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December 1st, 2016

BRUTALesque EPICosity

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Back in September, I closed out one of my posts by saying that

These days, the descriptor “epic” gets thrown around pretty casually, but “epic” is a very fitting word for the ride that demands everything a cyclist has got.

EPIC Insurance Solutions

Six weeks later, cycling newscasters GCN got in on the act by releasing a video entitled “How To Make Every Ride EPIC”. Their clip begins by also observing that “‘Epic’ is one of the most overused words in cycling.”

That got me curious about my own use of the term. After all, I’ve been sharing my cycling exploits for fifteen years and written 375 blogposts. And we all know I’m a devilishly wordy sonofabitch.

So here’s a quick summary of my use of the term EPIC:

For my first seven years of writing (2003-2009), I never used the term at all. Yay!

Its first appearance was in a 2010 description of my first 130-mile Outriders ride from Boston around Cape Cod to Provincetown. Using “epic” for such a noteworthy ride seems reasonable to me.

In 2011 my friend Jay and I drove up to Vermont and rode big ol’ Jay Peak in the rain. At that time, it was the most climbing I’d ever done in a single ride. I called it “an epic excursion” and “an epic trip”, which are reasonably accurate.

In 2012 I rode my first Mt. Washington century with my boyz. It was a challenging ride and an amazing trip, and I’d say it was worthy of being called “epic”; tho it might not have justified the four times that I used it!

In 2013, the Tour d’Essex County was “an epic struggle”, and Outriders was “an epictacular ride”. That was probably my most egregious use of the word. Epictacular???

That was four years ago now, and “epic” hasn’t appeared since. Yay!

But just because I haven’t overused the word “epic” doesn’t mean I’m not guilty of a little self-indulgent hyperbole. Probably my biggest sin (as a cycling writer) is describing things as “brutal”, usually with respect to hills or the heat.

On that account:

I used “brutal” twice in 2003-2004, then went six years without. Yay!

But something changed in 2011. In the six years since then, “brutal” appears no less than 27 times in my blog, peaking in 2013 when I used it nine times. The weather was particularly hot that year, specifically during my Tour d’Essex County, Mt. Washington Century, and Fourth of July weekend rides.

On the other hand, without words like “epic” and “brutal”, it would be impossible to relate the emotions, intensity, and suffering that we cyclists experience. Riding a bike is not a purely intellectual experience, so my descriptions must use language that is both vivid and visceral.

Plus, dramatic adjectives make for much better reading than the flat monotone of unadorned facts.

November 14th, 2016

Is It In You?

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It’s been five years, so it’s probably safe to tell the long-suppressed tale of my Gatorade Escapade.

Prior to 2012, I could walk to some shop like GNC and find two-pound tubs of Gatorade’s special Pro Endurance Formula powder/mix in my preferred flavor (orange). It worked out nicely, because one of those tubs would last nearly one full season/year.

Gatorade Pro formula

Then GNC stopped carrying it. It was kinda a specialized thing, and I couldn’t find it stocked anywhere. So I did what any normal bitnaut would do: I went directly to Gatorade’s online store.

Figuring I’d save on shipping costs, I ordered a two-year supply: two of those two-pound packs. That’d be perfect, right?

However, someone in Gatorade’s fulfillment department didn’t look at the “quantity” field when picking and packing my order, so they only shipped one of the two packs I’d ordered. I called customer service, who said they’d ship me the other pack free of charge. So far, so good.

Imagine my surprise when, a week later, a seventeen pound box arrived on my doorstep. A package containing not the one missing tub of Gatorade, but six of them! Thanks to their use of the ambiguous term “pack”, instead of shipping me one tub, they’d shipped me one case (six tubs) of Gatorade!

It was like they’d given me a “Buy 2, Get 5 Free” sale. In dollar terms, I spent $58 and received $203 worth of product! Score!!! I’m sorry PepsiCo, but I kept it all.

From the grocery store, you probably know how big a pound of flour or sugar is. I’d basically ordered four pounds of Gatorade powder, and received fourteen pounds! If I continued using it at the same rate of one tub per season, that was enough Gatorade to last me seven years!!!

So here I am, four and a half years later, having consumed six of the seven canisters, with a full one still left to use. I might not need to buy any sport drinks until 2018.

But when I do, I know exactly what brand I’m buying and from where. It might have cost them in the short term, but Gatorade has earned lifetime consumer loyalty from this rider!

And that’s the story of my Gatorade Escapade.

November 13th, 2016

Dirty DNS

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For cyclists, the acronym DNS stands for “Did Not Start”. That’s the result they publish if you are registered for an event but unable to participate. And for me, that’s how my 2016 season ended.

On October 2 I participated in the first of seven group training rides leading up to Pittsburgh’s Dirty Dozen race. I had already crawled up eleven of those infamous thirteen hills for a total of twenty ascents, and I was planning on seven more weeks of hard, focused training followed by a memorable event.

2016 Dirty Dozen jersey

Four days after that first training ride, I flew to Maine to care for my 90 year-old mother, who had been hospitalized. With one very short exception, that’s where I’ve been ever since, and where I’ll remain for the immediate future.

I’ve only managed one easy ride in the past six weeks, and I missed the Woiner Cancer Foundation’s 321 charity ride, which I had registered and fundraised for. I was away from home for my birthday and missed the introduction to Japanese taiko drumming that I’d excitedly signed up for.

More importantly, I’ve been unable to train for the Dirty Dozen, and missed all of the remaining six group training rides (the final one, which does all thirteen hills, is taking place today). I haven’t built up the leg strength and stamina to take on Pittsburgh’s thirteen steepest hills; and my prior fitness level has plummeted due to six weeks with no exercise at all.

Realistically, even if I could fly to Pittsburgh over Thanksgiving weekend, I’m not in physical condition to ride my first Dirty Dozen this year. There’s just no way.

For several years, I watched the live video stream from the Dirty Dozen, trying to learn what I could about it. When I moved to Pittsburgh last fall, I arrived in town a week after Thanksgiving, just missing out on the opportunity to spectate, if not participate. But 2016 was going to be my year; my fitness was right up there, and I was excited to face the hills. Plus there was added incentive this year: to support ride founder Danny Chew, who was paralyzed in a crash a few months ago.

So you can imagine how disappointed I am to withdraw as a rider, plus be relegated to watching the internet broadcast rather than cheering the riders on from the roadside. It sucks, and it’s a lousy way to end an otherwise successful first year in Pittsburgh.

Not that I begrudge it. Family responsibilities obviously take priority over a bike ride. But it’s still a huge disappointment. The Dirty Dozen is Pittsburgh’s signature event, and it would have been one of the most noteworthy accomplishments of my cycling career.

Hopefully things will work out better next year.

October 23rd, 2016

Tagline

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Having plenty of time for back-burnered projects is one of the few benefits of spending ten hours a day in an out-of-state hospital room for three weeks at a time.

In this case, I’ve taken the time to go through my entire cycling blog, adding descriptive index tags to all 366 entries. This will allow anyone to search my blog for articles by major topics such as training, best practices, maintenance, centuries, or climbing.

So now when you’re reading one of my articles, you’ll be able to view my posts on the same topic by clicking on the tag list that appears at the bottom of the page.

In addition, here are the top 32 tags that I’ve written about most frequently:

ride report
pan-mass challenge
pmc
photos
charity
century
purchases
miles
mechanicals
equipment
training
club rides
best practices
hills
quad cycles
spring
jay
boston
200k
travel
bike paths
crash
cape cod
plastic bullet
injury
body
fame
lbs
cape ann
paul
wheels
cancer

Or you can view my full tag list to see the whole set of about two hundred terms.

Enjoy!

October 14th, 2016

More Than One Slippery Slope

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11 PMC Riding

Ornoth’s been playing with data visualizations again, and as usual the results are pretty cool.

Climbing hills is how cyclists measure themselves. We roam around the countryside, testing ourselves against short, steep hills; long, steady hills; and especially ones that are both steep and long.

Ascending each hill dozens of times, we become intimately familiar with every detail, having discovered where the slope increases, where the opportunities to recover are, and whether a rider should attack it aggressively or work his way to the top more slowly and conservatively.

Slope chart

When cyclists get together, hills are a natural topic of conversation: complaining about them, reminiscing about them, and comparing them to one another. This hill is longer, but that one’s steeper. But the first one is steeper right at the start. Or is it?

The one thing that’s missing from our conversations is quantitative data that allow you to objectively compare one hill with another, or even a whole set of hills. Ideally, that data would all be summarized in one simple chart that you could read at a glance.

You’d think the interwebs would have created such a thing, but I couldn’t find one. Tons of sites will show the elevation profile of one hill, but I couldn’t find any that would show multiple hills on the same chart. So I went and wrote one myself.

If you go to this page, you can enter the URLs for up to thirteen Strava “segments”. The easiest way for me to identify hills (or any road segments) is by leveraging Strava, the cycling activity tracking site.

Once you’ve told me what road segments you’re interested in, behind the scenes my page will fetch all the elevation data from Strava, then build a chart for you that displays the elevation profiles of every segment.

If you click on the thumbnail image at the top of this post, you can view a full-size example, although it won’t show the interactive features of the chart: you can hover the mouse over any line, and a tooltip will display the slope of the hill at that point; you can show and hide each segment; and zoom in closer to see greater detail.

My only disappointment is that it’s only as good as Strava’s data, which isn’t always as good as you’d want and expect.

It can be a bit of a chore chasing around Strava to find segment URLs, so I’ve created some example charts for you to play with.

The first one compares some noteworthy hills near Boston.

The next one shows the thirteen hills in Pittsburgh’s Dirty Dozen ride.

In addition to comparing local hills, this makes it easier for me to compare Boston’s hills with those in Pittsburgh, both to satisfy my own curiosity as well as to share with my cycling buddies back in Boston. Here’s an example chart comparing some hills from Boston and Pittsburgh.

But to satisfy your own curiosity, go to the input page to use whatever Strava segments you care about, from your neighborhood or anywhere in the world.

I hope you enjoy it! It was fun to develop, and I think it carries really interesting and useful information that no other site provides.

October 3rd, 2016

Road Work Ahead

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07 PMC Riding

When I lived in Boston, autumn meant easy rides and enjoying being at peak fitness. But in Pittsburgh, it’s just the opposite.

Before the move, my entire season was structured to put me in peak form for early August and the Pan-Mass Challenge. Once that was over, I had three months or more to enjoy riding for pleasure, rather than for performance, before the weather put an end to my season. Sure, there’d probably be a fall century or two, but nothing I needed to train for, since I was already at peak form. Autumn rides in New England were part of the payback for all the painful spring and summer training.

The calendar is a little different here in Pittsburgh. Instead of having most of August free, I had two centuries and three very hilly metrics, right through Labor Day. So I couldn’t think about taking it easy until after the end of August.

From Labor Day onward, the calendar is mostly open for the rest of the year. I’ve got a very flat (and mostly crushed limestone) metric century 3-2-1 charity ride in the middle of October, but that’ll be a cakewalk.

Riders on Canton Ave

But there is one major event left on Pittsburgh’s annual cycling calendar, and it’s hard enough to destroy any notion of taking it easy: the Dirty Dozen.

For over thirty years cycling legend Danny Chew (who was recently paralyzed) has run the Dirty Dozen ride, where two or three hundred cyclists tackle thirteen of the steepest streets in this extremely hilly town. It’s Pittsburgh’s most legendary, mythical, signature cycling event.

How can I communicate how ridiculously steep these hills are? In Boston, if people want a workout, they might climb Park Ave hill up to the town’s water tower. Park Ave has a slope of 6 percent. None of the Dirty Dozen hills are less than 20 percent—several surpass 30 percent—and Canton Ave tops out at 37 percent, steeper than any other public street in the world. Steeper than anything you have ever seen in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or the Alps. Much steeper than anything professional cyclists tackle.

Imagine trying to ride up a ramp that’s steeper than a staircase. You might think that’s an overstatement, but the sidewalks along Dirty Dozen streets—when there are any—are in the form of stairs, as you can see here or here.

Needless to say, average riders—even proficient roadies—don’t undertake the Dirty Dozen without some very serious hill training. The ludicrous harshness of each hill, combined with trying to cajole your legs into doing no less than thirteen of them back-to-back, demand preparation via a very focused period of incredibly intense training.

