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Orny's Cycling Journal


11 PMC Riding



Skipped Back 25

September 18th, 2018

Kittens & Puppies

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

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

07 PMC Riding

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

12 MLR

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

12 MLR

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

12 MLR

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

11 PMC Riding

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

07 PMC Riding

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

12 MLR

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

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.

February 15th, 2018

The Body Electric

10 PMC Riding

With my recent purchase of a thermal jacket and awesome thermal bib tights from Craft, I’ve become a lot more comfortable riding in colder temperatures. Matched with a balaclava and either thermal gloves or lobster mitts, I’m able to ride comfortably for hours at 20-40°.

Adafruit strainless conductive thread

However, there’s always been one glaring problem with cold-weather rides: full-fingered gloves make it impossible to operate my new bike computer. Its capacitive touch-screen requires contact with skin to complete an electrical circuit to determine where the touch took place.

Although not a critical issue, it was most pressing (pun intended) when relying on the computer for navigational cues. But the computer just won’t respond to fingers insulated (in both thermal and electrical senses) within full-fingered gloves.

This difficulty first came up on the 3-2-1 Ride, a chilly century along the Great Allegheny Passage. Fortunately, being mostly on a bike path, the route didn’t require much navigational work. I easily made do by just bending down low over the handlebars and operating the touchscreen… with my nose!

In later months I’d also work it by removing the computer from its handlebar mount, bringing it up to my face, and rubbing it against my nose. But after a few swipes, it became apparent that a nose just isn’t a particularly good stylus, and a smear of nose grease really detracts from a screen’s legibility.

I considered buying some newfangled gloves with capacitive finger pads, but that seemed unnecessarily expensive, since both my sets of gloves are fairly new and otherwise work great. I looked into capacitive gel and dots that you could apply to the fingers, but those had pretty poor reviews.

Finally, I decided to spend ten bucks on a bobbin of conductive stainless steel thread, sewing it through the fingertip of my full-fingered gloves, lobster mitts, and my non-cycling winter gloves.

While it isn’t perfect, the conductive thread doesn’t work too badly, doing the trick more often than not. And that’s good enough, when the alternative is stopping and taking off one’s gloves in 17° weather!

I’d generally recommend the thread. It’s not too heavy gauge, so it’s plenty flexible and easy to work with. And, of course, it works just as well with capacitive cell phone screens as it does with bike computers.

However, there are a couple things to be aware of.

There’s no need to be cheap here, so buy reputable thread. There are plenty of people out there selling fakes.

Secondly, remember that the thread works by conducting the electrical charge from your body to the screen. Thus, you can’t just sew the outside surface of the glove; you have to go all the way through the material to the inside, ensuring that there’s a good contact with the flesh of your finger inside the glove as well as the screen. When the thread doesn’t work, it’s most likely because it’s not in solid contact with your finger.

And although it’s pretty easy to work with, trying to manipulate a sewing needle in the tiny, narrow inside of a glove’s finger can be difficult. It doesn’t have to be the cleanest sewing job, but you want it to be both effective and at least a little durable, so take your time.

Do that, and you can keep your gloves on and your fingers warm, and keep the nose-grease off your bike computer!

December 31st, 2017

My second year riding in Pittsburgh somehow felt both pleasantly normal as well as superlative and memorable in so many ways. Overall, I rode a ton, befriended some good folks, grew more familiar with my new hometown, set some new records, met all my goals, vanquished Pittsburgh’s hardest challenge, and had a blast doing so. Here’s my year in review…

Team Decaf group ride at the Point

Team Decaf group ride at the Point, with Ornoth back center

Ornoth crushing a hill

Ornoth crushing a hill on the Escape to the Lake MS ride

Ornoth & Monica finishing the 100k

Ornoth & Monica finishing the Pittsburgh Randonneurs' 100k populaire

Ornoth leading a pack through the city

Ornoth leading a pack through the city during PedalPGH

Ornoth descending Dirty Dozen Hill 6 (Rialto) from the neighborhood of Troy Hill.

Video of Ornoth (in black) amongst a group of Dirty Dozen riders (around 3:02) to the top of Suffolk St.

Great closeup action shot of Ornoth ascending Dirty Dozen Hill 9 (Canton Ave).

Video of Ornoth conquering the upper half of Canton Ave (10:50 to 11:00).

The tired-but-happy look of an official Dirty Dozen finisher!

Ornoth's 2017 Cycling Calendar

My Original 2017 Goals

This time last year, I set four explicit goals for 2017.

Purchase and learn how to use a new Garmin Edge 820 GPS cyclo-computer. This was the first thing I did upon getting back to Pittsburgh in February. The 820 has a lot of new features, some of which actually work. The D-Fly integration with my electronic shifters has mostly worked, despite the added drain on the Di2’s battery, and I’ve enjoyed perusing my shifting data on di2stats.com. I created my own custom data field (feet of ascent per mile) for display on the 820, and got Shimano’s E-TUBE app working such that I can update my shifters’ firmware from my phone. While the 820 didn’t live up to what it should have been, it’s been a steady performer and a worthwhile purchase. Read my full Garmin Edge 820 review.

Ride both days of the 2017 Escape to the Lake MS Ride. My partner Inna’s support made this weekend expedition possible, and it was a lovely experience. Not only did I get to complete the event and finish on the very shore of Lake Erie, but Inna and I stayed and spent an extra day lounging on the lakeside beaches of Presque Isle State Park. It was very reminiscent of my Cape Cod trips with Sheeri back when she supported my Pan-Mass Challenge rides. Read my Escape to the Lake ride report.

Complete the 2017 Woiner Cancer Foundation 3-2-1 Ride. This became a primary goal after I missed the 2016 ride during my mother’s hospitalization. In 2017, they offered a special 80-mile route to VIP fundraisers from 2016 (which I qualified for), so on October 1st I saddled up for a long, chilly, flat ride along the Great Allegheny Passage from Ohiopyle back to Pittsburgh, most of it on crushed limestone rail trail. I enjoyed exploring some new territory while further increasing the amount of money I’ve raised for cancer research. Read my 3-2-1 Ride report.

Attempt my first Dirty Dozen race. Climbing the city’s 13 steepest hills, including the steepest public street in the world, this is an immense challenge, and the city’s most infamous ride. I missed last year’s edition while caretaking my mother, but this year I participated in all the training rides, then enjoyed an immensely fulfilling and memorable ride on race day, earning hard-won lifetime bragging rights. Unquestionably the highlight of the year. See my training rides blogpost, my full Dirty Dozen ride report, and my time-lapse videos of the most difficult hills.

Additional Highlights

Achieving all my explicit goals guaranteed that I had a good year. But there was an awful lot more to 2017 on top of that…

  • Further deferring my job hunt gave me the entire year off to devote to cycling, and I made good use of the opportunity. I topped 4,000 miles for the first time since 2010. And I shattered my record for number of rides per year; this year’s 154 rides is about double number of rides I used to do in Boston.
  • I continued meeting and befriending lots of local cyclists, which has been rewarding, and one of the biggest overall themes for 2017. It’s nice when someone recognizes you, which is happening regularly now, so I’m starting to feel more like a known community member than an unfamiliar outsider.
  • I attended both the Spring Rally and Fall Rally organized by the Western Pennsylvania Wheelmen, and got a snazzy new WPW jersey.
  • I claimed 13 more tags in the BikePGH forums’ Tag-o-Rama cycling and photography game, placing me within the Top 20 players. It’s been an interesting way to learn more about the city. See all my Tag-o-Rama photos.
  • I was quoted (anonymously) in BikePGH’s summary of their survey of cyclists’ attitudes toward self-driving vehicles, and re-quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s article covering the survey. I was righteously amused. Read my self-driving vehicle blogpost.
  • I participated in the National Bike Challenge, confirming that I’m around the Top 10% most active cyclists locally, state-wide, and nationally. Read my National Bike Challenge blogpost.
  • I joined a half dozen other BikePGH forum readers in playing Velogames’ annual Tour de France fantasy league. It was interesting, but my team selections placed me near the middle of the pack. Oh well!
  • I picked up an attractive graphic poster of the “Hell of the North: Paris-Roubaix”, which is hung above my desk at home.
  • I continued to maintain BikingPGH’s Annual Ride Calendar, as I described here, and also iterated on my paper-based cycling wall calendar. Both have been useful planning tools that I’ll continue working on for 2018. Here’s a link to the full size 2017 version.
  • I picked up two absolutely pivotal pieces of kit: a thermal cycling jacket and a pair of thermal full-leg bibs, both from my favorite manufacturer: Craft. Those have utterly transformed my relationship to cold-weather riding, and made even the 17° Dirty Dozen practice ride a pleasant experience.
  • My Strava trophy case added badges for completing climbing challenges and gran fondos for April, May, June, July, and August, plus a gran fondo for October. Ironically, despite training for and completing the Dirty Dozen, as well as my 250,000-foot climbing goal, I failed to earn Strava’s climbing challenge badges for October, November, or December!
  • That 250,000-foot goal, as well as the six centuries I rode in 2017, are highlights that I’ll discuss in more detail in the next section.

The Charthouse

Last year’s annual summary included a chart showing that my first year riding in Pittsburgh utterly shattered all the previous climbing records set during my years in Boston.

In 2017, I eclipsed last year’s record, surpassing a quarter million feet of climbing (47 vertical miles), more than double the climbing I’d ever done back in Boston. My 62 feet of ascent per mile ridden is also a new record. You can see an updated version of that climbing chart by reading my 250,000 foot blogpost.

Also in last year’s summary, I used the Strava Premium and Stravistix TRIMP “fitness and freshness” charts to tell the story of my year and put it into context with previous years, so I’ll do that again here. In 2017 I used the detailed TRIMP charts exhaustively in planning my pre-event training and recovery, which proved remarkably effective.

2017 TRIMP fitness chart

The above chart shows my fitness level over the past twelve months, with major rides highlighted. Obviously, I started the year with zero fitness after spending five months off the bike while caretaking my mother. You see a big jump when I got home in February, followed by a period of consolidation; another jump in mid-April, which kicked off a lengthy and consistent improvement leading up to my first century of the year: the two-day Escape to the Lake MS Ride in mid-June.

After finally notching that first 100-mile ride, my fitness stayed at a high level through my four summer centuries: the Akron Bicycle Club’s ABC Ride in July (a new event to me), followed a week later by the PMTCC 3-State Ride (when my fitness peaked), then August’s Every Neighborhood Ride, and PedalPGH (which were both long group rides that I extended into full centuries).

My fitness dipped noticeably during a two-week vacation in September before a quick spike for my first 3-2-1 Ride on October 1 (a long charity ride that I extended for my sixth and final century of the year).

The next two months were spent preparing for the Dirty Dozen ride, but hill climbs don’t accrue as much fitness benefit as endurance rides, so although I was gaining power, you see a jagged slight downward trend in fitness there. After the Dirty Dozen, my fitness remained high to the end the year, while I polished off my goal of climbing a quarter million feet in 2017.

2011-2017 TRIMP fitness chart

Tacking my 2017 fitness onto the end of the chart to depict my past seven seasons tells the same story in brief: beginning from ground zero, an initial kick, consolidation, and a second kick up to peak fitness. I stayed at a high level of fitness for a much longer time this year, thanks to training for November’s Dirty Dozen and my climbing goal-driven riding in December.

All that late-season riding drives the major difference between 2017’s curve and that of previous years: I’m ending the calendar year at a much higher level of fitness than ever before. Now, whether that will translate to better form next spring is an open question, and will depend on how much riding I do in January, February, and March.

I’m sure there’ll be days that call me outside for a ride, but right now I’ll happily take a couple months to rest and recover.

Goals for 2018

It feels kind of strange, but I’m going into 2018 without any major cycling goals.

Having two seasons under my belt, I’ve done all the new rides that I wanted to experience when I moved here, so I don’t feel like I have any unfinished business that needs particular attention.

