Friday, April 18, 2014

The Cycling Swell

“Why is it I feel so disgusting after cycling? And just look at these, how swollen they are!”

Putting down her emptied water bottle, the woman sticks out her wrists to demonstrate. The flesh is puffy above her gloves, folding over muffin-top style. Mine look similar, as do my ankles over the edges of my socks. For a few minutes the group of us sits there, comparing unattractively swollen body parts.

There is an expectation that cycling will make us sleek and lean, instantaneously. But, in particular when riding long distances, many are alarmed to find themselves bloated and swollen instead. The first time it happened to me in a noticeable way, I went on the internet and found a dazzling array of explanations. It happens from not drinking enough water. It happens from drinking too much water. It happens from overconsumption of calories from energy drinks and snacks. It happens from consuming too few calories. It happens if you eat too many carbs or not enough carbs. It may or may nor happen more if you are a woman. It is due to water retention and will lead to temporary weight gain, followed by weight loss. It is due to cortisol production and will lead to real weight gain, accompanied by other problems. "There is no cause for concern," said the highly qualified doctor of Cyclist A on Forum X when consulted about the symptoms. "There is cause for concern, and you must cut down on cycling," said the equally qualified doctor of Cyclist B on Forum Y. Well then, there's that explained!

Monitoring myself over the past few years on the bike, I see two types of processes at work. One is the temporary bloating I get in the course of a single ride. This tends to happen on rides longer than, say, 50 miles. And it seems absolutely unrelated to the amount of water or calories I consume. Either way, I will get a little puffy, a little bloated - noticeable mainly in the face, ankles and wrists. And, a few hours after the ride is over, it will all go away. The swelling will diminish, then disappear; my skin's tautness will return.

The other is a longer-term process that seems to happen when I do a lot of cycling all at once following a period of taking it easy. After a couple of weeks of doing the miles in earnest the first thing I notice is that my legs get big - so big that I have trouble getting my jeans on. The first year this happened I mistook it for very rapid muscle development. But now I know it is a temporary effect - more like a swelling from the shock of those muscle groups being overworked. In the first instance, my legs bulge out. But if I keep cycling at the same frequency and intensity, their size will eventually diminish. Gradually the swelling will subside and give way to actual muscle tone - hard, sleek and well defined, rather than puffy or bulging. And my jeans will fit again. Last summer this happened over a 2 months period.

Very possibly there is more than one single cause behind the cycling swell. But in any case, it is apparently not unusual. This spring I've just entered the "can't get my jeans on stage" and look forward to getting it over with!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Handbadge

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
Until recently I had not really considered the meaning of the Rudge headbadge. It was only a couple of days ago when, having spotted a lovely sports roadster with a full-colour version of the emblem, that it hit me. Is this the Red Hand of Ulster?

By now I have grown used to seeing renderings of the up-turned hand on flags and logos - the mystical symbol of Northern Ireland, appropriated, interestingly and confusingly enough, by both Loyalist and Republican groups, as well as by various non-sectarian organisations, clubs and the like. And now here it was on this bicycle.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
I scanned my memory for what I recalled of Rudge history, but none of it had to do with Ulster. So I looked into it once again. Founded in Coventry, England by engineer Daniel Rudge, the company later merged with Birmingham-based Whitworth Cycle Co. to become Rudge-Whitworth Cycles (and later motorcycle manufacturer). Nothing geographically close to Northern Ireland here. Neither did the old catalogues seem to offer any explanation. The one thing I did find acknowledging the link was the Rudge Ulster motorbike. That, however, was named after the 1928 Ulster Grand Prix race, won on a Rudge machine - an event which the headbadge precedes.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
The Rudge sports roadster distracted me from the hand question with its many nifty features, such as this original Sturmey Archer Dyno Luxe battery pack, mounted on the seat tube.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
Wired to the battery pack are the headlight and tail light, also Sturmey Archer branded. During this time period, it seems that manufacturers used dyno hubs, bottle generators and these dry battery packs simultaneously. I've often wondered what determined which method they chose.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
Like a missing key to a vintage wheel lock, the definitive answer to the question of the Hand's origin may never be found. The most likely explanation seems to be that the Rudge family (edited to add: actually, the Whitworth family, as it seems the logo came from their side of the Rudge-Whitworth merger) hailed originally from Northern Ireland and used the Red Hand symbol to commemorate this. However I also love Jim Langley's thinking that the symbol meant "hand made." If only we could "talk to the hand" and ask! 