For that reason, there’s a seven-week series of group training rides that run through all of October and most of November. They begin by tackling three hills per ride, then graduate to six, and culminate with a full practice run of all thirteen, two weeks before the race, which is held on the Saturday following Thanksgiving.

2016 first training ride

This year’s first training ride (GPS log) was held yesterday. It was wet and rainy, which provided a test of tire traction that two riders of our fourteen failed spectacularly. The biggest lesson I learned is that I need to replace the cleats on my winter shoes. No harm done.

The group ride covered the first three hills (Center/Guyasuta, Ravine, and Berryhill), and the fourth hill (High/Seavey) was optional. After finishing those, I went and added the 13th hill (Flowers/Kilbourne/Tesla), since it’s on my way home. It was my first time doing five DD hills in one ride, and I definitely felt it.

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve ridden eleven of the thirteen hills, for a total of 20 ascents. I haven’t gotten around to #9 Canton and #10 Boustead, since they’re very hard to get to. And there are two (#5 Logan and #7 Suffolk) that I haven’t completed without stopping, so I’m going to have to work up to those. And that’s gonna be a full-time job for the next eight weeks.

So unlike years past in Boston, there’s no easy wind-down of the cycling year in Pittsburgh; at least not if you’re going to ride the Dirty Dozen. And because they’re so intense and require recovery time afterward, intense hill repeats don’t combine well with the kind of long-distance rides I usually prefer. That means my lengthy endurance rides are over for this year; instead I’m embarking on a very steep and painful build-up to what will undoubtedly be the hardest and most challenging ride of my life.

WQED did a half-hour story during the 2010 Dirty Dozen ride. If you’re curious to learn more about the riders and the hills and the overall spectacle, it’s a pretty digestible nugget. You can find that here.

September 15th, 2016

To Bodily Go...

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11 PMC Riding

To the uninitiated, endurance cycling would seem exclusively about the legs. Looking at a rider, there isn’t anything else going on other than propelling the bike forward, mile after mile.

But the reality—and one of the things that draws me to it—is that long-distance cycling involves nearly every part of the body, and stresses many bodily systems to their maximum capacity.

Imagine bringing your heart rate up to 80 or 90 percent of your max and holding it there—not just for a few minutes, but for seven or eight hours. Imagine the load on your circulatory system of 50,000 extra heartbeats. Think about the demand that big muscles, hungry for oxygen, place on your lungs and respiratory system.

Cyclists" legs

Working muscles also need fuel in the form of glycogen. A cyclist quickly depletes what’s stored in the muscle tissue, then burns through the larger reserves stockpiled in the liver. After that, it’s up to the digestive system to make the carbohydrates you ingest available to your muscles as quickly as possible. And do it without making much demand on the circulatory system, which is already overtaxed.

Meanwhile, your body is trying to cool itself through perspiration, losing precious fluid and electrolytes. Here again, you dehydrate quickly, then rely on the digestive system to rapidly replace what your body loses through sweat. While sweating, the skin is also protecting you from wind, dirt, insects, gravel, and solar radiation.

While your legs are pumping to propel you forward, the rest of your muscles are working, too. Arm muscles are used to maintain your grip on the handlebars, and to pull against the bars while climbing. Your back, neck, and core muscle groups constantly adjust to maintain your balance as well as an unnatural and somewhat uncomfortable aerodynamic position. When I finish a long ride, my traps are usually in far more pain than my legs.

All your weight rests on your hands, feet, and butt, and these contact points are sometimes worked raw. And your hands are constantly working: shifting gears, braking, manipulating the bike computer, delivering food and fluid, signaling your intentions, and more. Your eyes and ears are equally busy, watching for threats, maintaining balance, and helping you navigate.

All of this input data is fed up to the brain, where it’s all coordinated: maintaining your balance, making decisions, assessing your effort level, calculating angles on descents, figuring out how to react to the immediate conditions, and at a higher level how to navigate from Point A to Point B. And it’s doing that while impeded by a very limited amount of fuel, since it relies exclusively on glycogen to function, which your muscles burn through at a prodigious rate.

I’m always taken by surprise when non-cyclists ask what I think about all day on one of my long rides. What to think about? There’s precious little time or energy or attention to spare for contemplation. In fact, on a lengthy ride, too much thinking is probably a sign that something has already gone wrong!

Even when the ride is done, your body continues working hard, repairing itself, recovering, replenishing, and building stronger muscles in response to the training load.

… Looking back at what I’ve written, even enumerating the bodily systems that cycling calls on still fails to communicate the raw intensity of those demands.

I often simply collapse on the bed for an hour or two at the end of a real hard ride; there’s precious little left over that you would call human. And ironically, that very emptying out provides a transcendent experience for the rider. A challenging ride is the crucible wherein we surpass normal human limits, and breathe the same rarified air as the greatest athletes among us.

These days, the descriptor “epic” gets thrown around pretty casually, but “epic” is a very fitting word for the ride that demands everything a cyclist has got. Every cyclist’s palmares is speckled with rides that truly are that monumental: destined to become oft-recalled personal legends. Such epic rides transform the cyclist, no matter how mundane, into an heroic figure, for having the simple audacity to test not just the strength of his legs, but all the diverse limits of his bodily endurance.

September 4th, 2016

Pedal the Lakes

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Summer’s last gasp was provided by the Labor Day weekend Pedal the Lakes century. It capped four consecutive weekends of hard riding that began with the Mon Valley Century, continued with the very challenging Every Neighborhood Ride, and peaked with back-to-back metric centuries in the Tour de Red Belt and PedalPGH.

Pymatuning Reservoir

I was up at 5am for the 90-minute drive to the start up in Mercer County. After a consistently hot August, the September nights have started cooling off, and the ride set out at a chilly 51°. I began with a jacket and arm warmers, removing the former at the first rest stop and the latter at the second as the day warmed into the 70s.

With little wind, the weather was just about perfect, and allowed me to ride with a much lower heart rate than I’d have in hotter weather. Especially since most of the ride took place in exposed farmland, on chipseal surfaced roads that ventured across the state line well into Ohio.

Another thing that kept my heart rate down was the unexpected flatness of the course. At 32 feet per mile of climbing, it was by far my flattest ride since moving to Pittsburgh, and an extremely pleasant change, which allowed me to produce a more regular average speed.

On the other hand, I was pretty anxious about navigating the route. Before the ride, the organizers didn’t bother posting GPS tracks or a cue sheet, and when I wrote to request them, their response was essentially “Go fuck yourself”. I did manage to download routes from two previous years, but those proved worthless because they had completely changed the route this year.

At the start, riders were given only a high-level overview map—not even a cue sheet!—and told that the route had been arrowed. In the end, I managed the ride, but went off course twice. I saw several others go off course, and every rider I talked to had been afield at least once. There’s no excuse for that kind of contempt for riders who are paying you to ride the open roadways.

Shenango River Lake

The change of route allowed us to reach four lakes (Conneaut Lake, Mosquito Creek Lake, Shenango River Lake, and the Pymatuning Reservoir) instead of three, but we saw very little of any of them; I’d been looking forward to riding the 2-mile causeway that crosses the reservoir, but their new route didn’t go anywhere near it.

Given the preponderance of farmland we rode through, I mused that instead of calling the event “Pedal the Lakes”, it would have been more accurate to call it “Pedal the Fields of Manure”, but that might have been a marketing error.

Overall it was a really nice day. The lack of heat and hills made it quite a manageable and pleasant ride. Starting out with a little bit of knee pain, I didn’t kill it, but rode solidly and well. I covered 105 miles in 7h15, which is a reasonable time, given the extra time I spent at rest stops.

That completes my seventh century of the year, which is a vast improvement over last year’s record-low four. Seven isn’t a record (9 in 2014), but it ensures that I end the year with more than my average (6.3). It’s the last organized century on my calendar, so any others will be ad hoc/solo efforts.

I haven’t planned any solo centuries, and if I’m going to attempt the Dirty Dozen ride, it’s time to start training for that by doing short, ridiculously steep hills. We’ll see how things progress in that regard, but after two centuries and three very hilly metrics in the past four weeks, right now I’m looking forward to taking a little bit of a rest!

August 30th, 2016

Bikefestivus

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Much like Bay State Bike Week, Pittsburgh has its own celebration of cycling, known as Bikefest. The 10-day period features an opening party, plus lots of rides and events designed to promote cycling and bring the community together. The week ends with a big citywide populaire ride called PedalPGH which is similar to Boston’s Hub on Wheels tour.

Beginning the Neighborhood Ride

My Bikefest began with the Every Neighborhood Ride, which hits all 90 of Pittsburgh’s recognized neighborhoods. Including riding to and from the start, it wound up being a solid 86 miles over 11 hours in the saddle, and the mile and a quarter of ascent made it the second most climbing I’ve ever done in a single ride.

Needless to say, it was a long, hard day, made longer by waiting for stragglers who were in over their heads, two flats, plus an impromptu water stop that included a tour of the Robotics Center. More than half of the 18-20 riders who started with the fast group wound up falling behind or aborting, leaving Stretching toward the end of the ride a well-matched remainder of six of us to fully complete the course (although additional riders from the slower group would finish behind us). One of our riders made the case that the Every Neighborhood Ride might be more difficult than the Dirty Dozen!

The pace of the fast group was just right for me, the riders were all friendly and outgoing, and the rest stops were well stocked. We rode through several areas and roads which were new to me, including a few bridges I hadn’t dared venture across. It was an excellent ride.

At the end of the day, I didn’t have the legs for another 15 miles to make it a full century ride, which is fine. I’m glad I rode it, but I was also extremely glad it was over! And I met a handful of welcoming local riders whose paths I hope to cross again in the future.

Three Sunset overlook days later I participated in a regular Tuesday night Team Decaf ride, which in this case was a reprise of the “Big 8 With a View” route we’d done a month ago. The legs… I’d like to say that my legs chose not to accompany me on that particular evening, but the reality is that they were very loudly and painfully vocal about the lack of recovery time after Saturday’s demands.

Here’s a link to the GPS log.

This past Saturday the Pittsburgh Major Taylor Cycling Club hosted a Tour de Red Belt metric century. At least, I think they did; when I showed up at the start, there was only only person there, giving out cue sheets. He didn’t seem to be holding people for a group start, so I set out and never saw a single fellow rider for the entire day.

Scullers in the morning

The first half of the ride was (surprise!) a lot of up-and-down, but had nice mid-70s temperatures. The second half was almost all downhill (except, of course, my post-ride climb back up to Squirrel Hill), but also much hotter, as temperatures peaked out above 90. The route covered some roads that were new to me, and many that I’d done before.

The ride had originally been scheduled for the morning after the Neighborhood Ride, but got delayed a week due to weather, which my legs really appreciated. Although my muscles still weren’t fully recovered, they worked well enough to get me home, thanks to some supplemental stretching along the way.

Overall it was an okay ride, but riding all alone didn’t convey much of a BikeFest vibe at all. Kind of a yawner, actually.

The following day was PedalPGH, the local bike ride that is the equivalent of Boston’s Hub on Wheels.

While the 8- and 25-mile routes were “family-friendly”, the metric century was definitely not. It featured over 4,000 feet of very steep climbing, including one of the hills from the Dirty Dozen ride (Rialto).

To Be?
Pittsburgh skyline at dawn
McCullough bridge

It welcomed riders on mile two with a gut-punch: the mile-long 7-percent grade 400-foot ascent up Josephine and Arlington. Just as I reached the top, I found a discarded tag of some sort lying in the middle of the street, bearing the words “to be”; way too existential a concept after a 7am hillclimb.

Like HoW, I did my best to get well ahead of the pack of 2,600 other riders. After skipping the first three rest stops and a fourth ad hoc water stop manned by the Neighborhood Ride folks, I finally stopped for a breather at the top of Riverview Park.

By then I was ahead of most of the other riders on the metric century, but after descending down into the city, on Smallman Street we found ourselves merged in toward the back of the huge mass of amateur riders from the shorter routes.

Mixing faster riders in with slower, less skilled riders was both frustrating and dangerous. Twice I was nearly taken out by riders who simply decided to suddenly turn their bike sideways in the middle of the road and stop without warning, directly in front of me. Idiots.

