Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Machine Memory

Rawland Rolling: Battle Road Trail
In the corner of the dusty storage room the bike slumped against the wall, front wheel and fender beside it. As I knelt to attach them, I tried to remember where it was that I'd taken the bicycle last time I rode it. Whose car was it? Where did we go? I was drawing a blank. As if searching for clues, I rummaged in the handlebar bag, but it had been cleaned out with an unusual, for me, meticulousness. Empty. Then I stuck my hand in the one pocket where I hadn't yet looked and fished out four neatly folded bills: a ten, a five, and two ones. Was this discovery a surprise, or did I know the cash was there all along, looking for it without realising it? I was about to pocket the money, when a strange feeling of guilt crept over me… as if I was stealing from the bike. I placed it back in the bag and then, mentally rolling my eyes at myself, dragged the bike outside into the morning sunlight. In that dark room, I had allowed myself to feel haunted by its presence. But after all, it is only a bicycle. A machine. 

Rawland Rolling: Walden Pond
In the dry leaf-scented, early Autumn heat I rode and rode through once-familiar roads, up and down once-familiar hills. There were times when the bike seemed to know the way better than I did. I would approach an intersection, uncertain of how to continue, when the bike would, ever so subtly, pull to the right, or the left, and this would always be the correct way. My own route memory lagged slightly behind, synchronising with the bike's only after we'd make the turn. 

Rawland Rolling: Battle Road Trail
On the dirt road, I relaxed on a descent through loose sand. I rolled blithely along the narrow zig-zagging boardwalks that cross the swamps. I had all but forgotten how to do this kind of riding. But my view from the saddle - the view of the dirty handlebars, sun-faded bag, and bit of fat cream tire peaking out - brought it all back. Riding here, the bike clicked into place, and the boardwalk and sand clicked into place, as if they were meant to go together - pieces in a visuo-tactile jigsaw puzzle.   

Rawland Rolling: Walden Pond
When I stopped for food, I reached again for the money. It felt right this time, as if the bicycle was treating me to lunch on this ride. That was what that money was meant for, and only that. But now, crumpled underneath the folded bills, I felt something else jammed at the bottom of the pocket, and pulled it out. It was a half-discinegrated piece of paper with faded text. On closer inspection I saw it was a piece of an old route sheet. And, studying it closer still, I saw it was the route of the 300K brevet I'd abandoned. Strangely, this made me smile. And then, for reasons unknown, instead of throwing it in the waste bin I was standing next to, I crumpled it back up and pressed it into the bottom of the pocket where I'd found it. 

Rawland Rolling: Walden Pond
Bicycles are only things. But what kind of things are they? They are inanimate objects that we, humans, animate and keep synchronised with our own rhythms and motions. Bicycles do not have experiences. But experiences are imprinted upon them through use. With every mile of rough road they roll through and with every drop of corrosive sweat that falls upon them, the machines come to reflect their environments and their owners. They store and activate memories.

I had bought this bike with intent to resell it once it had served its purpose. But when the time came, I ran into a mental and emotional barrier. I stalled and changed my mind half a dozen times. The bike felt too personal, and that made it unsellable. It was only after this ride that I finally felt it was time. It was time to gently, but swiftly, kill it - to give the frame I'd built for myself a chance to live, just as I had planned to in the first place, by moving over the components. And this bike? Stripped of its holistic bikeyness, it will lose its identity - and hopefully find another, replete with new machine memories.

Friday, September 12, 2014

On Pedaling to the Doctor: a Rural Cyclist's Predicament

A couple of years ago I was chatting to a cyclist who lived car free in an out of the way suburb, and I asked what he found challenging about getting around by bike. Interestingly, it was not his daily 20 mile commute to work. This he happily combined with training, cycling in lycra and changing at his office building's gym and shower facilities. Neither was it his 12 mile grocery/ hardware store run. To accomplish that, he hitched a trailer to his roadbike every Saturday morning and stocked up for the week. What he did find tricky, he said, was visiting the doctor. "How do you mean?" I asked. "Oh you know," he chuckled, now slightly embarrassed, "I hate to arrive for a check-up with that not so fresh feeling..."

At the time I had not given his words much consideration. But they came back to me on the day of my first doctor's appointment since having moved to a rural area. Faced with an 11 mile ride to the hospital along exposed country roads in windy conditions, I found myself uneasy about the state I'd be in upon arrival.

