Thursday 31 May 2007

Take the road to success - on a bike

A recent article in the Financial Times highlighted the business uses to which bicycles are being put. A Canadian entrepreneur wanted to make contact with Silicon Valley executives and did it by joining them on a bike ride at the Tour de France. He sold his company and is now head of HP Gaming. Cycling: it's the new golf!

Check it out here:

Wednesday 30 May 2007

I survived the Cycling Doubleheader

The Inn at Virginia Tech

Lots of great cycling this weekend in the beautiful Old Dominion. The Commonwealth of Virginia offers some of the finest riding possibilities I have seen, with lush green landscapes, rolling hills, friendly folks and historic little towns. This weekend marked my fourth participation in the Cycling Doubleheader since 2003 and, as I head back to Canada at the end of August, my last for some time.

Friday, May 25, 2007

I left Washington, DC just after noon and had a surprisingly traffic-free trip westwards along I-66 and then south on I-81 to reach Blacksburg, Virginia, in about five hours of leisurely driving. I brought some sandwiches and ice tea in my Famous Yellow Coolbox but when I stopped briefly at two highway rest areas I discovered that: a) they were overcrowded with Memorial Day Weekend fellow travellers and b) unlike the areas in Maryland, the stops in Virginia are directly next to the highway and pretty unpleasant for sitting at. So I just kept heading south, and then drove onwards past Roanoke, reaching my hotel, the Inn at Virginia Tech.

My enormous room

When I last came to the cycling event in 2005 this place had not even been built. It was very nice, made of the same kind of stone as the rest of the quite attractive Virginia Tech campus buildings. It seemed to be a popular place for big events: along with being the headquarters for the Cycling Doubleheader, it looked like a wedding or something was also going on. I moved all my tons of gear--if my bike weighs 16 pounds, why do I need all this other stuff?--and unpacked. Tonight I would have the room to myself, and it was huge, with space for ten bicycles. It was also a room for handicapped guests, so instead of a normal tub it had a huge shower with a seat where you could roll a wheelchair into. But a shower is a shower and I soon was cleaned up after the drive. I walked through the lobby and up a set of stairs and picked up my registration packets for the two rides. As usual, the organization was first-rate and it only took a moment to get everything I needed.

Sadly, there were reminders around the campus of the terrible events on April 16th, when an insane student killed 32 students and faculty and injured 25 more in the worst mass shooting incident in American history. I noticed that our bib numbers had a ribbon motif in memory of the dead and there were signs everywhere in Blacksburg proper.

On to other things: the annoying creak in my bicycle's bottom bracket had continued and I had bought new Speedplay cleats in the hope that worn cleats were in fact the cause of the problem. I decided to go for a brief test ride before the first big ride on Saturday and then noticed I had cleverly installed the cleats backwards. Speedplay cleats are pretty well idiot-proof when it comes to installation, but perhaps not quite. I had brought my tools and the cleats were corrected quickly.

More views of the Inn

I rolled the Tarmac out of the hotel and did two quick circuits of the parking lot, then headed into the central part of Blacksburg proper to look around. Up and down a few hills, no problem. And I felt very strong, having had a rest day the day before. Satisfied, I returned to the room and arranged everything I need for the next day. Then I drove back to the restaurant area and enjoyed a vegetarian meal, a tofu stir-fry with kung pao sauce and a cold Paulaner Hefeweizen and four glasses of water, at Gillies, a much more vegetarian-friendly place than one would expect to find in rural southwestern Virginia.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Although I was most appreciative that the Inn was offering breakfast at 5:45 am to cyclists heading out for the Wilderness Road Ride, it was just oatmeal, some untoasted bagels, cake, fruit and bottled juice. At least you could serve yourself on nicer plates (ie. not styrofoam) than you get at the Day's Inn, but then again it did cost me $7.25 for my oatmeal and a cup of tea. But I knew that I had to get in some breakfast before the riding started.

I took the bike and my gear bag out to the car and headed towards Radford, past the ordnance depot and to Radford University. For the longer rides, the organizers recommended starting before 7:45 am and in fact I rolled out at 7:10, just a short while after things got started.

The bike was behaving well, the weather was excellent and I felt rested so I quickly felt that I was not mistaken in having chosen, for the first time, the long route of 78 miles (125 km). The countryside is rolling, not as steep as what was coming on Sunday, but with plenty of climbing. I found a small group to ride with fairly early and decided to go at a relaxed pace and save up my strength. My group consisted of: Susan, a radiologist; Janet, who had been to Tuscany for a tour; and Joe, who was new to road biking, although an experienced mountain biker. All were locals from Radford. We cruised up and down the very scenic roads at a reasonable pace, stopping for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bananas at the rest stops, and before I knew it, we were up to the crossroads where you turned right to do the 57 mile route or went straight on for the longer ride. Janet turned right but Susan and I continued and Joe manfully went with us. Of course, we immediately began to climb up a series of hills, which would have been pretty discouraging to a lot of riders. I heard from one of the fellows running the next food stop that a lot of riders start up the hill, and then decide that maybe they want to do the 57 miler and head back down right away. But Joe kept plugging away.

I still felt quite strong, but the heat was beginning to take its toll. But it was clear that the biggest climbs were behind us and we cruised along some lovely roads, running alongside the New River, and then crossed the big bridge back into Radford. Of course, the route then took us up a brutal little hill before letting us head back down along the bike path alongside the river. Susan and I rolled in around 2:30 pm and Joe came in half an hour later, looking exhausted but happy.

The statistics:

Distance: 128.14 km 79.622 miles
Time: 5:18
Average speed: 24.2 km/h 15.03 mph
Maximum speed: 65.2 km/h 40.40 mph
Altitude gain: 1342 m 4402 feet
Maximum grade: 16%

I drove back to Blacksburg feeling quite pleased, but annoyed as the bike had started to creak again on the big climbs. I drove to the East Coasters bike shop and there were four mechanics at work and everyone tried to figure out the problem from various angles. The fact that the bottom bracket was now in very tightly suggested that was not the problem, and some other solutions were mooted. As I rolled out, one mechanic suggested lubing the spokes on the rear wheel which, when torqued heavily in a climb, could be the source of the creaking. I had some Pro Link lubricant in my bag and when I got back to the hotel I carefully applied it and let it sit.

