton on a previously developed network of bike routes. These bike routes do not feature dedicated bike lanes, merely signs and sharrows. Because none of the streets used continue uninterrupted through Atherton, there is a lot of weaving east to west when one north-south street ends to get to the next. That said, I made no changes in the part of the Peninsula Bikeway that goes through Atherton. It is not so much that I carefully tried other alternatives and decided that the bikeway was the best, it was mostly because, unlike in the case of Redwood City, the experienced cyclists suggested no alternatives, and because I found the route used by the bikeway to be just fine. One alternative I did try is Middlefield Road, mostly because it had been suggested as a possible route for the final bikeway. I found it unpleasantly busy even on the stretch through Atherton that has a bike lane, and I doubt I would ever chose to take Middlefield instead of the bikeway. Another alternative I tried, one perhaps out of scope for the bikeway, is Alameda de las Pulgas. I ride this road regularly when I am out for a workout on my road bike, and when I tested it on my Public city bike, I found that it was not at all too hilly for this bike, though it was a bit hillier than the bikeway. Nine times out of ten, I will chose the bikeway when I am out for an easy ride, but occasionally I will take Alameda for variety.

Menlo Park


The somewhat busy but generally bike friendly street of Valparaiso defines the border between Atherton and Menlo Park, and the bikeway rides that border. The left turn onto Valparaiso can be a little tense, but I have found no better alternative. Once on Valparaiso, the bike lane is excellent, making for a safe and comfortable ride. For no reason I can imagine, the Bikeway does a weird jog just before crossing El Camino, a jog I ignore. Continuing straight seems perfectly comfortable to me, so that is what I do. Other than that, I follow the Bikeway exactly through Menlo Park.

Palo Alto


There is no part of the Palo Alto stretch of the Peninsula Bikeway that I would not be happy to ride, though as I discuss below, I deviate from the posted route to enter Mountain View at a different point than the Bikeway does. The first part of the Peninsula Bikeway goes along the Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard, which goes down Briant Avenue. With the irrelevant exception of a half a block of bike lane at the beginning of downtown, riding Briant Avenue mostly means riding with traffic protected only by signage. Downtown Palo Alto has more the feel of a small town than a city, but there is more that enough traffic even so. At first, I found this street intimidating, but it works better than I had expected. I think part of that is that drivers have become accustomed to heavy bicycle traffic on this road, and simply have learned to deal with it, but another thing that has been done is to prevent cars from using it as a through street by providing barriers to cars which bicycles can pass through, reducing automobile traffic. There are about half a dozen of these over this part of the Bikeway. Bottom line, I really enjoy cycling on Briant Avenue. The Peninsula Bikeway leaves Briant Street and the Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard and takes a right turn on West Meadow Drive and then a left turn on Wilkie Street. The goal of this jog is to get onto California Street once you enter Mountain View, which I find unrideable, as is discussed below. So, rather than take that right turn onto Meadow, I continue on the Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard by continuing straight on Briant Street. Between Meadow and the border with Mountain View, this bike boulevard wanders over a number of residential streets, making it less than trivial to follow. It is fairly well marked, but even so, I often end up missing a turn and having to retrace my path. Shortly after crossing into Mountain View, this becomes the Mayfield-Whisman Bike Boulevard.

Mountain View



I don't like the route the Peninsula Bikeway picked through Mountain View, and a lot of my efforts have been devoted to finding a route through Mountain View that I do like. Most of the Peninsula Bikeway through Mountain View goes along California Street. The one time I tried to follow the Peninsula Bikeway route, I found California so uncomfortable that I turned east onto Shoreline Drive and came home on the Mayfield-Whisman Bike Boulevard (described below.) This is in spite of the fact that California Street has a bike lane. The problem is that it is very busy and is lined with shopping centers so there is a lot of traffic crossing the bike lane, making it feel very unsafe, to the extent that I vowed never to ride it again. I had to find an alternative.