I was happy when we forked off their route at Highland Park, but then after doing an extra loop, we were merged back in with them again, once more behind the hundreds of riders we’d worked so hard to pass before! And then they did it to us again on Dallas Ave, and then a fourth time from Beechwood to Schenley! They were basically torturing us.

I had come into the ride with heavy legs from both the Neighborhood and Red Belt rides. Although my legs complained, they worked well enough, only fading toward the very end of the ride. But the climb back up to Squirrel Hill left me completely spent.

Overall, it was nice to participate in the city’s big cycling event, but at the same time, like the Red Belt ride, it really wasn’t anything special. While it was good riding and conditioning, I don’t count metric centuries as major cycling goals or achievements.

Aside from the Mon Valley Century which I’ve already posted about here, there were a couple other noteworthy items which took place in August.

I started the month with a 10-day riding streak. While that wouldn’t have been worth mentioning back when I was commuting to work by bike, it’s very rare these days.

On one of those days I tackled long-anticipated Negley hill, a quarter mile of steady 15 percent grade. It’s too busy to ride regularly, but I’m glad I can finally say I’ve done it.

Strava August Climbing Challenge

I also completed Strava’s August climbing challenge, which is worth mentioning only because at 11,000 meters (6.8 miles) it’s probably the most difficult of the year. But around here, the climbing challenges are easier to fulfill than the distance challenges!

Despite Pittsburgh miles being harder/hillier than Boston miles, by mid-August I’d already ridden further than I did in the full calendar year of 2015. It’s been nice having the free time and the weather conditions to allow me to ride more frequently... even if there are more hills.

2016 has been a great year so far, and there’s still three months left of it! Stay tuned for further developments…

August 16th, 2016

Aquaman

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Sunday I was up dark and early for my first Mon Valley Century ride.

Or rather, to check the radar to see if conditions were too ugly to ride. The forecast had called for day-long rain and thunderstorms as a powerful front rolled through, but at 4:20am the radar didn’t look prohibitive, and the NWS forecast language had moderated slightly.

Sunrise over the Monongahela

I really don’t like missing major events on my cycling calendar, so I decided to risk it, packed up my backup bike rather than the good one, and drove down to Monongahela.

There were only a handful of riders at the Noble J. Dick Aquatorium, and after taking a picture of the sunrise over the river, I was the first to set out on the 100-mile route.

The first few miles were very fresh chip-seal, which essentially made it a gravel road. But once that section was done, it was clear sailing on empty country roads for the next 90 minutes. The first two riders caught up with me at the first rest stop, 22 miles in. So far, the weather was fine, and one of the volunteers told us that the radar looked like it would stay clear until noontime: very good news.

Having cut across country, we turned north and followed the Monongahela north, back toward the start. We all missed an intermediate water stop the organizers had moved, but a bunch of us regrouped at 10am at the lunch stop: mile 53 and first loop complete, as we were only a couple miles away from our original start line.

The next hour and a half was spent circling out on a different loop out to the rest stop at mile 72. As I got back on the road, an intermittent sprinkle began to fall, but it wasn’t enough to make things messy. I returned to the start/finish line at 12:30pm with 83 miles done.

Technically, that was the end of the ride, because the organizers had arbitrarily lopped ten miles off the start and end of the route because Bunola River Road was presumably closed.

So this is what an aquatorium looks like

Knowing better, and wanting to complete a legit century, I decided to ride up Bunola Road to the old start/finish in Elizabeth and back, which would complete the full 100-mile course. While I did that, I endured one good, soaking shower, which passed but left the roads very wet. While I did hear some thunder, it wasn’t the hellfire and brimstone that the forecast had called for, and for the most part it was acceptably refreshing. Nonetheless, I was glad I rode the beater bike instead of my good one.

I completed the full course—my sixth century of the year—at 1:45pm. A seven-and-a-quarter hour century ain’t terrible, especially with 5,000 feet of climbing. I hadn’t pushed myself very hard, and it had been an overall pretty pleasant day out.

Thankfully, it turned out that I’d over-prepared for the weather we got. Although maybe I was just quick enough to escape it. Later that afternoon, a storm dumped over three inches of rain, prompting very real flash flood warnings in several of the towns I’d ridden through. So I’m actually okay with the idea of having over-prepared.

Going through those precautions gives me the opportunity to share some of the ways I prepare for riding in the rain. Hopefully this list will be useful to others—as well as my future self—when facing such conditions.

Let’s start with the most basic truth: NOTHING is going to keep you dry. NOTHING. You ARE going to get SOAKED. Are we clear on that? Okay.

One of my hard-won cycling lessons is that it only takes a cyclist a couple minutes to get soaked to the bone, and once that’s done, you can’t get any more wetter (sic). The damage is already done, so you might as well just keep pedaling and enjoy it!

Having said that, here’s how I prepare for a long, wet, ride in the rain:

  • Don’t use your good bike if you can avoid it; instead, ride a beater bike.
  • Don’t bother with a rain jacket. Lots of sports apparel companies make incredibly expensive rain jackets specifically for cyclists. The few that actually protect you from the rain also make you sweat so much—and trap it inside the garment—that you would be better off going without. Try to dress for the temperature instead.
  • If you expect rain and wet roads, a clip-on fender is great. It’ll prevent the rooster-tail from your rear tire from being flung up into following riders’ faces, and also from being flung up your anus and backside. If you expect sprinkles, an Ass Saver should be sufficient.
  • Wear a cycling cap with a brim. That’ll help keep the rain (and spray from other riders) out of your face.
  • Another thing that helps with spray is clear lenses for your sunglasses. You absolutely need eye protection under these conditions, but dark lenses impair your visibility. Clear safety glasses can be cheap and effective, but they’re prone to fogging up due to lack of ventilation.
  • Certain things must be kept waterproof: your wallet, your phone, and any food you’re carrying. For these, one or two layers of Ziploc bag is ideal. Make sure your cyclocomputer is water-resistant, too.
  • Inside that Ziploc, keep a handkerchief too. It’ll be useful for wiping off wet glasses, screens, hands, and so forth.
  • If you drove to the ride, keep a full-size bath towel in the car. You can use it to dry off, and to protect the seat on the drive home.
  • If you have the opportunity to change, obviously bring a dry set of clothes, and a bag to stuff your wet kit into.
  • Give your chain some wet lube, rather than dry lube, before setting out. It won’t perform miracles, but will stick longer. To be honest, you need to worry more about cleanup after the ride than lubing the chain before. After a wet ride, your bike is going to need a major cleaning.
  • Lower your tire pressure in the wet by a few PSI. This will enhance your grip on slippery surfaces. Also expect your braking distances to double.
  • Bear in mind that drivers have drastically limited visibility in the rain, so carry rear blinky lights, extra batteries (inside that Ziploc), and possibly a (lighted) safety vest. Take responsibility for being seen on the road.
  • I almost always wear cycling sandals, and they’re surprisingly effective in the rain. Water flows through them, unlike regular cycling shoes and socks, which absorb water, become heavy, and stay sodden for days.

While riding in the rain isn’t the best experience in the world, hopefully some of those ideas will be helpful.

July 31st, 2016

A Month of Centuries

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11 PMC Riding

This post covers a very busy month of July, which included a solo century, the Tour de Cure, the 3-State Century, and more.

As usual, July began with Fourth of July weekend, which is always a perfect time to lay down some hefty miles, whether three or four rides in a row or a single century.

Bursh Creek covered bridge

Looking for my first long ride since June’s endo, I chose to do my first Pittsburgh solo century, and my third hundred-plus mile ride of the year. For a course, I cobbled together a flattish out-and-back route to Brush Creek Park. Just shy of Ellwood City, it covered some of the same ground as the final third of the 200k brevet that I did back in March.

Thanks to my early start (6:20am), the day began with a lot of mist and fog, and a surprising amount of wildlife: 6 rabbits, 4 deer, 2 groundhogs, and a horse being ridden down the road.

At the park that was my halfway turnaround point, I took a photo of my bike in front of a covered bridge before pushing on. I hadn’t ridden too hard, and continued to feel good until the last 15-20 miles. I struggled through the last 5-10 miles, stopping at a neighborhood convenience store to down a cola and a candy bar before finishing the job. I really need to do better with eating and drinking on long rides.

In the end, it was a nice ride, but pretty challenging toward the end.

Two weeks later came my first Tour de Cure charity ride for the American Diabetes Association, for which I again footed my own fundraising. That was my fourth century of the year. More importantly, it was also my first ever gran fondo, an endurance ride where riders are timed on certain segments of the course.

Ornoth climbing segment one

The weather was awesome, and I wore my Kraftwerk Tour de France jersey, a tricolor that looks a lot like the French champion’s jersey, in honor of both the ongoing tour as well as those affected by a terrorist attack in Nice. Around 80 riders took off with me at 7am for the century route.

There were three timed fondo segments, and I estimated my times using nearby Strava segments, to give myself a number to shoot for. Although I am reasonably pleased with my performance, it was nothing as compared to riders 30 years younger, who also had the support of an entire semi-pro team.

The first segment was 1.4 miles, featuring a half-mile climb. My estimate had been 6 minutes, and I actually traversed the Strava segment in 6:02. The second segment was a long, 6.7-mile time trial with some descending but minimal climbing. After estimating 22 minutes, I brought it home in 19:31. The final segment was a 1.7-mile brutal rolling climb. After a 10-minute prediction, I finished in 9:11. Out of a total of 36 gran fondo riders, I placed 25th, 20th, and 26th on those segments, placing 23rd overall, or 36th percentile. What do you expect from an old man?

I rode a fair amount of the day with a young guy named Eric, whom I’ve talked to at the Tuesday night Team Decaf rides, who was doing his first-ever century. I should also note that I beat him on two of the three timed segments, pipping him by a combined 19 seconds overall. Later in the day, at mile 66, he somehow managed to get his chain jammed underneath his bike’s chain catcher, which took us about 10 minutes to un-wedge.

I had mechanical issues of my own, too. Around mile 60, my right-side pedal, which I’d just had serviced by my local bike shop, started making sounds like it was about to fall apart. Fortunately, it hung together till the end, albeit making crunchy-poppy noises with every turn of the crank.

As for the ride planners, one obstacle they provided was a lack of ice at any of the rest stops, on a day which grew increasingly scalding. On the other hand, there was an impromptu rest stop with (warm) drinks left at the side of the road at mile 98; the last ten miles were all mostly downhill; and I was pleased to receive another finisher’s medallion.

The summary for this ride was pretty positive, but again the last 20 miles were quite a slog.

My next century—my fifth of the year and third of the month!—came a week later, at the Pittsburgh Major Taylor Cycling Club’s annual 3-State Century. I’ve only ever done one other three-state ride (MA/RI/CT), and that was years ago. After leaving home in Pittsburgh, we’d go straight west, spend all of three miles in West Virginia before crossing the Ohio River, travel in the state of Ohio for another three miles to the Pennsylvania line, then mostly follow the river upstream back to Pittsburgh.

Ornoth entering West Virginia

Although much of the route was flattish, there were three major climbs, all them coming in the first half of the ride; the ascents were actually much easier for me than the long, high-speed descents that followed each climb!

Although the route was only 93 miles (not even close to a century), my ride to the start and back home rounded me up to 112 miles, which allowed me to surpass 10,000 total miles on the “new” bike. It also fulfilled my goal of doing more centuries in 2016 than the mere four I did last year, which had been a record low.

By far the most salient feature of this ride was the heat. The day began at 70 degrees and climbed well into the upper 90s, and the NWS issued a region-wide heat advisory. New high temperature records were set in five out of six area weather stations, and in Pittsburgh it was the hottest day in four years. Normally I like it warm, but that was a little much. I coped by drinking lots of fluid, then finished the day pouring bottle after bottle of water over myself and stuffing ice into my jersey pockets.

On the other hand, I finished stronger than any of my other long rides this year. I even pulled two guys home over the final 17 miles of the route. For the first time this year, the heat was a bigger challenge than fatigue.

While I’d planned to take a personal rest stop on the way home at the foot of the 300-foot climb up to Squirrel Hill, I opted to press on due to gathering clouds, which developed into a very strong thunderstorm that hit about 40 minutes after I finished.

