Life Off The Bike

My ailments

My ailments

Hello, there.  Long time, no post.

Some of you may be mildly interested in what I’ve been up to.  I have been bombarded by literally several inquiries as to my whereabouts.  Basically, I’ve been busy running and since this is a blog concerned with cycling activities, I did not find anything particularly relevant to share with you, Dear Reader.  Still, I shouldn’t have just departed without explaining myself.  That was rude and for that I apologize unreservedly.

After my succussful foray into triathlon, I became a full-time runner.  I had a little over two months to prepare myself for the Army 10 Miler and the Marine Corps Marathon, which are run on consecutive Sundays in late October.  I was nursing a chronically sore calf muscle, so I rested a week and started with the basics:  a three mile run.

A simple three miler is a humble starting point for a fellow who wants to run 26.2 miles in ten weeks, but I felt that was the best course of action.  If I added one mile a week (with a couple of exceptions where I’d add two miles) I could get up to a run of 15 miles.  That was going to have to be enough training because that’s all the time I had.  It actually was slightly better than what I did last year when I unexpectedly ran the marathon on five days notice. I busily studied running and training strategies and became an adherent of the Galloway Method of running, which encourages regular breaks for walking to prevent the running muscle group from tiring too quickly.  I bought new shoes.  I put away my bike and focused on my goal.

What followed were ten weeks of modest success punctuated by regular setbacks.

Despite being almost obsessively concerned about injury prevention, the injuries still came.  Most of the nasty joint-related pains in my ankles and knees failed to materialize, the result (I believe) of superior shoes designed to prevent the pronation that causes those injuries.  Instead, muscle-related injuries occurred.  Slowly, the pain moved up my leg, either do to overuse or compensation or both.

Things started this Spring in my foot (#1 in the above figure).  Severe nerve pain under my toes hampered most runs and made cycling rides over 40 miles an exercise in extreme pain.  Discarding my new cycling shoes and making changes in other footwear largely solved this problem, but not before a chronic pain emerged in my Achilles Tendon (2).  Rest seemed to cure this problem, only to have my old friend the calf strain (3) return during my triathlon training.  I know how to handle this condition and it didn’t disable me the way it has in year’s past.  This is where I was when I finished the triathlon.

The pain moved up my leg as marathon training became serious – runs of eight or more miles caused significant soreness in my quad muscles (4).  I wasn’t going to let that sort of thing stop me and simply increased the massages, hot baths, and stretching in that area.  But then a particularly nasty pain developed in my hip (6).  I’m still not entirely sure if the pain is in the joint or the hip flexor but it hurt quite a bit.  I began taking glucosamine to help with my joints and I must admit I didn’t notice a large improvement.

I battled on, with runs now at 13 miles.  Then, on an innocent four mile run on a weeknight, it happened:  a torn hamstring.  This occured a mere two weeks before the Army Ten Miler.  It was only a slight tear and I stopped running immediately, but this was a major setback.  My only recourse was to rest it for the last two weeks, show up at the Ten Miler, and see what happened.

The Army Ten Miler

The Army Ten Miler

Things felt pretty good on the morning of the Ten Miler.  I was stretching with no pain and my first two miles were at the encouraging pace of 8:20/mile.  As I passed the Lincoln Memorial and the marker for Mile 2, I felt a twinge in my hamstring.  Not good.  I dialed my pace back to about 9:00/minute a mile and found I could continue without too much pain.  My hamstring was letting me know it was there, but seemed agreeable to the new pace.

After five miles, the slight strand of tissue that was holding my hamstring together gave notice that it was no longer going to participate in this charade and stopped working.  At this point, you can see the air slowly leave my balloon in each mile’s pace:

Mile 6: 10:08

Mile 7: 10:24

Mile 8: 10:37

Mile 9: 11:09

Mile 10: 11:55

I got across the line with the disappointing time of 1:38:26, about thirteen minutes slower than I hoped for.  In addition to my hamstring, my hip was screaming at me for the last two miles.  It was obvious that I wouldn’t be able to run the marathon.  My great training schedule had netted me almost nothing.  I had accomplished more last year with far less focus on my running training.

So that’s what I’ve been up to. I’ve continued to rest in the past two weeks and most of the pain has subsided.  Although I still plan to run some local races (and triathlons), I suspect it will be a very long time – if ever – before I make another attempt at a marathon.

I haven’t been on my bike since September 14th.  Much of the nice Fall weather is gone and the onset of cold weather is only weeks/days away.    I think it’s time to go for a ride.

USAF Crystal Ride, Part 2: The Ride

Crystal Ride2The Crystal Ride is one of my favorite events of the year.  With about 1,800 riders, it is the largest cycling event I attend.  Despite my Army roots, the USAF military theme is nice and there is a healthy smattering of military-themed jerseys in the peloton.  The route is on closed streets that are normally quite busy and it is fun to ride on them.  Unlike most cycling events I participate in, this one actually has spectators which cheer you on.  It is the only event I ride where simply finishing is not the only goal – the finishing time becomes important and determines which sort of medal you receive.

But perhaps my favorite part of this event is the chaos.

Putting 1,800 riders of greatly varying abilities on a closed course with sometimes narrow roads of questionable quality is a recipe for the kind of excitement normally found in demolition derbies or Roman chariot races, at least the one depicted in the movie, Ben Hur.  The 9+ mile course means the faster riders never truly distance themselves from the slower cyclists, they merely lap them and are always mixed amongst them.  You have to be ready for just about anything, but just about anything usually happens.

Having reached the starting group with two minutes to spare, I was well to the rear of the leaders at the start.  I was so far back that I couldn’t hear any of the opening ceremonies or even the official start of the race.  I knew the ride had started by the cheering which slowly moved from the start line to my position in the back.  We slowly built up speed from our standing start, moving from walking speed to a leisurely 12 mph as we moved up Crystal Drive toward Route 110, where I knew the herd would begin to thin on the two mile straightaway.

At Mile 0.6, I saw my first injury.