One of the discussions I had with the city staffers during the Peninsula Bikeway demonstration ride was about the differences between the cities involved in developing the bikeway. One example of such was that Mountain View favored Middlefield road as the main north-south bike corridor, whereas Palo Alto favored Briant Street, so I thought it made sense to try Middlefield as an alternative. When I rode it, I did not like it either. It had many of the same problems as California Street, so much so that I was unwilling to follow it to the end. I turned west onto the Stephens Creek Hike and Bike trail and again took the Mayfield Whisman Bike Boulevard home.

If I keep taking the Mayfield Whisman Bike Boulevard home, why not make that my route? In fact, I have. This Bike Boulevard is like the Peninsula Bikeway routes through Atherton and Palo Alto, there are no bike lanes, but traffic is light so I find the route very comfortable. The only problem with Mayfield-Whisman Bike Boulevard as an alternative to the Peninsula Bikeway is that has its southern terminus at the Stephens Creek hike and bike trail some distance from the southern border of Mountain View, the end point of the Peninsula Bikeway, and I felt I had to respond to the challenge of making all the way to that border. To that end, I took the Stephens Creek trail to its western end. At that point, there is only a couple of blocks on comfortable neighborhood streets to the southern border of Mountain View, which I rode. Mission Accomplished.

Summary


My modified version of the Peninsula Bikeway has become a go-to ride for me. If I ride the whole thing out and back, it is over 30 miles, a worthwhile addition to my training schedule, and it is a very pleasant ride. It also provides for a variety of attractive variations, a topic to which I expect to return in future posts.



* The San Francisco Bay Peninsula is at about a 30 degree angle northwest to southeast, but for simplicity's sake, I will refer to the ocean side of the Peninsula as the west side, the bay side as the east side, heading toward San Francisco as going north, and heading towards San Jose as going south.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Exploring the Plains of the Peninsula: Preliminaries

A Portion of the San Francisco Bay Peninsula. San Francisco and the entry to the bay is off the top of the picture. The blue to the left is the Pacific Ocean, that to the right is San Francisco Bay. Terrain View was turned on in Google Maps to show the hilly vs the flat parts of the Peninsula. I start many of my rides at the blue dot near the center of the picture and ride south. If I go through Portola Valley (bottom center of the picture), Woodside, and Emerald Hills, as I do for my "GoTo" ride, I have a strenuous, hilly ride. This post is about some easier, flatter rides I have been doing that go through Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and Mountain View (in the lower right corner of the picture.)

 

Background


A while back, I posted that I had "...started exploring routes through the beautiful neighborhoods on the eastern flats of the Peninsula." This post goes into that exploration in more detail. The inspiration for this exploration was the demonstration ride of the interim Peninsula Bikeway I went on last September. What I learned from that ride was that there were delightful neighborhood streets through the flat parts on the bay side of the Peninsula that are worth riding. That demonstration was actually organized was as two rides, one coming from the southern end of the route, the other (which I rode) from the northern end, with both groups meeting in the middle, in Menlo Park. So one inspiration for exploring this region a bit more was to try out the southern end of the route, which I had not ridden in the demo. Another was to see if I could find better roads than those identified by the city governments when putting together this interim route. I suspected this was an option because some of the experienced riders on the demonstration ride asked pointed questions about route choices, suggesting alternatives they liked better. A third was to explore some destinations beyond those reached by the Peninsula Bikeway. This was originally planned as a series of three posts, which, despite my general policy of posting monthly, I planned to post over three successive weeks. Posts one and two, this one presenting background material and the next one on how I would remap the interim Peninsula Bikeway, are on track, but as I have been developing post three, about extensions to the Bikeway, it is not clear that it is a stand-alone post. Perhaps its contents can best be presented as parts of other posts over the next several months, or perhaps it will appear as originally planned two weeks from now. Stay tuned to find out.