Carl T. of the Potomac Pedallers joined me that evening as we had agreed to split the room cost. He is a very experienced cyclist and works for the Securities Exchange Commission as a lawyer. We walked over to an excellent Italian restaurant near the Inn, Zeppoli's, and joined a number of other PPTC riders for dinner. It was great fun, and the food was very good. I had fresh pasta with vegetables and a side order of green asparagus, followed by homemade pistachio gelato for dessert. Time to celebrate one successful ride and look forward to another! And before going to sleep, Carl and I knocked off a bottle of pretty good red wine from California.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Up at 5:15 am after a sleepless night. The wedding celebrants had insisted on shouting to each other all night as they wandered down the hall to their rooms and I felt that I had not gotten any sleep at all. Carl and I packed up our gear after a minimal breakfast: one of the other PPTCers had given me some instant oatmeal and I mixed that up with some boiling water, ate two bananas and was ready to go.

I reached Newport pretty quickly but was amazed at all the cars, far more than I had seen in previous years. I handed in my little knapsack with my running shoes and some other gear to be collected at the top of the hill that marked the end of the climb and prepared to leave. At 7:00 am the siren went off and the Mountains of Misery Double Metric Century riders left the Newport recreation center en mass. The Century riders would leave ten minutes later.

As is the case every year, the group immediately goes into peloton mode and works together for the first 28 miles or so to New Castle, just after a great, screaming descent. I stopped here to refill my bottle and then saw that there were not a lot of riders around (our group of 120 or so made up perhaps one-quarter of MoM participants) but up ahead I saw a rider I easily caught up to. His name was Damon and he was a young triathlete, riding a very nice Seven Axiom. I prefer to ride with someone on these long rides and stuck with him, although he looked to be very strong. We caught a third rider, Brian, and proceeded to the base of Potts Mountain. In past years I have always found this to be quite difficult due to its length but this time I matched Damon all the way to the top, riding comfortably and chatting. The hill is about 7 miles long and has a fairly constant 7-8 per cent grade. Once over the top there was another screaming descent all the way into Painted Bank, where happy volunteers filled our bottles and gave us food. I was feeling pretty good and encouraged by my climbing, which I think was the result of all my training miles this year and my 10 kg weight loss.

On the three of us went, setting an excellent pace over the lightly rolling roads until we came to the next big hill. This road runs at a very steep angle alongside a small river but the 2.5 mile climb lessens in steepness as you get near the top. It is then followed by a long descent on a chipseal road. Brian left first, but we caught him pretty quickly and then Damon moved ahead. I had him in sight most of the time but it took a while to close the gap on the descent.

The next stretch of road is very pretty, running through a valley but I could feel that bridging up to Damon had cost me a lot of energy. We had collected three other riders but I could sense that I was tiring and when we came to the food stop at the base of the third climb I let them go on while I restocked. I passed the photographers who are positioned where riders still look good and grimly smiled with the prospect of the coming hill. This climb rises up from the fields and has some nasty hairpins in it. It is marked off and while 2.5 miles does not sound far it felt like forever. The last part was even marked in 1/10ths of a mile! But I crawled up and over, cheered on my two volunteers shouting at the top. A quick drink and then downhill again, heading for Newport and the final, brutal climb.

As I cruised down the road I enjoyed the gentle downhill and tried to recover as best as I could. There were no other cyclists to be seen but I kept a steady, low-exertion pace, riding inside myself so that I would feel better. I saw a brown Ford pickup truck in the opposite lane go by and was startled when something hit the grass near me. The driver had thrown a pop bottle at me as he went by, the first incident like this I have had in five years of cycling in the region.

Anyway, this annoyed me enough so that any thoughts of quitting in Newport were pushed out of my head. I passed the parking lot and the food stop there and was gaining momentum when I caught up to Damon, whom I had not expected to see before reaching the top. I think he was feeling the distance as well. My bike was creaking again and at this point I just wanted to finish the ride, so I went into time trial mode and towed Damon along the scenic road along the river for ten miles at nearly 40 km/h until we turned up towards the highway on the section of road I particularly hate. It is very steep and long and goes over railway tracks and I always get a cramp in my leg here, but this year I was lucky. We did stop briefly at the next food stop so I could massage my leg a bit and then we headed up Mountain Lake Road.

This is the last hill and it is brutally hard. It is 3.5 miles long, averages 11.5 per cent and has a little section in it that is 17 per cent. Damon went ahead and I followed as best as I could, but I was really suffering in the heat so at one point I pulled off for about ten minutes to stand in the shade and recover. But then I was back on the road, riding slowly past riders pushing their bikes. At the mid-hill food stop, I was given a cup of water as I went by and then a girl sprayed us with welcome cool water. This really helped to revive me and I perked up as I could hear the noise around the finish line ahead. I felt much better as I had the end in sight and cruised over the line. Helping hands immediately took my bicycle for transport down the hill, another person gave me my finisher's t-shirt and a third my knapsack so I could change my shoes.

Tim and Larry, who had ridden the Century, were there waiting for the bus and there were a number of Potomac Pedallers around and even a Coppi who had ridden the Century route at some amazing speed. I grabbed some water and found a place on the bus back to Newport.

After changing and collecting the bike, I drove off to the Hotel Roanoke for a night of pure comfort, collapsing into bed at 8:55 pm and sleeping like someone dead.

The statistics:

Distance: 209.06 km 129.9 miles
Time: 8:52
Average speed: 23.5 km/h 14.6 mph
Maximum speed: 71.4 km/h 44.36 mph
Altitude gain: 3408 m 11,181 feet (NB: the official website claims 13,000 feet)
Maximum grade: 17%

Monday, May 28, 2007

After an excellent sleep, I awoke in the sunshine and looked outside. My room had windows on two sides as it was at the end of the corridor and as I looked out at the mountains I realized that I could under no account pass up the opportunity to ride to the top of Mill Mountain, my traditional recovery ride. Getting dressed, I took the bike out of the car and headed through the peaceful streets, past the hospital and left at the bridge. I began to ascend quickly and my legs, which had felt sluggish, suddenly came to life and I spun up comfortably to the giant star that caps Mill Mountain, overlooking Roanoke and the Shenandoah Valley. A few minutes admiring the view, and I headed back down to the city on a piece of smoothly-paved high-speed road. I had climbed around 3 miles, with some 866 vertical feet, and felt great.