He was lying on the road with three cyclists standing over him, trying to help until a ride marshal could arrive.  He was clutching his right shoulder and was in considerable pain.  It appeared to me to be either a broken collar-bone or a dislocated shoulder.  I don’t know what caused the accident, but its a good bet he simply collided with another cyclist in the jumbled mass that still existed at this point.  Since he was being tended to, I pressed onward, found a nice paceline and zipped northward toward the city of Rosslyn.

Having reached Rosslyn, we did a sharp U-Turn (one of several on the course that had the effect of breaking up any impromptu paceline that may have developed on the straightaways) and headed back toward the Pentagon and the USAF Monument, which sits on a hill and is the main terrain feature of the course.  I was pleased that I stayed WELL away from my bottom gear on my first ascent and looked forward to bombing back down the hill.

The hill leading to the USAF Monument

The hill leading to the USAF Monument

It was during this first descent where I had my brush with disaster.

I was having a happy descent (almost all my descents are happy ones.  It’s the one moment where my excess mass plays to my advantage) when the fellow in front of me unexpectedly hit a water bottle that fell out of another cyclist’s cage.  We were moving at 30 mph, so this was a significant moment for all concerned.  In microseconds, I saw the man’s rear wheel hit the bottle, saw the bottle explode into a mist of orange Gatorade, watched his rear wheel move into the air while his front maintained contact with the asphalt, then noticed his bike begin to rotate slightly to one side.

I was about fifty feet behind this guy, moving at a very fast pace.  When that rear wheel hit the asphalt again, he would be slightly crooked.  There was a good chance he would crash.  I could either attempt to move quickly off my line and almost certainly hit another rider (and thus crash) or take my chances with the fellow in front of me.  I chose the latter.  Since I am typing these words, you know things worked out ok for me.

Remarkably, the cyclist was able to keep his bike under control.  I moved slightly to one side and passed within two or three feet of him, realizing I had chosen wisely.  That was some very good bike handling on his part.  I don’t think I would have remained upright.  Had he crashed, I would have hit him and launched myself into the air at 30 mph.  I’m glad I didn’t get to have that experience.

The rest of the ride was far less eventful.  I maintained a nice pace and was going to finish a little faster or even with last year’s ride, which I was pleased to see given my lack of miles, jet lag, and the morning adventure with my derailleur.  As the laps went by, the group thinned out considerably.  The course was dotted with cyclists repairing flats or broken chains.  I pedaled past two more serious crashes which required ambulances, though both cyclists were alert and seemed to be doing well, all things considered.

Crystal City

Crystal City

On top of the hill near the USAF Monument.  I'm normally not this grumpy.

On top of the hill near the USAF Monument. I’m normally not this grumpy.

The ride settled into a routine.  Each lap would begin amongst the tall buildings of Crystal City and the PA announcer at the Start/Finish line giving a running commentary for the spectators which was difficult to hear as I pedaled past.  In short order, I would be on the straight road of Route 110, where I would attempt to find somebody’s wheel to suck.  After returning back on Route 110 and passing the Pentagon on its west side, it was time to focus on climbing the USAF Monument hill and enjoy a short flat section at the top where a DJ was regaling a small crowd with techno music.  After bombing down the hill (and avoiding any water bottles that may be there) the route returned to the potholed streets of Crystal City and a large crowd cheering cyclists on.  I did this 9+ mile course six times – enough for a gold medal.

There is one more incident to report, this one a mere half mile from the finish in Crystal City.  A woman didn’t see one of the many potholes in this section of the course and buried her front wheel in it.  She fell to the side, landing on her shoulder blade.  I stopped next to her and made sure she was ok.  She was looking herself over and was amazed to see no cuts.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t see the massive road rash on her shoulder blade (she was wearing a sleeveless jersey) which I could see.  Rather than draw too much attention to that, I focused instead on checking her bike and determined it was fine.  I mentioned to her that she would be feeling her shoulder in the morning and asked if she wanted medical attention.  She said she wanted to try to finish so I watched as she got on her bike and made sure she could pedal.  Then I went on my way to the finish, where I actually had enough energy left to do a proper sprint.  I’m not sure if Mark Cavendish (a world-class sprinter, for those who don’t follow the sport) would classify it as a “sprint,” but I was riding much faster than normal for me and using all my energy to do so, so I was pleased with the effort.

A classic look

A classic look

I ended up finishing two minutes slower than last year, which I thought was just fine.  I picked up my gold medal and was wandering over to the Shimano tent when I noticed a cyclist on the reviewing stand being interviewed by the announcer.  He was riding a steel-framed peugeot bicycle which he bought forty years ago and was decked out from head to toe in classic cycling garb, including an old-fashioned helmet, shoes, and a spare tube which he carried drapped over his shoulder.  Very neat.

As I approached the Shimano tent, I heard a voice shout, “Steve!  Steve!”  That being my name, I turned and met regular reader, Nene, who had just finished the ride himself.  It was really cool to be recognized by a reader in the middle of a crowd and we had a nice chat together.

Less grumpy at the finish

Less grumpy at the finish

After visiting with Nene, I reached the Shimano tent and once again thanked the mechanic who saved my day.  I then made my way back to my car and loaded up my bike for the ride home.  Thus concluded my third running of the USAF Crystal Ride.  It wasn’t my best time, but it certainly was an adventure before, during, and after the event.  2013’s ride ranks as my favorite of the three and I’m already looking forward to 2014!

USAF Crystal Ride, Part 1: Getting There Is Half The Fun

I returned from Madrid on Friday.  Sunday was the USAF Crystal Ride – never a dull moment!  I got off the plane in Dulles Airport, drove across town in a driving rain storm in rush hour and arrived at the Crystal City Marriott 30 minutes before the Packet Pickup Desk closed for the day.  This was a blessing as it meant I didn’t need to drive back to the city on Saturday to get my packet.

On Saturday, I puttered around the house, doing errands that built up over a week away from home.  After dinner, I began to make preparations for the ride.  I fastened my bibs to my jersey, put my number on my helmet, gathered all my stuff and put it in the car so my getaway on Sunday morning would be simple and quick.