Coordinates


If you look at the picture above, you will note that the part of the San Francisco Bay peninsula where I live angles from northwest (San Mateo) to southeast (Mountain View) with the San Francisco Bay on the right and the Pacific Ocean on the left. Most of the roads on the Peninsula run either parallel or perpendicular to the peninsula. For convenience, I will ignore the angle and refer to heading towards San Mateo as going "north", towards Mountain View as going "south", as heading towards the Bay as going "east" and as heading towards the Ocean as heading "west".

Criteria for a Better Route


What makes for a better route? It depends on the rider and the reason for the ride. A brave young commuter might look for a fast, direct route to work. As a nervous old man riding for fun and exercise, I look for pretty scenery, low traffic, dedicated bike lanes, and anything else that leads to a fun, safe experience. What this post will be about is finding the safest and most pleasant roads that allow me to ride this part of the Peninsula.

So is the idea to string together as many dedicated bike lanes as possible? Actually, no. As it happens, dedicated bike lanes tend to be on busier streets, and that busyness can outweigh the advantage of the bike lane. Also, bike lanes come in many different qualities. I could (and might) do an entire post on what makes bike lanes more or less useful, but very briefly, they can be divided into properties of the lanes themselves, their width, surface quality, and how they handle intersections, and properties of the road of which they are a part. The aforementioned busyness is one such property, but so are speed limits, the number of intersections, and amount of traffic which crosses the bike lane. Bike lanes on roads like the section of Middlefield Road which goes through Mountain View contain many strip malls, with lots of traffic into and out of the mall crossing the bike lane and making it unsafe. Junipero Serra Boulevard is at least as busy and much faster than Middlefield Road (the speed limit is 45 mph) but is almost controlled access. Although it goes by strip malls, there is no access to these malls from Junipero Serra, access to the malls is from a parallel street, so there is much less traffic crossing the bike lane. As a result, I vastly prefer riding the bike lane on Junipero Serra to that on Middlefield, and in fact prefer lightly travelled residential streets with no bike infrastructure at all to the bike lanes of Middlefield.

In the end, although I can explain my preferences for one route over another after the fact, my ability to predict the best route is weak at best. I find that I simply have to try promising-looking routes to discover the ones I prefer.

Bikes


One more important factor in this exploration is my choice of bikes. Mostly, I ride road bikes, my classic 1960 Bianchi Specialissima, my Surly Cross Check, and the road bike I use most often these days, my Bianchi Volpe. The Volpe has the lowest gears of all my bikes due to its 28/38/48 tooth triple chainwheels in front and its 11-32 cogs in the back. When I am tackling some of the steeper climbs in the region, Kings Mountain for example, I really appreciate its bottom 24 inch gear, but when I am riding my GoTo ride, I leave the chain in the middle 38 tooth chainwheel which provides an adequate range of gears for this ride, 32 to 93 inches. When my wife died, I originally tried to find a good home for her commuter bike, a step-through frame Public bike with a 7 speed internal gear hub. I failed to do so before the move to California, so brought it with me, and found that if I raised the seat and scooted it all the way back and raised the handlebars, it actually fit me pretty well. I replaced the seat with which it came with a Brooks Cambium C19, and the result was a bike I am enjoying very much, and it has become my choice for my exploration of the Plains of the Peninsula. The synthetic Cambium is harder than my favorite saddle, the leather Brooks B17 I have on my road bikes, but I have gotten used to it and overall, find this bike extremely comfortable for rides up to 35 miles. (I have yet to try it on longer rides, but my experience so far suggests 35 miles may be no where near its limit.) Even on these flat rides, there are hills. In particular, my home is on a hill so there is an inevitable steep climb for the last few blocks of any ride I do. A concern I had about the Public bike is that, because it had an internal gear hub, it might not have an adequate range of gears. However, when I sat down and figured out what its gears actually were, the low gear on the Public bike is 33 inches, virtually identical to the 32 inches low gear on my Volpe when I am using only the middle chainring. That is not the whole story, the fact that the Public bike has me sitting upright compared to the Volpe's traditional road bike posture means that I have less power climbing on the Public bike even at the same gear ratio, but even so, the Public bike has gears more than adequate for any of the flat rides I want to do. Due to the higher wind resistance of that upright posture, it is a slower bike, about 2 mph slower than my road bikes, but who cares when I am out for fun and exercise?