Returning to the hotel, I packed up and drove around the corner, enjoying a breakfast of a poppy bagel with egg and cheese, a lemon scone and a big cup of iced chai latte before buying some fruit at the greengrocer's in the market square and beginning the drive home. It was an easy trip, and again there was no traffic. I think most people go to the beach instead of challenging themselves to the Mountains of Misery and, well, who can blame them? But I found it fun and rewarding as always. The event is timed and although you lose a lot of time at the food stops, when I consider it took me fifteen minutes longer in 2003 to ride the century version I have certainly improved my cycling in the intervening years.

Friday 25 May 2007

Off to the Cycling Doubleheader!

You want a profile? This is a profile!
Mountains of Misery--all 200 km of them

Yesterday the new cassette body arrived by priority mail from John at Neuvation. Following the instructions on his website, I easily installed the new unit on the axle and reinstalled the cassette and voila! the Tarmac is back in business. And a good thing too as tomorrow I leave for Blacksburg, VA and the fabled Cycling Doubleheader. On Saturday I will do the Wilderness Road Ride, where I have a choice of rolling hills in routes that go from 25 miles to 78--dare I go all the way this year for the first time? On Sunday comes the main dish: the Mountains of Misery Double Metric Century with a whole heap o' hard climbing. Having lost 20 pounds since January 1st and now outfitted with one of the best bikes you can get, I am looking forward to this challenge.

Unfortunately, the two friends I met on my very first MoM way back in May 2003 will not be able to ride with me. Jeff is volunteering at the Kelly Cup, his team's annual race, near Baltimore, while poor Ralph the Badger is recovering from a broken hip in Colorado. But I will dedicate my ride to them and the hills will become the Mountains of Mirth. On Monday I will ride out of the Hotel Roanoke and go up Mill Mountain, my traditional recovery ride, before a screaming descent back into town and an espresso at the Mill Mountain Coffee Shop.

The weather for all four days I will be away looks perfect. I plan to come back tan and relaxed and even lighter. I may even have photos of more than the usual en route food stops that I always seem to take at century rides. More anon!

Tuesday 22 May 2007

Virtual Podium!

I have just checked out the official results of Sunday's Carlisle 40 km time trial and to my astonishment not only was my time a minute faster than I thought, at 1:03:39, but it was good enough to put me into third place in the Category 5 group. A podium finish! Well, that was worth four hours' of driving! Hooray!

Monday 21 May 2007

Trials and Time Trials

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Saturday was supposed to be kind of crummy, overcast in the morning with rain in the afternoon. Larry, Tim and I agreed to meet to ride the famous Maryland climbing trifecta of Shookstown Road, Gambrill Hill and Harp Hill, leaving from Frederick. The goal was to do about 60 miles (100 km) in preparation for next week's Mountains of Misery. I suggested we leave a bit later from Washington as indicated fog in Frederick so we rolled out at 9:10 am under clear blue skies. I felt good and so did Tim, who immediately set a serious pace as we approached Shookstown Road. Larry, true to form as a Lost Boy, was behind us and missed the turn, so we had to wait for him. But was there ever a ride where this did not happen?

Anyway, Tim zoomed up the road and I was close behind. The squeaking in my bottom bracket began again, to my annoyance. I have covered almost every possible cause of this, but there is one more that might be the solution. At the intersection of Shookstown and Gambrill I could see Tim just ahead, but I decided to wait for Larry and ride up with him. We caught up to Tim at the top of the hill and then I took the lead as we headed toward Highland School Road and the terrifying descent.

Unfortunately, we never got there. As I cruised up and down the rollers, I shifted into a bigger gear and nothing much happened. Still bigger and still nothing... I stopped to look and discovered that there was something wrong with my rear hub. When you turn the crankarms the cassette turns but it does not engage the wheel. So that was the end of my ride.

Luckily I was not alone. Tim and Larry went back to Frederick and came back with my car in half an hour. I loaded the bike back in and then discovered I could not get my right cycling shoe off! This was my day of mechanical issues, I guess. I pulled the tab over so at least I could slide the shoe off my foot, leaving an examination of the problem until later. Larry and Tim decided they would not do any more riding either, so we all drove back to Zi di Pani in Frederick and had coffee and bagels before heading home after only, for me, 18 km of riding on a perfect day, weather-wise.

When I was back in Washington, I immediately took the bike to a new shop on Q Street, where the grumpy, tattooed mechanic suggested I call the wheel manufacturer about warranty coverage. He checked the bottom bracket for me as well, but said it was fine and suggested the problem could be my cleats being worn out--the last possibility on my list! I have already ordered new Speedplay cleats and should have them in a day or so and we can see if this is the final resolution. I don't want to creak up and down all those Mountains of Misery next weekend.

And I want my wheel back. When I e-mailed John Neugent at Neuvation, he responded immediately. He was pretty sure that the problem was not the hub but the wire in the cassette body, and that seems to be the case. He will send me a new cassette body by priority mail and I should have everything back in order before I drive to Blacksburg on Friday.

Another day, another time trial

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Leader bike with the new Renn disc wheel

After much soul-searching, I registered at the last moment for the Carlisle 40 km time trial in Pennsylvania, as well as the South Mountain Hill Climb.

Getting up at 4:00 am (!), I had already put most things in the car but brought down the Leader bike with the new disc wheel and the Tarmac, now with the Leader's rear Velocity wheel as a temporary expedient while the Neuvation awaits the new part. The drive out to Carlisle took about 2 hours and I passed through some bands of rain on the way. But the directions were very good and I found the school where the ride began. There were probably about 45 riders and, judging from the machinery, they were primed for serious riding.