Although the heat made it difficult, I enjoyed the 3-State Century a lot, and probably finished stronger than any other century this year. It was a good, interesting day in the saddle, and I saw a lot of area roads that I hadn’t tried thus far.

Those constitute my major rides over the past month, but there were also a couple Team Decaf and Performance Bike group rides, plus several recovery rides. And a couple short trips to the LBS to fix the problems I was having with my pedals.

In equipment news, I picked up a cool new jersey and cap that are vaguely ska-oriented, which I’m sure you’ll see later, plus a couple Mondrian-themed cycling caps (dark and light replicas of the old La Vie Claire team kit).

Garmin Edge 820

But the thing that has me really excited is the announcement of the new Garmin Edge 820 cycling GPS unit. My first Edge 800 has served me very well since 2011, but it recently started suffering spontaneous power-offs, and several generations of GPS bike computers have come out since then. Among the features I’d gain with the 820 are: live weather, live cyclist tracking, live group tracking, WiFi downloads, ANT+ FE-C control of indoor trainers, Strava live segments, email and text notifications from my phone, Di2 electronic shifting integration, and third party data fields & apps written for ConnectIQ. The only reason I haven’t bought one already is because I want to wait for other users’ experiences and Ray Maker’s in-depth review to come ou. But you can rest assured that it’s item number one on my wish list.

It was a great month, and I’m looking forward to more new adventures in the waning days of summer.

June 27th, 2016

A Journey of 50,000 Miles

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I just biked my fifty-thousandth mile.

How to put 50,000 miles into a meaningful context? Well, let’s take a little road trip. Start out by driving from New York City across America to Seattle, Washington. That’s a start. Then drive down to Eugene, Oregon. That’s about how far I ride each year.

Then continue to drive down the entire west coast from Eugene to San Diego, California. From there, drive all the way back across the southern tier of states until you get to Atlanta, Georgia. Then drive up the east coast back to New York to complete one big lap around the United States.

50,000th Mile

Of course, that’s not quite far enough. That whole loop around the United States? Go back and do it a second time. And a third, and a fourth. Keep driving back and forth around the continent until you reach New York to finish your seventh round trip. Then you’ll still need to drive up to Springfield, Massachusetts to finally reach 50,000 miles.

Doesn’t sound like the easiest road trip in the world, does it?

Now picture doing that distance on a bicycle. While my route was a little different, that’s exactly what I’ve done.

Mind you, it took me fifteen and three-quarter years to accomplish that. That averages out to 3,175 miles per year, or 61 miles per week, every week, for nearly 16 years.

I finished my first 25,000 miles back in 2009; that had taken me 8.5 years, but the second 25k only took 7.25 more, as I averaged 500 more miles per year.

This week I also broke 100,000 feet of climbing for 2016. Translating that into real-world numbers, that’s 19 miles of vertical, or three and a half climbs up Mt. Everest. That’s not unheard-of, as I surpassed that much climbing in both 2010 and 2014. But in those years, I hit that threshold at the end of September. Compared to that, I’ve already completed an entire year’s worth of climbing before the end of June. A record pace? No question.

Do I have anything pithy to say about these accomplishments? Not really. Since back in 2000, cycling has just been what I do. At this point it’s just a lifestyle, with all its ups and downs.

Solo rides. Group rides. Charity rides. Night rides. Memorial rides. Ocean views. Mountain climbs. Nervous descents. Magical tailwinds. The beating summer sun. Urban flow. Winter commutes. Trying new roads. Early season long-distance brevets. The bike-washing ritual. Roadside repairs. Learning what that part does, and how to fix it. The pride of showing off a new bike.

Post-ride war stories. Sugar, sugar, and more goddamned sugar. Then feasting like a Roman emperor. Learning the lingo and the reasons why cyclists do things the way they do. Stinging road rash. Broken collarbones. Admiring clean-shaven calf muscles. Admiring preposterous tan lines. Learning exactly how much the mind and body are (and are not) capable of, and seeing them grow in strength and skill and confidence over time. Connecting with others who share the passion. Sharing what one has learned with others who travel the same road.

The cyclist inhabits a strange world, full of its own hidden rewards and meanings. It must seem like a very strange life to the driver and the pedestrian, who can only conceive of pedaling 50,000 miles as the most abject torture. But for the cyclist, it is a life full of passion and pain and achievement and the most sublime pleasures. And it has been a tremendous source of happiness and well-being for me.

Life is a journey, and as a wise man once wrote: the road goes ever on and on.

June 18th, 2016

Aprilmayjune

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Aside from a couple ride reports, the last real update I posted was back in March, and a lot has happened in the intervening ten weeks.

Instead of going chronologically, I’ll organize this post along four major themes. I’ll start with some major repairs I faced, and the challenges presented by the woefully incompetent local bike shop. Then I’ll talk about a pile of new equipment I’ve purchased and tested. I’ll describe several notable rides; and that will naturally segue into a discussion of the downs and ups of my fitness level and training. Ready?

Ksyrium Exalith
Ride of Silence
Flight & Antarctic
Collapsed roadway
Guns of Saratoga
Overlooking Downtown from Team Decaf ride
Ornoth"s MS Ride

Originally, my repair situation was a whole long blogpost onto itself, so you should be thankful I’m constrained to posting a short summary now. The short version is that after an April 1 recovery ride, I discovered cracks in the rim of my rear wheel on R2 (my primary bike). On 4/6 I ordered a replacement, and began using my old bike, the Plastic Bullet (PB) while waiting for the new wheel to arrive.

But on 4/14, three days before an early-season 130-mile group ride, the PB’s rear wheel started making a horrible screeching noise when I coasted. The mechanic at my LBS said it was probably rideable, so I took a chance and rode it during the 200k. But the problem prevented me from ever coasting. Much of all that got documented in the 200k ride report which you can read here.

But my issues were far from over. Five days later, I attempted to bike out to a meditation retreat at the local zen center, only to have a spoke break on that same rear wheel. Now both of my bikes were out of commission, and would stay that way until…?

May 4, after waiting four whole weeks, I finally got R2 back with its fancy new wheel (details below). For the Plastic Bullet, it took longer. They were able to replace the broken spoke, but all they could do for the screeching freehub was to give it some lube. And that took them an unbelievable five weeks!

If I were to tell the whole story, I’d go on at length about how the shop couldn’t diagnose the freehub and even told me it couldn’t be the issue; how they said they didn’t need a deposit to order my wheel, only to call me back and demand one the next day; the numerous times they told me they’d call me back same-day, but never called at all, ever.

The topper came when I needed to register the new wheel with Mavic’s warrantee program. The bike shop didn’t know the wheel’s product number nor their own vendor number and refused to get them for me. At their insistence, I had to call Mavic myself and pretend to be a shop employee to get the info I needed! Bullshit of the highest order.


But let’s transition from their shitty service to the interesting new equipment I’ve received in the past couple months. It’s much more positive.

As mentioned, I’ve got a new rear wheel on the R2: a Mavic Ksyrium Pro Exalith. I’ve ridden Mavic Ksyriums forever and love their warrantee replacement program, but Mavic is now offering Ksyriums with a new braking surface coating called “Exalith”, which also requires special brake blocks. Visually, the brake tracks are black, rather than the standard silver of brushed aluminum, giving the wheel an all-black stealth look. The other difference is that the brake surface coating has a pebbly texture, which causes the brakes to produce a loud mechanical whine whose pitch is proportional to the bike’s speed. It’s significant enough that derpy recreational riders sometimes think I have paper or something caught in my brakes or chainstays. So far I’m really pleased with the new hoop.

Along with wheels, I’m also running new rubber. Michelin recently replaced its popular but quickly-wearing Pro4 line of tires, so I ordered a set of the new Power Endurance tires. Although I ordered standard 23mms, the vendor sent larger 25mm tires, but I decided to run them rather than sending them back because the larger size has become much more popular recently. My observations have been consistent with what people have been saying: I can run them at lower pressure (90 pounds rather than 100), which smooths out the ride on Pittsburgh’s horrible roads, without incurring much additional rolling resistance. It’s hard to compare the Powers with the old Pro4s without conflating that with the move from 23mm to 25, but I’m hopeful that the new rubber will have better longevity than the fragile old Pro4s.

During a trip to Boston I stopped by the Oakley store and picked up white ear socks and new red-orange lenses for my Half Jac sunglasses. That was mostly for style reasons, but the lenses are interesting in that they give everything a very strong blue tint.

Revisiting an older purchase, I was able to move the Hydrotac stick-on magnification bifocal lenses from my old sunglass lenses to the new ones. Those have functioned absolutely wonderfully since I picked them up last Xmas. They’re perfectly positioned to enable me to read small map details on my Garmin, while retaining normal distance vision looking up-road. Great purchase and highly recommended over expensive prescription bifocal sunglasses.

I recently took shipment of two Ass Savers (red and white, to match the bike), light little plastic wings that attach to the saddle rails and extend backward to provide a stubby little fender. They’re not big enough to prevent a roostertail in the rain, but they will keep some of it from soaking one’s backside with water and road grime. They’re great for those uncertain days with a threat of light showers, when you don’t want to break out a big, ugly clip-on fender for a mostly sunny ride.

Another cool gadget that won’t see frequent use is my new Nut-R. Basically, it replaces the nut at the end of an axle’s quick-release skewer, and provides a wheel-level mounting point for a GoPro action cam or anything that uses a GoPro-compatible mount. It’s an awesome idea, and it’ll come in handy for documenting interesting rides. While I haven’t done much with it yet, you can watch my first test video here.

Finally, I also bought a big pack of disposable latex gloves. Those are really useful when cleaning or working on the bike, which I’d formerly always done bare-handed. Dur. Sometimes the simplest little things can go un-thought-of, even for someone who has been riding as long as I have!

All those acquisitions have turned out really good, and as a result I’m pretty delighted.


But now it’s time to turn to my actual rides. If you watch my Strava page you’ll have seen these already, but if not, here’s a brief summary. Follow the links to see my comments, stats, maps, and more photos.

After a really good March, April pretty much sucked. A trip to Maine, an extended period of cold and rainy weather, and a long list of mechanical woes kept me off the bike for nearly the entire month. The only exception was the huge McConnell’s Mills 200k brevet that I somehow managed to get in. But that ride is already described in detail here.

May began with getting R2 back in working order, but still very little riding, as iffy weather continued. On May 12 I had a bit of fun, going down to the local bike track to perform my own individual hour record, which I wrote about here.

On the 18th I participated in the Ride of Silence, a casual ride in remembrance of all the cyclists who have been injured of killed on the road. Strava log.

The next day I had a bit of fun setting a new tag for the Tag-o-Rama game. Believe it or not, there’s a neighborhood south of town where Arctic Way runs parallel to Antarctic Way, with Flight Way connecting the two. My hint read: “Although there are several ways to get from the south pole to the north pole, there’s only one official way. But by thinking a mile and a half outside of the box, I didn’t have to use the airport to find the shortest flight from pole to pole.” Strava log.

The day after that I was up for a long ride, so I set off from Pittsburgh to Bagdad… Bagdad Pennsylvania, that is, on the banks of the Kiskiminetas River. Quite an adventure, having to traverse two stretches of woefully collapsed road, a mile of climbing, and heat. Strava log.

Then there were two rides in Saratoga Springs NY, while visiting Inna’s father. A 72-mile jaunt up to Summit Lake (Strava log) was followed by a damp recovery ride through the Saratoga battlefield park (Strava log). And then no riding for the last week of May, which was spent camping in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts.

That brings us up to June, which has been even better. The first highlight was a day that featured two rides, beginning with my first group ride out of the Performance Bike shop in East Liberty (Strava log). Nice, friendly group, but nothing too strenuous. Later in the day I rode 30 miles out to Sarver (Strava log) to meet up with Inna and friends at an enchanting Lantern Fest.

A few days later I also checked out my first group ride by Team Decaf, which was equally friendly and more challenging. Looks like a good group, although their evenings-only rides are pretty short. Strava log.

Then there was last weekend’s very challenging Escape to the Lake MS Ride, which was my second century of the year. That’s got its own recent writeup, which I posted earlier today here.

