Friday, January 16, 2015

Exercise is a drug

This is not news to a lot of you: exercise acts like an antidepressant and stress reliever. Those of us who have experimented with a variety of forms of self medication will have figured out that exercise needs to be managed like a drug.

Setting aside the addictive substances famous for monopolizing users' lives, your lifestyle enhancers, legal and illegal, all create a cushion effect in which the user requires more of whatever it is to reach the desired level of whatever you're going for, whether it's mellow relaxation or euphoric energy.

Coincidentally, exercise can provide both of those, whereas most mere substances specialize in one part of the energy spectrum. But I digress.

The experienced user will know that occasional periods of abstinence improve the effect of "the stuff" when its use is resumed. In training we call these abstinence periods "rest days." Yep. You're just managing your habit so you get more high on less stuff. At the same time, hard-core exercisers may be using other substances to improve their performance, particularly if they've been sucked into the competitive side. That complicates their equation, but it need not complicate yours. Racing is the best way to turn any fun activity into a neurosis. A little is educational. A lot can make you delusional.

When I first took up the 30-mile commuting day I would ride 50-80 at least one day a week and try to mix up the pace a bit on other days to make 30 seem shorter. I don't remember when I ate and slept. I know I did. I had been a racer, so devotion to distance seemed normal. If you want to ride more, ride more.

When long and longer rides don't fit the schedule, you have to shorten some days. The Schedule has a way of eating away riding time. As long as the habitual exerciser maintains the basal level necessary to function, the mind and body absorb the fluctuations. And when circumstances taper riding down to zero, the gradual process takes care of detox and withdrawal. Or so it seems.

Schedule and circumstances brought me to zero a month and a half ago. Once you reach zero it's really easy to go a day at a time through weeks and weeks. The thing that got me into transportation cycling in the first place was the knowledge that if you don't put exertion right in front of yourself, between you and whatever you want next, you'll probably walk past it. Or more likely drive past it.

Have you ever been so completely exhausted that you could feel the energy you get from every breath and feel it leave you with every exhalation? You will only reach that point if you have to stay awake for some compelling reason. In my case it was usually a road trip. Back when gas was cheap and hotel rooms were dear, and I had no money anyway, I would drive straight through to wherever I was going, whether it was four hours away or 24. If I absolutely couldn't go on I would pull off and sleep in the car for a while.

Hotel rooms are still expensive. I hate shelling out for what's basically just a bed and a bathroom I'll use for eight hours or less. I can sleep as well in my car as I can in some overpriced roadside fleabag. At least in my car I know who raised the fleas. But I digress again.

A body habituated to exercise, that has been deprived of it to where real deterioration has set in, will react to the faintest breath of it they way that exhausted driver does, rousing on the inhale and nodding off again on the exhale.

My ordinary activities do require a certain amount of exertion in the winter. I have to split some firewood nearly every day, and carry loads of it twice a day. When snow falls I have to shovel, sweep and snowblow it from the area around the house and garage. But that never creates the sustained rhythm that generates the surge of well-being you get from regular riding, running, walking or cross-country skiing.

On Thursday I had a Dutch three-speed on the stand. I was running the Sachs Torpedo hub through its gears and laughing over the name "Sachs Torpedo." Wanna see my Sachs Torpedo? It does not provide a handy adjustment window like a Sturmey Archer or Shimano hub. You have to go by more subtle indicators. Sheldon Brown and Sutherland's were my guide.

Because the parking lot was finally clear and the weather was reasonably mild, I could take the bike out for a test ride. When I muckled onto it to left it down from the stand, the erector muscles on either side of my spine clamped down in a spasm. The wages of inactivity. I set the bike down without dropping it and dropped into a couple of stretches to relax the knots. Once the pain settled down to a dull ache and spread across my whole back I carried the bike down to do the test ride. When I came back in I ran through the warmup exercises from a tai chi class I took years ago. I don't remember anything else, but the warmup set loosens up arms, back and shoulders really well.