The organizer assured me that the ride would be pretty flat but that we would have a strong headwind on the outward leg, with the reward of a good tailwind coming back. I wanted to ride faster than my time of 1:06:51 in Harrisburg two weeks ago but the wind, which was gusting up to 30 km/h (18 mph) had me worried. I set up quickly in the parking lot and, with most of the other contestants, began my warm-up on the trainer.

There seemed to be a bit of confusion at the start, which was about 1.5 miles from the school. We had been given popsicle sticks with our start number on them and someone else had the same number as me. It was pretty informal though and they just let me go ahead and start anyway. Straight into a massive headwind, and straight into some rolling hills. The route was definitely not flat, albeit no Mountains of Misery. I was really worried as within 2 kms my legs started to hurt and my heart rate reached 164 bpm. I relaxed and concentrated on countering the wind and it steadily came down to an acceptable 151-155, reaching 163-5 on the hills.

The road was pretty good, although there were places where the shoulder was narrow. At one point a series of Amish buggies passed in the other direction, and some Amish kids on bicycles. Not on bikes like ours, needless to say...

After the turnaround things got much easier and the tailwind worked to my advantage. Unfortunately, I was getting tired much earlier than I had hoped and I was desperate to hold on until the end. I was soaking wet with exertion, and I could hear the disc wheel drumming, the sound echoing through the aerohelmet. And all of a sudden there was a quick downhill and I passed the orange cones marking the end of the course. Although I am waiting for the official results, I think my time was 1:04:30 or so. Good but the wind had clearly hurt. And it will be a while before I get that "40 km in One Hour" t-shirt I crave. There are two more time trials in the series. As for South Mountain, the idea of doing a 7 mile uphill race at noon was no longer very appealing.

I chatted with some NCVC riders who had driven in, as well as a New Yorker who worked for Bicycling magazine and had a beautiful Pinarello tt bike. In the end, he came second overall, with a time of 53 minutes. The fastest rider did an unbelievable 50 minutes, a course record.

Landscape near Carlisle

A long relaxed drive home, including a little excursion through the Pennsylvania and Maryland countryside, including a stop in historic Greencastle, PA to visit Greencastle Coffee Roasters and buy fresh-roasted peanuts and loose tea. Then a well-deserved nap back in Washington!

Monday 14 May 2007

Weekend Cycling: Virginia and Maryland

Virginia Hunt Country: a friendly horse

Saturday, May 12, 2007

One of the great benefits of living in the Washington, DC area is the excellent access it gives me to wonderful cycling adventures in both Virginia and Maryland. Most weekends the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club offers rides in each state of varying lengths. All of them feature quiet, well-maintained streets, charming villages. A few of them boast fearsome climbs: Virginia's tend to be long and gradual, while Maryland has ones that are short and sharp. Most of the ride starts are within an hour's drive of downtown Washington.

On Saturday I returned to Marshall, VA, one of my favourite jumping-off points in the state. From here you can head west into the Blue Ridge Mountains, or north into the Hunt Country, with its rolling hills and beautiful horse farms. I was here with Sigi and Don, who had won my United Way auction prize of a bicycle ride in Virginia Horse Country. We had settled on a reasonable route beforehand--I did not want to frighten any newcomers to cycling in Virginia with tales of 16 per cent grades and 100 km rides--and met at the VDOT parking lot at 8:30 am. There were a lot of other cyclists driving in as well since there were several PPTC rides starting at the lot that day too. One of the leaders was my friend Melinda, who had recently ridden up on Skyline Drive with us.

Getting ready to roll

Sigi and Don had made a weekend of it and were staying at a nice bed and breakfast place in Middletown, VA, which I pointed out is also the home of Route 11 Potato Chips. You can even visit the factory to see the chips being made. They offer the usual varieties, as well as things like Sweet Potato chips and Mama Zuma's Revenge, a seriously spiced version. Anyway, Sigi and Don had brought their circa-1976 touring bikes with them. They had been recently tuned but clearly needed so air in the tires. I explained that tires lose their air very quickly and it is best to check before each ride. Taking the pump from my car, I quickly raised the pressure in their tires from about 50 psi to 90 psi so that they would not feel they were riding on high-resistance mountain bike tires. The roads around Marshall are very smooth and traction is not an issue. I brought my steel Marinoni as we would be riding at a touring pace.

Leaving Marshall in excellent weather, we set out using a PPTC cue sheet, "Marshall to Middleburg Plus." We stopped immediately at the Marshall public school, where there is a plaque describing the disbanding of the Confederate guerrilla force of Col. John Mosby, the Gray Ghost, on April 21, 1865, rather than surrender to the hated Yankees. Mosby had an eventful Civil War, to say the least, and after the war became a Republican supporter of President U.S. Grant and US Consul to Hong Kong for seven years.

On Rectortown Road, leaving Marshall

The route is described as moderately hilly and I knew that many of the roads were quite scenic. We began a gentle, steady climb up Rectortown Road, turning right at one of my favourite (and favourite-named) streets, Frogtown Road. This meandered gently up and down, with excellent views of the surrounding hills and lush green countryside. We followed the road to Rock Hill Mill and on to Zulla Road.

We crossed Route 55, the John Marshall Highway, and passed over Interstate 66 before turning down a street that was new to me. Harrison Street is fairly short but has some particularly wonderful old buildings on it. The beautiful white house on the left side boasted a conservatory and a temple-like lawn structure recently roofed in shiny copper, and gorgeous landscaping. We then continued on Old Tavern Road, which took us back under I-66 towards the Plains along a rolling road with some traffic on it. We passed the tony Wakefield School, one of several private schools in the immediate area, and were soon in the village of the Plains.

There is a signpost in town, which boasts actor Robert Duvall as a resident, indicating the distance to various cities, including Shanghai, Washington, and Marshall, as well as the unexpected, such as obscure places in Kansas. There is a Civil War commemorative plaque which mentions that a Union officer, Jack Sterry, was hanged for spying after he killed a Confederate to get his uniform. The Union and Confederate armies fought for control of the Manassas Gap Railway, which ran through the town. It was chartered in 1850 and mainly completed by 1859. Unfortunately, the Civil War destroyed most of it and the remnants were absorbed by several railway ventures before becoming part of the Norfolk Southern system in 1896.