While not everyone will admit this openly, the truth is that we tend to "primp" before a doctor's appointment. In fact, a casual survey of my friends revealed that most have elaborate pre-doctor visit rituals that can rival any romantic date prep. At the very least, we want to be clean - ideally, freshly showered and wearing recently laundered clothing. We make sure to put on our "good" underwear and socks, not the stretched-out, hole-ridden rags we might normally wear when we think no one will see. For women, it is not uncommon to shave or wax before a doctor's appointment, at times more thoroughly than for a holiday in Ipanema. To make liberal use of scented lotions is considered by some de rigueur.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that we want to appeal to our doctors. It's more that we don't want to disgust them. At no other time does our personal hygiene seem under greater scrutiny than when our bodies are prodded and examined under glaring lights by a member of the medical profession (or more likely, by entire groups of them, with crowds of eager medical students gathered around as the doctor cheerfully points to some private part of our anatomy and we lie there, rendered docile and mute by the shock of the intrusion). And sure, they've probably seen it all. But somehow we still feel that our bodies have the power to revolt them, unless scrubbed clean and presentably packaged.

As the wind howled outside at 25mph, I considered my transportation options. I could make it easier on myself and ride my roadbike. But then I'd have to wear the shoes and the padded shorts. I'd arrive looking and smelling like a sweaty cyclist, presenting with CCS (Crumpled Crotch Syndrome). The alternative was to ride an upright bike in my everyday clothes. But that would take longer and feel tedious, and I'd probably still arrive sweaty. In a moment of desperation, I considered the bus. But there is no direct route to the hospital from my house, and the thought of spending half a day on bus transfers filled me with horror - which proved a rather effective means of resolving my indecision. For heaven's sake, it's only 11 miles. I put on clean clothes, grabbed a packet of tea tree oil wipes, got on my folding bike and took my time pedaling into the wind. Upon arrival, I darted for the bathroom and gave myself a zealous wipe-down before plopping into a chair in the waiting room.

If I displayed any signs of uncleanliness, the doctor did not let on. But he did scrutinise my face with mild concern. "And how long have you been troubled by that patchy redness?" For a moment, I panicked, imagining myself stricken with some terrible skin disease. Then I remembered: I'd been riding my bicycle.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

These Boots Weren't Made for Cycling… But with Some DIY, They Could Be!

When we think of "cycling shoes" most likely the image that comes to mind is that of cleated athletic footwear. But increasingly, manufacturers are also producing shoes designed for plain-clothed cycling on flat pedals. Chrome Industries and DZR Shoes have been doing this for some time. Occasionally even designers outside the bicycle industry join in. I remember the Fluevog Westerly making a splash some years ago. And, more recently, English designer Tracey Neuls introduced a line of cycling-friendly footwear. So what exactly makes all of these shoes "cycling shoes?" And is there really a need for such a thing, when it comes to everyday cycling?

While the extreme view among plain-clothes transportation cyclists is that there is no need for cycling-specific footwear, personally I wouldn't go that far. After all, those who do a lot of walking as part of their daily routine (as opposed to driving everywhere) will look for walking-friendly features in their footwear - be that footwear work boots or high heels. Similarly, it makes sense that those of us who pedal around for transportation will gravitate toward shoes that are bicycle-friendly. Typically such shoes will be constructed with non-slip, reasonably stiff soles. For commuting in the rain, waterproof uppers are also essential. And some riders find reflective elements desirable. We can find these features in shoes marketed as cycling-specific. We can also look for ordinary shoes that happen to offer these same features. Finally, we can take matters into our own hands and add the features ourselves!

DIY "Cycling Boots"
Let's say, for instance, that you own these ordinary 2" heel ankle boots. They are durable and versatile, they can be worn with trousers and skirts, they can be funkified or frumpified as the situation requires - In short, you love them. But now you've started riding a bike for transportation, and oh no! You find that the soles slip on the pedals.

DIY "Cycling Boots"
But don't despair. Because you can resole your favourite boots with non-slip soles. Most cobblers offer this as a same-day service, and last time I checked, the cost in the US was between $10 and $30 per pair, depending on cobbler and the type of sole you choose. When getting this done, make sure to communicate to the cobbler that you need the shoes to be grippy and stiff, for cycling; they usually have lots of options and will be able to offer suggestions. Getting your shoes resoled can turn any slippery shoe into a cycling shoe. So now there you are, pedaling happily in your resoled-boots until is tarts to rain and oh no! Your feet are completely soaked by the time you get to work.

DIY "Cycling Boots"
But take heart! Because if your shoes or boots are not already waterproof, you can waterproof them yourself. A variety of fairly inexpensive sprays and rub-on waxes now exist that are suitable for fabric, leather and suede. This one costs around $4 and will last for some time.

So there you are, having waterproofed your favourite boots, rolling along in the sunshine and in the rain, perfectly content ...Until you spot another cyclist in front of you. And you notice that this other cyclist has reflective thingamajigs on their shoes! No doubt these are some fancy cycling-specific shoes that cost a fortune. How else would you get super-cool reflective thingamajigs like that?

