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11 PMC Riding

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May 15th, 2019

Der AlpenTimer

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12 MLR

Maybe you’re after the “Lift Off” badge for climbing the Alpe du Zwift in under an hour, or maybe you just want to beat your previous best time.

The problem with trying to beat a specific time up the Alpe is that Zwift doesn’t display an estimated finish time, so you can’t pace your effort. Are you falling behind pace and need to increase your effort to get back on schedule? Or are you ahead of pace and able to ease off and conserve your strength? There’s no way to know!

Until now.

Let me introduce you to the AlpenTimer: a simple one-button app that tells you how much of the climb you’ve completed, and estimates your finish time as you round each of the Alpe’s 21 switchback turns. It should format well on most desktop, tablet, and cellphone browsers.

AlpenTimer main screen

As stated on the app, all you need to do is hit the big red button.

First, start the timer by hitting the button as you pass the KOM start marker. THIS IS ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL because ALL calculations are based on your start time, so DON’T GET THIS WRONG!

For a reminder, the KOM start marker looks like this:

Alpe du Zwift KOM start

After that, press the button each time you pass the triangular marker that marks one of the Alpe’s 21 switchback turns. This is how the app knows how far you’ve gone, from which it calculates and updates your estimated finish time.

Alpe du Zwift corner marker

If you’re after the “Lift Off” badge, all you have to do is keep an eye on whether that estimate stays below an hour. Or if you’re chasing a new PB, use whatever time you’re targeting instead. Now you’ll know whether you’re on pace or not, and can adjust your effort accordingly.

If you forget to click on a turn or two, it’s okay. Just click until the button caption reflects the next turn coming up. Your estimated finish time will be accurate again after the next turn where the turn number, the button caption, and your click are all back in sync.

Finally, if you click the button as you pass beneath the KOM finishing arch, the app will display your finishing time.

AlpenTimer finishing screen

It will also show a list of the times you passed each of the switchbacks, in case you want to cut and paste them into a spreadsheet, like this:

Example spreadsheet

That’s all there is to it! Give it a try, let me know if you have any feedback, and good luck nabbing your goal time!

May 6th, 2019

It’s been years since I had a Bad Day on the bike, and I can’t remember the last time I had to DNF a ride. I’ve kept my bikes in good working order, and thus haven’t met many major mechanical malfunctions.

And then there was Saturday. I’ll try to keep it brief, but convey the lowlights and the frustration I felt.

2019 WPW Spring Rally

Before the misfortunes...

Drove out to North Park for the 8:30am start of the Western Pennsylvania Wheelmen’s spring rally. Cool, clammy, overcast conditions. Set out in a group of a couple dozen riders.

Misfortune #1: Halfway through the 30-mile ride, I announced a front flat. Although a couple riders asked if I needed anything, I waved the entire group on, saying I’d catch up. No problem.

I figured it had been a slow leak, so my initial plan was to pump the tire up and see if it would hold long enough to get back to the start.

Misfortune #2: Pulling out my reliable frame pump, I discovered that the nut that held the entire pump head valve assembly together was missing, rendering it nearly useless. I had to hold the three loose parts of the pump head together by hand while holding the entire jerry-rigged pump head against the inner tube valve, while also trying to operate the pump with my other hand. I got a little air into the tire and set off to see if it would hopefully hold.

Misfortune #3: It didn’t. By the time I’d gone the length of two suburban yards, it was flat again, so I would have to stop and change the tube.

Misfortune #4: Trying to dismount the recalcitrant tire from the rim, the tire lever I was using slipped out and I slammed my fingers into the spokes, doing pretty good damage to my right thumbnail. It hurt like hell and started bleeding quite obviously. Too bad I didn’t have any bandages on hand…

Between my stinging thumb and the broken pump, I was starting to wonder whether I would have to give up and call Inna to pick me up: not a great option when she was 45 minutes away, still in bed, and had an outing planned…

Then came my one and only blessing: two slower riders who had trailed the group came by and offered help. My first question was whether either of them had a pump I could use. The woman said she did, but…

Misfortune #5: Then she looked down at her bike and realized she’d left it at home. It’s not really very useful there!

Next, the guy offered two carbon dioxide canisters, tho admitting he didn’t know how to use them. I replaced my bad tube with the spare I carried, and between careful pumping and a little CO2, I was able to get back on the road again.

Misfortune #6: Two miles later, my replacement tube was flat. We spent a few fruitless minutes trying to diagnose what might be causing the issue before simply swapping my spare tube out in favor of a spare tube the woman was carrying. While mounting the tire, I imagined I’d pinched the tube and cut it, but after finishing the first canister of CO2 and starting on the second, it seemed to be holding. So off we went.

Misfortunate #7: I got a whopping six miles further down the road, but just when we thought we were home free, I flatted again. We used the last of the CO2 and I hobbled another half-mile before giving up.

With less than four miles back to the start, my generous and very patient saviors took off, returning half an hour later by car to give me a lift. Returning to the shelter where the club was hosting their spring gathering, I shared my story and took in a glazed donut, a couple chocolate chip cookies, and a cola. All I wanted to do was go home, shower, and take a nap.

The cause was pretty befuddling, because I rode 125 miles with some of the same people just three weeks ago with no problems whatsoever, and hadn’t changed anything about my setup since then.

During my second stop, I inspected the inner casing of the tire by hand, but I didn’t feel any foreign objects. At the same time, one of the other riders tried to find where air was escaping the tube, which would have told us exactly where to look in the tire. But her efforts were fruitless because my malfunctioning pump couldn’t provide enough air pressure to find the hole.

After I got home, I used that exact method (and my floor pump) to identify the culprit: a tiny shard of glass embedded in—but barely penetrating—the tire casing.

Despite the litany of misfortunes, it’s not the end of the world. As one of my partner’s social groups says, I didn’t die or get pregnant, so it’s fine. And thank goodness this didn’t happen in the middle of that 200k!

I only needed a little time (and a working pump) to inspect my tubes, tire, and rim to diagnose and then fix the problem. I’ve got a spare frame pump, tho I hope to replace the missing parts or buy a whole new one. The only nontrivial issue is my thumb; it’s healing, albeit slowly, and it doesn’t look like I’ll lose the nail.

It’s been a long time since I’ve found myself stranded and helpless at the side of the road. It’s a good reminder, but let’s not let that happen again, shall we? And hopefully I’ve used up all my bad luck for this decade.

April 28th, 2019

A Phenotypical Male

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12 MLR

Until five months ago, I didn’t have a power meter, so training with power just wasn’t possible. Even today, I don’t have a power meter on the bike—just on the indoor trainer—but that’s enough to start drawing inferences from the power data I’ve generated over the winter.

One analytical tool for interpreting a cyclist’s power data is their Power Curve. Thankfully, it’s conceptually simple and easy to explain: it looks at your power data and plots your maximum power output (in watts) over every duration, from one second to an hour or more.

All riders can sustain maximum power for very short intervals (think finish-line sprints), but lower power at durations of one to five minutes, and less still for sustained efforts of 30 to 60 minutes or more.

That means the Power Curve looks similar for all riders: starting high, sloping sharply downward, then tailing off gradually. Plot a novice rider and a professional cyclist on the same chart, and there wouldn’t be much difference in the shape their lines, other than the pro’s being shifted higher due to their higher power output.

For insight into how it might be useful, let’s look at my current Power Curve (click for full-size):

Ornoth's Power Curve

There are essentially two ways of looking at this information: how much power can I expect to produce for a specific duration; or conversely, how long can I expect to hold a specific power level?

In my case, for a 10-second sprint I can produce 800W, but for a 60-second sprint I can only sustain half that. For a 10-minute max effort I could expect 260W, about 235W for an hour, dropping down to 165W for anything longer than two hours.

Those estimates all hold whether I’m trying to figure out how much power I could hold for a specific time, or how long I might be able to sustain a specific power output.

That’s great information for planning a workout or figuring out how to pace yourself on a max-effort ride; however, it doesn’t tell you anything about my individual strengths and weaknesses or how I compare to other cyclists. To do that, we need to introduce comparative data, which is provided by additional research.

Through empirical testing, a team of researchers—including the well-regarded physiologist Andrew Coggan—calculated expected athletic performance ranges for power output at durations of 5 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes, and an hour. Comparing an athlete’s Power Curve against those calculated norms yields an understanding of an individual rider’s strengths and weaknesses.

The research team took riders with similar strengths and weaknesses and aggregated them into commonly-recognizable categories which in true scientific fashion they gave the officious label “phenotypes”. An athlete who excelled at short efforts was a sprinter; whereas someone producing above average power over an hour would be a good time trialist, climber, or steady-state endurance rider; and someone with equal performance across the entire time spectrum would be an all-rounder.

So what can I learn about myself from my own chart?

Ornoth's Phenotype

The obvious first conclusion is that I’m no professional athlete! My 5-second sprint is pretty pedestrian, and my 1-minute power doesn’t even register on the chart! However, my 5-minute power is in the upper half of the “Fair” range, and over 60 minutes I’m a fraction below “Moderate”. In comparison with professional athletes, that’s pretty impressive for a 55 year-old!

The chart shows that although I might lose a two-up sprint with a corpse, I will have unequivocally stronger results the longer an event goes. That marks me as a time trialist, climber, and/or endurance rider: something that shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows anything about my riding style and history. But it’s nice to have that confirmed by quantitative data.

For any athlete who is given this data, the next question is what to do with it; and the answer is a resounding “Do whatever you want.” Do you want to work on strengthening those areas where you are weakest, to improve your overall performance? Or do you want to maximize your strengths to derive the most benefit from them? That’s entirely up to you.

Since my cycling goals are mostly limited to centuries and 200ks, I’m perfectly happy continuing to work my endurance, and living in Western Pennsylvania is guaranteed to build up my power over short, steep climbs.

Armed with this new understanding of the wattages I can sustain over specific durations, I could put a power meter on my bike to get live power readings, which would allow me to perfectly gauge and pace my efforts in real-time. That expense will probably have to wait until the next bike, tho.

April 16th, 2019

125 Miles of Pudding

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11 PMC Riding

Six days after I finished my winter training with my first indoor century, I brought the bike outside for my first substantial ride of the year: the Pittsburgh Randonneurs’ 125-mile Sandy Lake 200k brevet.

I had more than the usual nerves leading up to the ride. After all, it would be the longest ride I’ve done in two years, and I was going into it with essentially zero prep. In the past four months, I’ve only done a couple short rides outside, none of which I’d count as “training”.

Honest, I'm stretching!!! #notamidget

Honest, I'm stretching!!! #notamidget

For the first time ever, all my winter riding was done indoors, on the trainer, using Zwift. I’d done a lot of that, but would that be sufficient to power me through a 10-hour, 125-mile ride? I was about to find out!

And what better way to put Zwift to the test? The rolling route from North Park to Sandy Lake and back has over 8,000 feet of climbing, making it the second hilliest ride I’ve done since 2009.

It didn’t begin auspiciously. Eight of us set out promptly at 7am in unexpectedly chilly 45-degree weather, and I somehow scraped my calf on my pedal pretty nastily as I first clipped in.

As the miles and hours passed, the sky cleared and the sun slowly warmed the air, and riders started shedding layers of clothing. Although it’s too early in the season for the leaves to be out, it was heartening passing outbursts of forsythia, cherry, dogwood, and magnolia. My legs felt good, but I rationed my strength, knowing I hadn’t done much (i.e. any) training for endurance. After a while, both my knees and my traps complained insistently (the latter are my biggest weakness on long-distance rides).

An undetected tailwind that had helped us ride north became a much more noticeable headwind on the return leg. My strength faded and I remained with slower riders at a casual pace, rather than burn my few remaining matches.