Then I turned my attention to my rear derailleur, which had been acting up ever so slightly during my last ride before heading to Spain.  I had lost the ability to reach my top two gears and I wanted to make the slight adjustment necessary to fix the problem.

I had never adjusted my derailleur before but I wasn’t about to let a complete lack of knowledge or experience stop me.  I dutifully watched three (three!) Youtube videos on the subject and read two pages of a bicycle repair manual I bought a few years ago.  It seemed straightforward enough…

Two hours later, I had ruined my derailleur.

Somehow, I had managed to adjust the screws and cables to the point where the only gear I had was my top gear.  No amount of fiddling, lubing, cursing, begging, or praying would change the situation.  I was now 13 hours from the start of the ride with only my top gear.  All the local bike shops closed for the day.  Life was hard.

So I loaded both my damaged Trek and my clunky hybrid, Old Ironsides, onto my bike rack.  If I couldn’t get the Trek fixed I would be forced to push my hybrid around that course and would most likely settle for a silver medal – averaging the required 17.1 mph on Old Ironsides over 56 miles is a feat beyond my capability.  Still, a silver medal amongst my growing collection of gold USAF medals would be an interesting story to tell over the years…

I showed up at the Crystal Ride an hour early the next morning and found the maintenance tent near the start line.  I was encouraged to see the guys were actually present and were from Shimano.  My derailleur is a Shimano 105, so I thought perhaps I had a chance to get it fixed.

My saviors.  Pic taken after the ride when they were properly set up.

My saviors. Pic taken after the ride when they were properly set up.

The team hadn’t even begun setting up shop but the head of the group offered to take a look at my bike.  I learned that this kind soul was actually the head bicycle mechanic for Shimano and had traveled to the event from the company’s corporate headquarters in Southern California.  Very cool.  After teasing me about needing a gear other than my top gear, he proceeded to fix my derailleur while simultaneously giving me a course on derailleur systems and bicycle repair in general.

It turns out that the cable was frayed and no amount of adjusting was going to fix the problem.  “You were fighting an uphill battle,” the mechanic said.  When I told him of my several minutes of detailed internet research, he chuckled and said, “I laugh at Youtube videos.”  I was pleased to learn I was fiddling with the right stuff on the bike, so I was at least coming close to understanding/fixing the problem.  The mechanic said that learning the right steps was the easy part – gaining the experience so that you can understand what you are seeing/feeling while doing the steps was much harder.

The mechanic wasn’t surprised to see the cable was frayed.  My shifter is SRAM and they subcontract their cables to a company called Jaguar.  This company makes cables that are 1/10th of a millimeter too large for the Shimano specs.  That’s right – it was 0.1 millimeters too big.  That may not sound like much, but over time that size difference wears on the tubing and the cable tends to fray earlier than it should.  I suggested Shimano and SRAM have a meeting to sort this out and the mechanic took it under advisement.

In less than 30 minutes, I had a brand new shift cable and a fully tuned rear derailleur, along with an impromptu class provided by Shimano’s head mechanic.  Excellent!  I raced back to my car, put the bottles, GPS, etc… on the bike (after all, I wasn’t sure what bike I would be riding when I pulled in), took off my sneakers (needed for the hybrid) and put on my road shoes and zipped over to the starting group with two minutes to spare.

Needless to say, I was at the back of the pack.  I would be winding my way through 1,400 riders in my attempt to get near the front.  Who am I kidding – getting near the front was never my goal; simply getting a gold medal while jet lagged and frazzled over my derailleur crisis would be good enough today.  To learn how that went, stay tuned for Part 2!

The back of the peloton.  The white banner waaay in the distance is the start/finish line.

The back of the peloton. The white banner waaay in the distance is the start/finish line.

Army Ten Miler

click for details

The 2012 Army Ten Miler was a much more satisfying experience than the previous year, due almost entirely to the fact that my calf muscle was not behaving as if it had been ripped from my fibula.  Regular readers will know that I recently suffered the same injury to the same calf and the possibility of a repeat of last year’s travails was looming large.  Lots of massages, ice, heat helped rehabilitate it to an acceptable level.  Icy-Hot bandages, compression sleeves, motrin, and new shoes helped prevent reinjury.

First, my apologies for a lack of photos.  It’s difficult to photograph a running race as a participant.  It means lugging a camera with you.

The day was sunny and cool, but not frigid, and we managed to stay warm enough while waiting in the Pentagon’s South Parking Lot for about an hour.  Runners face difficult wardrobe decisions that cyclists do not.  They are forced to wait in the cold for extended periods and quickly warm up once the event starts.  Stowing excess cold weather gear is not an option.  They have come up with two general solutions to this problem:

1.  Suffer in the cold and do just fine after the race starts.

2.  Bring some throw away clothes (or a plastic bag converted to a shirt) and stay warm before the race.  Discard when they are no longer necessary.

I largely fall into Category 1, but I did use some disposable gloves which I tossed to the side after crossing the Potomac (around Mile 2).  They are purpose-built for this very thing and I was glad to have them.

Pre-race events were filled with parachutists from the Army Parachute Team, the National Anthem, and mercifully no speeches from the dignitaries.  The starting gun sounded in the distance for the Wounded Warriors, who would start five minutes before the official race start.  Nice touch, I thought.  I would eventually catch up with these folks, and watching them overcome their disabilities is always inspirational for me.  Everyone was giving them great support and I was happy to do likewise as I passed each one.  I suspect there were several I never caught up with.  Simply remarkable.

Bolivar’s Statue

It’s also remarkable how much more enjoyable an event is when you are not wondering how you will finish the next 50 feet.  I noticed statues I had never seen before, such as the one of Simon Bolivar at Foggy Bottom.  I couldn’t imagine why that guy earned a coveted spot a few blocks from the White House (the answer – which I discovered after I got home – is that it was a gift from the Republic of Venezuela to the U.S. in 1958).  I was able to enjoy the sights of DC, something I never grow tired of despite having done several events there over the years.