DIY "Cycling Boots"
Oh how indeed! If you are not acquainted already, allow me to introduce you to 3M reflective tape. It costs about $1 per small roll and comes in different colours. Red seems like a good choice for reflective bits on the backs of shoes.

DIY "Cycling Boots"
Depending on how permanently and securely you want to attach it, you can get reflective tape that is sticky (shown here), or reflective ribbon that needs to be sewn on (a local cobbler quoted me  £10 for the work). How much of it you want to attach and where is of course up to you. You can tape it around the heel. You can add a tab to the top of the shaft. Or you can run it along the rear seam as shown here, for dramatic effect.

DIY "Cycling Boots"
And though I did this just to illustrate a point (readers sometimes ask where to buy shoes with reflective bits at the back, to which I reply suggesting they could add those themselves, but they seem skeptical), I actually quite like the Prada-like result. Even in daylight they are noticeable.

DIY "Cycling Boots"
And in the dark?

DIY "Cycling Boots"
Well, you can see for yourself. 

DIY "Cycling Boots"
I think it's great that footwear manufacturers, both within the bicycle industry and outside of it, are addressing the needs of utility cyclists who prefer to ride in ordinary shoes, but would like those shoes to have bicycle-friendly features. And it's equally great that, with just a little creativity and spare cash, we can turn almost any existing pair of shoes into shoes that feel great on the bike, if they don't already. Whatever your your choice of footwear, happy pedaling! 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Can You Train for Distance Without Going the Distance?

That a Way
The longest ride I have done to date has been a 300K brevet. To train for it, I basically did a whole lot of cycling in the month preceding the event, working up to increasingly longer distances week by week. This worked well enough for me. I completed the 300K within the time allotted and with surprisingly little bicycle-related discomfort.

Pleased as I was with this outcome, I was far more impressed by my friend Keith. We rode the brevet together, but trained for it separately. And while I focused on miles, Keith - not having that option time-wise - focused on fitness. He did frequent, short and intense rides that included intervals and plenty of hills. To be honest, this had me a little worried. Keith had been a bicycle racer (road and time trial) for decades, but he had never been a distance cyclist. Would his approach to training allow him to cope with nearly 200 miles in the saddle? Well, clearly it did. Whereas I had merely survived the 300K, for Keith it seemed a piece of cake. And sure, his background had him at a slight advantage to me. But I have witnessed others with that same background quit long distance rides, while the flabby weakling that is I managed to carry on and finish.

Fascinated as I was by this, my interest in it was purely academic - until, some months later, I too found myself with a long ride looming on the horizon and no time to put in big miles. So this time around, I'm trying Keith's method. I am nervous about it, but optimistic, as a few things are different for me this time around. Namely, my overall fitness is better, and I have been doing other forms of exercise - including running and hill walking - that have increased my muscle tone. Whether it'll work out for me or not I will soon find out.

In the meanwhile, I was curious what some of the experienced long distance cyclists I'm acquainted with thought on the matter. Can you train for long distance rides with a focus on intensity rather than milage? Here is a sampler of their thought-provoking answers:

Pamela Blalock, The Blayleys:
Short intense rides, also known as speed work, are definitely useful. I think that with a good solid base of fitness, but not necessarily long rides (> 30 miles), one can knock off a 200km without much bother. But beyond that distance, I suspect butt soreness will come into play, regardless of how well the bike fits. But if you have years of experience doing 1200kms, that you canget away with a lot less. And some people are athletic prodigies. The other exception is youth. Younger people seem to be able to get away with a lot less training than those of us longer in the tooth.

Chris Kostman, AdventueCORPS:
There is no valuable training adaptation beyond riding about 75 miles. That said, the purpose of building up mileage in training for an endurance event is not training adaptation, per se, but other, important reasons, such as: learning to pace oneself properly, learning to eat and drink properly, learning which body parts will succumb to injury or discomfort over greater lengths of time, and learning to ride without any, or with minimal, sleep. That said, for cyclists with an extensive endurance riding background rides over 75 miles are rarely necessary because they already know how to pace, eat, drink, forego sleep, and ride well in the dark. Training to ride fast is harder to do than ride far, and reaps far greater rewards in terms of cycling fitness and adaptability.

Dave Smith, Ffflow
You can train successfully for long rides by doing shorter more intense rides and interval training sessions. There are a few aspects to consider. By doing repeated intense efforts you can recalibrate your tolerance for suffering - you can ride when feeling in discomfort. Intense efforts boost cardiovascular capacity much more effectively than long slow rides. Short intense rides also help with body fat loss, something that will help delay fatigue on longer rides. I've trained many people for endurance events who are time poor but determined. Long hours in the saddle are desirable rather than necessary.