One of the makers also told the story of a local doctor who sat on his porch whittling a stick as the Union Army marched by. He put in a notch for each artillery piece that the Northerners had and then gave it to "a manservant" to take to the Confederates. I like the sound of "manservant;" it conjures up images of someone in a powdered wig and knee-breeches rather than Old Black Joe, which was probably the truth.

We passed through the Plains and along hilly Loudon Avenue, which was again busier than I would have liked, but turning off onto Landmark Avenue. Here we met some friendly horses. Time for photography, since when you are in horse country you have to provide evidence you were there! A couple on mountain bikes passed by and the man asked if we were planning to trade our bikes for horses, but then the woman chimed in and thought that she was ready to exchange a mountain bike for a road bike.

A series of rolling hills, one of them probably about 12 per cent but mercifully short, brought us into Middleburg (not to be confused with Middletown), a very horsey, upmarket kind of place. I was quite anxious to show Sigi and Don the town, which is charming if pretentious, and I was delighted to see that the bakery next to the Safeway was open, but we could see that the skies to our right were looking ominously dark and I heard some thunder. We decided that they could come back on their own by car, but for now we would see about riding the remaining 12 miles back to Marshall quickly to beat the rain.

We travelled a short distance along Rt. 50 before turning left onto Zulla Road again and retracing our path along Rock Hill Mill Road and Frogtown Road. The thunder was getting louder and it started to rain very lightly but we made it back to Marshall without getting very wet. We bought some submarine sandwiches and sat on a picnic table at the school--near where Col. Mosby's forces melted away--with some celebratory cold Franziskaner beers.

Distance Cycled: 62.66 km/38.93 miles
Time en route: 3:08
Average speed: 19.95 km/h/12.39 mph
Maximum speed: 55.90 km/h/35.73 mph

Sunday, May 13th, 2007

Happy Mother's Day! The weather looked perfect for a long training ride, so I drove out to Gaithersburg, MD, and met up with Dr. Chef and two of his friends, Jake and Laura. Laura is going to ride a century (100 miles) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, next weekend and wanted to get in some training. She drew up the cue sheet and planned to cover 80 miles. Larry wanted to ride but was tired from his long ride yesterday with Tim, when they had done some 85 miles (136 km) and he and Jake were planning to do only part of the ride today. We rolled out from the Starbucks on Darnestown Road shortly after 9 am and headed out on what are now very familiar streets to me after five years. We headed out towards Barnesville and then along the excellent Peachtree Road before riding past the Comus Inn, which was enjoying a big Mother's Day crowd. There are also some Civil War commemorative markers here as well. There is a good view of Sugarloaf Mountain and the markers indicate that after the Battle of Antietam there was continuing action in this area and that the Confederate cavalry and its Union counterpart had a battle on the Mountain, although with one dead Union soldier and one injured one it does not really compare to the kind of casualties one is used to hearing about battles of this era. Old Hundred Road and then Slate Quarry Road took us through lovely green woodlands, alongside a small river. Larry likened it to our rides last summer in the Black Forest.

After riding a good speed along Thurston Road we came to a t-intersection. We could see that the wind was blowing in our favour as we headed towards Dickerson and I invited Larry to follow my wheel as I went into time trial practice mode. I was holding a steady 48-50 km/h and a heart rate of 151-155 and feeling very good. I asked Larry if this was okay and when he confirmed it I added a bit more power as I tried to bring the speed past 60 km/h but was only successful at holding 59 km/h for a decent period. When we came to the first little rise in the road, I turned to see how Larry was doing but there was no sign of him. I did not realize that the little acceleration had been enough to drop him, as he told me when we met up at the Dickerson store. I replenished my Gatorade and then Jake and Larry headed back to Gaithersburg, aiming to do a 50 miler.

Laura and I continued rode over to Sugarloaf Mountain, and rode up to the top to add a bit of climbing to the program. Sugarloaf was purchased by a wealthy businessman, Gordon Strong, in 1902 and he established a foundation that maintains the property. It is open to the public as a place of recreation and there is a road that goes up to the summit which is an excellent training venue for cyclists. At one point, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted the property for a Presidential retreat but Strong turned him down and Camp David was subsequently acquired. Strong also commissioned the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a structure for the top of the mountain and he developed one of the first of his spiral buildings. However, Strong was not satisfied with the proposal and the building was never built. The Library of Congress has a fascinating Internet exhibition of documents related to the Wright proposal here.

After this energetic climb (and my Specialized Tarmac still squeaks on big climbs--aargh!), we made our way back along the Barnesville Road through Poolesville and then down Partnership Road to River Road, which we followed into Potomac. Unfortunately, the last few miles were along very busy Falls Road, which has no shoulder to speak of. Turning onto Darnestown Road for the final few miles, we ran straight into the hardest headwind of the day but pulled into the Starbucks under sunny skies feeling triumphant but tired.

Distance Cycled: 137.2 km/85.25 miles
Time en route: 5:19
Average speed: 25.76 km/h/16.00 mph
Maximum speed: 62.0 km/h/38.5 mph
Altitude gained: 1272 m/4173 feet

Saturday 12 May 2007

Special Guest Post: Steve Z. Goes Racing!

Steve Z. on the wrong road in the Black Forest, 2006

My friend Steve Z. lives in the other Washington, in Seattle, and joined Dr. Chef and myself in the Black Forest for our cycling adventure trip last year (don't worry--that will all get posted too in due time!). He was about to discover racing and Dr. Chef coached him through some preparation for his first time trial. He has since discovered that not only does he like time trialling, he is keen on racing. He upgraded to an excellent Orbea bike but after a crash it had to be repaired. Rather than having to endure any downtime, Steve Z. took the components off and put them on a Leader road racing frame. He has been delighted with the results, and sent me the story of his most recent racing experience. I enjoyed it so much that he is allowing me to share it with you: the first guest blog on Travels with a Tin Donkey.