I took it easy for the first five miles just to make sure everything was ok, going at about 90% effort.  After that, I pushed things a little more.  Thanks goes to Tootlepedal for his “negative split” strategy.  It worked quite well.  I finished with a time of 1:29:58, about 13 minutes faster than last year.  I was pleased to break (by two seconds) the 9:00/mile pace.  Out of over 21,000 finishers, my overall placing was 7,931 – up from 14,513 last year.  I managed to improve my place in the 45-49 Men’s Division to 832, up from 1,354 last year.  Plenty to build on for next year.

You may be curious about Diesel.  She smoked the course with a time of 1:25:44.  She improved her time by six minutes from last year and finished 102nd in her division of 1,017 women.  More impressively, she was not the least bit sore and reported this morning that she could run another ten miles today if she wanted to (something your humble scribe cannot say).  She won’t do that because she has her first marathon to run this Sunday.  It is worth repeating that for most of her adult life, Diesel focused on raising our kids and maintaining a household and she did no specific exercise of any kind.  It was only three years ago that she began walking and only 18 months ago when she ran her first race – a 5k.  I am in awe.  At the marathon, I’ll be leading her official cheering section.  Perhaps next year I will run with her.

Now, where’s my bike?

2012 Crystal Ride

Over 1,800 of us gathered in Crystal City Sunday morning to ride six 15 km laps around Northern Virginia.  As I waiting patiently in the starts corral, I was pretty sure a few things were about to happen:

  • It would be hot
  • The course would be fast
  • There would be at least one crash

Subsequent events would prove me to be right on all counts.

A portion of the 1,827 riders at the start

After a brief delay to ensure the police had the roads properly closed, the starting command was given and the Great Horde began to inch forward.  I was hoping to improve on my 17.9 mph average pace through better fitness, weighing less (I am about seven pounds lighter than this time last year), and carrying less (my wife had volunteered to act as my support team, keeping my food/water available for me on each lap).  Immediately, I knew my suspicions of a faster course to be accurate.  Gone were the pothole-stricken side roads and hairpin turns from last year’s event.  In their place was the wide-open Route 110 Highway to Arlington.  It was easy to find a paceline moving at 22 mph and latch on.

A second prediction came true very quickly as well.  At Mile 3.5, the peloton came to a dramatic halt as three cyclists wrecked.  With much shouting of warnings to trailing riders, catastrophe was averted (for us, at least, if not the riders who crashed) and we were able to slowly get past the incident.  Nobody appeared to be seriously injured, which is to say they were conscious and able to limp about with a fair amount of blood but no obvious bone fractures.  In short order, we were zipping along again toward the USAF Memorial on the very road that was closed to my wife and I during the unfortunate Bike DC SNAFU a month ago.  After climbing the hill to the Memorial, we flew back down and made our way into Crystal City for the completion of Lap 1.

Average pace: 19.9 mph.  WOW!

Life was good.  I was feeling fresh and there were plenty of pacelines to latch on to.  I was positively elated when I completed Lap 2 with an average pace of 20.0 mph.  Even faster!  I stopped briefly at the There And Back Again Cycling Team Resupply Point (my wife), got a new water bottle and some Clif Shot Blocks, and was off.

I was reminded of why I liked this event so much last year – even though it is a relatively short (56 mile) ride, it is conducted at breakneck speed and with chaos all around you.  It definitely has the feel of the chariot race scene in Ben Hur, although I did not see anyone with scythed wheels (something for me to consider for next year).  Bikes were breaking all over the place, their riders hurriedly performing tire changes or swearing at their derailleurs, broken chains, or other mechanical issues.  There were occasional crashes and rumors of crashes.  In addition to the accident at Mile 3.5, I saw a man being loaded onto a stretcher in Crystal City near the end of Lap 3.  He was bleeding profusely from his knee, leading me to believe he probably hit a patch of gravel on a turn and laid his bike down.  While I find great enjoyment on touring rides, there’s something to be said for an annual foray into the madcap world of criterium-style racing.

I dropped about a minute off my pace after Lap 3, giving me a slight cause for concern.  The field had spread out by this point, making finding a paceline increasingly difficult.  The sun was also climbing into the sky and it was  becoming quite hot.  My Garmin (which was once again loyally providing me data) informed me the temperature was 85 degrees and steadily rising.  I had brought more energy food and liquid than last year and hoped that would be the difference.

A rare photo of Yours Truly riding a bike, sadly without a paceline – a condition all too common for me after Lap 3.

At this point, let me share with you my official Gripe Of The Ride.  I’ve always got at least one thing to complain about, and here is this ride’s gripe: overjudicious use of the phrase, “On Your Left.”

Cyclists are expected to “ride right,” meaning they should stay as far to the right as possible (for readers in the UK, Australia, Japan, Fiji, and a few other places where automobiles are on the wrong side of the road, simply hold these instructions up to a mirror and they will make sense to you).  When attempting to pass another rider, a cyclist should check his blind spot and ensure nobody is coming before beginning the overtake.  Cyclists approaching from the rear should shout, “On your left” to let other riders know of their presence.

That’s the rule.  It’s a good rule.  You will note that nowhere in the rule is there a God-given right to scream at people who are in your way, just because you are going faster than them.  More than once, I was in the act of overtaking a cyclist when an even faster cyclist would catch up with me, whereupon he would scream, “ON YOUR LEFT!!!!” and attempt to shoot lasers at me out of his eyeballs.  I get it that he and his little group wanted to maintain their pace, but the road is sometimes crowded and things need a moment or two to sort themselves out.  Terribly sorry.  The pompous attitude was annoying and gave me thoughts as to how I might silence the perpetrators.  These thoughts weren’t helping me to do well in the race, or even keeping me out of prison, so I discarded them and focused on riding as fast as I could.

While staying to the right.  Except to pass.  After checking my blind spot.

End of gripe.

After Lap 4, I pulled over for my final resupply of shot blocks and another water bottle.  I noticed I had lost another 90 seconds over the previous lap.  My average pace had dropped to 18.9 mph and I could feel the onset of significant fatigue setting in.  The shot blocks were increasingly difficult to eat and the Gatorade was increasingly too sweet to drink.  I think a better combination at this point would have been plain old water with the shot blocks.  Live and learn.  Others were feeling worse than I.  I saw many riders walking their bike up the USAF Memorial hill and there was even one fellow laying on the ground, his buddy trying to massage some severe leg cramps.  I decided to save what little energy reserve I had left for the final lap.  I finished Lap 5 with a pace of 18.4 mph.  It was now over 90 degrees.

