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11 PMC Riding



Skipped Back 25

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

August 14th, 2017

All the Hoods

07 PMC Riding

Pittsburgh’s annual BikeFest celebration got under way in earnest on Saturday with the 75-mile Every Neighborhood Ride, which literally goes out of its way to traverse all 90 of the city’s official neighborhoods.

BikeFest poster

BikeFest poster

Dawn before Every Neighborhood Ride

Dawn before Every Neighborhood Ride

Start of Every Neighborhood Ride

Start of Every Neighborhood Ride

Every Neighborhood Ride

Every Neighborhood Ride

Although it was a lot of fun, last year’s event was also the second-most climbing I’ve done in one ride since I started recording elevation data in 2010. And this year would be more, since I set out at dawn to accrue an extra 15 miles, so that I’d finish with an even hundred miles.

After a cool, misty, easy toddle up the GAP trail and out Smallman to Doughboy Square, I finally arrived at the start of the organized ride. As riders began to converge, a couple regular riders and the ride leader recognized me, and I got to play the experienced veteran by telling a bunch of first-timers what they were in for.

At 8am I set off with a pack of 13 riders in the fast group, enjoying a cloudy but temperate day for Pittsburgh in mid-August. The pace was just a hair faster than I wanted, but nothing strenuous. I was a little slower than I’d like to be on the hills (both ascending as well as descending), but my legs held out well throughout the day. And even though the clouds burned off for a warm afternoon, I never felt the distress that last year’s ride evoked. I attribute that to the homemade brownies at the rest stops!

The organizers—Jacob & Kelley McCrea and Matt & Jennifer Reitzell—do an amazing job running the ride, stocking rest stops, and keeping it fun. It’s without doubt Pittsburgh’s friendliest cycling event of the year.

Having said that, I need to express my frustration that riders in Pittsburgh don’t seem to know how to ride in a group. I’m not talking about taking turns in a paceline, but basic safety considerations.

Riders didn’t seem to care if they were endangering others by failing to hold a line, or passing someone (on their right!) without warning. I saw guys in the middle of a pack slaloming back and forth across the road, and even riding no-hands with riders directly behind them. More than once I drifted off the back of the group solely out of concern for how other participants were riding. Not cool!

By the end of two circuits around the city—an outer loop followed by an inner one—four people had peeled off, leaving nine of us to finish together at 4:22pm. Everyone said it was the fastest any group had ever finished in the six years they’ve run the event. That was probably helped by the closure of the coffee shop in Beechview, and the complete absence of any mechanical problems. I was happy to see that my new bike GPS still had 14 percent power left, after nearly ten hours on the road.

After some replenishment and socializing at the finish, two of us made the climb back up to Squirrel Hill, where I circled the neighborhood to polish off the last five miles of my century, number four for 2017.

It was by far my longest (duration) century, at 11 hours and 23 minutes. As predicted, I eclipsed last year’s second-most climbing high-water mark by ascending over a vertical mile and quarter. Along the way I set 12 new PRs and burned a solid 3600 kCal.

The ride itself isn’t especially scenic—in fact it’s often ugly urban riding—but it’s quite an achievement to say that you rode through every single neighborhood in the city. The rest stops are unique: one in a racecar fabrication garage, and another inside a physical therapy/rehab office, complete with a miniature indoor swimming pool!

But what really makes the ride fun are the people. After nine hours of noodling around with the same dozen-odd companions, you get to know them and build camaraderie by sharing the struggles of getting around this ridiculous town.

July 22nd, 2017

Almost Heaven

12 MLR

Having just recovered from the Akron ABC Century, last Sunday I saddled up for my second annual PMTCC 3-State Century.

The salient feature of last year’s ride was brutal heat; at 97 degrees, it was Pittsburgh’s hottest day in four years. Thankfully, this year’s weather was much more accommodating, with moderate temperatures and a light tailwind on the second half of the ride.

Century finisher medals

Century finisher medals

The 2017 ride started at Golden Triangle Bike Rental on the EFT, which was convenient for me, although it meant more time on extremely dangerous Route 51. In 2016 they’d started at AeroTech Designs on the North Side, which meant crossing the McKees Rocks Bridge, which wasn’t any better.

Out of consideration for the danger, the organizers led a slow, 10-mile neutralized start all the way to the far end of Neville Island before letting people fly free.

A few miles past the 200-foot Stoops Ferry spiker, we turned left on Route 151 for the long but moderate Laurel Road climb, at 450 feet the first of the big climbs. Then a long descent led to the first rest stop.

There I scarfed down a Hostess Cupcake and ran into two friends from the Performance Bicycle Saturday group rides: Miguel and Stephen. Amusingly, I’d spend the entire day riding about a kilometer behind them, then seeing them at the rest stops shortly before they took off again.

The next segment began with another 400-foot climb before leveling off and entering West Virginia. Three miles later, the road plunged down to a bridge across the Ohio River into the state of Ohio. Three flat miles later, back into Pennsylvania.

Last year, the added miles for century riders (as opposed to 85-mile riders) came in a single 12-mile detour with one 500-foot climb. This year there were two separate detours, and although they totaled the same 12 miles, they couldn’t have been more different! Instead of one 500-foot climb, there were three separate ones: 400 feet up Murphy Hill Road and then 300 more up Kelly Road on the first detour in Midland PA, plus 500 more feet up Sebring Road in Vanport on the second hill. And these were serious slopes, well above 15 percent, and my GPS displayed up to 19 percent. I was very thankful not to climb those in the blistering heat we had last year!

Now comes the odd bit: the lunch stop. Did PMTCC stock and man a lunch stop in the middle of the ride? No, what they did was give the riders Subway gift cards and encourage them to stop at sandwich shops located at miles 52 or 67. Very strange, but I guess it worked out okay. When I stopped at mile 67, I caught up with Miguel & Stephen, and Jim Logan—in true randonneur style—was in and out like a flash.

Upon setting back out, I crossed back over to the south side of the Ohio River for the long drag back down busy, high-speed Route 51 to the next rest stop at mile 80, where I stocked up with lots of ice and again found my friends.

It was really strange. Over the 50 miles between the first rest stop and the second (not counting the lunch stop), I had barely seen any other riders, except those at the rest stops. Apparently we were all riding at exactly the same pace, and evenly spaced-out. Very atypical.

Also strange was the rest stop spacing. From the ride start, it was 24 miles to the first stop, 43 miles to the lunch stop, just 12 miles to the second water stop, then another 21 miles to the finish. Very uneven, especially that 42-mile second segment. I hear they’re planning on changing the route for next year.

On the Sewickley Bridge, I passed my friend Jim Logan helping an Asian guy fix a flat tire. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but carried on. However, when I got back on the road after a quick stop at a convenience store for more ice and a cola, I caught back up with Jim. We rode together over the terrifying last six miles of Route 51 and rolled into the finish. There I met up with my other buddies, got a picture with them, and received a century finisher’s medal.

Riding home, I found myself following and then catching up with the Asian guy I’d seen Jim Logan helping on the Sewickley Bridge, and we chatted a bit. Guy’s name is Philgoo Han, and apparently it was his first century! It’s always cool helping riders do their first long rides. But it got kinda strange following him all the way through my neighborhood; apparently he lives only a couple streets over.

Overall, this year’s 3-State Century was a great ride. I took it easy and paced myself the whole way, and finished still feeling strong, rather than crawling in on fumes, which is pretty good for a century with more than a mile of vertical climbing! The moderate temps certainly helped, too. My Strava “suffer score” dropped from 354 last year to a mere 261 this time.

It was my third century of 2017, and my second in two weeks, after the previous week’s ABC Ride up in Akron. Now I’ve got a couple weeks to relax before things get busy again in August and September.

July 13th, 2017

Full Power, Damn You!

01 PMC Standing

Whenever I talk to people about electronic shifting, someone inevitably freaks out. “OH MY GHAWD WHAT IF YOU FORGET TO CHARGE YOUR BICYCLE AND IT STOPS SHIFTING IN THE MIDDLE OF A RIDE?!?!”

Obviously, electronic shifting isn’t for everyone. Like any system, it has advantages and disadvantages. I wouldn’t condemn anyone for their preference for mechanical shifters, just as I don’t expect to be condemned for generally preferring rim brakes over disc brakes.

Di2 battery

Di2 battery

However, let’s at least base our preferences on facts and reality, rather than “alternate facts” derived from wild conjecture and irrational fears.

In the case of electronic shifting, running out of battery power—whether thru actively depleting it without recharging or through letting the bike sit idle for months—will never be an issue for typical riders.

I started riding electronic in April 2013, more than four years ago, when I bought a bike featuring Shimano’s new Ultegra Di2 10-speed groupset. I’ve put 13,000 miles on that bike, or over 3,000 miles per year. And the data from my Di2 system tells me that on average I shift every 20 seconds while riding.