We eventually plodded back to our starting point at 5:10pm. That’s 40 minutes faster than the roughly comparable McConnell’s Mills 200k brevet I did back in 2016. As measured by Strava’s “Relative Effort” metric, it was the fifth hardest ride I’ve done since 2009.

Although this was my second 100-mile ride of 2019, it was my first IRL / outdoor century of the year, after last weekend’s indoor century on the trainer. And discounting that “Zentury”, this was the earliest in the year that I’ve done a 100 mile ride, beating my 2016 brevet by four days. As far as I can figure, it was also my 75th confirmed overall century; there might be others, but records from my early years are incomplete.

It was a satisfying day; I got some sun, hung out with friends, and knocked out my biggest athletic goal for the spring. I’m very pleased at how well it went.

But before I finish, I have to revisit my preparation. I went into this event with the goal of putting my wintertime indoor Zwift training to the test. Was it effective? Was it valuable? Let’s look at that in more detail…

Tan lines starter pack

Tan lines starter pack

On the plus side, Zwift is fun; it makes indoor workouts more than tolerable, even attractive. It ensured I started the event with excellent cardiac and aerobic conditioning, with leg strength that was up to long miles and hard climbs, and with touch points (hands and seat) that could tolerate time in the saddle. In terms of building early-season fitness, Zwift was an unqualified, smashing success.

There’s another side of the equation, however. Although I’d done some long efforts on the trainer, other than my grueling indoor “Zentury”, none were more than half the duration of my 200k. While I gained strength and aerobic conditioning, I wasn’t building up the endurance needed for 10-hour rides.

At the same time, all the high-resistance work I put in compromised my joint health, specifically my knees, where I’ve been experiencing pain both on the trainer and during outdoor rides. I’ll keep a close eye on that, so I can ride as long as possible without needing joint replacement surgery and the associated time off the bike.

A much lighter consideration (pun intended) is that indoor training didn’t allow my skin to adjust to the seasonal increase in sun—and specifically UV—exposure. Yeah, I came home with a bit of sunburn, on a five-inch spot just above each knee. For proper springtime training, my Zwifting setup might need a couple sun-lamps!

More seriously, the net-net on Zwift is that it has been a complete success, and I’m pleased that the investment produced the desired and worthwhile improvement.

My previous post, following my Zentury, summarized my winter training and said that I had achieved my two expressed goals for 2019: using Zwift to both get over my 2018 malaise, and to begin spring at a high level of fitness. Sunday’s Sandy Lake 200k brevet was the final proof (the proverbial pudding), and I couldn’t be pleaseder (sic) with the result.

I also couldn’t be pleaseder that I’m now on break, with no major events until the middle of June. I’ll be riding—and might get another century in—but a good training plan includes periodization, wherein peak training is followed by recovery and consolidation before kicking it up another level. Fortunately, I’ve got a few weeks to kick back before the solid block of summertime events line up like dominoes.

But so far—and for the first time in a year and a half—things are looking really good!

April 8th, 2019

… come and join the Zwifting party!

So four months after buying a new indoor trainer, how did my winter training go?

It went well, according to my stats in Zwift. I rose from Level 0 to Level 20, completing the California and Everest Challenges, earning 32 out of 40 achievement badges. I finished the 9-stage Tour de Zwift, and 5 monthly fondo rides. I climbed the Alpe du Zwift (their facsimile of the real-world Alpe d’Huez) 5 times, and even earned an orange jersey for setting a fastest lap time on their Innsbruck course. I took 2 Step Tests and 2 20-minute FTP tests; in the former set, my Functional Threshold Power rose from 212 to 221; as measured by the latter it went from 198 to 210. And I finished with my first ever indoor/virtual century (more below).

Taking the start/finish banner

April Fools brought flaming roostertails!

Climbing the Alpe…

My first “Zentury”

Our Hero riding off into the sunset

I also made use of Zwift’s social element, joining a supportive team called “The Herd”. They have members all over the world, and I hope to join a gathering of them in September at the Leelanau Harvest Tour century in Traverse City MI. It’s cool having an open group audio channel with other riders who might not be in the same area (either on the virtual course or in the real world). I’ve befriended folks and have projected my usual offbeat presence. I created coroplast examples of Zwift’s thumbs-up “Ride On” symbol and posted a photo of me riding with them, which earned 115 Likes.

Let’s compare this winter (December, January, February, and March) to the previous two years. In the winter of 2016-2017 I rode 282 miles. In 2017-2018 I rode 535. Although Zwift miles aren’t quite the same as real-world distance, this past winter I logged over 1,900 miles (only 24 were outdoors)! That’s equivalent to my usual summertime riding volume. According to the Fitness (Chronic Training Load) charts I keep posting, I retained more Fitness this winter than ever, and by mid-January, I was back at a Fitness level I wouldn’t normally reach until the beginning of June!

This past Sunday was the final step of my winter training regimen: completing a “Zentury”. It was my first time ever doing a hundred miles on an indoor trainer. Obviously, it was my first century of 2019, and also the earliest in the year I’ve ever done a century (by 10 days).

In some ways, indoor miles are easier. There’s no traffic lights, no need to ever stop, and no wind to battle. For those reasons, indoor rides are generally faster; I completed 100 miles in 5h20m, when an outdoor one would usually exceed 7h. However, many people feel trainer miles are harder. After all, you can never rest or coast, which grows hard on the legs. In terms of TSS (Training Stress Score), my Zwift century ranked as my 14th most difficult ride, which puts it respectably among my harder centuries.

Thanks to Zwift, this winter has been an unqualified success. Back in December, when I set my annual goals for 2019, I came up with two: getting over the post-Dirty Dozen malaise that plagued me throughout 2018, and using Zwift to begin the 2019 season at a high level of fitness. As far as I’m concerned, we can check those two goals off already!

But all the positive numbers in the world don’t mean anything until I put them to the test outside, in the real world. Yesterday’s indoor century was part of an overall plan to be ready for 2019’s first outdoor event.

Next weekend is the longest ride of the year: the Pittsburgh Randonneurs’ annual spring 200k. Climbing 7,500 feet over 124 miles, it’s a massive challenge, and the perfect way to test whether all this Zwifting has improved my early-season form. I’m relying on it, because over the past 5 months, the only outdoor riding I’ve done was a casual 21 miles on New Years and one 31-mile ride last week.

I think Zwift has set me up for early-season success, but stay tuned for the pudding…

March 26th, 2019

Here Comes Your Slutspurt

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12 MLR

Thanks to the international cycling community on Zwift, today I learned that the word—in both Danish and Swedish—for the final sprint to the line in a cycling race is…

slutspurt.

Your author has concluded that any further elaboration would be entirely unnecessary.

February 7th, 2019

Performance Buh-Bye

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07 PMC Riding

The local bike shop. At its best, it can be a place where dreams come true, and the home base of a close-knit community of like-minded friends. Despite eking a meagre livelihood in an endangered corner of the shrinking retail landscape, I’ve rarely known a bike shop to close.

Performance Bicycle

That leaves me a little emotional after the recent closure of Performance Bicycle, a 38 year-old national mail-order chain, with 104 brick-and-mortar retail storefronts.

My history with PerfBike goes back to 2002, when I had just resumed riding as an adult. Back then, they were just another faceless mail-order company whose business was quickly supplanted by Amazon, so I didn’t think about them again until I moved to Pittsburgh in 2015.

In Pittsburgh, Performance had an actual retail storefront in a local strip mall. In fact, it was one of the largest bike shops in the city. Although they were only two miles from my house, they weren’t my go-to shop, since I am fortunate to have two good shops here in the neighborhood, but I made good use of their breadth of inventory.

But what really tied me to PerfBike was their group rides. Every Saturday morning, store staff (Alex, Cheryl, and Scott) led an easy, low-impact jaunt around the city for maybe a dozen riders. That was nice because it gave me a social outlet and way to integrate with the cycling community in my new town. And I could choose my pace based on however I felt on the day, often as a perfect recovery ride. Over three years, I did a couple dozen rides with them. And it was a nice opportunity for me to practice mentoring less experienced riders.

Performance Bicycle

So it was a bit shocking when Performance announced they were filing for bankruptcy and closing all their retail stores. That day I went down to the shop and chatted with Alex, and visited a couple more times in the two months it took to sell what they could and wind down operations.

It felt a bit morbid, like picking over carrion, but I scored a few choice bits of inventory for myself. Two rear cassettes, two chains, 4 inner tubes, a water bottle, new tire levers, bar tape, chain lube.

But the highlight was finally picking up a torque wrench set, which has become a very important tool now that nearly everything is made from carbon fiber. It is about as key as the other favorite purchase I made last year: Performance-branded neoprene shoe covers, which are absolutely awesome for winter riding, so long as you’re not allergic.

And now the storefront is empty and boarded up. The staff have all moved on to the things they lined up, and the group ride’s social media pages have been taken down. I’ll miss those nice, social Saturday morning group rides and the people who tagged along. And I’ll probably never take a local bike shop’s presence for granted again.

January 30th, 2019

Catch the Wave

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12 MLR

It’s been a while since I looked at what a typical year looks like. In the distant past I’ve shared a bar chart that showed my average mileage for each month of the year, and more recently I showed how my weight fluctuated throughout the year.

But those are indirect measures. Now, with eight years of heart rate data available, I can average my chronic training load (CTL, aka “Fitness”) for each day of the calendar year. That’s the chart that follows.

Since this is averaged data, there are absolutely zero surprises here. I train up during the spring, peak in the summer, gradually tail off through the fall, and bottom out in the winter.

Looking more carefully, the year can actually be broken down into six discrete two-month periods:

  • Pre-season: mid-Feb to mid-Apr
  • Training season: mid-Apr to mid-Jun
  • Peaking: mid-Jun to mid-Aug
  • Sustaining: mid-Aug to mid-Oct
  • Detraining: mid-Oct to mid-Dec
  • Off-season: mid-Dec to mid-Feb

There are a few mini-peaks whose dates are worth noting:

  • Feb 13: Lowest Fitness of the year.
  • Feb 20: Apparently spring training begins very suddenly!
  • Jul 9: Peak Fitness, usually after the ABC Ride or a solo century over the holiday.
  • Aug 6: After tapering, a secondary peak around the Pan-Mass Challenge or Every Neighborhood Ride.
  • Oct 1: Autumnal last hurrah; after this, it’s all downhill...

It’s important to note that this chart doesn’t include data since December 1, when I started using Zwift and my new indoor trainer. With my end-of-January CTL now near 60—45 points higher than average—that would dramatically raise my off-season average, so we’ll leave those numbers out for the time being.

Look for this measurement to eventually reappear in my 2019 recap blogpost, as a baseline/average to compare my 2019 training effort against, since this year will be anything but average!

December 31st, 2018

2018: Not Good Enough

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From start to finish, 2018 was a disappointment.

After the extreme effort to conquer the 2017 Dirty Dozen (blogpost) and my 250,000-foot climbing goal (blogpost), I fell into an enduring malaise and lack of motivation that lasted all of 2018. On top of that, three long trips—smack in the middle of training season—ensured I couldn’t get back into proper form in the spring.

A wet, grim start to Escape to the Lake Day 2

A wet, grim start to Escape to the Lake Day 2

As if that weren’t enough, 2018 was Pittsburgh’s wettest year in recorded history, washing out even more of my training. In July, when my travel was done, I struggled through my remaining four big events, eventually riding myself back into fitness just in time for the season to end.

If we only count outdoor road riding, I rode only 2,776 miles: my lowest total in five years (if we exclude the intentionally light year of my move from Boston to Pittsburgh). And it was by far the least amount of climbing I’ve done since the move. Though if we count the 486 virtual miles I did on the indoor trainer, my annual total rises to a more respectable 3,262: still 20 percent less than I rode in 2017.