Gulp.

With the possibility of failing to best last year’s pace looming before me, I put the hammer down.  At this point, my “hammer” was quite small, something along the lines of what a jeweler might use in watch repair.  Still, it was all I had left and I used it as well as I could.  Then, a really bad thing happened – while climbing the stupid hill leading to the USAF Memorial for the final time, I cramped in my left hamstring.  This has never happened to me beforewhile riding, so it was quite an experience.

Now, a normal person probably would have gotten off his bike and tended to his condition.  But I was on that hill and there was NO WAY I was going to get off my bike on that climb and have people think I couldn’t make it to the top.  The shame would have been unbearable.  So, I massaged my own hamstring while continuing to climb as best I could.  It was an interesting sensation – feeling my muscle spasm while demanding it continue to crank my pedals.  I made it up the hill and enjoyed my final descent.

(By the way, thin guys, please think of us heavy guys on the descent and move your butts over so we can fly by you.  It’s the only time we truly have an advantage over you and we’d like to enjoy it. Thanks ever so much.)

I was well and truly gassed for the last three miles.  Any serious attempt to pedal hard brought on new spasms in the hamstring.  I did what I could as I slowly watched my average pace shrink before my eyes.  As I crossed the finish line, I grimaced at the result: 17.9 mph – the same as last year.

I hopped off my bike and joined the line of riders waiting to collect their medals.  There, I was greeted by my bride and crew chief of the There And Back Again Cycling Team, who gave me lots of praise and more fluids to drink.  Although I didn’t best my pace from last year, I didn’t do worse and that is something, at least.  I believe I just need to tweak my food and hydration strategies and possibly not go out quite so hard in the beginning.  Stay tuned – only 364 more days until I get to test those theories out at next year’s ride!

Sporting helmet hair and feeling a tad warm at the finish

Crisis Averted

The horrible, unending saga (four days) of my disabled Garmin has mercifully come to a close.  The hero of our story is loyal reader and frequent contributor Folksnake, who provided a link to another blog which was also discussing the issue.  One of the several possible solutions mentioned in that blog involved simultaneously pressing three of the four buttons on the Garmin and watching it reset.  This worked for me, the only additional nuisance being I needed to reenter all the settings that make the computer work (age, weight, time zone, etc…).

For his contribution, Folksnake has been awarded a Lifetime Membership to There And Back Again’s Premium Content Area, when and if such a section should ever be added to this blog.  To be perfectly honest, there are no plans to make a section like this or to charge anything whatsoever for any part of the site, but if this service ever does exist, Folksnake will get it for free!

Crystal Ride Preview.  Sunday’s USAF Crystal Ride is the closest thing to a race that I’ll enter this year (or ever, most likely).  Although the event takes great pains to point out it is a ride, not a race, they do time riders using cool magnetic chips and publish ride results which include overall finishing position.  While I was on the course last year, it definitely felt like a race.  Roads were closed and people were hammering through a criterium-style route in the mean streets of Crystal City and around the Pentagon.  At times, it felt like the chariot race scene in Ben Hur.  Bikes were breaking down all over the place and I saw two nasty crashes.  It was a great time!

Loyal readers will know that the 3.5 hour time standard to ride 100km pushed me to the limit last year, and I sheepishly collected by gold medal despite falling short of the standard by 2:32.  I was looking forward to breaking that barrier this year, but that will no longer be a challenge for me as the race organizers shortened the course.

Instead of eight 12.5km laps (all cool cycling events must measure their distances using the metric system), we will ride six 15km laps.  This trims the length of the course by 10km, and thus the finishing time of 3.5 hours is extremely achievable to me.  To motivate myself, I have switched my goals from simply getting the gold medal to bettering my average pace of 17.9 mph (the race may be metric, but I am not) and/0r my overall finishing position of 245th place.  Last year there were about 1,600 riders and I understand this year’s field will be larger.

The course looks similar to last year’s, but there are subtle differences that should make it run faster.  There are fewer hairpin turns and longer straightaways.  This should allow riders to build up speed and form pacelines for longer periods.  The straighter course may mean fewer crashes, which will take some of the adventure out of things.  As with last year, I will get the opportunity to climb the hill leading to the USAF Memorial, but there will only be six ascents this year instead of eight – another “lightening of the load,” in my view.

I believe I am all set.  I am well into my “taper phase” (I have found that I am extraordinarily good at tapering), I’ve cleaned up the Madone, bought my energy food, and fixed my Garmin.  Check back in on Monday evening for my exciting race report!

Best (American) Bicycling Cities

Bicycling Magazine is at it again, publishing another “best of” list.  Earlier, I shared with you their Top 10 century rides.  Last week, the July issue arrived at my stately manor, containing another list: America’s Best Bike Cities.  Bicycling is extraordinarily good at coming up with lists and I promise you I won’t share each one of them with you.  However, this one is interesting to me as it is at odds with something I wrote in this space less than two weeks ago:

All of this adds up to official There And Back Again recognition of Boston as “The Best City I Have Ever Cycled In.”

With that dramatic statement in mind, I now present the top ten cities in Bicycling Magazine’s America’s Best Bike Cities list:

  1. Portland, OR
  2. Minneapolis, MN
  3. Boulder, CO
  4. Washington, DC
  5. Chicago, IL
  6. Madison, WI
  7. New York, NY
  8. San Francisco, CA
  9. Eugene, OR
  10. Seattle, WA

You will note that Boston is not on this list.  It actually finished in 16th place, right after Scottsdale and immediately before Philadelphia.  Additionally, Washington DC – where I live just down the road from and have cycled on several occasions – FINISHED FOURTH.  Naturally, this positive news has sent the local cycling community buzzing.  For me, it leaves me scratching my head in bewilderment.  How could I be so far at odds with the good people of Bicycling Magazine?