In all that time, I have never once depleted the battery. Was I a battery-charging maniac? Not at all. I usually charged it just three times per year: something like March, June, and September. And I virtually never had less than 50 percent charge, even if the bike sat idle for six months through the winter.

Until this year, I was getting 1,500 to 2,000 miles of riding on a charge. But in May I added another component to my system: the D-Fly wireless kit, which allows my electronic shifting system to communicate with my bike computer, to add gear shifting data to my ride logs and display what gear I’m in and how much battery I have left.

The D-Fly draws power from the battery to wirelessly transmit ANT+ data to the bike computer, so that noticeably reduced my overall battery life. But even with the D-Fly attached, I’m still getting two months and more than 1,000 miles of riding out of a single charge. Battery life simply hasn’t been an issue.

The people who cite battery life as a reason to avoid electronic shifting seem to think we’re still living in the 1980s, when NiCad batteries were state of the art. I have news for you: lithium batteries are lighter, smaller, have way higher energy density, don’t spontaneously discharge themselves over time, and don’t lose capacity by developing a “memory” after charging. Welcome to the 1990s; please update your expectations accordingly.

The only instance where battery life might be a limitation would be for ultra-endurance rides of greater than 1,200 miles where you couldn’t stop for an hour to recharge. I don’t know of anyone who rides 1,200 miles without sleep… Still, the obvious answer to that: carry a fully-charged spare.

For any normal rider, running out of juice is simply not going to be a concern.

Of course, I’m not saying electronic shifting is for everyone. I do appreciate the advantages of never breaking a shifter cable, never missing a shift, never worrying about crosschaining, and having gear and shifting data in my ride log. But I also acknowledge its drawbacks: it’s more expensive and can be really finicky to setup.

But running out of battery in the middle of a ride simply doesn’t happen, and anyone who says otherwise is either very misinformed, grossly incompetent, or intentionally lying to you.

July 12th, 2017

Awfully Buggy Century

10 PMC Riding

Two noteworthy rides to report on from this past weekend: the Pittsburgh Randonneurs’ Summer Populaire 100k, and the Akron Bicycle Club’s Absolutely Beautiful Ride century.

I was concerned coming into the weekend, because I’d had a couple slack weeks, thanks to a trip to Cleveland to visit friends and another to Boston, Maine, and New Hampshire for family. I didn’t feel particularly strong, having let my training lapse.

Ornoth & Monica finishing the 100k

Ornoth & Monica finishing the 100k

On Saturday, the Pittsburgh Randonneurs held a 100k followed by a potluck picnic. The inevitable hills made the ride a lot harder than I expected, and I endured some painful saddle chafing. I rode much of the route with Monica VanDieren, as we seem pretty well matched, pace-wise. We put up with a bit of rain just as we finished, but it passed.

It was nice hanging out, eating, and chatting with the dozen other riders afterward. And they’re the only group where the assertion “When I get old, I’ll take up an easier hobby, like marathons or Iron Man triathlons” is actually a believable statement!

Aside from an irritated butt, my other complication was the mileage. On top of the 100k, I added twenty miles riding to the start and back, for a day’s total of 85 miles… Not bad on its own, but a bit much for the night before a century!

After a shower, a hurried dinner, and abbreviated sleep, I was up again at 4am Sunday morning for a two-hour drive to Ohio for the Akron Bicycle Club (ABC)’s Absolutely Beautiful Country (ABC) century ride.

I can’t say “Absolutely Beautiful” is how I’d describe Akron. My impression of the area is more along the lines of: endless farmland stinking of manure, large clouds of midges, and nearly every vehicle was (for whatever reason) a white SUV.

The landscape was flattish with some rolling hills: way less strenuous than Pittsburgh! The open farmland left riders more exposed to wind and sun, but it fortunately wasn’t a real hot day, and some passing clouds provided some respite from the sun. And the wind was at our backs on the northbound home stretch.

On the positive side, there was free soft-serve ice cream at the 68-mile rest stop, and the sandwiches they provided were perfect: a quarter-inch of bread, one slice of swiss cheese, surrounding a two-inch tower of cold cut meat. Awesome! On the other hand, I was refused ice at the 85-mile rest stop because “It’s important that we keep the drinks cool.” Probably not as important as keeping *the riders* cool, but that’s how people think these days.

Another highlight was meeting and chatting with Michael Coburn, a local rider who had ridden several Pan-Mass Challenges with Team Forza-G after his wife received treatment at Dana-Farber. He’d noticed me wearing my 2013 PMC jersey.

I completed the course—and my second century of 2017—in a respectable 7h10m. Due to the fatigue (and ventral abrasions) of doing 85 miles the previous day, I’d taken it pretty easy on the road, so it was actually easier than the 100k. After some snacking and refreshment, I piled back into the car for the long two-hour drive home.

My goal in doing the ABC Ride was to find out what it was like and whether it was an event I’d like to repeat in future seasons. I mostly enjoyed the ride, it was well supported, and the lack of hills was a really nice change of pace! But on the other hand, I fear how painful it might be on a truly hot, sunny day. If it were closer to home, I’d certainly do it again; but I’m just not convinced it’s gonna be worth four hours of driving on short sleep.

Still, it’s another local(-ish) century to keep on the calendar, it’s another century under my belt for 2017, and good training for the blitzkrieg of long-distance cycling events bearing down on me over the next two months.

June 23rd, 2017

Lake Eerie

07 PMC Riding

One of my cycling goals for 2017 was to ride both days of this year’s Escape to the Lake MS Ride.

Last year I rode the 100-mile first day, which was brutally hot and my hardest ride in more than seven years according to Strava’s “Suffer Score”, but I avoided the logistical challenge of riding the 65-mile second day.

However, this year I convinced Inna to provide the extra support I needed to make riding both days possible by holding out the carrot of spending an extra day after the ride on the beaches of Lake Erie.

Ornoth riding MS Ride Day 1

Ornoth riding MS Ride Day 1

Bike MS Century Challenge medal

Bike MS Century Challenge medal

Ornoth crushing a hill

Ornoth crushing a hill

Ornoth finishing MS Ride Day 2

Ornoth finishing MS Ride Day 2

Ornoth at Lake Erie with finisher's medal

Ornoth at Lake Erie with finisher's medal

As the ride approached, I had three serious concerns: whether we’d have a repeat of last year’s brutal heat; lack of training from having been off the bike for five months this winter; and not having ridden more than 72 miles at a time so far this year.

To address my fitness concerns, I focused on training, and specifically the TRIMP charts provided by Strava and Stravistix, which I described back in this blogpost. It’s a model that provides quantitative metrics for fitness, fatigue, and overall form.

By keeping an eye on my numbers I could strategically decide when to train hard and when to rest. I arranged things such that I came into the ride about 4 percent more fatigued than last year, but that was more than offset by being 20 percent more fit. Numerically, Strava said my readiness had gone from last year’s -3 to a +7. Stravistix used different numbers but came to the same conclusion: an improvement from -6.7 to +9.9. The TRIMP charts were comforting and remarkably effective in getting me where I needed to be.

Saturday morning Inna drove me up to Moraine State Park where I checked in and got ready to ride. Right at 7am, just as I was about to line up, a thunderstorm came through, delaying the start by forty minutes while I scurried back to wait in the car.

After the storm’s passage, I found myself lined up at the back of the pack. Once we departed, I concentrated on making steady progress toward the front while simultaneously rationing my effort. Skipping the first two rest stops were helpful in that regard.

The first segment was more up-and-down than I remembered, and the roads were slick from the rainfall. But that soon burned off, and the terrain flattened out for the next two segments. The only curveball was a short detour in the middle of the third segment that added about a mile to our route. Finally a big hill led us into the third rest stop, where I quickly refueled and headed out. I was joined by a guy named Jay for the painless fourth segment, which led us into the lunch stop. By this time my stomach was starting to feel a little ooky, so I downed part of a ham and cheese sandwich and continued on alone through the fifth segment, which featured a few long, gradual hills.

Leaving the Cochranton rest stop at Mile 63, the landscape decides to assert itself. A very steep climb out of town eases off a little before continuing on for some distance, followed by a second long, slow climb. Then the 100-mile route forks off into open, rolling farmland punctuated by some leg-sapping spikers. By that point, my legs were tiring, but nothing like last year, and surprisingly no one seemed to be passing me!

After a brief rest at the Mile 81 rest stop, I pushed on through a very manageable penultimate segment, breezing past a couple of last year’s forced resting places. I stopped at a new rest stop at Mile 87 before climbing the big hill that followed. My power was down a lot over that last segment, but I successfully (i.e. without stopping) dragged myself over another long climb that heralded the final descent into Allegheny College, where we’d stay overnight.

