December 26, 2011

Identity and reason

After viewing a great many videos and reading texts on cycling long distances, whether it be RAAM or P-B-P, cyclists taking part were asked at some point "why they are doing this".  A great many took pause while trying to come up with an answer.  Many were unable to.  Sometimes we need someone else to tell us.  I, myself, am not sure I could come up with anything at quick notice.  I'm not sure any of us NEED to - but the truth lies somewhere in the notion that long distance cyclists are either riding away from, or towards, something.  Whether any of us figure out what that "something" is in our lifetimes isn't necessarily as important as continuing the search - and remembering to keep it fun.  
Fun is important.  A great many friends over the years have taught me how to look more closely, carefully, when I'd lost my way.  I have learned to laugh in the face of interminable distances.  I have found the simple joy in a hot cup of coffee.  I have learned that there is "tired", and there is "600k tired".  I have shook hands with new friends at the end of seemingly endless torture, and have smiled despite pain, sores, aches, fatigue -- fatigue so deep you find yourself giggling one second, and then for no reason, crying.  I haven't always seen the roadside daisies while on my search, the cool old bridge or building or bird - but I have learned to look, even to stop.  I have learned that what lies at the end of this long string of roads is not as important as what I learn on the way, what I see, what I smile about, what I share with others while they make their search.  While there are receipts and stamps and route cards, it's not about the clock or the miles or the course record.  It's also not about beating the other guy... yet, if you've ridden with me, you know that for some reason I still like a good rabbit.  Sometimes you need the comfort of the group... sometimes you need the silence of solitude between groups.  It's deeper than all that, though.  
I have watched in amazement the exploits of those making it back to Paris before some riders even reach Brest.  I remember hearing of riders making the end of the MS-150 before the lunch stop even opened - and remember letting personal comparison dictate my level of enjoyment.  I have read amazing tales of near-death experiences turned completely around into stories of triumph over odds, and have thought less of myself for giving in to pain too easily.  I'm sure there is happiness there in those tales of remarkable sporting ability, but more often than not I find myself questioning whether or not they're having a good time - watching hurried control mayhem, yelling, people shoving food into their faces, clothing refreshed, creams and lotions applied -- and watching them be shoved back into motion, off the bike for only minutes.  I seldom see a smile.  I have seen the strongest riders stop, dozens of hours in the lead, alone - just stopping, quitting, because there is no competition.  For them, the competition is the "why"... and when that "why" is removed, they no longer know why they are there.  One could call "cop-out" on me, or similar... but, I HAVE to be able to smile... I know that about myself.  Things really do become harder when I'm not having fun.  Everyone measures "fun" in their own way, all have their own facial cues, quirks... but, watching those videos, looking at their eyes... I'm not sure I can see it.

Others have their bodies give out before they find what they seek... and it make my heart heavy to see a strong athlete reduced to tears because their will is still so strong, yet the physical pain is too great.  I have seen others slip into fatigue, and the clock is unkind.  Hours from the next control with only minutes to get there - for some reason, there is still a smile.  Perhaps it hides something, but it is - from my perspective - genuine.  They have, on paper, lost... but, they don't crawl into the van.  They refuse the SAG.  Without any reason greater than "it's a nice day, and it'd be a shame to waste it," they continue pedaling towards Paris.  There will be no prize, there may not even be a single soul applauding them home... but they continue.  If the search consumes you, then whatever you find at the end could be bittersweet, hollow, anti-climactic, or worse... unsatisfying... but for these, I don't think such a fate awaits them at their own "finish".  There is no final stamp, no appearance in the finishers list, no fanfare... but they have still, for themselves, finished.  It's the character of these brave, heroic riders that I aspire to most of all.
After much personal toil, internal arguments, personal monologues - I am finally okay if I never have my name associated with any such amazing feat.  It's not as simple as saying I've somehow suddenly FOUND something and that I no longer need to search... I know that what I'm searching for still doesn't have a name, or association, or direct example "just like so-and-so did"... I don't need to beat that record, best that time, ride a few meters farther than Tom, Dick, or Harry.  I just need to relax, and enjoy the search itself.  If I happen to beat "70-hours", or shave off a few minutes from "last months ride", then great... but confusing those goals with THE goal can sap out the fun.  I still have drive.. drive that keeps me from seconds at the dinner table, drive that keeps me working out these days, drive that helps me squeeze out a little more speed - just to ensure that I'm giving anything I attempt my level-best... but, without keeping in touch with who I am, without having a good time at it ... what's any of it worth, really?  Medals will be stored away, stories written... but at the end, will I be happy with ME?  
Amazing things can still happen when you aren't trying so hard.  That's not the same as giving up.  I'm not giving up on anything.  No sir.  I take my cycling seriously... but this is a reminder to not take it TOO seriously.  I find myself teetering on that edge this time of year, when getting up the motivation to ride is harder than it is in August for example.  I pick my dates, send my emails, but then make the mistake of looking at ridiculously long-term weather forecasts.  They aren't reliable, my logos knows this - yet, I still am compelled to look, and wonder.  What if its cold?  What if it rains?  What if it isn't PERFECT???  I start to talk myself out of rides, weeks before they arrive.  Ultimately, I can't control the weather.  I can't let the weather control me, or my thoughts or mood, in the days leading up to the next ride.  Who am I to second-guess nature's will, or the Creator's for that matter?  What if I don't even realize that I NEED a ride in poor weather?  Maybe it's the BEST thing for me?  Let go... relax...  keep it fun!  After all, the worst weather can make for the best story.
The night before the December 200k, as I checked the alarm clock for the last time, clicked off the bed table lamp, and pulled the covers up to my chin, I asked the wife, "why am I doing this?"  I knew that cold temps awaited, I knew it wouldn't be easy, and I wasn't sure I was ready for personal discovery.  Doubt... anxiety... 
"You're doing this because you love it, remember?"
She's always right, you know.  I slept pretty good after that.
Sure enough a few hours later on a dark, cold road - I managed a smile, through the iced-over beard and all. 
Yep... after all these years, all these miles, I'm still having fun.
The more I remain in touch with that, the farther I can go.

December 20, 2011

Episode VI: Return of the Ice-Face

The normally never-considered vents on the tops of my shoes fill with freezing cold air as I rush down the first hill towards the river.

"Holy.... forget this...."

I check my six, touch the brakes, and turn the bike around.  This is ridiculous.
Not quitting... just, for the first time ever, turning around for the van and the duffel-bag-of-plenty inside.
My first rule on preparing for long rides in the cold when you have to drive to the start location: pack EVERYTHING.
This morning, I'm not even sure it was twenty degrees.  Add in the manufactured wind-chill created by cycling through the pre-dawn air and there was no WAY I was going to wait for the usual mile-three warm-up.  I wanted to be warm, but NOW.
Checked-in already at the QuikTrip up the hill, I didn't much care that I was burning a little clock.  Even the van looked surprised to see me back so quick.  (yeah.)  I fished out the keys from the seat bag and went diving for the few remaining layers that I didn't already have on my body.  Mittens, check... Shoe covers, check... lock, slam, keys stowed, zip, zip, zip, gloves on, ROLL!  ...MUCH better...  now, to get this 200k started already!!!

This time out, it's the "All's Wellsville" route, starting in Kansas City, KS., passing through Edwardsville, Bonner Springs, near DeSoto, Linwood, Eudora, near Hesper, Clearfield, Le Loup, passing near Peoria, and finally the turn-around in Ottawa, KS.  It's an interesting route ... flat in most places, which - honestly - bores me to tears.  It's good training, however: training for the mind.  Flat roads for me provide that anxious feeling like "you'll never get there" ...a feeling I need to learn to block out if I'm to pursue longer distances in a few short months.  It's a great route, honestly, as are all of the KCUC offerings.  I just have my favorites, that's for sure - but, I'm making a concerted effort to add variety to my R-12 run this time out as well as try routes that I wouldn't normally pick.  It helps me hone my control routine in a variety of settings, prepares me for varied terrain, and keeps the scenery fresh.

For the moment, scenery isn't really a concern.  It's dark.  It's flargin' freeeezing.  Without the normal bank thermometer signboard near the start location I don't have a way to confirm it for sure, but this may well be my coldest 200k start - at least in recent memory:  the Knob Noster 200k comes to mind.  The forecast changed hourly the day before, finally showing the mercury bottoming at around 20ºF.  That was at the start location, however:  farther along the route down in the Kansas River valley the temperature was set in the mid-teens.  It surely felt like it - and, it was very humid.  Frost everywhere, reflecting my lone headlight beam back in mystical shimmering sparkles as I rolled along K-32.  Strange images, though... frosty dead possum.... frosty dead rabbit... frosty discarded McDonald's bag... and myriad other unidentifiable bits of roadside trash all rendered sparkly and magical by the fairy ice queen.  Weird.
I grin at myself, and my facial hair resists... confirming that the ice beard has begun.  Yikes... so far this year, I haven't even had that happen on a commute - so it's remarkably cold and wet up here by the river, my breath condensing instantly, flying back onto my face and freezing in place.