A little bit of research provided my answer.  We were simply measuring different things.

The things that gave DC high marks were items that I had little/no interest in; things like the country’s first automated bike-share system (I don’t use it) and the installation of 1,600 bicycle racks (ditto).  The magazine also asserts that formation of clubs like Black Women Bike DC will help increase the community’s cycling diversity.  It’s hard to argue with that point nor the larger point that this will make DC a better “cycling city.”  It’s just that these sorts of metrics, along with bike-themed festivals, bike racks on buses, and bicycle commuter stations, just aren’t important to me as an individual cyclist.

I don’t want to seem too pretentious, but the There And Back Again criteria should bear a passing resemblance to matters that are important to me, or so it seems to me.

And what about Boston?  Apparently it is not too far removed from being on the magazine’s Worst Cities list.  A bike-share program and installation of bike lanes along Massachusetts Ave (which I rode on) seems to have made a difference in their rating this year.  Their biggest challenge (according to Bicycling) is “keeping discourse diplomatic as projects… move forward.”   I must say that as I pedaled about Cambridge, Charleston, the Charles River, and the North End, the quality of discourse surrounding cycling improvements never once entered my mind.  When making up my mind about how good a city is to cycle in, I am interested in how easy it is to get around, how close to death I feel while doing so, and how interesting/fun the experience is for me.

So what have we learned?  Nothing really, except that it is important to understand what you are measuring before making subjective judgements such as a list of the best cycling cities in America.  Bicycling Magazine does a good job of explaining their criteria, less so for me.  Then again, you have to pay for that magazine and this publication comes to you gratis.  You’re welcome.

Having said all that, DC is a great place to cycle!

 

I Received Another Email

After the Lake Anna Century, the ride organizer saw fit to send me an email explaining why some of the problems (ie., no food or drink for the last 40 miles) occurred on that ride.  In what is quickly becoming a routine for me, I received today an email from the Event Director of Bike DC, which I include below unedited for your edification:

Subject:  Bike DC Afterword

Bike DC Participants,

From the comments we have received since Sunday’s Bike DC, it is clear many of you had the great experience those of us who plan and produce this event had hoped you would. Equally clear however is that many of you did not. There were three things that contributed to the unfortunate situations that impacted some of you.

The first factor is the growth in the number of participants. This was by far the biggest Bike DC yet and some of the routing that had been adequate with a smaller ride, was unsatisfactory for this larger group. The good news is that we can make the changes necessary to accommodate a larger field.

Second was the road construction near Iwo Jima. That project grew dramatically in scope late last week, seriously impacting the ability to get thousand of cyclist through that section. As the magnitude of the problem became apparent, National Park Service and Arlington police made tactically decisions on how best to keep the situation from becoming dangerous. I cannot argue with any of the decisions they made.

The third and by far most significant factor was decisions made by DC Police. Unfortunately the Washington police officer assigned to this event for the past several years left work on medical leave late last week. Those who were left to oversee the event made some unfortunate decisions. They spontaneously re-routed the approach to the finish line, sending riders onto streets with live traffic. They re-opening of the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge to motorized traffic while thousand of cyclists were still in Arlington. Though both of these errors were eventually corrected, they should not have occurred.

I apologize to those of you whose ride was impacted negatively. I wish you all a full summer of safe and enjoyable bicycling in and around Washington.

Rick Bauman

Event Director

Bike DC

It’s good to see the Event Director provide an explanation, which heretofore has been lacking on the event’s website or Facebook page.  Although Mr. Bauman doesn’t give a specific number of riders, the Facebook page reports approximately 5,000 people signed up before the event and many more registered on the day of the ride.  That’s quite a crowd.

While I am still shaking my head at the very avoidable problems which occurred (everything seems so much easier in hindsight), I am encouraged to see the event acknowledge and apologize for their mistakes.  Perhaps they will be able to apply the lessons learned to next year’s ride.

As for me, my next goal is to participate in an event that does not enduce an apology letter from the event organizer, as my last two have done.

Bike DC

Mother’s Day, 2012, found my wife and I driving through the early morning light to Washington, DC, to participate in Bike DC.  At 24 miles, this was by far the shortest organized ride I have ever signed up for.  I would normally not give this distance a second thought except:

  • We would be riding through downtown DC on streets closed to traffic, which promised to be an interesting experience.
  • My wife was interested and it would be the longest event in her incredibly brief cycling resume.  I was excited to be part of the experience.

A sharp-looking cyclist and myself at the start

We found street side parking near the White House with no problem and made our way 1.5 miles down Constitution Avenue to The Capitol, where the start line was.  The weather was fantastic, though a slight nip in the air at the start caused many to don jackets.  Yours Truly did not, and I hope everyone who saw me concluded that I was a hard man. The fact of the matter was I managed to pack only one of my arm warmers and didn’t want to advertise that fact by wearing it.  Then again, I may have started a new cycling craze.  I encourage others out there to give it a shot and provide feedback in this space.

I’m not very good at estimating crowd sizes, but there were a great many people at this event – hundreds, certainly, and perhaps a thousand or two.  The “long” ride left promptly at 7:00 AM while scores of others were still arriving for the 12 mile “Family Ride” which would start 45 minutes later.  To thin the throng of riders, ride officials put up some small blockades which funneled the riders almost immediately.  This was handy as we needed to make a left turn onto Pennsylvania Avenue almost immediately.  Well done, ride officials.

Pedalling quietly past the White House so as not to wake the tennants.

We cruised down Pennsylvania Avenue and saw all manner of bicycles and cyclists.  Recumbents, mountain bikes, cruisers, folding bikes, tandems, and even a threesome bike were on the route.  We saw roadies decked out in full cycling regalia and others riding in gym shorts and flip-flops.  The pace was casual and the atmosphere was relaxed – exactly what I was hoping for my wife’s first organized ride.

