11 PMC Riding

Back in the Saddle Again

A rider only touches his bicycle in five places: two hands, two feet, and the most sensitive place of all: the saddle.

People are very finicky about their saddles – for good reason – and it can be difficult to predict what will work for any given rider. I have been fortunate that the stock saddles that came with my bicycles worked well for my physiology… until recently.

And this may be where we get into what might be too much information for the sensitive reader. Viewer discretion is advised. You have been warned!

Over the past year or so, after long rides – especially centuries – I’ve experienced an abnormal amount chafing around the sit bones. It’s painful, but heals over a couple days. What’s odd is that I’ve never had this problem in the past.

I was slow to look into specific causes or solutions, mostly because it took a while for me to see the pattern, since it only happened on my (comparatively infrequent) longer rides. But when I finally decided that something had to be done, the obvious places to look were my cycling bib shorts and saddle… and my shorts are fine.

But the saddle… As I said, this is the stock saddle that came with the bike. And looking back on it, I’ve put that bike through more than 24,000 outdoor miles, plus another 11,000 miles on the indoor trainer. The saddle still works fine for me, but it does show signs of wear after nine years and 35,000+ miles of use!

Specifically, the saddle’s cover is worn, with the underlying material showing through in places, as you can see in the following two photos. But that shouldn’t have any impact on its functionality, should it?

Saddle facing right
Saddle facing left

In those photos (as always, click for bigness), there are at least four different layers of saddle material showing.

The outermost layer is glossy, ivory colored, and near the saddle’s centerline. This is the original outer layer of the saddle, and probably is some plasticky protective outer coating. The second, whiter layer is the textured cover material itself, probably leather, that shows through where the clear overcoat has peeled off.

Where I’ve worn through the white leather surface is third layer that probably started as light tan, but turns a dark grey over time. And finally, beneath that are a couple rough, black, patches of hard foam-like material.

The glossy outermost protective layer is quite smooth, but each subsequent layer becomes more tacky and sticky than the last. While Lyrca bike shorts would move and slide easily on the whiter surfaces, they would adhere to the softer, worn dark patches.

And I think that’s where my problem is. While riding, as you pump your legs and move around on the saddle, your bike shorts should stay in one place on your body, but freely slide around on top of the saddle.

But if your shorts stick to the saddle then they can’t slide around, and all that movement between your saddle and your shorts turns into movement between the shorts and your skin! It’s no wonder my ass was raw after a ride of seven hours and 30,000 pedal strokes!

Testing this hypothesis was easy, because I have two other (older) bikes with saddles that are in better condition. I could just swap out the saddle and see if the problem went away.

But the timing of this revelation wasn’t great, because it was just before my planned PMTCC 3-State century (ride report), and if there’s one single inviolable canonical rule in cycling, it’s this: never change your equipment just before a major ride. So I rode the century on the old saddle; at least the resulting sores would give me something to judge the replacement saddle’s performance against!

But after the century, I made the swap, and results so far have been promising on rides of 20, 35, and 50 miles.

Kinda weird to think that I’ve actually worn out a saddle!

Of course, the replacement saddle is black, while the old one was white, which matched my handlebar tape. So I’ll have to spend some time trying to procure my preferred saddle in white, which was a rarity even before the Covid-19 pandemic obliterated the bicycle industry’s supply chain. But having a spare saddle lying around has bought me time to make that happen.

Or I could just change to black bar tape. Or red, which would also match by bike frame.

But either way, thanks to how difficult it has become to get bike parts, my steed has started looking like a bit of a Frankenbike.

07 PMC Riding

Interstate Travel

It’s been two years since I last participated in an organized century event. But with the 2021 season starting to wind down, last Sunday I completed my fourth PMTCC 3-State Century.

The headline leading into the event had to be the weather. Hurricane Ida swept away the last humid heat of summer, and left Pittsburgh enjoying a delightful string of sunny days with lows in the upper 50s and highs in the 70s. You couldn’t ask for better conditions!

Phil & Ornoth at the Crestview Park overlook in New Cumberland WV

Phil & Ornoth at the Crestview Park overlook in New Cumberland WV

At the teapot rest stop in Chester WV

At the teapot rest stop in Chester WV

Leaving WV on the Newell Toll Bridge

Leaving WV on the Newell Toll Bridge

1/3 mile of very sketchy boardwalk

1/3 mile of very sketchy boardwalk

On the other hand, one could ask for a more reasonable starting time! Riders choosing the 100-mile route had to hit the road at 6:30am to avoid road closures for a 5k run.

With the event beginning on Neville Island – eight miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh – that meant an early wake-up call. I staggered awake at 4:15am, downed half a bagel, and drove to the start.

In the pre-dawn darkness, I found I’d parked next to Phil, a longtime riding buddy I hadn’t seen in years. I checked in for the ride, put my bike together, and decided to keep my arm warmers on for a while. We rolled out at 6:40am at 63° with just enough light to see.

This year’s updated route split into two completely different halves. 71% of the climbing (3,850 feet) came in the first 50 miles, while the second half only climbed 1,550 feet, less than 30% of the total. The first half averaged 80 feet per mile of climbing, while the second half averaged a mere 30 (that’s considered pan-flat in Pittsburgh). If you exhausted yourself on the lumpy first half, it would be a long and painful slog home.

The new route began with a pointless 14-mile loop up two major climbs into the Montour Heights, followed by a screaming descent right back down again. I took it casually, mostly riding with Phil and a couple other guys. Then a minor climb along busy Route 51 before I stopped at a construction site’s porta-john while the others rode on. Then another major climb on PA 151 back up the escarpment where Phil was waiting for me for the run into the first rest stop, 25 miles and about two hours in.

The rest stop spit us out directly onto the fourth and final major climb of the day before turning onto a slightly busier US Route 30 for a smaller climb up to the West Virginia border. Just a couple miles later, the route took a new left turn onto WV Route 8 toward New Cumberland. Another change from prior rides, this would give us more time along the Ohio River and increase our riding in West Virginia from 4 miles to 24. We noticed how much the road quality improved over that in Pennsylvania, while the buildings looked shabbier. We crawled along, slowly overcoming a gusty 25 MPH headwind and two more short but steep hills.

