Monday, April 27, 2009

Bike There - Part Two

Now that you know what your route will be to work, you’re probably wondering what else you might need to realize your dream of riding your bicycle to work every day.

Let’s start with the obvious: A bicycle.

You probably have a bicycle already, and you paid a lot of money for it. You ride it on the weeknight club ride and a couple of t-shirt centuries every year. It is a good bike, and very comfortable, but it may not be the right bike to ride to work.

One thing your “work” bike must have is lights. Even if you don’t plan to ride in the dark, you will eventually find yourself riding in the rain, or fog, or just through a shady road in the late afternoon. A flashing light on the rear of your bike will make you more visible to cars coming up behind you, and a decent headlight on the front will make you more visible to cars pulling out of driveways and side streets. Most people are law-abiding good folks, so if they see you they will try to avoid hitting you.

The lights don't have to be anything expensive, but they should be more than just vestigial blinkies that only show up on moonless cloudy nights. Many of the new halogen clip-on lights are fine. The Cateye EL530 is an excellent choice on the front, and the Planet Bike Superflash on the back will almost make impossible for cars not to see you.

Another good thing to have on the “work” bike is a fender on the front and either a rack or fender on the back. Again, you may not ride in the rain, but you may ride the day after a rain, when the streets are still wet. Or you may ride by a house with poorly aligned sprinklers, or a leaky water main. However you find it, you will encounter water on the road, and it will spray up onto you when you go through it. Even if you are planning to change when you get to work, the water may spray up onto the bag that holds your clothes and everything else – including your laptop computer and those marked-up papers.

Again, the fenders do not have to be permanent. You can get clip-on fenders that you keep on the bike during the week, then take off for the Kiwanis Club Century. The coverage is usually not as good as full fenders with mud flaps, but they will do the job in most weather situations.

You will also need a solid wheelset (32-spokes front and 36-spokes back) with stout tires (preferably 25c). These are not going to make you the fastest guy up Backbone Ridge on Saturday, but will have you fixing fewer flats – or broken spokes – on your morning commute. Again, you can still swap out your light-weight deep-dish wheels for the weekend club rides.

If you're going to get serious, however,  your “work” bike should be simple and stout, and it's hard to combine this requirement with any kind of racing bike.

I like steel, because it’s comfortable and strong. I also like to ride fixed gear in the winter and single-speed during the summer, because I never have to worry about derailleurs or their cables, or anything else that may get gunked up riding on nasty roads or when I leave my bike outside chained to a rack in the rain. As an added benefit, simple stout steel bikes are much cheaper than super-light carbon fiber speed machines with top-of-the-line components. I would still be very upset if somebody were to come along with bolt cutters and pinch my ride while I’m at work, but I won’t have to take out a second mortgage to get a replacement.


Next, you’ll need to consider what stuff you need to bring back and forth to work, and how you’re going to carry it. For regular commuting, you really only have two options: A bag on the back of the bike, or a backpack. I’ve done both, and mounting luggage to your bike is best. It keeps the bike’s center of gravity lower and won't trap heat on your back during 95-degree days.

If you put a rack on the back of your bike, as I recommended above, you’ve not only protected your back from muddy spray when you go thru puddles, you now have a great place to put a rack-top bag. For most commuters, this is enough to carry a change of clothes – if your office is “business casual” – as well as a spare tube and tools, and maybe jam in your lunch and a jacket. The serious commuter, however, should mount a pannier on the side of the rack, which will let you carry all of the above plus your laptop and real clothes.

Arkel makes a great pannier with a laptop sleeve. I mount mine on the left (traffic) side, and it holds everything I need for a day in the office. The only time I notice the weight difference is on some of the steeper hills on my route.

However you decide to carry your things, here are some tips for what to carry:
  • Work clothes: Unless your bag is at least water-resistant, put these in gallon zip-lock bags.
  • Lunch: It’s often a hassle to jump on your bike and ride somewhere for lunch. If your office has a cafeteria or someplace good within walking distance, or you have a regular group that goes out together for lunch, there's no problem. Otherwise, pack something.
What to Wear

Depending upon the distance of your commute and what you can wear at work, you may be able to bike in wearing work clothes. For long pants, you should either roll up your right pants leg or put on a reflective strap to keep it from getting snagged in the chain. And, of course, helmet and glasses are mandatory.

If your commute is five miles or longer, take a few extra minutes on mornings when you bike in to check the day’s weather forecast. Consider what the weather will be like for your ride in, and what the weather will be like for the ride home.

For bicycle commuting – as with ultra-distance cycling – layers and spares are best. It may be 60 now, but it’s going to be 90 degrees during your ride home, so wear knee warmers and a light jacket as you head out. On the way home, you can roll them up tight and they will take up the space that you needed for your lunch this morning. That light jacket may also come in handy this afternoon, since 90 degree afternoons are rife with rain showers.

Probably the most common mistake that experienced cyclists make when they first start commuting by bike is that they do not dress warmly enough. A spirited group ride in the country is very different from the stop-and-go travel of a weekly commute. When in doubt, wear a short-sleeve jersey and a long-sleeve jersey in the morning – you will be much more comfortable waiting at the red light.

