Friday, February 22, 2008
"Go, Go, Go!," my friend Ralph the Badger was shouting in the distance, along with my coach. My dim brain could barely comprehend what was happening as the words filtered in. I was totally focused on grinding out yet another turn of the pedals as my familiar bicycle turned into a torture instrument, forcing me to ride up what felt like at 25 per cent incline. Worst of all, I was breathing as hard as I could but getting almost no air into my lungs because an ogre was stamping on my chest and suffocating me. In fact, I was taking a test indoors to determine my VO2 max and my lactate threshold. Not only had I willing agreed to do this, but I was even paying for it.
I would consider myself an average recreational rider. Just out of high school in 1974, I made my first serious bike tour, riding from London to Munich with my best friend and discovering I loved cycling. Of course, back then I was strong and slim, albeit less charming and sophisticated than now, but as the years went by I never forgot that great ride. In 1998 I moved to Germany for a four year assignment and discovered cycling Euro-style, with trips to Mallorca, Belgium, Sicily, Holland, Switzerland, the entire Camino de Santiago and all over Germany. But when I rode with my friends I found that I often could not keep up well on hills and was determined to improve this.
Fast-forward to Washington, DC. After moving to the city in 2002 and joining a bicycle touring club, I found that I was able to do more riding than ever before. I also was climbing more hills than ever before as we often rode in the shadow of the Blue Ridge. In a moment of insanity I signed up for the cheerfully-named Mountains of Misery Tour and discovered that I was still not very good at hills. But a year later, and 15 pounds lighter, it was a lot easier when I did my second MoM. And thus a plan was hatched.
In 2000 I rode several passes in the Swiss Alps and I was so taken with the beauty of the region that I vowed to return. But I also vowed that I would not wheeze and gasp my way over the passes as I had done then. It was always my experience that the best tours I did were the ones where I felt most at one with the bicycle, when my conditioning let me enjoy the scenery without being distracted by the hardships of pedalling.
At the end of October 2004 I decided to Get Really Serious and take advantage of the coaching services that have sprung up all over the United States. I bought a good heart rate monitor, an expensive home trainer, and even a great big fan to keep me cool. I got all kinds of bicycle race DVDs to watch but to set the whole thing in motion I clearly needed Professional Help. This would not be a surprise to those who have known me any length of time, but what I was looking at would mean a much greater commitment to my hobby. But as someone with a desk job I looked at this as an investment in my future health as well. The most obvious benefit would come in August 2005 when my goal is to do a week’s tour in the Swiss Alps, covering 12 passes, including the fearsome Stelvio with its 46 hairpin, turns in seven days.
To prepare myself, I stocked up on books written by training luminaries such as Joe Friel and Chris Carmichael, and searched the Internet for any useful information about training I could find. I now have several binders full of Useful Suggestions, but you don’t get fit by reading. So I then found a coach near me who offered training programs and the opportunity to take tests at a facility a short drive away. My friend Ralph wanted to do the test as well, although he was not planning on signing up for coaching.
I was chosen to be the lucky first contestant. My bicycle was set up on a home trainer. A heart rate monitor (HRM) transmitter was strapped on to my chest and then a neoprene mask with tubes sticking out of was fitted to my face, below my eyes. There was a computer wired up that the coach was operating. The idea was that I would keep pedalling at a comfortable and regular cadence as resistance on the trainer unit was increased each minute. The set-up was able to determine how much oxygen I was consuming and how fast I was exhaling CO2. This is used to calculate what is essentially lung capacity (maximal aerobic capacity, technically), something that is more representative of good genes than of fitness. For example, two of the Tour de France’s great riders–Lance Armstrong and Miguel Indurain–could boast VO2 max levels (expressed in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram per minute) of 88 and 80 respectively, compared to the average person’s level of 50.
Of more importance is establishing baseline level for "Lactate Threshold" (LT). Without being too scientific about it, this is the maximum effort you can sustain for extended periods without, well, blowing up. If insufficient oxygen to going to your muscles using the aerobic metabolism, your body must rely on the anaerobic metabolism. What you get is a build-up of lactic acid, which causes your muscles to hurt a whole lot and you eventually have to slow down or stop. The purpose of the test is to determine at what heart rate LT is reached and then you can use that figure to develop a training plan. While VO2 max can’t be changed a great deal, the LT can be raised through training to represent a higher percentage of VO2 max.