When we descended into New Cumberland and met the Ohio River, we took a quick turn onto WV Route 2, then climbed the final hill of the day. I pulled Phil aside for selfies in a small park with a platform overlooking the river, the Stratton flood control dam and locks, and the Sammis coal-fired power plant on the opposite shore. Having ridden 50 miles in three and a half hours with only one break, I had heavy legs and a stiff back, and Phil was hungry. Importantly, this marked the halfway point of the ride, the end of the climbing, and now we had the wind at our backs; we would make much better speed on the homeward leg of the ride.

We quickly covered the 10 miles to the next rest stop, arriving at the World’s Largest Teapot in Chester WV at 11am. This is beneath the Jennings Randolph Bridge where US Route 30 crosses the Ohio, which the normal ride route would take, but is closed this year for construction. So after a short rest and a photo with the “teapot” we backtracked a couple miles to our alternative: the Newell Toll Bridge.

The Newell Toll Bridge is about as small and rickety as you might imagine a bridge built in 1905 would be, although it was rehabbed just 67 years ago! It’s just wide enough for two cars to pass on its metal grate open deck, and pedestrian access is provided by a single run of aging wooden planking hung off the side, with a rusting token railing. Did I mention it’s a suspension bridge? That means the entire bridge deforms, dips, and sways under the weight of passing traffic. In between taking photos at either end, we gingerly rode a third of a mile across the creaking wooden walkway fifty feet above the Ohio River, where I discovered my long-dormant faith in God. The friendly attendants waved us on rather than collect the five-cent pedestrian toll.

Thus began our 5 miles of riding in Ohio (this year’s new route having added two extra miles!) which quickly saw us back across the border into Pennsylvania. We were delighted not to turn left for more inland climbing this year. This whole segment was only 12 miles, so it soon ended at a Subway sandwich shop in Midland PA. It was exactly noon, and we’d covered 70 miles. I was intrigued to see they’d expanded the Subway shop, adding a Dairy Queen counter, but I was heartbroken that it wasn’t open.

After ingesting a meatball sub (after defending it from some insanely persistent hornets) and filling my bottle with ice and cola, we continued up the riverside to Beaver PA, then across the bridge over the Ohio into Monaca (pronounced m’NACK-a, not MON-a-ka). We pulled aside for a quick rest to freshen our legs for a 7-mile all-out sprint down Route 51 to the Ambridge Bridge. Route 51 would be considered a four-lane superhighway if it met state or federal safety requirements, and it’s one of the most dangerous roads in Western PA. However, we survived our passage, crossed the Ohio (again!), and pulled into the final rest stop of the day: Sweetwater Bikes in Ambridge, where I filled up with ice and water. It was 1:50pm and we’d covered 91 miles, with just 7 miles to go!

Having stayed on my tail all day long, Phil was starting to flag, so we continued on at a much more casual pace, proceeding down Beaver Street into the more familiar roads in Sewickley PA. We crossed the Ohio (again!) on the Sewickley Bridge, ambled through Coraopolis, and crossed the backchannel onto Neville Island, where we’d started out eight hours before. We did a quick couple miles up and down Grand Ave to round our ride up to an even 100 miles, with 5,400 feet of climbing.

After putting my bike back in the car, I joined other finishers, where I enjoyed a cola and some pizza after claiming my finisher’s medal, tipping the group’s bartender the $5 bill I had found in the street on a June ride that coincidentally had also gone through Neville Island to Sewickley.

So that’s the ride. Now for some final observations.

As mentioned earlier, this was my first organized century since my Michigan trip back in October 2019, my fourth century of the year, and my 101th century overall. It definitely felt good to be back doing a big, supported group event, and the weather was absolutely perfect.

And it felt good to really thrash my legs on another serious day’s effort. I seem to have escaped without any of the severe night calf cramps that hit me after last month’s PMC.

Phil’s presence made it better, too. He was strong and stayed with me the whole day, even if I did the lion’s share of the pulling. He and I seem to have a similar pace and riding style, dating back even beyond our mutual support leading up to the challenging 2017 Dirty Dozen ride.

The changes to the route were mostly successful. The bonus climbing loop at the start was begrudgingly tolerable, even though I’d rather do something with more value than a pointless loop. The cut across West Virginia Route 8 to New Cumberland and along the river up Route 2 were excellent additions. But I’d rather cross the Ohio on Route 30 and avoid risking my life and emotional well-being on the 116 year old Newell Toll Bridge!

For the bike, this might well be the last big ride for its stock saddle. One of this year’s major themes has been chafing around the sit bones, and I think I’ve finally figured out that it’s because of how worn my saddle is; understandable, since it’s seen 24,000 road miles plus another 11,000 on the indoor trainer. I thought about swapping it out before this ride, but was stopped by the age-old cardinal rule: never change your equipment just before a big ride! Fortunately, my butt (mostly) survived this saddle’s last hurrah. But there’ll be a whole followup post about my saddle woes shortly.

Sadly, with September halfway gone and the season winding down, there won’t be many other organized events this year. There’s the Western PA Wheelmen’s fall picnic, which includes some short rides, and Tour the Montour. And the Dirty Dozen, which I’m in no shape to tackle, so I’ll probably play photographer again. And I suppose I ought to do another FTP test while I’m still in good form, since I haven’t done one in 10 months…

It was a wonderful day in the saddle, and one more big step to celebrate in the post-Covid return to normalcy.

01 PMC Standing

2021 Pan-Mass Challenge & 100th Century!

This is just a placeholder to direct you to my 2021 Pan-Mass Challenge Ride Report, for the full details of this year's remote "Reimagined" PMC ride, as well as my thoughts and feeling upon completing my 100th ride of 100 miles or more.

As always, my lengthy writeup is supplemented with photos, videos, maps, and GPS logs.