I arrived at 2:43pm after 7 hours and 3 minutes, averaging 16 mph and 57 feet of climbing per mile over 102 miles: finally completing my first century ride of 2017! Between better fitness and a temperature that was 12-15 degrees cooler, I was a lot less blown at the end than last year. My 2016 ride’s “Suffer Score” of 465 still stands as the hardest ride I’ve ever recorded on Strava, while this year’s 305 only ranks as my 27th hardest, despite having shaved more than half an hour off last year’s ride time!

I checked in, stored my bike, got my bag, found my room, showered, and ate dinner. I felt good, but still decided to forego swimming and massage, choosing instead to relax in my dorm room and recharge my phone and bike computer.

I slept poorly, so at 5am Sunday morning I got up and had an early breakfast before getting kitted up, packing, putting my bag on the truck, fetching my bike, and lining up in the first group to depart at 7am.

Right from the gun, I concentrated on getting over the first big hill of the day and putting some space between myself and the rest of the riders. I skipped the first stop and made a quick in-and-out at the second. My legs were good, and I had little problem getting over the only other big climb of the day, at the start of the third segment. From there, although the route trended downward, it featured many more leg-sapping rollers than I had expected.

The penultimate section was bound to be difficult, turning west, straight into the teeth of an 18 mph headwind; however, it was nothing like the stories I’d heard about 2016’s Day 2 headwinds. The temperature was heating up, and at the final rest stop I washed off with an ice water towel and stuffed ice into my jersey pockets to melt while I rode. That last leg—finally crossing into Ohio!—was an easy descent to the lakefront park at Conneaut Ohio, aided by a tailwind and the absence of rolling hills.

I was one of the early finishers, completing 63 miles at 11am after 4 hours of riding, averaging over 17 mph and only 33 feet per mile of ascent, with a much more pleasant Suffer Score of 121.

I had time to wade in Lake Erie and take in some food—including two Dilly Bars!—while waiting for Inna to pick me up. I also chatted with my friend Kai and a couple other guys from the Saturday Performance Bike group rides, who all seemed in good spirits.

After the event, Inna and I reconstituted a tradition my friend Sheeri and I used to have following my Pan-Mass Challenge rides: taking Monday as an extra day off to play tourist and relax on the beach… With the obvious difference that this year we were on Lake Erie rather than Cape Cod.

Our Sunday night hotel room had a jacuzzi, but I didn’t have the time or energy to put it to use in-between dinner and two significant sporting events: the US men’s soccer team earning a draw in Mexico in World Cup qualifying on an astonishing goal, and the Pittsburgh Penguins scoring in the waning moments of regulation to win a second consecutive Stanley Cup title. Monday was spent enjoying one of eleven beaches on the peninsula of Presque Isle State Park before driving back to Pittsburgh for a good night’s rest.

Overall, it was a great weekend. The MS Ride was successful, enjoyable (i.e. much less painful), and a really great experience. I got plenty of sunshine, fresh air, and exercise. The saddle time will put me in better shape for the numerous long rides scheduled in July, August, and September. And I had a great time with Inna, both in terms of her support for my ride as well as sharing some fun times together afterward.

June 16th, 2017

The Edge of Usability

07 PMC Riding

Three months ago, I replaced my aging Garmin Edge 800 GPS cycling computer with the new Garmin Edge 820. After 52 rides and 1,400 miles, it’s time for an in-depth review.

I’m a data weenie. I was logging my weekly miles all the way back in 2000, and saving GPS tracks of significant rides using a handheld GPS long before GPS tracking was integrated into bike computers. So I’m sensitive to the features, usability, and reliability of my bike computer.

Edge 820 Di2 gearing & Strava Suffer Score page

I was really happy with the Edge 800, which I bought when they first came out in 2011. Over the years, Garmin introduced the newer Edge 810 and the larger Edge 1000, plus the smaller Edge 500 and 510, but the 800 was so good that I never felt the need to upgrade.

However, after six years, my Edge 800’s battery had begun to flag, and I was tempted by all the improved features and functions of the new units. Last July, when Garmin released a new unit in the 800 series, I read the reviews like a hawk, and finally picked up my unit in February, after I returned from my five-month stay up in Maine.

I’ll divide this review up into four sections: basic features and things I’m neutral about; features I don’t know much about because I didn’t test them; features I like and am excited about; and the things that disappoint me about the unit. Then the executive summary is at the end.

The Neutral

My biggest problem with my aging Edge 800 was battery life. I need a device that will record GPS data and provide navigational cues through at least a 9-hour 200k ride. I recently completed a 7-hour century ride, and had over 40 percent charge left, which means the Edge 820 can be expected to live up to its spec of 12-hour battery life.

I was a little concerned that the 820 has a smaller screen than the 800. On the other hand, it has better resolution. So far, reading the screen has not been a problem at all.

At a minimum, I need to be able to import GPX-formatted route data from the computer to the unit. No problem with the 820.

I also download all my raw GPS data (Garmin .FIT files) to my computer for archival. Thankfully, the 820 still supports this type of access.

Rather than coming with an SD card slot, this device has a fixed memory capacity of 8 GB. So far that hasn’t been an issue, and I can only see it becoming so if you were to load multiple continents’ worth of map data. Activity .FIT files don’t take up very much space at all.

Sometimes, if you were following a course and deviated from the path, my 800 would simply give up trying to navigate for you. The 820 hasn’t been bad, in that it tries to get you back onto the course.

Some folks have complained about the altimeter being off, or drifting during rides. I haven’t noticed a problem, given the understanding that barometric altimeters have limited accuracy by definition.

One new feature on the 820 is real-time weather alerts. This would be a cool feature, except it only receives major alerts like flash floods. Useful, but only rarely. Given that the device has a live Internet connection through a Bluetooth link to your cellphone, I’d rather see live local radar and notices of impending rain. There’s an app for that in Garmin’s ConnectIQ Store, but I haven’t tried it out yet.

Another new feature is the display of “recovery time” at the end of each ride. Basically, it’s a gratuitous, dumb feature. Recovery varies from person to person, and even a novice rider can sense how long they’ll take to recover from any given effort. I’ve turned that feature off.

One undocumented feature on the Edge 800 was the ability to set the boot screen text that displays when the unit powers up. I had set that to an inspirational message—“Always lead, never follow”—plus my phone number in case the unit was lost. I was happy to learn that the feature still works on the 820.

One evening, I learned that the Edge 820 automatically switches to an inverted-color display at night for better visibility. I’d love to say that’s an improvement, but it’s a feature that was also available on the 800; I had merely turned it off at some point!

The Unknowns

The Edge 820 comes with a power saving mode that comes on when the battery reserves start getting low. I haven’t tested it yet.

It also introduces an “incident detection” feature, where it’ll alert a contact if it thinks you’ve crashed. So many other users reported false positives that I have never turned the feature on.

Presumably you can load your own maps onto the unit. That’s a feature that existed on the Edge 800, but I’ve never felt any desire to mess with the maps that it came with. Though it might be a handy thing if you traveled or moved to a different continent…

Although Garmin did away with the idea of bike profiles, you can still set odometer values based on the sensors that are on each bike. Seems like a lot of work, and I don’t need total odometer readings while riding. I can just get that from the laptop.

The most exciting and useful feature that I haven’t had the opportunity to test is the Edge 820’s FE-C indoor trainer integration, which should allow the computer to set the trainer’s resistance level. In addition to using the Zwift social training app, theoretically you can follow a real-world course that you rode, and the unit will alter resistance to simulate the terrain. I’m looking forward to that, but that’ll require a very expensive trainer purchase, which I’ve been delaying.

The Positives

Edge 820 map page
Edge 820 Strava Live Segment page
Edge 820 Profile page
Di2stats.com gearing pie chart

Let’s start with the obvious. Coming from a seven year old model, the Edge 820 has updated maps, and lots of software updates, both built-in as well as regular firmware updates going forward. It’s nice to be back on a supported platform!

In addition to GPS satellites, the new unit also has the ability to receive signal from the Russian GLONASS constellation, making GPS locks faster, more accurate, and stable. I suspect this is also the reason why the regular signal stops/dropouts/starts I used to have near heavy infrastructure (e.g. bridges, railways) on the Edge 800 are almost completely gone.

With a Bluetooth connection to my phone, the Edge 820 will display incoming SMS messages, and notifications for incoming calls. It works well, and has been a nice convenience, given how many hours I’m on the bike.

For ultra distance rides, you can plug the Edge 820 into a portable battery pack and it’ll charge itself, while continuing to record ride data. To be honest, I think my Edge 800 could do this, but I never bothered to test it. However, I tested the 820 for this review, and it worked well.

With my Edge 800, after a ride I had to connect the device to my laptop and manually kick off a synchronization job to upload my data to Garmin Connect, then manually upload to Strava, as well. The 820 will use Bluetooth or Wifi to automatically upload ride data to both sites without a wired connection. Very convenient, especially when you’re away from home at a multi-day event.

Garmin has created an open API called ConnectIQ for developers to add their own apps and custom data fields to the unit. A favorite is the Strava Live Suffer Score data field, which displays how hard your ride is. I’ve got a great idea for my own custom data field, but setting up the required Windows dev environment is a huge bother.