So my curiosity thus led me to be strapped onto my bicycle so I could pretend to be an elite athlete. There was a long warm-up first; then the first few minutes of the test went swimmingly as I kept a steady pace and thought positive thoughts. At the 5 minute mark I was finding it a little more difficult; at 10 minutes it was getting noticeably harder. At 14 minutes, bad things were beginning to happen as I was starting to feel the mask constrict me as I tried to breathe heavily to match my exertion. The last two minutes, which took me to 17:08, were horrible as I was gasping, trying to breathe and my legs felt like concrete blocks. Who is doing all that groaning? Wait–it’s me! Get me off of here–I only cycle for fun! My head was throbbing and I felt as if I would do anything to get off the stupid bike and end the idiotic test. But I survived.
Mind you, Ralph had to take the mask off because I did not have the strength or coordination to do it myself. I was too busy gasping. And he took great pleasure in telling me how awful I looked. It needed a good ten minutes of gentle spinning for me to feel sort of normal again. And when the computer printout was completed, I learned that my VO2 max was 58.4 (hmm, no Indurain there) and my LT was reached at a heart rate of 155 bpm. According to the printout, the latter was 76% of my VO2 max. This meant I was a good candidate for improvement through training as you can be trained up to 90% of VO2 max. Most importantly, I now had a baseline to determine the correct intensity of my workouts. No two individuals are alike in heart rate or LT or recovery time, so these tests are only useful for measuring your progress.
In the four months since then, I have religiously followed my workout program. The first part, at what seems like bizarrely slow speeds, has been primarily to improve my endurance. After this initial stage, I will move into the realm of training closer to the LT. My coach has encouraged me to develop training goals for the year and has suggested doing some racing to improve my cycling skills and focus my training. And of course, proper nutrition is a major element of getting in condition, but that’s another story.
Most cyclists don’t race, but training is valuable for anyone going on a bike tour. There is often the added weight of panniers to consider and if there are no hills, there are always headwinds. After a great day of riding and a well-deserved dinner, getting up the next morning and heading off to new adventures should be something to look forward to rather than being endless torture.
On the subject of torture, Ralph had his chance to be tested too and I did not neglect taking the opportunity to point out when I removed the mask from his face how pale he looked, and how pink his eyes had become.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
Luckily I am one of the few people on the planet to actually admit to having no problem riding indoors for fairly lengthy periods. My personal record was the Braveheart Ride, when I watched the Mel Gibson film in its 3 hour entirety while turning the cranks.
My secret to indoor trainer success is to usually to watch old Tour de France/Giro/Tour of Flanders DVDs and pretend I am out there riding with the guys. This has worked well as there is nothing to detract from doing your own workout. My Cruel Coach has me doing the High Intensity Training regime of Dr. Arnie Baker and there is so much brutality in this that I can easily match my exertion to things like the 1 hour session of Marco Pantani climbing the Plateau de Beille.
In addition to my race library, I have several other DVDs that are training-specific. I will review these for the blog but I wanted to start with my most recent acquisition as I enjoyed it so much.
Coach Troy Jacobson of Maryland is well-known/notorious for his Spinervals training DVDs, which usually feature a team of cyclists riding indoors and creating serious sweat and tendon bulges while the coach walks around them and saying things like: "Good job!" This must appeal to people as the number of his DVDs seems to be increasing exponentially.
The latest series is one that features rides outdoors. Like, with scenery and movement. I purchased the second in the series. It features the Lake Placid Ironman loop of 56 miles. I would like to go south (Lake Placid is only 2 hours from here) and ride this course in Spring and thought it would be nice to see the route beforehand.
The DVD features Coach Troy himself riding the course. He is being followed by a car filming the whole thing, except for the sequences when the Coach Troy Cam gives you a cyclist's-eye-view of the road ahead. This helmet-mounted camera is a nice idea, but Coach Troy should spend a bit more money on equipment as the view always seemed a little blurry to me.