The final bit of catchup isn’t quite so glamorous: 50 miles into a 60-mile ride through Export PA, on the way to pick up another Tag-o-Rama game tag, I hit a grapefruit-sized stone in the road and endoed. Nothing major, but a surprising amount of road rash along the right side: elbow, back, hip, knee, ankle. I irrigated it with bottled water from the next convenience store, and rode home, but it was sufficient to warrant a quick trip to an urgent care clinic to have it dressed. Strava log.

And that brings us up to now.


The last thing to talk about is the ebb and flow of my training and fitness.

If you’ve read along this far, you can probably guess how it’s gone. At the end of March, my fitness was way ahead of schedule, but the only meaningful ride I did over the next six weeks was that 200k, so I basically atrophied. My fitness on May 9th was no better than where I’d been all the way back on March 8.

The Bagdad and Saratoga rides brought me back a bit, but they were followed by another idle week in the Berkshires. Some progress was made, but the consistency just hasn’t been there.

June has been better, with more frequent riding, some group rides, and the big MS ride. And I earned June’s Strava climbing achievement after whiffing on April and May but completing March’s.

Overall, I’ve successfully completed the March 200k and last week’s MS ride, which were my first two big target rides of the year. Now I’ve got several weeks of training time before my next big rides. The question from here forward is whether the effort from the past four weeks can be sustained for a while leading up to my next two target events: centuries in the third and fourth weeks of July.

I’ll try to keep you posted!

Escape to the Lake

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Last weekend was my second century of the year and first Pittsburgh charity ride: the Bike MS Escape to the Lake, which goes from Moraine State Park an hour north of Pittsburgh to the shore of Lake Erie. Rather than do the whole route and deal with an overnight stay, I preferred to do the first day century route and quit there.

The forecast was unfavorable during the week leading up to the event, so I waited to register. But the calls for extreme humidity and thunderstorms abated at the last minute, convincing me to sign up at the starting line and personally fulfill my fundraising requirement.

Years as a PMC rider served me well in quickly registering, getting my bike ready, dropping my bag at the luggage truck, and lining up near the front of the staging area, directly behind the VIP riders. I chatted briefly with my randonneuse friend Stef before we were punctually sent off. I wore the green and black dazzle jersey that I’d worn with the Buildium team for last year’s Cape Cod Getaway.

MS Ride start
MS Ride
MS Ride finish
MS Ride medal

The first third of the ride was pleasant and gentle, with temperatures in the 60s and only a couple notable hills. I skipped the first two rest stops (miles 12 & 21), and finally refreshed my bidon at mile 33, then proceeded to the lunch stop at mile 48. Halfway done by 10am, I had averaged 17 mph and over 165 watts for three hours.

After lunch, the ride became more challenging. The temp had cracked 80°, and three big hills came in the 16 miles preceding the rest stop at mile 64. My speed dropped to 14 mph and my power to 140 watts, though I still had enough in the tank to pass a couple Amish buggies… one towing a canoe!

The final third of the century was a horribly brutal slogfest. Seven major hills were packed into the final 32 miles, with a very long 22 miles between the final water stop and the finish. The course turned west, straight into a painful sustained 16 mph headwind gusting to 26. Temps peaked well above 95°, with the rolling Pennsylvania farmland offering zero respite from the relentless sun. Although I was only the second rider to arrive at the last rest stop, I was completely tapped out; my speed subsequently dropped to 10 mph and my power below 100 watts.

It was incredibly difficult to finish that long final segment, and I had to pull off by the roadside four times to recuperate enough to press on. At one stop I watched Stef ride past, too overheated to chase her or even call out. I was just about ready for medical assistance, but I only had seven miles left, and once I got over the final hill, the last couple miles were a long, welcome downhill to the finish.

I finally coasted into Allegheny College in Meadville at 2:30pm. 102 miles in 7 hours 25 minutes. More noteworthy than my time was the climbing; at 5,958 feet, this ride had more ascending than New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington Century, and was only exceeded by the 200k I did two months ago. Strava would confirm this as probably the most difficult ride I’ve done in five years. The next morning my scale would report that I’d lost over three pounds, even after plenty of rehydrating.

At the finish I found lots of ice and cola, bag pickup in a blissfully air conditioned auditorium, and very welcome showers. After those things, there wasn’t a lot of time before the 4pm shuttle bus back to my car at the starting line. Volunteers loaded my bike onto a cargo truck and handed me my finisher’s medal, a detail I always wished the PMC had done.

I slowly recovered on the hour long bus ride. Although the rented school bus lacked air conditioning, we opened all the windows and I let my hair fly loose in the wind. After arriving back at Moraine State Park, I gathered my bike, dumped my bag in the car, and went for a refreshing wade in Lake Arthur.

After all the concern about thunderstorms leading up to the ride, we finally got some on-and-off showers during the hour drive home. The A/C felt absolutely wonderful!

It was a good ride, and I’m glad I did it, notching up my second century of the year, but I was also very glad not to have to saddle up and fight that headwind for the second day’s leg up to Lake Erie!

May 14th, 2016

The most famous record in all of cycling is the hour record. Since the days of the high-wheelers, this brutal effort against the clock has been the pinnacle of time trialling. So it would seem inevitable that I’d give it a shot myself.

Unfortunately, I never thought of that while living in Boston, probably because there’s no cycling track to use for such an attempt. Fast forward to Pittsburgh, where there’s a nice cycling track down by Highland Park, and you have an explanation for why sixteen years passed between my taking up the sport and undertaking my first personal hour record.

Thursday morning there was a break in our unstable, overcast weather, so I headed down to the Bud Harris track to do my thing.

It was apparent from the start that several factors would prevent me from doing my best possible time trial. One was the simple fact that it is an outdoor track, so any wind would detract from my performance. Another was the track surface; asphalt is more porous than a wooden track and thus offers more rolling resistance. But most significant is the ten-foot incline that leads up to the start/finish line and then down into the first corner. While that’s a tiny hill, it slowed me down each and every one of the forty times I traversed it.

The first fifteen minutes, I settled into a rhythm and selected my line down the straights and around the banked corners. But by the time I was a third of the way through the hour, the constant effort was starting to wear. I’d spend the remaining 40 minutes trying not to puke.

Normally cycling has its own rhythm of ups and downs, with plentiful opportunities for a rider to coast downhill or stop at intersections. But a flat track with no stopping or coasting requires an unnaturally unvarying effort, maintaining a steady-state 95 percent heart rate for the entire hour. It is far more reminiscent of being on the indoor trainer (i.e. torture device) than the open road. Just looking at the unchanging heart rate and cadence data from my cyclo-computer still makes me want to cry.

In the end, my hour effort ended with a total of 20.77 miles (or 33.47 km). That’s good enough to have stood as a world record until 1887! For me, that’s fine as a first effort, and I’m happy that it was above 20 miles. But I don’t imagine I’ll want to undertake something that monotonous very frequently going forward.

After a rest, I started home, noticing some dark clouds coming in and a freshening breeze. A few minutes later, it was a full-bore typhoon thunderstorm with mid-day darkness, tropical downpour, localized street flooding, and wind-shorn limbs across the road. It’s been a long time since I’ve been soaked to the bone on the bike, but at least the time trial wasn’t interfered with!

Here’s the GPS log. Lap 1 is the ride to the track, Lap 2 is the time trial, and Lap 3 is the ride home.

April 19th, 2016

Super Size Me

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11 PMC Riding

This won’t be the last time I show how much hillier Pittsburgh is than Boston, but it might be the most succinct.

One chart, showing how much climbing I’ve done in recent years. Can you guess which line represents riding in Pittsburgh?

Ascent chart

The average amount of ascent I’ve done by April 17th for the past six years: 8,221 feet.

Amount I’ve done thus far in 2016: 57,854 feet. That’s seven times my average and four times my max.

In other words, I’ve already done as much ascending as I normally would complete around the third week of July.

But you get the idea. Just look at the pink line and project it forward eight more months…

Normally I wouldn’t consider doing a long-distance ride like the Pittsburgh RandonneursMcConnell’s Mill 200k brevet this early in the season. April is way too cold for long rides, and there’s no way I could have completed the training required to be prepared for 130 miles.

On the other hand, this winter has been so mild that I’ve ridden more than usual this year. Although none of that riding was anything near century-length rides, I figured I had enough miles under my belt to consider undertaking the hilly 130-mile challenge.

That desire was reinforced when Pittsburgh suddenly found itself in the middle of an unprecedented week of cloudless sun and temperatures in the 70s. With sunny days at a premium here, there was no doubt I’d spend the weekend in the saddle, and the 200k seemed perfectly timed.

On the other hand, there was reason for trepidation. This wasn’t just any hilly ride. Out of all the rides I’ve done since getting a GPS, the Mt. Washington Century, which traverses three mountain passes and claims to be the most challenging century in New England, contains the most climbing: around 5,900 feet by my records. The brevet route climbs 8,800 feet, the equivalent of one and a half Mt. Washingtons! Not a ride for someone who hasn’t trained for it.

But wait; there’s more. I couldn’t do the ride on my current bike (R2-Di2) because a week earlier I’d discovered cracks in the wheel rim and was waiting for a brand new rear wheel to arrive at the bike shop.

In the meantime I’d been riding my old bike (the Plastic Bullet), but two days before the brevet, its rear wheel also started acting up, making a horrible screeching noise anytime I coasted at speed, which I eventually traced to the freehub. In theory it was rideable, so long as you constantly pedaled and didn’t ever coast…

So that was the decision I had to make the day before the event. 130 miles, ten hours in the saddle, far more climbing than I’ve ever done, on very limited training, without coasting, on a broken bike? Yeah, sign me up for that!

Ornoth hammering

So Saturday morning I found myself riding 8 miles to the start in Shaler, pedaling all the way. It was a pretty cold 52 degrees at 6am, but the forecast expected it to warm up a lot.

There were a mere eight starters, and I knew several of them from a ride down to Monongahela back in February. After photos and a briefing, we left the organizer’s house at 7am and immediately dove down a very steep 125-foot hill to the banks of the Allegheny. After having to brake and spin the pedals all the way down, I found myself off the back, but I caught up again easily.

The first segment was a flat 16 miles along the river on Freeport Street to Tarentum. The group mostly stayed together. My hands and feet (in my cycling sandals) went numb, but with the sun rising, warmer temps were coming. Thankfully, it was going to be a rare windless day.

From there, the route turned away from the river and up Bull Creek Road, one of many routes that follow stream beds up to the high plateau that surround the three rivers. But we soon left the stream valley and began the first serious climb of the day up Sun Mine Road.

That splintered our happy little group into shards, with myself and two experienced cyclists—Monica & Stef—leaving the rest of the group strewn along the climb in our wake. 23 miles into the ride, we now faced 100 miles of interval training: constantly rolling steep hills with zero flat to provide any respite.

Just after 10:30am we reached the West Sunbury country store that was the 53-mile checkpoint. The three of us refueled, and I jumped into the bathroom to quickly strip off my arm warmers, base layer, and cycling cap since the day had warmed substantially. The last one out of the store, I had to run to catch up to the girls as they left. It was then that I realized that after taking off my base layer, I hadn’t pulled the shoulder straps of my bib shorts up before putting my jersey back on! I stopped and quickly executed the reverse of the women’s “remove my bra straps without taking off my shirt” maneuver and set off to catch back up.

After passing through more hilly farmland, at noon we traversed Cooper’s Lake Campground. This is the site of the Society For Creative Anachronism medieval recreationist group’s huge Pennsic War, which my ex-wife and I attended three times, our first time being our honeymoon trip. Passing through the area brought back lots of memories, but it was hard to correlate 30-year old memories of a crowded campground with the open fields I saw as I rode past.

An hour later the temperatures were climbing toward 80 degrees, and with no shade in sight I was starting to fall behind Stef and Monica. I caught up with them at the 83-mile checkpoint at a 7-Eleven in Ellwood City. Stef left soon after I arrived, and that was the last we saw of her that day. Monica and I rode off after a rest, staying within shouting distance for the remaining 40 miles.

By half past two we hit the century mark while passing through the town of Cranberry. 7.5 hours, which is no record, but it’s pretty good, given the endless climbing we’d endured.

Half an hour later we stopped at another convenience store to refuel and rest. We’d take a couple more short stops for breathers over the remaining route, because I was flagging and Monica was having difficulty with her exercise-induced asthma. Another half hour had us passing through North Park and over the last major climbs of the ride.