"Just take it easy"...

I'm not in a hurry to the first control - just making circles.  I'm approaching the third month of "the new shoes", and lately I've been feeling the indications of possible over-training in my joints.  This happened with the last shoes, and the ones before that.  Time.  Patience.  Yet - in typical dude fashion, it'd be on my mind practically all day, just as it was in the 72-hours leading up to the start.  The weight of willpower not to change something for the sake of "solving" a problem is a weight I don't wish on anyone.  I exchange the hassle of temporary discomfort with the self-imposed burden of trying to find a solution for it - wherein I create more issues.  Rinse, Repeat.  Lock away your tools, dude.  Ride it out.  It's not pain... it's "change".

An early morning freight train passes me, blows its horn.  This route is another rail-fan opportunity for me - nothing quite like combining two of my passions into one activity!  I leave the lights of Bonner Springs behind and drop onto Loring Road, and though it's not technically "the old highway" it has that feel of ancient concrete as it parallels the Union Pacific railroad tracks, finally dead-ending right after I turn west on Loring Road's extension.

Despite the cold, I find myself dressed perfectly after adding the layers at the van.  Summer cycling gear you almost can't get wrong, but COLD weather cycling gear can be a tricky thing.  I've touched on this in other posts - true cold-use items, compared to chilly-use items that are marketed as cold weather cycling gear.  While I like to keep things generic in these pages and not call out one brand or another, I feel compelled to here because of the experience I've had with their products over the past four years.  That brand is Craft.  All of the information you'd ever want is on their site, so I won't repeat it here - but, simply, when it comes to winter cycling I don't look to anyone else.  Comfort like this comes at a premium price, and truth be told it's taken me years to individually amass the base layers, the jersey, the warmers, the head covers, the shoe covers ... but, each step has brought me closer to a perfect winter kit for long distances.  Again, as I've stated many times, these particular posts are based around long-distance fitness cycling.  For commutes, man, I've seen and used it all - and you can stay warm in hundreds of ways with little to no additional expense above what you'd normally spend to stay warm OFF of a bicycle.  For long-distance, cumulative, fitness-oriented efforts where technical clothing becomes more important, however, there is simply no substitute for the good stuff when it comes to cold weather.  Even if you can only swing one of their long-sleeve base layers, it will change your entire outlook on winter riding.  Like me, you will find it remarkable how FEW layers you end up wearing on a really cold ride.  The warmth and moisture transfer factors are staggering.  Okay, that's my product plug for the day.  Craft.  Insist on it.

For long-time readers - yes, I still LOVE wool stuff.  For rainy rides down to freezing, there's no substitute -- but when it's really cold I've found myself more comfortable if I stay drier.  Wool insulates terrifically when it's wet - so if you KNOW you're going to be wet, it's perfect... like in the rain.  When it gets very cold out, however, wool can hold onto sweat too long in my experience - and when cooling down at a control, I find myself eventually shivering as a result.  The Craft stuff seems to pull moisture away from skin faster than anything I've ever used - it dries faster on the clothes line than anything else I own.  The fabric, the weave - there's something to it, definitely.  I would have thought evaporative cooling would create the opposite effect, but the Craft stuff is very warm as a result.  Problem is - it has to STAY cold for the Craft stuff to be "perfect".  If it gets warm, you'll get too hot.  Wool still rules in the arena of temperature range - proven LAST month when on the Super Big Gulp route: a ride that started in the upper 20's, and ended up in the mid 60's... but I barely had to shed any layers, being comfortable in my wool togs all day.  If you could only spend the money on ONE kit to rando in... because of that flexibility... it'd still probably have to be wool.

Meanwhile, on Loring Road, in a vacuum at sea-level, when vehicle A is travelling eastbound at 55 MPH, and vehicle B is travelling westbound at 55 MPH, bicycle Z will intersect with both vehicle A and B at exactly point X, where the width of the shoulder-less road shall be the width of (A+B+Z)-3 ft., causing vehicle B to slow to bicycle Z's speed, while the combined effect of reflective gear and shadows will cause approaching vehicle A to needlessly slow to vehicle B's speed at location X, which equals "horn".  Crap.  Of all the variables in all the world... at O'dark-thirty on some random road, how come the lone cyclist is always, eventually, found by two random cars travelling in opposite directions at the same time???  Finding the Higgs Bozeon (Boson?) can't be as important as figuring out this chaotic pattern [I find the former spelling more "scientific", as it doesn't conjure images of the key to universal mechanics being strapped to the back of a giant mid-western grazing quadriped, the mighty and elusive Higgs Bison].
Finally, some hills!  Staying ever wary of my intention to take it easy for joint's sake, and to take it easy to avoid overheating, the hills are still welcome.  I arrive at the end of this lovely road and pause for a nature break... marveling at the cascade of steam passing through my headlight beam.  Cold out here.  Stars are gorgeous... dogs barking in the distance... a train horn...  gotta keep moving!  It crosses my mind that if I simply turned back from here, I'd still have a nice 30 mile ride in the bag.  Pah... sure, this isn't easy, but easy is boring.  Besides...the first control has coffee.  

Mmmm, coffee....

At this point, even my insulated water bottles are resisting the day.  I manage to extract a few more drinks - far less than I'm probably requiring, but it'll have to do.  They're almost frozen solid.  
I give the girl working the c-store a bit of an interesting scene.  She pauses briefly from her store-opening register routine to consider me, my clothing, my iced-over face, my numb-tongued requests for time and initials in the appropriate brevet-card box.  Surely a sight... deep in the haze of teenage I'm-too-cool-for-anything-to-shock-me, I still manage to get a glimmer of confusion to show up behind her eyes while I fumble through my back pockets, punch data into my phone, extract calories from various baggies and plastic tubes, fill bottles with hot water, only to then disappear back into the cold darkness outside the frosted-over front door.  Too interested to completely ignore me, but not interested enough to ask - the fate of most non-randonneurs peering into a world that they'll likely never understand; made worse by participants like myself that find it difficult to come up with a quick explanation that doesn't immediately raise more questions.  

The next few dozen miles fade and blur into a mural of a frosty, brilliant sunrise over brown fields and images of a lone cyclist - the only spot in the scene nearly as-bright as the rising sun - making his way across the valley crossing the Kansas River, while birds of prey begin the morning hunt overhead.  Countless pedal revolutions, sips of water, insertion of calories, songs, movie quotes, interesting barns and buildings, trees and cemeteries.  Euroda, Clearfield, Wellsville.... a few stops here and there to rest the legs, take in the views.  These long, cold, solo rides don't do much for drama or storytelling -- marked only by mile-posts, bottles emptied and filled, and the subtle twitch you can feel when the temperature finally peeks above freezing.  The sky is a brilliant blue, the sun is there... but its warmth is fleeting.  I roll along in a dream state - sounds muffled by covered ears.  Mere glances to the horizon feel like minutes - images captured on the landscape of my mind, held there, considered for miles while I carve a tiny envelope  through the icy air.  Everything is happening slowly, and I'm on autopilot.

Weird... a frosted-over dead coyote... that's a first.... I did SEE that, didn't I??

I didn't check my average at the first control, but - interestingly - each subsequent stop since shows a small tick upward in overall speed.  It's difficult enough riding in the off-season.  There are no thoughts towards personal-bests, only survival of the conditions.  I have no expectations this day - just to finish.  However, I'm pleasing myself with the continued upward trend displayed on my cyclometer.  It's a good indication that the work I've done since July is paying off: the weights, the LT sessions, cross-training, diet -- all culminating in a decent performance even without conscious effort towards a number or goal.  My overall goal this fall was to increase my cruising speed - to get back to the point that even when I'm dog-tired I'm still riding consistently without having to think about pushing.  In 2003, that speed was in the 18's.  In 2008, that speed had dropped into the 14's.  Now... we're back in the 16's...  Getting there... slowly.  This is good for the to-be-chosen "big goal" for 2012.  I'm also reaching a point where mentally I can unplug a bit - instead of lamenting about the length of a road or how-long to the next whatever, I find myself just "showing up" at turns - all while still being able to enjoy the passing scenery.  Hard to describe - but I'm liking where I am at the moment, and where I'm headed.

Pizza, cheesy potato bites, more Perpetuem Solids from Hammer Nutrition, water, water, water.... I ate like a pig at the halfway.  It's been stated by nearly every outdoor publication you can get your hands on:  winter sports burn more calories.  Here, here.  This is an area I normally fall short in - and it's especially prevalent in winter cycling where (in my case) most of my on-bike calories are stashed where they aren't easily reached - especially with clumsy gloves and mitts.  While I've played with the idea before in many different incarnations, I always - eventually - get rid of the handlebar bag.  One of these days I'll grow up a little...but, I think my opinions will change once I have an opportunity to set one up correctly, with a good front rack and decalleur - mounting it low, out of the way.  For now, I simply stop more often, unzip a few layers, and go fishing in my back pockets.  At the controls, it's food-game ON.