Coach Troy gives a running (rolling) commentary of the route and suggestions about where to go fast and where to pull back. He varies the gearing, and you can follow along: the DVD indicates the gearing, the time enroute and the level of exertion in percentage terms. Although it seemed to me that he was using the big chainring where I would probably not, it is very easy to follow along. You can listen to Coach Troy with music, or music without Coach Troy if you prefer.
Whiteface Mountain (5th highest in New York State)
Photo by Paul Duncan
You get a nice impression of the scenery as the DVD is divided up into segments and you pass through the village of Keen and through a series of nice rollers to Jay before getting in some good climbing. You can see Whiteface Mountain, famous as the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics alpine ski runs. Incidentally, there is a toll road that goes to the top and averages an 8 percent grade. It is described as being "challenging." The summit of the mountain is 1480 m (4867 feet) and the road gets to within 91 feet of the top. Hmmm.
Anyway, you can get in a lot of excellent training with this DVD. It is almost 3 hours in length and you can imagine that you are riding in the wild forests of the Adirondack State Park. Well, except that you spend most of the time actually looking at Coach Troy's butt but at least he is letting you slipstream him. The real Ironmen don't get that option in July.
Coach Troy offers the DVD at his website for $34, but I got it a bit cheaper on E-Bay.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
The driver's insurance company gave the family a payment after admitting that the speed he was going probably contributed to the accident.
Monday, February 11, 2008
Yield to Life will engage in a vigorous awareness campaign to promote positive attitudes toward cyclists and replace any hostility that exists between motorists and cyclists with understanding, respect, and appreciation for all life on the road. Safety for every cyclist is the top priority of Yield to Life.
Cycling is a healthy, life-affirming, environmentally-sound activity that adds value to anyone’s life. Since cyclists' lives are often in motorists’ hands, motorists must understand the vital role they play in a cyclist's safety.
Yield to Life will concentrate on road-rule education programs for motorists and cyclists alike through driver's education programs, public awareness movements and media campaigns in order to ensure a safer and more harmonious environment for all those on the road.
Yield to Life will engage in a hands-on educational program with target audiences that range from school assemblies to corporate conventions. Workshops will be created to arm cyclists with tips for navigating through traffic and tools for riding in a safe and responsible manner. Yield to Life will work on a database for cyclists to find the best, the safest and the most accommodating roads for commuting and for recreation.
Friday, February 8, 2008
This week's announcement that Canada's Dorel Industries has purchased Cannondale has not gone unnoticed in the mainstream press. The Globe & Mail in Toronto did a piece today which I have copied below. Of course, it makes those of us who ride high-end bikes look a bit, uh, crazy. Of course, these are mountain bikers being interviewed in the article so they are already a bit strange. Mountain bikers that actually clean their bikes!
Why buy a Chevette when you can have a Ferrari?
From Friday's Globe and Mail
February 8, 2008 at 9:14 AM EST
Sandro doesn't want you to know where he lives, where he works or even what his last name is. He has a secret - a lie, some might call it - that mustn't get out.
But here it is anyway: Sandro paid $7,000 for a bicycle. Why the cloak-and-dagger act?
"My wife would probably kill me if she knew," he says discreetly from work. "I told her I bought it with my sister."
Like many big-spending weekend warriors, he fell for Cannondale Bicycle, a company whose bikes have been ridden to stage victories at the Tour de France and world championships in mountain biking.
"Why have a Chevette when you can have a Ferrari?" says Sandro, who rides a few hours a week during the warmer months to keep in shape.
On Monday, Montreal-based Dorel Industries announced a deal to buy Cannondale for about $200-million (U.S.).
Dorel already sells low-priced bikes to discount retailers such as Canadian Tire and Wal-Mart. The purchase was as much about acquiring a bike line as adopting thousands of Cannondale disciples who spare no expense on buying and maintaining their wheels.
"We see strong growth in this area, with the bike enthusiast who wants to buy his brand in a smaller store as opposed to a big-box outlet," says Dorel president and chief executive officer Martin Schwartz.
Sandro picked up his prized Cannondale Team Scalpel mountain bike ("the exact same model the pros ride") in December and carefully rolled it into the furnace room of his west Toronto home.
And there it remains, away from the cold and salt that might corrode the bike's $1,400 (Canadian) handmade French wheels or $1,500 front suspension.
"It pains me not to ride, but I go down to take a look at it now and then," he says. "It's aesthetically quite pleasing. I like cleaning it."