Along with dressing for comfort, dress for success – which, in this case, means being visible. Bright yellow is almost always good, especially with reflective patches and/or piping. During the fall, of course, if all of the foliage on your ride is yellow, you may want to use another color. Many manufacturers of cycling clothes use illumiNITE, which lights up like 100 mirrors when caught by a car’s headlights. You can also get reflective patches to stick on your bike, or various reflective things to put on the spokes of your wheels. Putting the reflective items on the legs and/or wheels is best, since the motion will also catch the attention of passing motorists.

Speaking of mirrors, bike commuting is more about efficiency than style, so get one of those mirrors that hooks onto your helmet, glasses, or the end of your handlebars. The more you can see, the better off you are.

What to Leave at Home

What shouldn’t you wear when bike commuting? I do not recommend your fancy team kit. For one, you don’t want to get it dirty with road spew, but more importantly I believe it sends the wrong message to cars. You do not want them to think that you are out there training, but that you are instead just trying to get to work like they are. One study in England showed that the more you look like a pro rider, the more comfortable drivers are with your ability to hold that line on the edge of the road – even if the edge of the road is crumbling. If you look like some Fred – complete with reflective yellow jacket and helmet mirror – that might move left into the lane without a moment’s notice, a driver will give you a wider berth.

And, finally, one other thing that you should never wear when bike commuting: Headphones. If you have to listen to music in traffic, drive a car. When biking on crowded streets, you need every sense tuned in to what’s going on around you.

Final Notes
  • Once a week, drive to work and bring a couple of changes of clothes. You’re going to need to do grocery shopping on the way home, anyway, so your carbon footprint is not all that different. You can still commute in with clothing, but having a spare set there is handy on days when you are in a hurry or it rains too hard for those clip-on fenders.
  • If your employer is really cool, they will let you bring your bike inside during the day. If your employer is slightly cool, they will have a bike rack. If your employer is not cool, you will need to attach your bike to a street post, fence, or something. If you need to chain your bike up at all, get a good bike chain and leave it at work. The strongest ones are heavy, and if you need to chain your bike up at home, too, just buy another chain.
  • If your employer is really cool, they will have shower facilities at work so you can get cleaned up and change clothes. If your employer is slightly cool, they will have a gym nearby for this. If your employer is not cool, you will need to bring in at least a wash cloth and small towel and clean up as best you can in the bathroom. When all else fails, keep a container of sanitary wipes at your desk.
  • On hot days, when you get to work your riding clothes may be very sweaty. Find a closet or cabinet, and keep a couple of suit hangers (the ones with the clips for the pants) inside. Given sufficient air flow, your bike clothes will be dry when you are ready for the ride home.
For More Information

Bike There – Part One

The League of American Bicyclists (LAB) has named May “National Bike Month,” and May 11-15 is National Bike-to-Work Week. In honor of this auspicious-but-mostly-ignored event, I am going to post some mostly serious blog entries advising how you, too, can ride your bicycle to work.

Today, I am going to talk about how you can design and implement the perfect bicycle route to work. Later this week, I will discuss what you need for your ride and some tactics to help keep you safer in rush hour traffic.

Step One: Pick Your Route

For most folks, the road that you use when you drive to work is not going to be the road that you use when you bike to work. Finding the perfect route to work on a bike typically takes research and time, and may result in a few mis-steps. But, once you get it right, it will make all the difference.

First, look at the distance that you ride to work. If it’s over 20 miles, you may want to only bike part of the way. Yes, you ride much further than that every Saturday, but fitting this in with eight hours of work will soon drag you down.

If you can ride your bike to a good bus line (with a bike rack on the front of the bus) or the train, do that. Or maybe you can drive your bike to a good spot and bike the rest of the way.

Next, consider how flexible your work hours are. Many roads that are busy during rush hour are fine for cyclists at other times. If you are comfortable riding in the dark (more on lights later), maybe you can come in early or late.

With these factors in mind, you are now ready to start looking at some maps. The easiest way to do this is to go to Google, click Maps, and then use the Get Directions feature to get a starting map from home to work. Make sure you select “Walking” from the drop-down list under the address fields.

You now have one way to get to work that will avoid interstates; however, it may still include some roads that aren’t good for cyclists. If you know of some better options, drag the blue route line onto that road and see what Google does for you. Eventually, you should be able to come up with something.

As you plot the route, follow these guidelines:
  • Bike lanes are good; bike routes may or may not be. In Nashville, most bike lanes don’t go anywhere, but at least you have a piece of pavement to call your own. Bike routes are usually just signs, but they do force (hopefully) drivers into considering that you may have some rights to that road.

  • School zones are good. People have to drive more slowly in school zones (except during the summer) so you aren’t slowing them down. Also, crossing guards like bicyclists … or at least they like me.

  • Speed bumps are good. It means the road goes somewhere that people are frequently trying to get to (e.g., work), but via a neighborhood that has enough political pull to get speed bumps installed. The cars will still sprint from bump to bump, but they can’t roar past you at 60 mph.

  • Roads that parallel two or more busier, wider options are usually good. For example, Franklin Pike is on my commute. It runs right next to I-65. Franklin Road, with four lanes, is just on the other size of I-65. If there’s an accident on I-65, people may get onto Franklin Road, but there’s never enough screw-ups to force people to bypass both I-65 and Franklin Road and get onto Franklin Pike.

