In my mind I am slugging away at the long climb west of Brattleboro on the way up to Marlboro and beyond to Hogback Mountain. The road is packed dirt, graded in spring, in mud season, and left to the elements for the rest of the year. It bisects thick pine forest flanked by pre-historic fern. Always wet, rain collects in the channels just off the shoulder, run off from the woods above trickling in rivulets constantly. The air is cool.
Forget fast. The angle of ascent and the inconsistency of the surface force you into a slow rhythm. The road ripples and ribbons, fords ad hoc streams, pitches up steeply and then meanders.
This is where I want to be.
Mostly I roll around under the basic premise that other locales, both foreign and domestic, serve up larger slices of idyllic beauty, of cyclo-specific wonder, than where I live, and yet year after year I find more and more to like about my native roads (and trails).
Padraig said of New England, “There’s a piece of my heart I was unable to pack and bring with me when I moved west.” We had been talking about the particular beauty of this place where I live, and though it was just one line in an email chain that stretches back deep into our friendship, it stuck with me, such a nice way to think about a place.
This week’s Group Ride is about where you ride. Is it great? Why? Give us your best prose. Show, don’t tell. And if it’s not great, tell us about a great place you HAVE ridden. We want details, not place names. We want description. We want to go there with you.
Images: Matt O’Keefe
Oh, man. When I brought up helmets last week, I had this sneaking suspicion it was a better conversation starter than the Giro d’Italia, though in years past I know we would have turned the Giro over and over like a favorite record. 50 comments later, I think we covered helmets pretty well.
In midweek, Padraig reviewed a new pair of gloves, and that got me thinking that gloves have that same sort of personal character that helmets do.
Truth be told, I prefer to ride without gloves, but years of doing so, while spending my days with my paws on a keyboard, have left the nerves that run from my arms into my mitts with less than optimal connectivity. Some days it doesn’t take very long for a familiar buzzing to creep from my palms up into my fingers.
So, I tend to keep a couple or three pairs of gel-palmed gloves in my steady rotation. The right glove can cradle my frayed nerves and dissipate enough vibration to keep me sensate all day long, over road and gravel, up singletrack and down powerline cut. The Giro Monaco long-fingered glove is a particular favorite, with just the right amount of pad.
Padding, breathability, seam-angle and height, materials, they all go into making a great glove, and of course durability is an issue, because we use our hands for everything.
This week’s Group Ride is about gloves. What do you wear and why? As it’s mostly warm most everywhere right now, let’s keep this to warmer weather gloves. The winter variety can be an entirely different beast with a whole other set of challenges.
If you had asked me, one year ago, which topic would garner more interest from RKP’s readers, the Giro d’Italia or the new Rapha Sky Kit, I’d have laid my lira on the Giro. Rapha’s general nattiness notwithstanding, it would have been hard for me to foresee the conversation-inspiring value of a single kit, especially as compared to a Grand Tour, a GRAND TOUR people!
But this is a different time. As Padraig noted the other day, pro cycling might be stuck in a sort of purgatory after the hell of the EPO-era. Many fans, myself included, feel far less passionately about the races than we once did. These are days when dedicated cyclists are retreating a bit into the deep pleasure of their own riding, including a renewed interest in the ephemera of the cycling life, the bikes, the stuff.
So, folks who want to talk about the Giro can step back to last week’s Group Ride. Please do. This week we’re going to talk about helmets.
I am in the market for a new noggin hugger myself, and I seem to be surrounded by riders in the same market. Helmets are a funny old thing to buy really. Very few people would say their helmet is fun. And of course, the helmet is one of the few cycling products you hope never to learn how well it works. That leaves fit, form and style as the chief criteria by which to evaluate.
Then we get into shape and ventilation, the form of the helmet, whether or not your sunglasses slot neatly into the holes in the front or tuck neatly into the back. This too is subjective and random. You have awful taste in sunglasses probably.
Finally there is style. There is no accounting for style. Have we discussed your sunglasses?
Here’s what I will tell you about my recent history with helmets. I wear a Giro Prolight. It’s light, like its name implies. It fits me well. I like it. There is a high likelihood, because I tend to be brand loyal, that I will get another Giro, probably the Aeon, but I am also somewhat suggestible.