I got my Leader bike and raced it for the first time Saturday. It was a tough race called Tahuya-Seabeck-Tahuya, modeled after Leige-Bastogne-Leige. It was 65 miles & 4000+ feet of climbing. It was my first race back after my crash, and on the new bike which I had just picked up on Friday. I was pretty nervous. I was so worried that it was a mistake to race a bike I hadn't really tweaked, but it just seemed like such a better race bike than my steel travel bike.

My legs were shaking before I even started. The weather turned out to be perfect. I was expecting rain.

I was a little further back in the pack than I usually like to be, about 25 from the front, but still in the front 1/3. I was watching 2 guys who have won several races, trying to keep them right around me. I was expecting the field to splinter on the first or second climb, but one of the big teams was up front keeping things mellow. Well, they actually kept sending this big crit racer off the front at every corner, but this week no one decided to chase him. Last week's race where I crashed, the other teams kept chasing him. Every time I had to chase too because any one of could have been a successful break. (And in that race there finally was a break that stuck).

The bike is great. They say it is their aluminum racing bike designed for races longer than 50 miles. It has some interesting curves. It seems much stiffer than my Orbea. it doesn't have that silky carbon feel, but it still felt pretty smooth. I even had thin bar tape, and I didn't really notice the vibration that folks complain about from aluminum bikes. I did use a carbon seatpost, which may be helping. It corners like a dream. It is very aggressive. It is so much zippier than my steel bike. I really like the feel of it. It is a little more twitchy than my other bikes, which I'm getting used to. It was interesting to be shoveling in food and water in the pack at 25 mph with a big cross wind. It is a perfect race bike and the frame and fork were only $480. I used the Ultegra parts from my Orbea. When that gets repaired, I'm going to have to invest in a new group - I'm thinking SRAM Force, but I'm not totally sure yet. My Powertap hub is Shimano, so I don't think I'm going to go record. And I can't decide about compact cranks either.

The race was so painful. I kept close to the 2 guys who had won previously, waiting for a move. Then finally on the 4th climb at mile 45, guys started going. It was total chaos, folks started sprinting up the hill - some of them blowing up soon and slowing down which meant I had to get around them. I gave it everything, and found myself getting gapped from the break about 3/4 of the way up. The proverbial hammer was down. I poured on the steam. Then at the top was the feeding zone, and my teammate standing on the side of the road yelled at me and I barely looked up in time to grab the extra water bottle. I was then in a 3 man chase trying to catch the dozen or so guys who got off in the break about 100 meters in front of us. we gained some, then lost some, then gained some. ultimately we weren't successful. our chase blew up and we got into another larger group of about 10 that wasn't really interested in chasing. Then the next hill came and that group blew up, and I was on my own for a while pushing hard. (the chase group was not motivated b/c I'm sure they all had teammates in the front group). I did join up with another guy, and we chased down a small group that must have splintered from the front breakaway on the last hill. We caught them and passed them and then the 1km sign was there and the race was over. I finished about 15th of 75. It was a 4/5 race.

My legs were screaming at me. My calves were in total pain. It sounded like that was the case for everyone, but I may need to tweak my seat adjustment a little. During the chase when I first got gapped I was putting out everything I had. My quads were about to explode. I really felt like a bike racer. I looked at my Powertap file later. During that section my average power for 10 minutes was 380 watts. My previous 10 min best was 353. So I was putting out everything I had, but it just wasn't enough. I love/hate my Powertap.

I really felt pretty off that day. I had just taken a red-eye getting in Friday morning, and Friday was a very hectic day that included picking up my bike at 7pm. I had a pretty good night sleep Friday night but it probably wasn't enough. My legs were vibrating from the very start, which I noticed every time I was coasting. And I'm sure I spent way too much energy being nervous. I was very pleased with myself for making it through to the end. As I felt worse physically, I started feeling better mentally. I was descending like a fiend trying during the chase and it felt great. the bike descends beautifully. I think I regained some of my confidence. It was one of the most draining (emotionally and physically) things I have ever done. I can't wait to do it again. I think I'm sick in the head.

Monday 7 May 2007

My Time Trial Weekend: Racing in Virginia and Pennsylvania

Although I have been a member of Squadra Coppi for two years, I have done precious few mass-start races while wearing the blue jersey. As the lowest of the low, a Category 5 racer, I find myself racing people thirty years younger than I am so the road races often end up being solo time trials for me once I am dropped and the criteriums–well, I get pulled off the course before I can be lapped. Given this, I figure I may just as well do time trials–the race against the clock-- and get to be on the course for the entire race. Since I am quite a bit larger than most of the racers I think that I am probably better suited to producing lots of power on the flat. So of course the time trial I like to do each year is the one that involves 800 m of vertical gain in 10.8 km...

Yes, it is time again for the Wintergreen Ascent, climbing up the Blue Ridge through the Wintergreen Ski Resort. On Friday I returned to the site of the recent Squadra Coppi training camp, the Acorn Inn in Nellysford, to ensure that I got a good night’s sleep before the race. Last year, I got up at 4:30 am and drove in from Washington. Needless to say I did not feel at my sharpest and my time on the course, 54:29, was a minute slower than my 2005 results. I was determined to do better than this. Robert Panzera, who runs the training camp I attended in San Diego in January, was very helpful with advice and a training program that I followed religiously but he was doubtful that I could hit my target of 50 minutes given my previous results.

As I was driving in to Nellysford, I saw Martin Versluys, the proprietor of the Acorn Inn, out on his bike. I thought I would join him and once I unpacked a bit I took out the bike even though there was only about an hour of light left. We met up on the road and headed back to the Inn together. Then Martin suggested we drive up to the Wintergreen Resort and get our numbers. This was an excellent idea as it meant we would not have to go back up the hill in the morning except for the race itself. While picking up our numbers we met Mariette and Rick, fellow-PPTC cyclists who were also doing the ride.

The next morning I went on a bit of a wild goose chase to get a new battery for my bike computer. When I finally located one I could not get the computer to work, so I thought that this was the end of the line for this expensive piece of equipment which, admittedly, I have been using for 8 years. Anyway, no time to bother with this. I packed up the bike and the wind trainer and headed off to the community centre at the base of the hill.