I’m happy with my fitness, my equipment, my knowledge of the area, and the relationships I’ve been growing in the local cycling community.

So my overall attitude going into 2018 is: “Nothing specific, but more of the same, please.”

That said, there are a couple things I anticipate for 2018.

With a trip to Italy planned for May, I do hope to do some riding around the Tuscan hills, and hopefully spectate a stage of the Giro d’Italia, as well. That trip would probably be the highlight of my year, and it’s the only new experience I’m specifically targeting.

And there’s a rumor that GCN might be sending a crew to Pittsburgh next year, presumably for November’s Dirty Dozen, or at least a peek at the route. It would be fun to be involved with that somehow, although I’m not relishing the idea of doing that ride again!

And along the way, I’ll pass two milestones on my R2-Di2 bike seen here; I’ll eclipse 15,000 miles on it, which is just a round number, but at 16,800 miles I’ll surpass all the riding I did on my first bike—the Devinci hybrid seen here—reminding me that after five years “the new bike” ain’t quite so new as she used to was.

But other than those things, I’m happy to take 2018 as it comes. If it’s anything like how enjoyable and eventful 2017 was, I’ll have absolutely no cause to complain!

December 28th, 2017

Ascending to 250,000 Feet

11 PMC Riding

I really don’t know what I was thinking.

Last year’s end-of-year summary included a chart of how much climbing I’d done over each of the past seven years, because after climbing 87,000 to 120,000 feet per year in Boston, my first year in Pittsburgh had tallied a record 190,000 feet. But having been forced to stop riding at the end of September, I added: “If I had ridden at the same pace for the last three months of 2016 I would have broken a quarter million feet.

You can see where this is headed, then? A quarter million feet of climbing in one year. That’s double or triple the climbing I’d done back in Boston. 76 vertical kilometers. Imagine climbing a mountain that stands 47 miles tall. That’s nearly nine times the height of Mt. Everest… Or a third of the way to Skylab’s orbital altitude!

Now take a look at the chart below (click for bigness). The pink (2016) and grey (2017) lines represent my two years here in Pittsburgh, and everything else is from Boston.

2017 climbing chart

My strategy throughout 2017 was to roughly do the same amount of climbing as I’d done at the same point in 2016. I started six weeks “behind schedule” after my exile to Maine, so I spent February through May catching up to my climbing from the year before. Once those two lines converged, I was back on track, and from June through September I mostly just kept pace with my 2016 numbers.

In October and November, my annual climbing goal was back-burnered while I focused on training for the Dirty Dozen. So although I was still doing a lot of climbing, my progress toward 250,000 feet was haphazard and untracked. And I had nothing to compare myself to once I surpassed by 2016 total…

After completing the Dirty Dozen at the end of November, I checked on my progress toward my mostly-forgotten climbing goal, and discovered that I already stood at 226,000 feet. I was still roughly on track to surpass a quarter million feet of climbing.

But I needed another 24,000 feet: an average of 667 feet per day. In the four previous months I’d averaged 905, 570, 785, and 705 feet per day, so it was certainly doable. But it would still take dedication to achieve, especially in the discouraging cold and snows of December.

Furthermore, my legs were shattered after the Dirty Dozen ride, and I was exhausted by 2½ months of hill climbing. The last thing I wanted to do was go out and spend another whole month doing hill repeats in sub-freezing weather!

But that’s exactly what I did. I spent the next four weeks burying more stupid hills beneath my wheels, accumulating the remaining vertical distance, and finally surpassing 250,000 feet on Christmas Eve. Happily, I didn’t have to endure any of those ridiculous Dirty Dozen ramps, but with much less time for rest and recovery, I did quite a job on my aching kneeballs.

If I was riding in Boston, a quarter million feet of ascent would be a huge accomplishment; but is it really a big deal here in Pittsburgh? After all, if I hadn’t been exiled to Maine last winter, I would have surpassed that threshold in both 2016 and 2017, just by doing my regular amount of riding.

Of course, that’s “regular” for years when I’m not working for a living, and thus able to spend more time in the saddle. Even here, 250,000 feet would be hard to achieve while working nine-to-five. So I’ll say that it was as a noteworthy achievement, especially in the context of my cycling career to date.

When I finished that goal-conquering ride on Christmas Eve, my overall mileage for the year stood at 3,996. Obviously, a numbers-obsessed rider like me wasn’t going to finish the year just 4 miles short of a round 4,000. So once more into the 17° weather for a final ten-mile ride to polish off the last milestone of the year.

Though noteworthy, riding 4,000 miles isn’t anywhere near a personal record; in Boston, I exceeded 4,000 miles per year three times. But the last time that happened was way back in 2010, meaning this has been the most I’ve ridden during any of the past seven years, and the most I’ve ever put on the (2013 vintage) R2-Di2 bike in any single season. So it’s worth noting for that.

Plugging those two numbers into a simple equation—a quarter million feet of climbing over four thousand miles—produces another factoid: over the entire 2017 season I averaged over 62 feet of climbing per mile ridden.

That’s a record amount of hilliness, topping last year’s 58 feet/mile. Thanks to Pittsburgh’s stupid topography, I doubled the 30-34 fpm I averaged in Boston.

All that put a nice cap on my 2017 cycling season, leaving me to take some time off to crunch some numbers and spit out my comprehensive “year in review” post. That will be posted shortly, since I’m finally declaring a belated start of my official “off-season”!

December 27th, 2017

Tack O'Rammach

12 MLR

I ha’ent writ much about the BikePGH forum’s Tag-o-Rama game since my first tag pickup two years ago. I’ve meant to get caught up and share the tags I’ve found and set, but figured I’d wait and post an end-of-year summary.

To review the rules: the person who is “It” sets a “tag” by biking somewhere interesting, taking a photo of the location with their bike in it, and posting the picture on the forum. Then the other players race to figure out where that location is, get there by bike, take a similar picture with their bike in it, and post that. Whoever posts first becomes “It” and can set the next tag location.

It might be easier to explain by seeing it in action, so here’s a link to the start of the 2017 Tag-o-Rama thread.

I started out slowly back in 2016, only chasing down four tags. This year I’ve paid more attention, collecting 13 more, for a total of 17. That puts me in the Top 20 out of more than 120 players!

So here (on the left) are the 17 tags that I picked up, and (on the right) the 17 tags that I subsequently set. As with nearly everything I post, you can click through the thumbnails to get to larger original photos.

My first Tag-o-Rama find: Aspinwall Waterfront Park playground sculpture
Although I knew about the game before I moved to Pittsburgh in December 2015, it took me until March 2016 to claim my first tag. Part of that was unfamiliarity with the area (both in terms of recognizing tag locations as well as good routes to bike there), and part was trepidation about riding in the worst of winter. This is a sculptural playground structure across the Allegheny in Aspinwall. It took me just 97 minutes to claim this tag after it was initially posted to the forum. I wedged my rear tire in between the character's fingers to make it look like he was grasping the bike.
My first Tag-o-Rama tag set: Home Improvement storefront on Centre Ave
For my first placed tag, I picked something I thought might be a little obscure: this abandoned "Home Improvement" storefront on Centre Ave in the Hill District. Apparently it wasn't obscure enough, because it was claimed just two and a half hours later. The "bicycle rampant" is a favorite position.
Magnetom Tag
Two months later, my second tag was this "MAGNETOM" sign located in the back of Allegheny General Hospital, also on the north side.
Arctic Tag
Although technically outside the suggested rectangle that we keep our tags within, I couldn't resist dropping a tag in a neighborhood in Mifflin where Arctic Way connected to Antarctic Way via Flight Way (also near Official Way). I hinted at the location by saying: "Although there are several ways to get from the south pole to the north pole, there’s only one official way. But by thinking a mile and a half outside of the box, I didn’t have to use the airport to find the shortest flight from pole to pole."
Westinghouse Castle
At the end of a 60-mile expedition to Export PA, I returned to town via the towns of Trafford (where I took a digger and incurred some road rash) and Wilmerding, where I got this tag at the Westinghouse Air Brake Company General Office Building (aka Westinghouse Castle).
Fifth Avenue isn't a good place to bike, but as a major commuter route I figured someone would recognize the PVBLIC BATHS building, which now houses a convict assistance office. But even I was surprised that it was claimed just 71 minutes after I posted it! Note that I was using my old bike (the Plastic Bullet) when I claimed (above) and set this tag (here).
Scott Electric Tag
My fourth and final tag pickup of 2016 was at the Arsenal Terminal in the Strip, the location of Pittsburgh's Art All Night festival.
Wilkinsburg Church Tag
And my final drop of 2016 was at this church in Wilkinsburg, at the corner of Rebecca and Coal. My hint was a black and white still of a napkin monogrammed "R de W". That's for Rebecca de Winter, a plot element in Hitchcock’s 1940 film "Rebecca".
Braddock ToR Mural
After five months in Maine, it took me about a month to claim my first tag of 2017: this "Welcome to East Pittsburgh" mural on a railroad abutment down in Braddock.
170324 New Tag
As stated in my hint, my first 2017 tag set "has a flavor!" This cafe in Garfield named "Flavors". I wish I'd been more patient, because later in the year the tarp would come off and reveal a locomotive-shaped smoker hidden underneath.
Tag-o-Rama Tag Pickup
By now my Google and Steetview skills were paying off. This church on Herron Ave in the Hill District is heated geothermally using the runoff water from an underground coal mine!
Let's Meet
Although the Little Library is in the foreground, the thing that intrigued me about this location in Mt. Oliver were the WW1 sniper pillboxes (although they're actually hardened "cornhole" games).
Five days later someone posted a tag at a place I recognized: the former Animal Rescue League office near Point Breeze.
I'm always looking for interesting architectural features, and sometimes use them as tagdrops. This Cupack entryway near Woods Run is on a common route for group rides.
National Negro Opera Company
My third tag pickup in the month of May was at this National Negro Opera Company historic marker at an abandoned house in Homewood off Lincoln Ave.
You're Gonna Need a Bigger Street...
This is one of my all-time favorite tag drops. First, it plays on one of my favorite themes: places with strange names; in this case "Bigger Street" in Knoxville. Second, I came up with a really good hint. Playing off the Roy Scheider quote in "Jaws", I simply said, "You’re gonna need a bigger street." Finally, even though the answer was right there in plain sight, it absolutely confounded the veteran Tag-o-Rama players. I consider it one of my best.
This tag was just too easy to let go. Temple Sinai is on a main road less than half a mile from my apartment. Moreover, I walk over there every week for my Wednesday evening meditation group! It would have been shameful if I'd missed that one! And this was a bonus as the first photo I took with a brand new cellphone.
The Knob
My penchant for odd placenames continued with The Knob, a street in Ben Avon Heights which was a bit too far outside the suggested box. But it was priceless!
ToR Tag Pano
This one -- my tenth tag! -- was a strange pickup. The original photo was a bizarrely distorted shot underneath a bridge. But somehow I instantly recognized it as a railroad trestle on Highland Drive by the bike track. I sorta tried to "iron out" the original by exploding it into a flat panorama.
Tag-o-Rama Tag
I carried the tag all the way across town to Sheraden and dropped it on this convenient red dot in middle of Brevet Way. Why Brevet Way? Well, endurance cyclists know that randonneuring events are called "brevets". So I played off that in my clue, saying that "this is the only street in the city where you could ride an entire randonneuring event on a single public way."
Tag o rama
By now I was snagging one or two tags per month. The clues made it clear that this house was near corner of Hazelwood and Bigelow, a mile or two from the apartment, so it was an easy pickup.
Tag-o-Rama Tag
Having ridden by this building in Doughboy Square, I thought its industrial vibe was kind of interesting, especially with the opaque door with "True Believer" spray-painted on.
Tag o rama
Another tag that was easy because it was here in the East End was this one, at Tree Pittsburgh Seedling Nursery.
Tag-o-Rama Tag
There are some people who try to deduce location by triangulating on landmarks along the skyline. So here I tried to give those people something to do, as well as highlight the memorial to the USS Maine in the foreground.
Tag drama tag
This was another interesting one. I knew the area, because of a hint naming Jacob McCrea, who runs the Every Neighborhood Ride. But when I rode around that neighborhood, I couldn't find the right place. When I got home, Streetview told me it was on a side street rather than the main drag, and I'd ridden right past it three times! The next day I went back to Allentown and claimed the Black Forge Coffee House.
Tag-o-Rama Tag
I dropped this tag at an interesting building I'd seen in Homestead: the abandoned Charles Schwab Industrial School. For a hint, I quoted an old newspaper article about the building's dedication that had been very poorly OCR'ed, saying that the founder was: "STEEL TRUST’S PRESIDENT. WHO IS SOMETHING OF A PI H LANTH ROPIST."
Tag o Rama pickup
This one doesn't look like much. That's because I didn't care to include the "TRUMP TRAIN" sign that was the basis for this tag, which was positioned a little higher up the wall. Fuck 'em.
Tag-o-Rama Tag Drop
Then, for my tag drop, I said, "Let’s erase the Specter of the Trump Train with some Good Old Honesty." This warehouse is the former Morr Craft building on Old Honesty Street off Spring Garden, presumably the birthplace of the Formica Sunrise color line.
Tag o rama pickup
I returned to Doughboy Square to pick up this rock garden behind a Family Dollar store.
Tag-o-Rama Drop
Here's another favorite tag. Same reasoning as Bigger Street: (1) it's a cool placename: "The Boulevard" in Carrick; (2) I picked a cool clue: in this case, a link to Jackson Browne's song "Boulevard"; and (3) it stumped the veterans for quite a while.
Tag o rama pickup
Someone dropped this at a playground behind some of the dorms at CMU. Fairly close to home, so an easy pick. My twentieth tag pickup!
Tag-o-Rama Tagset
I've ridden by this house with a lighthouse on Linden Street many times. Unfortunately, after I tag dropped it, I learned that it had been used before, and thus was immediately familiar to some of the veterans. Can't win 'em all...
Tag o Rama pickup
Statues are usually pretty easy to track down using Google Images. This one, called "The Circle of Care" is in the entrance to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center down in Oakland. This one finally put me into the Top 20 Tag-o-Rama players.
Tag-o-Rama tagset
My penchant for unique architecture spurred this tag drop, also in Oakland, off Morewood.