The Edge 820 also will store your favorite Strava road segments and display a countdown and timer when you are on them, allowing you to measure your effort against your PR or the KoM holder in real time. It’s a cool feature, except for the discouraging Sad Trombone sound it makes when the record-holding time finishes before you do…

With an extra bit of hardware, the Edge 820 will communicate with your Shimano Di2 electronic shifting groupset. That allows me to display which chainring and cog I’m in (both numerically and graphically), as well as the system’s current battery level. It’ll beep when you’re at your absolute highest and lowest gears, and give you a text alert if the Di2 battery goes below 25 percent charge. On top of all that, all your shifting data gets added to your ride logs, which you can analyze later through sites like di2stats.com.

The Negatives

The touch screen is really poor… nearly unusable. Every interaction with the unit must be very deliberate, and often repeated. My unit is barely tolerable, but many people have simply given up and returned theirs for a refund. It’s terrible.

Scrolling and zooming the map are incredibly slow. Like, almost unusably slow. If there’s one thing a mapping GPS should get right…

Loading and calculating routes is even worse! If I have a stored GPS breadcrumb track, it shouldn’t take upwards of five minutes for the unit to begin offering navigation cues. Why would it take even longer than the Edge 800?

When I first started using the unit, it spontaneously turned itself off several times. Fortunately, after a little while, that stopped happening.

Along with SMS and incoming call notifications, it would be nice if the unit offered incoming email notifications, as well. Missed opportunity.

I had a lot of trouble setting my Max Heart Rate. By default, the unit will override any number you specify with whatever it gets from a heart rate sensor. But since HRM straps are notorious for occasionally giving ludicrously high readings (e.g. above 220 BPM), it kept resetting itself until I shut off the auto setting and entered a fixed HR max.

Presumably, the Edge 820 supports Live Track, where you can send a URL to a friend, and they can visit a site that shows where you are in real time. In my experience, the data connection to the phone is too fragile, and I’ve never gotten Live Track to work… not even once. Both Google Maps’ Location Sharing feature and the Glympse app work far better.

Then there’s Group Track, where you and your riding buddies can presumably “Live Track” each other, with the head unit displaying the locations of your other riding buddies in real time. Even if I had other riding buddies with compatible head units (not very likely), the fact that it depends entirely on the utterly non-functional Live Track feature means I can’t use it anyways.

That cool Shimano Di2 integration I talked about above took *way* more time, effort, and money than it should have. First, to get the Di2 to talk to the Garmin, I knew I had to order and add a tiny wireless transmitter and a cable to my Di2 system, plus the special tool to connect the cable. When that didn’t work, I learned that I also had to order and replace my old battery mount. Tiring of the runaround when that didn’t work, I brought it in to the bike shop, where they individually updated the firmware on every piece of my Di2 setup. That didn’t work, either, so I ordered a new front junction box, plus two more new cables. When those came in, we installed them and did two more whole rounds of firmware updates during several phone calls with Shimano support. Then we finally had to pair the Di2 transmitter with the Garmin, and iron out a few minor bugs in the system (not reading battery level, thinking it had 11 sprockets rather than 10). In the end, it took a couple months, three trips to the LBS, a few calls to Shimano support, seven new parts from four separate orders, and an extra $450 in parts and labor to set up, just for my head unit to display what gear I’m in. Had I known that at the beginning, I never would have bothered.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, the unit mostly works, and is generally okay. It’s a good step up from my aging Edge 800. I like the auto-upload, custom data fields, Di2 integration, phone and text message notifications, and Strava Live Segments. And I’m hoping that the FE-C trainer integration works well. But none of those are must-haves, so I wouldn’t say I’m blown away by the new features.

On the other hand, a lot of people really hate the unit, and I can understand why. The touch interface is terrible, basic functions such as loading routes and map data are ridiculously slow, and key features like Live Track, Group Track, and incident detection simply don’t work.

While Garmin enjoyed a market-leadership position in GPS cycling computers for several years, riders who are frustrated with Garmin’s lack of responsiveness are turning to other vendors, now that quality alternatives are available like the Wahoo Element Bolt.

By all measures, the Edge 820 should have continued Garmin’s domination of the GPS cyclocomputer market. I really hope they have learned the drawbacks of releasing such a flawed product and do a better job next time. In the meantime, hopefully they’ll keep issuing firmware updates that fix the Edge 820’s broken features and provide more compelling functionality.

It’s still a good unit, but it’s definitely not the category-redefining product that I had hoped it would be.

June 4th, 2017

April and May is the time of year when you go out and suffer, laying down the miles and gaining the fitness which will serve as a base for your major summertime events in June, July, and August.

Team Decaf group ride at the Point

April was a good month for me. I covered 425 miles, including two 72-mile runs (down Bunola Road to Monongahela, and up Sun Mine to Saxonburg), earning both my Strava Gran Fondo (100 km) and Climbing (24,600 ft) Challenge badges. With respect to making up for five months off the bike, I’d describe my fitness level then as: not feeling strong, but not feeling weak anymore, either. But boy, Western PA sure likes to put up detours for road work in the spring… Closed roads *everywhere*!

My improvement continued this past month, when I covered 567 miles, including regular group rides and three Tag-o-Rama pickups. I finished the month out by bagging the monthly Gran Fondo and Climbing (29,000 ft) Challenges. The only noteworthy event in the entire month was the ceremonial Ride of Silence in memory of cyclists killed and injured by automobiles. By Memorial Day I’d finally caught up with last year’s pace for distance, climbing, and time in the saddle. I’d also surpassed 1,200 miles for the year and 12,000 miles on my four year old R2-Di2 steed.

One new development is that I am participating in the summer-long National Bike Challenge, which I never bothered with before. The competitive nature of the game has gotten me out for more frequent and longer rides, and logging rides is easy now that they just scrape your Strava data. After one month of point-gathering (20 points per day of riding, plus 1 point per mile), I’m 90th percentile among Pittsburgh riders, 88th percentile in PA, and 90th percentile nationally.

As a segue into June, yesterday was the Western PA Wheelmen’s annual Spring Rally, a picnic down in Washington County which included really pretty road loops of 39, 14, and 11 miles. I did all of them (and all 14 ridge climbs, accumulating 4,550 feet of ascent), and generally felt pretty good except for the sitbones.

So despite my abnormally long winter layoff, after a few months of hard riding I feel pretty much back up to an appropriate fitness level again. That’s good, because next weekend is June’s big event: the Escape to the Lake MS 150 ride. It was brutally hot and hard last year, and this year I’m going to ride both days instead of just one.

The one thing my training lacked this year was completing a full century ride before June. Last year I did the Pittsburgh Randonneurs 200k in April, but that was out of the question this year, and I just haven’t chosen to tackle a 100-mile ride recently.

Fortunately, Strava’s incredibly useful Fitness & Freshness chart confirms that I’ll start the MS ride at a higher fitness level than last year. And so long as I taper my training properly this week, I should be fresher and in better form overall. Stay tuned for the results!

May 17th, 2017

Brake Dancing

11 PMC Riding

Here’s another rule of thumb I’ve developed for endurance cyclists: if you have to use your brake, you’re doing it wrong. That might sound a little silly, but it’s good science.

The only way that a bike moves is through the rider producing the force to propel it. You invest a lot of muscle energy to get the bike up to speed, and then its momentum allows you to keep it rolling along while expending just a little bit more muscle energy. When you stop pedaling and coast, the bike gradually loses momentum and will eventually come to a stop. On an ideal ride, you would only have to produce enough energy for the bike to just make it to your destination.

Since we don’t live in an ideal world, there are times when we need to use our brakes and come to a stop. For the endurance cyclist, stopping and starting is a really expensive operation.

First, the stop. For most stops, a rider uses the bike’s brake, which dissipates the energy built up in the bike’s momentum. That’s momentum that originally came from the rider’s muscle power. When the rider has used more muscle power than needed, he must use the brake to get rid of that excess momentum. Theoretically, he would have been better off expending less energy and coasting to a stop, rather than using too much of his limited muscle power and throwing the excess inertia away.

If you’re just out for a ride around the neighborhood, that’s no big deal, because you’ll never exhaust your stored muscle energy. However, if you’re an endurance rider doing a seven- or eight-hour 130-mile race, running out of energy (bonking) is a real possibility, so conserving every calorie of muscle power is critical.

Then comes starting back up again. As I indicated above, getting a bike up to speed is an investment of energy. It’s costly at first because you’re propelling both yourself and the weight of the bike; however, the investment pays off later in being able to use the bike’s momentum to keep it moving with much less effort. But every time you stop, you use an awful lot of your stored muscle energy getting back up to speed, especially when trying to do so quickly.