At home that night I lay on the living room floor to do some deeper stretches. I used to stretch a lot. While no one would be impressed with my contortions compared to a real professional human pretzel, I did have pretty good flexibility. Not anymore. But I did manage to roll and unroll my spine a few times and then run through another set of tai chi warmups. The feeling afterward compared closely to the way I would feel after a much more vigorous workout and longer stretching session back when I did those several times a week instead of a few times a year.

A body that had never exercised, or never been pushed to the high-intensity dilettante level that I used to maintain would not have gotten the same bounce. One thing you learn about getting high is to recognize the symptoms of being high.

A little does not go a long way. The lift is palpable, but brief, barely longer than the lift of a single breath in that deep exhaustion I talked about. If I don't get some sort of routine going I will fall further and further into the pit of lard, lethargy and despair that is modern industrialized life. Enough time passes and even the hack athlete forgets what power lies within. Even longer and the power itself is essentially gone. We all lose it eventually, but you can give it up much sooner.

Friday, January 02, 2015

More from the menu of fat.

The fat bikes we ordered from SE last spring finally arrived. At  $899 they stretch the definition of affordable a bit, but they offer a lot for the money. These are 2014 models. The 2015s list for  $1089. Once they pass the  $1,000 mark they need to stand up to other strong, established models in the fat genre. But at $899 they can still play on price.

First of all, congrats on concise naming. F@. Get it?

Componentry is impressive out of the box: triple crank, hydraulic disc brakes, two water bottle mounts, burly rack bosses, double wall rims, outboard BB bearings and real replaceable chainrings. Also, before you install the stupid wheel reflectors the wheels themselves are very musical. Ting that brake rotor and the whole thing rings like a gong. I tried to record it with my phone, but its microphone did not capture the depth and complexity of the sound.

So far we have built up a Surly Moonlander, a regular Surly Pugsley or two, the Framed Minnesota 1.0 and two of these SE F@ bikes. My impression after test riding was that the Surly models rode surprisingly normally. The Framed bike felt kind of sluggish. The SE feels quite agile around the indoor test track. This is not just a joke. To clear the corners without knocking over a ski rack, a row of comfort bikes or a display of assorted sports paraphernalia, a bike has to be stable but responsive.

I still can't justify the acquisition. But if someone else wants to, here's a good option.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Training to be "not a cyclist"

Those of us who can't just light up a cigarette, push up the kickstand with our fashionably booted foot and zip off on our latest short-hop errand in all seasons have to keep our engines in shape even if we don't nurture competitive urges. We have to train.

Even an inanimate engine holds up better when it gets run occasionally. And when the engine is muscle it really deteriorates if it sits idle. When the riding season is limited and the distances are long, you have to tune the engine somehow.

The cellist has been home for the holidays. As soon as she got over highway fatigue she dug out her fixed-gear and suited up for a spin on one of the mild days we've been having. When I got a couple of days off we went out together. The days are their shortest, but just barely beginning to lengthen.

These outings used to feel heroic. Since I gave up on my legend it's harder to feel justified going out on a bike ride to nowhere in particular just for the exercise. But I know I'll wish I had.

Yesterday I shot a video on one of the climbs, illustrating two techniques, Stitch and Grunt.
I'm Stitching. The cellist is Grunting. The Stitcher has to keep an eye and ear out for traffic, but the rhythm appeals to me. I'm basically indolent, and stitching is less work than grunting. I grunt on the last bit because it's too close to the blind hill crest to keep crossing the lanes.

A little farther along we got to a nice fast stretch.
The fixed gears make you pedal the whole way. The single gear limits your speed, which is good for controlling wind chill as much as you can. You get a lot of value for your time. This is important when the weather is uncomfortable or dangerous.

Today the temperature was in the teens in the morning. It was still around 20 when I headed out alone. The cellist has a lot to do to prepare for her return to Maryland.