2018 wasn’t entirely bad—there were a few minor highlights—but all told, it was a miserable year.

My Original 2018 Goals

I really didn’t have any cycling goals for 2018. In 2017 I had checked off everything I’d aspired to do in Pittsburgh, leaving nothing specific to reach for.

The only item I mentioned at the end of last year’s summary (blogpost) was a planned trip to Tuscany, where I hoped to enjoy some long European riding and even catch a stage of the Giro d’Italia elite cycling race. However, it rained the entire time, allowing only 80km of wet, uncomfortable riding; and I abandoned my Giro date due to a scheduling conflict (blogpost).

My rental Bianchi at our Tuscan villa

My rental Bianchi at our Tuscan villa

Morning light on the Pedal the Lakes century

Morning light on the Pedal the Lakes century

Tag-o-Rama pickup on Lemon Way, Downtown

Tag-o-Rama pickup on Lemon Way, Downtown

Orny descending a mountain in Zwift's Watopia

Orny descending a mountain in Zwift's Watopia

Dirty Dozen rider Jeremiah climbing Eleanor Street on a bikeshare tank

Dirty Dozen rider Jeremiah climbing Eleanor St. on a bikeshare

My 2018 cycling calendar

My 2018 cycling calendar

The Centuries

Another way I judge a year is how many 100-mile rides I complete; therefore, this year I’ve introduced this separate section to enumerate them.

In 2018, despite the weather, my travel, and lack of motivation, I matched 2017’s total of six centuries. I suffered more than usual on these long rides, either due to insufficient preparation or increasing age.

The first century was easy: a slow amble up the Montour Trail with friends De’Anna and Bill, which I spontaneously extended with a solo jaunt to Monongahela and back. But it was so unnoteworthy that it earned only passing mention in my entry for the second century of the year, which was…

The annual Escape to the Lake MS Ride (blogpost) was soggy and sloggy, with rain both days, compounded by an unannounced (and poorly signed) detour and relocated rest stop.

I made a road trip to Akron for my second Absolutely Beautiful Country ride (blogpost). Despite a flat course, it was still a sufferfest. After accidentally bringing only two right gloves, I rode bare-handed all day, which produced a painfully memorable sunburn.

August began with the always-difficult Every Neighborhood Ride (blogpost). This year I had to stop for a vicious cramp halfway up Forbes Avenue. After recuperating and cooling off at the Squirrel Hill rest stop, I fell back and finished the ride with the slow group.

Pedal PGH (blogpost) was as chaotic as usual. Extending the metric to a full century proved costly, as I needed breaks to let the legs recover while recuperating from the heat.

A week later, I drove up to Mercer County for my final century of the year. Though difficult, Pedal the Lakes (blogpost) was manageable, since I’d finally started coming into form… just in time for the season to end!

Additional Highlights

One 2018 highlight didn’t require much effort: picking up 25 tags in Pittsburgh’s Tag-o-Rama cycling/photography game. That was enough to break into the top ten players (out of 125). (blogpost)

I’ve already mentioned that Pittsburgh set a new all-time record for precipitation in a calendar year, receiving over one and a half times our normal rainfall. The resulting landslides washed away several roads, some of which still haven’t reopened ten months later. Many rides were canceled, including brevets, the Western PA Wheelmen’s spring and fall rallies, the Mon Valley Century, and numerous group rides. I only attended 5 out of 27 Tuesday night Team Decaf rides due to rain, and I bailed halfway through one of those due to a sudden mid-ride rainstorm!

The year was filled with other frustrations, as well. Several of those mentioned below are covered in more detail in a short mid-August blogpost tellingly titled “Yeah, Yeah, Bicycle”.

The local bike “advocacy” group decided to withdraw all support for BikeFest, a two-week cycling celebration it had run for 15 years.

My bike had several mechanical travails, ranging from a still-unresolved creak to a fancy new Di2 mount that promptly broke my Di2 junction box.

I spent $70 to re-stock my supply of powdered Gatorade mix, only to discover they’d changed the formula into an unusable dust that won’t mix with water and tastes just like burnt plastic.

And Strava completely ruined the training charts I relied on, which I’ll speak more of below.

I wasn’t in any shape—or mood—to ride this year’s Dirty Dozen hill climb, but that gave me the opportunity to play event photographer, which might have been more fun than actually riding! (blogpost)

The year’s biggest highlight happened in December, long after the riding season was done: my long-awaited purchase of an indoor smart trainer and membership on the Zwift multiplayer online cycling platform (blogpost). In addition to my first FTP test, I rode as “far” on the trainer in December as I did on the road in any other month in 2018! While it had no impact on the 2018 season, it has helped me get over my season-long malaise and should improve my form next spring.

The Charthouse

As mentioned earlier, Strava changed the math behind their “Fitness & Freshness” chart that I relied on for training and event tapering, and which I incorporated into my annual summaries as a graphical overview of the year.

Their “improved” metrics are completely worthless, but thankfully I’ve been able to recreate the TRIMP charts I relied on them for. Updated versions follow:

2018 TRIMP fitness chart

This first chart shows my fitness level over the past twelve months, with centuries highlighted.

What you’ll note is an overall saw-tooth pattern, with sudden gains from intense training followed by immediate backslides; i.e. a complete lack of sustained improvement.

You can see the dips during my travel dates: Southeast Asia in the latter half of March, a mini-dip in May during my week in Tuscany, and my meditation retreat in late June.

But even when I was home, each time I gained fitness, it declined again, rather than moving progressively higher. Every upward impulse is followed by a dip back down; I just couldn’t sustain a consistent string of training.

One easily-overlooked but hopeful sign is the upward trend throughout December. That’s the result of my new indoor trainer and Zwift membership. With any luck, I have already begun my positive fitness trend for the start of the 2019 season!

2011-2018 TRIMP fitness chart

The second chart shows how 2018 compares to previous years. Even though I began the year at a high level, over the summer I never attained the peak fitness of my previous six years. And that pretty neatly summarizes my year.

Goals for 2019

A year ago, I reluctantly set some vague goals for 2018; I’d done all the new rides I wanted to do, and didn’t see any specific challenges to undertake in the new year. In that respect, I’m in the same situation this year.

However, my lackluster 2018 was not a direct consequence of my lack of clearly-identified goals. I blame it all on horrible weather, lots of poorly-timed travel, and the fatigue and demoralization left over from a very demanding 2017.

Fortunately, I’m entering 2019 much fresher, and with no major travel plans. So long as we don’t set any new rainfall records, 2019 is bound to be better than 2018 was.

My primary goal for next year is simply this: to finally get beyond the malaise of 2018, to ride more, and get back to peak fitness this summer.

That’ll be aided by my secondary goal for 2019: spending the winter riding Zwift on the trainer, allowing me to enter the road season at a high level of fitness, and monitoring that by performing regular FTP tests throughout the year.

I needed a major change to shake me out of the funk that lingered over me all year, and Zwift is certainly different. I find myself actually looking forward to riding the indoor trainer and learning how to train more effectively by using its built-in power meter. I’m hopeful it’ll be the key that unlocks both my attitude and my fitness level for the 2019 season.

If I can achieve those two simple goals, I’ll be happy, and it will make possible any specific challenges I target as the year progresses. And so far it looks promising!

December 30th, 2018

Taco-Drama

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07 PMC Riding

Now that I’ve got three years of riding under my belt, I’ve become a lot more familiar with Pittsburgh’s sights, which in turn has made me a much more effective player in the local Tag-o-Rama game.

Last year I updated you by showing the 17 tags I picked up and 17 I placed in 2016 and 2017 combined. Here’s another annual update for 2018.

This year I picked up (and dropped off) no less than 25 tags. In fact, Tag-o-Rama was one of the only things that motivated me to get out and ride, between three long out-of-town trips, my malaise left over from 2017, and the horrid weather.

The coolest bit is that my 42 total tag pickups allowed me to break into the ranks of the top 10 players overall (out of 125). I was pretty proud of that, since I still consider myself a recent transplant.

That said, here are this year’s 25 pickups/finds (on the left) and my resulting 25 tag drops/placements (on the right). As always, click for teh bigness.

Homestead Labyrinth

"We get back up" mural

Homestead gun reform healing wall

Turreted houses on Ophelia Street

Railroad overpass heart-bike graffiti

Pitt LRDC & Cathedral of Learning

Polish Hill parklet

Big "3" at Strip apartments

Lion statues on Liberty in the Strip

Downlook Street in Stanton Heights

Wilkinsburg Flyboy mural

Eliza Furnace Trail at the jail

East Lib Parole Board

Danny Chew's house

Squirrel Hill post office

Overpass at Gomer in Southside

Landslide off Forward Ave

Church off Fleury Way

Wilkinsburg LPRC sculpture

Church on Saline in Junction Hollow

Church in McKees Rocks Bottom

Art on Friendship Ave pole

Phil's Parking on Penn

Stairs behind Duquesne University

Third Ave parking

Green Canoe building, Southside

Schenley Park disc golf course

Mural on Blackberry in Lawrenceville

Heinz House, Sharpsburg

Spring Garden bird mosaic

Garfield art car

Ravine/Creek footbridge in Homestead

Homestead Grays Bridge memorial

Lawrenceville bus butt

New Guild Studio mural, Braddock

Holy Grail Garage, East Pittsburgh

Pixelated Carrie Furnace

Curry "Street" in Braddock

Ellsworth & Shady footbridge

Prince of Peace bingo, Southside

Duq Light substation off Brighton

Ingham Street, Marshall

Fort Pitt blockhouse

Carson Street WW1 memorial

Second Ave underneath EFT

Titties graffiti on Juniper

Strawberry Way, Downtown

Archeparchy Convert at Riverview

Lemon Way, Downtown

Outbuilding at penitentiary, Chateau

December 9th, 2018

A Zwift Kickr in the Pants

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11 PMC Riding

When I moved to Pittsburgh in 2015, I didn’t bother bringing my old wheel-on indoor trainer. It was outdated technology, falling apart, and I planned to replace it after the move anyways.

But I was able to do some outdoor riding through the Pittsburgh winter, and I couldn’t bring myself to drop a boatload of cash on a replacement trainer, especially since I’d be moving to still warmer climes sometime soon.

And just like that, three years passed.

What finally spurred me to pull the trigger on a new trainer? And what conditions changed?

Wahoo KICKR CORE

First, why invest in a trainer if I still don’t have any income? Well, I’ve had the intention to do so for five years, and I have the money… I just don’t like parting with it. But I know this is something I’ll use a lot.

But will I? Why invest in a trainer if I plan to move south? Fair point. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned living in Pittsburgh, it’s that—even when the weather’s great—sometimes you just don’t want to expend the effort of getting out of the city to get a workout in. I might not ride the trainer as much if I lived in Florida or Texas, but it would still get used, especially for fitness tests. And if not, I could always sell it to someone else!

One last question: why bother with a trainer if I’m getting old and will never be as strong or competitive as I used to be? Well, just because I’m not setting any new PRs doesn’t mean I’m giving up completely! I still want to perform at my best, and having a trainer makes it much easier to get a workout in, so that I can better retain the fitness I’ve got left.

Another thing that made the purchase easier was a big $180 discount. Each fall, awesome sports tech reviewer Ray Maker (DC Rainmaker) teams up with a sports tech dealer to offer the best sale of the year. In my case, I got a solid 20 percent discount on the Wahoo KICKR CORE: a state of the art trainer that was only announced four months ago.

The downside: the three-week wait for it to arrive. Even though his dealer stocks up for the big sale, hot new products inevitably get backordered. But eventually it arrived.

