Friday, January 28, 2011

Goodbye, Old Paint

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you've probably heard of the RAAMinator.

For the past five years, the RAAMinator has been my favorite way to get to rides that start more than 50 miles from home. Of course, I'd rather bike there, but that's not always an option. Given the weather lately, just doing a 200K is hard enough -- biking 50 miles to and from a 200K is downright ridiculous.

The RAAMinator was the setting for many a great adventure. It took its name from the 2008 Race Across AMerica, of course, when we used it to bring a bunch of gear out to Oceanside, CA, and then we slowly drove it back to Annapolis, MD, while Jeff Bauer and Kevin Kaiser rode fixed-gear bicycles. Jeff and I used it to support another race in the spring of 2009, when Alan Gosart and Vida Greer joined us to do a self-supported four-person team on the Heart of the South 500-mile race.

It carried us to brevets in Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky, as well as to almost every corner of Tennessee. Last year, it carried Max Watzz to a lot of races. I've slept in the front seat, back seat, and in the rear bed. I've eaten more meals in it than I have had in the dining room of my house.

Good memories. Yes.

But that's also a lot of miles. Hard miles. And there were a lot of things that I bumped into on the way, or ran over, or scraped against. And, frankly, that food? Let's just say I was not always very good at finding lost french fries.

So the RAAMinator was starting to hiccup a bit when it ran. It was dented and crumpled in a few places. And, inside, it smelled like four-year-old french fries.

Also, there were always a few things about the RAAMinator that were never right. For one thing, since it was a minivan, putting a rack on a hitch on the back was not good. The hitch was very low, so that turning in to or out of parking lots in hillier parts of the world often sent sparks spewing from the hitch. And you always had to carefully plan loading bikes onto that rack, since once bikes were on it, you could forget about opening the back door.

It also got terrible gas mileage. It was too big for just one or two riders, but that's what it typically toted. And I never felt good about the bike racks on the roof, since they seemed a little flimsy.

This past summer, I started researching RAAMinator replacements. I had a list of requirements and "nice to have's" for the next vehicle, and soon had my options narrowed. In December, I was ready to buy.

Enter the WatzzWagon.

It's a 2008 Ford Escape SUV. It's got lots of bike room on the roof.

And, since it's an SUV, it easily holds the bike rack on the back.

I would have to seriously screw up to scrape that hitch pulling out of a driveway. Although right now I've just got a two-bike rack, I can install the extension on the Saris rack and hold four back there if I want.

With bikes on the rack, I can't open the full rear hatch, but I can open the window on that hatch.

This means that I can get stuff out of the back without having to pull the bikes off the rack first. That includes my cute little pink pump.

I've already put down heavy plastic mats throughout, too. These will help me find and immediately remove errant french fries.

I said above that I can extend the rear rack, but I don't know when I will ever need to do this, thanks to the Rocky Mounts bike carriers on the roof.

These racks are easily extended, so you can put a single or a tandem up there. These are also the kind of racks that let you clamp the front of the tandem in, and then just lift the back of the tandem up and on to the rack.

The inside is also very plush.

Leather seats, front and back. Notice again that I've got the nice heavy plastic floor mats for french fries and muddy, stinky bicyclists.

One obvious difference between the WatzzWagon and the RAAMinator is in the number of people each could hold. The RAAMinator could carry up to seven people and six bikes. The WatzzWagon will only hold four people and their bikes ... although I could stretch it to six and six.

This is kind of by design. I wanted to get the gas consumption down, but I also don't want to have to worry about situations where I could carry that many people. The only time that I did it, it was a logistical nightmare. Besides, I just don't have that many friends.

By limiting it to four, we all get to ride in comfort. The front even has dual heating/cooling zones, with seat warmers.

It's also got satellite radio, and a built in thermometer to tell me that it's cold outside.

And, if I didn't mention this earlier, it's a hybrid.

Yes, I'm green. I'm also cheap, and gas around here now is $3.19/gallon.

The WatzzWagon will tell me how my gas mileage is. I've gotten it to just over 30 mpg, but it is usually just 29.9 when I'm stuck driving back and forth to work.

