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11 PMC Riding

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September 12th, 2017

September Morn

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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

PedalPIG

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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

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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

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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!

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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?

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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

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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!

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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

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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

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

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

EPIC Insurance Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On that account:

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

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

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

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

November 14th, 2016

Is It In You?

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

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

Gatorade Pro formula

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s the story of my Gatorade Escapade.

November 13th, 2016

Dirty DNS

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

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

2016 Dirty Dozen jersey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopefully things will work out better next year.

October 23rd, 2016

Tagline

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy!

October 14th, 2016

More Than One Slippery Slope

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11 PMC Riding

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

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

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

Slope chart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first one compares some noteworthy hills near Boston.

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

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

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

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

October 3rd, 2016

Road Work Ahead

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07 PMC Riding

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

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

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

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

Riders on Canton Ave

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 first training ride

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

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

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

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

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

September 15th, 2016

To Bodily Go...

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11 PMC Riding

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

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

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

Cyclists' legs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 4th, 2016

Pedal the Lakes

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12 MLR

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

Pymatuning Reservoir

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

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

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

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

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

Shenango River Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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