Saturday, January 18, 2014

Forget this Slipperiness

So, it's been a hard winter so far here in middle Tennessee, which is probably about on par with the way this winter has been everywhere in the United States. Make that "continental United States," since I don't think the weather ever sucks in Hawaii. But I wanted to slip a ride in before the weekend, so I decided to bike in to work on Friday.

"Slip" is the right word, as it turns out.

It was just below freezing when the sun came up, and it wasn't supposed to get much warmer. I decided that this was a plus, however, because it would simplify what I needed to wear: My beloved Assos cold-weather suit. And it felt just right, too ... for the first eight miles.

It actually still felt right when I noticed that the roads just north of Franklin looked wetter than the roads down by my house. I didn't think much about that until I started over the bridge over the Harpeth River on Cotton Lane. And that's when I found the ice.

There was a dead possum on the bridge shoulder, and cars coming up behind me. I moved over a bit as I got up onto the bridge, and the wheel went kind of slippy, and I tried to shift my weight to compensate, and then it all went wh-wh-wh-whoa! And then I was lying down on the bridge, still astride my bike, and thinking "I hope that SUV behind me stops."

Which it did, of course. Otherwise, somebody else would be writing this blog.

I got the bike over to the bridge rail and picked up the stuff in the front bag that had fallen out. The lady in the SUV asked if I was okay and I said Yeah, thanks, and she and the 10 cars that were now behind her went on by. I walked the bike the rest of the way over the bridge, made sure that everything was still working OK, and continued on towards the office.

Since the quieter road obviously had some ice, I decided to head straight over to busier Hillsboro Road and the bike lane there. On the way, I tried to assess whether I had been damaged, but everything felt fine. Apparently, I took the brunt of the impact on my left knee, which hurt a bit. And then I noticed that there was now a hole in the bibs of my Assos gear.

Grrrr ...

I grumbled a bit while rolling up the bike lane, and then I stopped my whining and started looking at the edge of the lane ... which had ice. Okay, then. Now I've got cars going by at 55 mph, with occasional ice in the bike lane. And that's when I said it.

"F- this S-."

Which could stand for "Forget this Slippperiness." Sure.

I turned around and took the sunniest roads that I could back to the house. A quick shower and change of clothing and I was soon in the car, listening in on my first conference call of the day.

Next weekend is my birthday weekend. For the past three years, I've ridden a 200K on my birthday weekend. This year, I may just fly down to Florida to do it.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

My Calendar Is Full

Most sports have an "off season." This is when athletes kick back and take it easy, maybe cross-training some, but basically recharging their batteries for the next season.

Ultracyclists don't really do that ... or, at least, I don't. This time of year, my average mileage goes down some, but most of that's due to the weather. A polar vortex comes to town, and your only choice is ride short, get on the trainer, or get frostbite. I've had frostbite, and let me tell you: It bites.

So, instead of riding 250 miles a week like I do in the summer, during the winter I ride 150-200 miles a week. And trust me that those are really, really hard miles, usually into nasty headwinds pushing bone-chilling cold.

Why don't I back off some? Mostly because I've finally built up sufficient calluses in my nether regions that ultra-distances don't bother me, and I don't want to have to rebuild those calluses.

Simple? Yes. And a little sad.

That being said, my training for the upcoming season of brevets has begun in earnest. And what a season it should be.

Of course, I'm doing most of the local brevets in January, February, and March. Somewhere in there I will stop drinking coffee and get off of caffeine, since in April we will be riding my old Cookeville 400K, which means riding through the night.

May starts with a tandem rally for me and RandoGirl, and ends with a 600K to complete my series. Then, in June, I'm going to finally ride the Cascade 1200K.

July and August will be less hectic, but in September I will be busy volunteering for the Natchez Trace 1500K Grand Randonee. Spending a week of vacation helping other people complete what it easily the longest event on RUSA's calendar sounds kind of dumb, but I know that it will be tons of fun.

In October, RandoGirl and I are renting a villa in the Italian countryside with some of our friends, riding hither and yon and eating way too much pasta and drinking extraordinary wine. Then November comes, and December, and it will get cold again.