12 MLR

Century 99

Everything was set. My fitness had returned following the foot problems that plagued me in May. I’d gotten permission from my better half to take the car. I was all set for my first organized, outdoor century ride since October 2019: the Akron Bicycle Club’s Absolutely Beautiful Century. The only variable left was the weather…

And sadly, the weather steadfastly refused to cooperate, ominous enough to persuade me to skip the two-hour drive into neighboring Ohio. As one of only two or three organized centuries that are taking place this year, I'd been really looking forward to it. Even if it was the right decision — over two inches of rain fell on the route — it was a huge disappointment.

Sunrise on the Monongahela

Sunrise on the Monongahela

I was still eager and ready to complete my first outdoor century of the year, so I simply waited a few days. Once better conditions prevailed, Thursday morning I set out on a solo ride up to Butler and back that I’d done two years ago, back in August of 2019.

I climbed out of bed at 4:20am — thanks to summertime’s early sunrise — and took time for a relaxed breakfast. Knowing that it was going to be a sticky and very sweaty day, I braided my annoyingly long Covid hair in order to keep it under control. Then I set out at 6:20am, catching the last portion of sunrise on my way down across the Monongahela and up the Great Allegheny Passage bike path back into town. I appeared to have achieved my goal of beating commuter traffic out of the city.

Over the preceding week, I’d suffered a couple recurring flat tires, so I was extra paranoid about how the bike felt underneath me. And sure enough, nine miles into the ride — just as I was about to come back across the river, my rear tire went soft. Fortunately, I wasn’t far from the Golden Triangle bike rental, and used their presta pump to give me enough tire pressure to make my way back home to effect repairs. I was fortunate to have begun with a short loop near home, rather than immediately heading out of town.

I took half an hour to find the puncture and replace the tube before heading out a second time. And then quickly backtracking to pick up the heart rate monitor strap that I’d forgotten. I was nearly two hours into my century ride, but had only covered 15 miles, and now I’d have to contend with the commuter traffic I’d gotten up so early to avoid. It wasn’t an auspicious start.

I cut straight across town and crossed the Allegheny via the 62nd Street Bridge. The next hour was spent traveling along the river on Freeport Road, which has a fair amount of high-speed traffic, but is blessedly flat: a rarity in Pittsburgh. But as is often the case, I probably went a little too hard trying to match traffic speed, and I would pay for that later.

My route took one of my favorite rides — climbing Days Run and Sun Mine Road almost to Saxonburg, then back down to Harmar via Brewer Road and Little Deer Creek — and extended it a dozen miles, past Saxonburg to Butler. That meant 30 miles of non-stop rolling hills: a sure recipe for exhausting your legs. By the time I pulled into the Sheetz convenience store in Butler at mile 58, I was feeling pretty used up.

It didn’t get any better once I turned around for home. A breeze provided a little cooling, but also slowed my progress even more. I started taking brief roadside rest stops after reaching Culmerville at mile 73, eager for the ride to be over. But another 30 miles lay before me, punctuated by a half-dozen intimidating hills.

Ten miles later I pulled into the Sheetz in Harmar to replenish and rest. From there I could return to town on the nice, flat expanse of Freeport Road, but I needed a little more mileage, and had planned to return by my usual (but much more challenging) route climbing Guys Run and Old Mill, and descending on Squaw Run. Knowing it would be an epic trial, that’s what I set out to do.

From that point onward I was simply in survival mode, just trying to keep the pedals ticking over as the miles crawled by. After another ad hoc rest, I dragged myself over the 62nd Street Bridge, up One Wild Place, and Beechwood, finally limping into our driveway with 104 miles on the clock.

Of note, this was my first outdoor century since the Leelanau Harvest Tour back in September of 2019: just shy of two full years! It was also only my second century of the year, the other being completed on my indoor trainer in Zwift back in March.

Even more significantly, as far as I can tell from my early records, this was my 99th ride of greater than 100 miles since getting back into cycling as an adult back in 2000.

And of course, this was also part of my training up for my remote Pan-Mass Challenge charity ride, which is just three weeks away, and which will comprise my 100th century+ ride.

If you have not already sponsored me, I’d love to count you as one of my sponsors. Please make a donation here.

12 MLR

Gimme a Regular

It really wasn’t anything special, just the regular 25-mile “Team Decaf” Tuesday night group ride out of Highland Park.

At the same time, it was a rare and special event, for several reasons.

Beginning with the most mundane of those reasons: it was the first Team Decaf ride of the year. That’s normally a chance to catch up with riding buddies I haven’t seen all winter long, and perhaps test one’s legs to determine one’s current position in the hierarchy of speed. The first group ride always has a bit of a “reunion” feel to it.

First post-Covid Team Decaf group ride

First post-Covid Team Decaf group ride

Sunrise on the castle climb in Zwift's new Japan-themed world

Sunrise on the castle climb in Zwift's new Japan-themed world

But never mind this year, this was their first group ride in more than 1½ years, as they've been on hiatus since October 2019 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. After such a long break, getting back together felt like an extremely special occasion.

For me, this also (hopefully) marks my return to outdoor riding. I actually did a couple outdoor rides back in March, but Zwift’s Tour of Watopia and my mission to reach Level 50 kept me on the indoor trainer through the end of April. With those out of the way and a new all-time record fitness level, I was all set to rediscover the hilly roads of Allegheny County as the calendar ticked over to May...

I started the month with a couple outdoor rides, only to be sidelined with a bad case of achilles tendonitis. Between my injury and additional downtime around my Covid-19 vaccinations, May was a near-complete write-off. The only things that got me on the bike (gingerly!) were the final PMC group rides of the season on Zwift, and Zwift’s release of a new Japan-themed virtual world (which I must admit is pretty cool). Meantime, my fitness absolutely plummeted. That’s what happens when you cut your training down from 200 miles per week to less than 50.

However, I’m now fully vaccinated, which means this was also my first time riding with any other people in more than 18 months. During the pandemic lockdown, I rode 7,700 miles; only 1,250 of them were outdoor, and all of those were solo.