About three miles down the road I saw a small sedan stopped in the oncoming lane. In front of it was what looked like a lump of dirty snow. It was a small cat that had been tagged by a car, which had sped on. The occupants of the sedan had stopped and called the police. I stopped, called the cellist for a cat carrier and blankets and then called our vet. But it turned out that the police were going to take the kitty to the same vet, and have the advantage of police markings and flashing lights. We wrapped the cat in a blanket and placed it carefully in the warm back seat of the police SUV.

I held out some hope for the animal because it was sitting up, meowing, rather than lying there with insides hanging out. There was blood, but not a lot of it, and its limbs felt intact when I lifted it in its swaddling. I had petted it while we waited, slowly moving a warm hand down its back. I could feel it purring, which they do to soothe themselves when sick or injured. It was still engaged in being a cat.

I rode back to intercept the cellist and tell her how things had worked out. She had gotten out of the house too quickly for me to get her by phone as the whole thing was evolving. I thought about just going home, but I went on instead. These were going to be my last miles of 2014, for whatever that's worth.

It was definitely more like winter out there. I had gotten a little chilled while attending to the wounded. I rode hard to generate heat. At least the wind had gone down. I tooled dutifully through my old faithful 15-mile loop and home to a warm shower and some food.

Hard to say what happens next in the training department. I'll do a lot, including just say screw it and drink beer, to avoid spending too much time on a stationary trainer. The Wolfeboro Cross-Country Ski Association is making snow on a two-kilometer loop. I might just have to take my headlamp off the bike helmet and put it back on its headband for some laps of night skiing. We only just got the cold weather, so that won't be ready for a few days.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The strangest debris

The weirdest stuff to tumble out of the insulation in the workshop ceiling during the recent deluge has been these pasta wheels.
I keep finding them, one or two at a time. Right after I picked these off the floor I found another one.

We're guessing mice had concealed them in nests up there. I don't think any of the holes in the floor would have allowed them to pass from the many digestive disturbances we had to hear over the years. Or, for that matter, the ones we would not have heard because they occurred outside business hours.

Best not to think about it.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Shimano temporarily made a good touring shoe (maybe)

Someone sent me a link to what seemed to him like a good touring shoe by Giro. It looked okay, but on the same page I saw something that was as close to a real old-style touring shoe as you're going to find these days.

Meet the Shimano SH-UT70. Closeouts are all over the world of e-commerce. 

You're not going to find a walkable shoe without a place for SPD cleats. The cover for this one at least looks firmly secured.

I'm always afraid to point out when Shimano makes a good product because then they'll notice and kill it. It's like in King Lear (Act III Scene VII) where Gloucester's loyal servant points out that he still has one eye left. Cornwall takes care of that in a hurry. "Out, vile jelly!"

Yeah, I was a friggin' English major. Certainly explains a lot about my financial struggles.

Go to Shimano's consumer site and they've never heard of it, because it's not in the lineup for 2015, but apparently it was out there for a couple of years. The Duke of Cornwall has already squished it.

A really good toeclip-friendly touring shoe needs a tapered toe without bulky bumpers. It needs a sole without a thick rand coming up around the sides of the shoe. It needs a stiff sole, but not a thick sole. It should have laces rather than a rail yard of Velcro or ratchet straps. The UT70 has all of that. It looks a lot like really old-school leather cycling shoes that died out in the early 1980s with the rise of step-in road pedals.
My brother, who has one weird leg, found he could not use this pair of old Dettos I gave him back when they weren't that old. He returned them to me. I might glue some rubber strips to the sole to improve walking traction and use them for summer day tours on the classic steel road steed.

Some day I will have to do a weight comparison between a light leather shoe like this, or one of its mesh-upper heirs with an alloy-cage pedal and a toe strap, and a reinforced shoe for step-in pedals along with a mid-grade step-in pedal. By now, of course, exotic materials have brought the weight down on the step-in systems. But I bet there was a time in the middle of the evolution of shoes and pedals when there was no weight advantage at all with the step-in system.