There are clear lessons here for cyclists. First, avoid stopping overall, because repeated stops and starts can consume a lot of energy. Second, manage your effort and try to ride in a way that doesn’t require much braking. You might even consider use of the brakes as a warning signal, a reminder that you probably expended more effort than absolutely necessary. I.e. if you have to use your brake, you’re doing it wrong.

Now, obviously the real world is a little more complicated than that. Downhills also put energy/momentum into the system that might need to be dissipated, and road design and traffic control placement usually don’t allow bicycles to gradually coast to a stop. Riders obviously need to apply a modicum of wisdom to these concepts.

But I’ve found it useful, especially on long-distance rides, to be very conscious of how much muscle power I use, which includes riding such that I can avoid using the brake as much as possible.

May 15th, 2017

The Interaction Designer

12 MLR

Safe Cycling, Smart Cycling, Confident Cycling, Fundamental Cycling Skills: whatever you call it, educating riders on how to safely share the roads with other users is an important responsibility of advocacy organizations around the world.

I’ve never been through a formal bike safety course, but I’ve done plenty of reading, supplemented by plenty of self-education through tens of thousands of miles in the saddle.

In that time, I’ve gained one recurring insight which I haven’t seen anyone else specifically mention: the value of minimizing the number of interactions you have with motor vehicles.

We all know that out of every hundred drivers you encounter, a certain percentage of drivers are either distracted, impaired, or aggressive enough to constitute a meaningful danger to one’s safety. For sake of argument—and this is only a swag—let’s say that only 5 percent of drivers operate unsafely.

It’s a mathematical fact that our chances of being hit increase linearly with the number of drivers we encounter. At our 5 percent level, if we pass (or are passed by) 100 cars during a ride, we will have around 5 potentially unsafe encounters. But if we pass 400 cars, then we have to survive about 20 risky instances. On any ride, the more cars you pass, the more opportunities you have to be run over, QED.

But the converse is also true: if you only come across 20 cars, then maybe 1 of those drivers will be a danger to you. The fewer interactions you have with drivers, the fewer bad drivers you encounter.

That’s true no matter what the real rate of dangerous drivers is. Whether it’s much lower (1 in 500) or much higher (1 in 3), you’re *always* safer by reducing the number of interactions you have with cars. So that should be a goal for every cyclist.

“That’s nice, Ornoth, but how am I supposed to do that? I don’t control how many cars are on the roads…”

Riders aren’t idiots. Even complete newbies intuitively do a couple things that minimize problematic interactions with cars:

  • Avoid major arterial roads and highways with high-volume traffic. Ride on side and back streets that have less traffic.
  • Avoid narrow roads with no shoulders. This doesn’t really reduce the number of encounters you have, but it does produce less frustration and anxiety, and gives everyone a greater margin of error.

Beyond the obvious, here are some practical strategies I often use:

  • It sometimes makes sense, when you are about to start a narrow segment of road, to pull aside to allow any vehicles following behind you to pass. That way drivers aren’t frustrated and following you closely, looking for (potentially unsafe) opportunities to pass. You’ve defused a potentially dangerous interaction, plus you get the ethical satisfaction (and perhaps we all gain some political benefit) from your having been unexpectedly nice to someone.
  • Avoid going up long hills that will slow your pace. The slower you go, the more time you’ll take, and more vehicles will come up behind you wanting to pass (which make the previous points about narrow roads even more important on climbs). All else being equal, if you have a choice between a hilly and a flat route, you’ll have fewer interactions with motor vehicles on the latter.
  • When practical, avoid having to make left turns. Turning left requires moving across at least one parallel lane of traffic (the one you’re in, plus any to its left), then possibly crossing one or more perpendicular lanes (the cross-street). This isn’t a problem for right turns, because you’re not crossing lanes of traffic. Another alternative that can be safer is to make a two-stage left.
  • Don’t leapfrog traffic! It’s tempting to pass cars when they’re stopped at a traffic light, and buses at a bus stop. But most of the time those vehicles will want to pass you once they’ve started moving again. It’s a lot safer to insert yourself into the line of cars and wait for them to proceed, unless you’re damned sure you can sprint fast enough to stay ahead of the cars you pass!
  • Do your best to ride at the same speed as traffic. While this isn’t possible on high-speed roads, it is the optimal way to ride in urban traffic. In my experience, drivers will be less irate at a cyclist who maintains a comparable speed than one poking along at a walking pace.

I want to triple-emphasize that last point, because for my money, it is one of the most beneficial safety rules you can observe as a rider. By riding at the same speed as ambient traffic, you dramatically reduce (perhaps even to zero!) the number of vehicles that attempt to get past you. And as I said above: the fewer interactions you have with drivers, the fewer bad drivers you encounter, and the safer you will be on the road.

You could summarize all that in two golden rules: be considerate of other road users, and try to reduce the number of interactions you have with them. If you ride according to these principles, you will be exposed to fewer bad drivers, endure fewer opportunities for crashes, and reduce the frustration level of the dangerous drivers that you do encounter.

April 18th, 2017

What Bike Should You Buy?

12 MLR

As a conspicuous cyclist, I get this question so often that it’s well worth a permanent blogpost. You want my advice on buying your first bike? Here it is.

If you walk into any bike shop, they’re going to ask you questions like these:

Calle y Libertad!

What kind of riding are you going to do: bike paths, road, off-road, urban, commuting, racing, triathlons, grocery shopping, rainy or snowy wintertime rides?

How often and how far will you ride: trips around the neighborhood twice a year, errands around town a couple times per month, lengthy fitness rides every week, or day-long expeditions of 80 or 100 or 150 miles at a time?

What’s your budget: a hundred dollars; a thousand dollars; ten thousand dollars?

But if you’re brand new to cycling, you probably don’t have answers for those questions. You haven’t formulated a ten-year incremental self-improvement plan, you just wanna ride a bike!

There’s nothing wrong with that. But understand: that it makes it hard for anyone to help you pick out a bike.

So here’s what I suggest you do.

It doesn’t make sense to put a lot of money into a bike until you are certain that you’re actually going to use it. If you buy something inexpensive, you won’t feel guilty if it sits unused in the basement for a year or ten. That means either a very cheap new bike or an inexpensive used bike.

Buying a cheap brand-new bike (not used) gets you a shiny toy, but not a good one. At the entry-level, the brand doesn’t matter much, but you want to stay away from department stores. A bike shop will be a little more expensive, but you’ll get a better and more reliable bike, they’ll know how to properly assemble and adjust it to your size, and they offer service and knowledge that department stores can’t.

You might get an even better quality bike for cheap if you buy used, but you need to be extremely careful. You don’t want to buy a stolen bike, or a broken bike that needs major repairs. It’s okay if inexpensive, replaceable parts are worn (tires, tubes, saddle, bar tape, lubrication), but the major parts (frame, wheels, steering, brakes) should be in good working order. You can find great deals on Craigslist, but caveat emptor big time. It can be better to ask cyclist friends or bike shops if they know of anyone who has a bike they want to unload on a new rider.

Another way to get a deal is to ask a bike shop to direct you to any previous year’s bikes they have on hand. In the fall, they’re looking to clear out old inventory to make room for new, in the winter they’re desperate to sell anything, and any old bikes leftover in the spring will be marked down even further.

Whether you buy new or used, always take a test ride; preferably test a number of bikes so you can compare them. Remember to adjust the saddle height and handlebar reach before your ride, so that the bike fits you as naturally as possible, because proper fit is the most important determinant of your comfort on the bike. Remember that you’re not testing the replaceable bits like the tires, but the permanent bits like the frame and wheels.

When buying, remember that you’ll also spend money on accessories like helmet, lock, lights, flat tire repair kit, multi-tool, saddle bag, water bottles, gloves…

If you’ve read this far, then you probably have enough initiative to actually do some online research. There’s plenty of articles and videos offering advice about how to buy your first bike. The local advocacy group, BikePGH, offers this page describing How to Buy a Used Bike. Or watch this video by Global Cycling Network, which is also entitled How to Buy a Used Bike. Although mostly oriented toward road bikes, GCN offers their Bike Buyer’s Guide: an entire playlist of more than a dozen videos on the topic.

Once you’ve got your inexpensive first bike, ride the living hell out of it! Take a year or two to discover how much riding you’re actually gonna do. If you don’t ride it much or give up on cycling, that’s okay: you haven’t wasted much money!

But if you ride very much, you will figure out what kind of riding you enjoy. Keep track of what you like about your bike and the things that you wish were different.

If you start out with a small investment and a little patience, you will learn more about what you want, what to look for, and whether it’s worth spending more money to get a really nice, new bike. And you’ll be able to answer those important questions the bike shop are going to ask about how much and what kind of riding you do.

Only at that point should you think about reaching into your savings and splurging to buy your amazing ideal dream bike. And because you’ll know what you want and that you’ll make use of it, you shiny new bike will serve you well and loyally for many years and hundreds—or even thousands—of miles together.

