Monday, February 28, 2011

The Pizza Payoff

On any ride longer than 200K, there is always this moment where I ask myself the tough question: What the heck am I doing out here?

It isn't just me. I've talked to a lot of randonneurs, and most of them agree that things start to hurt after 100 miles. If you're riding fast, it's probably your legs. If you're riding slow, it's probably your butt. If you're riding at just the perfect level for you -- a speed that you can handle without building up any toxins in your muscles, moving at a pace that lets you get out of the saddle and stretch and rest things when you need to -- then you're probably riding by yourself.

I've ridden by myself. A lot. I don't mind it, but if you're working into a 15 mph headwind, it's not the best way to go.

Saturday, I rode the first 300K on the middle Tennessee series, going from Brentwood to Sewanee and back. That's a pretty direct southern track. The wind was out of the south, at 10-15 mph.

Not a day for riding alone.

It was also one of those days with a wide temperature swing. It was freezing when we started. I had just the right clothing, and was comfortable everywhere but my hands. By the time we passed through College Grove at mile 20, however, it had warmed up enough that my fingers again felt fine.

Since we had limited daylight this early in the year, we were trying to move quickly through the controls. We stopped long enough to get drinks and something quick to eat at the first control in Bell Buckle, also pulling off the top layer of clothes. Half a dozen of us had ridden more or less together to this point, but the pace came up a bit as we headed out, and I fell off the lead group. Jeff Bauer, who was riding his fixed gear bike, stayed with me.

The wind was dead in our teeth between Normandy and the second control in Tullahoma, and then cross-wise to us as we shifted our track slightly east. We still made good time, though, and were soon climbing Roark's Cove Road.

Since Jeff didn't have any gears, I was able to get to the top first. I had stripped off most of the warm clothing from earlier in the day, but still had on knee warmers and a long-sleeve wool jersey. I could have done without either of those on the steep parts of this cruel but lovely road.

At the top, I caught most of the group that had been ahead of us in line for sandwiches at Shenanigans. I ordered a burger for me and a turkey with cheese for Jeff, who arrived soon afterwards. We quickly ate and topped off our fluids, and then started back down the mountain. We were joined by Bob Hess.

For the first 97 miles, we had comforted ourselves with the hope that we would have a 15 mph tailwind on the return. Of course, those never quite pan out. The wind was mostly on our quarter, or cross-wise to us, and sometimes even back in our faces as he rolled through the mostly flat farmland. We finally found the true tailwind on the long road ending at Tullahoma, and Bob set a blistering pace there.

We quickly cleared the control there. I sat down on the sidewalk in front of the store to eat a candy bar and drink a Diet Coke, and then we mounted back up for the next leg. The following wind here stayed true, and we made it to Wartrace before we had to turn on our taillights.

In Bell Buckle we caught up with Steve Godbey and Steve Phillips, who decided to finish up with us. We all topped off our bottles, put most of our cold-weather clothes back on, and then donned reflective gear before rolling out.

The sky still had a touch of pink as we headed down the quiet roads towards Fosterville. I had only brought one headlight -- a Busch & Muller IXON that has never given me trouble before. Saturday night, however, it started acting up, and would turn off when I hit a bump. The Fosterville-Bell Buckle Road is pretty bumpy, so this happened a lot. Fortunately, the bright lights of the four riders with me lit everything up just fine, and the IXON eventually sorted itself out. At least, for a few miles.

We moved much more slowly in the dark, and my legs were happy for the break. The temperatures quickly plummeted, though, forcing one quick stop at the College Grove store to stick chemical warmers on my chilled toes. Everyone stopped with me, and we were soon rolling again ... me with happy feet.

Just outside of College Grove, we came across a hillside that was on fire.

As we stopped to take a picture, a firetruck showed up. "How the heck am I going to get in there?" the driver asked us, but we had no answers. We rolled on as another firetruck arrived.

A couple of miles later was the last descent of the route, and my light turned off halfway down this. There was no moon, but I was able to follow my friends' lights and stay on the road. Once at the bottom again, I got things working properly again. I may have to retire that light, though.

It was 9:30 when we finally returned to our cars at the Brentwood YMCA. I was sore and shaky, feeling the tremendous caloric deficit that I had been operating on. I signed my card and loaded up my bike, feeling the cold seep in as my energy level quickly bled off. I sensed that some of the riders were going to hang around for a while talking, but knew that this would not be good for me. I thanked everyone for their help, congratulated them on a good ride, wished them a great evening, and climbed into the Wattzwagen.

I immediately called Jet's Pizza to order a large deep-dish with sausage, onion, and pineapple, for pick-up. Half an hour later, after a hot shower and two slices of pizza, sitting at the breakfast table telling RandoGirl about the ride, I felt almost human again.