I will always have a fond place in my heart for the RAAMinator, and the good times that we had together. But I am really looking forward to getting to some rides this year -- in ecologically conscious, inexpensive comfort -- in the WatzzWagon.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Meteor Shower

I recently had an epiphany that was over 40 years in the making.

It started Thursday when I picked up my new time trial bike from Gran Fondo (a.k.a., the Bestest Ever Establishment Selling Anything Bike-Related Everwhere -- or BEE SABRE for short). It's an Orbea Ordu, black and silver and really time-slipstreamy. It's my first carbon fiber bike ever. Beneath the collosal quads of Max Watzz, it has the potential to go very fast this year.

Lynn Greer spent over an hour fitting me to the bike, tweaking the saddle forward, then down, then changing the stem, then moving the bars a bit, then moving the saddle again, then yadda-yadda. Eventually, he had everything set that I was very aerodynamic and able to put lots of thrust onto the pedals, plus bent painfully doubled into a position that I can (hopefully) survive for an hour. In time-trail land, this is called "good."

Now, you know what it's like when you get a shiny new gee-gaw. You immediately want to go play with it. And, as I rolled the bike out of the shop Thursday afternoon I soooo badly wanted to go out and ride it.

But it had started to snow. Again.

We've now officially had more snow in middle Tennessee so far this winter than in the past 25 years. It's the kind of snow that sticks, too ... not just the stuff that falls pretty and melts when it hits the grass. This junk stays for days. The Department of Transportation puts salt on it to turn it grey, then pushes it to the side of the road so that it can last a long, long time. It melts a little in the afternoon, and the runoff water freezes that night into black ice. Ice that lies in wait for cyclists, so it can make you fall so hard that you're sure that you've broken your hip.

Of course, I had to work Thursday afternoon, so I just put the bike in the back of the car and headed for the office. That evening, I took the bike out and put it in the RandoCave. It hasn't moved since. It may not move for weeks. And I'm okay with that.

I was nine years old when I got my own first bike. Until then, I would borrow my brother's bike, or sometimes my sister's, but the Christmas of 1968 I got a big, blue bicycle that was all my own. It wasn't a road bike, but one of those kid's cruisers that were popular then. It even had a headlight built right into the frame.

Most of my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins lived in Florida back then, in and around Ft. Myers. Most Christmases back then we would drive down to Ft. Myers as soon as school let out, and come back just before school started up again. This was why I didn't even see the bicycle until we came back from the trip in January. We walked in late that afternoon and found that Santa Claus had come while we were away (I have no idea how my parents set that up). I immediately rushed outside with that shiny blue and silver wonder, and started riding it around and around the wide spot outside the garage at the end of our driveway.

It started to snow then, which was very rare in Atlanta. It was just flurries, or course ... the good kind of snow that doesn't stick, and doesn't become grey heaps along the roads, and never turns to cyclist-thwarting ice. I don't even remember it being particularly cold. All that I remember is that the snow became a meteor shower to me, and I was piloting the Jupiter 7 through it. I dodged snowflakes until it was dark enough to turn the headlight on, and then watched as the beam created a magic cone of tiny white wafers, appearing from nothing and dropping almost immediately into their sodden doom.

Eventually, my mom made me come inside. I probably opened other presents then, and I apologize now to my mom and dad and brothers and sister and whoever else gave me stuff that year. I'm sure that they were wonderful; they were just destined to pale in comparison.

You could say that it would be foolish of me to take my new carbon fiber time-trial bike out in this kind of weather. Snowy grit would clog some things, while road salt would rust others. And that nice time-trialing position that Lynn grooved for me would not be a comfortable way to dodge snow meteors. So, I'll keep the Orbea in the RandoCave until the roads are clear and the weather warmer, when I can properly begin training for the new racing season.

But, I gotta admit: It sucks acting mature.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Slip-Sliding Away

Before I tell you about the "accident," let me first make this perfectly clear: I had no choice.

Really, it could not have been avoided ... probably. Sure, I could have not biked in to work Thursday, but it was a compulsion. For one thing, I made a New Year's resolution to bike in to work at least one day every week this year (except when I'm in France in August), and I was running out of days. For another thing, I had not been on a "real" bike since riding in and out from work last Friday.