December 14th, 2017

1-Minute Dirty Dozen

11 PMC Riding

I've posted one-minute hyperlapse videos of the five hardest hills in the Dirty Dozen, compiled from my on-bike action cam footage, so here’s a quick and painless run-thru if you’re interested in seeing how it went.

Or rather, it would be painless, except for the usual nausea-inducing camera shake associated with action cams. The hyperlapse helps, but only so much.

Also bear in mind that since the camera was mounted to my bike at a fixed angle, even steep hills appear flat because the bike—and thus the camera—are both tilted up at the same angle. The best way to judge the incline is by features at the sides of the road. And by other riders weaving back and forth, falling off their bikes, and walking…

1-Minute Dirty Dozen: Logan (4x)

1-Minute Dirty Dozen: Suffolk (6x)

1-Minute Dirty Dozen: Boustead (6x)

1-Minute Dirty Dozen: Eleanor (6x)

1-Minute Dirty Dozen: Tesla (10x)

December 5th, 2017

Or a Chest to Pin It On

01 PMC Standing

I biked in Boston for 15 years, doing over 50 centuries in numerous events. To my recollection, in all that time I only ever received two medals as a result. The first was from the Audax Club Parisien for my first 200k brevet; the other was for the 2015 Cape Cod Challenge MS Ride.

Although I rode 14 consecutive Pan-Mass Challenges, the most I ever got from them was a tiny pin; and that wasn’t for my riding, but for raising over $100,000 for them. Despite repeated mentions in my post-ride feedback, the PMC never gave ribbons or medals to finishers.

Cycling Awards

My 2016-17 Cycling Awards

I mention this to provide contrast with the two short years that I’ve lived in Pittsburgh, where I’ve received no less than eight medals and ribbons, as shown in the accompanying photo.

A surprising number of rides here give participants something to go home with. I’ve received three medals from two MS Rides (the extra one for doing their optional full century route), plus medals from a Randonneurs USA 100k brevet, the 3-2-1 Ride, the Pittsburgh Tour de Cure Gran Fondo, the PMTCC Three-State Ride, and my finisher’s ribbon from the recent Dirty Dozen. I should have received another ACP 200k medal, as well.

And you know what? As tacky and worthless as those tchotchkes are, they still mean something to me. They bring back memories of those rides, and I enjoy watching the hardware accumulate by my desk over the course of the season.

If I find them meaningful, I’m sure there are other riders who feel similarly. For anyone running a major event—especially a fundraising ride—such trinkets seem like a very inexpensive way to say “Thank you” and foster a rider’s loyalty to an event from year to year.

I’ve certainly had very positive associations with the rides here in Pittsburgh that have given them out, so I’m not sure why folks in New England have resisted it.

December 1st, 2017

Dirty Deeds Done

11 PMC Riding

No cutesy lead-in, just the unadorned fact that I completed Pittsburgh’s legendary, epic, ridiculously evil Dirty Dozen ride. And it was awesome!

This blogpost starts out with the high-level whys and hows, followed by a lot detail about the ride and each of the thirteen hills, and ends with my advice, hints, and tips for anyone considering riding the Dirty Dozen. Along with a chunder of photos and links to numerous videos.

Two riders share a kiss while waiting for a train to pass before climbing Hill 5 (Logan).

Weaving back and forth across Hill 5 (Logan), this rider nearly took me out.

Ornoth descending Hill 6 (Rialto) from the neighborhood of Troy Hill.

Video of Ornoth (around 0:16) rolling up Hill 6 (Rialto).

Two riders hit the deck and two others are stopped early on Hill 7 (Suffolk).

Video of Ornoth (in black) amongst a group of riders (around 3:02) to the top of Suffolk St.

Group 3 after Hill 8 (Sycamore), with helmet-less Ornoth left of center, looking down.

Great closeup action shot of Ornoth ascending Hill 9 (Canton Ave).

Video of Ornoth tackling the lower half of Canton Ave (from 2:43 onward).

Video of Ornoth conquering the upper half of Canton Ave (10:50 to 11:00).

Video of my Canton Ave ascent taken from my front wheel. Camera vibration warning!

Ornoth on the final ramp of Hill 12 (Eleanor) with the Birmingham Bridge in the background.

Ornoth still climbing that final ramp of Hill 12 (Eleanor).

Gasping for air, just rolling over the top of Hill 12 (Eleanor).

This is on the flat bit (Flowers Ave) at the start of the final climb. My shadow appears more eager than I am to face Hill 13 (Tesla).

The yellow hospital FALL RISK wristband I hung from my saddle... Very appropriate for the Dirty Dozen!

My 2017 Dirty Dozen jersey and that precious, hard-won official finisher's blue ribbon!

The tired-but-happy look of an official Dirty Dozen finisher!

What is it?

Spend the Saturday after Thanksgiving riding your bike up the traditional thirteen steepest hills in Pittsburgh. None are less than 20% max incline, some are over 30%, and at 37% Canton Ave is the steepest street on the entire planet! I am talking absolutely out-of-your-skull ludicrous amounts of pain.

Uhh, that sounds stupid. Why do it?

Each rider has their own motivations, but it usually boils down to the obvious: it’s a remarkable challenge. Do you have the muscle strength to survive the unforgiving length of Suffolk? Do you have the technical skill needed to ride up Canton without falling off the planet? Do you have the mental strength to look at a wall like Berryhill or Boustead and not give up and cry? And do your legs have the endurance to ride thirteen of these unforgiving bastards back-to-back? And can you do all that on cold, blustery day in late November?

Because it’s such a ridiculously extreme challenge, finishers earn lifetime bragging rights and respect. It’s a unique ride you can only do here in Pittsburgh. And between the cheering crowds and the camaraderie of other riders, it’s a whole lot of fun.

The race—yes, it actually is a race, if only for an inhumanly strong few—drew my attention long before I thought about moving to Pittsburgh. Since I was regularly here to visit Inna, years ago I checked out the local bike scene and discovered the event, even watching the live video feed streamed over the internet for several years.

When I moved here two years ago, I missed the 2015 event by just four days. Even if I was in no condition to ride, I would have enjoyed spectating and playing photographer.

Once here, I resolved to ride in 2016, and my resolve was doubled that spring, after the event’s colorful founder—two-time Race Across America winner Danny Chew—was crippled in a bike crash. I registered, scouted out eleven of the thirteen hills, riding them for a combined total of 21 ascents, and participated in the first of seven preparatory group rides…

Then my mother was hospitalized and I spent the next five months in Maine, missing the ride and resignedly watching the live video feed for another year. I consoled myself by creating a tool to compare the steepness of multiple road segments, including the Dirty Dozen hills.

How did I prepare?

This being my first attempt, and knowing I wouldn’t be racing for points, I took a step back and considered what my goals were. At the most basic, I wanted to have fun and to learn a lot. But my stretch goal was to become an “official” finisher, completing all thirteen hills without crashing, stopping, dabbing, or losing uphill progress.

You do not want to go into the Dirty Dozen without training for the rigors of climbing steep hills. My strategy, as with every ride I do, was: train by doing the same kind of riding you expect to encounter in the event. And with eleven of the thirteen Dirty Dozen hills within striking distance, the plan was obvious: climb those goddamned hills!

For eight weeks preceding the race, I spent one midweek day doing solo rides of the hills, both to build up my strength as well as to recon the hills themselves, learning where they were hardest and where I could back off and conserve my strength.

Then, each weekend I would join the weekly group training rides organized by the Western PA Wheelmen. Those started out doing 3-4 hills at a time, graduated to doing 6-7 at a time, and culminated by riding the entire course two weeks before the event, leaving ample time for recovery before race day.

As early as the second group ride I was joining others for “extra credit”, doing an additional four hills for a total of eight at a time. That gave me a lot of confidence that my body could withstand an entire day of hills. My self-assurance grew further when I successfully completed the group ride that covered the first seven hills in the rain!

As I described in my pre-ride blogpost, the final, full-course training ride was a brutally cold 17° ride, and I was disappointed by having to dab no less than four times for various reasons, including insufficient strength to finish off the last two hills.

When the training rides were done, I’d ridden every hill at least three times, some a dozen times, with a combined total of 75 ascents. I was as well prepared as possible. I was pretty confident, except for the difficulties I’d had on that last training ride. And I was really scared.

Although the forecast had called for temps rising from 38 to 50° with 30% chance of rain, I woke up to a pleasant surprise Saturday morning: clear skies and a temperature of 48°, heading toward the mid-50s! I donned my new 2017 Dirty Dozen jersey underneath my thermal jacket.

I set out at 8:15am and ran into other riders heading in the same direction, including one with my friend Ryan. I overheard them saying it was the best weather in the history of the event!

The Start

I swooped into the Bud Harris bike track at 8:30 and was greeted by friends Stef and Jim directing traffic. Stef had come back for the event from her new home in Vermont. She was going to marshal the fourth of four groups of riders—the “Party Bus”—but said she was sure she’d run into me out on the course. Sorry Stef, I wasn’t about to let that happen!

By 8:45 I was signed in and ready. They’d had a lot of last-minute registrations, and people were saying there were a record 450-500 riders for this 35th Dirty Dozen.

I moseyed over to the track infield and chatted with some training ride buddies, including Jeremiah, who has become famous for riding the event on a ponderous HealthyRide rental bike. We waited for the various groups to line up, which would be released in waves staggered by 5-10 minutes.

The first group were the cyclists racing for points on each hill. The second group were experienced cyclists. I had considered starting in Group 2 and then taking a long rest break halfway through the ride and falling back to a later group, but scrapped that idea when they announced that they were limiting Group 2 to riders below age 40.