Eventually we came out on Wible Run Road, a sustained stream-bed descent that led us finally back down into the valley of the Allegheny near the start.

A mile from the finish my GPS finally conked out. Losing the last mile of data isn’t a big deal, except that it included the vicious 12-percent grade climb back up to the organizer’s house, which reminded me a lot of the brutal finishing climb to the Mt. Washington Century, except shorter. Only later did the organizer reveal that he had chosen not to have us take an easier route to his home!

ACP 200k finisher medal

Monica and I pulled in at 4:56pm, just shy of 10 hours in the saddle. Stef, the only rider who finished ahead of us, had already checked in and gone home. The others drifted in and out over time while I waited for Inna to pick me up and munched on some well-earned pizza and soda.

Normally at this point I’d be all hyped up about getting my randonneur’s 200k finishing medal, but the organizing body and I had a parting of ways back in 2007, so I won’t be giving them the membership fee necessary to get the medal I earned.

So let’s do some context-setting here, because this was a milestone ride in many ways. My longest ride in Pittsburgh, longest ride and first century or double metric this year, first brevet in ten years, earliest in the year that I’ve ever done a century or 200k, exceeded my previous max climbing on any ride by 50 percent, probably only my sixth ride with more than a mile of climbing, and it also put me well over 50,000 feet of climbing (nearly 11 miles of vertical) so far this year.

Between the distance, the heat, the hills, and the broken bike, I’m pretty proud to have completed what will be one of the longest rides of the year, and notched my first century amongst the hills of western Pennsylvania.

Before I close, a quick review of how March went.

March was without question an excellent month: 400 miles of riding, with a stoopid 26,000 feet of climbing.

The month included exploration rides around McKeesport, Days Run up near Tarentum, Lowries Run into Emsworth, the GAP trail up to Boston (PA) and back, Dorseyville and Indianola, Munhall and the South Hills.

There were several particular highlights. One was finding and setting my first Tag-o-Rama locations, as described in an earlier post. I conquered four more of Pittsburgh’s brutal Dirty Dozen hills on the way to my first-ever Strava Climbing Challenge victory, although the worst of the hills— Barry/Holt/Eleanor—required a dab near the top after I pulled my shoe out of the pedal cleat. That same ride took me down the Montour Trail to the town of McMurray in memory of my mentor and hero Bobby Mac, where I stopped and had a memorial ice cream at a roadside stand that offered—appropriately enough—a “Dino Sundae”. My longest (now superseded, of course) was a 72-mile expedition out to Bakertown and over to Ambridge, where I came across a massive cheez ball spill in the middle of the woods in Sewickley.

So things seem to be going really well so far this year, aside from both bikes currently having broken rear wheels, of course.

March 27th, 2016

Take Me to the Pilot

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Despite it being the first big face-to-face confrontation of many leading Tour de France contenders, there isn’t a lot of coverage of the Volta a Catalunya stage race.

So I found myself reading a textual play-by-play commentary that had been Google Translate-d from Catalan to English. Or something approximating English, anyways. Here, for the pilot’s amusement, are some of the more tortured nuggets from the seven days of commentary.

  • There is the real solution. 191 runners signed. Tour 2016 begins!
  • Take exit 189 runners. Makes the sun to kill.
  • Wheel more than 50 km/h all the time because the terrain is favorable. Pilot grouped.
  • Everyone wants to get to the break of day. Groups are too large and does not curdle
  • It Succi attacks. Pilot very stretched.
  • The pilot lying and runs very fast
  • Sky debunks the escape. The stage is crazy. No truce.
  • The pilot goes very fast and very stretched.
  • Trip canceled. Again is living one day fast and nervous
  • The pilot wheel very fast and breaks in two. The second is Geraint Thomas (Sky)
  • The wind cuts the pilot in two.
  • Sky decline to order large group split.
  • Sky shoots hard driver only hold 40 units. One that remains is Geraint Thomas
  • Tcatevich (Katusha) and Swift (Sky) linked to any race and form a group of 10 units
  • The escapees have 3:15 on a pilot relaxing
  • The 10 escapees have an advantage of 3:45 over a driver who has been unified
  • 4:49 is the difference of the escaped input supplies
  • The large group of pulling Cofidis has lost respect 6:00 getaway day.
  • He shoots Sky squad for the difference does not leave 12 minutes.
  • These three seconds are subsidized.
  • Daniel Martin and Alberto Contador have subsidized the intermediate sprint Ager!
  • De Gendt, Bouet and Gradek is not the order of the intermediate sprint Banyoles.
  • Tinkoff becomes hard to pull of the pack
  • Unlike the escapees down to 5:30.
  • It is off the hook Tom Dumoulin (Giant) at the start of the Alto de Tosses (1st cat.)
  • Duyn (Roompot) first crown High coughs
  • The eight escapees are still relevant with intensity
  • The pilot crown Bordoi 3:00 Can the four escapees.
  • The difference boils down to the 3:00 supplies
  • The supplies have fallen, but have risen rapidly without apparent consequences.
  • Cofidis pulls the large group that loses 2:12 respect getaway.
  • Cofidis, Movistar and Sky pull a driver who has four escapees in less than two minutes.
  • The trip was dying. 1:40
  • Weening is 50 seconds ahead of the main group, where he shoots the Sky
  • Dron (Wanty) and Kiryienka (Sky) enter aa refreshment zone with 10 seconds on the pilot
  • Trip canceled. Movistar strip large group with very wet road.
  • Of the pack and jump Swift Poel movimient in the Sky
  • A group of four men assume the prosecution of Poel

With commentary like that, one could be forgiven for thinking one was watching something other than a bike race!

March 21st, 2016

Tag: You're It!

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07 PMC Riding

The most active cycling BBS in Pittsburgh appears to be that run by BikePGH, the local advocacy group.

One of the more interesting threads is called “Tag-o-Rama” and it’s your basic tag hiding and finding game, somewhat akin to geocaching only with bikes instead of hiking, and photos instead of GPS coordinates.

Whomever found the last tag goes out and bikes somewhere interesting and takes a photo of a landmark or some interesting feature; the bike he rode must also be in the frame. Once he posts the photo (aka tag) online, anyone who can figure out the location can ride there to take and post another picture to verify their pickup (and their bike must also be in the picture). Then it’s their turn to place the next new tag. For a fuller explanation, read the rules at the top of this thread.

I’ve watched the thread for four months, since before I moved to Pittsburgh in fact. As you might imagine, it’s not easy to figure out locations if you’re new to the area, but Google has helped me identify a couple spots. On top of that, the weather and my lack of experience cycling across the city always kept me from venturing out to actually pick up a tag on my own. Until last week…

Playground sculpture
Abandoned storefront

The thing that helps me most in finding a tag is something unique in the photo, like an Amish buggy or a blue church dome or something like that. On Friday someone posted a new tag: a playground slide made from a very distinctive metal sculpture. A little Googling and I figured out that it wasn’t too far away, on a road I’ve used a few times already.

Being up for an easy recovery ride, I figured this was a good opportunity. The only question was whether someone else would find it, ride there, and post their photo before I did. It was Friday noon, and 12 hours had elapsed since the photo was posted.

So I popped out, crossed the Highland Park bridge and rolled into Aspinwall Riverfront Park. I got a photo of my bike at the sculpture, and headed out. Hopeful that I’d be able to claim the tag, on the way home I detoured to take another photo at an abandoned storefront I’d passed several times before. I’d use that as my own new tag if no one else had claimed the playground one.

Returning home, I was delighted to see that no one else had claimed the tag. I posted and proudly claimed my first tag, the 1083rd to be claimed in the game. I was finally a legit participant!

After a moment to catch my breath, I also posted my new tag, number 1084. I figured it would be an easy find for anyone familiar with Centre Ave, one of Pittsburgh’s main streets, and so it was. Within three hours, two different people had posted pictures of their bikes in front of that abandoned shop!

While it’s not about riding hard, the game does get lots of people riding around and sharing unfamiliar but interesting parts of the city. It has proved a popular game here in Pittsburgh, and would be very easy to transplant in other cities, as well.

For me, it was on the list of things I wanted to do here in Pittsburgh. And now I can check that box off.

Though that won’t stop people from posting new tags nor stop me from cherry-picking ones to go after myself!

March 17th, 2016

Livin' in TRIMP Tower

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Amongst cyclists, there are mixed opinions about Strava, the social network that promotes tracking, analysis, and sharing the GPS logs of one’s rides.

There’s no question of the value it provides. But there’s been a bit of backlash from non-competitive riders who think preoccupation with “the numbers” detracts from the pleasure of riding. While that might be how it is for them, that doesn’t confer upon them the right to judge others for whom Strava’s information actually enhances their cycling experience.

Like many sites, Strava gives free users access to most of their functionality, but saves some advanced features for paying members. For myself, the ability to create my own heatmaps wasn’t sufficient reason to pay for access. However, a recent offer of a free month of premium access finally lured me in.

Although it’s not the main point of this post, the first thing I had to look at was those heatmap charts. A year and a half ago, I put together my own heatmap of a year’s worth of my cycling in Boston, which you can see here.

In comparison, here’s Strava’s heatmap of all the 500+ rides I’ve logged since 2010. Click here or on the image to get through to the interactive map where you can pan and zoom around.

Ornoth"s cycling heatmap

They also let you generate heatmaps for a particular calendar year or an arbitrary date range. So here’s another chart showing where I’ve ridden since moving to Pittsburgh back in December. Click thru for the interactive version.

Ornoth"s Pittsburgh cycling heatmap

Clearly they’re more flexible and less work than creating my own from scratch.

Another premium feature worth a brief mention is the “trophy case”. Strava offers monthly climbing or mileage “challenges” to all riders, but when a paying member completes a challenge, Strava adds little badges on the “trophy case” section of their rider profile page.

Gran Fondo challenge badge

Since those aren’t shown for free users, I never paid much attention to the challenges I’d completed, but now they all show up on my rider profile. In 2014 I completed four monthly “gran fondo” challenges plus one long “summer challenge”. In 2015 I added three more gran fondos. And thanks to favorable weather, I’ve already completed two more this year, and will complete my first monthly “climbing challenge” in a couple days.

That’s all nice, but it’s not the premium feature that I really want to show you. The main point of this post is the “Freshness & Fitness” chart, which I want to explain in some detail, because it’s cool.

For visual reference, here’s my fitness chart for the past 12 months. Click the image to see it at full size.

One-year fitness chart

Look first at the histogram across the bottom. Each one of the vertical lines represents a ride. Each line’s height represents the ride’s difficulty, based on its intensity and duration, and is called its “training impulse” or TRIMP or “suffer score”. The harder the ride, the taller the line. Above, I’ve highlighted last September’s late-season Hub on Wheels ride; it was a very intense three-hour ride, which is reflected in its training impulse value of 315.

Now look at the main/shaded/dark/bold line on the line chart above. That’s a different measurement called “fitness”, which represents my overall strength on the bike. You’ll see that every time I do a ride, my fitness goes up in proportion to how hard the ride was. So when I ride, I get stronger, but it gradually declines on days that I don’t ride.

There’s a spike at the Hub on Wheels ride where my fitness jumped up from 26 to 33, then slowly declined to 22 over the next three weeks while I was off the bike. Similarly, I was at peak fitness in June after riding hard and often, but my overall fitness declined through July and August, when I rode considerably less. Technically speaking, fitness is a weighted average of the training impulse for the previous six weeks.

There’s another metric that I haven’t shown here in order to keep the chart clean. We all know that after a hard ride, it can take a couple days of rest for your body to recover before you can go hard again. To take that into account, there’s another metric called “fatigue”.

Like fitness, fatigue increases in proportion to how hard you rode. After Hub on Wheels, my fatigue rose from 6 to 47. But it takes only a few days to recover from fatigue; a week after the Hub ride, my fatigue had gone back down to 17. In technical terms, it’s a weighted average of only the past 7 days’ training. While the positive effects on fitness of training last a long time, the negative impact of fatigue does not. That’s fatigue.

If you’re training to get ready for a big event, both fitness and fatigue matter. You want to have trained hard and built up your fitness, but if you’re still suffering from fatigue, you’re not going to perform at your best. If you take your level of fitness and subtract your residual fatigue, you get a number which they call “form”. Form is the thing that really matters when it comes to predicting how you’ll perform on any given day. And that’s what the thin/light/grey line on the chart represents.