In the meantime, I dealt with other logistical issues. Downloading and reading the setup and user manual. Downloading and learning how to use the Wahoo Fitness app, the Wahoo Utility app, the Zwift app, the Zwift Companion app, and the Discord app. Buying a new cassette (gears), along with a chain whip, crescent wrench, and lockring tool to install it on the trainer (as well as for future use). Buying a floor mat, gym fan, and riser block for my front wheel. Buying a handlebar phone mount, a USB ANT+ dongle, and a USB extension cable to go with it. Setting up a television, laptop, speakers, and wireless keyboard and mouse in the new “pain cave”. Buying a membership to the Zwift MMO virtual world. So many new things to buy, set up, and learn!

Now that it’s here, what’s so great about this thing?

First, it’s a direct-drive trainer. That means you take your rear wheel off and connect the bike’s drive train directly to a set of gears on the trainer, rather than pressing a steel roller up against the rear tire, as cheaper and older trainers used to do. That takes a lot of wear and strain off the tire and wheel.

It also allows the entire contraption to be a lot quieter. A vast improvement upon older devices, now the only noise you’ll hear are the bike’s chain, gear shifts, the exercise fan I use. Even while I’m riding in the next room over, Inna is able to sleep through it.

A huge benefit to me is that most trainers now come with built-in power meters. While inexpensive heart rate monitors have been used to guide training in the past, power meters have supplanted them as the gold standard. However, power meters are pricey, so I’ve never been able to justify the expense. But now I can train with power, at least indoor.

There’s a lot to know about training with power, but my primary interest boils down to watching two numbers. Functional threshold power (FTP) is an absolute measure of how much power you can sustain on the bike for one hour (measured in watts), and is a great predictor of performance on the flat. Divide FTP by your weight to get watts per kilogram, which is an equally reliable predictor of performance when the road tilts up. These are today’s gold standard measures of cycling fitness.

To ascertain your FTP, you do a 20-minute FTP Test. But doing FTP tests sucks. The testing protocol is simple: hold the maximum power you can for 20 solid minutes. It hurts, and a lot of people puke before they finish.

It’s also error-prone, because it’s hard to guess how long you can maintain max power. Most people overestimate their ability, going out hard and running out of gas before the 20 minutes is up. Once burned, they do the opposite, keeping way too much in reserve. So how do you figure out what power you should try to hold so you can pace yourself properly?

That calls for another test: the Step Test. It’s not fun either, but it entails slightly less pain. Once you begin pedaling, the trainer gradually increases the resistance every two minutes. Continue cranking on the pedals until eventually the increased resistance causes absolute muscle failure.

I stopped my first Step Test a little after hitting 275 watts. After applying maths, my FTP—what I could hold for an hour—was around 212W, and my climbing ability was 2.72 W/kg. The Step Test only provides a rough estimate of FTP, but most importantly, it also told me I should aim to hold 223W for my 20-minute FTP Test.

Armed with that information, two days later I set out and tried to hold my average wattage above 223 for 20 excruciating minutes. I managed it for about half the test, but I found myself riding the entire test pegged at my max heart rate—not fun!—while watching my average power slowly decline. By the end of the test, I’d faded to an average of 208W, which translates to an FTP of 198W, and 2.53 W/kg: noticeably lower than the numbers I got from my earlier Step Test, but just enough to qualify for the low end of Zwift’s Category C performance level.

I’ll probably test myself every three or four months, to see how much I improve (or deteriorate) over time.

Beyond measuring power, we move into features associated with “smart trainers”. So what makes them think they’re so smart?

Orny leading a paceline in London
Orny descending a mountain in Watopia

Basically, the industry has defined communication protocols so all your devices can work together: trainers, power meters, heart rate straps, cadence and speed sensors, bike computers, electronic shifting, and phone and computer applications. One of the things they’ve done is allow other devices to control trainer resistance: allowing applications to control how hard it is to pedal on the trainer.

That permits trainers to simulate the ups and downs of riding on real roads. In “sim mode”, you can load up any real-world route, and the trainer will precisely mimic the terrain, making it harder to pedal when you reach a “hill”, and easier when you reach a descent. You can simulate any route you can map: from Tour de France stages to last August’s century to your daily commute.

This was the first thing I tested when my trainer arrived. I paired it with my bike computer and told it to re-create a short local route I rode a year ago. As I pedaled along, the trainer automatically changed resistance to reflect the descent down Greenfield to the river, up the Junction Hollow bike path, the little spiker up South Neville, thru CMU, then up and over Schenley Park on Overlook Drive.

The grade simulation worked well, and it made for an engaging workout. However, there were clear shortcomings. The bike computer didn’t display the elevation change, current incline, or total elevation gain; the closest one could get was the graphical display of the past and upcoming elevation profile, which wasn’t detailed. More annoying, the unit didn’t display my current “location” on a map, which would give a little more context to the ride and changes in resistance. While sim mode is an awesome idea, there are obvious improvements that need to be made.

If you combine a smart trainer’s sim mode with internet access, virtual reality, object modeling, and social networking, you get today’s pinnacle of indoor training technology: Zwift. Join Zwift and you’re given an on-screen cyclist avatar who moves along a virtual road in proportion to you pedaling your trainer. Ride around online versions of London, New York, Innsbruck, or Richmond VA, or even the infamous Tour de France climb up Alpe d’Huez. When your avatar reaches a hill, the smart trainer’s resistance kicks in (or off) to simulate the gradient.

Now add other riders: thousands of other riders, all pedaling their own avatars in this massively multiplayer online sufferfest. Add structured workouts, the ability to ride with friends, organized group rides, official races, milestone rewards, instant messaging and shared audio channels, and also a parallel setup for runners. It’s an immense phenomenon.

My first Zwift experiences have been positive, but not always pleasant. Although the app hasn’t crashed on me yet, my laptop has died multiple times due to (1) falling off the pedestal I’d placed it on; (2) running out of battery without warning; and (3) a touchy touchpad that causes spontaneous reboots. I was already thinking about a new laptop, but the slow frame rate on my five-year old graphics card have increased the likelihood of that expense.

So far, in addition to the Step and FTP Tests, I’ve done a 10-mile free ride; a 25-mile, 450-person Team ZBR group ride; and the extremely hilly 30-mile December Bambino Fondo, with several thousand others.

Overall I’m happy. I finally have a new indoor trainer. I can even begin training with power! And with Zwift, I’m more likely to spend time on the trainer than I would have on my own.

That leaves me with one issue I’ve struggled with since I got my first trainer a decade ago: whether to count miles ridden and time spent on the trainer as “real” riding time for statistical purposes. Back in 2009, I decided I would only count outdoor road miles, but as my indoor riding increased, I started informally keeping track of that separately. Now I’m likely to put even more miles in on the turbo, so I’ll record my indoor riding separately, but in the same level of detail as outdoors. That way I can combine the two when it’s appropriate, and keep them separate when needed.

November 26th, 2018

Dirty Dishes

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12 MLR

As planned, I didn’t ride, but spent the day photographing this year’s Dirty Dozen race.

This has already been the second-wettest year in Pittsburgh history—with more than a month left to overtake the all-time record!—and race day was commensurately rainy. I was glad not to be riding!

Dirty Dozen Riders

I played leapfrog with the nine separate groups of riders all day, hitting the five toughest hills: Logan (#5), Suffolk (#7), Canton (#9), Boustead (#10), and Eleanor (#12).

I was out from 10am to 5pm, and took about 350 shots. I weeded those down to 67 decent pics that I shared on my Flickr photostream. Then those got culled down to the ten that you see on this page.

When I asked for Inna’s help selecting the keepers, she made an interesting observation. Whereas I’d focused on close-ups to capture the pain and human drama of the ride, she was more interested in establishing shots that captured the ridiculous steepness of the hills. It was a good lesson to put more thought into thematic considerations next time I shoot an event.

But overall, given that I wasn’t riding, it was a pretty enjoyable way to spend the day, and I got to cheer on (and socialize with) a bunch of my riding buddies.

And despite standing around in the rain all day and walking several steep hills, it was a hell of a lot less painful than riding them all!

In addition to the following small selection, you can see my edited collection of 67 photos in my 2018 Dirty Dozen Flickr album.

Dirty Dozen Riders Dirty Dozen Rider Dirty Dozen Rider
Dirty Dozen Rider: Jeremiah Dirty Dozen Rider Dirty Dozen Riders
Dirty Dozen Rider Dirty Dozen Rider Dirty Dozen Rider
View the Full Album

November 5th, 2018

Gunning For Greatness

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07 PMC Riding

Me and randonneuring, we have a history, and it’s not all wine and roses. But as with my Gatorade Escapade, enough time has passed that I feel safe sharing another hidden aspect of my cycling history.

Randonneurs USA badge

Twenty years ago, when I returned to cycling as an adult, it was clear that I was going to be a long-distance (endurance) rider. And in looking for clubs and events that emphasized long rides, I learned of the New England Randonneurs and their Boston Brevet Series of rides.

What’s all that, then? To explain, here’s an excerpt from the ride report for my first brevet, back in 2006:

First, what’s a brevet? A brevet or randonnée is an organized long-distance bicycle ride. Cyclists—who, in this discipline, are referred to as randonneurs—follow a designated but unmarked route (usually 200km to 1200km), passing through check-point controls, and must complete the course within specified time limits. Randonnée is a French word which loosely translates to ‘ramble’ or ‘long journey’. Brevet means ‘certificate’ and refers to the card carried by randonneurs which gets stamped at controls; it is also used to refer to the event itself. Randonneurs do not compete against other cyclists; randonnées are a test of endurance, self-sufficiency, and cyclo-touring skills.

The ultimate randonnées are Paris-Brest-Paris and Boston-Montréal-Boston, both of which are 1200k (750 miles). You must complete a series of four brevets of increasing distance to qualify for PBP or BMB: the lengths of those qualifying rides are 200k (125 miles), 300k (190 miles), 400k (250 miles), and 600k (375 miles).

Twelve years ago, I’d just completed that first 200k brevet, and was eager for more. I scoured the internet for blogs by experienced randonneurs and online discussions.

It was on one such forum that I came across a discussion between riders about what handguns they preferred to carry during rides.

Yeah, you read that right: the loaded firearms they packed while riding, for shooting other road users.

I was shocked and horrified. I have no interest in being a bit player in some redneck moron’s Budweiser-fueled Mad Max gunfight fantasy. Guns have no place on the road, and absolutely no place in a cycling event.

I immediately fired off an email to the membership coordinator and the president of RUSA, our national organization, inquiring whether firearms were allowed on the rides they organized. They have ridiculously strict rules regarding rider safety, requiring helmets, front and rear lights, reflectors, reflective vests, sashes, and anklets, and so forth. But no, apparently that’s all safety theater, because they were—and still are—perfectly happy to hypocritically allow riders to carry loaded, concealed firearms, endangering the entire group and exposing RUSA to significant legal risk.

Having just mailed in my payment for my second year of RUSA membership, I put a stop payment on my check and informed them that I would not give any money to an organization that allowed my safety to be compromised, and that I wouldn’t be participating in any further RUSA events. After feeling that I’d found my community as an endurance rider, I was saddened to go into self-imposed exile to protest a policy I found outlandish and extremely dangerous.

Over the next decade, I participated in hundreds of centuries and 200k rides, but not a single RUSA-organized brevet. It’s unfortunate that I never felt safe enough to progress any further in my career as a randonneur. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it, and done numerous events, if they’d taken rider safety (if not their own legal exposure) seriously.

Only in the past couple years, since moving to Pittsburgh, have I chosen to meet up and ride with the local randonneuring group. It’s a tiny group—usually just four to six people—whose character I trust, and I’m hopeful that none of them are stupid enough to carry guns. But after all this time, I still will have nothing to do with RUSA unless and until they start taking the safety of their riders seriously.