  • The shortest distance between two points is rarely the best way to bike. Going an extra two miles to avoid a nasty intersection may mean two extra miles, but you arrive at work in one piece.

  • Sidewalks are the last option … but they are an option. When I am in a hurry, I can cut almost two miles off my route by going down Old Hickory just east of I-65. I only have to go about a quarter of a mile on that road, and there are three lanes there; however, cars don’t want me to have any part of any of those lanes. To keep the peace, I just get up on the sidewalk (there are never any other pedestrians) for that short stretch. If you must do this, however, keep in mind that when you are on the sidewalk you are no longer a vehicle, but have become a pedestrian. Don’t expect cars to be looking for you as they turn in to or out of side streets (of course, they barely do this for cyclists), and play nice with the other pedestrians on the sidewalk.
If you are unsure about the traffic on any road, talk to other area cyclists that live in the area. They can usually give you a good idea of the conditions, and may be able to offer alternatives.

Step Two: Test Your Route

Before you bike the route to work, drive it to work one day. Of course, if the route uses a path or greenway (lucky you!), you won’t be able to drive this part, but test whatever portion you can. This will enable you to discover the hidden foibles – such as gravel roads or closed bridges – of the route.

If the route still seems good, try it on the weekend. This will let you spot things that you won’t notice from a car, such as very steep hills and roaming dogs, and determine how long your new-found commute will require. It will also make the route a little more familiar when you try it on a work day.

The evening before you first try your ride in, get everything ready. Pump up your tires and load your bag. Review the weather and determine what clothing you will need for the ride in – and what clothing you will need for the ride home. Pack your bag as best you can, and make sure your lights are working.

Then, ride.

Step Three: Improve Your Route

The more you ride your route, the more you will learn about the patterns of your route. When does everyone in that neighborhood leave for work, and which roads do they take? When does the school bus come? When does the lady with the rottweilers let slip the dogs of war?

When you have time, be willing to explore. Take a road that is marked “Dead End” all the way, and you may find that there’s a path there. Cut through a new neighborhood and you may find a short cut that isn’t on Google maps, even though the road has been there for two years.

You can also improve your route by just playing nice with the cars and pedestrians. Call out “Good Morning” to the neighborhood joggers, dog-walkers, and bus-stop parents. Don’t take more of the road than you need, and when they come up on you and you can see that it’s clear over the hill or around the corner, wave them around. When they go by nicely – giving you enough space and not going too fast – give them a smile.

As cars get used to seeing you on their way in to the office, they realize that you are not just somebody out playing while they are trying to work. You are a working stiff like they are, just trying to take a slightly different path. Once people see their reflection in you – the cyclist – they will treat you as they would like to be treated.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Saturday, I got to experience the emergence of a new superheroine.

Three of us -- Alan Gosart, the RandoWife, and I -- went out to Baxter, TN, to ride my Green Acres permanent. Although I am admittedly biased, I consider Green Acres to be the greatest 200K permanent in the world, and Saturday it once again lived up to this billing.

The day started jacket and knee-warmer cool, but sunny and with light winds. Everything was starting to bloom up on the plateau, and the world took on that special light green that Mother Nature can only conjure up in the spring. Almost as good, the roads were just as smooth and the drivers (except for one or two trucks with trailers) were very well-behaved.

The RandoWife was riding the tandem with me. This was her first "official" 200K -- she rode the tandem with me on my Dog Meat permanent about a year and a half ago -- since she joined Randonneurs USA (RUSA). She had offerred to ride with me because this made for my 12th straight month of brevets, and as such this ride would qualify me for my second R-12 Award from RUSA. She has also been training for the Three-State-Three-Mountain century the first weekend in May, and 125 base miles is a good way to prepare for a hilly century.

I have always felt that Green Acres was a great permanent for a tandem. It has only 5300 feet of climbing, with much of that on a five-mile stretch as you go onto the plateau. Jeff Bauer, who has ridden Green Acres twice before with me, had said the same thing, and he's done Boston-Montreal-Boston and Paris-Brest-Paris on a tandem with Mary Crawley.

We left the Love's Truck Stop in Baxter just after 8 am, and had a great ride down to the first control in Smithville, and then on thru Rock Island State Park to the second control. We were making great time, and had a blast doing the shady rollers of Laurel Creek.

And then we came to the hard part: Baker Mountain Road.

The toughest part of this road is near the bottom, and we were moving along at just under six miles per hour. Alan had gone on up to the top, knowing that we would be slower than a single on this stretch. The RandoWife and I were working hard, but doing okay, when her back started spasming.

She's had this trouble before -- most notably this past fall at the Six Gaps Century in Dahlonega, GA -- and was doing everything she could to keep moving. She would change position, stand, sit, rub her back, but nothing helped. The climbing kept going, and the back kept hurting, and the RandoWife admitted later that she felt as if she was going to throw up.

That's when the transformation came.

The RandoWife fought thru the pain, telling herself it was only transitory, and focused instead on the beauty of the mountain road. And then we were at the top, and she emerged from the chrysalis to become ...