At Ottawa, The sun is out - it's bright... frost is melting off the roof of the Casey's in Ottawa and dripping down onto the sidewalk around me while I chow down, packing this and that onto the rear rack.  It's finally warm enough to shed some protection, and the much needed layers I grabbed at the last minute finally get retired.  It's certainly no tropical paradise, but it's above freezing - and that's PERFECT weather as far as I'm concerned.  Comfortably full, I finally declare the ride "halfway done" and point the bike east on K-68 for the return leg.
I mentally discard the highway section by playing "what the ____ is that noise??!" with my bike.
This actually continues all the way back to Wellsville, where-in I spend perhaps an hour not thinking about saddle comfort or my legs or knees or anything... because I'm trying to find that rattle.  This involves keeping one hand on the 'bars, while the other roams from cable to cable, fender, light, wire, brake lever, pump, rear rack, helmet strap, zipper pull, computer mount.... WHERE ARE YOU COMING FROM?!


It brings me to the subject of "sanity savers".  
What's that?  Some of you know... but for others:  those seemingly ridiculous rubber donuts that fit over your top-tube routed brake cable?  That cleverly placed bit of electrical tape that prevents two crossing shift cables from rubbing?  That re-purposed bit of taillight bracket shim that keeps a frame-pump quiet?  Wrapping everything in your seatbag in shop rags, to ensure NOTHING can rattle or shake?  There are roads out there that make these things necessary, even on a properly tire'd steel framed bicycle.  There are a few of those roads on this route.  It may not seem like a big deal - but when your brain runs out of things to focus on, deep into hour seven of your next ride, that tiny rattle that you can't find will drive you completely, Edgar Allen Poe, Chinese water torture, Dumb and Dumber road-trip, INSANE.

Cut to a picturesque scene of a country lane from the point of view of a local cow, and in the distance the silhouette of a cyclist dismounting his bicycle in a scream of fury and defeat, tossing it into the adjacent ditch and shouting "make it stop" at the heavens.  The cow looks on, confused, but continues chewing - raising his bovine eyebrow in curiosity.

Marveling at my ever-increasing (if you can count 0.1 MPH at each stop "marvel-worthy") average speed, I notice that the wind is beginning to shift - as forecast.  I'm truly blessed... this, for the 2nd month in a row, was another of the fabled and (now-not-so) ultra-rare double tailwind events.  Thank the maker... but, man, I am SO gonna pay for this next month.  My zippers are a little bit lower, my smile a little bit wider as I settle into a good rhythm heading northbound on Tennessee Road towards Le Loup, KS.  It's only five miles, but it always comes across as a bit of a death-slog.  This is where the "80-mile wall" starts to show up... but, today, it is a joy.  Crystalline skies, and approaching the T-intersection at the northern end I catch a container train heading NE, its brightly painted boxes contrasting nicely against the dead hillside behind them.  Wellsville is next... keep moving.

I tango a bit with I-35 and finally make the bricked streets of Wellsville and the welcome sight of another Casey's.  Today, while my rolling average is good, I'm still not passing up any opportunity to get off the bike and step inside for a few minutes - control or no control.  Apparently, Wellsville has a town ritual - and today, I'm standing right underneath it, at noon, when it happens.  Perched about halfway up the superstructure of the city water tower is a civil defense siren... and that water tower is directly behind the Casey's.  I'm literally 20 feet from the base of one of its legs.  It's SO loud, that it encompasses my senses fully - vibrating my entire body.  It's only a 2-second long burst, but it spins back down to idle passing through every conceivable frequency - from spine tickling to teeth chattering... it will find your head's resonant frequency and exploit it.  Apparently, they do this every day at high noon.  Some towns have nice church bells, or a clock tower.  Wellsville has a giant WWII-era air-raid siren.  Scared the living daylights out of me.  Right when quiet was restored, I swear I heard muffled, maniacal laughter coming from the operations center at city-hall... "we got another one!"

Sound the alarm... cyclist comin'....

Fast-forward 15 miles, and I'm back at Eudora... the QwikStop, and another personal stop.  Average speed ticked up another notch... more water refills.... only 30 miles to go!  I cross the Kansas River again, across railroad tracks and up the ridge ... finally some more climbing ... to K-32, and then back to Linwood, where I manage to catch the same girl working the counter as earlier that morning.  She's right at the end of her shift, but I still manage to get matching initials scribbled in the 1st and 2nd-to-last boxes on my route card.  Bonus!  My summertime mark of trying for under 10-hours total is slipping into impossibility, but I'm still pleased considering that was never even a thought for this ride.  I calorie-up a little for the last 20-mile or so shot ... which, I swear, always seems like WAY more than just 20 miles.  

I dance with a couple more trains along Golden Road north of DeSoto, KS., climb up the big hill on 158th street that takes me back to Loring Road for more interesting climbing and a nice, long descent back down to river-level.  More trains, and FINALLY... confirming that I'm not completely nuts, I see another cyclist!  We exchange waves across the lane as we pass each other head-on -- big thumbs-up to the guy in the red jacket, whoever you are.  There must be some cosmic significance to that part of Loring Road, because it's almost exactly where the pre-dawn chaos-theory experiment happened nearly 10-hours earlier.  Bonner Springs city limits come into view, and afternoon traffic.  It's not too terrible, but I manage to catch every red light through town.  Nothing like traffic-light intervals after 110 miles are in your legs!

I check off the landmarks... K-7, the nasty railroad crossing, the shoulder disappears, then reappears again, Sonic, gas station, I-435, Edwardsville...

Another random and poorly timed nature-break opportunity beckons... ugh!!  Pick you battles, dude... you're WELL hydrated today!  It's moments like these where I'd much prefer a little solitude and some shrubs... but, alas, gas-station loo it is.  I like a certain kind of misery -- but sitting on a full bladder while tackling the hills that await on 78th street isn't my kinda treat.

Climbing away from the Kaw cut towards I-70 to the finish is a mean way to end 127 miles of riding.  I feel fresh, spirited - despite a few troublesome cramps and yanks in the calf area of each leg... more growing pains from the new shoes, no doubt... no panicking allowed.  Climb!  Don't think about the pedal stroke... just let it happen!  More traffic awaits near the motel finish - and I have to ride past the van again to get the last box checked at the QuikTrip.  I catch each red light near the highway, again... ugh.... tick-tock:  but it's only time.  This one's done, effectively... I can sit at these lights for hours and still finish.... and it seems like it takes that long!!!  GREEN!  GO!!!

Perhaps a more desolate route for January?  Second month in a row I've ended a 200k in the throes of afternoon traffic.  Ugh.
Said with a grain of salt, of course ... the GOOD thing about such routes in winter, if you need shelter and services, they're there.  
Maybe I can gut out the traffic... maybe.

QuikTrip, a bottle of chocolate milk for the road, a final receipt, a final signature... and one final encounter:
"you ridin' across the country or somethin?"  from a local gent, also checking out.

"mmm, no - but, this is like a training ride for stuff like that, I suppose.  Someday, someday..."

"well, I was behind ya in traffic back there trying to figure out what "randonneurs" meant..."  (thanks, French people)
It was a neat encounter with an unlikely party - which is one of the things that makes these rides so interesting.  The people you sometimes meet, never who you'd expect to talk to about it with you, and they are always genuinely interested, fascinated... and sometimes as confused about our motivations as WE are when it comes to explaining that one, lingering question of "WHY?"

...heck, if I knew WHY, I don't think I'd be out here looking for it...

That about sums it up.

Schtuff in my head:

Thanks for reading!!!

December 16, 2011

Number Sixx, Nikki!

Checked off RUSA 200-kilometer ride #6 today, on the "All's Wellsville" route!
So...I'm officially "halfway" to my 2nd R-12 award... that's the current (and so-far, only) goal I've got brewing.
As my rando-mentor would say, "halfway means I know I'll finish..."  
Here's hopin' the weather cooperates!
Sure as I type this the forecast for next week includes snow... unsure how much, but it's coming.  
I was very hopeful to get this in without dealing with any -- and having scheduled it the 2nd week of November, there was NO way to guarantee that.
Got REAL lucky on timing.... now just have to worry about January and February.  Yeesh.   Roadtrip???
Got in some good "flatland" training... not a lot of climbing on this one... which, I have to say, yeah... "flat" is not necessarily a GOOD thing to my ears.
A few good climbs in there, though, but a lot of highway time.
Full post coming, in usual fashion with all the goodies.
For now... food, sleep.

December 10, 2011

My back pages

During my usual evening Google Reader session last night, I came upon a well-written post on one of my favorite blogs and I thought it would be worth sharing here:

It instantly reminded me of a time when I got really heated up about road behavior in the area and wrote a rather acidic post about it.  Compared to everything I've written before and since, the post I wrote responding to the stop-sign running and subsequent ticketing of several area cyclists on a weeknight group ride is still THE most-read post on this blog.  I felt strongly about my position on the matter and won't apologize for what I felt at the time - but, I think I've mellowed a little about it and many other things.  I'm not nearly the no-grey-area hardliner portrayed in the older post.  I have my way... others have their way.  Surely as I blew a stop sign just the other day, I'm not perfect - and I'm no longer interested in trying to be "right", in practice or in image.  We all make mistakes.  I'm not going to be so foolish as to say I'll keep my opinions to myself - but I'll certainly check myself before I'm so quick to check others.  I think, in that regard, perhaps I'm aging gracefully.   