So it would be either Group 3 or Group 4. The Group 4 Party Bus is slow and waits for everyone, and is filled with inexperienced riders who are dangerous and have no idea what they’re getting into. Since the danger presented by other riders was my biggest fear, I lined up with Group 3.

At 9:30 my group took the ceremonial lap around the track before hopping onto Washington Boulevard for the neutralized ride across the Highland Park Bridge over the Allegheny River to Aspinwall. Way too soon, we turned into a residential area on the flat along the river. The 2-mile ride barely counted as a warmup before the first hill.

Hill 1: Center Ave, Guyasuta St

Center Ave is just a nice warmup hill. You pass under the Route 28 highway and climb a really steep grade that only rates as middling-steep for the Dirty Dozen. After a quarter mile and 200 feet of climbing, it levels out into a second neighborhood. As you catch your breath, you wonder, “Was that all?”

The answer of course is “no”, but you do get a whopping six blocks of near-flat road to recover before turning onto Guyasuta, which stair-steps another 150 feet over another quarter mile without forcing you to go into the red.

Hill 1 will wake you up and get your legs warmed up. And it does make the first selection, turning back the worst of the tourists and newbies who aren’t ready for the challenge. For the real riders, that big rest in the middle is awfully forgiving, making it one of the easier hills we’d face.

According to Strava, Center/Guyasuta is 0.6 miles, gaining 377 feet in altitude, for an average grade of 11%. In training, I’d ridden Hill 1 four times.

Setting a precedent I would follow all day, I decided to ride at the back of the group. Although the weaker riders would be there, I would at least have the ability to regulate how close I got to them, and I could choose my own pace up each hill. It’s important to remember that your speed doesn’t matter in this race; what matters is that you don’t stop, and that you conserve enough strength to complete all 13 hills.

I eased up Center at a slower pace than I’d done in any of my training rides. Halfway up Guyasuta, I caught up with my riding buddy Phil, who has accompanied me on numerous rides. We finished the hill together, with my time a leisurely 8:01.

Unlike the training rides, where the group enjoyed plenty of recovery time at the top of each hill, we immediately set off for the next. If I had been closer to the front, I would have had more time to rest, but that would have meant taking more risk by riding in the middle of the pack.

One of the implications of climbing the steepest hills in town is that nearly every ascent is followed by an equal—but by definition longer and more gradual—descent. Over the neutralized 4 miles we’d drop 400 feet back down Kittanning Pike to the riverside in Sharpsburg for the next climb.

Hill 2: Ravine St, Midway Dr

If Hill 1 was a nice warmup, Hill 2 proceeds to the next level. Ravine/Midway is a carbon copy of Center/Guyasuta, but without that six-block rest zone in the middle. Another moderate climb, it passes under Route 28, then up a challenging slope, climbing 250 feet over a third of a mile.

The route used to bear left onto Sharps Hill Rd, but now the ride turns right onto Midway, which hairpins back on itself, then—like Guyasuta—climbs another 150 feet over a quarter mile. Strava says Ravine/Midway is also 0.6 miles, rising 404 feet at a 13% grade. Also like Center, I’d ridden it four times in training.

The last time I rode it, two weeks before the race, Midway had been partially milled, and I was concerned about what it might be like on race day. However, it had been freshly paved, which was wonderful.

Again, I paced myself casually to the top, following Phil before eventually passing him. Although I again finished in my slowest time all year (8:19), by the top I was getting kinda sweaty.

Before 2016, from this point the route went out Dorseyville Rd to Hill 3: Berryhill Rd. Although it’s short, it’s the first extremely steep hill, and a real kick in the teeth. Strava would tell you that Berryhill rises 164 feet in just a tenth of a mile at 17%.

You approach Berryhill at the end of a fast descent down Brownshill Rd, and—unlike most other hills—you get a demoralizing full view of its impossible slope rising ahead of you. Many riders are too gobsmacked to downshift before they hit the incline, which causes an immense pileup of riders. Berryhill is the first bloodbath.

Typically, the town of O’Hara closes Berryhill for the season once snow flies; it’s the only Dirty Dozen hill that closes. In 2016, with Danny not in charge, his backup organizers decided to replace Berryhill with a different hill back on the Pittsburgh side of the Allegheny. Needless to say, it wasn’t the same challenge as Berryhill.

Despite warm temperatures and no snow, this year the organizers again opted to forego Berryhill and repeat the 2016 route. For my money, it’s not a real Dirty Dozen without Berryhill. In training for this year, I only rode Berryhill three times, suspecting it might be replaced again.

So after gathering up at the Midway Dr VFD, instead of heading toward Berryhill we rolled up to Kittanning St and down into Etna. From there we took the 62nd St Bridge back over the Allegheny for a brief visit to Lawrenceville, passing Group 2 as they came back across the bridge in the opposite direction. In three miles we approached the alternate version of Hill 3.

Hill 3 (alternate): 57th St, Christopher St

Turning off Butler onto 57th St one starts a gentle 6-8% grade. After a jog onto Christopher, the grade becomes a steady 13%: it’s a hill, but not one where you need to get out of the saddle until a steeper bit at the end.

“Hill 3-B” is three times as long as Berryhill, but lacks the challenging slope. 57th/Christopher climbs 258 feet in a third of a mile (13% average). It’s simply not a Dirty Dozen hill. But having expected the change, I had rode Christopher St five times before the event.

By Hill 3-B I had determined which of the weaker riders posed any danger, so I gave them a wide berth. It was another calm, steady ascent, but my 5:13 wasn’t a new slowest time.

As warm riders regrouped at the top, ride marshal Jason generously offered to carry riders’ discarded layers of clothing in his panniers!

We enjoyed the descent down Stanton and the three miles right back across the 62nd St Bridge, hopping back onto the ride route right at the base of the next climb.

Hill 4: High St, Seavey Rd

Right off the main drag in Etna, High St ramps up to a pretty respectable slope. Then it takes a cambered right turn, followed by switchback reversing to the left onto Seavey. This right-left chicane is the most memorable and challenging feature of Hill 4, and provides a rare—and sometimes demoralizing—opportunity to see other riders just above or below you as you climb the terraced hillside.

After the switchback, Seavey stair-steps, giving you a brief rest before a steep kick to the top. Altogether, High/Seavey is a third of a mile, and gains 224 feet (12%). I also rode High St five times in training.

Because of the view, Hill 4 drew our first sizable crowd of spectators cheering us on. I went wide through the turns, avoiding the steeper inner line, and made it up nicely, despite a headwind blasting me right at the end. Finishing in 4:33, I set another slowest time of the year. I was flawlessly executing my strategy of taking it as easy as possible!

A lumpy three miles brought us down to Millvale Riverfront Park, the first rest stop, at 11:25am. I tucked away my gloves because it was too warm, and I wanted a good grip on the bars for the next section of the route.

After a 25-minute break we rolled out, only to get caught behind a train for 3-4 minutes at a level crossing. A couple blocks later, we were delayed another 3-4 minutes waiting for a garbage truck to come down the hill we wanted to go up. It brought back memories of the 2014 Dirty Dozen, when a belligerent garbage truck driver had blocked the way up Hill 4.

With four hills complete, you might start getting comfortable with the idea of nailing this ride. But the first four hills are nothing more than a friendly warmup, and all conception of “friendly” hills is about to come to a screeching halt.

Hill 5: Logan St

Mere blocks from the rest stop, you’re faced with the steep slope, narrow roadway, and broken pavement of Logan Street. Logan is only a quarter mile, but it climbs a full 244 feet (20% average). The first section through some trees, although steep, doesn’t seem terrible, but the trees part to reveal a veritable wall that ramps up in front of you, and it just keeps getting steeper. This is not a manageable slope like Center or Ravine, and it’s not a steep-but-short sprint like Berryhill. The last tenth of a mile is an unfailing 100% effort, and even that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make it to the top, because the road surface can be slick, causing many falls. I had slipped out and nearly fell yards short of the top on one of the rainy group training rides.

Hill 5 is the first serious kick-ass hill on the route, and you have to be both strong and a skilled bike handler to overcome it. Logan is where any lingering casual riders whimper, fall over, and die.

I inched up the lower section, then clawed my way through the steep bit, dodging numerous participants walking up the hill, and yelling at one rider who weaved back and forth across the road toward me. Like many of the Dirty Dozen hills, Logan saves its steepest slope for the very top, and I had to pour everything I had left into a vicious sprint to the line.

I had done four ascents of Hill 5 in training, and as expected my time of 4:06 was the slowest I’d done all year.

From Logan, we rode for a mile along the top of the ridge, enjoying views of downtown before diving back down toward the Allegheny. Just mind the construction zone where half the road has fallen off the side of the cliff into the woods below…

Hill 6: Rialto St

Once upon a time, the pig farmers living at the top of this ridge—called Pig Hill—used to herd their swine through a narrow, muddy path straight down the cliff to the slaughterhouse at the riverside. This being Pittsburgh, they poured some concrete down the hill and called it “Rialto Street”. At some point they built some stairs along the side, too, just to make it even narrower.

Not being satisfied with this ridiculous “street”, they decided to build a five-way traffic light-controlled intersection right at the bottom of this stupendously steep street, controlling both sides of the Route 28 divided highway, the busy 31st Street Bridge over the Allegheny, another road from Herrs Island, and River Ave. It is a complete and utter cluster, and you’d better have good brakes if you go down that hill.

The good news for riders is that Hill 6 is a short, monotonic sprint of a hill. Climb 123 feet up Rialto in about 750 feet (18%), and you’re done before your body even registers the effort. The bad news is that before you can climb it, you have to carefully inch down it, somehow come to a sudden stop at the bottom to avoid getting splattered on the divided highway, then turn around in a tiny space and climb back up the stupidly narrow road from a dead stop, while other riders are still descending toward you.

This was where my partner Inna had chosen to watch the event. I called out to her as I started my descent, and she got some nice footage of me as I powered back up. Although I had no opportunity to stop, it was encouraging and gratifying for her to share in the event by cheering me on.

Although it does take an intense sprint effort, Rialto is one of the easier hills, which is a blessing, sandwiched as it is between two of the most difficult. On the other hand, car traffic makes it difficult to train on it on your own, so I only rode it four times before the event. Although I completed it in just 1:56, that was still my slowest time of the year.

Between hills the riders would chat, and this is as good a place as any to note how many comments I got. Several people asked about my hub-based Nut-R GoPro camera mount; a couple asked about my little Ass Saver clip-on fender; and one asked about my Di2 electronic shifting. Everyone loved the yellow “FALL RISK” wristband that I’d picked up during my mother’s hospitalization, which I’d attached to a loop on my saddle; that was particularly appropriate for a Dirty Dozen rider! And a guy who knew me from group rides observed that I wasn’t wearing my usual Shimano cycling sandals.

Leaving Rialto, we had a mile and a half of descent before hitting East Street, which in turn comprises a half mile of climbing. This is another section where conserving energy is important, because when you make the left onto Suffolk, you’re gonna need every ounce of strength you’ve got left.

Hill 7: Suffolk St, Hazelton St, Burgess St

After dipping beneath I-279, there’s a sharp, steep climb back up the other side. As the road curves around to the right, you expect the slope to level off, but it never does. It just keeps going, and then gets even steeper. A quarter mile later you see the top of Suffolk and claw your way up to a flat that looks like the top of the hill.

But that’s only the first section, and just when you think you’ve crested the hill, you’re immediately faced with another viciously steep ramp on Hazelton that you somehow have to power up. If you make it up that, there’s still a left turn onto Burgess, which isn’t as steep, but it makes up for it by being paved in granite setts, aka Belgian block, which most people wrongly call “cobblestones”. Altogether the three sections of Suffolk/Hazelton/Burgess are 0.4 miles and gain 358 feet (16% average).