Looking at that light grey line on my chart, during my heavy training period in the spring and early summer my fitness rose to its peak, but my form never got especially good because I was so fatigued. But I rode a lot less after my major event at the end of June, which allowed my body to fully recover. Looking at the chart, my form didn’t actually peak until late July! Going into Hub on Wheels, my form was a moderately good +20; after riding so hard, it fell to -14; but after a week of recovery it was back up to +11.

For another explanation of all this, try this 3-minute video from TrainingPeaks, although they use more technical names for these elements.

Stepping back, that chart gives a good overall picture of how a cyclist’s year progresses. You start with low fitness over the winter. In the spring you gain fitness by doing hard, long rides, but those leave you really fatigued, so you’re not at your best until you’ve taken the time to recover. That’s why you have to taper your training in the week leading up to a major event, so that you’ll be fresh (less fatigued) and thus at peak form. And then in the fall you can finally enjoy being highly fit without having to train hard or endure the associated fatigue.

In addition to 6- and 12-month views, Strava will also display all of your historical data, which for me goes back five years to 2011. That’s shown in the chart below, which only contains my overall fitness, with the expected troughs in the winter and peaks in the summer. Again, click for bigness.

Five-year fitness chart

There are some really interesting things to see here, too.

What immediately jumps out at me is that each year’s peak fitness was greater than the previous summer. New cyclists experience this year over year improvement as their body responds to the training load and becomes ever more attuned to cycling. You don’t just get fitter from winter to summer, but you also improve from year to year. Although I wouldn’t have expected to see that trend continue for someone who has been riding for 16 years, apparently I trained harder each year from 2011 to 2015, as shown by my peak fitness values, which went from 44 to 57, 62, 74, and 73.

The wintertime troughs are also interesting. The winter of 2011-2012 I barely rode at all, which is why you see a smooth decline in my fitness (down to a sad little value of 1). Skipping ahead, in 2014’s off-season I tried to ride outside sporadically, which is why you see some big jaggies there. But the most interesting years are 2013 and 2015, when I regularly used the indoor trainer. Riding the trainer produced numerous short little saw-toothed increases in fitness, which added up to provide a good base of fitness and a head start going into the arduous spring training season.

And finally there’s this past off-season. You don’t see any evidence of indoor trainer last winter, but Pittsburgh provided enough nice weather to ride outside regularly, and enough obscenely-difficult hills to really amp up the “training impulse”. So much so that according to this methodology, I’m as trained-up and fit now (in March) as I normally would be in the latter half of May!

Being two months ahead of my usual training curve is probably a good thing, knowing how much more climbing there is in the average Pittsburgh ride than back in Boston.

These are only a few of the features that Strava offers to premium users. For you, they may or may not be worth the expense; it took me five years to even look into it seriously for myself. But I thought I’d share some of the insights that you can gain.

Of course, you can get this kind of information (and more) from other performance management software such as TrainingPeaks, but getting it as a part of Strava Premium is pretty convenient for me. And Strava provides a social network that makes it easy to share with other riders and anyone who reads this blog.

And while we’re here, if you like this kind of stuff, don’t forget to install the Stravistix Chrome browser add-on, for additional analysis of your Strava datums!

March 1st, 2016

Winnertime Love

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A couple posts back I wrote: “Unless January and February get back to setting temperature records, you won’t see much from me in the next couple months.”

Pittsburgh from overlook
Serpentine Drive
North Shore Riverfront Park
Great Allegheny Passage in McKeesport
O"Hara Manor Park
Old Mill Road

Well, sometimes miracles do happen! January had five days above 50 degrees. Then February also had five days above 50°, plus five more days above 60°! And you can bet your sweet bippy that I took advantage of them.

So far in 2016, I’ve done 11 rides, which included some neighborhood explorations, plus:

  • The mostly ceremonial New Years Day Icycle Bicycle ride around town. (GPS log)
  • A processional ride in honor of a local rider who was killed. (GPS log)
  • A northside expedition out Fox Chapel, returning via Old Mill, Squaw Run, and Guyasuta. (GPS log)
  • Another expedition up the southside slopes, including stops at all the overlooks above the Monongahela and the ridiculous climb up Greenleaf. (GPS log)
  • Local explorations of Duck Hollow, Johnston Ave to Glen Hazel, the swoopy and dangerous Swinburne shortcut from Oakland to Greenfield, and discovering Parkview Blvd as a superior route to Homestead Grays.
  • A 65-mile riverside ride including Bunola River Rd up to Mon City and back with the Pittsburgh Randonneurs. (GPS log)
  • Another northside ride, going out Dorseyville and back via Saxonburg (GPS log).
  • Trying out my first and second Dirty Dozen hills. Tesla, the last hill on the Dirty Dozen route, is only a little ways from home. It’s mostly an easy hill until the last quarter mile, which shoots up painfully. But it’s short and doable, unless perhaps you’ve already covered a dozen insane climbs already… (GPS log)
  • And I also did Ravine/Sharps Hill, which is the second hill on the DD route. It’s much longer, starting out steep, getting much worse through its middle section, then ending with a long, straight uphill grind. That middle section was pretty damned hard. (GPS log)

It’s fun seeing the Dirty Dozen hills and conquering them, even if I’m taking them in isolation, rather than altogether.

So my stats for the past two months are actually really good. In the five preceding years back in Boston, I averaged only 4.2 rides and 94 miles by the end of February. But this year I’ve done 11 rides totaling 275 miles. So you can see that it’s been a great start to the year.

More significantly, by this time I normally would have accrued an average of 1,300 feet of climbing. My total this year is no less than 18,228 feet! Which reinforces the implication from my last post: that every ride in Pittsburgh is the equivalent of going out and doing hill repeats in Boston.

And I’ve been posting ride photos regularly, some of which appear here, but you can see more—plus new ones as they come in—on Instagram, Flickr, or Strava.

But now the calendar has turned to March, and genuine early season things are happening. The pros have opened up the European season with the Het Volk and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne cobbled classics, and the local randonneurs are ramping up for their characteristically early 200k and 300k brevets.

It might not be quite time to break out the SPD sandals, but I’ve gotten enough sun exposure to begin making progress on what the little woman calls my “distinctive markings”.

Hopefully March and April will bring more of that, please!

January 24th, 2016

Flatlanders Heights

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I keep saying Pittsburgh is much hillier than Boston. Guessing that you might discount that as hyperbole, I ran some numbers to back me up.

In Boston, I’m used to clubs rating their rides by their average speed; the fast group might do 21 mph, the medium group does 17, and the “leisure” group just hangs with the slowest rider.

When I looked at the club rides here in Pittsburgh, I found that in addition to average pace, they’re also rated by how much climbing you can expect. The ratings are determined by the number of vertical feet of climbing there are per horizontal mile (ascent/distance). Something like this, in fact:

RatingFeet/MileDescription
0150+Hill repeats
1100+Hill mania. Hills, hills and more hills
280+Some long and/or steep hills
360+Mostly rolling with moderate hills
4Mostly flat to rolling with an occasional hill
5Flat rail-trail with no hills

I had no idea where my typical Boston rides would fall on that scale, so I consulted my cycling log/database to calculate the feet per mile of all my previous rides, then sorted them from highest to lowest (throwing out rides of less than 10 miles). Here’s the top sixteen:

RankDateRideFeet/Mile
107/2013Summit Ave hill reps121.2
207/2010Summit Ave hill reps105.8
312/2015Braddock PA94.6
412/2015Braddock PA94.3
501/2016Fox Chapel PA81.8
606/2011Jay Peak VT77.9
701/2016Schenley PA76.1
806/2010Prospect Hill reps69.7
907/2012Belgrade ME67.2
1006/2013Spring/Eastern hill reps67.2
1107/2012Spring/Eastern hill reps65.9
1207/2011Spring/Eastern hill reps64.8
1307/2011Spring/Eastern hill reps63.1
1407/2014Spring/Eastern hill reps62.3
1504/2012Barre MA60.8
1607/2012Great Blue Hill reps60.0

A lot of things jump out at me from this data.

Firstly, nine of my sixteen overall steepest rides were hill repeat workouts, where I went to the most punishing hill I could find and rode up it six or eight times in a row. Those are “workouts” rather than your average, normal “rides”, and they’re of no value in judging how flat or hilly the terrain is.

Next is that only three of those sixteen are what I’d call “normal rides” that predate my move. At 78 feet/mile, my 2011 ride of Jay Peak in Vermont is the steepest, followed by a 2012 ride up in Maine, and a ride from Worcester to Barre MA (both in the moderate 60 feet/mile range).

But those were all special trips away from home; none of them actually started in Boston! The first “normal” ride that started at home and wasn’t a hill repeat appears at #17, at 59 feet/mile.

That leaves four remaining rides in the top sixteen to talk about, all having a feet/mile ratio above 70. Without planning it or going out of my way to make it happen, four of my seven steepest rides happened in the past six weeks, since I moved to Pittsburgh.

Those four rose 95, 95, 82, and 76 feet per mile, earning a tepid “some long or steep hills” from the local bike club. In comparison, my Mt. Washington Century ride in New Hampshire—which crosses three named passes in the White Mountains and bills itself as “New England’s Most Challenging Century™”—only racks up 54 feet/mile, which the Pittsburgh club would dismiss as “rolling with an occasional hill”.

If we throw out all those atypical hill repeat workouts and only include “normal” rides, then my three steepest rides of all time—and four of my top five—all took place here!

You can guess what the bottom line is: on average, Pittsburgh is a whole lot lumpier than Boston. Just for giggles, I went back to my database to quantify that. Here’s the results, adding up all my rides since I started tracking them with GPS in 2010:

Boston31.4 feet/mile
Pittsburgh69.5 feet/mile

While living in Boston from 2010 through 2015, I averaged 31.4 feet/mile, with a maximum of 34.5 back in 2014. While I’ve only done nine rides in Pittsburgh, so far I’m averaging no less than 69.5 feet per mile. That’s better than twice as much climbing as Boston without even trying, and that nine-ride average is steeper than any single ride I ever did from my home in Boston, except for my most intense hill repeat workouts.

I dunno if that Pittsburgh average is going to stand for a full season—I’m kinda scared to find out!—but I can already tell that the climbing (and, god help me, the descending) will feature prominently in my ride reports as well as my eventual look back on 2016 and my first season in the Burgh.

January 23rd, 2016

Swan Dive

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10 PMC Riding

As I mentioned in my last post, multiple people pointed me toward Oscar Swan’s book “Bike Rides Out of Pittsburgh” as the best way for a new resident to get up to speed on cycling routes around the city.

Having read the book, here are my impressions, in hopes of setting expectations for any other riders in my position.

I can kinda see why people recommend the book. It’s both thorough and authoritative. As I see it, here are the book’s pluses:

  • It’s available for free loan from the Carnegie Library. Yay!
  • It details no less than 425 different rides surrounding the city in all directions. There’s no shortage of routes to choose from.
  • It is a great resource for learning the locations of all the suburban towns around Pittsburgh.
  • Because rides are grouped roughly by major routes out of the city, it’s also a good way to identify the most likely roads you’ll take to get into the open countryside.
  • Because it covers nearly every road in a 75-mile radius of town, it gives the impression that you can bike pretty much anywhere… at least in theory.
  • There are quite a lot of photos.