What the heck had I been doing out there? Earning that pizza, I guess.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Not Too Early

For most people, February is too early for the first century of the year. This past weekend, RandoGirl did her first century of 2011, stoking our tandem on the Silver Comet Trail.

Most cyclists in Atlanta, GA, know about the Silver Comet. Like all rails-to-trails, it is a multi-use trail built on an abandoned railroad bed. If you've never ridden one of these, they are nice and flat (since trains did not do a good job "revving up" to get over hills back in the good old days). They are also fairly straight, pass through a lot of open country, and then come into the center of quaint old towns.

For example, here's the view from the trail as you enter downtown Cedartown.

Cedartown, however, gives you a mixed message.

"Welcome, cyclists. You are being watched." Like George Orwell is running the Department of Tourism there.

Anyway, RandoGirl and I drove down to Hiram, GA, Friday night. We were there with a dozen other cyclists from the Nashville area -- all Harpeth Bicycle Club members. We only rode with a few of them, and that for somewhat short stretches, but that's another of the beauties of a rails-to-trails -- we didn't need to stay together to avoid getting lost or fix one another's flat tires. Everybody is free to just get on the trail, head either east or west, go as far as they felt like, and then turn around and come back.

Of course, RandoGirl and I had a goal. We wanted to go all the way to Alabama.

The trail continues in Alabama, although there it is the Chief Ladiga Trail. This trail then goes all the way to Anniston, AL, making it almost possible to ride back-to-back centuries using the Silver Comet and Chief Ladiga Trails all the way one day, and then biking back on the next day.

We didn't have the time to go to Anniston, however, so we stopped at mile marker 4 in Alabama.

Some Eagle Scouts were out working on their "50 Mile Biking" badge, and the scoutmaster took our picture. Then, we turned the bike around, mounted back up, and went back to the state line for a picnic.

Yes, that is wine. We had two bottles -- a white and a red. We had sourdough bread, two kinds of meat, two kinds of cheese, crackers, and grapes. I had cups and napkins, too, and a nice Mickey Mouse beach blanket to use as a tablecloth.

We were swanky!

I'd originally packed all of this knowing that it was possible -- albeit unlikely -- that we would end up doing this picnic with a bunch of our Harpeth friends. Since we got separated from them during the course of the trip, RandoGirl and I ended up eating a really big picnic.

You may also notice that RandoGirl and I are just wearing shorts and jerseys in these pictures. This is because it got up to about 70 Saturday afternoon. I had to hide my legs, though, because they have not been shaved since October, and I am hideously hairy.

We enjoyed a light tailwind on the way back. We ripped through Cedartown, but stopped in Rockmart. RandoGirl and I were in the mood for ice cream, but decided to instead have cheesecake and a cannoli, respectively, at Frankie's there.

Yeah, we were hungry and couldn't wait long enough to take a picture.

Leave the gun. Bring the cannoli.

The trail was pretty busy as we continued on towards Atlanta, with people out walking, running, biking, and generally enjoying nature. We slowed down as we approached our hotel, hitting an even 100 miles as we got off the trail for the road back to the hotel.

This was the earliest in the year that RandoGirl had ever done a century, and we had exceptional weather for it. I told her that, by doing one this early, she had laid the base for dozens more just like it in the coming months. If I had said that as we finished some of the first centuries of the year, she would have hit me in the head -- this time, she just agreed.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Automotive Profiling

For years, I've been trying to discern some kind of trend regarding the vehicles that I encounter on the road and the way that they treat me as a cyclist. I had a theory about red pickup trucks for a while, initiated by an episode with one that involved his horn, my middle finger, him pulling over to the side of the road, and then him driving away when I pulled over behind him. (I look small on a bike, but when I get off you can tell that I'm 6' 2" and 180 pounds ... okay, 190.)

But then I had a man and a woman in a red pickup truck pull up to me on Wilson Pike last summer, while I was riding along in the rain, and offer me a ride. I cheerfully declined -- while I don't exactly like biking in the rain, I'm not one to get picked up less than five miles from home -- but they successfully ended my prejudice against red pickup trucks.

Hummers often pass too close, but what choice do they have? They're very wide ... as are their drivers. Ha-ha, just kidding (no, I'm not). But, seriously, Hummers aren't really more obnoxious than other cars ... at least, from a cycling perspective. Besides, the price of gas being what it is lately, it costs $10 just to drive the darn thing down to the mailbox and back. With that level of conspicuous consumption, I expect them to vanish soon.

From my experience, however, the cost of the vehicle does not seem to have any correlation with how well or poorly the driver treats a cyclist. I've been passed too closely by BMW roadsters and Mercedes Benz sedans, but I've also had them move into the other lane and hang behind me for a mile on a curvy road. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I've been buzzed by rusted out Gremlins and coddled by the last surviving Ford Pinto.