Her back still hurt, of course, and we were less than half-way thru the ride. There was lots more climbing going thru Fall Creek Falls, with some really steep stuff there that got us down to the granny gear and out of the saddle.

But she felt better after a quick lunch at the A&H Market, sitting in a chair and eating french fries. Rolling out from there, we had the extraordinary descent on Hwy 30/285, and then the even prettier part of the course as Hwy 285 follows the river. And RandoGirl was having a blast, even with her sore back, tired legs, and the assorted other aches and pains that come from not riding more than 60 miles for the past six months. She and Alan and I were yakking up a storm, laughing, and occasionally putting our heads down and cranking out long stretches at 25 mph.

Towards the end, RandoGirl was talking about what we need on the new tandem. We decided a little more room for her long torso would be good, and maybe disc brakes. The frame should be titanium.

When we got to the final control at the truck stop, I pointed out that RandoGirl was now the first randonneuse to have ridden Green Acres, and that we were the first folks to do it on a tandem.  And we began talking about her doing her own R-12, and maybe some 300Ks and fleches, and it was only the "ride through the night" aspects of these things that really gave her any pause.

I love to quote the villian, Jafar, from Disney's Alladin movies, when he says, "You'd be surprised what you can live through." I don't know what it is about your first 200K -- the sense of surprise or the sense of accomplishment -- but you come out of it rethinking your boundaries and limitations.

Maybe leaping tall buildings in a single bound ain't so tough after all.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Friends, Romans, Countrymen ...

Lend this guy your ear (or at least one ear):
Police in New Castle, Indiana say a man was riding his bike Wednesday in a residential area when he yelled at a driver, who he claims was speeding.

When the two came to a stop, police say the driver got out of his car, knocked the man off his bike and started biting his ear off.

The cyclist was taken to the hospital for a torn ear  and the driver is charged with battery.
Now, I've had various bad experiences with semi-feral Kentucky dogs, but I had no idea that Indiana humans were even worse. Like most people, I had always assumed that you had to get into a boxing ring with Mike Tyson to get chewed on in this way.

The first thing I thought about when I read this was that the driver apparently wasn't even pissed with the cyclist for slowing him down. I get buzzed and yelled at all the time by motorists because my use of their roadway is costing them a couple of seconds of their obviously-much-more-important-than-mine lives. But, then, I suppose that if a fellow is in hurry and has a 2,000-pound-plus mechanized weapon literally in his hands, he is probably not going to waste time parking, getting out of his car, and then chewing on the lowly cyclist (who would probably taste like sweat, anyhow).

The next thing I thought about was this: What did the cyclist yell? Was it a calm, "Please slow down, sir ... there are children about" kind of admonition? Was it the more standard "A$$hole!" sobriquet? I tend to employ the latter, often accompanied by the classic raised middle digit. Sometimes I wave my arms in a voodoo hex, crashing into a mailbox about halfway through, much to the glee of the motorist.

My point, however, is that there are certain things you can yell that, in many neighborhoods, will cost you body parts. In baseball, there is the "magic word" that you can call an umpire, which will historically win you a trip to the locker room. Similarly, I used to ride thru parts of Tampa where a simple "tu madre" can mean death for you and your immediate family.

But it wasn't until I really started thinking about this that I came up with a more searing question:

Where was the cyclist's helmet?

For Lance -- like most of us -- the helmet does not quite cover the ears, but it certainly gets close enough that it should make it harder for some nut to sink his teeth into your cartiledge. I will admit, however, that there is nothing large enough to cover the ears of some cyclists.

(Sorry about picking on you, Tyler. I know you just retired and all that, but your ears are a little ... well, oversized for your head. And a guy that "retires" after testing positive for a banned substance for the second time, so that he would not be eligible to ride professionally until he was 45 ... well, you kind of lose the sympathy vote with that.)

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah -- ear protection.

My point is, unless you're Tyler Hamilton, with elephantine ears from years of steroid abuse (it is also rumored than Ivan Basso can eat peanuts with his nose), a helmet should sufficiently protect your ears from being chewed off by a rabid Indianan ... Indianian ... person from Indiana.

The down side is that, without the steroids, you'll be slow enough to be caught by Kentucky dogs.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Intimacy Versus Isolation

When I was in college, back in the early Pleistocene Period, I studied psychology. For a while, I considered a career in it, helping people to better suffer the slings and arrows of today's hectic life, and make them act just a little less nutsy-fagan. When I realized how many more years of school would be required to make the big bucks in psychology, however, I quickly downgraded my ambitions to just using psychology the way most laymen do: Con Artistry.

In "Dead Poet's Society," Robin Williams pointed out that men study poetry "to woo women." Along those lines, most college males study psychology because they think it's an easy "A," but also so they can better fool women into going out with them.

By this reckoning, the most homely college sophomore, having successfully passed English 101 and Psychology 101, has a fair to middling shot of getting a date with a pretty girl. I was a college sophomore when the RandoWife first went out with me.

Case closed.

But, I Digress

For some reason, odd bits and pieces of my seven (yes, seven) college Psychology courses stick with me to this day. Some of it I use to help the RandoDaughter with her homework ... or to manipulate the RandoDaughter to do her homework. Other things I use when watching Jeopardy, or will deploy to make boring conversation. For example, did you know that "Death Wish" is actually not just a Charles Bronson movie? Carl Jung wrote about the "Todeswunsch" as a desire to return to the peace of the womb ... or to your secret bunker of AK-47s and Desert Eagles.