Michael Cranwell, general manager at Duke's Cycle in Toronto, calls himself a weekend warrior even though he rides a backup bike four or five times a week during the winter and races his Team Scalpel all summer long.
Last year, Cannondale invited him to its Bethel, Conn., plant to test its newest models. Since then, the Scalpel has become "near and dear to my heart," says Mr. Cranwell, who's as fastidious as a NASA engineer when it comes to maintaining his beloved wheels. After each race he disassembles the bike to clean and inspect each part. "I tend to be a little more anal than most," he says.
Aside from Cannondale, well-heeled bike nuts pay up to $10,000 for models from Specialized, Merlin, Litespeed, Serotta and GT. What about these high-priced bikes inspires such devotion?
Like most top-drawer manufacturers, Cannondale outfits its stock with premium components and lightweight frames. Unlike others, it has a reputation for experimental engineering. The Scalpel, for instance, features a front suspension that uses a single telescoping fork with 88 bearings. The Scalpel's whole assemblage of space age metals and carbon fibre weighs as much as two large laptops.
"They define cutting edge," says Duke's Cycle manager Mark Newman, lifting the sole 23-pound (10.5 kilogram) Team Scalpel left in the store. "Riders respect that."
A precision instrument on the racetrack, these pricey bikes don't necessarily make great commuter vehicles. For one, the lightweight parts won't endure a regular grind as well as heavier, less-expensive components.
And second, the Scalpel is worth as much as a decent used car, making it a prime target for thieves. "You do not lock this bike up outside," Mr. Newman says. "If you're dumb enough to do that, I would even consider stealing it."
It's possible to buy bike insurance, but it isn't cheap. Insurers demand about 10 cents of premium for every dollar of bike, putting the cost of insuring a high-end Cannondale at about $700. And when you own four bikes, as Mr. Cranwell does, the insurance costs become prohibitive. That's why he has a foolproof security system. "My bike can only be one of three places," he says. "At the shop, at home or underneath me."
When Sandro mentions to friends and co-workers how much he paid for the bike, he gets strange looks. "People are always asking what the difference is between my bike and a $200 Canadian Tire special," he says. "It's like night and day. Buying a bike is an art. If you buy garbage, you end up with garbage."
The dollars are in the details
The cranks are constructed from a rare, high-grade aluminum.
The wheels are handmade in France. Replacements run about $1,300.
The swing arms rely on the natural give of carbon fibre rather than heavy metal pivots.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
To the surprise of many of us who are obsessed by–oops, sorry: I meant to say "enjoy"–cycling, the bicycle industry in the United States is apparently in a decline. Bike sales have been flat for a decade at between $5.5 and 5.9 billion but as more high-end bicycles are being sold, cyclists are leaving at the other end of the market or never even getting in. The National Sporting Goods Association calculated that in 2006 35.6 million Americans over age 7 rode a bike at least six times in the year, down from 43.1 million the year before and 53.3 million in 1996. So as the expensive carbon bikes hit the market, revenues were stable but unit sales declined.
Shimano, the Big Daddy of the bike components business, was alarmed and retained a California innovation/design firm, IDEO, to create a better biking experience and, of course, sell more Shimano parts. IDEO went to the homes of non-cyclists across America and met with people to learn about their leisure activities.
If the Coasting idea brings people into cycling, it is all for the better but it seems to me that perhaps the concept is a dead end rather than the smooth Highway of the Future. The bikes are not designed to be maintained by their owners–just looking at changing a tire conjures up nightmares–and their appeal will be primarily to people who will probably not move to more capable bicycles, either for commuting or sport. There are nice alternatives that are much better bicycles: for example, the Raleigh One Way is a steel classic-looking singlespeed bike (ie. no shifting), with fenders, good brakes, eyelets for a rack and a price tag of only $600.
by Bill Strickland
There are not a lot of books that try to get into a cyclist's head and describe his emotional state. The rare exceptions which probably qualify as literature are Tim Krabbe's The Rider and Matt Seaton's The Escape Artist but another book surely must be considered in this small number.