That’s pretty much how I got started. In 1998 I spent about $500 on a very basic utility bike that got stolen. But I had used it enough to justify spending $900 on a slightly more upscale hybrid, which carried me 15 thousand miles over the next five years. When it came time to buy my next bike, I knew that spending a lot more money on a high-end road bike would be worthwhile. I got another eight years and 22 thousand miles out of that road bike before upgrading again to my current steed four years ago.

The overall lesson is to keep your purchases modest at first, and grow them in proportion to your skill and level of commitment to cycling.

So if you’re just starting out, get a cheap all-purpose bike, either new or used. If you don’t ride it, you won’t be out much money. But if you do ride it, you’ll quickly learn everything you need to know in order to purchase a much better dream bike a couple years down the line.

Makes sense, doanit?

April 17th, 2017

Last month, BikePGH—Pittsburgh’s main cycling advocacy group—conducted a survey of cyclists’ attitudes toward self-driving autonomous vehicles (AVs).

That action wasn’t arbitrary. Carnegie-Mellon University has developed their own AVs and tested them locally on the open roads. Ford’s AV unit employs a couple hundred people locally, mostly software engineers. And two years ago Uber deployed a score of robotic vehicles, using Pittsburgh as a development center and testbed for their own fleet. On any given trip through the city, you’re more likely to see an AV than not.

Bikers prefer AVs

With so many of them on the road, BikePGH wanted to know how cyclists felt about sharing the public streets with two-ton robots driving around at speed, and whether they, as an advocacy group, should oppose AV deployment or support it. So they conducted a survey.

You can read the survey results here. Although the survey questions were formulated with an obvious bias toward opposing autonomous vehicles, both BikePGH members and the general public responded that they overwhelmingly support the idea.

Naturally, I provided my own experiences. I’ve had many interactions with AVs while cycling; as I said, I’ve been seeing them all over town since moving here 18 months ago. All those interactions have been positive, with no issues whatsoever.

I suppose it’s human nature to mistrust automation. We find it difficult to believe that a machine can be put into a complex environment and make decisions that are better than—or even equal to—those made by a human.

The shibboleth that machines cannot handle the complexity of real-world situations has been addressed by recent advances in sensors, big data, and machine learning.

In fact, given proper programming and training, a robot will process more sensory data and consider more decisionmaking criteria than humanly possible in order to arrive at an optimal response, and do it in a fraction the time it would take you or I.

Does that mean I trust them enough to put my life in their hands? As with GPS navigation and routing, there are bound to be bugs and other challenges which will only be discovered with mass deployment. So far, all those AVs have had attentive “Safety Engineers” in the front seat, supervising their decisions and ready to intervene if anything goes amiss.

I do think it’s important that the government get involved to establish standard behavior and decisionmaking protocols and verify compliance with rigorous testing. I wouldn’t trust private enterprise to willingly bear the expense of testing and putting out a truly safe product. And someone needs to figure out liability concerns and how to insure them.

So I might not fully trust them, but I don’t fully trust any human operator on the road, either. While AVs might suffer from shortsighted programming, I know they won’t be intoxicated, fatigued, distracted, or aggressive. Taking those factors into account, I trust them more than I trust human operators, and I said as much in my survey response.

Amusingly, BikePGH chose to (anonymously) quote one of my comments in their survey’s summary. Here’s their writeup:

In general, people’s disdain for rude and aggressive human drivers overshadowed any negative perception, if not even welcomed autonomous vehicles. “Their novelty should not obscure the fact that they are neither distracted, intoxicated, nor aggressive, unlike the far more numerous human operators I encounter on the roads.” This commenter followed with “if [BikePGH] truly cares about cyclists’ safety, you would work to minimize the latter, rather than the former.”

That quote also got picked up as the closing kicker in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s article that covered the survey:

The general attitude toward self-driving cars in the survey could be summed up in one respondent’s comment: “Their novelty should not obscure the fact that they are neither distracted, intoxicated, nor aggressive, unlike the far more numerous human operators I encounter on the roads.”

Although I’m amused that I was quoted, I very much stand by those words. In my years of experience on the road, humans have conclusively proven themselves unable to operate motor vehicles without killing one another. Although autonomous vehicles might not be perfect, they’re unquestionably better than the self-important, homicidal monkeys I see on the roads every day.

April 16th, 2017

March Into the Future

12 MLR

It’s been seven weeks since my February post, which related my having ridden six days out of seven. After that, March was pretty much a write-off from a cycling standpoint, but April is coming together nicely.

I guess I can’t complain too loudly about being unable to ride in March. It was still winter, after all, and the weather was cold and rainy. I’ve aged out of the desire to ride in weather below 40 or 50 degrees. But even on the passable days, I found it hard to self-motivate. Trying to recover lost fitness each spring is always painful, but I’ve been more discouraged than usual this year, since I spent so many months completely off the bike.

Spring is for cobbled climbs
Neighborhood switchback
Rolling Pennsylvania farmland

Once you do motivate yourself to ride, there’s a certain amount of “training stress” that is necessary for building fitness, and that training stress is really good… until it isn’t. Working too hard too soon, without proper recovery time, leaves one with heavy legs, dreading heading out, intimidated by the traffic and so many hills to climb. There’s no real good way to tell when you’ve crossed that line from good stress to bad, but with repeated experience one learns to carefully monitor one’s desire to ride.

That was pretty much how March went for me. Although the Pittsburgh Randonneurs held a 100k and 200k in March and another 200k in early April, I skipped them all. They were earlier in the year than usual, which ensured that I was nowhere near trained up enough to succeed, and the early date also meant that the weather was near freezing. Not the kind of ride I’d enjoy.

Three good things did happen last month, tho. First, I got to play around with my new Garmin Edge 820 bike computer and get it all settled, including the frustratingly finicky Shimano Di2 integration; a full review of the unit will come after a little more road testing. I also picked up a Tag-o-Rama tag down in Turtle Creek, and set my new one in Garfield.

Finally, I learned of another alternate route up to Squirrel Hill (home) from the Eliza Furnace trailhead. Unlike the other two routes, which are kinda hilly, the new one is *obscenely* hilly, taking a couple switchbacks up a steep hill from Greenfield to Bigelow Street, which itself is a very long, steep uphill drag (involving both bricks and Belgian block) to the top of Hazelwood. It’s a nice workout, if I am capable of taking it on after whatever ride leaves me at the end of the EFT.

Although April began with a late-season snowfall, winter couldn’t hang on forever, and the past week provided great riding weather. Since last Sunday’s always-inspiring Paris-Roubaix, I’ve matched my February achievement of riding six days out of the past seven, but logged 236 miles rather than February’s mere 166.

On the 9th, I undertook a 33-mile ride east to visit the sites of two of Allegheny County’s seven active underground coal mine fires, some of which have been burning for more than fifty or sixty years!

The 10th I followed the route of a local club ride north for my first 50-mile ride in seven and a half months. The wind made it extra difficult, and my lack of training (and lack of acclimatization to the sun) produced a mild sunburn on my arms. It hasn’t taken long for my “distinctive markings” to return!

The 11th was a flat 30-mile recovery ride down the GAP bike path.

The 12th I went short (20 miles), but packed several really steep climbs to (further) stress the legs.

That was followed by my one rest day on the 13th.

With beautiful weather scheduled for Friday the 14th, I opted for a long 100k ride down Bunola Road to Monongahela, which wound up being 72 miles when bridge repairs necessitated a surprisingly pleasant and scenic detour up Raccoon Run and down Church Hollow. That capped my first 200-mile week in—believe it or not—nearly two years (since June 2015)!

Then on Saturday I got 30 more recovery-ish miles in my first group ride of the year with the Performance Bike crew. Hopefully I’ll get out one of these Tuesday nights for a spirited ride with the Team Decaf group.

But before I do that, I could use a day or two of recovery to consolidate my fitness gains and take the fatigue out of my legs. I figure it’d be nice to give the bike a rest too, since today is R2-Di2’s fourth birthday!

But the bottom line is that after a fallow March, the first half of April has featured a lot more miles in the saddle, with more expected. But happily, I can afford to take my time building up to peak fitness; with the Pittsburgh Randonneurs’ 200k rides already past, I don’t have any other significant events planned until mid-June.

February 26th, 2017

Saddle Up, Pardners!

12 MLR

Coming back from four and a half months of forced inactivity is decidedly *not fun*. And I know from not fun.

Back on October 2nd of last year, I rode the first of this year’s Dirty Dozen group training rides. Then my mother got sick, and I had to go to Maine to care for her. Over the following 19 weeks I only managed one trivial ride, while my previous peak strength and fitness plummeted. I only resumed training on February 14th, about a week and a half ago.

Old Mill gravel road

Fortunately, my homecoming corresponded with Pittsburgh’s warmest February ever, with a record nine days in the 60s, and a couple well into the 70s.