I arrived in plenty of time to set up and get in a good 45 minute warm up, listening to cool workout tunes on my MP3 player. I changed into my racing gear and headed out to the course. The weather was gloomy and rain and drizzle had been forecast for the day but it was dry as I rolled onto the course as 11:26:30. All systems go!

Although my usual practice is to use both my heart rate monitor and my bike computer speed indicator to pace myself, the dead computer meant that I was going entirely by heart rate, which is sometimes not a reliable indicator of how much power you are actually generating. Nonetheless I was able to stick to my game plan of going a bit slower on the bottom of the course, which has a 3.6 per cent grade for two miles. There is a gradual increase in grade until you turn right past the Wintergreen gatehouse and hit the first of the 15 per cent grades. For some reason, my bicycle’s bottom bracket chose this moment to start creaking and groaning, which it continued to do for the remainder of the ride. While it was irritating, it did encourage me to get the ride over with as fast as I could so I would not have to listen to it anymore!

I had overtaken a few riders who were already suffering but I did not feel too bad yet. There were several slightly flatter sections and I found I could actually increase my pace on the hill. I was not able to do this the last two years, where I had simply ground my way up to the top, with a little sprint at the finish line to relieve the tedium. It was fun to speed up occasionally, and I even passed a few more riders on the way up.

Mr. Intensity going up the road
Photo by Gilbert Craven

Of course, the left turn up through the parking lot that heads towards Devil’s Knob took the wind out of my sails. This is a very short, steep section–another 15 percenter–followed by another left turn. I was out of breath after this second turn and for the first time on the ride felt how hard it was. Rising up past the final parking lot to the finish line I kept a steady climb, encouraged by the kind bystanders, but had nothing left for a big sprint. The announcer said: “And here is a rider from Squadra Coppi. And his number is upside-down, so he’ll be penalized!” And sure enough, it was upside-down! Looking at my heart rate monitor’s clock I was a bit disappointed since it looked like I was well over the 50 minute mark, probably 51. But riding up Wintergreen is so hard at a certain point all you care about is just finishing rather than what your time is. And the penalty comment was a joke, although in racing if the judges cannot read your number they will not score you.

Martin and Rick were at the top, having completed their rides, and Martin was hoping for a podium finish in his 60-69 age group (he came third!). At that point the fastest finisher had completed the course in 38 minutes! Loading my bike on the shuttle bus, I joined three other riders and we headed back down the hill to the community centre, passing riders still climbing the hill and all of them looked like they were suffering.

I packed up the car and headed back to the the Acorn Inn, where I showered and then drove back to Washington, passing through yet two more traffic jams before I got home. I took the bike out and dumped my stuff in the washing machine. While I waited for the laundry I put my time trial bike into the car and then made some spaghetti for dinner. An hour later I hit the road again, headed for Harrisburg, PA, two hours and fifteen minutes away. I checked into the Howard Johnson’s Hotel at 9:00 pm and immediately went to sleep.

A peaceful Pennsylvania farm

Another day, another race! Waking up early this morning, I had the usual pathetic “continental” breakfast served in inexpensive chain hotels and drove the 10 miles to the start line of the US 40K Time Trial Challenge. This was directly next to the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant and the steam generated from the stacks showed us that the course was going to be a windy one today. Red Rose Races, which organizes a number of cycling events in Pennsylvania, was launching this inaugural event and under clear cool morning skies 146 riders had assembled.

And the stacks of the Three Mile Island power plant across the fields...

I chatted with a local rider named Paul, who lived in Carlyle. He had taken an early retirement and moved to Pennsylvania from the DC area so that he could participate in all the races Red Rose was promoting! He was as new to time trials as I was and had a very nice Cervelo P3 that he had bought from someone who had lost interest in the sport.

After my usual forty-five minute warm-up, I headed to the start line. I passed a rider who had just finished and looked dead. He said that the side wind was really bad about halfway out, and that coming back the hills were more of a problem than the wind. Since I was using my 11-23 cassette I knew that I had to watch out not to get winded on the hills.

I have had various little mechanical issues with my Leader time trial bike in the past but everything seemed to be going well today. I even managed to reset my computer to zero as I was about to be started. Ahead of me was an older gentleman on a beautiful Trek time trial bike which must have cost a bundle. He also was wearing a Louis Garneau Rocket helmet, the same as mine. He looked pretty nervous. Behind me was a woman, so I guessed I must have been the last of the Masters 50-59 group. This is the first time I have ridden with the Masters rather than Category 5. In the unlikely event I finished in the top ten I would actually get back some money! The woman and I chatted for a bit since she recognized the Squadra Coppi jersey and she was quite impressed that I had ridden Wintergreen the day before.

Out on the course now, I was amazed that my legs felt quite strong. I knew that they would show how tired they were at some point so I was really doing this race for practice since there are so few time trials held around Washington. With the strong wind and the hills on the course I did not expect to record a brilliant time but would be satisfied with 1:09-1:10. I had an excellent start and the road began going downhill so I was in the aero position very quickly and accelerating smoothly. With a little tailwind I reached 61 km/h on the descent. Within 2 kms of the start I could already see my 30 second man on the Trek up ahead and I determined to slowly reel him in. He descended well but was losing time on the climbs. But it was hard to catch him as whenever we passed an open field we would be slammed by the sidewind. He passed someone whom I soon passed as well and then just before I caught him someone else passed me, moving pretty smoothly. This last rider had already taken 2 minutes off of me!

As we reached the turning point a third rider swooped by at startling speed, his disc rear wheel humming. I could not believe how fast some of the riders were going and it seemed impossible that they were in my Masters’ age group. I passed two more riders and attempted to close the gap on the fellow who had started two minutes after me when two riders blasted by me, the fastest I had ever seen on a time trial course. But by this point I had other things to worry about. I was focused on the 2 minute guy but he was slowly pulling away further up the road and I was starting to see my heart rate jump a great deal on the hills. But I tried to ride as smoothly as possible even though the wretched wind was more of a headwind than a sidewind. As I approached a sign that said “2 km to finish” I poured on the coals and tried to up the speed but of course the friendly downhill that had been at the start now became a very mean uphill, with a headwind straight down it. I could see the finish line but I could feel myself fading quickly and I crossed the finish line not feeling very triumphant at all. I had calculated my time as being around 1:07, which was quite acceptable. Specifically trained for a 40 km time trial–-the last one I did was in June 2006-- and properly rested I am sure that I could easily have taken 2-3 minutes off my time with no additional effort. I am sure that the last 2 kms was the Wintergreen effect kicking in.