Although it’s a great resource for the above purposes, the book has a lot of problems, too. Despite the number of recommendations I received for it, my impression is that—as a local might say—“It ain’t all ’at.” Here are its negatives:

  • To begin with, it’s out of print. If you want to read it, you have to find someone who has it and borrow it, or (a plus mentioned above) get it from the library.
  • Secondly, it’s out of date. It was printed in 2005, and since then several roads have been renamed, renumbered, rerouted, reconfigured, or superseded.
  • Most challenging was the fact that there isn’t a single map in the entire book: neither a broad regional map showing the general overview nor any maps of individual rides. The only way to know where these rides are located is to cross-reference them with a highly-detailed map, which is exactly what I did, creating my own Google Map of all his routes.
  • Which is how I discovered another major challenge: Swan covers pretty much every single road within a 75-mile radius of the city, all the way into West Virginia and Ohio. Where a new rider might be looking for a handful of the nicest rides, the author gives you every conceivable route.
  • That wouldn’t be bad, except that he also doesn’t give the reader any information on which to compare routes. His descriptions are all barebones directions: On this ride, go left on Broad, right on Main to Maple, and return on Summer Street. The author doesn’t add any more information than what you’d get from the sparsest little cue sheet.
  • The kicker is that the book wasn’t proofed at all. In building my Google Map, I learned things that casual readers would overlook: that the author sometimes misspelled the names of roads, and surprisingly frequently mixed up his left and his right. There were places where his directions assumed local knowledge, such as giving directions based on where a former landmark used to be, and included extraneous information like a route being some particular local rider’s favorite, without giving us any idea who that rider was or why we should care. In several instances I had to leave part of a route off my map because the directions were so opaque that they couldn’t be deciphered. It’s definitely written for local residents, not for people new to the area.

From this you can correctly infer that my reaction to the book is mixed. I certainly derived a lot of value from the intensive month-long process of meticulously mapping out each ride; but the whole point of a book like this is to spare new residents such arduous, painstaking effort. And I still don’t know which roads are the good ones!

Although I was hoping to find a list of the best riding Pittsburgh has to offer, what I found was pretty much a bare list of a thousand roads, with no way to judge which ones I should explore first. Imagine trying to decide where to ride based on the red lines in this map (my plot of the author’s suggested routes):

Map

Note: I will not share the URL of the Google Map out of respect for the author’s copyright on his material.

A new resident would be much better served by a book that did the following:

  • Only describe the top 10 percent of those 425 rides: the nicest, safest, most interesting rides in the area.
  • Describe those in detail: not just unadorned directions, but what each route is like and why it might appeal more than any other ride in the book.
  • In addition to photos, include both overview and detailed maps to provide a visual image of where the routes start, end, and the places they go.
  • Include turn-by-turn directions in cue sheet form in an appendix, or drag yourself kicking and screaming into the 21st Century by providing downloadable GPS tracklogs!

Yes, Swan’s book is one place to start in the effort to learn the local terrain. It’s helpful, but it’s nowhere near as helpful as it really ought to be in order to encourage more people to get out on their bikes, whether they’re veteran roadies who just moved into town or locals who are looking for help as they begin their journey as cyclists.

It’s certainly a good start, and illustrates the information cyclists needed back in the olden days, but if Pittsburgh wants to become a modern cycling city, it needs better.

January 1st, 2016

Pittsburgh On-Ramp

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07 PMC Riding

A little summary of my first month as a Pittsburgh cyclist.

I arrived in town fairly skeptical. I hadn’t heard many positive things about riding in the city, especially after a cyclist stopped at a red light was crushed between two cars and killed in my new neighborhood, which evoked all kinds of angst amongst the local cycling advocates.

One of the first things I ramped up on were the local bike shops. My my impression so far is that although there are several shops that carry a good selection of bikes and clothing, they offer extremely little in the way of tools, parts, or organized rides.

I’ve also looked up the big annual events in the area. There aren’t many centuries, but there is an active group of randonneurs. Hopefully they’ll let me tag along on their rides despite not being a member of Randonneurs USA, whom I chose to actively not support.

I looked for likely cycling routes on Strava’s Global Heatmap, but discovered that there are very few routes near me that are used by cyclists. Well, that’s not helpful!

There are a couple Pittsburgh cycling forums, and an inquiry about routes provided a pointer to an out-of-print book “Bikes Rides Out of Pittsburgh” by Oscar Swan, which I obtained from the library.

Sadly, it is 250 pages of bare, not-too-carefully written directions, without a single map in the entire volume. So I’ve been spending my non-riding winter time plotting all his routes in Google Maps. This engendered the opposite problem from Strava: his rides traverse nearly every road within an 180-mile diameter, with no clear guidance which are more desirable than the rest!

For more useful and interactive advice, both Inna and I have one friend each who are utility cyclists, which is at least a start at community. And I hope to make contact with a former Green Line Velo rider who moved out here from Boston in 2014.

I found him and a couple other neighborhood roadies on Strava through their “flyby” utility, which shows when two riders’ logged routes intersect or overlap. I’ve been able to find good local roads by looking at these riders’ current and past GPS logs and following the same routes. That’s been the most helpful thing so far, and hopefully it’ll allow me to make social connections, as well.

Although December is never a very good month for cycling, being unemployed allowed me to take whatever opportunities the weather provided this month. And it provided! In addition to usually being a tiny smidgin warmer than Boston, this December was Pittsburgh’s second warmest on record, with the second least snowfall: ten and a half inches less than average! We spent much of the month with temperatures in the 50s and 60s.

That allowed me to get out for six short rides from 9 to 26 miles, totaling 114 miles. That might not sound like much, but it’s the best December I’ve had in many years.

Bud Harris Cycling Track

I learned that every street in Pittsburgh is steeper than Boston’s steepest hill, with their longest and steepest being harder than anything I’ve ridden before. I started braving Pittsburgh’s mostly-unfriendly tunnels and bridges. And I made a weekday trip to check out the otherwise unoccupied Bud Harris outdoor cycling track, with banked corners and everything! That was pretty cool… (GPS log)

I discovered that out here asphalt is often replaced by slab cement roadway, but to make things even more challenging, steeper roads are paved with uneven bricks or good old European-style cobblestones. Going uphill on cobbles is a very rough challenge, but descending a steep cobblestone downhill is cause for a visit to the dentist. Note to self: start checking all bolts for tightness after every ride.

That’s one of the things people forget. Because it’s so ludicrously hilly, Pittsburgh is a great place to train your legs to handle climbing; but every ascent is followed by an equally imposing white-knuckle descent, and I am a terrible descender. I guess I don’t have a choice but to improve at both.

Sadly, all the best riding seems to be northwest of the city, whereas I’m in the southeast corner. That means that—like Boston—I will spend an hour traversing the urban jungle before getting to the meat of my rides. Unlike Boston, I then have to get across one of the trafficky bridges over the Allegheny, then climb up an abominable embankment to get out of the river valley. Hopefully the terrain beyond will be worth the extra effort.

Icycle Bicycle

So that was December. Today being the first of January, there was a big organized New Years ride (Icycle Bicycle) which I attended (GPS log). Sadly, December’s record temperatures haven’t carried over into January, so we set out in 32° and light snow before the sun eventually broke out.

The ride was noteworthy for several reasons. It was the first ride of 2016, of course. It was also my first group ride in Pittsburgh, and I was impressed that an estimated 200 people showed up. One of them was my utility cycling friend Colleen, whom I saw for the first time in years.

It was also the first time I got to use the new Hydrotac stick-on bifocal lenses that I’d attached to my sunglasses. I’ve worn reading glasses for age-related presbyopia for several years, but I rarely needed to focus on anything close-up on the bike, so I stayed with regular old non-prescription sunglasses.

However, now that I’m riding in unfamiliar places, following a map and routes on a tiny 2.6-inch screen, my lack of visual acuity became problematic. I’m happy to report that the stick-on lenses really help my ability to read the GPS display, and they don’t interfere with my normal-distance road vision (after trimming the lenses down a bit).

The only part I haven’t tested is whether they will withstand cleaning the sunglasses lenses, since they get pretty grimy after a ride. But one ride indicates that they’re worth the extra effort.

Unless January and February get back to setting temperature records, you won’t see much from me in the next couple months. I’m not much of a cold-weather rider, and I haven’t yet replaced the old indoor trainer I had back in Boston. So there won’t be any indoor riding either, unless some money happens to materialize real soon.

The bottom line is that I’ve been doing my best to gain local knowledge and connect with the local cycling community. And I’m optimistic that I’ll be able to make a decent season out of 2016 in Pittsburgh once springtime temperatures return… Only 100 days until Paris-Roubaix!

November 21st, 2015

It might be a tad early to write a retrospective on the 2015 cycling season, but my imminent departure from Boston is a more logical breakpoint than the arbitrary calendar change a month hence.

So, 2015: it was very much a tale of two seasons.

I was on a normal springtime trajectory for the first five months of the year, with training focused on ramping up for my first Cape Cod Getaway MS Ride, with my new coworkers from Buildium.

Mach 2

Those months included solo centuries to New Hampshire and along the Bikes-Not-Bombs route, plus my perennial favorite 130-mile Outriders ride to Provincetown. I obliterated my coworkers in a corporate fitness challenge, then led two of them on a 70-mile jaunt up to Ipswitch for our company’s summer outing. I got to say goodbye to favorite rides including Outriders and Boston’s Hub on Wheels, and I was able to attend a goodly number of Landry’s Green Line Velo rides out of Cleveland Circle. About the only disappointment was that I didn’t get to bike commute anywhere near as much as I had anticipated.

The Cape Cod Getaway MS Ride itself was an awesome experience, moreso because it was the first time I’d done any charity ride as a part of a team. Wearing a Buildium jersey was a point of pride all year, as you can see in all my ride photos, which I began attaching to my Strava GPS logs. Though I was disappointed that Day 2 from Bourne to Provincetown was called off (wisely) due to ludicrously bad weather.

The MS Ride was the inflection point for my year. In the five months from February through June I rode 117 hours or 1,791 miles (including indoor riding on the trainer). After the MS Ride, I had no more events to work toward, and preparing for my move took precedence over riding. The five months after the MS Ride, from July through November, I only rode 46 hours or 674 miles, a 65 percent drop-off.

Because of that, I only got 2,200 miles in this year and only did four centuries: both of those are my lowest tallies since 2008. That’s less than half the riding I did in 2009 and 2010!

And I can’t talk about 2015 without commenting on my first year away from the Pan-Mass Challenge, which had been the focus and highlight of my season every year from 2001 through 2014. It was so nice to take a break from the fundraising! While I did miss the ride, I was okay with it, and did my own little PMC remembrance ride from Sturbridge Street in Mattapan to Truro Street in Quincy. And I was tickled that—even though I wasn’t there in person—I appeared in a video shown at the PMC’s Opening Ceremonies, clapping as I rode no-hands past the camera during the 2014 event. That was a really nice way for the PMC and I to say farewell to one another.

In summary, 2015 was a mixed but memorable last year in Boston. I wish I could have gotten out more, but I’m really happy with the riding I did do. I changed things up a bit, and enjoyed some memorable rides with my new coworkers.

For myself, I’m a little concerned that I’ve lost some of my previous power, whether it’s due to age or too little training or both. And I’m a little concerned about next year, after moving to the arguably the hilliest city in the nation. Which is the perfect segue for looking forward to next year…

It’s unfortunate timing that I arrive in Pittsburgh just four days after their premier event: the Dirty Dozen, which climbs the thirteen most brutally steep paved roads in town; one of them is 37 percent grade, which is the second steepest street in the world! Well, maybe it’s not so unfortunate that I missed it, since I’m in no shape to take it on right now; but there’s always next year, right?

2016 will be a huge transitional year, as I try to learn the roads and the rides that Pittsburgh offers. Naturally, I want to get out more than I did this year, but I’ll have to balance that not just with another new job, but also with a relationship… And we know that cycling and relationships tend to have repelling polarities.

Aside from those things, my 2016 goals are fourfold:

First, I need to buy a new indoor trainer. That will be especially interesting, because the technology has changed radically in the past couple years, with features like using your GPS logs to mimic your real-world rides, and interacting with other riders through connected platforms like Zwift.

Second, I want to find and do more century rides. I think that’ll be a challenge, both because of the challenges presented by hillier terrain, and there just don’t seem to be many organized centuries in the area. On verra.

Third, Pittsburgh has a half mile paved outdoor velodrome track, and an indoor velodrome in the works. I’d love to check those out. I might even take the field for a race, just to say I’d done it. It’s gotta be safer than those goddamned criteriums, right?

And finally: the Dirty Dozen. There’s no sense being in Pittsburgh and not at least attempting it. I want the proverbial tee shirt.

With that, I say goodbye to Boston. I gave you my best, leaving a half billion breathless heartbeats strewn along your potholed but beloved scenic roadways.

Henceforth I hope you’ll look for me on Strava, laying down new PRs in a different commonwealth. I will truly be blessed if I can share the road with as many friends there as I rode with here in Massachusetts.

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