Whatever the origin of the Rudge emblem - rendered in several versions on their headbadges and chainrings - it is a striking symbol, in particular when the bikes are spotted in Northern Ireland. And if anyone is in the market for a vintage Rudge roadster, this one can be had at Gerald Deehan's Vintage and Antique Swap in Limavady. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What Is the Right Bike for You?

Bellarena Airfield by Brompton
Of all the bike-related discussions I have with readers, with members of the bicycle industry, with other bloggers and with cycling friends, the most common one - the most recurring and inexhaustible - centers on that all-important question: "What is the right bike for me?" What is the perfect bike, the ideal bike? Does such a thing even exist?

Funny enough, over the years this question has gotten more, not less complicated. From city bikes to racing bikes to everything in between, we are plain spoiled for choice in 2014 compared to the way things stood in 2009. There are more off-the-shelf options now than ever in every category and sub-category of bicycles for sport and transport. The custom framebuilding industry has mushroomed. And we are showered with philosophies and slogans - some competing and overlapping - with respect to how to approach cycling in the first place. There are lots of products out there, lots of opinions and information. But how to parse through it all and know what bike is right for you?

After 5 years of running this blog, I still don't know very much about bicycles. But I do have an answer (not THE answer, heavens forbid) to this question that I can offer to those who ask it. It is not an especially profound or epiphonic answer. It is an answer that, quite, frankly, is disappointing in its simplicity. It is an answer so obvious that it is consistently overlooked. Chances are you will find it a bit of a letdown. But here goes anyway:

The right bike for you is the bike you will ride. 

That's it. That is all there is to it. 

The right bike might fit all the criteria put forth, with impeccable logic, by the most revered cycling journal, book, blog, or reviewer - right down to geometry, tire size and accessories. Or it might fit none of them. It might be completely wrong for your use case scenario. It might be ill fitting and improperly accessorised. It might be too fancy for what you use it for, or not fancy enough. It might have features you'll never need, or lack features you do need. Still, if you find yourself riding it all the time, reaching for it when you head out the door, it is the right bike for you. 

The right bike might be the very epitome of your idea of beautiful. The smuttiest of #bikep0rn. The sort of bike you have always pictured yourself upon, gliding down the street as passers-by swoon with admiration and envy. Or it might be nothing of the sort. Even if the bike is lackluster in appearance and totally at odds with the way you see yourself, if you ride it all the time it is the right bike for you. 

The right bike is the bike you ride. 

This does not imply you ought to force yourself to make do with a machine you dislike. Rather, it suggests you keep an open mind about what it really means to like a bicycle in the first place. The litmus test is in the riding.

Is your "dream bike" - the bike that's supposedly perfect in every way - languishing in the hallway while a different one gets ridden? The one that's being ridden is the right bike for you. 

The right bike is the one you will end up riding the heck out of - regardless of whether you, your friends, the staff at your local bike shop, reviewers in your favourite publication, or anonymous commentators on internet forums, agree it is right for you. In short, all I'm saying is...


Thank you, as always, for reading Lovely Bicycle - in particular over this past, rather turbulent year! 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why Beer?

Over the years cycling has had a transformative effect on my diet. For instance, I acquired a taste for plain water after a lifetime of disliking it. And I started to eat meat again after 10 years of vegetarianism. Just as startling, but hopefully less controversial than the latter, has been my newfound enthusiasm for beer.

Now, I know some feel that that bikes and beer go hand in hand, so this is not exactly a novel concept. But until a couple of years ago I just didn't get it. Why beer? What's so great about it and what does it have to do with cycling? Because frankly, until 2012 I had been unable to touch the stuff. Not only did it taste horrible to me, but drinking even small quantities would reliably leave me with a heavy, unpleasant, bread-coma type of feeling that I wouldn't be able to shake for hours. Beer? Beh. I'd rather have a glass of wine or a cocktail.