After jonesing for the bike all winter, last week’s weather allowed me to ride five days consecutively, and in those five days I rode more often than I had in the previous five months! For the week, I rode six days out of seven, covered 167 miles, climbed more than two vertical miles, and burned a spare 7,800 kCalories.

From a training perspective, I was trying to alternate between long, hilly days, and “off days” featuring short but hilly rides, to permit muscle recovery but maintain the training impulse. I hit Center Ave & Guyasuta (the first Dirty Dozen hill) twice, and took the opportunity to go exploring up a very hilly Field Club Road and the gravel outer segment of Old Mill. It felt great to finally put the body to use after endless months of inactivity!

But ironically, that intense desire to be on the bike post-layoff quickly evaporated, being overshadowed by the frustration and immense painfulness of rebuilding my fitness from nothing. It always surprises me that a short ride that I’d normally consider a mere warm-up in the summer can be so excruciatingly painful as to be almost impossible following a short winter break. And this was the longest that I’ve been off the bike in eighteen years!

Normally I’ve valued my off-season, eagerly anticipating the opportunity to relax, do something other than pedal, and eat whatever I want. I’ve always laughed at the muscle-heads who train year-round, caught in the perpetual hamster-wheel of compulsively needing to be faster than all their buddies. While I do enjoy riding fast and long, I don’t have so much ego at stake in my performance. Age and experience give you perspective beyond such adolescent traps.

But shockingly, I’m starting to appreciate the idea of training all year round. Not so much out of a vain compulsion to avoid losing competitive fitness at all costs; rather, it’s to avoid having to endure the muscle-searing pain of rebuilding the strength and endurance one loses during the off-season!

Or, to put it more succinctly: springtime riding still sucks hard! I mean, it’s beautiful and delightful… but it hurts so much that I’d consider giving up my off-season just to avoid that torture.

Thankfully, even in Pittsburgh February heatwaves must come to an end, giving weak, out-of-shape cyclists a breather, and a good reason to sit back and write about the trauma of early-season training.

Will I see you out on the road sometime?

January 13th, 2017

I toatally forgot to mention an important development in my 2016 season summary post! The evolution of my annual rides list!

Every winter, when there’s lots of desire to ride but little-to-no riding happening, one of the things that helps me cope is planning—or is it fantasizing?—about the season ahead: where I’ll ride, how far I’ll ride, and—most importantly—which major events I’ll participate in.

Annual Ride Calendar webpage

Major events like charity rides and centuries are an easy way to set goals for the year, and to structure your training plan.

Knowing which events you’ll commit to also lets you plan the logistics of making them happen. You not only want to set those dates aside on your calendar, but you might need to reserve transportation or a hotel room, or plan your charity fundraising effort.

Naturally, the dead of winter is an ideal time to make a list of the rides you want to do. Back in Boston, I had no problem making my list, because after fifteen years of riding, I already knew all the big organized rides. But when I moved to Pittsburgh, I first had to discover what rides were available to me.

But that wasn’t very easy. I found numerous organizations with ride calendars, but none of them were very useful. Some clubs had blank calendars that they didn’t maintain. Other clubs listed their own rides, but no one else’s. And surprisingly worst of all were the groups who tried to aggregate every ride known to man into one big munge that was both unreadable and hard to navigate!

When I looked at those sites—especially the aggregate calendars—the contrast with my succinct, regular one-page annual summary was stark. The information was out there, but it needed to be presented in a more reader-friendly way. In short, it was time to put on my information design hat.

The first task of an information designer is to understand what information the end-user needs, because everything else follows from that. In this instance, the intended audience is myself, which made it easy to just interview myself to find out what I really wanted!

Ironically, the criteria for including a ride isn’t very quantifiable. I wanted major rides that were “serious” and “nontrivial”. But what does any of that mean?

One way to define “major” is simply by distance. There are a lot of short rides, but you usually don’t plan your year around them. You could pick an arbitrary minimum length, like 50 miles, but that’s not perfect, because you might still make exceptions for some shorter rides.

Another way is repetition. Obviously, if a ride happens every week, it’s probably not a big deal if you miss any particular one. Whereas you might not want to miss a ride that takes place only once a year. But that’s not great either, because Pittsburgh has lots of little social rides which take place annually that you wouldn’t structure your season around.

Another obvious thing to think about is rides that require pre-registration, or which might fill up or sell out if you don’t reserve a spot early. You’d definitely want to note a ride like that in your calendar.

And anything that’s a significant event, where there will be lots of riders or people you want to see or some other significant reason to be there. But what’s “significant”? Again, it’s subjective.

Paper ride list

Ultimately, the criteria I use for including a ride on my list is whether it’s something I—or some other serious rider—would want to plan one’s season around, for whatever reason. Still vague and subjective, but it’s what seems to work for me.

In the past, I’ve usually kept my list of events for the season on a single sheet of paper, either in a chronological list or in a compressed year-at-a-glance calendar, like you see at left.

Last year, while composing my first Pittsburgh-area list, I posted a copy to the BikePGH message board in order to get feedback from other local riders. They pointed out several rides I’d missed, but they also suggested I share it by publishing it online.

So after some updates, I announced my creation of the Annual Rides Calendar, hosted on the BikingPGH wiki.

I’m very pleased with the result. The whole regional cycling calendar is distilled down to the absolute essentials, listing no more than six to eight serious rides per month, max, with links directly to the rides’ websites. It’s easy to scan by date in order to see both what’s coming up soon as well as a whole-season overview, without being cluttered to death with every little weekly ride across every neighborhood in Western Pennsylvania.

This new format calendar was useful last year, and the exercise of making it helped me gain familiarity with the big rides that take place here. Some other local cyclists have praised its usefulness, and I’m very pleased with it.

And now that the new year has begun, I’ve updated the Annual Rides Calendar for 2017!

December 22nd, 2016

PITy Year

12 MLR

As you would expect, my first year riding in Pittsburgh was eventful and full of new experiences. Judging by the size of this 2016 year-in-review post, I consider it a pretty successful year overall.

Here I’ll review my original goals for the year, plow through a list of other noteworthy developments, show you a few informative charts, and then close by looking forward to 2017. All accompanied by a handful of related photos.

Ornoth"s MS Ride
Ornoth climbing segment one
MS Ride start
50,000th Mile
Ornoth hammering
Pit randos crossing the Mon
Collapsed roadway
Cheez ball spill

Original 2016 Goals

When I moved to Pittsburgh at the end of last year, I set four explicit goals for myself, plus two implicit ones. How did we do?

First goal was to buy a new indoor trainer. It didn’t happen because nice weather allowed me to ride outdoors throughout last winter, and I wanted to conserve cash. Although I never got that new trainer, I can’t call saving hundreds of dollars a failure! And there’s always next year…

Second goal was to do more century rides than the feeble four I had done in 2015. I bagged seven, one of which was a 200k. Great success! To enumerate them: Pittsburgh Randonneurs’ McConnell’s Mill 200k (a new all-time record for most climbing in one ride), Escape to the Lake MS ride, a solo century to Brush Creek, the Pittsburgh Tour de Cure Gran Fondo, the Western PA Wheelmen’s 3-State Century, the Mon Valley Century, and the Pedal the Lakes Century.

Third goal was to check out Pittsburgh’s outdoor cycling track. Definitely did that, and set my first personal hour record there (20.77 miles). But I didn’t participate or even spectate at any of the races held there… Yet!

Final goal was to ride the Dirty Dozen. Sadly, family obligations brought my season to a screeching halt just after I started training for the Thanksgiving-weekend ride. This one has to wait for next year.

My two implicit goals were to ride more than I did in 2015, and to learn and become familiar with the roads and routes used by Pittsburgh cyclists. I covered both of those without question.

Overall, I did a reasonable—but not perfect—job of meeting my original goals for the year.

Innumerable Highlights

But the story of a season isn’t made up solely of chasing predicted goals. It’s also a collection of serendipitous moments and unexpected developments. And 2016 was a very eventful year.