So with all those milestones, yesterday’s group ride was memorable and even a little emotional. Enough so that I felt inclined to actually smile and photobomb. My ankle felt reasonably good, although there’s enough pain — both on and off the bike — to constantly remind me that I’m not 100 percent, or even 90 percent.

The next question is what will the summer of 2021 riding season look like?

The first order of business is getting my achilles fully healed and ramping my mileage back up. That might take quite a while, both because tendonitis is a long-term injury, and it is aggravated by overuse. So returning to long endurance rides is going to be a slow process.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to return to full century rides, which has implications for my goals for this year. I’d like to hit the Akron Bicycle Club’s century in July, do some kind of “reimagined” Pan-Mass Challenge ride in August, and either the Epic Tour in Toronto or the PMTCC’s three-state century in mid-September. And I’m eager to get my milestone 100th century ride under my belt, whatever that winds up being. But there’s no way to know when — or whether — any of that will happen.

In the short term, it’ll be a bunch of short rides, probably sprinkled amongst lots of recovery days. And putting some time into my PMC fundraising, as well. That’s really all I can do until I’m injury-free and back to full fitness.

It looks like my return to normalcy following the Covid-19 pandemic will be a very slow, gradual one.

11 PMC Riding

The Final Boss

For the past 2½ years, Zwift has done a great job motivating me to ride the indoor trainer. While the social aspect has been rewarding, one of my biggest motivators has been chasing in-game achievements: what the industry terms “gamification”.

But a problem arises when users have been around long enough to check off every achievement, and I started reaching that point about a year ago. At the pandemic’s onset, I was already sitting at Level 37, and there were only two interesting things left for me to unlock: a Mondrian-themed in-game jersey at Level 42, and an excellent time trial bike and wheelset at Level 45.

Zwift Level 50 banner

The long-awaited Level 50 achievement!

Tour of Watopia archway

Riding thru the Tour of Watopia archway

The Level 50 rider kit

Sporting my new Level 50 rider kit

List of Tour of Watopia stages ridden

List of Tour of Watopia stages ridden

Zwift rider profile page statistics
Zwift experience points gauge
Record fitness (CTL) gauge

After that, the only achievement left to chase was getting to Level 50: the highest experience level in the game. Higher levels require more XP to advance — and commensurately more time — so I could only level up once every 5 to 10 weeks. So at that point, I knew I was still more than year away from Level 50.

With Level 50 being so far away, my biggest question was whether I could get there before Zwift decided to introduce more experience levels. Shortly after I had begun Zwifting, they increased the top level from Level 25 to 50, and 18 months later it seemed kind of inevitable that they’d add more levels soon. So reaching Level 50 before they moved the goalpost felt like a race against time.

For a while, I followed a not-widely-known strategy to earn 25% more XP than usual. By riding a time trial bike, I was given a +10 XP bonus instead of a power-up each time I passed a banner kite on the road.

On top of that, a recent update introduced a new shortcut between the 360 Bridge and the JWB Bridge, which created a small two-kilometer loop around the Italian village. That became the new shortest route between banner kites, allowing a rider on a TT bike to earn 50 XP every 2 KM, rather than the usual 40 XP. That may not sound significant, but when every level requires 20,000 XP, that 25% bonus will save over 120 miles of riding per level! So even though countless little 2 KM circuits got pretty tedious, I eagerly exploited that advantage.

But this past month was even more productive than that... and commensurately more tiring. Zwift’s Tour of Watopia, which always offers an irresistible double XP on every ride, ran from March 29 to April 29. So instead of 20 or even my crafty 25 XP, all “ToW” rides earned a bloated 40 XP per kilometer! It was the ideal opportunity to finish off my quest to reach Level 50.

In the end, I rode 28 out of the tour’s 32 days, only taking one day off due to an emergency room visit for heart palpitations; a two-day break for a followup visit to my doctor and my first Covid shot; and a rest day to celebrate after I hit Level 50.

Although the Tour of Watopia is usually comprised of 5-7 stages, back in 2019 I rode multiple times — 23 stages, in total! — to quickly leap from Level 20 to 26; and last year I managed 16 stages, advancing from Level 35 to 37. But this year I completed a record-shattering 42 stages! That was just enough to earn the 50,000 experience points I needed to tick off my final 2½ levels.

For the record, that was one ride of Stages 1B, 2A, and 5B; twice each for Stage 4A and 5A; three rides of Stage 3A and 4B; Stage 3B (Ocean Lava Cliffside Loop) four times; Stage 2B (Volcano Climb) six times; and Stage 1A (Magnificent 8) a whopping 19 times!

I tripped 500,000 XP on April 27th. After more than a year of working on that goal, I had finally reached Level 50: the non plus ultra of Zwifting. I’d been Zwifting for 2.4 years, and had racked up 11,000 miles over 610 hours of indoor riding, burning 306,000 kcalories (about 90 pounds of body weight), or 1,075 pizza slices according to Zwift). That also included 616,000 feet of ascending, and twelve indoor “Zenturies” plus one 7½-hour 200k ride.

Never let it be said I lack determination, fortitude, or self-discipline.

From this point forward, the orange UI progress bar that shows how far I am through the current level becomes a worthless, unmoving waste of screen real estate. Amusingly, just last week Zwift introduced the ability to hide all UI display components except the riders and the landscape of Zwift’s worlds; I’ll probably make use of that, rather than let myself be discouraged by a perpetually unchanging grey progress bar!

It’s nice that the Tour of Watopia — with its double XP bonus as a motivator — takes place in early spring, when I’m topping up my fitness before transitioning to outdoor riding. After a strong indoor training season that included this year’s Tour de Zwift and Haute Route Watopia events, on the seventh day of the Tour of Watopia I surpassed my previous lifetime fitness record of 98.18 CTL, set last year.

Two weeks later, on my 30th ToW stage, I finally surpassed a CTL of 100, and maxed out at a new record 103.97 a week later, on my Level 50 ride. While a fitness value over 100 doesn’t have any special meaning — other than forcing me to change the scale on all my fitness tracking charts! — it’s still a big, round number that I’d never attained before, and thus worth celebrating. For me, it’s perhaps even more meaningful than reaching Level 50.