Another thing that stuck with me is the phases of psychosocial development: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority, Identity vs. Role Confusion, Intimacy vs. Isolation, and Bambi vs. Godzilla.

These are the phases that we pass thru as we grow from infants -- dependent upon the world for everything -- to adults who are capable of fending for ourselves, and of appreciating the humor of a cute fawn in a bucolic setting being smashed flat by a giant lizard foot.

It is the societal aspect of this that struck me this past Saturday, when I was riding my bicycle to the Nashville Motorplex so that I could win the Nashville Super 80. Not the Bambi thing, of course, but the one before it: Intimacy vs. Isolation (the title of this post ... remember?).

Be One With the Road

A bicycle is an intimate form of travel. You sense the environment thru which you pass much more fully than you do when driving a car.

Usually, this is a good thing. As I crossed Thompson Lane near Nolensville Road, I smelled Krispy Kreme. This is not just a good smell -- it is one of the greatest smells ever. And, as is the wont of such an odour (you must use the British spelling for smells like this), that siren's call of smells lured me, and I answered. Two HOT Krispy Kremes right off the assembly line, all melty and gooey and making my fingers sticky, rinsed down with a piping hot cup of really strong coffee, and I was powered up and ready for the race.

Would we have won if not for those HOT Krispy Kremes and coffee? Perhaps. But I'm glad that I do not know.

Just past the Krispy Kreme on Grandview, a road that parallels Nolensville Road but has none of the traffic or stop lights, is a taqueria owned by La Hacienda -- a popular chain of mexican restaurants here in Nashville. This place also has a wonderful smell, thanks to the tortillas that they cook there. Drive by it in a car -- even with the windows down -- and you will not get to enjoy it. Ride past it on a bike, and you will want mexican food for dinner.

Not all odors are gustatory, of course. This time of year there are pear tree blossoms, and in the summer the smell of honeysuckle can overwhelm you. And not all odors are good, either. Chicken farms and old road kill on hot summer days can make you re-route your ride.

And there are other things that you may miss from a car that ... well, you won't mind missing. The shake-and-bake surface of an Alabama road. Mind-numbing miles of flatness thru south Georgia cornfields. Feral Kentucky dogs.

We take the good with the bad. Maybe because it makes it easier to appreciate just how good the good is, or maybe it's just because by missing one you can miss it all. You have to open yourself up to the opportunity and take the chance ... so, your choice is clear:

Intimacy vs. Isolation

Monday, April 13, 2009

How I Won the Nashville Super 80

This past Saturday I won another bike race, dominating the competition with a display of raw strength and power that redefined the bounds of what was heretofore considered possible of a "mortal" man.

I was awesome.

Me me me me me me me.

Get it?

Hmmm ... That's Not What I Heard

Oh, all right.

I was very fortunate to be a member of the Harpeth Cutters team this past Saturday, at the Music City Motorplex at the State Fairgrounds, when we won the inaugural Nashville Super 80 Bicycle Race. We managed to beat the other teams by four laps, averaging around 25 mph on single-speed bikes with flat (i.e., no clipping in and no toe-strap) pedals, going around the 0.8 mile banked track.

It was painful, it was hectic, it was exhilirating, and it was a blast.

Chance Favors the Prepared Mind

Again, the victory was a testimony to preparation and training. Les Wooldridge, our captain, put together an incredible team of athletes, including Connie Weisner, Vic Hardin, Bill Glass, Lisa Starmer, Greg Turner, Don Mason, Laura Reinert, and Bob Rowland. He then added me, RandoBoy, for plucky comic relief. And to give the other teams a bit of a chance.

Here we are at the end of the race doing jumping jacks.

Once Les had assembled his "crack" team, he then put together a strategy: Go in the direction that the other teams were going, but faster.


Okay, there was more to it. He had us all get on the bikes at the track early, so we knew just what was going to be demanded of us. If you've ever ridden a single-speed bike with 67.4 gear inches you know why: You gotta spin. Fast. If you want to keep the speed over 20, you better be able to maintain a cadence of at least 120.

We're talking Road Runner here just before he goes "beep-beep" and flips the coyote off.

Les also acquired two bikes that suited our range of sizes (see picture above), and got Bill Glass to tweak the rides so that they were in top shape and easy to quickly configure for each rider during the race. As a fellow randonneur, Bill knows how to do this better than anyone. He is the MacGyver of Bicycles.

Bill also spins better than anybody. He and Les, during the training rides, were the only ones who could get these bikes over 30 mph.

Here's Bill coming across the finish line to take the checkered flag.

Bill got this assignment largely due to his years of racing: He was one of the few of us that could be trusted to take his hands off the bars like this.

By the way, if you don't think total preparation of a bicycle before a race is important, ask the RandoWife. Her group, Team Lanterne Rouge, came in third -- about one lap behind the second-place Wheel Banditos. On one of their team bikes, the rear wheel locked up about half-way around the track. Their rider cut a hole in his leg, and had to then shoulder the bike cyclo-cross style and run it back to the pit.