Kent put it perfectly, and it's the same behavior for me:

I always stop at stop signs.

Except when I don't. 
In this case, I blew a stop sign to avoid having my leg chewed off by a very angry-looking rottweiler in full chase ... and I'm still confused about where this particular dog's "fence line" ended... seriously, he chased me for the better part of two miles, well beyond his property - confirming he wasn't interested in simply protecting his territory, as in most dog encounters.  He either wanted a good workout, or a snack.  After 3/4 of a mile, the 2-way, cross-traffic-doesn't-stop intersection came into view.  "Cujo" was still coming hard.  I had a good sight line in all directions and thankfully there was no traffic.  Had their been... well, who knows.  Zoom -- I'm across.  Atypically, the beast didn't hesitate at the crossing of roads.  There was no change in the rhythm of his paws beating against the pavement as he continued straight across the road after me, gaining.  I sprinted again, thinking "that oughta do it", only to hear the gallop gain amplitude again.   

"Geez, dog...give up!"

Down a hill and around a corner, I finally thought that I'd lost him...until he exploded from the trees at my right, having cut across the corner through the brush, trying to head me off.  "Holy...."  With the time I've spent in the saddle over the years my dog encounters are too great to count, but all of them were fairly benign and predictable.  I've never been  pursued with such vigor by an animal, and it was a little disconcerting... there was no barking, no snarling... just focus and teeth and blurred legs... scary dog.  I felt I made a far safer choice by running that stop sign rather than calling that particular dogs bluff.  Eventually, he peeled off and gave up the chase... and another afternoons training with "Eddy" came to a close.   

To my opinions on legality, yeah -- I broke the law.  I wouldn't have preferred it, but I'd have gladly paid a fine rather than endure having my calves stitched back in place in the ER... assuming the dog had the intention.  Even as I groaned to myself in disapproval while I looked frantically right and left to ensure there weren't any cars approaching, I couldn't see myself limping home with dog bite wounds being able to proudly proclaim "at least I came to a complete stop!"  Pick your battles, indeed.   

Of course, my unwavering position in the post from August 2009 was more about the reason than the act itself.  In any case, whether I was actually going to get my leg gnawed off or not, I still chose to break the law.

Another point in Petersen's discussion involves holding to the "social pact" we have with drivers and other cyclists.  I still hold my personal position of trying to set a good image of cycling in and around Johnson County, KS., and whether it be flawed or not is up to personal consideration by the reader.  My positions and my delivery are constantly evolving.  I certainly don't profess perfection, nor do I demand it in others - even if I occasionally get frustrated.  I still contend that certain maneuvers employed with the justification of salvaging ones average speed represent a risky practice - but, that's someone else's choice to make.  
I feel it's best to make safer choices, instead of reckless ones.  I agree with Petersen's take, where we're all better off for those safer choices.  Co-workers still thrill me with stories of cyclists they see blowing stop signs and red lights "right in front of them", so I have an impression that we can all set better examples than we have been - and I'll leave it at that.  While I'd still prefer cyclists be more careful, set a better example, and have more of a reason other than "everyone else is doing it", or "I didn't want to break pace", using these pages to spit venom and create division in the cycling community doesn't benefit anyone, and doesn't advance bicycling.
If you aren't a subscriber to Kent's Bike Blog, I highly recommend adding it to your reader, or blog-surfing routine.  Mr. Petersen has a patient, calm demeanor to his writing - and the prose is delivered eloquently and with a definite style and flair, while still taking a stance and making a good point.  Collectively, his blog could be read cover-to-cover and taken as a novel-in-progress, compared to the random ramblings I hastily post on occasion.  Proof that whether it be writing, or riding, or taking a stance on a touchy matter - I still have a lot to learn.   

Happy Holidays, readers - and be safe out there!

December 7, 2011

More winter riding tips

 This post goes a long way towards hopefully helping you think about ways to battle the wintery conditions as we creep into December in bicycle-land, but upon re-reading it I felt a few things might need some reiteration or clarification.  Further, there is a saying that I try to subtly echo on this blog, in the "Perfect Weather for a Bike Ride" banner:  there are no bad days, only bad equipment.  That can be true for some of the simplest things.  Just a couple of those simple things are here:

Nose wiping
I don't know about you, but when my heart-rate goes up and cold air is added, my nose runs.  It's annoying, and the resultant sniffling is a constant soundtrack for all my winter rides.  Every conceivable type of cycling glove, winter or summer, has a "thumb wipe" surface on it, so it's certainly not an individual problem.  However, if you are like a lot of winter cyclists that found their winter riding glove solutions somewhere other than the local bike shop, you may not have this handy feature.  Someone out there is a thinker:

The Glove Spot 

Brilliant - available at many other places than the above link directs, but they had the best depiction of it. 
Super soft, usable with ANY glove, washable.  You want one. 

Method on LONG rides:  DAB, don't wipe, if you can help it.  Especially when charged with electrolyte-rich hydration, your nasal secretions can be quite abrasive... multiply by the number of wipes it takes to complete a 200k, and you can look forward to a few days of red, irritated discomfort around the edges of your nose.  A gross subject, perhaps - but simply everyday life for the winter cyclist.  It's hard enough riding in the cold - so, even keeping your nose cozy can prevent the dreaded "fatigue multiplier"!
Dryness as a cold multiplier:
Hydration is very important in winter, even if it's not immediately apparent on the bike.  I've been guilty of this on many occasions, where the feeling of rushing through the cold air on a winter ride simply does nothing to trigger the "I need a drink" reaction. 
The air masses that bring cold air into the continental US are very dry indeed and you can feel the effects as dry skin, chapped lips, static electricity buildup, and more.  Dry, cracked skin can make already cold air feel even colder, and is generally uncomfortable!    Use lotions, lip balm and hand salves to keep moisture locked in - you'll sleep better, too, without those dry skin "itchies" that plague some of us.  Hot teas and coffees are great warm-ups at controls - but remember the effects of caffiene on hydration and compensate accordingly with plenty of water and hydration solutions.  Above all else, drink before you're thirsty!   Zipping along through dry, cold air can suck the moisture right out of you - just like riding in the desert!  Dry works without hot - stay on top of hydration, even in the cold!  Keeping the connection between comfort on the bike and adequate hydration on AND off the bike is essential.  Eight-to-ten 8oz. servings of water per day is a good start, off the bike.

Making this especially hard ON the bike, however, is the fact that it is difficult to stay hydrated if your water is frozen. 
As a bonus, electrolyte-rich water in your bottles has a lower freezing point than plain tap water, so try those fizzy electrolyte tabs in your bottles.  If its really cold, keep a bottle in your back pocket, under your jacket to prevent freezing.  The very bottles you choose can make a difference, too:  insulated bottles can help keep your drinks from freezing as fast, and bottles with the newer "Camelbak-style" nozzles don't freeze up quite as badly as traditional "pop-top" bike bottles.

Finally, though I'm not a fan, wearing a slim hydration pack inside your outer layers can help keep things flowing - but be sure to tuck the drinking tube back into your jacket between sips to prevent freezing. 
I can't see!
Low sun angle, bright car headlights, and headwinds that rush behind your riding glasses and make your eyes water incessantly!  Ugh, the trials of winter riding... I submit to you, cycling caps.  Yeah, yeah -- some will cry "euro-trash" or "pro-wannabe", but you'll seldom catch me on a ride of any kind without a good cycling cap.  Whether it keeps the rain off your glasses and helps you see the road, whether it prevents the cold headwind from drying out your eyes - or making them water so much you can't see straight, whether its acting as a visor against the low sun, or preserving your night vision against on-coming traffic on a dark road - the cycling cap is definitely not just some useless 80's pro-style throwback.  It's layers for the head for me:  a winter beanie or ear-band, and cap.  If everything else in your cycling wardrobe is neon yellow, like me, the cycling cap can be your quiet homage to your favorite team, or just basic black - but it doesn't matter:  That visor is GOLD.

Be careful:  helmet fit should be maintained.  It's remarkable how "just one more" thin layer of fabric can render a summer-time helmet really tight -- it's a good time to shop the clearance rack for a larger, or generic "one-size" "winter" helmet.  you can fit bulkier winter head layers under it without sacrificing fit or safety.  Plus, for VERY cold days, you can tape off the vents to help hold in heat and block out cold air, or use it as a platform for your winter helmet light set-up.  Also, insist on genuine cycling caps... ball caps won't work here, unless you ride a recumbent -- the visor is TOO large, and can block too much of the road. 
On that note - especially if you aren't used to riding with a visor:  keep your head up... if you're a heads-down rider, a new visor can be an effective way to find the back of a parked car when you don't want to.