November 3rd, 2018

Clean & Jerk

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12 MLR

It’s almost time: time for the 2018 Dirty Dozen, Pittsburgh’s signature cycling event, where participants ride up 13 of the steepest streets in this ludicrously hilly city.

After missing out in 2015 and 2016, last year I was finally able to participate, and conquered the official course, to my great satisfaction. However, after a lot of reflection, I’ve decided I won’t be riding again this year.

2018 Dirty Dozen jersey

2018 Dirty Dozen jersey

While last year’s event was fun and a very memorable achievement, it probably was also the most painful ride I’ve ever done. While cyclists often have love/hate relationships with challenging rides, the Dirty Dozen definitely maxed me out on the “hate” side of the equation. Having done it once and earned my finisher’s ribbon, why suffer even more?

Mentally and physically exhausted after last year’s event, I continued to push myself harder than I wanted to in order to complete my end-of-year goal of climbing 250,000 vertical feet. Between those two events, I lost all my hill-climbing desire. Well into 2018’s training season, I was still demoralized, lacking any sort of motivation at all. After making 83 ascents of Dirty Dozen hills in the fall of 2017, I didn’t climb a single one in the following ten months.

In mid-September, I grudgingly did three of the easiest hills and was okay. Although I was behind on training, I began to entertain the remote possibility of doing this year’s ride. Then a couple days later there was one fateful night…

First some background. In my writeup of last year’s race, I described the passage from the top of Logan (Hill #5) down to Rialto (Hill #6) thus: “Just mind the construction zone where half the road has fallen off the side of the cliff into the woods below…”

Well, last February an entire section of that road (Pittview Ave) did indeed “fall off the side of the cliff”, and nine months later it’s still impassable. Since that’s the one and only way down from Logan (short of turning around and gingerly riding back down), there has been talk about skipping Logan this year, and riding some other hill in its place.

Veteran Pittsburgh riders knew exactly the roads to consider: Ferndale and Dornbush, which are equal in difficulty to the hardest Dirty Dozen climbs. One Tuesday evening, when the regular Team Decaf ride leaders were absent, Dirty Dozen marshals Jason and Chris led us down to the East Hills to scout out those two roads. When we got to Ferndale, I looked up at the blatantly stupid slope and immediately knew I wasn’t going to ride this year’s Dirty Dozen. It hurt so much just looking at it, and—like just about everyone else in the group—I was too scared to even consider attempting that climb. No… fucking… way… period.

Still, I missed the camaraderie among the riders, so I decided I’d at least do some of the weekly training rides that lead up to the event. It’s a seven-ride series, where the first four rides each tackle one quarter of the full ride, then two that do each of the two halves of the ride, and the final ride doing the entire route two weeks before the official Dirty Dozen.

The first training ride was nice, doing the first three hills, plus the alternate version of Hill #3, all of which are easy (relatively speaking). I managed. A week later we did Hills 4-7, where I ran out of strength and had to pause for a dizzy spell partway up Burgess before finishing it. I missed the third training ride due to the intense joys of colonoscopy prep, and never resumed them afterward.

So no, I won’t be riding that sadistic sufferfest this Thanksgiving, and given how the season has gone, I’m not terribly surprised or disappointed. Been there, done that, paid the price, and got the finisher’s ribbon. As I said above, why suffer even more? Tho I reserve the right to ride sometime in the future, if my preparation is up to it.

Additionally, by not riding I have my first opportunity to see the race as a spectator. I hope to drive around town, leapfrogging the riders, playing “Event Photographer”. For decades I’ve wanted to shoot some of my favorite rides, but that’s always been trumped by actually participating in each event; but this year is the perfect chance to camp out and get some awesome action shots of a ride I really love… and really, REALLY hate.

So instead of dreading facing the ride or moping for missing it, I’m having fun getting excited about shooting it. Assuming all goes well, my results will be posted around the end of the month!

September 18th, 2018

Kittens & Puppies

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07 PMC Riding

I rarely write up rides of less than 100 miles, but given how disappointing 2018 has been, it’s worth mentioning how nice Sunday’s Pittsburgh Randonneurs Kittens & Puppies 100k (that’s 62 miles) was.

We started 25 miles down the Ohio River in Monaca PA, then headed north along the Beaver River—almost to Ellwood City—then paralleled the PA Turnpike northwest to New Middletown OH, and back along the same route.

Ohio River Beaver

So what was so good about it?

First and foremost, the weather was stunning, and the view from the start on the Ohio riverbank was gorgeous. We’ve had 14 inches more rainfall than average this year, which soaked or canceled several events and regular weekly rides. So we were very appreciative of a beautifully sunny late summer day. Later some high clouds from Hurricane Florence rolled in, which conveniently kept the afternoon heat at bay.

The Kittens & Puppies route is a gentle welcome for new randonneurs, being shorter and less hilly than their typical routes. So the ride was relaxed and enjoyable, and my legs appreciated a break after my first couple days of pre-Dirty Dozen hill work,

I also got to ride with friends I haven’t seen much this year, including De’Anna and Jim.

I enjoy riding with randonneurs, because they keep a perfect pace: a good clip, with businesslike rest stops, but easy enough to keep riders from blowing up. It’s the perfect middle ground between group rides composed of either hammerheads trying to ride each other into the ground or lazy tourists who are horrified at expending any effort at all.

Not a highlight, but something to be thankful for: at one point I missed a turn and made a sudden, sharp retracement in a patch of gravel. Both wheels skidded out from under me, but I somehow managed to keep it up, and no apparent harm was done to tires or wheels.

S.N.P.J. Pennsylvania

S.N.P.J. Pennsylvania

Two-thirds through the outbound leg, I took a four-mile detour off the route in order to check in at a place I’d always wanted to visit: the oddly-named town of S.N.P.J. Pennsylvania.

The turn-around rest stop was a sandwich shop, where the cashier chose not to charge me for the cola I grabbed. I’m not sure whether that was because I’d waited and let a couple other customers precede me or if it was some other “thing”.

After the ride, four of us stopped at Yolanda’s Pizza, where I acquired a much-anticipated pepperoni, sausage, and ham calzone.

But above all, it was nice to be out there and enjoy one of the few beautiful days we’ve had all year.

The outlook for the rest of 2018 is cautious. I won’t be training as hard for this year’s Dirty Dozen, but I’ll probably do a few of the friendly prep rides. I may or may not do the event itself—that’ll depend on weather and how I feel—but if I do, it’ll be as a fun ride that I won’t take terribly seriously.

September 2nd, 2018

Escaped To, Then Pedaled

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05 PMC Riding

In June I Escaped To The Lake, but Saturday I Pedaled The Lakes.

Actually, the Mercer County Trails Association’s Pedal the Lakes century has nothing to do with BikeMS’s Escape to the Lake charity ride, other than the vaguely-related names and about half a mile of Harmonsburg Road in Linesville… And the fact that I participated in both rides this year.

God Light on Tanner Road

God Light on Tanner Road

Pymatuning Reservoir

Pymatuning Reservoir

All the cool kids hang out at the spillway

All the cool kids hang out at the spillway

I rode the small-town Pedal the Lakes in 2016 as reported here, but skipped it last year due to a showery forecast and the organizers’ refusal to provide a GPS cue sheet. This year’s forecast was almost ideal, and they not only provided a GPS track, but updated it twice during the week leading up to the event to account for detours around last-minute road closures. Well done!

Saturday at 5:20am I hopped into the car for the quiet 100-mile drive to the start in Greenville PA. After checking in and changing into my cycling kit, I rolled out promptly at 7:05am.

It was a clear and beautiful morning, with a damp mist hovering in the valleys and refreshing temps in the high 50s to low 60s. I rode easily through the rolling Pennsylvania farm country, enjoying an unnoticed tailwind for the first 20 miles.

That breeze became more noticeable after we circled Conneaut Lake, crossed the Pymatuning Reservoir spillway, and turned south into a headwind. Although I was still making good time, it was a bit of a slog getting to the second rest stop at mile 42, hosted by the Lago Winery in Jamestown.

There I enjoyed two rejuvenating and delicious slices of pepperoni pizza and half a blueberry cake donut. I (and a couple other riders) responded enthusiastically when one of the older volunteers asked if any of us were using that newfangled GPS thingy they’d provided. I also got to chat with fellow Pittsburgh randonneur Jim Logan before we each headed off separately.

Five miles down the road, I crossed the border into Ohio. Temps had cracked 80 degrees, and my progress was incrementally slowed by Ohio’s typically unpleasant (but cheap!) oil & chip road surface. I didn’t see another rider until I pulled into the next rest stop at mile 62. When it provided neither ice nor shade, I chose to press on, despite my growing fatigue.

After another segment without encountering another rider, I reached the 81-mile stop after noon. Again there was no ice to be had, although I surreptitiously fished a small handful out of the Gatorade jug.

Setting out on the final segment, I crossed back into Pennsylvania and tiredly crawled over the final lumps back to Greenville. I finished with 101 miles at 2:20pm, matching the 7:15 clock time from my 2016 ride, despite riding four fewer miles. Among the supplies at the finish was cold chocolate milk, which I downed very gratefully.

That completed my second century in six days, and my sixth century of 2018, which ties the number I completed last year, in 2017.

Overall, it was a beautiful day to get out and enjoy the rolling Pennsylvania farmland. Although it grew hot and I suffered a lot of fatigue, it was nice to get the miles in, and it makes 2018 feel like less of a wasted year. It was a fitting way to bid farewell to August, and to kick off the more relaxed and pleasant autumn cycling season.

August 31st, 2018

Le Tour des Touristes

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Last Sunday was my third Pedal PGH, the local advocacy group’s big city ride.

The forecast indicated a 30 percent chance of rain, and the radar showed several incoming thunderstorms crossing from Ohio into Western PA. I lingered indecisive, but eventually set out to ride.

Pedal PGH

Although I started 45 minutes late, that didn’t present any problem, and the rain I feared never materialized, as my route somehow danced around the downpours that happened in various parts of the city. But with heavy overcast, there wasn’t much point in taking any photos.

Being a populist ride, the crowd included a high proportion of neophytes who presented a danger to themselves and others, and I rolled past three or four major crashes attended by ambulances and large crowds. I felt safest on the parts of the longest route that was reserved for the strongest riders, although Pedal PGH is notorious for having the routes re-integrate, repeatedly putting the faster riders at the back of the pack of obliviously weaving, stopping, and dangerous tourists.

Then add in the stupidity of scheduling the ride during the local university’s move-in week, which threw even more clueless parents and students onto unfamiliar streets, both on foot, in cars, and piloting rental moving vans. Pedal PGH is more of an obstacle course than a fun family or group ride.

The longer metric century (62-mile) route is challenging, with about 4,000 feet of steep climbing. Between time off for travel, record-setting rainfall, and overall lack of mojo, I’m way behind my normal fitness level, so I was pretty wiped by the time I finished.

However, I still wanted to repeat last year’s followup: riding down the (blessedly flat) GAP trail to McKeesport and back, which would bring my day to 100 miles, my fifth full century of the year.

That was a stupid, stupid idea. If you believe Strava’s pathetically misguided “Relative Effort” metric, it wound up being the most difficult ride I’ve ever done. But I toodled along and took frequent rest stops, invoking the powers of Fererro Rocher and Coca-Cola. One of my stops was at the bike rental place at the Waterfront, where I had a nice chat with the guy there.

It wasn’t a bad day out, but given my lower fitness level it was definitely a stretch.

August 30th, 2018

Into the Suppersphere

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In March, when I was in Kuala Lumpur (heheh!) I scoped out a local bookstore’s manga, Buddhism, and cycling sections. In the latter, I discovered the intriguingly-titled Into the Suffersphere: Cycling and the Art of Pain. Which I set aside because it was pricey in Malaysian ringits. However, I later requested it from Amazon.