Here's the RandoWife riding for her team. Note that this bike has a rear derailleur, but it was locked down so she couldn't shift. This was their replacement bike for the one that broke.

The other invaluable piece of preparation was the racing order. Les sent out a hypothetical series of riders and laps, and everyone gave superb feedback on it. He then modified it, and modified it again, largely with the help of Connie Weisner. We then had a great plan that allowed us to use the right resources at the right time, changing rhythms to keep the competition guessing, and giving everyone just enough rest after their rides so they would be recovered, but not so much that they would get cold.

Perhaps as important on Saturday, the team stuck to the plan. We've all seen efforts go down in flames when folks decide to shake things up that are working great, but the Cutters didn't. We just sat back, continued to execute, and stayed loose.

We were loose enough that our captain was about to jump up on the wall and boogie in the middle of the race.

Now that's what a bike race should be all about.

Special thanks to Al Wagner, who took all of the great photos in today's blog. He even got one of me looking fast. 

I don't even seem to notice that my front tire is almost flat.

Monday, April 6, 2009

How I Won the Heart of the South 500

The past weekend, I won the Heart of the South 500 race, in Birmingham, AL, finishing the race in 30 hours and 24 minutes. This made for an average speed of just over 17 mph over the 517 miles, with climbs over Fort Mountain, in Chatsworth, GA, and Mount Cheaha, the tallest peak in Alabama.

Crowds cheered, ladies swooned, and grown men wept. Had he been awake when I came into the parking lot of the Bank South, the mayor of Birmingham would have given me the key to the city and declared April 5th "RandoBoy Day." There probably would have been a parade, too. With marching bands.

I was "assisted" by Alan Gosart, Vida Greer, and Jeff ... um ... oh, yeah, Bauer. I let them ride some short, easy sections of the course for me, which obviously accounts for our overall average of 17 mph being so much less than my personal moving average of near 40. It was a "team" effort though -- much in the way that Rambo movies are. Would you appreciate the un-stoppable force that is Rambo if you could not see how anyone that is briefly fighting alongside him tries hard to carry on when they get shot a few times? So, Adam, Verna, and ... oh, whatever their names were ... they were my Colonel Troutman. Their weakness made my strength that much more obvious.

I purposely did not use the PowerTap, since the power output display is limited to only three digits. Saris: What were you thinking? Did you not realize that RandoBoy might use your product? Tsk-tsk.

At the end of the race, I donated my jewel-encrusted trophy to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and once again declined the rather insistent advances of the podium girls (Ilsa and Genevieve: Nothing personal, but my heart belongs to the RandoWife). I had then hoped to finish ending hunger, but rain clouds moved in (I draw my power from your planet's yellow sun, you see), so I had to limit the rest of my day to discovering an ecologically sound renewable source of energy.

Wow. That's Not the Way I Heard It

Okay, it may have gone a little different from that ...

The truth is, Team Gran Fondo Heart of the South actually was the fastest four-person team in the 517-mile race this year, finishing in 30:22. The other four-person team, Georgia Chain Gang, finished just behind us at 30:29. For the two-man teams, Roadworx put in a blazing time of 29:58 and Get Bent was 31:29. Kevin Kaiser was the only solo finisher at 35:41.

For a better breakdown of the times, go to the results page on the Heart of the South website.

We were the only four-person mixed team this year, and the only team to ever do this race self-supported, so that we had no non-racing crew members. Every rider took turns driving the support vehicle or navigating, so that you never had more than 45 minutes to an hour of "down" time. This made for some sleepy people when we finally got back to Birmingham.

This was truly a team effort, with all four of us -- Vida Greer, Alan Gosart, Jeff Bauer, and RandoBoy (in his guise as mild-mannered endurance cyclist Robert Hendry) giving 100% towards the goal. It was a beautiful example of how thoughtful planning, dedicated training, and hard work -- plus incredible luck giving us the best weather this race has had in years -- can yield success.

Above, from left, is RandoBoy, Vida, Alan, and Jeff.

(NOTE: Lots of pictures and other information on this is available on the Gran Fondo website).

The Ride Begins

Friday, we drove down from my house to Birmingham, checked into the hotel, did our grocery shopping, and ate dinner at the late afternoon team meeting at the hotel. Everyone then went to bed, managing to bank an extra 4-5 hours in preparation of the ride. We all got up about 11 pm, checked out of the hotel, and headed to the starting line at the bank.

We ended up being the second team out, at two minutes past midnight. As we had planned, Jeff and Alan would ride first, each doing two sets of an hour each, before Vida and I rode.

The team of Gary Carter and Doyce Johnson, Get Bent, were soon breathing down our necks. These were two excellent recumbent riders who had been on Team Gran Fondo Fixies with Jeff and me on the Race Across America (RAAM) last year, so it was a good-natured rivalry as Jeff and Gary dueled on the first hilly miles. Eventually Jeff pulled away -- although Gary later told us it was because he hit a pothole on one of the descents and blew out a front tire. He managed to stop the bike without crashing, but the tire was damaged in such a way that they would have later have trouble with it descending Cheaha Saturday night. These issues slowed the team considerably.

Here's Gary at the start, all wrapped up in a recumbent prophylactic.