This probably means another 10,000-mile-plus year (2013 ended with 10,425 miles), but I believe that I am ready for it. Also, it should put me in good shape to ride Paris-Brest-Paris in 2015. After that, it may be time to hang up my randonneuring helmet.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The A/S Ratio

Most bike rides are only as good as the road that you're on.

Sure there are other factors -- the people that you're with, the weather, and so on -- but if you are riding for any length of time on a crappy road then it is very likely that your ride will be crappy.

Of course, what makes a crappy road? Whether it's hilly or flat can be good or bad considering what you want ... or even where you are on your ride. Bad pavement may not be comfortable, but sometimes it's an indication that a road will have little or no car traffic. And having something pretty to look at is a requirement, particularly on extremely long rides like a brevet.

"What about traffic?" you ask. Well, that's a tricky issue.

While it would be nice to bike on roads with no cars, those things are usually called "multi-use trails." They can be fun, but are usually short, don't go anywhere, and are full of people walking their dogs. The Georgia randonneurs used to have a 600K that began and finished on a 30-mile section of a multi-use rail-to-trail, and while it was fun at the 6 am Saturday start it often got a little scary at the end on a Sunday afternoon.

"Okay, it doesn't have to be a multi-use trail. How about a bike lane or wide shoulder." Yeah, I've done that. There was a road in south Florida that run straight north and south with a bike lane for 20 miles, and on the Rocky Mountain 1200K we rode  a couple hundred miles on the shoulder of the Trans-Canada Highway. For both of these, during much of the day there were two lanes of cars and trucks zooming past at 55 mph or more. There was also enough broken glass and bits of tires and dead animals in the bike lane or on the shoulder to keep things ... well, exciting is probably the best way to put it.

Bottom line is this: Long roads with bike lanes have them because the road is busy, and they don't want bikes in the road slowing up traffic. Roads with shoulders have them so that cars can pull into them when they break down, or so that snowplows can push ice and other junk over there. Nobody puts extra pavement on the edge of a road for nothing.

So, if you can't judge the quality of the road by the infrastructure of the road itself, how do you judge it? Well, in my opinion, it comes down to what kind of driver you get on the road, and what their typical behavior is regarding cyclists. I call this the relative number of Assholes to Saint drivers on that particular stretch of road, or "the A/S Ratio."

To determine the A/S Ratio for a road, you merely score each car or truck that goes by you on a 10-point grade. Did they give you at least three feet? Was the road ahead clear when they passed? Did they slow down enough to make sure that no cars were coming? Cars that do this get a six or seven. If they do all of this and give you a friendly wave, they get an eight. If you're fixing a flat and they stop to offer aid, they get a nine. If you're riding in the rain and they offer to carry you and your bike home, never asking which way it is or how far, and not caring that it's going to ruin the upholstery of their back seat, they get a 10. Maybe even 11.

And then there's the Assholes. If the car or truck doesn't move over when it passes or it zooms by while there's an RV coming from the other direction, they get a three or four. If they lay on the horn while doing this, they get a two.

Extremes on the scale are rare, particularly for Saints. And this makes sense, if you think about it. An Asshole is going to be an Asshole no matter what. The driver that throws something at you (score him a one) or runs you off the road or hits you (zero) is just going to do this because he or she is an Asshole. They aren't reacting to anything, but are merely being true to their own base natures.

But the Saintly driver will usually only do Saintly things when the situation calls for it. To put it another way: In a Utopian world, Mother Theresa would just have been another nice old lady.

This is why an A/S Ratio of five or six is actually a pretty good score, since that one Asshole who yelled at you to "get off the road" needs to be offset by a couple of cars passing nicely and giving you a wave (with all of their fingers).

A popular cycling road around here is Leiper's Creek Road, which only has an A/S Ratio of 4.8. Carter's Creek Road is another favorite, in spite of a score of 4.6. Hwy 100 used to be a 4.7, but since they rumbled the shoulder and built more houses out that way it's fallen to a 4.0.