You see, the weather here lately sucks. (Okay, I'm sugar-coating that, but this is a family blog.) RandoGirl and Iwent to Atlanta to see family over the weekend, rather than ride in the cold and snow, and when we came back Sunday evening the damage was done. Then, every other day this week, Mother Nature has done more damage.

Wednesday night, it was either get on the rollers or go to a spin class. I did two hours of classes, taught by my friend Tom Spears. Tom does a great class, and I would love to write a blog about them. But they're spin classes. The only thing more boring than taking a spin class is writing about spin classes, and the only thing more boring than writing about spin classes is reading about spin classes. And, as you now can probably testify, the only thing more boring than reading about spin classes is reading about reading about spin classes.

Maybe this is because I'm such a lousy writer. A real writer would make it thrilling.

Hemingway: "He spun. Outside, it rained."

Steinbeck: "He kept trying to focus on keeping his legs from going all wobbledy-jongle like they usually did when the cadence got crazy, but the darned things just kept going all wobbledy-jongle anyhow."

Elmore Leonard: "'Take it to 9. Crank that dial,' Tom said. 'Shoot me now,' Jane thought. At least she had the gun to do it with."

Anyway, even after Tom's excellent class, I still needed to ride outside. So, Wednesday night when I checked the weather forecast and it said no more snow, I decided to bike in.

It was still bitterly cold, but I've got stuff for that. Temperatures in the low 20's just mean an extra ten minutes of putting on clothing and chemical warmers, but I rolled out in the pre-dawn dark feeling almost toasty. The patches of ice in my neighborhood had enough pavement around them so that it was no trouble, and the roads further on were almost completely clear.

I stayed on Edmondson down to Old Smyrna, where I found more ice. Fortunately, the treads of cars had left narrow lanes of clear pavement here and on the road through Annandale. I crossed onto Cloverland -- a nice busy road, which meant that it was also clear ...

And then I screwed up.

Cloverland dead-ends at Old Hickory -- a six-lane road with lots of folks hurrying towards the I-65 on-ramp. You have to be a little insane to ride a bicycle on Old Hickory. While I am a little insane, I am sane enough to normally cut my time on Old Hickory by taking a left here onto Valley View, which also dead-ends on Old Hickory, but about a tenth of a mile further west.

As I headed towards Valley View I saw a car turning on to it very slowly. When I got closer I saw the reason: Just past the start of the road, there was lots and lots of ice. So, now I have to choose between either the dangerous extra tenth of a mile on Old Hickory, or test my ice-biking skills.

I went with the test.

Epic fail.

Now, normal bicycle tires on solid ice don't get any traction. Maybe studded tires would have gripped better, but I doubt it since that ice was solid. It was slick. And it was hard. Really hard. The kind of hard that, when your bike goes ZIP out from under, you whack that ice with all of your weight smack-dab on your hip. Ouch.

But, hey, I'm Randoboy, right? I crash my bike all the time ... or so it sometimes seems. I got up quickly (didn't want to get run over by the next car) and slip-slide-walked my bike to the edge of the road. There, I checked everything out, making sure that the wheels still spun, and that my clothes and skin didn't have any new holes. Check, check, and check. Then, I picked my broken coffee cup up, put it in the bottle cage, and headed down Cloverland towards Old Hickory thinking that cars could not be any more treacherous than ice.

Four miles further on -- including a brief stop at Panera for more coffee, and a bit of riding on and then walking next to an icy sidewalk -- I got to work. My hip was numb when I changed clothes, and the swelling there looked like I had been grafted onto a large purple eggplant. Walking around hurt even more than biking had, which was just a little more than sitting at my desk hurt. As the day went on, the pain got worse and the joint stiffened up, so I wimped out on biking home and got RandoGirl to pick me up on her way home from work. After I got in the car, we then decided to head to the ER for an x-ray, just in case.

Fortunately, all bones inside me remain solid. I would post a picture or a copy of the x-ray, but frankly both would end up showing some parts that you don't want to look at ... trust me.