Jeff and Alan got the team through the first time station in four hours, maintaining over 18 miles per hour. I then got on the road, enjoying the frosty temperatures for an hour, before Vida came on and cycled as the sun rose.

Daytime Riding

My 4 AM stint, with temperatures in the upper 30s, had chilled me to the bone, numbing my feet and hands. I put on more clothes before taking over at 6 AM, which helped me stay much more comfortable as the sun continued to rise and bring us some warmth.

The brightening day also meant that the van was no longer forced to stay immediately behind the rider and we could do "leapfrog" support. Thus, the RAAMinator stopped for gas as I rode on into Little River Canyon. Morning mist and roaring waterfalls, with blooming greenery all around made this a great stretch of the course. The road is also almost perfect for cycling -- smooth and empty, with just enough roll to keep you shifting as you try to sprint up short steep pitches and zoom down little descents.

Midway through the canyon, the RAAMinator caught back up and Vida took over. I could then enjoy the view from the warmth of the van, and even stop to shoot a few quick pictures from the overlooks.

Here's Jeff in front of the falls. He is smiling.

Jeff took over again just before the next time station, getting the state-line sprint into Georgia. During this section, we frequently swapped positions with Georgia Chain Gang. Get Bent had managed to pass us during the night, after fixing Gary's flat tire, but we would regularly see their support vehicle and knew that they were close.

Here's Vida getting ready to pass a rider from Georgia Chain Gang.

Coming into Lafayette, we leapfrogged Jeff a couple of miles and stopped at a convenience store. The course here had him on the shoulder of a four-lane road, which was littered with debris, and he got a flat. We were again ahead of Georgia Chain Gang, who came upon Jeff as he finished putting in the new tube, and they pumped up his tire.

Leaving the convenience store, we saw the Georgia Chain Gang rider go by before Jeff and knew something was up. As we began to climb the long hill out of town, he explained what had happened, and I noticed his tire still looked pretty under-inflated. At the top, we quickly put Alan on for a couple of minutes and topped off Jeff's tire pressure, then sprinted back ahead of Alan and put Jeff back on to finish his hour. This was just another example of how excellent teamwork, combined with a great support vehicle with the perfect bike rack, made this ride so much easier and faster.

Alan's second hour of this shift got us through the next time station, and I took over about 10 miles from Chatsworth. Alan had closed the gap again on the Georgia Chain Gang rider, and I was able to pass him again within the first couple of miles, mostly because I was still fresh. Georgia Chain Gang did not pass us again for the rest of the race, although they were always close behind.

I pushed the pace pretty hard going into Chatsworth, managing to catch up with Gary Carter just before town. I thought I was riding strong, until I pulled even with him and realized that he was eating a piece of pizza. Talk about an eye-opener! Once he finished eating, he passed me again.

Fort Mountain

On the other side of Chatsworth we would begin climbing Fort Mountain, so Jeff came up with an excellent idea here. We put Vida on a couple of miles before the climb began to warm up, and then let her do the first two miles of the climb. Then, she and I swapped off each mile to the top.

We had trained to do our long climbs in this way, with Vida and I attacking Alto Road like this on our training ride last month. The tactic worked brilliantly, mostly due to Vida's incredible prowess as a climber, and we were up and over the 7+ miles in no time. I then took the descent down, before passing the reins to Vida as we headed for Ellijay.

Here's Vida rocketing up Fort Mountain.

We fought steep rollers and headwinds for the next couple of hours before Jeff and Alan took over again about 5 pm. We passed through the next time station, and were able to leapfrog for each of their next sessions. This enabled us to get gas and ice for the RAAMinator before falling back in behind Jeff near Coosa, GA, as darkness fell.

Night Two

The RAAMinator just before sunset, at the end of our last leapfrog.

Alan's typical blistering pace got the team through Cave Spring, GA, where I came on. This night was not as cold as Friday night had been, and I rode hard across the state line back into Alabama. I crossed the Silver Comet Trail to get on a route that I remembered from the old Georgia 600K. Once back in Alabama, I remembered why I didn't like this route: The road was painfully bumpy and steeply rolling. I was glad when my hour ended and Vida took over again.

While Vida did her hour, I grabbed a quick half-hour power nap. Although these will not completely replace real sleep, I have found that I can stretch the amount of time that I can function if I can get a couple of these during very long rides. I had actually dozed off for a few minutes in Ellijay, so this nap and another brief snooze got me back to Birmingham.

When the team woke me 10 minutes before my ride began, Vida had put away a lot of miles. My first few minutes on I felt incredibly cold, even though the temperature outside was almost 50. After 10 minutes of chattering teeth, I hit some rollers that finally warmed me up, and began riding a decent pace all the way to the start of Cheaha.

As I began up Route 281, I found another reason to curse Alabama roads. The chip and seal surface, with lots of pea gravel in the road and big gravel along the side, was bumpy and a little slippery. Plus, the steepness of the pitch had me almost immediately crawling along on the small chainring of my triple. The descents were not at all pleasant.

After two miles of this, I was again glad to let Vida take over. Although some of the sections here are leg-shattering steep, she was able to zip up them easily -- and she didn't have a triple! When we would ask her how she was doing, she would reply cheerfully that she was "fine ... maybe a little warm."