There’s a ton of satisfaction in achieving these milestones, but there’s also happiness and relief that all the extra effort and focus of the past year — and especially this past month’s Tour of Watopia — is over!

And more importantly, it’s well past time for my outdoor riding season to begin. I’m sure I’ll be very thankful for the fitness I built up as a result of all this Zwift-inspired off-season training.

After spending so many hours on the indoor trainer getting to Level 50, it feels strange not to be working toward any Zwift achievements. Will I still have the same desire and motivation to ride Zwift when there’s nothing particular to ride for?

With the outdoor season upon us, I happily won’t need to worry about that until next winter. And I still expect Zwift to release another set of advanced levels any day now. My top-level status will have to be reasserted whenever Zwift decides to expand the parameters of the game. After all, it’s in their interest (as well as my own) that they continue to offer new carrots for experienced riders like me to chase.

And I expect they’ll provide me with an opportunity to do that very soon, because rumors have recently resurfaced about Zwift unveiling an Olympics-related Japan course. That could be absolutely stunning, and trigger another series of rides to reassert my longstanding “route hero” status.

But in the meantime, I’m finally taking my partially-vaccinated body and my hard-won fitness outside to enjoy some long, warm summer rides!

07 PMC Riding

Zentury 2021

My first Zentury of 2021 is done. First that, then an update on 2021 so far, and prognosis for the summer.

This was a duplicate of my first ever Zentury, in April 2019: doing a Zwift gran fondo event (100k), then extending that with four laps of (essentially) the Volcano Flat route, finishing at 170km. With this being the final ride in the five-episode Winter 2020-2021 fondo series, I figured it was time to go long.

Temporary friendships

I managed to hang with a couple ad hoc friends for the first 20 miles, but unceremoniously dropped one who didn’t bother switching to a mountain bike for the jungle loop. Then I lost my other friend around Mile 45, when I stopped for a 15-minute stretch and burrito break.

Because this fondo was run in multiple categories and at multiple times over two days, there were only 100 riders in my group, so I was alone on the road much of the time. No one else I knew was on the ride, and the Herd, PMC, Team Kermit, and Western PA Wheelmen Discord audio chats were all empty. That made for a really tedious ride.

Somehow I didn’t realize the obvious: that the first century of the year would be really hard, especially the last 20 miles. I had to stop for another 5-minute rest break, and limped home to the accompaniment of my music collection. It was a really long, hard, solo slog.

I finished 170km with 5,000 feet of climbing in 5h44m, exactly five minutes slower than my 2019 ride, although in 2019 I didn’t take any breaks off the bike. My weighted average power was 180W, which is 16W greater than 2019.

Overall I guess I’m happy with it, although I suffered a lot more than I expected. It’s also my 98th century-plus ride, putting me closer to that magical 100th 100+ ride. And the extra 3,450 XP also gives me a big head start on my way to Zwift Level 48 (more on those below).

Now let me segue to an overview of my 2021 training to date.

Exploring new roads

Exploring new roads

Mon Wharf

Ornoth at Mon Wharf

On the indoor side, it’s been a typical Zwifty winter, with a balance of new features, familiar events, and achievement chasing. In addition to the aforementioned five-ride fondo series, annual events included the 8-stage Tour de Zwift and 3-stage Haute Route. New features included the rollout of “robotic” pace partner rides, acquiring the newly-minted Herd club in-game kit, trying my first individual time trial ride, and the rollout of a couple small but strategic connector roads in Zwift’s imaginary Watopia world. The latter prompted a brief chase to try the four new routes that accompanied the new roads, to reassert my “Route Hero” status. But my focus has been working from Level 43 to 47, ever-closer to Level 50, the current maximum.

Outdoor riding has started slowly. On a couple consecutive days in the 60s, I got two rides totaling 70 miles in, but picked up a tiny staple that flatted my front tire overnight. My biggest problem has been that the pandemic has made parts ridiculously scarce, precisely at a time when I need to replace both my rear wheel and chainrings / crankset. For now I can limp along, but soon I’ll need to address the problem, which probably means swapping out both my wheels and entire drivetrain.

In terms of fitness, it’s been a steady, predictable progression from a CTL around 55 at year-end to 95 following yesterday's Zentury. It’s been a little better paced than last year, when my CTL peaked at 98 in January before tailing off!

Looking forward toward spring and summer, Zwift is running the Tour of Watopia throughout April. With double XP for every ride, you know I’m going to be hitting that hard, which will artificially reduce my outdoor riding. That’ll probably continue to elevate my CTL before I dial it back a bit and enjoy some time outdoors in May, while still putting time into my quest for Level 50 inside.

The prognosis for a summer of outdoor rides is mixed. On one hand, Covid vaccinations have been rolling out quickly, and I hope to get mine before too long. Once vaccinated, I’ll have less fear about stopping to refuel during long rides at convenience stores. Plus most major rides have scheduled dates, with surprisingly few exceptions.

On the other hand, most of those events have dialed back their scale, in terms of length, duration, number of participants, and/or amount of rider support. Some are taking a “Here’s a route map; you’re on your own” approach, some two-day rides are now one-days, and century-plus rides have downsized to piddling 100ks. So it really remains to be seen how many outdoor events — especially organized century rides — I’ll be able to accrue. Still, I’ll hopefully be able to do a few solo centuries, as well as simulated ones back on the trainer.

The remaining big questions are what I’ll do for my hundredth century, and whether I’ll do another “reimagined” Pan-Mass Challenge this year. I should spend some time thinking about those while I’m stuck on the trainer next month, chasing that elusive Level 50 jersey...

12 MLR

Watts Up, Doc?

One of the most popular ways of measuring a cyclist's performance on flat terrain is functional threshold power, and Zwift provides riders with three different FTP tests. My FTP is generally around 210-230 watts.

But for those of us who aren’t afraid of hills, the best measure of climbing performance is one's time to climb the Alpe du Zwift, the virtual equivalent of France’s famous Alpe d’Huez. There’s even a highly sought-after “Liftoff” achievement badge for doing the 7.6-mile 3,400-foot climb in under an hour.