The book covers three predominant topics. The first is professional bike racing and cycling culture. The second—which derives from cycling—is suffering: its manifestation and methods of coping, and the doping that pervades the sport. That gives way to the third topic: the philosophical relationship between man and his suffering, seen through the lens of (of all things) Theravada Buddhism.

You might think “Orny, this is the perfect book for you!” And to some degree you’re right, although I’ve long since become disgusted and given up following the perpetual circus of lying and cheating that calls itself “competitive cycling”. So the book gets a cool review from me in that respect.

Then there’s the theme, or lack thereof. Taken one way, the book is a series of anecdotes and observations related to those three main topics; however, it never supplies the reader with an overall thesis, argument, or conclusion. OTOH, from a less goal-oriented point of view, it’s a wildly eclectic and engaging jaunt through a storehouse of seemingly random and improbable connections and associations.

The only way I can communicate this breadth is by listing out some of the people the author cites and things he refers to. I’ll start with the most pertinent to the topic, and proceed to the more eclectic.

Addressing cycling, the author references the Strava social network whose name is the Swedish word for “striving”, and its infamous Suffer Score metric (which was recently replaced by the completely useless “Relative Effort”, as I mentioned toward the end of my previous blogpost). He mentions Team Sky’s focus on “marginal gains” and Chris Froome’s perpetual glassy-eyed stare at the power data on his bike computer. He mentions Graeme Obree’s singleminded attempts at the hour record, and Jens Voigt’s famous “Shut up legs!” quote. Cycling’s most infamous drug busts, including Operacion Puerto. Tim Krabbe’s semi-autobiographical novel “The Rider”, and a short piece by Alfred Jarry with the stunning title: “The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race”. Consideration is given to concepts as contemporary as MAMILs and “The Rules” according to the ludicrously pretentious Velominati.

In terms of Buddhism, the author’s knowledge is broad and detailed, but that’s not surprising given that he is a longtime resident of Chiang Mai, Thailand. He describes the phenomenon of “monkey mind” and the modern preoccupation with mindfulness, from Thich Nhat Hanh to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s completely secular MBSR. He mentions Theravada, dhamma, the Four Divine Messengers, the Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, Right Effort and Right Concentration, dukkha and sukha, the Wheel of the Dharma, samsara and nirvana, jhana, impermanence, non-attachment, and the Buddha’s final instruction upon his parinirvana to strive diligently.

Moving gradually further afield, he cites several philosophers, ranging from Nietzsche to John Stuart Mill, the Dalai Lama, Malcolm Gladwell, the Roman stoics, Alan Watts, Karl Marx, Albert Camus, Terry Pratchett, and the Black Knight’s “It’s only a scratch” sketch from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Also of interest to me were his geographical references, which included his homeland of Thailand, Malaysia’s Tour de Langkawi race, Cambodia, Phuket, Singapore, and the classic Thai phrases “farang” and “mai ben rai”.

Being an English expat, he must also enjoy his football, because he also references superstar Lionel Messi and makes fun of the soccer world’s most infamous ear-biting racist asshole, Luis Suarez.

In terms of random tidbits that struck a chord with me, he uses “klicks” as shorthand for “kilometers”. Mentions “postural hypotension”: fainting upon getting up too fast. Finds women in yoga pants a distraction from meditation. As a jew, he goes to great lengths to relate how uncommon cycling is amongst his tribe. And he rails a bit against society’s ridicule of anything undertaken by middle-aged men (I’ll have more to say about that soon in a post on my main blog).

As you can see, he covers an awful lot of ground, and much of it does resonate with me. I guess I’d be more enthusiastic about it if I didn’t take pervasive doping in sport as seriously as I do; instead, focusing on something I find so pathetic evokes a sense of depression in me.

Still, it’s an entertaining read and a good enough book overall. For most people, it’d be better to request from a library than purchase outright… but few libraries will stock something this specialized and esoteric.

While there’s a lot more that the author could have said about it, I’m glad to see anything that covers the interface between cycling, suffering, and philosophy (and specifically Buddhism).

August 16th, 2018

Yeah, Yeah, Bicycle

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We’re halfway through August, and 2018 persistently continues to be a lackluster year. Even this “catch up on miscellaneous topics” post consists almost entirely of disappointments.

In one of my least exciting accomplishments, I’ve reached 16,800 miles on my 2013 Specialized Roubaix, surpassing the miles I put on my first bike, a steel 2000 Devinci hybrid. Still need 6,000 more to eclipse the Plastic Bullet, my 2006 Roubaix.

Another less than earth-shattering development: I bought this Kool Stop tire bead jack. Why? Well, I guess it does prevent me from pinching and puncturing the inner tube when installing a tire. But that’s about as positive as anything that’s happened this year.

Another unnecessary purchase yielded a worse result. By installing this funky combination headset spacer and Di2 junction box mount, I could clean up my cockpit by getting rid of an ugly rubber band around my handlebar stem. Except it broke one of the junction box’s tiny plastic mounting pins, leaving the whole assembly dangling from my handlebars. Now I have to either spend $90 on a whole new junction box or permanently glue the junction box onto the mount with epoxy. Sigh.

Next, the rider’s—and the bike mechanic’s—worst nightmare: mysterious clicking and creaking noises. First we replaced the bottom bracket. Didn’t fix shit, but the cranks spin a little smoother, and I was pleasantly surprised that a new BB only costs about $30!

After more tinkering, figured out that the noises were because the stem and headset cap bolts weren’t tight enough. Unsurprisingly, those were the exact bolts I’d loosened to fit the aforementioned headset spacer / junction box mount… The ones every mechanic goes to great lengths to tell you *not* to over-tighten. Well that’s annoying. Locked those puppies down, and so far so good.

And then there’s the Gatorade saga. For almost 20 years, my go-to sports drink has been orange Gatorade powder, the most effective and palatable thing I’ve found. And they made me a loyal customer after a lucrative customer service escapade I blogged about.

In May I ordered another three canisters of powdered drink mix, but what they contained was nothing like Gatorade. The powder didn’t mix in water, had neither flavor nor color, and tasted like a moldy bag of burnt plastic. Yup, in the interest of “progress”, instead of just adding some electrolytes to their tried-and-true formula, Gatorade had some evil scientists completely redesign their product, and the resulting “new formula” is simply unusable. And now I’ve got $70 worth of it sitting in the back of a cupboard.

Speaking of companies fucking up something that already works well, Strava recently took the reliable TRIMP-based Suffer Score training tool that I have blogged about and replaced it with an updated metric called “relative effort”. The major difference is intentionally removing exercise duration from their calculation of exercise intensity, so that a tough 10-minute ride has the same training effect as a tough 10-hour ride.

The result? Ludicrous values that make Relative Effort completely worthless as a training tool. Using actual examples from my own riding: if a 9-hour 127-mile ride scores a relative effort of 230, why would a 3-hour 34-mile ride rack up 568 points? A 3-hour ride should have a much lower training effect than a 9-hour ride, but Strava says it was two and a half times the workout?!?! Bullshit! And this doesn’t just go for new activities; they fucked up all my historical trend charts. Way to ruin your product, Strava! And don’t get me started on their unctuous labels for varying levels of effort: tough, massive, and historic.

So yeah, I’m kinda discouraged by all of this. I’ve been hoping this year’s malaise would pass, but it hasn’t yet. But that’s a bigger story which will receive its own blogpost in the near future.

The only thing that’s motivated me to hop on the bike is the Tag-o-Rama game. I’ve claimed 19 tags this year, and with just three more I’ll become one of the top ten players (out of 124 people).

August 14th, 2018

Obsessive-compulsive here has been logging his blood pressure weekly since 2014. That’s enough data points to provide a reliable test for the conventional belief that regular exercise lowers blood pressure.

An online search yields a common assertion that daily exercise can lower one’s blood pressure by 4-9 mmHg, although references are inconsistent about whether that refers to both both systolic and diastolic BP or just systolic. The effect is greater for people with existing high blood pressure than for those with normal readings.

Although I do try to ride in the winter, my volume of exercise is still far greater in the summer months, so the seasons make a logical way to compare periods of high versus low activity.

So I defined the winter as the six months from November through April, and the summer as May through October. Collating all my weekly observations and calculating the averages produced the following results:

My systolic blood pressure was 3.5 mmHg lower during the summer months, when I was more active.

My diastolic blood pressure was 3.9 mmHg lower in the summer.

My resting pulse (heart rate) was 2.1 beats per minute lower in the summer.

These all conform perfectly with conventional expectations. The magnitude of change is on par with going onto a strictly low-fat diet, losing 10-20 pounds of body weight, or taking a prescribed blood pressure medication.

I know, that’s not an especially interesting result. I guess “science is right again” stories just aren’t very newsworthy.

August 5th, 2018

Allegheny to Windgap

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The run-up to this year’s Every Neighborhood Ride wasn’t promising. Four weeks ago, I struggled to complete the much easier ABC Ride (blogpost). A week later, my lack of fitness caused me to DNS (Did Not Start) on the Three State Century. Followed by 10 days off the bike due to weather and bad morale, I was unprepared for the rigors of Every Neighborhood, which has more climbing than any ride I’ve done, bar one.

2018 Every Neighborhood Ride

Leader Jen, cramping Ornoth, and the intermediate group at the final rest stop.

Every Neighborhood is usually part of Pittsburgh’s week-long BikeFest, but BikePGH, the local “bike advocacy” group, decided it was too much effort to sponsor one of the few good things it does for people who actually ride bicycles. And so a rich 15-year tradition dies at the hands of the people charged with its survival. Fuck these so-called “bike advocates”!

Fortunately, the Every Neighborhood ride leaders decided to keep running their event, and they do an amazing job too. So about the ride…

A foggy, mild start. Left the house at 6:30am to get an extra 15 miles in, so that I’d finish the 72-mile “official” ride with an even hundred. Met up at the start with familiar faces like Jason, Jim, and Mike, and about 45 others, split evenly between two groups.

Hung at the back of the fast group led by Jake, but their pace was much faster than previous years, and I kept falling behind on the hills (there’s a shitload of ’em). Worse still, if I kept attacking the hills so hard, I’d pay for it sooner of later. At 9:40am I pulled into the Mile 35 rest stop, taking on fluid, brownies, and blueberry bread.

The next segment was a cluster. Four of us missed a turn, improvising a 2-mile detour back onto the course, then waiting for the main group to catch up. As soon as we regrouped, two guys split us again by balking at a traffic light, blocking myself and two other riders from getting through. The two jagoffs didn’t even know the route, blowing right past our turn onto Crane Ave. Knowing where we were, I hand-signaled a left turn, and the two innocent riders behind me (Saul & Marina) followed. Eventually we caught up to the main group, tho I shipped my chain twice on the numerous hills.

Hit the second rest stop (Mile 53) at 11:50 and plugged my GPS into a portable battery charger. The climbs and 86-degree heat weren’t helping, and I gave up solid food and went with cola, which in retrospect seems to be a short-term solution.

Over the next section, I shared time at the back with Marina, one of many first-timers, with occasional appearances by a flagging guy wearing pro team kit (tacky). I had to pause on the hill coming out of Frick Park, then as we climbed Forbes Ave up toward the final rest stop (Mile 72), my right thigh cramped and seized up solid. I stepped off and couldn’t bend my leg at all for ten minutes. But eventually I gingerly limped the last quarter mile to the rest stop, which coincidentally is inside a physical therapy/rehab business!