“Ten Points” is the story of Bill Strickland, Executive Editor of Bicycling magazine, and how one summer he promised his daughter Natalie that he would earn ten points racing in the Thursday criterium bike race near their home in Lehigh, Pennsylvania. Bill is in his late 30s, by his own account a racer of impressively modest accomplishment, and his competitors are a motley assemblage of some of the top racing talent in the United States. His odds of getting ten points are pretty poor as he starts his quest but he wants to keep the promise to his daughter. But the challenge extends far beyond the ten points as Bill Strickland turns what on the surface appears to be a middle-aged man’s quixotic quest into his need to use the bicycle to bring meaning into his life. He wants to use the discipline, the pain and even the anger of bike racing to overcome his past and build something stronger and more meaningful with his family.
This book is not really about bike racing, but the accounts of the Thursday night races are wonderful in their detail and drama. The other racers–with nicknames like the Animal, Speed, Bird, Steak and Purple Jersey, are talented and dedicated but they seem to operate at a totally different level than even well-trained hobby athletes. The author learns with each session out on the road, but all too often he lacks the physical ability to keep pace. The description of amateur bike racing, and what goes on in your mind as you try to work the pack, is exceptional.
Bicycle road racing is unlike other amateur pursuits, such as softball or bowling or even running 5Ks, where you can be mediocre or even lousy but still participate. In a bike race, once you have dropped from the pack, you get pulled out of the event by officials–humiliated as well as depleted. And most beginners are left behind within minutes, if not seconds.
As well-told as the racing sequences are, what makes the book rivetting is the author’s juxtaposition of his life with his wife and daughter, with their domestic vignettes and his loving details of his little girl growing,, with his own childhood where the accounts of the abuse inflicted on him by his father are so appalling they come at you from the page with the quality of a nightmare, as if you are not actually reading what is on the page. It has taken courage to write this and skill to make the reader stay with the story in spite of all natural inclinations. But going for the ten points is part of Bill’s therapy, the way he comes to terms with what he is and how, as a loving father and husband, he must act to protect his family from the self-destructive monster inside of himself.
As time passes, Bill learns not to try to win each race but to merely stay at the front and fit into the rhythm of the pack. He reads the other riders and discovers that he has an exceptional talent for riding in the rain but he can only use this as long as the officials do not end the race prematurely. He discovers that if he allows the anger inside himself to speak uncontrolled, it will cause accidents and not gain him points.
The season moves inexorably towards the end and Bill has become a better rider but is still not up to ten points. It will take a small miracle to get there but Bill’s realization towards the end is that there are small miracles around him that speak more importantly to who he is. Throughout the book one can sense his sense of wonder at fatherhood and his recognition of the sometimes painful compromises needed to make a marriage work, and the bright rewards of love.
Ten Points is beautifully written. Holding up the mirror is often painful to those who must gaze upon it but Bill Strickland looks back as a real bike racer and, more importantly, an honest man. This is worth much more than ten points.
by Bill Strickland
241 pp., hardcover
2007, Hyperion Press, New York
Monday, February 4, 2008
He was celebrated far and wide for his encouragement of fixed gear cycling, owning no less than eleven of them, including an off-road tandem! His articles on fixed gear cycling, to be found on the Harris Cycling website, where he was the Webmaster and general tech guy, are exceptionally clear and concise. He was a goldmine of information not only about fixes but also about bike lore in general. His articles on the Golden Age of Cycling are invaluable to restorers and mechanics everywhere who are trying to figure out how to fit that cottered crank onto the French-threaded part. But in addition to cycling Mr. Brown had diverse interests, as you can see from him own homepage, including family history, photography and music. He enjoyed cycletouring in Quebec and was fluent in French. And he wrote an excellent explanation about the causes of the US Civil War!
Having been diagnosed with MS, Mr. Brown had not ridden a bicycle since September 2006, and he had been keeping a journal of the effects of the illness. Although I never met him, the power of his personality--passionate, helpful, open-minded, humorous, self-reliant--came across strongly in his writing. He was proud of his family and appears to have passed his inquiring mind genetics to his children, both of whom are mathematicians.
There was an interview with Mr. Brown on "the Bike Show, " where he talked about fixed gear touring in 2006 and another where he sang the praises of the English three speed a few months earlier.
So let us wish Sheldon eternal smooth roads ahead on the Great Tour, and our sympathies to his family and friends.