As someone who frequently rides both downtown and way out in the country, I can also tell you that there is no big difference between rural and urban drivers. On quiet back roads, rural drivers typically have more room to pass safely, so they do. On busy city streets, urban drivers may end up stuck behind me moving a little more slowly than they care to, but they usually just wait until a good spot to get around me. You could, maybe, make the argument that city drivers are less likely to run you over because there are more witnesses, but I think most of them just realize that getting past me doesn't really gain them anything since we will both be waiting together at that next red light.

I would not expect any difference based on the race or gender of the driver, and have not seen any. If there is a difference based on age, it's that very young and very old drivers tend to be a little more extreme. Many young drivers are not used to passing cyclists, so they either go too far in the "safe" direction (sometimes crossing to the shoulder on the other side of the road) or they just pass as if you aren't there. Very old drivers often behave the same, but when they pass you closely it's because that they really may not see you due of the cyclist-shaped cataract in their right eye.

So, you may ask, is there no way for a cyclist to spot the driver to avoid?

It's a subtle thing, and you may have to get a dorkiscope (also known as a helmet- or eyeglass-mounted mirror, although one of those that goes on your handlebars will work, too) to see them early enough, but you should watch out for the ones whose time is obviously more valuable than yours is.

This is the guy that passes the school bus as the "Stop" sign is coming out, or pulls out onto a busy road when there really isn't a good opening, forcing the next three cars to tap their brakes. He will cheat down the other lane that ends in 100 yards just to move up a few spaces, because this means that he can get home 30 seconds earlier than he otherwise might. And he really needs those extra 30 seconds.

Now, maybe this person is going to use those extra 30 seconds to cure cancer or bring peace to the world, in which case I do not begrudge them their ill behavior towards other cars. But often they're just trying to get home to watch a "Two-and-a-Half Men" re-run, and there's a good chance that they might hit a kid coming out to that school bus, or cause an accident when they count on somebody's brakes being good. There's also a chance that they will pass me on my bicycle in a blind corner and find themselves facing an oncoming semi, and --- since their time is so valuable they certainly can't waste any of it in a hospital -- they come back into my lane and ... crunch!

Ultimately, the only thing that any of us really has is time. We get to choose how we spend it -- with loved ones, making money, curing cancer, watching sitcoms, being a shmuck, or riding a bicycle. Beware the person who wants to cut short your time just so they can have a little more.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Making the Long Choice

Last year, I spent much of my riding season in a tug of war between RandoBoy and Max Watzz. At heart, I will always be more RandoBoy-ish than Max Watzz-esque, but there will always be a part of me that yearns for the conquest that only comes when I cry "Ouch!" and let slip the Quads of War.

Of course, last year I had more freedom. I could choose the Max Watzz solution during the summer, once I had finished doing a 200K, 300K, 400K, and 600K in preparation for Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP). By the end of May, the long rides that I had to do were over, and I could just train for shorter-but-faster races. This year, I've got to do another full series, and then maintain my endurance in preparation for PBP in August. So, while I will have the option of doing a few races during the summer, I can't let that interfere with my brevet schedule or continuing to regularly ride 200Ks and 300Ks during June and July.

You would think that this would be no big deal. You would be wrong.

Maybe if I was 20 years younger, I would be able to recover better from brevets and race ... or vice-versa. In the Grand Tours, cyclists race 200K day after day for three weeks, with the occasional day off and some shorter routes that have 10,000 feet of climbing. Of course, the oldest pro cyclist is in his late 30's, and these are the best bicyclists in the world. They've trained for this their entire lives. And, they have access to better drugs than I.

Anyway, I realized that I might not be able to balance my RandoBoy brevets with my Max Watzz ways last Sunday, when I tried to do a two-hour endurance-pace ride with Team Belladium on the day after riding the Cathey's Creek 200K permanent on my single-speed.

Now, if you've never done a 200K on a single-speed or fixed gear bike, you really should. It is, of course, a little harder in some ways than doing that same ride with gears and derailleurs, but in other ways it is very simple. You don't waste a lot of time shifting. As long as the grade stays below 15%, I think that you climb better. When it gets above 15%, you walk about the same.

From a racer perspective, it's actually an excellent mix of "fast-pedal" drills with "muscle tension" workouts. If a racer were ever to do a 200K on a single-speed, they would find that they could work on their stroke mechanics and build power at the same time.

So, doing the 200K on my Salsa was a good workout for RandoBoy and Max Watzz. I got lots of saddle time and did the kind of training that Coach MacKillimiquads would prescribe.

But racing requires you regularly get into a fast-paced group and hang on. You win road races by doing this, particularly if you can somehow have something left at the end so you can out-sprint everyone over the finish line. And the best way to train for fast-paced group rides is by doing fast-paced group rides.