When I arrived at 2pm, I was dismayed to see that our ice and drinks—which are shuttled between rest stops by organizer Matt—hadn’t arrived yet! Within 15 minutes, the fast guys were out the door, but between my cramping and the lack of drinks, I wasn’t going anywhere. I used a foam roller to try to coerce my thigh into grudging willingness while waiting for Matt. I decided to recuperate and join the intermediate group led by Jen, and they rolled in at 2:45.

Having gotten a full hour of rest, I rolled out with my new companions at 3pm, keeping a close eye on whether my cramps were going to recur. Fortunately, the pace was slow, and I thankfully made it over Stanton, Webster, and up from the Birmingham Bridge into Oakland, although the heat continued to exacerbate my stomach upset. Having the route on my Garmin, I was able to serve as an informal second leader.

Along the way, I was shocked when one middle aged white woman expressed her impulse to get out of the Black neighborhoods “before we get shot”… This after having already ridden through Greenfield without her voicing any such concerns, despite the two open gunfights on its mostly-Caucasian streets in the past two days. So tacky!

I limped along with the others and happily rolled into the finish at Arsenal Park at 5:15pm, to a rousing welcome from organizers Jake and Kelley, plus my prior companions Saul and Marina, who had done an excellent job finishing the ride. We were an hour behind the more motivated fast group.

The ride always draws a large crop of first-timers. I’m not sure whether there’s just lots of optimistic newbie riders in town, or if the difficulty level discourages veterans from returning! Either way, there’s always a very high drop-out rate. Having underestimated the duration or the difficulty, more than half the field drop out at the halfway point, and more riders sneak off if the route passes anywhere near their house. Even within the final mile, many veer homeward without visiting the actual finish. That’s too bad, because there’s ample drinks, snacks, and camaraderie amongst the handful of true finishers.

After a rest and lots of ice water poured over myself, the party headed home and I made my way back up to Squirrel Hill, completing my fourth century of the year. I was utterly blown. I spent the evening staring into the air conditioner, followed by a cold shower before sitting on the couch absolutely immobile for three hours. The only thing I could force down my throat was strawberries right out of the refrigerator. And after so much heat and cramping, I didn’t have a restful night.

The Every Neighborhood Ride is always challenging, but the extra bonus miles, the fast start, the heat, bad eating habits, and cramping added up for a frustrating and extra-tortuous day for me. However, this ride brings people together like few others. Part of it is the long hours in the saddle with the same small group of riders, but it’s also sharing the suffering of overcoming this city’s relentlessly stupid topography. That stuff forges meaningful connections between people.

Here’s one final laugher for you. Two weeks hence, the next major cycling event is a 130-mile brevet put on by the Pittsburgh Randonneurs, on the McConnell’s Mills route I rode with them back in 2016 (blogpost). It would be a nice chance to ride with some good people and get a fifth century in. However, it’s also the one and only ride I’ve ever done that has even more climbing than Sunday’s Every Neighborhood Ride!

After such a difficult experience on the Every Neighborhood Ride, I have Major Doubts whether I could or should attempt a ride with 30 more miles and 25 percent more climbing!

So I’m going to bed. Wake me when my legs come back.

July 9th, 2018

I Went Back to Ohio

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I wasn’t planning on repeating last year’s Akron Bike ClubAbsolutely Beautiful Country” century. It was a really nice ride, but it’s a two-hour drive from Pittsburgh, which makes for a lot of driving on top of a 100-mile bike ride.

Selfies on the River Styx

Selfies on the River Styx

Level Crossing

Level crossing delay

It Burns

Sunburned hands

However, having spent much of the first half of this year away from home, I was really under-trained and in desperate need of fitness before all the big summer rides. And with Inna still out of town, there was no one to inconvenience.

But the biggest reason to go was the weather. A week-long heat wave broke on Friday, leaving us with a delightfully temperate weekend. Sunny and less humid, with little wind, it was perfect weather for a long ride, so…

I got up at 3:45am Sunday “morning” and was on the road by 4:30, headed back to the city that gave us the Kent State massacre, Devo, and Chrissie Hynde.

During the drive, I noticed that almost all of Ohio’s roads are straight north-south or straight east-west, with very little variance. It made me wonder why they didn’t just name their cities by map coordinates. So if Cincinnati was called “A12” and Columbus was called “F5”, then you’d know that to get from one to the other you’d have to drive 5 units east and 7 units north. Seems like it would be a lot more efficient in a place like Ohio, since—with no diagonals—that’s just the way the roads work anyways.

Kitting up in the Copley High School parking lot, I discovered a packing mistake: the pair of cycling glove’s I’d brought were both right hands. The guy parked next to me offered to loan me a pair, but I demurred. Going bare-handed wouldn’t be any major discomfort, I thought. No big deal… If anything, it might hide or even out some of my characteristic cyclist’s tan lines.

At ten-to-seven I was in the saddle, dropping lots of riders in a desire to work up some body heat to ward off the morning coolth. Eighteen miles later, I stopped to get a selfie in front of the sign for the village of River Styx. It’s probably not an auspicious thing, crossing the River Styx with 82 miles still to ride…

Speaking of stopping, about 35 miles in I caught up with a couple riders who were stopped at a level crossing while a big freight train rolled by. Fortunately, the end (of the train) was near, and I was only delayed about three minutes.

About one-third done, I was already experiencing some physical difficulties. I was obviously undertrained and not ready for the distance, even on a flattish course like this, and by the end of the day my legs were cramping up. My knees were complaining loudly, thanks to inflammation picked up while on my recent meditation retreat. I was also having difficulty swallowing due to an undiagnosed throat irritation. The day eventually heated up, and on the last, 15-mile segment, I was so blown that I had to stop for a brief roadside rest before finishing.

This was countered by the excellent work done by the organizers at the rest stops. Twelve miles in, riders were offered donuts. At the halfway point, small sandwiches piled high with cold cuts and cheese. At Mile 70, the Dalton Dari-ette offered free ice cream! And all the stops had ice, which for me is always key.

I finally rolled back into the high school at 2:15pm. I had enjoyed the Ohio countryside and the beautiful day, but I was glad the suffering was finally over, and happily looking forward to getting into an air conditioned car for the drive back to Pittsburgh.

Pulling the bike out of the car trunk at home, I noticed that the plastic mounting tab for my Di2 electronic shifting junction box had broken. That’s an annoyance, since I’d just purchased and installed a new mounting bracket for it.

But more troublesome—though less costly—were the implications of spending seven hours in the July sun without gloves. The rest of my body has long-since adapted to sun exposure, such that I didn’t suffer any ill effects of going completely without sunblock; however, my hands have always been shielded by gloves, and the sensitive skin on the back of them isn’t seasoned to strong sunlight and got thoroughly sunburned. Lesson learned!

Nonetheless, I’m glad I went, and (mostly) had a good time. There aren’t many century rides to choose from here in Pittsburgh, and I’m happy to participate in and support those few that remain.

But whether I’m ready and willing to undertake another century happening weekend… We’ll see how well I recover!

June 12th, 2018

Escape the Rains

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There are two kinds of rainy days on the bike. There’s days with passing showers but things dry out quickly; and there’s day-long pouring rain that leaves you no choice but to slog through to the end of the ride.

This year’s Escape to the Lake MS Ride had one day of each kind.

To be fair, it’s been that kind of year. As I wrote in my last post, my week in Tuscany was almost exclusively rainy and cold; and our horrible spring weather was the topic of the post before that.

Rolling thru the second rest stop on Day 1

Rolling thru the second rest stop

A wet, grim start to Day 2

A wet, grim start to Day 2

Midway thru a very wet Day 2

Midway thru a very wet Day 2

After a disappointing week in Italy, I had two weeks to train up (and then taper for) the annual two-day Escape to the Lake MS Ride.

I stumbled into some form by doing a slow ride up the Montour Trail with Pittsburgh Randonneurs Bill and De’Anna, for her last warm-up ride before her first 750-mile event. Understandably, it was a casual ride, but on the way home, I vectored off on my own down Bunola Road, which brought me up to an even hundred miles: my first century of the year. It’s nice to be able to do a century, completely unplanned!

Three days later I did a metric century up Sun Mine and Guys Run, which was pleasant. I had just enough ascending to earn Strava’s May climbing badge, in addition to their gran fondo distance badge. It was the first month that I’ve earned both badges since last August.

A week before the MS Ride, I did the regular moderately-paced Saturday morning group ride out of Performance Bike, but also did their inaugural fast-group ride on Sunday, which was fun. Then, a week before my event, it was time to taper my training.

I hate having to register for events (or reserve hotel rooms) ahead of time. You’re forced to gamble on having good weather, and monitoring the long-range forecast occupies me in the lead-up to any event.

After waiting, I registered for the MS Ride a week before, when the forecast said there’d be a small chance of rain and summerlike temperatures. Over time that changed to likely rain on Saturday and clearing on Sunday morning. We’d be directly beneath a stationary front, which would oscillate north and south all weekend, with disturbances traveling along it.

That was the story Friday night, but on Saturday morning’s forecast shifted most of the rain to Sunday. When riders lined up for the 7am start on the lakefront at Moraine State Park, it was a cool and dry 59°, but heavy overcast with ominous clouds.

The first segment was lots of up and down, and there was a patch of wet, puddle-filled roads where we’d just missed a shower. We got through it without setting soaked, but on one steep hill my slick tires kept trying to slip out on the wet pavement.

As usual, I skipped the first rest stop, which put most of the pack behind me. The crowds thinned out, and a group of a half dozen guys and I passed each other back and forth until the second rest stop, where they pulled off while I rolled on.

Mostly-shootable rolling hills punctuated the third segment. A group of five guys blew past me in a paceline, but those were the only other riders I saw on that entire 13-mile run. There didn’t seem to be as many riders on the road this year, which was probably attributable to the weather forecast.

After the steep ascent into Mercer, I took my first rest of the day. I was ten minutes behind my schedule, but that was fine, because I wanted to conserve my strength, being so under-trained this year.

The soaking-wet roads were reinforced with another round of sprinkles as I rolled along the up-and-down farmlands of the next leg. I arrived at the Sandy Lake lunch stop at 10:20am, still trailing my goal by a few minutes, so I had a quick ham sandwich and carried on.

After the lunch stop, the route follows a major road that carries high-speed traffic. It’s not my favorite part of the ride, but it does end in a ripping downhill to the Cochranton rest stop at mile 65.

But in cycling what goes down must come up, and there are two long, legendary hills leaving town, after which the small number of us on the full 100-mile route vector off on a big loop to add the extra miles.

At mile 77, my GPS told me that I was no longer on the route provided by the ride, so I backtracked a mile to the last intersection to verify the route markings. Okay, I continued, again leaving the GPS route, but after a couple miles with no signage, I stopped and started to call the support number to verify that I was on course. But another rider rode past, so I followed him until more signs appeared. It was probably a short detour, but I was uncomfortable that we weren’t on the route I’d downloaded.

Not long after, we rolled into an unexpected rest stop, where I learned that both the route and the mile 83 rest stop had been moved at the last minute. The town had stripped one of our roads and had planned to resurface it the day before the ride, but had been delayed.

At the ad hoc rest stop, I had to admit my fatigue and accept that I’d have to plod and nurse my way over the last 20 miles. The final rest stop at mile 91 came just before the last big hill, and I took a ten-minute rest there before setting out.

The last segment was a painful challenge, but I made it to the top of the ridge and enjoyed the final 300-foot descent to the finish line at Allegheny College in Meadville.

I arrived at 2:42pm, which was the slowest of my three times doing this ride, but most of that will have been due to added mileage from the detour, combined with my confusion and backtracking along the route. Although there had been sprinkles and some roads were wet, the predicted rain had held off. It was still really cool and overcast, but that had protected us from the summertime sun.