This week’s Group Ride asks: What are you wearing? Do you like it? Why? What would you consider switching to? There are so many choices now, from the conventional to the esoteric. Has any of them saved your life? Let’s not get into the larger helmet debate. Let’s assume, for the sake of the discussion, that we need to wear helmets, and we just need to pick one. Thanks.
I laughed out loud, and it was one of those moments when I was alone, walking back from dropping the kids at school, and I hoped that none of my neighbors had seen me, walking along by myself, laughing like an idiot. I had been thinking about my “season,” i.e. that time of the year where I ride without the sorts of interruptions that keep me off the bike for weeks at a time, things like two feet of snow dropping in a single evening and shrinking all the road ways to high-speed hallways for impatient motorists.
When, I wondered to myself, would my season start?
And really, even thinking of what I do as having a season made me laugh out loud. I mean, who am I? I don’t race, so I don’t train except in that masochistic way that yields some level of spirit-illuminating suffering. I ride hill repeats occasionally, but only the way a penitent wears a hair shirt, to know better what a clean soul feels like.
It was just two weeks ago, as I was riding home in falling snow, that I even realized what’s good about the off-season, that yearly hiatus that comes unbidden in either December or January or February, or whenever the capriciousness of nature turns the endeavor of riding into a survival exercise. I was cursing the snow and thinking of Padraig wheeling along in the Southern California sun and thinking some not-altogether charitable thoughts, when suddenly I realized that being forced off the bike periodically is a good thing.
It keeps me from exacerbating repetitive use injuries to my knees. It allows my body to recover in myriad ways, some of which I’m sure I don’t even realize, and it forces me to pursue other activities that I enjoy but often eschew in favor of riding.
Despite our recent meteorological travails, some friends are riding 40 miles tomorrow in honor of someone’s 40th birthday. Given my current condition, and the current conditions, 40 miles would be a good ride, but family duties have me standing in a hockey instead, watching my boys excel at a sport I don’t even really understand.
I was thinking about missing that ride when I started laughing to myself like an idiot. “When,” I thought, “does my season get to start? And what even does it look like?”
This week’s Group Ride asks when YOUR season starts. Do you even think of your riding as having seasons? And what do those season’s consist of? Club rides? Races? Grand fondos? Or just a long series of solo rides, away from family and responsibilities and the cold, darkness of hockey rinks?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
I need a favor. As I type, the leading edge of a winter storm that local meteorologists are calling “significant,” “historic,” “potentially dangerous,” “severe,” and the subtle but chastening “non-trivial,” is showering us with small, angry flakes. Predictions for final accumulations are being made in feet, rather than inches.
So I’m off the bike today.
Instead of converting glycogen to watts, I’ll be converting wood to smoke. Any exercise I get today and probably tomorrow will best be measured in shovel/inches, a unit that captures the density and weight of the snow rather poorly, but does give some representation of gross work done. The small, plug-in snow blower I went halfsies on with my neighbor a few months back must surely be cowering back in the corner of his garage, worrying about its worthiness to do battle with a blizzard.
But enough about me, and on to you.
You are riding today. It may be winter, but you are a hearty soul. Or, you live in a place where this storm is only an obscure news story. Perhaps it’s even summer where you are. Hello, Southern Hemisphere! You’re in the thick of it. You’re living the dream.
Today’s Group Ride just wants to hear about your ride. Is it warm? Is it dry? How far are you going? Who are you riding with? Are you fit? Are you psyched? Or are you just spinning out the minutes on the trainer, cursing the winter weather warnings and trying to build some base? Give me something to think about while I shovel and curse and then dry my feet by the fire.
This week we have learned that Brad Wiggins won’t lead Team Sky at the 2013 Tour de France, that he’ll focus his energy on a Giro course more suited to his skills. Instead, Team Sky will give Chris Froome the leash his talents scream for, empowering him to power up the Grand Boucle’s litany of climbs.