For me, Hill 7 is the hardest of all the hills. It’s long, it’s steep, there’s nowhere to ease off and recover, and before it ends it hits you with the demoralizing wall on Hazelton and the Belgian block on Burgess. It’s a hard, long, intense challenge that will take everything you’ve got, and then some. Like Logan, I also rode it four times in training.

I was wary of Suffolk because on my ill-fated final training ride, I had been taken out by another rider on the lower section coming up from underneath I-279. So for the event, I took a wide line around that corner and was glad I did when I saw two riders come together and fall, stopping two more riders, in exactly the same place I’d been taken out two weeks before.

I nursed my way up to the top of Suffolk, dodging the spectators, weaving riders, walking riders, and riders sitting on the roadside with leg cramps. When I reached the flat bit between Suffolk and Hazelton, I used all the room I could to soft-pedal and rest, nearly getting walked into by a pair of oblivious spectators.

Attacking the narrow ramp on Hazelton, I trailed another weaving rider who just happened to swerve out of my way as I got onto the setts of Burgess, then bounced my way up the rough surface to the top. I finished in 6:37, which is a decent time for me.

I had my thermal jacket partially unzipped to vent the heat from that effort, and the 55° air temperature would work perfectly for me all day. I unzipped my jacket before the hot climbs; enjoyed the cool breeze on the descents, which felt lovely; and zipped it up once I fully cooled off again.

After Suffolk you have lots of time to recover, as the four-mile transfer to the next hill includes a long descent, winds through downtown, and crosses two rivers on two bridges to get from the north side to the south side.

Hill 8: Sycamore St

From the Monongahela riverside, Sycamore climbs straight up Mount Washington to the overlooks on Grandview Ave. Thankfully, Sycamore is another one of the middling-hard hills, rising 296 feet in 0.4 miles (12%). It begins moderately hard, gets a little harder before hitting a cambered switchback. Then it eases off for a quick rest before a final kick that isn’t too difficult.

Four weeks before the Dirty Dozen, Sycamore had been milled, making for a treacherous, gravely ascent during the height of training season. Thankfully, a new surface was laid down a week before the race.

The climb wasn’t bad, but there were a lot of cars trying to get down the hill at the same time. Having stopped to let us pass, many of the occupants were screaming encouragement. There was some runoff water on the road surface in places, which I instinctually avoided, lest I lose traction. I was surprised that there were no spectators near the switchback.

Since it’s easy for me to get to, I had ridden Sycamore eight times in training; three of those while it was milled, and once to check out the new surface. I finished in 7:00, which was a slow time, but faster than when the road had been milled!

A short but painful section of cobbles leads the riders to the Mt. Washington overlook, where a group photo is traditional. I took the opportunity to bleed air pressure from my tires, so that I’d have maximum traction on the upcoming setts of Canton Ave.

The next two hills are three miles away down in Beechview, in Pittsburgh’s south hills. They’re hard to get to for two reasons: first, it requires riding on two extremely busy high-speed arterials; and second, you have to traverse two major hills and valleys to get there.

The second of those intermediate hills—Crane Ave—would qualify as a Dirty Dozen hill in any city other than Pittsburgh. Climbing 263 feet in a half mile (9%), it’s a long, steep climb that inevitably causes tiring riders to whine. It also loads some extra fatigue into your legs: the perfect preparation for the steepest street on the whole damn planet!

Hill 9: Coast Ave, Canton Ave

From the Banksville Road divided arterial, you turn onto Coast Ave, which is the start of Hill 9. Although the entire Coast/Canton hill rises 106 feet in a tenth of a mile (135), you have a gentle 50-foot climb up Coast before the left onto Canton.

Canton is only 200 feet long, but you climb 65 feet in that distance. It’s a full-out 30-second sprint, but you’re at the top before your body has time to react to the effort. From a physiological standpoint it’s one of the easiest hills on the course.

But at 37% grade, Canton is the steepest public street in the world, and it is totally unlike any hill you’ve ever ridden. It’s a special kind of challenge, for many different reasons.

First, it asks whether you have the mental strength to even look at that stupid, obscene hill and not give up. Then there’s the technical challenge of riding something steeper than you’ve ever experienced. If you put your weight too far forward, your back wheel will lose traction, slide out, and you’ll fall; but if your weight is too far back, your front wheel will lift right off the ground and you’ll lose control and fall. And trying to swerve back and forth across the narrow street ain’t gonna help you.

During the Dirty Dozen there are additional complications. You need to make it up amongst lots of other riders, who will be at the limits of their control and likely to fall in front of you or into you. You also need to block out the hundreds of screaming spectators lining the street, drawn by the spectacle of widespread carnage.

But those are just the obvious challenges. Like stalking a lion on safari, Canton is wily and treacherous, and you should not approach it casually.

At the bottom, the road is cambered wildly, so the left side of the street is a dramatically steeper grade than the right. Furthermore, trees and shrubs encroach into the road, blocking the left third of the street. There’s deadfall and moss making the surface very treacherous, and don’t forget the likely complications of November rain and snow and salt, as well.

And then there’s the surface. You start out on nice, sticky asphalt. As the incline begins, it switches to broken concrete, with broad cracks filled with grass or nothing or maybe a pile of leftover asphalt. Then, at the point where the slope requires the most traction, you drop off the concrete surface onto loosely-joined Belgian block setts. You have to somehow lay down maximum power on the steepest slope while bouncing along atop the granite paving stones and hopefully avoiding the occasional holes left by missing stones. Then pull yourself over a thin strip of concrete and back onto some asphalt to crest the hill. So you have to manage four changes of road surface on top of everything else you’re supposedly focusing on.

On the training ride when I first attempted Canton, I started bouncing around and immediately lost traction when the road transitioned from cement to setts. I went back down and dropped about 20 PSI of air from my tires to get better traction, then decided to take it easy until I had gotten firmly onto the Belgian blocks before putting down maximum power; those two changes seem to have unlocked the hill for me. But heading into the race, I had only ridden it two times in my life.

Coming up Banksville just prior to 2pm, I chatted with Phil, which completely distracted me from thinking about all those things I should have been worrying about. Once I turned onto Coast and soft-pedaled to fall well behind the rest of the field, I could hear the band and screaming crowd who had come out to watch the spectacle.

Since there is no such thing as momentum on a hill that steep, I slowly approached the turn, only looking up long enough to register that my way wouldn’t be clogged with fallen bodies or riders walking their bikes up or down the hill (the video actually shows I would thread the needle between three of them). Then I looked straight down at the road in front of me, blocked out absolutely everything going on around me, rolled slowly over the edge of the cement surface onto the Belgian block, and gunned the living hell out of it.

Not thinking about anything but laying down power, I tracked arrow-straight right up the hill, bouncing around but managing to keep traction and forward progress. And in 30 seconds it was done, and I was looking for a place to park the bike.

My time was 2:47, but like everything else, times on Canton aren’t what they seem. Most of that was spent pussyfooting my way up Coast, saving my strength and letting the carnage play out for the rest of the group in front of me before my rabid sprint to the top.

Since I blocked everything out of my mind, it was nice to find some video footage so that I could later hear the cheering and look at what was going on around me while I was locked on: in the Canton Zone. Someone got a nice still of me, and I appear in this video at 2:43 and this video at 10:50. And then there’s my own on-bike POV video

Since we’re often at the top of Canton for some time as people who fail to crest the hill the first time try again (and again), that’s also where the race’s second rest stop is located. I took on a banana and Gatorade, and put some air back into my rear tire to handle the mere 30% grades remaining.

After a 15-minute break, we set off for Hill 10. Along the way, a kid tried to race me up the steep hill behind Canton. I let him go, saying, “I’d race ya, but I’ve got four more hills to ride!”

Hill 10: Wenzell Ave, Boustead St

People are usually elated after Canton. They’ve beat nine hills, including the steepest one of all. It’s all “downhill” from here, right?

No, no it isn’t. There’s a lot of difficult riding still ahead, starting just three blocks later, when you are smacked in the face by Boustead, which is nearly as steep as Canton, but longer, and you get a nice long view of the ridiculous wall ahead of you.

There’s a moderately steep (80 feet in a tenth of a mile) climb up Wenzell before the turn onto Boustead, which has a little dip in it before it launches skyward, climbing another 120 feet in a tenth of a mile. The Wenzell/Boustead combo is 220 feet in 0.3 miles (12% average). But it gets viciously steepest right at the top. Like Canton, I had only ridden Boustead twice in training.

On my final training ride, I’d cleared Boustead, but it had cost me, and after that I hadn’t had the strength to complete two of the three hills that remained. So Boustead was the hill I was most afraid of coming into the race. I was concerned about whether I would be strong enough to get over it, and if I did, would I have anything left in the legs for the three hills after that?

The wily old veterans Phil and I hung back before hitting the hill ourselves. Halfway up, I found myself having to swerve back and forth across the road to make it up, but at least I knew I wasn’t interfering with anyone behind me! At it steepest, when I was about to bust, I pulled out all the stops in a full-bore sprint, which somehow got me far enough over the crest to crawl toward the line. It was deathly hard, even at my slowest time of the year (5:58).

After commiserating with the others at the top, we had another four-mile ride back up to the south side, along those busy arterials and back over two climbs that were very meaningful (to the legs) but utterly meaningless (in race terms). That included descending P.J. McArdle, which was surprisingly free of runoff water from the hillside above, which usually makes it very dangerous.

Hill 11: Welsh Way

Welsh Way is a clone of Rialto: same monotonic incline, same narrowness, same shortness; the only differences are that there’s no divided highway at the bottom to contend with, and you go up it first, then have to come right back down again, because it’s a dead-end street.

For my money, Welsh is the easiest of the Dirty Dozen hills. It’s manageably steep, 123 feet of climbing, and only 800 feet long (11%). And it’s the last easy hill amongst the satanic hills that precede and follow it. Though on these narrow ones you do have to watch out for other riders, especially out-and-back streets like Rialto and Welsh, where riders are going up/down while you’re going down/up.

Along with Sycamore (Hill 8), hills 11-13 are all close to home, so I’ve done them many times in training. For Welsh, that came to nine ascents.

Hill 11 was an opportunity for me to take it slow and easy as I kept my distance from other riders. My 3:11 time was on the slow side, but what surprised me was the number of riders who were cramping up, or that had to stop and walk the hill: the easiest hill of them all!

At the top, the group took a long, unexpected 10-minute rest; I was thankful for the recovery time, because I was dreading Hill 12. After coming back down Welsh Way, there’s a little more than a mile before you get to the next climb: the one most cyclists fear more than any other.

Hill 12: Barry St, Holt St, Eleanor St

And here we have it: the last truly vindictive hill. Many people think Eleanor is harder than Suffolk; I disagree, because Hill 12 does offer riders a precious mid-climb rest, but I can definitely see where they’re coming from. Barry/Holt/Eleanor climbs 343 feet over 0.4 miles at 15%. If it’s not the hardest, it’s the next one on the list, and by this point your legs are completely used-up.

Riding along the flat of Josephine Street, Barry is a sudden switchback up and to the right. You climb up to a 90-degree turn, which reveals a hard drag leading up to a steeper ramp in the distance. This is another one where you have to save your strength for the end.

That distant ramp is a one-way the wrong way, but we go up it anyways. After two tenths of a mile and 150 feet of climbing, you turn 90 degrees into Holt St, leveling off quickly for a very short breather, followed by tiny second kick, then a longer breather as you soft-pedal on the blessedly well-placed flat bit of Holt. Milk it for every picosecond of recovery you can, because…

Then you’ll see riders turning left onto Eleanor St and climbing at an unbelievable angle. You hit it and are faced with a long, steep slope: 25% grade, or 130 feet over a little more than a tenth of a mile. It’s a slow drag for several blocks and it just keeps getting steeper the farther you go. Finally the road bears right and you fight your way gasping over the final—even steeper!—rise to the line. Like Welsh, I’d ridden Eleanor nine times before the race.