How come? Here’s a quick run-down:

  • I opted to take the summer off from work, giving me lots of free time to ride.
  • I rode more miles in 2016 than I did in any my past six years except for 2014.
  • Overall, my average distance per ride is down, but my climbing per ride is way up, and I rode much more frequently this year.
  • I rode my first brevet in ten years, my first-ever gran fondo, and my first personal hour record on the track.
  • I rode to a town called McMurray in memory of my mentor Bobby Mac, did the PedalPGH and Every Neighborhood rides, rode from home into West Virginia and Ohio, around Saratoga New York on vacation, through a cheeseball spill, and to a town called Bagdad over two closed roads that were broken up and collapsing down the hillside!
  • I rode in regular group rides with Team Decaf and the East Liberty Performance Bicycle shop guys.
  • But I lost out on the Dirty Dozen, its training rides, and the 321 cancer charity ride I’d planned on doing.
  • I met a lot of cool riders, including Stef Burch, Monica VanDieren, Jim Logan, Eric Collazo, Kai, Colleen Spiegler, Ryan Popple, and many, many others.
  • I had one nontrivial crash due to debris in the road, resulting in some road rash and a quick trip to the walk-in clinic.
  • Rode in two processional rides in memory of local riders who had been killed by motorists.
  • Michelin replaced my standard Pro4 line of tires with a new model called Power Endurance. When I was accidentally sent 25mm tires rather than my preferred 23s, I opted to stick with them. They’re more comfortable, and wider tires are a new trend with many riders.
  • Also bought a Continental 4-Season rear tire for wintertime traction.
  • I destroyed another rear wheel, but replaced it with a new Ksyrium with an all-black Exalith brake track that whines evilly whenever I’m slowing down. My bike shop forced me to impersonate a shop employee in order to get my warrantee registered.
  • I bought a couple Ass Savers, a hub-level video camera mount, several new jerseys, caps, and a really nice new insulated winter cycling jacket.
  • I started playing in the BikePGH forums’ Tag-o-Rama photo-finding game, finding and setting four sets of tags. Also bought a cycling card game called Attack the Pack.
  • Bought a new set of Oakley Half Jacket sunglasses, with ear socks and lenses to match my bike’s red and white color scheme. Also attached plastic stick-on reading lenses to those sunglasses, making it much easier to read my GPS bike computer, especially when navigating unfamiliar areas (like all of Pittsburgh!) by map.
  • Although I haven’t bought the new Garmin Edge 820 GPS cyclo-computer, I did buy some electronic widgets that will allow my future head unit to talk to my Di2 electronic gear shifters. More on that in the future!
  • Lost my only Strava KOM up in northern Vermont, but gained a new one located behind Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh.
  • Was shocked to hear that Dirty Dozen founder and Pittsburgh cycling legend Danny Chew had been paralyzed in a crash.
  • Surpassed 10,000 miles on the “new” bike (R2-Di2), and broke 50,000 miles overall since 2000.
  • Ordered a fistful of Camelbak Jetvalve water bottle tops, because those things grow mold like crazy and are difficult to clean. They’re rarely sold separate from the bottles.
  • Added searchable tags to my cycling blog, so that you can now navigate my posts by topic.
  • Finally paid for a Strava Pro membership. Between Strava and the Stravistics add-on, I got all kinds of new features, including:
  • Started automatically posting ride photos to my Strava page via my Instagram feed.
  • Access to my Strava “trophy case”. On top of old challenges from years past, this year I earned eight monthly gran fondo badges, four monthly climbing challenge badges, and one special challenge badge.
  • I used the Flyby feature (example) to identify similar riders in my new neighborhood and learn the routes they favored. And I used Strava’s Global Heatmap to see overall popular routes in Pittsburgh.
  • One of the coolest things I did this year came about because I wanted something no other website provides: a way to directly compare the slopes and lengths of hills against one another. Being a techie and data vis geek, I started hitting the Strava API and created my very own Slope Comparison Tool. It’s really awesome and I’m really proud of it.
  • And then there were some new data plots that I discovered: my personal riding heatmap, my yearly elevation gain chart, and my training/fitness chart.

Let’s go into those charts in a little more detail, since they are extremely pertinent to any discussion of my 2016 season.

Teh Plotz

I told you that one of my implicit goals was to learn Pittsburgh’s roads. My 2016 mileage total was 3,260, which is greater than four of the previous five years, so I definitely covered a lot of territory.

But it’s easier to show you that on a heatmap than it is to talk about it. Here’s a static image of my 2016 riding, which shows a lot of riding around the city core and numerous expeditions further afield.

However, you can get a much better understanding by clicking through to the actual interactive map to pan and zoom around.

Custom personal heatmaps are one of the awesome features that came with my paid Strava membership. I have another map depicting all my riding (since 2010), both before and after my move from Boston to Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh heatmap

Next comes a truly amazing chart, which shows something my blogposts have belabored: how hilly Pittsburgh is in comparison to Boston.

The chart depicts how much elevation gain (i.e. climbing) I did each year. From 2010 through 2015, while living in Boston I climbed anywhere from 87,000 to 120,000 feet (16 to 23 vertical miles) per year.

Now look at the pink line for 2016. At the end of September, I had 190,000 feet of climbing: nearly twice my previous record for that point in the year! If I had ridden at the same pace for the last three months of 2016 I would have broken a quarter million feet (48 vertical miles) this year. But I didn’t, so I had to settle for a mere 36 vertical miles…

That chart is from the Stravistix add-on for Strava, which adds all kinds of useful information above and beyond what you get from Strava itself.

Climbing chart

Finally, I’ve got two versions of this year’s TRIMP chart, which I described in detail in this blogpost. The first one tracks this year’s fitness, and the second lets you compare 2016 to previous years.

Here’s what you’ll see below:

This past season began with a great build-up from mid February through the end of March. The next month and a half were plagued by mechanical troubles, travel, and bad weather, except for that mid-April brevet I rode: my longest ride of the year. There followed three and a half months of enjoying long summertime rides and steadily-increasing fitness, culminating with the Pedal the Lakes Century on September 4.

After that, I kicked off my Dirty Dozen training rides. Although I was building up leg strength, my fitness chart started trending downward because I wasn’t riding as often or as far; I was just banging out the steepest hills, then taking time off the bike to fully recover.

Dirty Dozen training went well enough until my mother got sick and I left for Maine, which abruptly terminated my season. The chart clearly shows the resulting precipitous decline in fitness from its late-August peak. See?

As with almost all images I post, you can click through for the full-sized version.

2016 TRIMP fitness chart

That’s a tactical view of 2016, but how does this season compare with other years? That’s what we see when we zoom out to a TRIMP / fitness chart for the past six years.

What you immediately notice is that the winter dip from 2015 to 2016 isn’t as deep as any previous year. That—and the irregular jagginess of the curve—reflects the fact that I managed to ride outside a lot last winter; whereas indoor trainer work would appear more regular, like what you see through the winter of 2014-15. Riding outside allowed me to start 2016 at a measurably higher fitness level than usual.

You also see some of the things I mentioned above: the early spring build-up, followed by a brief dip, then a very productive summer season, and a complete drop-off for the last four months of the year.

In terms of the absolute peak fitness I achieved, my max has been pretty consistent over the past three years. See?

2011-2016 TRIMP fitness chart

These two charts are also available as a part of a paid Strava membership. I found them—and especially the underlying form and fatigue data that I haven’t shown here—insightful and very useful in preparing myself for major events this summer without over- or under-training.

2017 Goals

That’s all I want to say about 2016, which leads into the next logical question: what will 2017 look like?

There are a handful of things that I definitely want to accomplish next year, and a couple open questionmarks. Let’s start with the easy ones first.

I plan to purchase and learn how to use a new Garmin Edge 820 GPS cyclo-computer, replacing my reliable six year-old Edge 800. I’m really excited about the many new features it offers, some of which I describe in this post.

I would like to ride both days of next year’s Escape to the Lake MS Ride. This year, I only rode the first day because it was a century and Day 2 was not, and because I could avoid worrying about hotels and overnighting and return transportation. However, Day 2 ends on the shore of Lake Erie, which I have yet to visit, and I think I might enjoy completing the entire event.

I plan to ride next October’s Woiner Cancer Foundation 321 Ride. This year I registered, fundraised, and got the ride jersey, but couldn’t participate due to my mother’s hospitalization.

And it goes without saying that I want to attempt my first Dirty Dozen next year. After several years of anticipation, in 2016 I was all set to take on that challenge, until life intervened. Now having ridden almost all of those hills, I really want to add that ride—and the steepest public street in the world—to my palmares.

Those are my main goals. What about the ones I said were questionable?

One is a 2016 goal that I deferred on: the purchase of a fancy new indoor trainer. That wasn’t necessary last year because Pittsburgh had a very mild winter, and I was trying to save money. The need is still there, but only time will tell whether I need to pull the trigger on it or if it can wait. But I won’t get any indoor or outdoor riding done during this extended stay in Maine.

And then there’s the employment question. Having a job is nice, and it does introduce the possibility of commuting by bike, but it also restricts how much time I can spend in the saddle. Although employment is a non-cycling goal, I’m definitely hoping that I can mesh those two aspects of life together successfully. But that’s also contingent on getting back home again.

That wraps up the end-of-season retrospective. I enjoyed my first year in Pittsburgh, and it was very eventful from a cycling perspective. I learned a lot, got some cool new gear, set benchmarks as well as some new records, met a lot of people, and experienced a whole lot of territory.

Here’s hoping for an equally enjoyable season in 2017!

December 1st, 2016

BRUTALesque EPICosity

12 MLR

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

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

EPIC Insurance Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On that account:

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

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

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

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

November 14th, 2016

Is It In You?

12 MLR

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

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

Gatorade Pro formula

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s the story of my Gatorade Escapade.

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