So, Sunday I tried to hang onto these folks.

Yes, it's "a bunch of girls." You'll notice that they are very fit girls. If you try to ride with them, you'll find that they are very strong girls.

The goal had been to go out on a 35-mile route. Two-hours at an endurance pace. I felt like I could handle two hours of 17 mph.

A little over an hour in, at mile 25, I fell off the back, making noises about "taking a more direct route home." I wobbled back to the RandoCave and crawled inside. The next day, everything hurt.

I'm going to suck at racing this year. Hopefully, I'll have a good time at PBP to make up for it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

10 Years of Birthday Rides

Last year, I told you about Me 2.0, also called the Fat Version. RandoGirl married the demo version, which was pretty and very functional. The current version of me is a "Thin Client."

Ha-ha-ha. That's computer nerd humor. We kill ourselves with it.

Anyway, if you've stopped laughing now ... go ahead, I'll wait ... there.

So, after nine months of dieting in 2000, I was down from over 300 to around 250 pounds. It was kind of like pregnancy, but in reverse, and slower, and there was no baby, and it didn't hurt as much or mess up my hormones or blood sugar or make me throw up and pee all of the time. Okay, it was nothing like having a baby. Forget I said that. Me 3.0 is obviously still stupid.

Anyway, in September of that year RandoGirl and I had an anniversary, and for a present she bought me a bicycle. It was a Novarra hybrid from REI, and was the first bike that I had owned in at least 10 years.

I hear a lot of negatives about hybrids. People say that they're not good on the road and they're not good on the dirt, and so what good are they? But I think that they give a lot of people that first step in to biking, or (as in my case) back in to biking. They may not be perfect for anything other than the multi-use trail at the beach, but they're better than nothing. And who knows if I would have kept off my weight with nothing?

The fall of 2000, I rode that hybrid around our neighborhood in Atlanta a lot. I found some ways to avoid the busy roads (of which Atlanta has a lot), and slowly widened my scope. I rediscovered the joy and intimacy of venturing out into a beautiful world on a bicycle.

That January, I was down to about 235 pounds. My birthday that year fell on a Saturday, and the weather was exceptionally fine, so I decided to go ride part of the Silver Comet Trail just north of town.

Now, if you've never heard of the Silver Comet, it runs from the Atlanta suburb of Smyrna all the way to the Alabama border. There, it becomes the Chief Ladiga Trail, and continues almost to Piedmont, AL. If you do the whole length, from end to end and back, you almost do a 300K.

It didn't go as far back in 2000, petering out just past 30 miles in Rockmart, GA. But it was a nice, flat, traffic-free ride through the suburbs and into farm country then, and it sounded like a great way to spend my birthday.

I loaded the bike into the back of our station wagon early that morning, getting to the trail about 8 am. It was a little chilly, so I kept my jacket on. Of course, back then I would not have even considered wearing biking shorts or a jersey -- those were for racing cyclists -- so I was in jeans, t-shirt, and tennis shoes.

About 10 am I stopped at a little store near where the trail crossed a busier road. I had gone 20 miles, and was thinking that I should probably head back. That's when it occurred to me that I could go one more mile, and then head back for a grand total of 42 miles -- the same number of miles as my age that day.

So I rode another mile and started back.

By mile 30, I was wondering how those racing cyclists could do it. Didn't their underwear chafe? Weren't their t-shirts soaked in sweat? Did they have a better way of tying their jacket around their waist? Didn't their blue jeans rub the insides of their thighs raw?

By mile 40, I kept promising myself I would never do this again. What was I thinking? Nobody can ride 42 miles.

By mile 42, I was so glad to see my car that I just opened the hatch and laid down inside. I even thought about leaving that bike there. Let it rust. Or maybe somebody else would eventually come along and torture their butt on it.

After a few minutes, I gently loaded the Novarra into the back of the station wagon, gave it a little pat, and told it, "Good job, boy. Well done. Thanks for the ride."

Of course, I still didn't get on it again for a month.

My next birthday, I rode 50 miles on that bike. The birthday after that, we lived in Florida and it was easy for me to do 88 miles. I had a blue Cannondale then, and bike shorts and jerseys and everything. Ever since that birthday, I've ridden twice my age on the weekend before or after my birthday.

This year, I rode a 200K on the Saturday before and after my birthday. They were both long 200Ks, too -- 130 miles -- and the one this past Saturday was on my steel single-speed commuter bike. Maybe I'm finding new ways to torture myself ... proving to my feeble brain that I must still be alive, since I hurt so much. Possibly, I'm trying to prove something to my friends, my family, or myself.

But ultimately, I'm hitting a goal every year that I set back when I first began to re-discover that there's a beautiful world out there. You just have to get off your fat butt and find it.