Other quick tips:

Buddy up:  a lot of riding is done solo, but someone to talk to or share supplies with can be valuable.  If you can't, make sure someone knows where you're headed, via email or the like. 

Check your supplies:  Tubes and patch kits can dry out after a season in the seat bag, so winter is a good time to make sure you rotate these items and ensure that if you get that dreaded winter-time repair opportunity, you have what you need - and it's all fresh and ready. 

$1.99 survival:  getting sweaty on a winter ride can be dangerous, and many don't think beyond the short term roadside ordeal.  If your roadside ordeal becomes longer than expected, like someone needs to come pick you up, be smart.  Keep moving around, a brisk walk with your bike towards your intended pickup location - keep the body heat UP, to prevent shivers and possible hypothermia.  If you have to spend some time sitting it is very handy to have packed along a silver emergency blanket.  Available almost everywhere, fits in any seatbag, and cheap... you never know.  For most adventure races, this is required equipment on the packing list -- make it part of your seatbag kit, too, even if it's just a short ride.

Batteries are cold, too:   it's also a good time of year to refresh your taillight batteries.  Cold air can reduce the output of most batteries, and if you've already been running your taillight through the summer months, they could be close to dead anyways.  Keeping them fresh can help keep you seen on dim, grey days.  Rechargeables are great here, too, as are the more expensive lithium AA cells:  though pricey, they don't succumb to the cold as quickly as alkalines.
That's all I have for now...hit the comments if you have more!
Dress up... go ride!
See you out there!

November 29, 2011

The Hard Quarter

So, in just a few days time we enter what I've started calling "the hard quarter"... for the randonneur above the "freeze line" in the continental US, this is where cycling traditionally gets tougher for a lot of different reasons.  Road conditions, temperatures, sun angle, wind direction and speed and feel, keeping bottle contents in liquid form, precipitation type, cloud cover and its effect on the psyche... etc.  Most riders have had their bicycles hung up since October... others relegate to the indoor trainer, or the short-course group ride.  Commuting gets tough, too -- early alarm bells, no sun... and sometimes returning home in the same lack of daylight - it can get old.  Finally, 'cross season wraps up and it gets a little darker and colder still, the cowbells clang fading into the background of the roar of that first icy north gale... yes, December, January and February are the harder months, for sure... harder, but not impossible. 
The rewards are tangible - like in summer when quenching a hard century with a cold beer or a dip in the pool, it's such a treat to come indoors after trials against a cold headwind, releasing frigid fingers from woolen captivity, feeling the warmth of a hot shower return life to icy legs, feeling the glow of the fireplace, the hot tea and food... perhaps even a crisp winter ale or a nip of scotch and the friendship of an old, worn recliner chair.  The cradle of bedsheets and a good quilt after finally retiring to a warm bed, images of frozen waste still whizzing by in your head...and the satisfaction that you accomplished something that only a small few will dare.  The rewards are many, but the hardest part, often, is simply motivating oneself to go outside.
Never pause... never consider...  dress fast... go ride... 
Easier said than done.  As I continue the march towards a second R-12 award, I find myself looking towards winter at the halfway mark of accomplishment.  This hurdle, from the wrong angle, can seem giant - un-jumpable.  Surely as the commuter in me will sometimes smack the snooze button a few times too many, and grab the car keys with a rush of guilt - there are weekends where the wind, the cold, and the grey stand against the front door with too much force to budge.  "How bad do you want it?"  they'd taunt... the clatter of busy wind chimes announcing the relentless push of Canadian air, the dance of dead leaves down the street as they try to flee.  Tiny white flecks caught in the glow of a porch light across the way... snow... 
Yet, for the strong-willed, the able, the hard cyclists of winter... the taste is too sweet.  How to BE that rider, no matter the weather?
Never pause... never consider...  dress fast... go ride...
Every winter ride is three miles long... and only three.  The fires of cellular exchange heating the core to boil... steam and sweat, angry against the cold, begin to tip the battle... and from frozen lips the strain of push curls upwards into a frail grin, the first hill mounted.  Layers are unzipped, shoulders drop, the neck loosens... fluidity returns to the legs as the rhythm is unleashed.  Cocooned against the odds in body heat, wool, and Lycra - a flash of bright yellows and luminous reds against steel grey skies.  The snap of lifeless twigs and the crunch of sand under cold tires echoes the applause for those that defy the seasons!  Some will glare in disapproval, some gaze in disbelief, some nod in pure respect... for the winter riders.
Whether it be that one-more-commute, that one-more-weekend-with-the-group, or whether it be number-six;
Never pause... never consider...  dress fast...

November 20, 2011

Commuting and Randonneuring lights, revisited

It's hard to keep up, but I'm trying to revisit some of the older, informational posts on this blog to ensure things are still relevant and current.  One most-affected-by-time post recently gave me a good laugh, so I figured it was probably the one to try and focus upon.  That post focused on Commuter Lights, and so, SO much has changed in such a short period of time that even writing a new post risks futility, as technology is moving at a rapid pace these days.  It's as exciting as the computer industry, where reviews and publications on the latest hardware are outdated relics before the ink even dries.  Lighting technology in general is moving at almost the same pace.  Hybrid vehicle technology and the general crux of "green" thinking has inspired battery technology to nearly keep step - with trusty NiMH (Nickel-Metal Hydride) batteries still being king of the market at this writing, and LiION close in its heels.  Advances in Lithium ION, Lithium Polymer, Nickel-Zinc, and advanced capacitive storage are emerging - and combined with the latest LED emitter technology the combinations are simply incredible.  The only thing perhaps more staggering are the lower and lower prices this kind of gear is selling for.  It's an exciting time.

In the last writing, halogen was still a "buzz word", and things like NiteRider's old Digital Headtrip were making headlines.  Fifteen watts of halogen on your helmet was amazing stuff - but right as Halogen was peaking in bicycle circles, it seemed that HID (high-intensity discharge) was beginning to stir things up.  Ridiculously expensive, but insanely bright, HID lights were king of the trails and streets for a few good years - but ultimately proved sensitive to vibrations, were power-hungry, and bulbs were expensive.  Right about then, LEDs started showing up.  At first, they were near comical and strictly "be seen" lights.  A mainstay of taillight products for years, it initially seemed the emitters just weren't up to the job of being anything but power-friendly position-marking lights.  Anemic beams, diffuse, with confusing colors - it was sometimes downright scary to ride with one... I remember trialing several, and sticking with my trusty halogen generator system.  With the correct optics, even as brighter Halogen battery lights came available and HID started to make shadows of anyone else's lights, the German optics of the old-school Bisy and Busch+Muller halogen systems - even at a measly 3W - still put lots of very usable light on the road.

Looking back, only a couple years later, I can't believe some of the stuff I used to "be able to see with".  By comparison to what's available today, they all seem silly - even the old top-dollar halogen generator lights, and big 30W halogen battery systems.  Even HID lights, once thought un-beatable, have been completely dethroned by LEDs in the areas of brightness, beam pattern, run-time, weight, efficiency, and cost.  Today, assuming you can even FIND anything besides it on the bike store shelves, if you aren't running LED lighting - you probably aren't riding at night.  

I was most excited, to be honest, when LED technology finally arrived for the generator-hub crowd.  I purchased my generator system at a time when halogen was the only thing available - and it was still expensive.  Even a 5W halogen rechargeable headlight would cost over $100, and would have a run time that would have barely gotten me home.  I instead was using an old Cateye Micro "Halogen II" handlebar mounted light, which used a micro-sized halogen bulb and produced 2.4W of output.  The optics were descent, and you'd get a usable beam of light projected onto the road that would serve you up to about 15-16 MPH.  Downhills were experiments in faith.  Yet, for years, that light got me home - night after night.  With LR3 (AA) drycell rechargeable technology still being a bit "fringe" and also expensive, however, I was running through disposable alkaline cells at the rate of a 4-pack every fourth commute day.  On some well-lit roads, I'd ride by streetlight - switching the light off completely to save battery.  When I finally ponied up for a generator system, it was with the knowledge that it would pay for itself in disposable AA's in only a year.  After well over TEN years of use now, it's safe to say that it has done that easily.  I had no complaints about the generator system's halogen beam for years - knowing I never had to plug anything in or replace cells opened up worlds of possibilities, saved money and time, and made things like long night rides a worry-free affair.  It wasn't until LED lights started showing up that I developed "lumen-envy", but LED technology combined with improved optics proved to be a perfect marriage to the existing generator systems - and soon, I was part of the LED party, too.  