While I haven’t been able to break that barrier, I have done 30 ascents, which is enough data for me to draw some inferences. Since my average power on those attempts has varied from 162 to 234 watts, my times have also ranged from from 88 minutes to just under 63 minutes.

Now things start getting really geeky. You have been warned.

You would expect that if I plunked those numbers down on a scatter chart, there’d be a clear relationship between average power and time. And that’s exactly what I found. Then I added a statistical trendline, which matched my data points shockingly well (an r-square of 0.98 for the statisticians in the audience).

Now here’s where it starts getting interesting. Using that line, for any given average power, we can predict — with near-perfect precision — how long the climb would take me. Specifically, my (slightly simplified) equation is:

minutes = (watts - 400) / -2.76

So putting out 200W, I would finish in 73:13. At 220W, I would finish about seven minutes faster, at 65:58. And in fact we see clusters of past results right around those points.

Whether you use the equation or eyeball the trendline, that calculation also works in reverse, starting with a finish time and seeing what power you’d need to hold. So in order to earn the Liftoff badge by doing the ascent within 60 minutes, I would need to maintain an average power of 236.5 watts for an hour.

This does ignore the second variable that determines one’s ascending speed: weight. Conveniently, my weight doesn’t fluctuate much at all, so I can safely ignore it. But someone else with a different weight would have a somewhat different equation.

That’s why climbers focus on power over weight rather than raw power. Their preferred metric is watts per kilogram, or W/kg. If I re-did this chart using W/kg, it should be an even closer fit.

Among riders chasing the Liftoff badge there’s a common shared belief that you have to maintain 3.1 W/kg in order to climb the Alpe in less than an hour. Now we can put that idea to the mathematical test.

My equation says I would need to put out 236.5W. In order for that to equate to 3.1 W/kg, I would have to weigh 76.3kg. Lo and behold, that’s smack in the middle of my normal weight range, and within two pounds of my current weight. So that validates both my trendline equation as well as the common rumor.

To repeat: to climb the Alpe in an hour at my current weight, I’d have to produce 236W. However, my maximum sustainable power has stayed firmly in the 210-230W range. Alternately, rather than increasing my power output I could lose weight and still hit 3.1 W/kg. At 230W, I would have to get down to 164 pounds, which is pretty extreme for me.

After 30 attempts — and approaching 60 years of age — I won’t be disappointed if I never earn that Liftoff badge. But I enjoy analyzing my performances over time and finding the patterns of consistency that underlie them.

12 MLR

2020: Outdoors is Lava!

What a year it was... or wasn’t, actually. What can I say about the 2020 cycling experience?

Having begun the year with lots of indoor training, in January I achieved a new all-time record level of fitness.

But it was all downhill from there. Before the spring outdoor season began, the outbreak of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of all group rides and every major event on the calendar. On top of that, I kept my solo rides short to avoid risky convenience store replenishment stops. In terms of outdoor riding, 2020 was a complete and utter write-off, as I logged a 20-year low 1,140 outdoor miles.

Modeling the 2020 Pan-Mass Challenge jersey on the Grandview Overlook above downtown Pittsburgh

Modeling the 2020 Pan-Mass Challenge jersey on the Grandview Overlook above downtown Pittsburgh

Autumn on the Mon Wharf with R2-Di2

Autumn on the Mon Wharf with R2-Di2

Honoring Paris-Roubaix with 22 secteurs of Pittsburgh pavé, including Climax Street

Honoring Paris-Roubaix with 22 secteurs of Pittsburgh pavé, including Climax Street

Flew my BikeMS kit on my virtual Escape to the Lake

Flew my BikeMS kit on my virtual Escape to the Lake

At the front of the line for the first-ever PMC weekend virtual ride on Zwift

At the front of the line for the first-ever PMC weekend virtual ride on Zwift

In contrast, my investment (back in 2018) in a new smart trainer and the Zwift indoor training platform proved prescient and timely. Over 80 percent of my 2020 cycling happened indoors, as I rode simulated versions of all my usual summer events. I even completed my 15th Pan-Mass Challenge (virtually) when this year’s real-world ride was called off. Needless to say, my 4,903 miles on the trainer was a new record.

Combining indoor and outdoor riding gave me an annual total of 6,043 miles in the saddle, only 513 miles less than I rode in 2019. I consider that quite respectable, given the extraordinary circumstances.

Let’s hope 2021 sees the pandemic situation improve.

My Original 2020 Goals

After a superlative 2019, I didn’t have a ton of specific goals coming into the 2020 season, which was a good thing, because I never would have lived up to them! But I did have some general expectations. Let’s see how each of those turned out...

“I don’t really expect to surpass my 2019 season”

The Covid-19 lockdown put an early end to any pretense that 2020 would be a good — or even normal — year. I didn’t do any major events or even a single group ride all year, and only one outdoor ride that was over 40 miles.

The only way I surpassed 2019 was in time spent on the indoor trainer, completing eleven Zenturies (indoor rides over 100 miles). But that’s not how I’d envision a successful year.

“I’ll certainly continue Zwifting”

I’m not going to enumerate all this year’s Zwift achievements, but there are a handful worth calling out. I completed every one of Zwift’s many routes in January, along the way earning the “Masochist” badge for completing my 25th Alpe du Zwift ascent. But to retain that “route hero” status, I had to subsequently complete two more sets of routes when Zwift released expansions for Paris/France and Watopia. I also took three series of FTP tests, registering 215/215/196W in the 20-minute tests; unlocked the new in-game version of the Herd team jersey; and I ended the year at experience level 44 (out of 50).

I also wrote a useful program for myself to automatically open a full-screen display of any “photos” I took while in-game. That way I didn’t have to wait until the end of the ride to see how they came out, nor did I have to fiddle with the laptop to open them myself.

The Herd’s Epic Tour in Toronto

Another big disappointment was the cancellation of a planned September trip to Canada to do a (nominally) epic ride and meet up with online friends from the Zwifting club The Herd. I never even received the (personalized!) ride jersey I ordered.