Evening was predictable. I checked in, got my bag, stored my bike, got into my dorm room, showered, and collapsed until suppertime. The food’s always good, and I shoved down a tray full of chicken, rice, pickles, berries, ice cream, and a cola. Afterward, I relaxed and watched a New England Revolution soccer match on my phone.

I also checked the weather. Originally, Sunday was supposed to be clearing and approaching 80°, but the oscillation that had given us a mostly rain-free Saturday was about to reverse. That was verified when, after a fitful night’s sleep, I got up at 5am to steady rain and a gusty breeze. Between the cold, wet weather, an aching back, and an unsettled stomach, I was not looking forward to setting out.

After breakfast, I kitted up with all the gear I’d brought and set off with the rest of the unfortunates at 7am into a heavy, soaking rainstorm. The worst part about riding in the rain is the initial getting wet, because once you’re soaked through, no amount of rain and puddles and road spray is going to make you any wetter. At only 54°, the first segment was just miserable. My only consolation was that I’d only have to ride in it for 65 miles: about four and a half hours.

After skipping the first rest stop, the rain lightened to the point where you could almost convince yourself it was going to stop. But the sprinkles returned throughout the second segment.

At the second rest stop, I gathered strength for the ride’s final noteworthy hill. Continuing through serious farmlands, I distinctly recall the absurdity of passing a group of a dozen girls in simple Amish dress, sitting in three neat rows on what looked to be a small choral riser by a driveway. I weakly waved a greeting and they all called out cheerful hellos. It was absolutely surreal.

After having slackened for a while, the skies opened up again after the final rest stop. However, the ride was almost over, and the final ten miles were mostly downhill. I arrived in Conneaut and rolled down into the lakefront park at 11:26am with no ceremony, but delighted to get out of the rain.

After steady rain and temperatures that never exceeded 57°, I spent no time enjoying the lakefront reception. I grabbed my finisher’s medal, a small square of oregano-laden pizza, and a Dilly Bar. Once the ice cream had disappeared, my only goal was to get warm and dry. So I biked up to the upper parking lot, grabbed my bag, commiserated with other finishers in the changing tent, loaded my bike onto the truck, and hopped on the chartered bus that would bring me back to the start line.

With Inna out of town, I couldn’t repeat what we did last year: staying in Erie and spending a leisurely Monday on a lakefront beach before driving home. Having left my car at the start line in Moraine State Park, the only way back was the bus. That was for the best anyways, because it was terrible beach weather, and I just wanted to go home and dry out.

Obviously, the ride’s salient element was the weather. The ride itself went well enough, and I’m glad to have a second century under my belt for 2018. But the rain and cold temperatures took most of the fun out of the experience. Happy to put the event behind me, I drove 45 minutes back to Pittsburgh, where—lo and behold!—I returned to a very welcome 80° and sunshine!

June 4th, 2018

Velo Toscano

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A week at a Tuscan villa is a cyclist’s dream vacation: scenic rolling hills, sunny Mediterranean weather, and—in May—the chance to visit the Giro d’Italia, one of the three European Grand Tours at the elite level of professional cycling. When the opportunity arose, I leapt at the chance.

Although the trip was ostensibly to join Inna and her kin for a family reunion, cycling was my main motivation and goal. Since this is my cycling blog, that’s the scope of this post; you can read about the non-cycling aspects in my overall trip blogpost on my main blog.

Rental Bianchi

My rental Bianchi at our villa

While the countryside was amazing, my rental bike, the weather, and my schedule all fell short of my aspirations and expectations, so I came home disappointed. Here are the details that add up to my overall underwhelming experience.

After arriving at our attractive villa late Saturday night, on Monday I drove to the Chianti Bike shop in the nearby village of Falciani. The proprietor claimed to have not received the email I’d sent requesting a week-long rental, but he spoke enough English that we communicated, and he set me up with a serviceable Bianchi Infinito.

Although Google Maps routed me along the intriguingly-named Via Ho Chi Minh in Impruneta, I drove home safely and added the various accoutrements I’d brought from home to the bike, such as my saddle bag, GPS cyclo-computer, and so forth.

The weather was cold and cloudy, with isolated rain, but between showers I set out for a quick six-mile shakedown cruise: from our villa in the village of Mezzomonte (Italian for “Half a Mountain”) down to the bottom of our ridge, then up and down another hill before climbing back up to our villa from the opposite direction I’d descended.

Having Campagnolo shifters, which work differently than my Shimano ones, the bike took a bit of getting used to. But that was nothing compared to the non-compact gearing. Whereas I’m used to riding with a lowest gear of 34x28 (32 gear-inches), the rental only went down to 39x25 (41 gear-inches). In real terms, that means its easiest gear was 28 percent harder than what I’m used to. It’s as if you took my regular bike and removed the two easiest gears.

That wouldn’t be a problem on flat terrain, but Tuscany (much like Pittsburgh) is full of short, stupidly steep hills. After a screaming, swooping descent down off our high ridge toward the town of Grassina, I made a side turn onto the little hill I wanted to climb, up to a hilltop church. With no gears sufficient for the ascent, I had to stop along the way to let my legs recover; and I never stop on climbs (thanks to the miracle of modern gearing)!

After topping that climb, flying back down to the valley, and dragging myself back up the ridge to our villa, I’d climbed over 1,000 feet in less than six miles, and was really feeling the effort, especially in the right calf I’d injured last month. Between the stupid hills and the cold, wet weather, I was already wondering who in their right mind would call Tuscany a cycling paradise!

The weather remained cold and unsettled Tuesday, and I stayed at the villa because Inna had stayed home that day, rather than sightseeing.

Wednesday morning I woke to yet more rain. Still, having spent $200 to rent a bike, I set out between storms on what looked like a simple 20-mile route downloaded from Chianti Bike’s website.

Having driven it a couple times, the road from the villa to the nearest town of Impruneta was becoming familiar, but once there, the shape of the ride became decidedly pear-esque. At first, I missed a side turn and went off track; but after backtracking, I discovered that the official route took me the wrong way up a one-way street, before it later simply rejoined the main street I’d already wrong-turned onto! That’s dumb.

Crossing the Greve

Crossing the Greve

Il Ferrone Detour

Il Ferrone Detour

As I hit a short descent into the village of Ferrone, the rain promptly started to pour again, so I pulled off and stood forlornly underneath a strip-mall overhang for 15 minutes, waiting for it to pass.

Setting out again, things got even worse. I promptly missed another turn and had to double back. After crossing the river Greve, the side road immediately turned to gravel, which at first seemed interesting, in that I’d be experiencing the same gravel roads as the nearby “Strade Bianchi” professional bike race. But it wasn’t gravel so much as deep, wet, sucking mud.

I tried climbing the side hill next to a farm before realizing I was off course and doubling back. Then I plowed through what looked like a sodden logging road and forded a stream before realizing I was again off course and backtracking. On my third try, the correct “road” looked even less-used than my previous two mistakes. With me and the bike covered in mud, I angrily decided to abort the off-road bullshit, give up on the bike shop’s route, and just set off on my own. At least then I could stick to the pavement!

So I pulled over and tried to plan an ad hoc course that would hit the same major towns as the bike shop’s route. I decided to stick to the strada provinciali: the primary roads. They were busier, with more motor vehicles passing at higher speeds, but at least they were paved!

I followed SP3 back to Ferrone, then through Falciani—recognizing the Chianti Bike shop as I passed by. Then SP2 up to Tavarnuzze, which I also recognized from the previous evening’s grocery trip. Despite the wet conditions, I flew on these smooth primary roads, which were also much flatter, congenially following the river valley rather than billy-goating up and down over steep ridges.

By then I was feeling confident enough to consider rejoining the original bike route I’d downloaded, which cut across Tavarnuzze by taking a small street over a steep hill. But in a continuation of the day’s extemporaneous nature, I was turned away by a road closure!

Back on the provincial road out of Tavarnuzze, I endured a long (but thankfully not steep) climb up SP69 through Bagnolo back to Impruneta, which was all familiar from the previous afternoon’s drive. Then SP70 back to Mezzomonte and our villa. 22 miles, and thankfully less climbing than I’d feared (1,700 feet).

If you noticed that I haven’t talked about the Giro d’Italia yet, it wasn’t because I hadn’t thought about it. If I was going to do it, Thursday would have been the day I visited the Giro. Out of all 21 stages, Thursday’s stage 12 from Osimo to Imola was the closest to Florence.

However, Imola would have required an uncomfortable and indirect two-hour drive each way, across the Apennines, and hours of standing along the roadside, waiting. It would have been a full-day committment.

At the exact same time as the riders finished in Imola, online registration opened for a difficult-to-get-into meditation retreat that I was set on attending.

Plus, Thursday was my last chance to get a meaningful ride in. So after missing my chance to see the Tour de Langkawi in Malaysia two months ago, I chose to forego my chance to see the Giro when it passed so close.

San Polo In Chianti Pano

A wet panorama in San Polo In Chianti

Because I needed to be back by 3pm to register for the retreat, I could only manage another short morning ride. I fabricated my own route into the Chianti region and set off, again defying the continued cold, wet weather.

I followed my Monday route down off the ridge and into Grassina, where it immediately started to pour. Despite my misery, I picked up SP56 and headed south through Capanuccia, San Bartolomeo a Quarate, and down into San Polo In Chianti. Then SP119 west to Strada In Chianti, north through the town on SR222 before hitting SP69 into Impruneta from the southeast, and the now comfortable SP70 back to Mezzomonte and the villa.

At just 20 miles and 1,750 feet, in wet conditions, it was a disappointing end to my riding in Tuscany.

On Friday I loaded the bike into the car and brought it back to the shop, picking up a set of red handlebar-end plugs as my only cycling souvenir to bring home from Italy.

Impruneta Swoops

SP70 swoops through Impruneta

From a cycling standpoint, it was a disappointing trip. I’d anticipated long, sunny days spent exploring the countryside, admiring gorgeous views, quaint villages, and quiet roads. Instead, I missed the Giro and only managed 50 miles spread out over three very short rides, all of which were cold, wet, and miserable.

With better weather, I would obviously feel differently. The landscape is scenic and breathtaking. The roads are narrow and swooping, providing endless variety and revealing new photo opportunities every couple hundred meters. The drivers mostly didn’t cause me any problems, and certainly were less belligerent toward cyclists than in the US.

Those were all nice things that I appreciated. I have a feeling that Tuscany would be a wonderful place to ride on a nice day, with better equipment. But the absence of sun for my entire visit literally overshadowed my enjoyment of the region.

In the end, I was glad to go back home to Pittsburgh, where—despite its shitty roads and aggressive drivers—it’s sunny and warm at least some of the time.

May 3rd, 2018

April Snowers

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12 MLR

So far, 2018 has been one of those years. Terrible weather that caused the cancellation of several events, lack of motivation following the effort demanded by the Dirty Dozen, a pulled calf muscle, and a two-week trip to Asia that blew a big gaping hole in my training. So there hasn’t been much progress to report thus far this year.

Last year, by May 1st I had 708 miles under my belt, and 937 the year before. In fact, you’d have to go back to 2014 to find a year with as slow a start as the 519 miles I accrued by the end of April 2018.

On the other hand, I got out for several very short cold-weather rides, overcoming my lethargy to claim no less than 10 more tags in the local Tag-o-Rama game, which combines bicycling, photography, and local landmarks.

How’s the future look? Very mixed. The weather has finally turned the corner. I’ve got more international travel in May, which will hopefully include some memorable riding, rather than leaving me completely idle. But then a meditation retreat will probably blow another hole in the month of June.

It’s not a write-off, but my training is going to remain behind schedule through the entire first half of the year. But the calendar looks more open starting in July.

The degree to which I’ll be able to train up to peak form that late in the year will depend on my motivation, which is still marginal. At least I can be somewhat confident it will have stopped snowing by then.

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