So I thought, until one innocent summer evening when I took a sip of Guinness at dinner after several weeks in a row of strenuous cycling. Normally I hated this particular beer even more than the others. But, to my amazement, it now tasted out of this world delicious. I finished an entire pint and felt fine. No bread-coma, no uncomfortable fullness. And thus my transformation into a beer drinker began. I never felt compelled to get into fancy or craft beers. Whatever was on offer would taste pretty good after a long day on the bike - though I would also get cravings for Guinness specifically. There is just something about it that tastes …I don't know, fortifying? As long as I cycle, I love the stuff. And, with equal reliability, if I'm not putting in the miles I soon find it difficult to drink again.

So what is it about beer and bikes? Is it about the ritual of it? Is it about carbohydrates, metabolism and all that?

"It's to do with strength training," a local cyclist explained, and showed me this informative mural. Those climbing muscles are not going to maintain themselves.

Contemplating this bit of expert wisdom, I partook of the dense white foam, which in turn gave way to the dark, strength-replenishing liquid. And as I did this I closed my eyes, losing myself in a deep visceral appreciation. My legs are aching and my mouth is craving beer again. Spring is in full swing.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Toward a Topographical Fatalism

Seacoast Road Cyclist
Without a doubt living in Northern Ireland has changed me as a cyclist. I have noticed. My friends have noticed. But the exact nature of this change is tricky to articulate. It isn't merely a matter of having gotten "better," as defined by improvement in speed and technique. Sure there is that too. After all, how can one not improve with pavement the texture of hard-packed gravel? With a mountain straight out the front door? With winds attacking from every direction? With former racers for cycling buddies? 

But the more fundamental change is in a shift in perspective. I have given in to the landscape. I have stopped approaching difficult topography as a problem - or even thinking of it in terms of difficulty in the first place. The landscape is there, its qualities outside my control. I cannot change it. I can only experience it, appreciate it, remember it. And that is best done if I do not struggle against it, but instead take it as it comes. Rather than suffering through a climb and wishing for it to end, I try to harmonise with it and - believe it or not - enjoy the moment  …or minute, or hour, as the case may be. When approached this way, the reward becomes not the view on top, and not even the sense of accomplishment upon reaching it, but the climb in itself.

Of course it's easy for me to adapt that attitude now that I have a featherweight bike with ultra-low gearing. But it isn't just that either. One day last Autumn I was out with local cyclist and coach Colin Loughery. We were talking about gearing, pedaling technique and strength training. "You want to try something?" he asked. I replied that I did, whereupon he instructed me to accelerate and get into my tallest gear as we rolled down a long flat stretch giving way to a slight incline. "When this flat bit ends," he said, "there will be a drag [hill]. See if you can stay in your tallest gear all the way to the top."

My mood instantly darkened. I didn't look forward to embarrassing myself in front of Colin. But I knew the incline we were about to go up, and there was just no way I could do it in 50/11. Feeling the momentum begin to wear off as I started the climb, my mind raced, grasping for strategies that would at least save me from toppling over. Maybe if I stood right away and pushed with all my might...

But before my butt had a chance to leave the saddle, came Colin's friendly command. "Don't stand! Stay seated and don't change gears. Just pedal." The words coming out of his mouth were so fantastical, that upon hearing them something in me snapped and allowed me to suspend disbelief. Okay, I would pedal. And in this insane gear, while remaining seated, I would crest this hill without breaking my knees or toppling over. 

And then I did exactly that. The strength for it came from somewhere deep within my abdomen rather than from my legs or lungs. It was as if some extra cluster of muscles appeared to accommodate this impossible thing I was trying to do. I could feel it for days afterward. 

"Good. But you stopped pedaling in circles." Colin had said to me at the top. As if, such a normal and casual thing it was to cycle up a hill in 50/11, that we could talk pedaling technique. Circles were the last thing on my mind then ...a pity, as later I discovered that making sure to continue pedaling circles and resisting the urge to stomp makes even grinding feel nicer, more meditative. 

The seeds had already been sewn. But it was on this ride that a philosophy of topographical fatalism took root. Just go with it. Suspend disbelief. The road awaits, and with it the wonderful unknown.