Jeff took over again about four miles from the top. We got a kick out of plugging an iPod into the PA system here and playing some "climbing music" for him. Vida choose The Who's "Eminence Front," which perked him up and got him over the top.

Smelling the Barn

Near the end of the perilous descent down Cheaha Road, Alan took over again. With only 70+ miles, we decided that each of us would take one final, slightly longer session, so Alan gave it his all to the last time station in Talledega. During this stretch, we had the only "rain" of the ride, although Alan said only about 40 rain drops hit him.

As we came into town, we saw a rider's van in the parking lot of the Super WalMart. We recognized the van as Kevin Kaiser, who had ridden RAAM last summer with Jeff as Team Gran Fondo Fixies. As it turned out, he was the only solo rider to finish, and they had stopped there for everyone to get a nap.

It was after 2 AM, and the only place open in town was a Huddle House restaurant. We stopped there, and Alan got out of his riding clothes while Jeff and I changed back into ours. We also got a thermos full of coffee for the long road ahead. Kids from Talledega College were crowding the booths and driving the waitress to distraction, and we were an interesting change of pace in a small town after a late night of partying.

Coming on, Jeff quickly cranked out the miles through Talledega and across Logan Martin Lake, where I took over. It felt great knowing that this would be my last pull, so I let it all go as I went up and over the last long hill of the course on Route 41. Vida then took over again as the sun started up, devouring the final miles to the finish line.


As I said, this was a team effort. We could not have had a better group of riders, with a more perfect mix of skills and strengths and knowledge. We knew what was needed of us, and all pitched in to help out as best we could at every opportunity. More than just a team, it was a group of friends pitching in, and having fun.

Our preparation and process was excellent as well. As each of us came off duty, we would get rested and fueled so that we could get back out and do it again. If we were going to be off duty for at least five hours, we ate or drank a recovery mix. Although my legs are a little sore today, 24 hours after the end of the race, I feel like I could almost start the race again.

Another great piece of preparation was getting the Saris Cycle-On Pro bike rack on the back of the RAAMinator. Lynn Greer, at Gran Fondo Cycles in Nashville (a.k.a., the Greatest Bike Shop in the Universe) sold it to me at a price that I cannot legally divulge. Lynn also loaned us a spare Campagnolo rear wheel and a bag full of spare parts, tubes, tires, and so forth.

Alan would probably also give Lynn credit for how well his ride went. As we followed Alan in the van, we all marveled at his excellent bike position -- very aerodynamic, with superb power transfer. He later told us how comfortable he had been in that position, thanks to the setup he and Lynn had worked out on Alan's Salsa LaRaza.

Usually, after this kind of ride I look back and ask, "Would I do this again?" Today, I'm not sure that I would -- not because it wasn't a blast, but because it was such a blast. I might not do this again out of fear that the weather would turn bad, or something else would be different and ruin it. This one was so perfect that I am afraid to screw it up like that.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Belly of the Beast : Inside the RAAMinator

As promised, here's the second posting about the RAAMinator. This vehicle is to me what the Batmobile is to Batman. It may not shoot flames out the back (or, at least, it's not supposed to), but it carries more bicycles like Batman's belt carried batarangs. I would say it's analogous to Batman's utility belt, but the utility belt of Randoboy is the various bags that I carry on the front and back of my bike, and that's a whole other list.

First off, let me describe one of the great features of the Toyota Sienna. As a minivan, it has three rows of seats. The middle row is actually two separate seats that can be entirely removed. By doing this, you open up a giant work area in the middle of the van, where you can fix tires, fix sandwiches, or lie down to sleep. And you still have the bench in the rear of the van for someone to just sit.

On RAAM, we left the bench down and pulled out one of the middle row seats. I then built a platform "bed" with sliding plastic bins underneath, and installed this down one side of the van. The bins were our main storage area for Jeff Bauer's clothes, tools, embrocations, etc., when he and Kevin Kaiser rode fixed gear bikes across the country in eight days, four hours, and 21 minutes.

For Heart of the South, we're going to try the "no middle row with big staging area" approach. I'll let you know how it works out, but it was great on the training ride.

The other cool thing about the bench seat on the back row is that you can leave half of it down. By doing this, you make it easy for somebody to get behind the other part of the seat, which now has a well behind it. (The well is the place that the seat folds down into when not in use.)

For Heart of the South, we will be using this well for coolers, and the seat back will make a nice little low wall, so people can duck behind it to change into and out of cycling clothes.

Elsewhere, the RAAMinator has lots of bungee cords strung about, so people can hang up wet clothing. The bungees are also good for holding rolls of paper towels, which you use a lot of on this kind of ride.

The RAAMinator also has lots of bins built in, and cup holders galore. I've hung other storage things on the back of every seat, so there are lots of places to put things like flashlights and tools and extra batteries and tissue paper. I've also got a full toolkit and lots of spare stuff in a big Thule storage unit that goes in the middle of the staging area.

Up front, the driver has easy access to a thermometer, to see how cold or hot it is outside, and a race clock. There's a laptop tray for the navigator, and a power inverter under the seat to power the laptop. The navigator also has easy access to the cue sheet, rules, and PA system.

I'll let you know next week how all of this works out on Heart of the South this weekend.