I was noticeably much slower than normal up Barry. I barely managed the ramp between Barry and Holt, only to be pinched with two other riders in a two-foot space between a guardrail and a line of cars waiting to come down.

While I soft-pedaled as slowly as possible on the flat, one rider asked if we had finished the hill, and several riders passed me before they realized they still had the entire painful length of Eleanor to go. And therein is the best demonstration why you scout these hills before the race.

Even with my precious extra picoseconds of rest, Eleanor was a hard, long, painful death march. The three riders just in front of me were swerving wildly in slow-motion back and forth across the narrow road, but I watched gratefully as every one of them gave up and veered off onto the flat side-streets a mere third of the way up.

I heard “Ride of the Valkyries” played inexpertly on trumpet up ahead, and the cheers of a boisterous crowd of spectators. Just like on Boustead, on the vicious final kick near the top—where I’d dabbed on my last training ride—I reached the end of my strength, but somehow dug deeper and managed a leg-searing low-speed “sprint” over the top. My 7:34 was—can you guess?—my slowest time of the year. You can see my progress near the top in photos one, two, and three.

The neighborhood—bless them, including the trumpeter!—have a big party and rest stop in a garage on Cobden St, at the top of Eleanor. Between that celebration, waiting for the slower riders, and recovering before setting off for the final hill, there’s always a happy little extra time to rest here. Just one hill left; what a wonderful thought! If I rest up here, and take it easy on the approach, I might just be able to make it up the horrible final climb…

After 15 minutes, we set off on the long 4-mile transfer, ripping down the Josephine descent, over the Hot Metal Bridge across the Monongahela, then down Irvine Street to Hazelwood. Along the way, ride marshal Jason reminded people of the after-party taking place at a local brewery… and that the celebration had officially started 49 minutes ago!

Hill 13: Flowers Ave, Kilbourne St, Tesla St

Way too soon for my legs—but not too soon for my shadow!—we took a left turn off the main drag onto Flowers Ave, where the ride’s longest hill begins. However, it starts out perfectly flat, becomes a false flat, then a turn onto a slightly steeper—but still easy—ramp. A turn onto Kilbourne: another long climb that—at about 15% grade—doesn’t warrant the term “steep”.

That long lead-up is just there to soften you up. Kilbourne ends at a flat spot where you can gather your breath before the final sprint. At this point you’ve climbed 280 feet over three-quarters of a mile. Turning onto Tesla reveals another short but intimidatingly steep wall that is all that stands between you and the finish line.

Although it’s by far the longest, people don’t put Hill 13 on their list of the hardest climbs. It’s not that bad until the end, but it’s a hard battle getting up the punishingly steep final slope, especially with the residue of 12 other ludicrous climbs already weighing down the legs. It’s another 140 feet of climbing, jammed into a little more than a tenth of a mile. The flat sections make it misleading, but the entirety of Flowers/Kilbourne/Tesla is 430 feet of climbing over 0.9 miles (9% average).

But eventually it tops out in a tiny neighborhood: six houses sandwiched between a cemetery and a huge water storage tank. And, thankfully, the finish line.

As I turned onto the flat part of Flowers, I passed three riders stopped off the road, cramping: cramping on the flat! That wasn’t the only time I was grateful to have ridden 75 Dirty Dozen hills in training!

Tesla is my “local” hill, so I’m very familiar with it. Having done Hill 13 a dozen times in the past two months, I took my time on the preliminary slopes of Flowers and Kilbourne. Then I did everything I could to recover, slow-biking on the flat spot at the top of Kilbourne. I didn’t have any strength left for the final ramp up Tesla, but it had to be done, and it was all that stood between me and my goal of being an official Dirty Dozen finisher… And more importantly, putting an end to this long day’s interminable pain and suffering!

I hit the base of the hill with everything I had, which was damned little. I don’t know how I made it even halfway up. When the slope reached its most punishing, I tried to pull out the stops and sprint over the crest, but there just wasn’t any more strength to call on. But somehow I clawed my way over the magical point where the grade lowers just a little, then crawled up the remaining slope toward the water tower just ahead.

A spectator ran right up to the rider in front of me and made noises and hand gestures like he was revving a motorcycle engine. I think that was supposed to be encouraging. Then a kid came up to that rider and handed him… a blue ribbon? A *finisher’s* ribbon!!! I rolled slowly toward him and claimed one for myself: “Pittsburgh Pennsylvania; 2017 DIRTY DOZEN; FINISHER!” (the righteous caps and exclamation point are theirs).


With my blue ribbon clutched in my teeth, I coasted through the small crowd and off to the side and panted for a while, recovering and trying to sort out my feelings.

I was filled with an incredible sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. I’d surpassed all the goals I’d set for myself: I had enormous fun, learned a ton (which you’ll see below), and successfully finished the entire event without crashing, stopping, or dabbing. In this later stage of a long life that’s been filled with lots and lots of cool shit, finishing the Dirty Dozen ranks as Certified Cool Shit.

After catching my breath, I went over and chatted briefly with my buddy Mike, who had also ridden in Group 3, and got him to take a picture for me. I think it’s a perfect representation of the moment. It’s clear that I’m exhausted, but also really, really happy, and you won’t find another picture of me with a more genuine smile.

However, my fellow riders were dispersing, many headed toward the after-party. Few people were hanging around, since that neighborhood doesn’t like our presence. It was 4:15pm and time for me to go home.


Thankfully, home is only two miles from Hill 13, with much of it flat or downhill before a shallow climb to the apartment. Along the way, my odo ticked over 50 miles for the day. I pulled into our driveway 8 hours and 15 minutes after leaving, having climbed 5,971 feet, well more than a vertical mile.

After having been preoccupied and anxious leading up to the event, it was wonderful to have it over and done with. I piled up a plate of leftover turkey and observed a heartfelt Thanksgiving meal. It was only then that I understood the real meaning of Thanksgiving: not having to even consider riding any of those verdammten Dirty Dozen hills for six months or more!

Although I’d proclaimed this would be my toughest challenge, going by feet per mile of ascent it was number four, and Strava’s “suffer score” feature, which measures heart rate and duration, lists it as number 51. My preparation helped me go into the event strong. I was lucky and a little wily in managing to avoid any crashes and falls, and you couldn’t have asked for better weather. There’s no guarantee that the experience would be similar in the future, or for anyone else, but for me it was a damned fine day all around.

Will I do it again? That’s impossible to say. At my age, it requires a lot of dedicated training, and willingness to ride in inclement conditions. I’ll surely do those hills again from time to time, and maybe some of the group training rides, which were fun. But the full event is an immense undertaking, and I’m not sure whether it’s something I want to commit so heavily to. We’ll see.

For now, I’m completely happy and satisfied to have completed it once.

Strategies to Beat the Dirty Dozen

When I was preparing for my first Dirty Dozen, I looked all over the place for advice, hints, and tips. So I want to offer this distilled advice to other cyclists considering this event.

Here are several of the things I learned. All this preparation and training might not be easy, but in my opinion this is how to beat the Dirty Dozen and have a good time doing it.

The most obvious first step is to know what you’re up against. Don’t go into the event unprepared; this isn’t an event you want to take lightly, unless you’re someone with a deep affinity for failure.

Pre-ride all the hills at least a couple times, so that you intuitively know when you need to give 100%, and—more importantly—where you can rest and let your legs recover. You can recover a lot of muscle power by backing off for just a few seconds. Use the organized training rides to learn valuable pointers from the veterans who have done it before.

Second, prepare your body. Climbing is all about your power-to-weight ratio. Maximize your power by training for the effort you have to put out. Build up the necessary strength over time by riding those hills. The full-course group ride two weeks before the race is valuable for getting your body used to doing not just 4-6 hills, but all thirteen. At the same time, make it easier on yourself by losing any extra weight you’re carrying.

Unless you’re racing, your only goal is not to dab; don’t worry about your time or speed, because no one cares about your finish time. Knowing how to pace yourself and conserve your strength is the most important thing to learn. That means saving your strength for the worst part of any given hill, but also conserving your energy over the duration of the entire course. Even knowing how long and how hilly the neutral sections are can be a valuable way to manage your effort and recovery.

Know what your equipment needs are. How low of a set of gears do you need to make it through the day? What tires—and what tire pressures—will give you enough traction to make the hills? What clothing are you going to need in order to endure the alternating max efforts, freezing descents, and lots of standing around in the cold? What can you take off your bike in order to make it lighter?

I ran a low gear of 34x28 (32 gear-inches), which is a moderately easy gear for a standard compact chainset. I would have run a larger cassette—a 30 or 32—but my older Ultegra Di2 won’t take anything bigger than a 28. On the other hand, the electronic system produced much more reliable shifting under load than a mechanical groupset.

Then there’s climbing technique. Most riders know that you use much less energy seated than when you get out of the saddle and stand to power over a rise. But with hills this steep and long, you need to be able to alternate between both techniques to balance muscle fatigue, even at extreme slopes. Pulling up on the handlebars helps, but your biceps can wind up cramping. And as I said in the section on Canton Ave the steepest slopes require a mastery of balance. You need to know where your balance point is, especially on wet Belgian block at a 37% incline.

Though your strength and equipment and technique will always be secondary to external conditions. These steep roads don’t get much maintenance, so they have potholes, broken-up surfaces, can be off-camber, or even paved with granite setts. You might encounter loose gravel, sand, or salt spread across the road, or spots made slick by snow, ice, wet leaves, or just leaked automotive fluids. And sometimes your way can be blocked by cars or something else completely out of your control.

Now take all of that, and try to do it amidst 400 riders of mixed ability, all riding at different paces, many of them completely unprepared for the conditions. In that situation, your biggest threat comes from other riders weaving in front of you, dropping their chains, falling into you, or blocking you and forcing you to stop. While you’re fighting the hill and the road surface, you have to watch for dangerous riders.

Finally, you need to be psychologically prepared. The best advice I have here is to explicitly not psych yourself up; treat the event as if it were just another fun weekend out. Take all the stress and pressure out of it, and you’ll be better able to deal with whatever comes up.

As for dealing with the pain and suffering… I’m sorry, but that’s what you signed up for. You have to welcome the worst the course can throw at you. Think about the bragging rights you’ll gain and the stories you’ll have!

Finally, enjoy the camaraderie of your friends and fellow Dirty Dozen riders, as well as the spectators’ encouragement and awe. Whether you finish the course or wind up walking several of the hills, have fun, because if there’s one phrase that captures the essence of the Dirty Dozen, it’s “ridiculous fun!”

November 22nd, 2017

The Time Has Come

12 MLR

The training rides are over. Now it’s time for the main event: my first ever Dirty Dozen, climbing 13 of the steepest hills in this stupidly hilly town. I give a little more background in this blogpost following last year’s first (and last) training ride.

It’ll probably be the most difficult athletic achievement of my life. It’s been a long time since I experienced the dread I felt when the “2017 Pittsburgh Dirty Dozen Bike Ride” event started showing up in the sidebar of my Facebook page last weekend!

My (center left) first time riding up the steepest street on the planet: Canton Ave! Yow!

My (center left) first time riding up the steepest street on the planet: Canton Ave! Yow!

This ride has been my sole focus for the past two months. In the middle of each week I did solo training rides on those hills, then group training rides organized by the WPW on the weekends.

There were seven of those official group training rides. The first four weeks introduced riders to each of the successive quarters of the route (3-4 hills per ride). The next two weeks stepped it up to traverse the first and second halves (6-7 hills per day). And then the final session a week and a half ago spanned the entire route, all 13 hills in one day!

That was a day for the Flahutes: the hard men. When I set out, it was 17°—setting a new daily low temperature record in Pittsburgh—and the wind chill was a mere 7°. Despite all my training and preparedness, I wound up dabbing four times: once on Suffolk when someone fell in front of me (video), once on Boustead to wait for a huge moving van, and on the last two hills because my legs were just done. And for the first time ever, I had serious biceps cramps from pulling so hard on the handlebars. That’s when I learned that there really is an immense difference between climbing 4-8 impossible hills and doing 13.