On New Year's Day, I went out for a long solo ride about noon. It was a quiet day, so I went down to the Natchez Trace, getting on at Pinewood Road and going down to Hwy 7. This is about 12-13 miles, and I was passed by 30 cars, all of whom went over to give me three feet.

There were plenty of other cyclists out, too. Sometimes, this can be bad for the A/S Ratio of a road, since a car may have trouble passing a big group of riders a mile back, and then take it out on you. But every car on New Year's Day on the Trace seemed to be just out there to enjoy the drive and take it easy. For that day, the A/S Ratio of the Trace was a 7.6.

Now, I may be biased because I live less than five miles from the Trace, but over literally thousands of miles on it I still give it an A/S Ratio of  6.2. I've only personally experienced one Total Asshole -- a fellow up near the northern end who emptied the contents of his tobacco spit cup at a group of 10 riders. But this one Asshole has been easily offset by numerous Saints, since almost every time I get a flat out there (which doesn't happen much because you aren't stuck on some crap-filled shoulder) a car has stopped to ask if I needed help.

Of course, there are some parts that don't usually score as well. I mentioned the top of the Trace, but the sections where it passes through the middle of Tupelo and Jackson are often worse. On the 20 or so miles that are close to these cities the cars often treat the Trace as a major thoroughfare, whereas on the other 424 miles most drivers are out enjoying what the Trace really is: A pleasant piece of pavement passing through a scenic, quiet national park.

And that's probably what makes the Natchez Trace the gold standard for cycling road quality. There are limited amenities and the terrain can get boring, but those are both by-products and contributing factors to the limited traffic out there. The pavement is smooth, there are no horrible hills, navigation is easy, and the A/S Ratio is as good as any road that I have ever been on. If you're looking for a great place to ride a bike -- either long or short -- this is it.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

I Love a Parade

Just before Christmas, I went out for a long ride on what was supposed to be a mostly dry, not-too-cold afternoon.

Yeah, yeah ... weather forecasting. Based on statistics, which is one of the three types of lies (right after Little Lies and Big Lies). It's why you dress for a little worse than the weather is supposed to be and be prepared to either head home early or put your head down and harden the heck up.

But that doesn't change the facts that it sucked. I suffered for 25 miles south into the headwind, and then came around about the time that the wind did. Then the drizzle started back up. Then it got colder.

So now I've got 25 miles between me and nice, warm dry home-ness. A big gray cloud started massing over my head, just under the big solid one that was keeping the roads wet and blocking out the sun, and I came to the realization that this well and truly sucked.

Suckity suckity suck suck sucked.

And putting my head down didn't help. The spray from my front wheel just spewed up into my face, as well as soaking my tights and my shoes and my socks and doing a great job of making my toes very very cold, so that the tip of the big toe on my right foot -- where I had gotten frostbite a couple of years ago -- fairly screamed epithets at me, begging to get home and stay home and wait until June before I dared venture out on a bicycle again.

I tried to ignore the toe, but I didn't bring an iPod with me that day and it's a very loud toe.

On Knob Creek Road, about three miles from Theta, I saw a guy digging up his septic tank in his front yard. If misery loves company, it absolutely adores company when that company is stuck doing an even crappier job, and there's probably no task literally and figuratively crappier than digging up a septic tank on a drizzly cold day. I felt temporarily better, and then felt guilty for feeling better.

Stupid conscience. Ruin my buzz.

The climb up to Theta warmed me up, and the run down Sulphur Creek Road was nice. Then I was on Leiper's Creek Road and suffering through another wet cold slog for a few miles, but at this point you begin to think, "Meh. It's less than 10 miles now."

And then, I got to Leiper's Fork, which is less than three miles from home. And I was stuck in the Christmas Parade.

Big dog.

For those that go out there regularly, it's good to see that the General Lee ...

... and Barney Fife's car actually work.

Nothing says Christmas like a Tardis.

I was kind of stuck, since the road was closed, and ended up watching most of the parade. By the time I was able to head on towards home, my feet were even colder. But at least my heart had been warmed.