Since neither I nor my bike is going to experience long-term loss of function, I'm not even going to call this an "accident." Instead, this is just a "learning opportunity." Fools rush in where angels fear to bike, and I'm going to be a little more cautious around ice in the future. In addition, maybe I need to just accept the fact that spin classes and riding on the rollers may be boring, but sometimes boring stuff is less hazardous to my health.

Monday, January 3, 2011


Christmas weekend, RandoGirl, the RandoDaughter, and I went to the beach. A cold December had burned us out on the need for a White Christmas -- instead, we needed a shot of Vitamin FLA.

Although it wasn't exactly toasty, it was warmer. RandoGirl and I actually rode down to Rosemary Beach for coffee one morning, and didn't have to put on tights and jackets. After the past few weeks in middle Tennessee, that was good enough.

Christmas Eve I went out to do a metric, trying to stay with the "short rides only" prescription that I had given myself the previous weekend. I headed north on the busy but wide shoulder of Hwy 331. After crossing the eastern edge of Choctawhatchee Bay, I turned east onto County Hwy 3280.

There's not much shoulder, but this road is very quiet. Almost too quiet. And straight. And very level.

Basically, it was the above picture. Now stare at it for an hour. Get it?

Eventually, County Hwy 3280 ends at Hwy 20, where I turned southeast and continued to fight the headwind.

Yeah, frighteningly similar. It's got more shoulder, however, which is good because it's a busier road. Watching the cars go by gives you something to keep you awake.

Just before Ebro, you cross a river.

On the other side of the river, there was a "climb." It wasn't much -- more of nature's way of keeping the river in it's place -- but it gave me a reason to shift gears. Gee-haw.

From Ebro, I headed south on Hwy 79.

Now, at first glance it looks the same, but you'll notice that there are four lanes. There wasn't much more traffic, of course, but it changed the feel of the road. For one thing, it gave the wind (yes, it was still a headwind) more room to power up.


Did you know that there are only two states where it is illegal to ride a bicycle wearing any kind of headphones in even one ear? Those states are Rhode Island and Florida. Now, I've never been to Rhode Island, but Sister Mary Leticia told me that it is very small; thus, I can't imagine that you need to ride with music there. You could probably cross the whole state listening of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.

However, you obviously need to ride with music, or something to break up the monotony of straight, flat, windy roads in Florida. Otherwise, you will have nothing to do other than think things like

"3+2+8+0 = 13. That's not lucky."

"Why is it that pine trees don't have as much spanish moss as oak trees?"

"If you move the letters around, you can turn 'Ebro' into 'bore.'"

"7 + 9 = 16. You have to be 16 before you can drive."

"If you move the letters around, you can turn 'pine' into ... "

As I got closer to Panama City, I found a bike lane.

Close inspection of the icon, however, revealed that the lane was reserved for use by Canadian sailors only.

Since I was already breaking the law by riding with an iPod in one year, I threw all caution to the wind and pedaled blithely along.

Not long after this, I passed the airport and then climbed the bridge back over the Intracoastal Waterway.

Looking down the channel, you can tell that this would be a pretty dull ride in a boat, too.

Hwy 98 through Panama City is chock-a-block with stores, hotels, warehouses, factories, and all kinds of hoopdedoodle. The shoulder is pretty good, although I did encounter one pair of very old bike salmon as I rode along. The male gave me the old stink eye, while the female called out a cheery good day. She had a big basket on the front of her bike, too. Put together, these countered the smell of the old man's baleful orbit and kept me from giving them a stern admonishment about which side of the road we ride on "here in the states." It was possible that they were retired Canadian sailors, and unschooled in the finer points of American biking.

Soon, the hubbub of Panama City was behind me, and I was approaching my turn back on to the uber-gentrified fairyland that is 30A.

As I pulled back into the parking lot behind our house, I realized that I had not put my foot down on the ground since starting the ride 65 miles and three and a half hours earlier. It was now 1 pm, though, and RandoGirl and the RandoDaughter were ready for lunch. I got cleaned up, and we went to Seaside for lunch.

Vacation is good.