However, with run-times exceeding DAYS instead of hours in some extreme cases, the same possibilities that the generator system opened up ten years ago are available to anyone for often a fraction the costs - and it can easily be moved from bike-to-bike... especially in contrast to generator systems, bikes across many genres and wheel-sizes in your stable.  On that note, you don't even have to buy a "bicycle-specific" light to enjoy the benefits of night-time riding.  Any purchase, especially in tough economic times, should be smart -- and, that brings up the notion of multi-tasking products.  Where it may not make good financial sense to purchase a "bicycle light", one can often make the argument for a good LED flashlight... and now, usually for far less money than a bicycle-specific light, you have a flashlight for around the house, the campsite, the garage, AND the bike.  Zip-ties, an old length of inner-tube, a silicon arm-bracelet for your favorite cause, duct tape, or some combination of ingenuity and old reflector mounts or clamps can easily adapt any flashlight or torch to your handlebars, and you're off into the darkness.  A recent post from the Kansas Cyclist touches on this perfectly, and I have seen Noah from KC-Bike ride many of our night-time events with a smartly purposed LED MagLite... and from any angle, these lights are just as bright and effective as any "bike specific" system.

The problem, often, is choice.  You can have LED lights that are bike or non-bike specific and do a fantastic job lighting the road and rendering you conspicuous to motorists around you - but where to begin??  Pick your price point, and enjoy -- the tech will amaze you as much as the output of these latest emitters will.  It would be an exhaustive effort for this author to try and keep step with everything the market has to bear currently - but there are a myriad of resources to research these things:  Candlepower Forums is a great source if you really want to geek-out - especially for the still-very-relevant homebrew crowd, where dime-to-dime, you can probably outshine most commercial offerings with some elbow grease and a soldering iron.  MY personal favorites are, in no particular order, are listed as links below - based on lights I've either owned or had the pleasure of messing around with for a weekend:

I will remind the reader that this is very much from a "pick your price" perspective.
The first two on the list, specifically, know no boundaries when it comes to power output, run-time, and low-weight racing systems for serious off-road 12/24-hour competitions, and the prices reflect that passion.  Sticker shock will be a factor... but, taking advantage of these companies expertise at their lower price points does not disappoint, and you can find a seriously well-made commuter light.
Still, also keep in mind - just like Kansas Cyclist touches on, and from what I've seen from Noah's MagLite set-up - there is no reason to spend hundreds unless you demand a specific, bicycle solution - especially if you seldom venture off-road.  From a few hundred feet away the difference between the beam of a $10 LED flashlight and a $200 LED bicycle-light can appear almost indiscernible.  From the saddle, however, it will depend on terrain, your individual eyesight, and your intent.  If nothing else, this list of links will demonstrate both the state of the art and what's possible at multiple price levels.

Finally - know your numbers:  like anything sold these days, marketing is an important tool.  Read this.  Lumens, candlepower, LUX -- they can be confusing.  More can be better, but not always, and it depends greatly on how it's measured.  So, balanced against price and your goals - be sure you know what you're buying.  Optics can play a big part in this, and it's especially prevalent at LOWER price points - so, if you are looking at a $30.00 bike light that claims 10,000 lumens, be sceptical.  Is there spill?  Will you be able to see 2 feet to either side?  What's the run time?  There's no free lunch - so demand good specs when shopping!

Remember - ride safely:  bright lights are not a replacement for responsible riding, and good reflective gear so you remain visible - even when your 4,000 Lumen monster is pointed the other direction... and that's possibly no exaggeration:  at this writing, there are people testing new systems for the 2012 and 2013 season, some exceeding 4,000 lumens.  Un-real!

...and as of 2020, up to 16,000 lumens in some cases...altho, to be fair these are generally off-road trail lights.  You can bomb the singletrack on a moonless night with almost full confidence these days, with real, usable run-times. 

(...updated March 2020... and the light output and quality, features, charging times, and run times keep improving, month-over-month it seems.  Tough to keep up, but LEDs are clearly not going anywhere.)

Below are some of the products I hold in high regard from high amounts of personal use or extended testing, with asterisks next to the brands I have NOT used personally (yet).

Enjoy, and see you after dark!

Busch+Muller (generator lights)
Sinewave Cycles*  (generator lights and hub-fed USB chargers)
Supernova* (generator lights)

November 18, 2011

Traffic Kills

This week has been exciting from the saddle - it's been a few weeks since the fall edition of Daylight Savings time adjustments but I think it either took a week or so for sunset to "catch up", or I've been working later hours.  Maybe both.  Either way, the days are definitely shorter.  Reflective stuff is on, lights are on AM and PM, and the guard is up - as most motorists begin to assume that bicycles on the road are no longer something their commute will contain.  Combined with the first couple of sub-freezing commutes in the early AM hours and some amazing pre-dawn skies from the clarity that comes with very cold upper air, I've been finding it strangely easier to rise early and take to the bike before traffic takes hold.  The brisk air has finally laid months of allergy suffering to rest, and aside from the usual watery eyes it hasn't been too bad.  My old layering routine came back to me pretty quickly, so I've been balanced on the line of nicely-warm but not-too-sweaty upon arrival.  Good commutes lately.

The annual "are you still riding?", and "what's the worst you'll ride in?" conversations around the "awffee" maker (a combination of "awful" and "coffee" used to describe the hot brown water that is sometimes mistakenly called coffee at my workplace) has led to some interesting and engaging discussions on the state of traffic, finding good routes, and "maybe I'll try it in the spring..."  I hope they do, really... despite the harrowing subject of the state of traffic, I honestly think a lot of people would really enjoy riding to work if they only tried.  Yes, I'm a bit mad about cycling - but I don't think one has to be nuts to have an appreciation for the difference in one's day when it starts from a saddle rather than from behind the wheel.  I think the tipping point is somewhere north of $100,000, when your wheel is perhaps trimmed in Italian leather and puts you only a few inches away from a brimming V-12 engine... then, perhaps your step might have more spring than those commuting in your average sedan - but, I don't know... I'm still waiting for a major motoring publication to contact me for that particular road test opportunity.  I'm more than happy to volunteer, gentlemen!

Yes - my motivations are pretty thin.  It's a tough nut to crack for some people, in a world where riding a bicycle immediately draws people to the conclusion that you are somewhat environmentally positioned.  Yeah, I recycle and repurpose whenever I can.  I turn off lights when I leave rooms.  I dig things like solar and wind power, and I don't like environmental waste, over-building, sprawl, strip-malls, consumerism, strip-mining, nor the like....  but I do love ridiculously expensive and often wasteful cars.  No worries, though, loyal readers.  The dangers of me ditching the bike and turning this into an upscale motoring blog are pretty slim, as I apparently missed the boat that came through town after high-school offering easy rides to would-be seven-figure earnings.  With few exceptions, I choose to depart this cubicly-divided work-drome each evening by human-powered two-wheeled methods, and I doubt that would change much with the acquisition of a fine automobile.  I still, after years of the "same old thing", love bicycling to work.  Yea, I talk dirty to it and rub it down with exotic oils, take it to dinner and send it to bed with sweat on its brow, this love of mine for the bike. 

Where was I? 

Late fall and the attendant earlier sunsets have yielded some memorable evening commutes this week -- and I've been spending the majority of that time on the bike trail instead of the streets.  Back to those concerns about the state of traffic, it seems lately that some major arterials are reaching capacity right about the time I intersect them, and overflow traffic is leaking onto my usually quiet sidestreets, with questionable results due to lack of motorist behavior changes that should accompany detouring to the "d" roads.  I either need to modify my departure time from the office, or stick to the trails - and I've been opting for the latter despite the darkness.  At the appropriate speeds my lights are more than adequate, and the reward has been relative solitude and peace.

Without having to play heads-down death-match with rush-hour, I have enjoyed amazing sunset skies with hues so beautiful I struggle to pin them to something as unromantic as a generic color name.  The smells... crunching leaves... small animals scurrying about preparing for the inevitable ...and large animals, too:  dusk-hour basically being "deer-hour" lends one to cycle the trails at a more casual speed in case of encounter, and I have been rewarded each night this week with just that, the most magnificent being a large multi-point buck just last night.  A flash of yellowish-green as my headlight beam caught his eyes -- and a big handful of brakes -- as he jumped from the brush and took to the trail in attempts to get away from my approaching threat without realizing that I'd be following along that same trail by design.  Carefully keeping my distance, the result was a deer and cyclist paceline of sorts, if only for 200 yards or so - around a twist and a bend, the buck pausing when he'd thought he'd distanced me, only to spring forward along the trail again - finally darting left to lose me for good.  That moment, almost in slow motion, of primal magnificence - the surrounding suburban landscape disappeared, there were no traffic sounds, no joggers or other bicycles... just me, following this giant creature through the forest in the darkness, his hoof falls thundering.  With his quorum nearby he could have turned on me to defend his ladies at any moment, and I know of two stories from good friends that have had encounters with deer that did not end as well - but I was afforded this faux chase instead.

... it is in moments like those where that last hill no longer hurts, there is no "work stress", you're not going to or coming from anywhere, and you have no concerns with how far you've come or how far there is to go.  No pain, no fatigue, no need for water or food, you can no longer tell what temperature it is, or isn't... nor the time of day.  Even further, there almost is no bike underneath you...  It's just you, experiencing.
A car at any price, any where, cannot replicate that.  You only get these moments in the saddle, and though they can be few and far between those are the moments that become the explanation when you cannot explain to a non-cyclist why you keep riding. 