Last year, this intra-squad conflict looked a bit different. Froome was so strong he had to be made to wait for Wiggins on one occasion, lest he strip the jersey from his captain’s shoulders. There was a real feeling he might have won the race himself, instead of finishing second. That he only managed fourth place at the Vuelta was surprising, but it’s hard to say how the miles pile up closer to the end of a season, and Sky didn’t give him anything like their best grand tour team for that race.
Now we get to see what the Kenyan/South African/Brit can do with all the prettiest horses harnessed to his ambitions at the Tour. Given the return of Alberto Contador, there are no foregone conclusions, as would be the case even if Wiggins were returning to defend his title.
Team Sky got off to a slow start in the pro peloton in 2010, Juan Antonio Flecha’s win at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad highlighting their 22 wins, but they have risen to the top in the intervening seasons, and, especially now that Mark Cavendish has moved on to a team (OPQS) more inclined to stage wins than overalls, must be seen as the pre-eminent grand tour squad in the world.
This weeks’ Group Ride asks: Can they do the double? Can Wiggins win the Giro while Froome sweeps the Tour? Is the blueprint that worked last summer, the one that saw Sky sitting on the front of the peloton day after day to grind down the pure climbers with a brazen outpouring of watts, still a winning strategy? Or is six weeks of high intensity racing too much for a team, even of Sky’s clever construction? Bonus question, now wearing Rapha, will there be any team more handsomely turned out? If so, who?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
When I was in my ascendancy as a cyclist, at a certain point, I began chasing numbers. We all did. There was higher speed—both average and max—because chasing velocity is inarguably the pursuit of fun itself. Then came longer rides. There was my first 20-mile ride, 50-mile ride, and of course, my first century—it wasn’t hard to figure out that a longer ride was just more of a good thing. Then, of course, came racing. There was the first race I entered, the first race I finished, then I chased my first placing, the first podium and then, finally, that first win. What came next? Points. I chased upgrade points and then the categories themselves. Along the way I picked up a heart rate monitor and for a while I was focused on seeing ever-climbing max heart rates. And once I learned what it was, each season I pushed my lactate threshold a few beats higher.
The appeal of chasing numbers is obvious enough. I was chasing a better me. When I decided to get serious about my cycling it was because I was nagged by a single, simple question: Of what was I capable? The promise that we may be a diamond in the rough can drive us to train with abandon for years, even decades. Within those numbers I pushed through boundaries as much of mind as body. I was learning that my limits are far less, well, limiting than I once figured.
Cycling, more than any other endeavor, taught me that the person I thought I knew, the identity that I carry day-to-day was as temporal as a rain cloud. For years, every time I thought I’d reached my limit, mere weeks later I’d experience some sort of performance breakthrough that would cause me to reevaluate my core beliefs. And the issue wasn’t that I was only as good as my last strong ride; no, even now I learn new lessons. I’ve seen recently that I can sustain more pain than I thought, I can exercise better judgment than I thought I possessed, that my skills are sharper than I suspected.
There comes a point for many cyclists where the numbers don’t add up. That is, they cease to contribute something meaningful. To use MBA-speak, they don’t add value. Off goes the heart rate monitor and computer. Out goes the training diary. I’ve encountered plenty of riders for whom the reasons why the numbers became an aggravation seemed a mystery. Trust me, it’s not. The ego of a cyclist is as fragile as a Christmas ornament. As soon as the numbers bear bad news, rather than good, the easiest solution is to stick the messenger in a drawer.
I’ve watched friends chase race fitness well past their 50th birthday, and while I think racing can be terrific fun and don’t see anything wrong with a bunch of 50-year-old guys racing a crit, I do fundamentally think of racing as a young buck’s game. At one point recently I contemplated a return to racing—just for fun—but once the accusations that some of the riders on some of the local masters team (sponsored by a biotech company) were doping, my stomach for pinning a number on evaporated. I’m sorry if this offends anyone, but if you’re old enough to be a grandparent and you’re doping to win a master’s race, you’ve lost the plot line. I also suspect that anyone doing that isn’t reading my work, so I should be in the clear with that last statement.