Since the middle of September, I’ve done every hill at least twice, some more than a dozen times. Add all those sessions together, and I’ve climbed a total of 75 Dirty Dozen hills. Aside from the as yet unknown (but usually inclement) weather (current forecast: 38-50° with 30% POP), I’m as ready as I could ever be.

Along the way I’ve learned a lot about these specific hills, and about how to tackle steep climbs in general. I’ll save all that for my post-ride report, once the pudding has been proofed.

If you’re sitting around bored next Saturday, the race is going to be live streamed by Cycling Fusion on perhaps Facebook Live or YouTube or Vimeo, and it should run from around 9am to 3pm or so.

Otherwise, stay tuned for the full ride report. It should be pretty superlative.

October 29th, 2017

Love Is All You Need

01 PMC Standing

Someone is wrong on the internet… I hate that. And I woke up feeling self-indulgent and ranty, so here’s what we old-schoolers would call a “flame”.

An article appeared in my news feed: “The Health And Fitness Audit: 15 Questions You Must Know in Order to Succeed in Fitness”.

Well, I’ve been an endurance cyclist for twenty years—and an inline skater and basketball player before that—but I’m openminded and willing to learn. I wonder if this guy will point out anything I missed.

Since I’m pretty sure I’ve “Succeeded in Fitness”, just for fun, let’s see how many of his “15 Things You Must Know” I actually did when I embarked upon life as a cyclist back before the turn of the millennium.

Here’s his list:

Blocking all your bullshit fitness tips
1. Do you know why you want to change?

Nope. I wanted to ride a bike. For long distances. Why? Because I thought it would be fun.

2. Do you know exactly what you need to be, and do, in order to achieve your desired fitness goal?

There were no “traits and identity” that needed to change. More importantly, my answer to “What will you give up?” was “Nothing”. Since I actually wanted to ride more, I didn’t view cycling as displacing some other activities that I preferred.

3. Do you have a health and fitness mission statement?

Never did, never needed one, and never will. That’s just bullshit.

4. Do you have a crystal clear one-year goal that you can clearly explain?

This is probably the only thing in his list that actually applied to me. I wanted to do a long-distance charity ride, either the Boston to New York AIDS Ride or the Pan-Mass Challenge. But the goal wasn’t some artificial achievement so much as something I sincerely looked forward to experiencing for its own merit. And I do still set annual goals for myself.

5. Have you broken that one-year goal into quarterly goals?

I didn’t do that explicitly. I just rode when I wanted, ramping up my mileage as I got closer to my goal event.

6. Have you broken your goals into small and manageable daily actions that lead to your end-goal?

Again, I didn’t have daily goals. Instead, I simply enjoyed riding my bike. Sure, I had my annual goal in the back of my mind, but my quarterly and daily behavior simply happened on their own, rather than needing to be micromanaged by some internal supervisor.

7. Do you have a morning routine suited specifically to your needs?

Nope. I just lived life and did what I enjoyed. Nor did I have hourly, minutely, secondly, nor picosecondly goals.

8. Do you have a weekly plan for how you’re going to eat that fits with work?

I didn’t think about nutrition at all in my first couple years. Initially, I was getting a lot more improvement simply as my body adapted to the workload. Nutrition was an incremental, marginal gain that came much later.

9. Do you know your workout days and what you’re doing each session?

I did not create a rigid, structured training plan because I didn’t need one. I just did what I enjoyed, and my fitness took care of itself. The absolute last thing I would do is what the author suggests: treating your rides “just as you would a doctors appointment and important business meetings.” Talk about onerous and uninspiring!

10. What are you doing to ensure you get optimal sleep nightly?

Again, not a concern until years later, when I was a well-developed athlete looking for marginal gains.

11. Whats your biggest obstacle to succeeding?

Honestly, the biggest obstacle I foresaw was reaching my charity fundraising requirement. On the road, I knew I hadn’t done any group riding, but that too was not a fitness concern. My physical ability was never in doubt, since my regular riding would ensure my fitness for the event.

12. Once you know your obstacles, what’s your plan to attack and defeat those obstacles?

Plan of attack? Ride my bike when I felt like it. And you know what? That was entirely sufficient.

13. What are you doing to mentally & emotionally prepare to change?

Mentally and emotionally? It’s just riding a bike, for fucksakes, it’s not waterboarding and solitary confinement!

This is really telling. A competent fitness coach/consultant would offer a positive message, encouraging you to do what you love. Imagine looking to this guy for inspiration and being asked, “Do you understand the price and pain required to change? Are you okay with the necessary sacrifices and are you willing to do it?”

That antagonistic approach to fitness is pure self-destructive bullshit. Doing what you love is never a sacrifice, and puts a healthy perspective around any short-term pain involved in working toward a challenging goal.

14. Do you have some form of accountability and support?

No, no accountability, and no support structure for doing something I enjoy. Again, all this shit is extraneous if the thing you’re doing is pleasurable rather than torture. Hey author, you might want to take a look at your relationship with exercise, because it sounds like you really hate it.

15. If yes to number 14, then who is it and how are they helping?

No. “No” to Number 14. I don’t need external policing to spend time doing something I love.

So although I’ve enjoyed two decades of fitness success, I can honestly say that I only did one of this expert’s “15 Things You Must Know”. Apparently “You Must” means something completely different to this guy, who has an obviously antagonistic relationship to fitness. He hates it with such passion! But as a “fitness expert”, he’s deeply happy to exchange his bad advice for your money.

Here: here’s my advice, from someone with a 20-year track record of fitness achievements, and given to you 100 percent free of cost:

Find something healthful that you enjoy doing, then enjoy the shit out of doing it. If you see a challenging goal you’d like to achieve, you can enjoy doing the hard work necessary to make it happen. You don’t need a mission statement or a support team or a fitness audit or an overpriced coach or fitness consultant to feed you expensive bullshit from a silver platter.

Fitness success is this simple: do what you love; the rest is just bullshit.

October 10th, 2017

3-2-1 Go!

07 PMC Riding

The first weeks of focused Dirty Dozen training are interrupted by the final long charity ride of the year: the Woiner Foundation’s 3-2-1 Ride.

At this time of year a completely flat metric century requires very little effort, so I don’t worry about any physical impact on my training. The biggest risk is if the date collides with one of the Dirty Dozen training rides, which this year it did not.

The Woiner Foundation supports research and treatment of pancreatic cancer and melanoma. Although I registered and fundraised for last year’s 3-2-1 Ride, I couldn’t participate because I had to unexpectedly fly to Maine to take care of my mother. So participating in and completing the 3-2-1 Ride was one of my expressed cycling goals for 2017.

Ornoth Starting 3-2-1 Ride @ Ohiopyle

Ornoth Starting 3-2-1 Ride @ Ohiopyle

Misty Morning Yough

Misty Morning Yough

Yough at Ohiopyle from GAP trail

Yough at Ohiopyle from GAP trail

The Red Waterfall

The Red Waterfall

For the event’s fifth year, in addition to the traditional metric century route starting in Connellsville, they gave top fundraisers the option of an 80-mile VIP ride starting in Ohiopyle, the site of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house, as well as a memorable stop for me during the 2000 DargonZine Summit. Between the ride itself and the additional 14 miles of riding to and from the start at Heinz Field, I figured I’d extend it for my sixth (and final) century of the year.

Friday’s pre-ride packet pickup should have been named “luggage pickup”, as I collected my bib number, VIP rider’s jersey, a windbreaker, the event tee shirt, two water bottles, and two goody bags full of keychains, chain lube, sunblock, coupons, event info, assorted flyers, etc. I was given the choice of any bib number from 2 to 50, and opted for number 11.

Saturday was the off day between packet pickup and Sunday’s ride. But it was also the date of the first Dirty Dozen group training ride of the year. I attended that, which was of course a hard workout, covering four of the thirteen hills. Not ideal preparation less than 24 hours before a century…

Sunday morning I was up at 4:30. The temp was only 45 in Pittsburgh, and a stingy 37 in Ohiopyle, necessitating extra cold-weather gear. However, it was supposed to be 67 by the time we finished, and that huge temperature spread meant that I’d eventually have to stow all my extra gear, as well. The extra-quiet 5am ride to the start was cold, but I was fine except for my ears.

After checking in, I waited until the last minute to put my bike on the truck, thinking “last in, first out”. There were only about 25 riders on the bus to Ohiopyle, but that included FOAF Jen Braun.

During the 90-minute bus ride down to Ohiopyle, as the sun reluctantly rose I kept an eye out for fog. There was a lot of it around, especially in the valleys. Eventually we were deposited in a river outfitter’s parking lot, and I led the group march up to the bathrooms.

As planned, my bike was the first off the accompanying cargo truck. I grabbed it, did my final setup, and rolled out a little before 8am. No ceremonial group start for this group! Before leaving town, I stopped briefly to get some photos of the river and a selfie in front of the former Ohiopyle train depot at the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trailhead.

After that, it was just a whole lot of crushed limestone rail trail, with virtually no other people in sight. Although I wouldn’t call the scenery monotonous, it was definitely mile after mile of the same thing: a steep wooded hillside going upward on my left, a flat spot for the trail, and then a wooded hillside sloping down about 50 feet to the Youghioheny River on the right, with more woods on the far shore. It didn’t seem deserving of the local nickname “the Yough”, which is pronounced “Yuck”.

A little earlier in the year the trail would have been inundated with wildflowers; a little later, and you’d have beautiful fall foliage. But despite the odd timing, it was very scenic. There wasn’t much fog, which I ascribed to the rapidly-moving water, but the misty morning still provided ample photo ops.

About 18 miles into the ride we crossed through Connellsville, where the metric century riders had started their ride. There was a little more foot and bike traffic on the trail near these small towns along the way, especially as the day warmed up. However, past Connellsville the trail wasn’t quite as scenic as that section starting out in Ohiopyle.

The riding was easy, with the early sections being an imperceptible descent transitioning into pan-flat. My GPS registered a stunning 3.3 feet of climbing per mile, making it by far the flattest ride you’ll ever find around Pittsburgh. It was very comfortable riding… at least at first.

One of the downsides of the 80-mile VIP route was that there were no extra water stops; we wouldn’t reach our first one until mile 45, at Cedar Creek Park in Port Royal. By then it was 10:30am and I needed food and fluid, since my winter gloves prohibited eating anything I carried with me while riding. Sadly, all they had were unripe bananas and a horrible sugar-free “electrolyte drink” with the same nutritional “benefits” as the emetic ipecac. No sports drink at all! I settled for one Rice Krispy Treat and unadulterated water.

Rolling on, things got uncomfortable. The lack of any descending meant it was impossible to coast. I had to keep pumping my legs incessantly, which began to grate after three or four hours. And getting out of the saddle to stretch only reminded me that I’d climbed four of the steepest hills in Pittsburgh the day before. On top of that, the unforgivable lack of food and drink left me weaker and more depleted than usual. And with the temperature rising through the mid-60s, I was starting to poach inside my winter gear, despite the easy pace.

It was all topped off by the frustration of being unable to operate my bike computer, because the touchscreen wouldn’t respond to my full-fingered winter gloves. In a deliriously joyful flash of insight I realized that if I bent down toward my handlebars, I could operate the touchscreen with my one bare extremity—my nose!—but the screen became unreadable after three or four swipes of a sweaty, greasy nose.

An hour and a half of that kind of thing, and I arrived at the second rest stop: in Boston (PA). This is where everything turned around and started going right for me again. To begin with, Boston was my first sighting of familiar territory; it was the farthest I’d ridden down the GAP (or up the Yough) from Pittsburgh, which meant the end was getting closer.

It had turned into a beautiful day, so I stripped off my excess gear: winter jacket, arm warmers, winter gloves, and leg warmers. It felt great, but it took some time and effort to jam all that stuff into my saddle bag and jersey pockets!