Charts

As always, my two fitness charts really put the year’s efforts into perspective.

Cycling Fitness: 2011-2020

This chart shows my fitness trend over the past ten years, with peaks in the summer and troughs in the winter. Looking at 2020 in this context, the major themes I’d like to call out are:

  • My fitness peaked incredibly early in the year (January 26th).
  • I set a new all-time record fitness level (98.18).
  • After coming off that peak, I spent most of the summer at a moderate fitness level (around 65) before taking it easy at the end of the year.

If we set aside comparisons to 2019, I had a surprisingly good year from a fitness standpoint; despite the pandemic, it doesn’t look grossly different from any normal year. And looking forward, I’m in a decent position to make the most of whatever 2021 offers.

Cycling Fitness: 2020 Calendar Year (vs. average)

This second chart shows my 2020 fitness in detail, including my eleven Zentury rides (the green circles).

Note my record fitness peak in January, and how much fitter I was than my long-term average (the grey line) all spring long. Despite that, I did gradually lose fitness through the spring, with it slowly falling to match my long-term average at the start of summer in late June.

Similar to most normal years, my summer featured a familiar shark-tooth pattern that comes from periods of alternating rest and recovery with big hundred-mile rides… It’s just that they all took place indoors this year, rather than outside.

A late September interruption caused my fitness to start falling off, when both my heart rate monitor and the laptop computer I ran Zwift on failed and needed to be replaced. At that point, I reconsidered my goals, and decided to abort my last two century ride simulations and start my off-season a little early. Taking some time to relax, my fitness gradually fell to an annual low of 43.53 on December 7th before I started ramping back up again. Looking forward hopefully toward 2021, I finished the year well ahead of my typical level of fitness.

Waving to imaginary crowds as I arrived at a virtual Provincetown to complete my two-day PMC Zwift ride

Waving to imaginary crowds as I arrived at a virtual Provincetown to complete my two-day PMC Zwift ride

Taking my laps on the Champs-Elysees in Zwift's new Paris/France expansion

Taking my laps on the Champs-Elysees in Zwift's new Paris/France expansion

Enjoying the French countryside, with Mont Saint-Michel as backdrop

Enjoying the French countryside, with Mont Saint-Michel as backdrop

Giving the crowd a sprint to cheer for in Zwift's Crit City expansion

Giving the crowd a sprint to cheer for in Zwift's Crit City expansion

Exploring Zwift's pretty new sylvan cliffside road

Exploring Zwift's pretty new sylvan cliffside road

In group rides, I swear sometimes it feels like I'm the only one who knows how to ride properly...

In group rides, I swear sometimes it feels like I'm the only one who knows how to ride properly...

A rare outdoor ride: autumn at McCahill Park in Fox Chapel

A rare outdoor ride: autumn at McCahill Park in Fox Chapel

Sprinting for the line on Zwift's new Crit City course

Sprinting for the line on Zwift's new Crit City course

When in Italy...

When in Italy...

Looking back on downtown Pittsburgh from Herrs Island

Looking back on downtown Pittsburgh from Herrs Island

My 2020 Cycling Calendar

My 2020 Cycling Calendar

The Zenturies

For the first time since 2001, I didn’t do a single century ride.

But I did complete eleven indoor Zwift centuries, or “Zenturies”, simulating both the distance and amount of climbing found in my usual real-world rides.

How did I simulate them? I created a web page called The Zenturizer where I could input my preferred distance and climbing, and the site would determine the courses on Zwift that most closely matched my desired profile. It was a very handy time-saving tool, which anyone can use!

I had targeted thirteen Zenturies for 2020, but after completing eleven, I took a three-week break to replace both my heart rate monitor and my laptop. At that point I decided to end my season early and save those two extra centuries for springtime. More about that when I get to my 2021 goals!

Here’s the list of the eleven that I did complete:

  • Uber Pretzel Zentury (Feb 13) The penultimate course to ride in my quest to acquire the badges for completing every Zwift route.
  • PRL Full Zentury (Feb 20) Rode a very repetitive course all alone, but completed Zwift’s route badge challenge… for the time being!
  • Tour of Watopia Stage 1 Zentury (Mar 30) Did Zwift’s ToW Stage 1 three separate times in one day to accrue 100 total miles.
  • Pseudo Greenville 200k (Apr 19) My first time cobbling together a route on Zwift that simulated an actual outdoor ride, and at 125 miles my longest single ride of the year.
  • Pseudo Tour d’Essex County Zentury (May 25) Since May is devoid of big events in Pittsburgh, I simulated this Memorial Day ride I used to do back in Boston!
  • Pseudo Escape to the Lake Zentury (Jun 6 & 7) Simulated my annual MS Ride: usually the only two-day ride on my calendar.
  • Pseudo 3-State Zentury (Jun 28) Although this event was postponed and eventually run informally later in the year, I simulated it on its original planned date.
  • Pseudo ABC Zentury (Jul 12) Also informally run as an unsupported ride, I just did this Akron event virtually.
  • Pseudo Pan-Mass Challenge (Aug 1 & 2) Surprise! My 15th Pan-Mass Challenge ride to fight cancer! Participating in my signature event once more as a virtual rider was a treat!
  • Pseudo Mon Valley Century (Aug 18) This “annual” ride has only gone off two of the past five years. At least my Zwift simulation avoided the MVC’s curse!
  • Pseudo City Century (Sep 2) The local advocacy group pretended to sort-of run this unsupported, so that they could still collect money. Fed up with an organization that’s completely lost the plot, I was happy to do my own (free) substitute ride on Zwift.

Additional Highlights

After five years away from the event, reconnecting with the Pan-Mass Challenge was my biggest unexpected pleasure of the year. I was the first person to join the PMC club on Strava; I participated in prototype PMC meetups on Zwift that led to an official weekly series of PMC virtual group rides; I registered as a virtual PMC rider for the first time; and I simulated the entire two-day, 192-mile route indoors on PMC weekend. Along the way, I made a bunch of new friends, did a lot of reminiscing, earned my 15th PMC rider’s jersey, and added $3,000 to my lifetime fundraising for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which now stands at $114,222. Here’s my full PMC ride report.