One of my goals for my life is to find a way to thread a middle ground between aging and chasing youth, between sedentary decline and doped-up racing, between passive retirement and head-strong ego. I call that space grace. I’d like to ride my bike as far into old age as possible. In my case, based on family history, that could be well into my 80s. My maternal grandfather rode his coaster-brake cruiser four miles every morning well into his 80s. On the days he felt good, he’d ride his circuit again in the afternoon. This is a man who smoked cigars into his 70s. Now, that said, I’m aware that at a certain point I need to think of my lactate threshold as a place not unlike the loud concerts of my youth. I might get back there once in a while, but it won’t be a weekly event. Not only isn’t it smart, I doubt I’d have the stomach for doing it every day.
Without geeking out too much, one of the concepts that has influenced my thinking lately is the projected lifespan of the average heart. The American Heart Association says that average human heart will beat in the neighborhood of two billion times. Some projections by Dr. Robert Jarvic, the inventor of the artificial heart, hold that it’s even higher, somewhere between 2.3 and 2.9 billion. Riding may drive up my heart rate, but the physiologic adaptation that has occurred as a result has lowered my resting heart rate. Bottom line: the numbers suggest that for cyclists, all that riding is buying us time.
Which brings me to my current relationship to numbers. I still wear a heart-rate monitor. Every ride. And, as many of you know (because you follow me), I use Strava. But I don’t use either of these training tools in the typical way. I don’t use the heart-rate monitor to go hard. I know how to go hard and no number will make me go harder. Going hard was never the issue for me. Going hard too often has often been an issue in the past. Overtraining was one of the reasons I stopped racing. Being overtrained robbed me of the ability to go fast and in so doing, sucked the fun out of racing for me. So these days the heart rate monitor helps me know when I’m going easy, easy enough.
These days, I think of tools like the heart rate monitor and Strava as means to keep me from overtraining. I’m not that disciplined in my training for the most part. I ride. I like doing group rides. There’s usually been a point every spring where I try to log some bigger miles to give me a good foundation for later in the season, but the reality is that I have traditionally logged my biggest miles in the summer. For me, that’s not hard to process: My greatest goal as a cyclist isn’t becoming a better cyclist, it’s to have fun. So in an effort to minimize the number of mistakes my exuberance inclines me toward, in addition to making sure I do easy rides, I also make sure to back off for one week out of each month. I cut both miles and intensity, arguably one of the more lasting lessons from Joe Friel’s book “The Cyclist’s Training Bible.”
As Robot noted in a recent FGR, I was on schedule to hit 8000 miles by the end of 2012, a figure I did hit just before New Year’s Eve. By any standard, it’s a lot of miles, though it wasn’t a goal until early December, when I realized that simply continuing to ride with the frequency that was normal for me would bring me to that total.
I had to ask myself why I even cared and then one night as I clicked around Map My Ride (where I have multiple years of data recorded) the answer popped out. It’s been more than four years since I had a season with that many miles. It’s by no means what I used to record when I was racing, and that’s okay. So why even think about how many miles I’m riding? It’s a tool, just another Allen wrench in the toolbox, one that helps me think about what I want my life to be. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life riding 15 mph, but that I can put in 8000 miles in a year reminds me that I can still develop some real fitness, that my future as a rider doesn’t have to be without a goal or two to chase. Setting goals is how we redefine our limits and while I may not ever climb in the big ring again, my future may hold a few surprises yet.
And that’s enough to keep the training exciting.
A friend of mine was telling a story about a guy he’s known for years, a guy who, whenever he calls, reminds this friend of all the stupid shit he’s done over the years. The guy is basically a nice guy, but he’s tactless, and my friend dreads his phone calls. It reminded me that adulthood is sometimes dotted with persistent characters you don’t really like, people you hesitate to call friends but for the fact they’re always around.
Bikes are like that, too.
I seem always to have at least one bike that I don’t love. There is nothing wrong with the bike, per se, but for some reason we don’t get along, for reasons of fit or configuration or style. And yet, the bike hangs around because at root it is a useful object, and it retains some sort of potential to be better than it is, like a friend who is painful to be around despite being, deep down, a good person.