Idealistic, yes -- there are times when riding isn't practical, where there truly aren't enough hours in the day to span the distances your day presents -- but, those that know what I know, know.  It's never long before you're back on the bike.  The surface reasons are easy... perhaps it IS environmental, perhaps it's gas savings, perhaps it's fitness -- but a lot of times for me its none of those things which REALLY bring me back to the bike ... it's the stuff I might miss, its the feelings -- the LIFE.  Had I been driving home from work last night that buck wouldn't have even existed to me, and being tucked into a steel box I wouldn't have existed as a human being to those around me... moving about in the darkness blinded by each others headlights, we aren't people anymore... we're "traffic".  Instead, back on the trail in the dark, that buck saw me and reacted, and I saw him and reacted -- and in that perfection of reactions, we were both confirmed as very much alive.

November 8, 2011

Tailwinds and traffic

Continuing the motivation that finally got me to break the easy habit of the Border Patrol route a couple months back, this time I turned my sights on Grandview, MO. to tackle the Super Big Gulp permanent route.  I have mixed memories about this route.  The last time I rode it, however, was back in 2008 - so maybe some of the negative thoughts would pass.  Only one way to find out.  Last time, the drama came right at the get-go:  back in '08, this was part of my near-600km weekend, where I tackled my September R-12 ride and the local MS-Society Ride back-to-back.  (my apologies, some of the photo links on that old post are broken - looking in to it soon).  Back then, I started the 200km route during evening rush-hour - and getting out of town proved both harrowing and frustrating.  Far too much traffic, and all of it unsympathetic to cycling pursuits as is normally the case and nothing new:  but, as a commuter I'd simply find a clever detour or back-road - as a randonneur, you have to stick to the cue sheet.  Just like poor weather or a lot of hills, I feel the same way about detouring around traffic - I stick to the route, period.  Yeah, it sucks sometimes - but that's part of the honor-system of the whole RUSA thing.  Back then, I remember not really feeling "relaxed" out on the route until well after the first control, where traffic finally died down and everyone was home and off the roads -- but, let's face it:  I started that ride at a weird time of day, something the route designer hadn't envisioned.  It's still a good route - and on a weekend morning, it's magic - the way it should be.

Cut to Friday, 3:50AM - I arrive, park, and unpack the van to prepare for a cold morning.  This was my first ride of this season where temperatures were below freezing, and I did the usual "pack everything" prep the night before, careful to be thorough - but not so much that I was paralyzed by too much choice.  The core was already handled -- I tossed back and forth a little on an extra layer for the legs, and decided against it.  Ultimately, I found myself perfectly layered up - shut the van, saddled up, rode up the street to the first control, and just about timed it perfectly so I minimized standing around in the cold morning air.  I slugged down a bizzarre (but effective) mix of black coffee and sugar-free Red Bull and then headed south on Grandview Road with a gentle tailwind helping me along.  No cars this time... no waiting... nice....

I think I've touched on this in previous posts, the differences in county design and maintenance - juxtaposed so clearly when you live in a metropolitan area that straddles a state line, the way Kansas City does.  I have positive and negative opinions about each approach, but from a riding perspective it gets tricky.  Missouri doesn't like to spend money where it doesn't have to.  Up north of the metro (and south, too) this results in nice, quiet two-lane rural highways that haven't changed much in decades - and where it makes sense, out where there is no traffic, its good riding.  When that same approach is applied to busier city centers the results are downright nerve-wracking for cycling.  Grandview, MO is one such city - and this is only really a criticism from a cycling perspective.  In Olathe, I recently watched the county, city and railroad partner on a massive project that completely elevated a level-crossing and widened the road underneath -- a project that spanned literally almost five miles in either direction on the rail line, and every street it crossed therein.  The road it benefitted still isn't one I'd consider bike-friendly, but the project as a whole seemed to improve the area and the traffic thruput.  In Grandview, however, specifically Blue Ridge Road, there are sections where you have nice, wide 4-lane opposed with a central turn lane suddenly funnel down to ancient two-lane that passes under a circa-1930's railroad tressle... and then it widens back out again.  Without traffic, it's actually kinda neat... because it hasn't changed in decades near those bridges --- but WITH traffic?  Wow.  I float back and forth between "it's nice that they haven't changed the heritage of the area", and "why haven't they updated this?".   It's an interesting region - and I don't have the space (and don't expect your patience) to argue pros and cons - the topography, the wildlife and surrounding forest, the character of the area -- they are distinct, and valuable, and I don't prefer change, generally... but, Blue Ridge is one of the only ways out of the city E/W and it can be harrowing on a bicycle at times.  Where was I?  Oh yeah...

Through the darkness and down Blue Ridge's nice, long descents (which I haven't ridden in years!) to State Line Road, and then south into the darkness near old Kenneth - startled by the air-brake hiss of an idling locomotive back in the trees near the crossing at 151st Street.  It's cold, but not terrible -- the tailwind helps with that, and the occasional roller.  I climb up to 159th and Mission, and then head south again through another glorious cycling destination of twists and turns and dives and steep climbs... Mission Road between 159th and 191st.  In the same vein as my comments a moment ago, but with the side-note that this is a generally low-traffic area:  I hope they never change this particular road.  If you live in the area and haven't ridden it - either from the north or south - pick a weekend morning, early, and check it out.  Approach from 159th, or 199th... and enjoy.

I pause at 199th for some food and a quick nature break.  The sky is miraculously clear... perfect... sharp, bright stars and planets above... Orion directly overhead... such a sight, out here without the light pollution.

199th west to Spring Hill -- overlapping the Border Patrol route, I have to remind myself not to instinctively turn south for Louisburg.  I arrive at the Casey's in Spring Hill, the first control, at 5:58AM... two minutes before they open:  nice timing!  (that's the c-store opening, *not* the control opening time... I'm not THAT fast!)  But, the Casey's clock is faster than mine apparently and their doors are already open and morning business is jumping.  The smell of *just* finished donuts, coffee and breakfast pizza slaps me in the face with a welcome blow of warmth and flavor... YES!  The best part... sometimes the only good part... of cold-season riding is the treasure of warmth and food at the controls.  Sometimes it's all about the hot coffee, I tell ya.

The wet, cold morning air had me shivering, despite the influx of hot coffee... a dangerous position to be in.  Cold is ok.  Wet is ok.  Cold and wet can be bad.  Only solution is to get moving again and dry off -- it's cold, riding along with layers unzipped, but getting dried off is more important.  Too many layers, though warm feeling, can backfire... hard to find balance, and a little out of practice.  Back on the road, things improve quickly after a sprint up a short hill. 

A quick zig-zag over US-169 highway south of town, and onto Old KC Road towards Hillsdale -- another great road that I sometimes wish was a little bit wider, maybe with a paved shoulder.  Ah, well...  traffic is surprisingly courteous, thanks perhaps to my ridiculous level of reflective gear.  Overkill?  I dunno... I'd rather not roll the dice, and none of it weighs anything, catches any wind, or gets in the way - so why not?  A little backlighting to the trees to the east indicates dawn is coming... back down to business.

Tailwind still in effect, I make haste - picking a good, sustainable cadence and sticking to my goal cruising speed of around 17.5-18.0 MPH.  Quick enough, but certainly not in danger of getting to the halfway too early -- attempts at that are scheduled for next year.  Yeah, I'm an optimist... but, part of me wants to try it again, arriving too early to check in.  Today, however, is about consistency and finishing with about the same average at the end as at the halfway.  Today, it would turn out, would offer perfect conditions for such training.  I was careful in days leading up to this ride not to jinx anything, but if I timed things correctly I was in for another super-rare, ultra-special, deluxe, surprise, happy-time double tailwind ride.

Hospital Road south of Paola comes quick, then Hedge Lane... some of my favorite pavement ...the sky is getting lighter and I'm feeling good.  Another railroad crossing at 343rd street, and southbound once again - until the road ends... this really is a great route if you can look past the "getting outta town" portion in the first few miles:  it's a rail-fan's delight, with ten railroad crossings (mixed between level crossings and bridges) in 100 kilometers, and several miles of parallel opportunity.  If you don't see anything on the way out, you get another chance at each one on the return trip.  Second, it's hilly enough to keep things interesting, but not a quad-crusher.  Third, you almost don't need a cue sheet -- nearly all of the decision points are "duhs", ending at T intersections - and where that isn't the case, the turns are well marked with highly visible road signs.  The only potential "gotcha" is a roundabout, but its not too bad if you read the signs.  There are also several more c-store opportunities than there are controls, which makes it a good winter route compared to more remote regions -- I didn't figure it exactly, but I think the biggest gap between gas stations is perhaps 15-17 miles, which is good if you find yourself cold or running out of water.. or needing to put water bottles in the microwave, if it's REALLY cold.  Perfect route.

I roll through Fontana, KS.  The last two visits to this tiny town took place in the dark back in '08... in fact, if memory serves, today's trip was only the 2nd time I'd seen Fontana during the day.