Although the year featured many other memorable Zwift rides, one of the unique ones was participating in a 2,000-person ride led by Watanabe Wataru, the mangaka who created Yowamushi Pedal, an extremely popular cycling manga and anime series.

I should also add that in October I marked the 20th anniversary of purchasing the Cycles Devinci hybrid that started me on the path to becoming a PMC rider and serious cyclist. It’s been a good — but extremely long — road!

Noteworthy Purchases

This wasn’t a great year for pimping my ride, but a few items do stand out as worth mentioning:

  • When my old laptop died, I replaced it with a new Macbook Pro, which improved my Zwifting experience by upping both my graphics quality and frame rate.
  • I bought a hydration pack, in hopes that it would enable me to do long rides without having to replenish fluids at convenience stores, but it just didn't keep drinks cold enough to be palatable.
  • I bought a new Wahoo heart rate monitor that produced unacceptably inaccurate data, so I got a warranty replacement unit. However, the second unit was also garbage, so I demanded a refund and bought myself a new Garmin HRM instead. But amusingly, a late-year firmware update seems to have fixed the Wahoo HRM’s problem, so I’ve held onto the one unit that they told me to keep rather than return!
  • I bought a collapsable selfie stick and fashioned a nice rubberized frame mount for it, making it much easier to get interesting photos during rides for my Strava and social media posts.
  • And I added the Wind & Rain app to my Garmin bike computer. The real-time weather data it provides would be really useful if I ever actually did any long outdoor rides...

List of Blogposts

It wasn’t the best year for blogging — how much can you write of interest about indoor rides? — but I still managed to get 16 stories written. Here‘s the full list:

Goals for 2021

Even after writing off the entire 2020 season, Covid-19 shows no signs of abating anytime soon, so I still have no idea what 2021 will look like. But everyone’s top goal for next year is obvious:

Normality

How about a return to normality? Being able to ride farther outdoors than I can manage on a single water bottle? Participating in group rides with other cyclists? Or even do some centuries and my typical big events? Right now, that sounds pretty aspirational and more than adequate.

My 100th Century+ Ride

As far as I can tell from my sketchy records from 2000-2005, I’m currently sitting on a lifetime total of 97 rides of 100 miles or greater. I’ll probably get in shape with a couple indoor Zenturies in the spring, then find some way to do a special 100th century outdoors. It’s probably the biggest thing I’m anticipating and a milestone well worth celebrating. Planning out a route will be a good wintertime activity...

Zwift Level 50

In about 3,575 trainer miles — which is currently estimated to happen around August 13 — I will hit Zwift’s highest XP level. There’s a nontrivial possibility that they’ll soon add more levels beyond 50, but that won’t dilute my satisfaction at reaching what’s currently the top of the chart.

Another Virtual PMC?

At this time, I have no idea whether 2021 will see me doing another virtual Pan-Mass Challenge or not, especially since my fundraising mojo has atrophied. But that’s another decision I’ll make as the season begins to take shape.

Toronto Epic Tour Redux?

It’s the same story for this ride. Since they deferred my paid 2020 registration until 2021, I’d certainly like to take advantage of the opportunity to ride, but whether it’ll happen or not remains unknowable.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about this pandemic-canceled 2020 season. As of the start of the new year, things are still looking quite iffy. But as the calendar turns over to 2021, I’m hopeful that some signs of normality will begin to appear in the coming months.

Hopefully I’ll see you out there!

07 PMC Riding

Nice Curves

Curvy, swooping roads: we all love ‘em. Whether you pilot a bicycle, motorcycle, or car, there’s nothing like the feeling of leaning into a tight corner.

A developer named Adam Franco likes them so much, he created an online map that highlights the world’s most curvy roads. Here’s what Pittsburgh looks like:

Thanks to our busy topography, we’ve got a good smattering of curvy roads, and locals will immediately recognize several of them in the above image. What’s interesting to me is that most of the roads I cycle on are highlighted. More on that in a second.

While one could take issue with the map’s methodology, I still found it fun to explore. And there's lots more to be found at Franco’s Curvature website, whether you’re interested in Pittsburgh, Boston, Maine, or anywhere else.

The indented bit that follows won’t be of interest to anyone outside this area, but I’m going to call out a whole list of Pittsburgh roads that are highlighted, going region by region.

In the central city, the eye is immediately drawn to the orange kink of Beechwood Blvd, one of the curviest roads on the map. That area also features Circuit and Overlook in Schenley, and Johnston Ave in Glen Hazel. Farther north, there’s Stanton Ave and the two loop roads around the Highland Park reservoir.

Farther east Brinton, Saltsburg Rd (380), and Lincoln Rd get called out.

The South Side is represented mainly by 18th St and Arlington, as well as Brownsville, Noblestown, and Chartiers.

The North Shore includes Brighton, Perrysville, Spring Garden, Mount Troy, Hoffman, Pittview, and the loop road inside Riverview Park.

Continuing up the west bank of the Allegheny you hit Middle, Saxonburg, and Dorseyville in Etna; Squaw Run, Fox Chapel, Field Club, then Gibsonia Road (910). Up toward Tarentum they include Days Run, Bakerstown, and Sun Mine.

Farther west in the Sewickley Hills there’s Little Sewickley Creek, Audubon, and Roosevelt, among others.

According to the map, the longest and curviest roads in the region are the artificial agglomerations of multiple roads that comprise Pittsburgh’s Green, Blue, Orange, Red Belts.

And one final note pertaining to roads...

In addition to tracking fastest efforts on a segment (KoMs) Strava recently introduced the concept of Local Legends, an award that goes to whomever has performed the most efforts on a particular segment over the past year.

So I’ve earned my first Local Legend award for a mere four reps on a segment going from Squirrel Hill to the Bud Harris cycling oval.

That’ll go just fine next to my only remaining Strava KoM, on an obscure, rarely-used 500-meter segment in the city.