Rock Creek Park

After passing the White House, we zipped along E Street and through a tunnel which required the ringing of bells (we had none) and shouting (which we could help with) to achieve an exciting echo.  All streets were closed and intersections guarded for us by the Metro Police, which helped explain where our $40 registration fee went.  Marshals were present at each turning to keep us on the right path.  We quickly reached Rock Creek Park and pedaled up it for about three miles before turning around and coming back.  The road is nicely shaded with some incredible bridges spanning over it, such as the one pictured above.

Staying focused on the TR Bridge (camera looking south).

Shortly after Mile 8, we crossed over the Potomac River via Interstate 66 at the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge.  I enjoyed playing tour guide and pointed out the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Watergate Hotel (now an apartment complex), which we ran by during last year’s Army Ten Miler.  My wife was very polite and feigned interest.  It was quite enjoyable to be riding in the middle of a U.S. interstate highway and the view of the river was nice as well.

The GW Parkway.

Onward we went to the George Washington Parkway, which had a moderate climb for well over a mile.  I heard several residents expressing awe at being on this road, which is normally packed with traffic and closed to cyclists.  I was very pleased to let my wife lead the way, past a great many casual cyclists who acted as if this was Alpe d’Huez.  Ironically, I passed a cyclist at this very point who was actually wearing an Alpe d’Huez jersey.  I asked him if he had climbed that fabled mountain and he looked at me in confusion.  Even though he was wearing the jersey, he had no idea what Alpe d’Huez was.  He probably thought it was some sort of beer.

We hit the turnaround point and zoomed down the GW Parkway.  At Mile 17, we reached the Iwo Jima Memorial, which I was very much looking forward to.  After climbing a short hill, we moved onto N. Meade street, just west of the monument.

It was at this point that everything went wrong.

As we reached the end of North Meade street, a ride marshal instructed us to turn around and head back, which we dutifully did.  Had I been closely following my cue sheet, I would have said, “Now see here, miss, the instructions clearly state to turn left onto Marshall Drive.  Why are you telling us to turn around?”  Sadly, I had not been following my cue sheet closely.  Everything had been going smoothly and the ride officials were everywhere telling us where to turn.  Inexplicably, this one gave us incorrect information.  Possibly, she had us confused with the Family Fun Ride.  I don’t know what their route was, but they were definitely mingled in with us at this point.

This is becoming a bit of a tradition for me – a major navigational error on a ride, usually due to no fault of my own.  I’ve been on four rides this year and three have had this sort of issue.  Thank you, DC Randonneurs, for being the exception to this rule.

As I pedaled back up North Meade Street, I could see the monument and wondered how we were going to reach it.  When we were subsequently directed BACK onto the road leading to the bridge, I knew we were not where we should be.  A confused gaggle of about 50 riders began to build up at a point where oncoming cyclists blocked the path to the bridge.  We compared notes.  Some had already done the full ride and were heading to the finish.  Others were on the Family Ride.  Still others were like us, wanting to do the Full Ride but horribly off course.

What we needed to do was turn around, go back up a short but steep hill, and get to the monument.  When I explained this to my wife, I could see the figurative wind leave her figurative sails.  We agreed to simply head back with the others.  Even this was a challenge as there was no ride marshal to direct us on the DC side of the bridge.  We followed the riders in front of us, who chose poorly and we ended up in the middle of DC traffic on very open roads.  Fortunately, it was still early on a Sunday and the danger was minimal.  I could easily handle these streets but it was not the sort of experience I wanted for my wife, who chooses to ride on sidewalks in our suburban neighborhood in order to avoid traffic.

The Finish

After a few blocks, we found our way to the finish line, where there were ample amounts of food and drink.  We picked up our ride T-Shirts and tried to decide if we were happy.  We ended up riding 19.6 miles, which was still a personal best for my wife.  We got to see much of DC on closed roads, which was all we hoped it would be.  But we didn’t complete the course and that was very deflating.  I think my wife’s expression in the above photo captures the mood quite well.

And that concludes the Bike DC trip report.  This event was sponsored by the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA).  It is the third WABA event I have attended and all three have featured route confusion.  UPDATE:  Alert reader Liz P. points out that WABA does not run nor sponsor the event and merely is a beneficiary of a portion of the proceeds earned by it.  Riding in a major city is difficult and full of split-second navigational decisions.  I can see how it is easy to make an error, although having a ride marshal specifically take you off course is a level of difficulty I was not prepared for.  I think I will give WABA and downtown DC a rest and strike out for other places in the coming months/years.

Vasaloppet 2012

click for details

There were many more riders at this year’s Vasaloppet Ride, due primarily to the absence of a torrential downpour.  The temperature was in the upper 30s as I pedaled to the Swedish Embassy, colder than recent mornings but in keeping with a ride named after a Swedish cross-country ski race.  At the embassy, there were several hundred people milling about and chatting excitedly amongst themselves.  I overheard the Race Director say that only 40 people completed last year’s ride (thank you) despite having 600 registrants.  The ride was capped at 400 people this year in order to placate the DC Police Department.  140 people were signed up for the “Full Vasa” ride.

A bit gloomy at the start

The Honorary Ride Marshal and the Ride Director, performing their duties with aplomb

Shortly before 8:00 AM, we were directed to the starting line, where the Race Director made some comments over a bull horn, including an admonition to follow the rules of the road.  In short order, we were off, whereupon everybody immediately began to disobey the rules of the road.  Stop signs were routinely ignored, even with cars waiting to cross at side streets.  After a short stretch on the Capital Crescent Trail, we climbed up a cliff to MacArthur Boulevard, where the scofflaws took their art to a new level at red traffic lights.  You will be pleased to know Your Humble Author took no part in these shenanigans and even cast reproachful looks at cyclists who pedaled past him while properly stopped.  Sadly, the reproachful looks did not seem to have any discernable effect.

After a couple of miles, we cleared most of the traffic lights on MacArthur Boulevard and a nice paceline emerged, thanks in no small part to a man who rode up and down the length of the pack, putting us into line and exhorting us to keep on the wheel of the rider in front of us.  I was especially grateful for this paceline because we were heading into the wind and it cut through the resistance quite nicely at a speed of about 20 mph.  After eight miles of this, the paceline broke up on a serious ascent at the end of MacArthur Blvd.  We may have regrouped, but the first rest stop was waiting for us at the top of the hill and what was left of our hearty band disintegrated.