In my case, there is a certain steel frame, bought for its basic-ness and versatility, that hangs in my garage and occasionally gets reconfigured to a new task, another attempt at finding its inherent symbiosis with my vague ideas about what I want it to do. I think I keep setting this bike up for failure, and I know, in my heart, I should just sell it to someone for whom it can be great.
Of course, the fear is that by eliminating this perfectly good, but not-good-for-me bike from my collection, I will simply transfer its status onto another poor and unsuspecting frame. Every ship has a Jonah that must be cast overboard for the sake of the others. Every journey is shadowed by an albatross.
This week’s Group Ride asks: What is your albatross? What do you have in your cycling life that just isn’t working for you? Is it a bike? A jacket? A pair of gloves? Maybe it’s a whole style of riding, like mountain, for example. You look at the thing and don’t see quite why it doesn’t work for you, but it just doesn’t. What is it?
Image: Gustav Doré’s engraving of The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, c 1850
There is snow on the ground here now, the remnants of last week’s storm. It’s been frigidly cold, and so the sun melt that comes during the day has really only shrunken and compacted what fell. The edges of the road are smeared with ice where the melt has run off the curb and refrozen overnight. It’s rideable, but narrowed and a little unpredictable.
And so the commute gets a little nervous, the six inches or foot we’ve lost to the ice making the whole parade of us, cars and bikes, a mite tighter than any of us would choose. Twice on the way in just this morning, I was nearly squeezed out coming into lights.
I think a lot about how we share the road now. Having been hit a couple times, just riding along minding my own business, following the rules, I am far more careful in traffic than I was ten years ago. This has made the whole city riding experience better and less fraught. The more I follow the rules and ease up on the speed, the more friendly waves and space I seem to get.
I have changed, and certainly the driving zeitgeist has changed as well. With the wholesale adoption of mobile phones came a dark period, every other driver seemingly barreling along with their head down, but that has possibly eased up a bit, the spate of accidents and deaths that resulted perhaps curbing the worst behavior most of the time. It’s hard to tell with all the variables changing almost all the time.
There was a time when I believed that a war of sorts would develop between riders and drivers, so hectic and angry were my commutes, but in retrospect, I think that was more about me and my attitude than the world at large. I felt entitled to my piece of the road, and I made a lot of noise when I didn’t get what I thought was mine. I was younger, and thought I knew things.
Today, I ride pretty easy, though conflicts occasionally arise. I have bad days with my own attitude, and my analogs behind their wheels have their own trying times. We are all just trying to get somewhere, and sometimes we step on each others toes (faces).
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: How is it where you are? Do cars and drivers get along? Is it getting better or worse? How are you changing? And what future do you see for riding your bike on the road?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
I don’t get hung up on mileage anymore. I had a watershed moment about 15 years ago, when I was struggling to maintain 14mph into a head wind. I know I was going 14mph, because I was staring at the small digital display clipped to my stem, and I became angry that I was riding the computer rather than the bike, and I pulled it off its mount and stuck it in my pocket and I have not ridden with a visible computer since.
I do occasionally wonder how far I’ve gone on a given ride, and I’m sure some of my regular riding companions have grown tired of me asking what we’ve done. For a short time, I ran Strava, so I didn’t have to ask, but I got bored with that pretty quickly and returned to blissful ignorance.
But you know, mileage can equal goals, and goals can be motivating, so if you’re obsessed with numbers, I get it. If that’s what gets you on the bike, that’s what you use. I have not yet reached the point of diminishing returns for riding my bike. More is pretty much always better.
My friend Padraig is on the verge of 8,000 miles for the year, which given his life situation is a whole lot of distance. My friend Bryan, who commutes year round in Southern Maine, also puts up a pretty good number. In a small way, I envy them their milestones, but not enough to ruin my rides with data collection. This is what works for me.
So as the year winds down, all I can do is some basic estimation. With organized and disorganized weekend jaunts and commutes all stuck together, I’m going to guess I did somewhere between 2500 and 3000 miles. I could ride more. I could make fewer excuses.
This week’s Group Ride wonders what you did. How many miles or kilometers did you put up? Did you measure them exactly, or did you take a more offhand approach? Will you do more or less next year? Why?