So what is the attraction of the Public bike? First, the upright posture makes it easier for me to look around and appreciate the neighborhoods through which I am riding. Second, there is no changing into bike clothes, which makes rides less of a production. Also, I find it a bit easier to stay warm in normal clothes. Third, because of the Brooks Cambium seat, fenders, and internal gear hub, rain is just not a problem on this bike. Between the lower traffic roads I have selected, the lack of hills, and the fact that the Public bike is more comfortable, an easy ride on this comfortable bike is great when my motivation is a bit low.

Resources


Why am I doing this exploration on my own? Aren't there guides to tell me what the best routes are? Actually, there are lots of great resources out there, and I use all that I can find, but at the end of the day, I find my preference in roads is different than anyone else's, so that there is no substitute for exploring possible routes on my own. Still, I always start with these resources.
  • Google Maps is almost always the resource I go to first. Besides its basic mapping function which is essential planning a ride, if I turn on the Bicycling option, I get excellent (if not perfect) information as to where the bike lanes are, and Google's recommendations for "Bicycle Friendly Roads", though problematic are not worthless.
  • On principle, I want to love Open Cycle Maps, an open source resource built on Open Street Map. However, I almost never find it useful. The one thing it has that Google Maps lacks is "official" bike routes. For example, the interim Peninsula bikeway is marked on Open Cycle Maps but not on Google Maps. That said, I cannot think when I have ever found this helpful. I keep returning to Open Cycle Maps hoping my love for it will grow, but so far, it hasn't.
  • Also based on Open Street Maps is Google Map Pedometer (its name notwithstanding.) Its primary function is to plan out routes; lay out your route on this resource and you get back the mileage and elevation change. It has one additional critical feature, however, and that is it shows stoplights! When I am trying to plan a route that only crosses busy streets like El Camino at a stop light, by zooming in on any intersection, I can tell if there is a light there.
  • What is it that I want from Open Cycle Maps that it lacks? A crowd-sourced compendium of what roads cyclists prefer. Guess who has that? Strava, in their Global Heatmap! This is absurdly cool, but still, I find it more fun than useful. More often that not, I look at the bright red lines of cyclist-favored roads and think "Are these people crazy? That road is much too dangerous!" There are three things missing that prevent this from being the resource I am looking for. First, it is just a counting of where cyclists have happened to go. Thus, regions with high populations and lots of cyclists will have brighter lines for worse roads than regions with lower populations and fewer cyclists. Second, there is no option for feedback. Maybe there is no great road from San Carlos to Facebook, but folks commuting by bicycle do the best they can, taking their chances on uncomfortable roads. If they had the opportunity to rate these routes, that would provide essential information now missing. Third, all riders are lumped together. As I noted at the beginning of this post, different riders are looking for different things. I can think of a variety of ways of stratifying riders that would be helpful.
  • Finally, there are curated lists of good biking routes. There are many local organizations that map their favorite rides, here are just a few:
    • Given how this whole project started, I have to begin with the Peninsula Bikeway Website.
    • The Stanford Bike Club has an excellent list of local rides. I developed my GoTo ride from information on this list. That said, this resource is better for strenuous rides through the hills than it is for the flatter rides I am looking at here.
    • SF2G stands for San Francisco To Google, and started as a group of bike commuters who worked at Google in Mountain View and lived in San Francisco. (This is a 2-plus hour commute, each way!) They have developed several highly optimized and creative routes for this commute and are an invaluable resource for biking north-south on the Peninsula. Of all the ride lists I have come across, this one is the most directly relevant to this post.

Next Time


With the preliminaries out of the way, I will describe how I have modified the Peninsula Bikeway route to suite my preferences in my next post.