MG, Chasing Mailboxes:
The larger question when I train and plan for rides is “What kind of ride do I want to have?” My goals are generally to enjoy the ride while it’s happening and to finish it without any lasting pain or injury, not just to endure it. To my mind if a person sets a 300K as the goal, he or she needs to work up to riding a century, a 200K, and then do at least a couple of back-to-back century rides with hills (in addition to weekly mileage and cross-training) to meet the goals I describe. I suppose a person could make it through a 300K doing short but intense rides. But I don’t know how much fun it would be or if he or she could finish it without lasting aches and pains. It’s a gamble I would not want to take. After a certain point, there is no substitute for time in the saddle.

Based on these and other conversations, I would say it's generally agreed among distance cyclists that speed work and some degree of cross-training are important supplements to building up milage. There is less consensus as to whether they can function as a replacement. More than anything, I suspect a great deal depends on individual differences. There are those for whose bodies milage is essential, and there are those for whose it is not - or at least less so. And while it's tempting to think it a simple matter of muscle tone and overall fitness, my own observations suggest it is not that straightforward. For instance, I have a friend who is a cyclist, runner, and weight lifter. He has excellent muscle tone, is cardiovascularly fit, and amazingly fast on the bike on short rides. In theory, he should be just the sort of rider whose body can withstand time in the saddle without much ado. But in practice, he falls apart on long rides unless he builds up to the distance very gradually - like in 10 mile increments. Any bigger leaps, and he experiences all the same discomforts associated with unfit riders - including hand, neck, back and butt pain.

I know randonneurs for whom day-long rides are the standard distance; they simply will not bother to get on a bike for anything under 100K. And I know randonneurs (Jan Heine and Emily O'Brien come to mind) who ride big miles mainly during official events, their cycling otherwise consisting mostly of training intervals, hill climbs and commuting. Both categories of riders seem to do well. But only experience can tell which category we will fall into - or more likely, where we will fall on the spectrum between them.

The reality is that most of us, be our jobs 9-5 or freelance, will have difficulty sustaining a training schedule that relies on frequent long distance rides. It may, therefore, be tempting to seek out methods of training where miles can be replaced with intensity. But whether that approach will work for us, only trial and error will tell.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Saving" Your Gears: a False Economy?

SRampagnolo Drivetrain
Just as one might ration out provisions in anticipation of hard times, so will some cyclists engage in an act I will refer to as "saving gears." Allow me to explain. Say you're doing a long, unpleasant climb. Almost straight away the gradient is pretty bad, in a "hits you over the head with a shovel" sort of way. And you know there's more of that to come. So you start downshifting, clicking through the gears with manic desperation in order to cope with the steepness of the climb. But in doing so, you take care to resist the temptation to use your absolute lowest gear. Why? Well, because as the climb progresses, you don't want to run out of gears at a moment you need them most! So, mentally you set that bail-out gear aside. Hidden under your mind's floorboards, it is your emergency water supply in a drought; your last crust of bread in a famine. 

And then, only in your darkest hour, when you go around that bend where you expect the climb to level out only to find that it steepens obscenely, just as you're about to despair and pass out from the effort, you remember that one last gear and you switch to it, and the mere relief its presence brings allows you to soar toward salvation. It is this that saving gears is all about. 

Some might call it a false economy. Why not spin in a comfortable gear all the way up, rather than torture and overexert yourself needlessly? And no doubt that is wise. Yet our nature, some primeval instinct within us, compels us to keep a reserve for hard times. Just in case. 

I contemplated this today, as I saved my lowest gear for the hard bit at the end of a long and tedious hill. Though I hadn't done this climb in some time, I remembered that stretch well. I dreaded it physically and steeled myself against it mentally. And, fastidiously keeping away from my biggest cog, I spun in a gear that kept me all right, but not as comfortable as I could have been, waiting for that moment when the climb would try to surprise me with its last flick of nastiness and I, in turn, would triumph over it with a flick of shifter. 

In this manner, I pedaled, and I huffed and puffed, and I anticipated. I watched the clouds above and the fields below, the birds soaring and the sheep grazing. I pedaled and I anticipated until something happened that I hadn't counted on… 

I began to descend. 

That last hard bit must not have been as bad as I remembered, since I never noticed when it came and went. And now my bail-out gear, having gone unused, sat there sulkily, gathering dust, as I flew down the other side of the hill, then made my way home. The joke was on me. Or was there a joke in this at all? My legs did not seem to find it funny!