Incidentally, I wish I knew there was going to be a rest stop.  I wouldn’t have filled both my water bottles in advance, which would have reduced my load and also allowed me to partake in some of the free energy water they were passing out.  There weren’t any last year so I assumed things would be the same this time.  Lesson learned.

The humble abodes of Potomac, MD. I passed scores of homes like this.

With the temperature warming, I pulled off my cold weather gloves and swapped them with normal full finger gloves.  I felt very proud of myself for having thought to bring two sets of gloves, which just goes to show that it doesn’t take very much to make me proud of myself.  With no large gaggles of people leaving the rest stop when I wanted to go, I departed with a single partner – a gentleman from DC who had the ride cue sheet on his handlebars and exhibited an air which suggested he knew where he was going.  We chatted a bit, but mostly kept to ourselves, about 100 feet apart.  This gave me the opportunity to survey the palatial estates along Glen Road and South Glens Mill Road.  I was still two miles from the turnaround point when I came across the once-proud remnants of the MacArthur Blvd paceline.  There were only about six or seven left and they were now four miles ahead of me, meaning they had moved thirteen miles while I had covered only nine.  Pacelines are awesome.

I pulled into the halfway point – a convenience store at Mile 26.5 (which, I know, is not quite half way) and purchased a banana for a snack.  Sitting at a picnic table, I attempted to memorize the next several directions from my cue sheet:

  • Turn right on S. Glenn Rd at Mile 29.7
  • Turn right  on Falls Rd at Mile 31.4
  • Left into the Wegmans parking lot for refreshments at Mile 32.0
  • Left on Oaklyn Dr. at Mile 33.0
  • Cross Persimmon Tree Rd and Oaklyn turns into Bradley Rd

And so on and so forth.  There were a total of 46 separate instructions for this 58 mile course, which is something like 25 instructions per mile (or at least it seemed so at the time).

Having failed miserably at my memorization task, I stowed my cue sheet in my jersey pocket and set out alone for the return trip.  I came across a handful of riders along the way, each with a cheery hello as I passed them (or they passed me).  Slowly, the traffic increased as I moved from the outskirts of the city into its heart.  I reached Bethesda at Mile 42 and this is where everything went wrong.

Bethesda. Not the best place to ponder a cue sheet.

I need to figure out a system for displaying a cue sheet.  Touring cyclists usually have a nifty bag on their front fork with the cue sheet displayed under a plastic screen.  Other, less elaborate, systems include placing the sheet in a sandwich bag and clipping said bag to your bike cables and/or handlebar.  My system – shoving the sheet in my jersey pocket – was not terribly efficient, especially in a jam like the one I found myself in at Bethesda.  The traffic was quite heavy and the instructions were quite intricate – something like, “turn right on Bethesda Road.  There, you will see an old man with a dog.  Take the first left turn 100 feet beyond the dog dish.”

Capital Crescent Trail

It wasn’t quite that bad, but it was bad enough to fool myself and another rider (whose cue sheet storage strategy was to fold the sheet into a small square and bite on it).  We eventually found ourselves in a flea market and several helpful vendors pointed us in the right direction – back where we came from.  We made our way to the Capital Crescent Trail (CCT) and then we were looking for an exit to Jones Mill Road, which was to come after we crossed Connecticut Avenue “with the traffic signal.”  Sadly, we did not see a traffic signal nor an exit for Jones Mill Road.  When we stopped a passer-by on the trail and asked for help, we learned we had once again overshot our turning point.  This event was feeling less like a bike ride and more like a scavenger hunt.  My fellow traveler had had enough and opted to take the CCT straight back to the embassy.  Not interested in attempting to navigate the streets of Northwest DC by myself, I chose to bail out as well.

Interestingly, this is precisely the same point in last year’s ride when my companions decided they wanted to bail out.  I guess a detailed route study of Bethesda is in order if I hope to not become lost next year.  Fortunately, my cue sheet was not destroyed by rain this time, so I can study it closely and avoid similar mishap next year.

Blueberry Soup Line

Back at the embassy, there was a nice after party going, with the embassy staff serving hot blueberry soup while wearing t-shirts which said, “Hug A Swede.”  Cute.  There were plenty of “war stories” being swapped by the ride participants both inside the embassy and along its steps.  It had turned out to be a sunny day and the somewhat warm temperature was welcome.

Soup and the Madone.

There are some buds on that tree!

Coming up short is something I prefer not to do, so I made it my business to knock out the remaining eight miles of distance on my own “unofficial” finish.  I pedaled onto the National Mall and took in the sites.  I’ve visited many cities, but Washington, DC remains my favorite.  I was surprised to see most of the Mall engulfed in a colossal four-mile long construction project.  The reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial is being rebuilt while a brand new pool is being constructed at the opposite end near the capital.  Something else incredibly large is being done to the grounds near the WWII Memorial behind construction walls that make it impossible to see.

The Madone in front of the Capitol

I did a brief experiment on this part of the trip.  I attempted to make the ride up to the Capitol on walking paths, rather than compete with city traffic.  After two miles of fighting sight seers, joggers, and pedestrians of all types, I could take no more and hit the city street.  This was very exhilarating and far less of a hassle.  This was tempered with the knowledge that Death stalked my every move, waiting for a mistake.  On this day, I was mistake-free and I made it to The Capitol and back to the Lincoln Memorial without incident.  A quick spin around Haynes Point got me over the 60-mile mark and I called it a day.

I have mixed feelings about the Vasaloppet.  It was fun to get out on an organized ride and start the “official” part of the year.  This event serves notice to me that Winter is over and Spring has begun.  The volunteers were great and the House of Sweden was an excellent host.  Still, attempting to navigate while fighting through city traffic or sharing the CCT with a gazillion pedestrians was less than thrilling.  It really isn’t possible to compare the pace of this ride with any other due to the frequent stops due to traffic.  Having done this two years in a row, it may be time for me to take a break from it.