Thinking this town could use a Casey's...  franchise idea in my future, perhaps... no, not here... perhaps somewhere between Appleton City and Weableau, MO, come to think of it....

I'd have the only c-store in existance with showers, a locker room, drop-bag storage, a sleeping area....accessible via brevet card authentication.... Hammer Gel dispensers... the mind wanders...

Snapping to, back on a beautiful stretch of road near K-152... at the top of the western ridge of Linn Valley.  This view never gets old.  The La Cygne power generation plant, billowing steam into the cold air - confirming that the wind, as scheduled, was beginning to shift to favor my return trip.  WoooHooo!!

I dive down the fast downhills and proceed to hammer it across the flat valley floor - aiming for La Cygne before 9am, which I manage handily... 8:46am.  Probably more time off the bike than I should have had, but I'm not too worried about control efficiency quite yet, at least not when it's cold out.... a few minutes at 199th and Mission, at least 15 at Spring Hill, a few minutes at 311th and Hospital Road, a few minutes at LN-1095 and K-152.... nature breaks, snack breaks, star-gazing breaks... why not?  We ain't racin' today, just enjoying some spirited pacing while we ARE moving, I suppose.

I lose track of time at La Cygne, watch a train flyby, snack on grub, coffee, rest room break, a little indoor warmup - and then finally decide that I've lingered enough and get moving again.  It's different this time of year:  where in the summer I am anxious to keep moving to finish before the heat of the day gets unbearable, there is sometimes a little extra pause in the cooler months in the hopes that temperatures might improve.  I don't remember actively considering this, but maybe it was subconscious.  The nice thing about randonneuring - something I sometimes forget - is that you HAVE the time, generally, to rest up, get warm, etc.  That is, if you manage it properly... the criteria is loose, but a finish is a finish whether it takes 13 hours, or seven.  My personal trick, each time, learning from past close-calls:  get to the halfway, no matter what the cost.  Once you have that in the bag, you can then dawdle if you want or need to.  Results can and do vary.
The steam plumes at La Cygne have moved, slowly starting to point northwest... my tailwind for the return ride is confirmed, and the sun is getting higher.  Time to move.

The valley floor is tackled quick, and then the business of the hills leading up out of the valley.  I have to say, I prefer the climb to the east -- easier to gauge effort, perhaps -- and I'm still a little tentative about the knees these days.  After last month's Border Patrol where the saddle height and fore/aft was a little off, causing some post ride soreness that lingered right up to THIS morning, I had been focusing on high cadence during this ride to minimize impact and strain.  Things have been steadily improving since the October ride, tested with commutes and some long indoor resistance drills when I could squeeze them in - but the real test would be the hills on this route.  So far, so good -- but on the steeper stuff, it's just hard for me to keep a high rev going.  Standing up, or seated, however... when the pressure came on, things felt good, tight - and not sore.  Post-ride would tell the tale for sure, but I was hopeful.

Then, a few miles north of Fontana -- I'd stop and shoot the video footage that became the previous post... 
After that, it was time to get down to business.  

I checked my rolling time and did a little mental math, and figured I could probably still pull it off, if I pushed a little:  The sub-6 hour century, a personal milestone that I've used in the past to measure consistency and the ability to get up out of the usual commute average speeds.  Racers will scoff -- where sub-5 hour centuries are the norm, most likely... faster still, in fact, one of the most incredible performances I've ever witnessed was from an athlete at the Texas Time Trials in '07.  Patrick Evoe still holds a personally-witnessed record of the fastest century I've ever seen thrown down, and I'm almost certain one of the fastest by UMCA standards (Not to mention the course record at Texas).  When the 100-mile UMCA North American Century Championship launched in Cleburne, TX., while Tejas 500 riders were deep into their 500-miler, and I had already cashed in the chips and started crewing for Ort, Patrick came through the start/stop area after his first lap like a bullet train... and my (and others') first thought was... "wow!!... but he'll slow down".  For the next three hours and change, we were all proven wrong.  I've never seen anything like it.  The dude is FREAKING FAST.  Four hours and 13 minutes later, he was done with his 100 miles... an average almost hitting 24 MPH.  That's solo, during a non-drafting event, kids.  So, while I have a LOT LOT LOT of work to do before I even get close to shaving an hour off MY best century time, I'm perfectly comfortable with my sub-6 hour rolling time for now... because, for my long-term goals that's a comfortable 400-miles-in-24-hours pace.  OF course, I have to train beyond that speed to ensure that hour 23 goes as well as hour 3.... but, today, I'm pleased to have raised my rolling average speed from 16.1 up to the required 16.6+ needed to make it back to 199th and Ridgeview Road in 5 hours and 58 minutes.  Time to relax...

My secondary goal of finishing this one in under 10-hours total time was looking good now, too.  The rest of 199th went off well, but things changed when I turned north on Mission Road.  Normally a section where time can be made up -- not to mention BIG fun in the twisties -- I was surprised to see the road completely blocked by flashing lights, sheriff and local police, and power & light service vehicles.  I throttled down and coasted up, talked to the sheriff and was finally allowed to walk my bike across several front yards - well away from a downed power pole and overturned car resting in the ditch across the way.  Holy.... glad I wasn't around when THAT happened.  

Looking back south on 199th, after walking past the accident scene on the other side of the trees, and giving detour directions to a few of these cars waiting here for a chance to back up and turn around.  A local resident confirmed that their power was out - but she wasn't sure why.  Fate, Karma, whatever you want to call it -- I'm thankful I took my time at roadside breaks and controls in the last half of the ride, as any cyclist could have easily been "just riding along" when this happened.  Not sure if anyone was injured - but the ambulance was long gone by the time I arrived.  Hope they're okay.

After a 1/2 mile walk, I was on the other side of the drama, ready to get back at it.  Hills were in my future -- hills that give this route a reputation of being especially evil for the last few miles of a long ride.  After a long cool-down at the accident site, I also found myself resting again at 159th and Mission road - desperate for a rest room break, but finding no shelter or break from passing cars to pull it off.  While the clock was still on my side, I was going to have to work for my sub-10 hour 200km ride now.  Ugh!

Up Mission, to 159th, down to Kenneth, around the bend, across the tracks, up more hills towards 135th, then WHAM.... traffic.  I had hoped that, as alluded to in earlier paragraphs, traffic wouldn't be a concern at this point in the day - but I was wrong.  After all, it was 1:40 or so in the afternoon.... but, no matter... cars, cars, cars...  passing by a major interchange, several shopping complexes, apartments, and back down to narrow, unimproved Grandview roads heading across Blue Ridge itself, which I'd forgotten is UP for over a mile at a time in places... wow.  It was on the longest climb of Blue Ridge where my bubble popped... whoof, no more push.... keep going!

 Then Grandview Road... and why are all the school busses out, is my clock wrong??  Holy traffic.... finally back at the 7-Eleven past Red Bridge... and I'd actually, unofficially made it a smidge after 2:00pm....SO close!  but then, of course, I have to unpack get out the route card, pick out something to buy, and stand in line to pay... a LONG line.  A lot of people-traffic, too, here... so, officially, 2:13pm..!  I'll take it, though.

Seriously... a simply stellar, awesome, perfect, fun day for a long ride... a great time.
Feeling good, and looking forward to December.  
Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

November 6, 2011

The Distance Diaries - No.1

So, I got bored, got out the camera-phone, and took a little video - which I then (thank me) edited down into this little snippet.  The process has given me a LOT of ideas... ideas that I can't capitalize on without upgrades in equipment, possibly software, and without more patience and practice and forethought.  As a larger concept I've given enough thought to settle on the title "The Distance Diaries", and right now they are simply to serve as video blog companions to the regular content on this blog.  It's catchy enough that I'm tempted to shift the blog to match... but not quite ready to close the door on over a decade of "dude" simply because I write more about distance than commuting these days.  We'll see.  What's in a name?

Certainly not EVERY ride will have a video companion - but I'll do what I can.  Honestly, I like it - it's FUN and I like the process of editing, mixing (though I'm still not 100% satisfied with this one), and taking raw video and chopping into 500 pieces and putting it back together.  I have high hopes and a giant body of inspiration to pull from - namely a lot of WAY more interesting and professionally produced stuff on Vimeo, and my ultimate inspiration "Survivorman" - where Les Stroud sets the bar extremely high.  

I've dabbled in the past and thought "what if?" -- and so this is a small step closer - but, I need to invest in something better than a cell phone camcorder to make this a real effort.  Further, a/v production is a HUGE time-suck.  I told myself I'd only devote a day to mashing this one out, and it took dang-near all it.  Further, there wasn't enough raw footage to show a true picture of the entire ride - and, let's face it:  sometimes I get down to the business of riding and forget things like shooting video.  The coming winter months will make that harder, no doubt, but more material will yield better finished product.  Best approach is probably to amass video for multiple rides, and make it a larger project.  We'll see.

So, for now, please enjoy:  


The actual post about Friday's 200km permanent coming this week --- strangely, that takes more time to edit down.  Big surprise!

Thanks for reading!