I packed up my gear, after drinking all three bottles of sports drink I had kept for the finish, and then Paul rolled in. He had had a good ride–-1:04–and also said that the last 2 kms were terrible for him. He is planning to do Union Grove and I am considering it, but I will probably see him at the new 40 km time trial series being held in Carlisle itself every two months or so.

Driving home I took Interstate 81 which is a bit longer but has much nicer scenery. I had considered stopping in a brewpub in Frederick for a late lunch but instead decided to go directly home and cook for myself. It was just as well because by the time I reached Washington I could feel the cumulate effect of two days of racing and was very tired.

A hearty lunch eaten and lots of laundry done, I went onto the Internet and saw that the finishing times for both races were up. As expected, my time for the 40 km time trial was 1:06:51, which put me 13th out of 19 Masters’ 50-59 riders, the fastest of whom completed the course in 57:44. I was 87th out of 146 riders overall, which was pretty good. I discovered also that the guys who had passed me so fast were not in my category at all. Everyone started by order of registration so I was not competing directly with most of them. The two superfast guys were Pro/Cat 1/Cat 2 and one of them was second overall with a time of 55:47, so it was no surprise he passed me so quickly. Very impressive. The guy ahead of me on the Trek was one of only three Masters’ 60-69 and while he took two minutes longer than me and came in last in his category he was still on the podium!

The Wintergreen results were also in and I was delighted to see that not only had a I done better than last year, I actually had surpassed my target, finishing with a time of 49:37, placing me 21st out of 38 Category 5 riders. This was nearly 5 minutes better than my 2006 result and nearly 4 minutes better than 2005. If I would have raced Masters’ 50-59 this year I would have been 11th. Although I enjoyed the races very much, it did represent two hotel bills and 688 miles of driving over three days. Then again, I did lose three pounds since Friday...

So all in all things went very well: no mechanical or weather issues, plenty of time to warm up and acceptable performances to set up a baseline to gauge my future progress. And I realized when I got home that I had attempted to put the battery in backwards in my computer so it works fine now too!

Friday 4 May 2007

A Herd of Tin Donkeys: My Leader LD-735 TT

Leader LD-735TT

Time Trialling on the Cheap (maybe)...

I have always enjoyed watching individual time trials during the Tour de France. The "Race Against Truth" is exactly that--you cannot hide behind teammates or blame anyone else for how your ride goes. In his book, "A Significant Other," Victor Hugo Pena talks about the pain of riding a time trial and how it requires the ability to suffer beyond anything else in cycling. For most people, this would make time trialling in itself pretty unattractive but I enjoy being able to focus exclusively on the race and not have to worry about: a) others crashing into me; b) me crashing into others and c) any form of strategy. The basic rule is just go fast and don't blow up.

I rode a few time trials in Ottawa on my Bianchi Limited with Scott time trial bars (the kind Greg Lemond used to win the 1989 Tour de France!) and had a lot of fun. I was determined to do some more time trialling in a serious way and I determined pretty quickly that a tt-specific bike was necessary. E-Bay to the rescue!

After some shopping around and checking out, I decided to put in a low-ball bid for a Leader LD-735 TT aluminum frame, sold only over the Internet. I calculated that the bike should fit although I was a bit concerned that it only came in one size. To my surprise, the frame was mine for $169. For another $115 I bought an aero carbon fork and I was in business. Well, not quite. Next came the hunt for parts on E-Bay and this took some time before I was able to take a big box of parts to Kirk the Mechanic.

At the end, this is what I came up with to practice the fine art of time-trialling:

Leader LD-735TT aluminum frame
Leader L-806 carbon aero fork
Leader integrated headset
Shimano Dura-Ace 53-39 crankset and bottom bracket
Shimano Ultegra 11-23 cassette
Shimano Dura-Ace 9 speed bar-end shifters
Shimano Ultegra brake calipers
VisionTech base bar and TT clip-on aerobars
VisionTech brake levers
Velocity Spartacus aero wheels (20 spokes in the front, 24 in the rear)
Michelin Axial tires
Cateye CC-HR200DW bike computer, including heart rate monitor
Selle Italia SLK saddle
Speedplay X series pedals

For time trials I have a silly-looking Louis Garneau teardrop-shaped Rocket helmet, with a very cool visor. Most recently I have added a Renn disc wheel to my arsenal of time trial goodies. At the time of writing, I have ridden the Leader about 350 km. I competed in the 2006 Dismal Dash time trial in Suffolk, VA, one of the Peter Teeuwen Memorial time trials in Chesapeake, VA and a Red Rose/Cadence time trial in Pennsylvania. So far in 2007 I have ridden the US 40 km Time Trial Challenge in Middletown, PA. I am not very fast yet since it takes me about 1:07 to ride 40 kms on a rolling course but I will improve. One disadvantage with racing time trials is that there are very few of them in the Mid-Atlantic so I have to do a lot of driving to get in my timed 40 kms.

The Leader is pretty fast but it lacks the sophistication of the better tt bikes like the Cervelos. It is brutally stiff and you end up taking a lot of the road shock. The head tube is too long so you actually sit up a bit too high for optimal drag reduction and the gap between the frame and the rear wheel is too large. The workmanship is decent but not comparable to my other bikes. And the phrase "78 Degree" is actually misspelled on the decal on the top tube! But through a judicious mixing of new and used parts with my bargain frame and fork I probably have US$1100 invested, plus $450 for the disc wheel, which seems like an exceptional value. Once I have done time trials for a few years I plan to keep the parts and upgrade the frame to become more competitive.

The Leader and me in action, May 2006, Pennsylvania--at least it looks more aerodynamic than me!