More importantly, there was food! They had a variety pack of snacks, so I ate a bag of sour cream & onion potato chips, and a bag of barbecue potato chips, and a bag of cheese curls, and some of the dried fruit left in my pockets. Although they still only had water and that ipecac drink, I spent $2 on a bottle of Gatorade from the trailside souvenir shop, so I was able to get back onto my regular fueling protocol.

Things got even better after convincing myself to get back on the bike. The trail transitioned to asphalt, making for a much smoother and easier ride. While the crushed limestone surface hadn’t been bad, I’d worried about the chance of getting a flat tire.

In no time we reached McKeesport, which is my frequent turn-around point on my excursions from Pittsburgh. A few days earlier, there’d been a big coal train derailment that had caused a detour for trail users, but we used the usual route, seeing only a few workers finishing some cleanup.

90 minutes later, at 2pm I crossed the Allegheny and rolled down toward Heinz Field. I passed under the finish line balloon arch, but the event photographers weren’t in the mood to capture that moment. Still, I claimed my VIP finisher’s medal and rolled over to the food tent.

I spent some time munching at the finish line, cheering riders coming in and giving feedback to Ric, one of the event’s founders. I made sure to emphasize the near-fatal drink mixes.

After not-quite-enough rest, I hopped back on the bike for the ride home. Instead of going directly, I went up the Allegheny, climbed up through Highland Park, and across town. That added just enough mileage for me to finish with an even 100 miles, completing that sixth century of the year.

Not yet complete, however, was the desperately-needed cleaning of the bike, which—after 65 miles on a crushed limestone bike trail—was absolutely filthy. Ugh!

As expected, the 3-2-1 Ride was a nice experience, and I enjoyed being able to participate, after having been out of town last year. It was fun being able to ride back from Ohiopyle, over a long section of the GAP trail that I’ve never seen before. Although it shares the late-season time slot, it didn’t interfere at all with my Dirty Dozen training. It was nice to support a small but growing grassroots cycling fundraiser early in its history. And I added another $590 to my already impressive sum of money raised for charity, and specifically for cancer research, treatment, and prevention.

October 4th, 2017

I’ve been logging my weight every week since 2011, and the primitive data always left me with the impression that I put a little weight on in the off-season, then trimmed down to “race weight” during the summer. But I wasn’t really sure…

So I did what any OCPD data junkie would do and made a pivot table to average those six years worth of body weight data and charted the result. Here’s what my average year looks like:

Not wanting to humiliate anyone, rather than disclosing my weight, I’ve labeled my seasonal weight change as pounds above and below my long-term average weight.

Now, what did I learn?

First, it sorta confirmed my hypothesis of seasonally-correlated weight gain and loss. I do gain a little weight in the winter, and lose it in the summer.

However, as the flatness of the curve shows, the range of variance is surprisingly narrow. Leaving aside specious outliers, we’re basically talking about a range of plus-or-minus two pounds from average. So that big seasonal swing usually amounts to a total of just four pounds.

But the thing that most surprised me was that the timing was off.

I expected my weight loss to begin in February, when I typically commit to my training diet, and to start gaining it back in August, after all my major events are done and I take full advantage of being free of those dietary restrictions.

But in reality the transitions occur a couple months later than expected. Even though I start dieting in February, I keep gaining weight until May; and although I end my training diet in August, I keep losing weight until mid-November!

The poor correspondence between dieting and weight confused me for a minute, until I realized that there’s something else that has a better correlation with this data: my cycling.

Due to the weather, I don’t start riding in February; the overwhelming bulk of my riding takes place between late April and the beginning of December. Taking that into account, my seasonal weight change is far more closely correlated with my activity level during the cycling season than with my self-imposed training diet.

Obviously correlation doesn’t imply causation, and I don’t know if the same result would hold for anyone else, but I found that really interesting.

October 3rd, 2017

The NBC Peacock

07 PMC Riding

The bike industry created the National Bike Challenge in 2012. It’s the gamification of cycling: you log your miles and get points (20 points per day and 1 point per mile) ranking you among other riders, plus a tiny chance at winning token prizes, including—I shit you not—a year’s supply of toilet paper. Meanwhile, the bike industry gets free marketing and all your data.

Platinum medal

I never felt any desire to participate, since the challenge offers riders absolutely nothing of value. However, they finally realized they’d get much more participation if they made data entry effortless: by simply requiring access to your Strava logs.

So this year I signed up, just to see what it was all about. The challenge formally runs for five months from May through September. In that time I rode 79 out of 153 days, or 52 percent of the days.

I was primarily interested in how I stacked up against other riders in Pittsburgh. I started out strong and consistent, but ended feebly. In May I had the 14th highest score in Pittsburgh; in June slipped to 17th; July 18th; August 19th; and then fell all the way to 41st for the month of September, when I had two bad colds, a week off the bike while traveling, no century rides, and the transition to shorter hill climbs in preparation for the Dirty Dozen.

In terms of miles, those months went: 567, 564, 567, 503, and 220, for a total of 2,421 miles. Out of 162 registered riders in Pittsburgh I ranked 18th, which made me 89th percentile.

Across the entire commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I ranked 121st out of 854 riders, or 86th percentile.

And nationally 31,543 riders registered, and my 3,305th ranking put me again at 89th percentile nationally.

Those are respectable numbers, but could have been better had I been able to ride more than 220 miles in September. Or if the century I did on October 1 had been scheduled just one day earlier!

While the challenge didn’t get me out and riding any more than usual, it did produce one consistent behavioral change: at the end of every ride, I took an extra loop up and down my street to be sure that I finished on an even number of miles. E.g. if I got home with 15.7 miles, I’d ride another third of a mile so that the odometer would just tick over 16, because the challenge doesn’t award points for fractional miles. But now that the challenge is over, I can forget doing that.

If you’re someone whose behavior can be manipulated by gamification, and don’t mind giving your personal data away for free, maybe the National Bike Challenge would be of interest to you.

For me, it was worth trying once, if only to see how I measured up against the other local participants. But going forward, it would be just one more unnecessary thing demanding my attention, while giving the bike industry unsupervised access to my personal data.

September 12th, 2017

September Morn

12 MLR

September’s been a dud as far as riding goes. It’s been unseasonably cold and rainy, I started the month still suffering from a summer cold, and to be honest even when the weather’s conducive I just haven’t had much desire to lay down the miles. Poop on that!

WPW Fall Rally: Morning on the Yough

WPW Fall Rally: Morning on the Yough

WPW Fall Rally: Soutersville Train

WPW Fall Rally: Soutersville Train

I skipped the Pedal the Lakes century up in Mercer County due to a showery forecast and the organizers’ persistent refusal to provide GPS route data, something which has become de rigueur for everyone else.

I had the opportunity to do a 1am night-start 200k brevet, but just couldn’t motivate myself. It was a cold night, a very hilly route, I haven’t got the form, and it was Inna’s last night at home before a long trip. Having seen the weary finishers—all three of them!—I’m glad I gave it a pass.

That 200k ended at the Western PA Wheelmen’s fall rally, which I did go to (at a more respectable 9am). It was still cold and foggy, but it wasn’t dark, and I only had to pedal 35 miles instead of 135! I still went off course twice, and it was hilly enough to dissuade my lazy ass from undertaking an additional 32-mile route after lunch.

On the other hand, I saw the 200k riders finish, got to socialize with a bunch of folks, picked up the snazzy new argyley WPW jersey I’d ordered, and got a free (surplus) WPW “ride leader” tech tee and wind vest.

This month of poop gets even worse going forward, as I’m leaving to join Inna for a week in Seattle and Victoria. There goes what’s left of my late-season fitness!

Unfortunately, I could really use that fitness, because with the change of seasons comes the transition from endurance riding to obscenely steep and painful hill repeats in preparation for my first infamous Dirty Dozen ride. And if I get enough climbing in, I’m hoping to hit a quarter million feet of ascending by the end of the year. But in order to do any of that, I need to re-find my lost bikey mojo.

The sole bright spot has been new advances with my Edge 820 bike computer. First, I was able to wirelessly connect my new phone to my Di2 electronic shifters, download new firmware patches, and install those patches myself. Previously, you had to pay a bike shop to have their mechanics do all that; and even when Shimano’s hardware and firmware supported it, my old phone didn’t. Now, when Shimano introduces new functionality, I can just download and install it myself. So that’s quite a convenience.

And after posting an idea for a new data field on Garmin’s product forum, I found a guy who wrote a ConnectIQ app called AppBuilder that you can download to your bike computer and program to calculate your own data fields, which is exactly what I did. So now, in addition to the regular fields that Garmin supplies, my bike computer now displays how many feet of ascent I’ve done per mile for the current ride. That’s something I’ve been following since moving from flat Boston to hilly Pittsburgh, and having my cyclocomputer display it for the current ride is pretty darned cool.

But the reckoning is coming… DD minus 10 and a half weeks.

August 29th, 2017


12 MLR

PedalPGH is the local advocacy group’s big 2,800-rider celebration/ride, in the same category as Boston’s Hub on Wheels. But I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to ride this year, because right after the Every Neighborhood Ride, which opened Pittsburgh’s BikeFest fortnight, I came down with a horrible cold.

Ornoth leading a pack through the city

Ornoth leading a pack through the city

Crossing the 16th Street Bridge

Crossing the 16th Street Bridge

I missed every other BikeFest event, as I spent the next two weeks stewing in a large pool of phlegm, mucous, and snot. During that time, my fitness dropped, as I only managed a couple short rides, during which I spent a lot more time gasping through coughing fits than I did pedaling. I didn’t know whether my decreased fitness, combined with my lingering symptoms, would allow me to complete the PedalPGH ride—the final BikeFest event—or even make it up the first serious hills.

At least the weather looked great as I set off toward the start at 6:30am. Having already registered, picked up my rider packet, and pinned my number on, I was able to quickly line up at the very front of the field.

Interestingly, I was joined there by Scott Poland, who used to lead the Perf Bike rides; Jim Logan, who used to run the local randonneuring group; and Neil Donahue, another local organizer from whom I’ve plundered many local routes. Later I’d also see three or four other people I knew, which was a pleasant surprise. After less than two years here, I’m getting to know—and be known by—several of the regulars.

Despite their complaints, my legs and lungs got me up the first hill. Knowing there’d be a whole lot of climbing on the 62-mile “long” route, I decided to ration my effort for the rest of the day.

It was a beautiful day, and a pleasant ride, punctuated with many gasping coughing fits. At one point—TMI warning!—I blew a majestically slimy snot rocket straight on top of my right foot… which wouldn’t be a problem except that I wear cycling sandals, and the yellow goo landed splat between my toes! Ewww! I had to stop to address that particular problem.

The whole day, I lived on Gatorade. The only solid food I had was the english muffin before I left home, a small bag of sour cream & onion potato chips, and three small slices of apple.

I should also mention that I stopped at the unofficial water stop put out by the folks who organize the Every Neighborhood Ride. I was looking for Matt Reitzell, the guy whose cold I had contracted. When I saw him, I exclaimed, “Get down here, so I can strangle you!” We had a laugh, but I really should have killed him…

One of the important things to remember about big, populist city rides is that it’s amateur day; most participants are infrequent riders, have never ridden in a group ride, and know nothing about cycling etiquette or safety. Last year I had a real problem with idiotic behavior, but this year’s ride was a little more relaxed. It felt a little less like a “mass melee free-for-all demolition derby on steroids”.

In the end, I completed the ride in decent shape. I felt good enough to consider adding a nice, flat, 25-mile ride down the GAP trail to McKeesport and back, which extended the 62-mile PedalPGH route to a full century. I probably overextended myself, but the weather beckoned and it was still early in the day. And, to be honest, it felt good being able to check off that fifth century of the year.

Sunrise after climbing Mt. Washington

Sunrise after climbing Mt. Washington

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