In racing the two times toes straps were inconvenient were at the start of a race when a whole peloton was trying to clip in at once, and just before an attack, when racers would check to make sure their straps were tight. Nowadays they check to make sure their shoes are tight. And nothing warns them if their cleats are a bit run down and are going to pop out under the explosive load of a sprint. Woo Hoo! We goin' DOWN! SMACK! SCRAAAAAPE! Human crayon. Massive pileup. And a whole peloton fishing around for the cleat interface isn't a whole lot smoother than a whole bunch trying to flip up their toeclips and snug the straps. The step-in is slightly more convenient because it's hands-free, but no one talks about the other costs. It's another thing that isolates The Cyclist from regular people who ride bikes and want to blend efficiency with off-bike functionality.

If you choose to use a toothy pedal cage and no strap system you will want a thicker shoe sole made of material soft enough to allow the pedal cage to bite in, but not so soft that the cage chews the sole away too quickly. All this has been covered extensively by far more revered experts well before my humble observations. I mention it because I like to cover a topic thoroughly.

Take away the strap and you no longer have to shun bulky rands and toe bumpers. That does not mean such details are really useful, only that they are no longer an inconvenience. Personally, I don't believe that every casual shoe has to look like some kind of hiking boot.

Friday, December 19, 2014

A mess of unreliable Styrofoam

This morning's park and ride started out promisingly enough. The dirt road had thawed and frozen numerous times, creating such continuous bumps that the video I shot is basically unwatchable. But it was firm and fairly fast.

I figured with heavy snow to end November and a couple of fresheners on top of it that the local snowmobilers would have been up and down the Cotton Valley Trail, packing it to concrete. We've had a lot of warm and wet weather as well, but the snow was so dense and the sun is so weak that the cover is still thick and durable in most places. If past snow seasons were any guide, the motorheads should have been out with the enthusiasm and loud buzzing of the first mosquitoes of springtime.

I figured wrong. The Cotton Valley Trail had one set of ATV tracks on it, making a pair of awkwardly spaced ruts down through the crunchy, collapsible snowpack. The ruts were each too narrow to ride in. Only a little wobble and I would catch the edge. The center wouldn't support my weight,...except when it would. The center was also narrow enough that my waggles as I tried to grunt my way down the unpacked snow would dump me into one of the ruts again.

I dismounted and tried running with the bike for a while, to see if conditions improved. They did not. I turned and ran the bike back to the paved road so I could grind my way back up to the car.

I'm not sure a fat bike would have fared much better. The stiff, crunchy snow would provide plenty of support, but the ATV ruts would be just as much of a nuisance. The fat tires might even make it worse, being more prone to catch the sides. I don't have access to a fat bike to test it, so I have no way to be sure. Because fat bikes have become something of a status symbol, I fear reviews will have at least a bit of bias. I prefer to do my own testing and draw my own conclusion.

I would not commute on anything that did not have lights and fenders. The already bulky fat bike becomes even more cartoonish when you start accessorizing. And then there's the expense, especially for a set of studded tires. It might extend the commuting season considerably, but the big challenge to the park and ride has always been the park more than the ride. If I'm going to ride all the way from home I might as well use one of the bikes I already have.  And I'm not going to ride all the way from home in the dark and the iciness with a bunch of half-hibernating drivers.

The ultimate utility bike would be a fat bike with an alternate set of wheels set up for wide 700c tires. But you'd still have to choose which set to mount that day. You could carry the alternate set along, but that goes way beyond ridiculous.

All the shenanigans on the bike meant that I did not get to work until after the Three Stooges had broken a light fixture in our clothing department and showered more debris down on the workshop as they smashed up a couple of bathtubs with sledgehammers. The rest of the day was pretty quiet.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The aftermath

The workshop looked serene enough after Monday's chaos.

There was this pile of insulation,

This full trash barrel,

This jumble of rental skis, 

The upended rental ski rack, aka the lobster trap,

And the floor looking -- believe it or not -- cleaner than usual.

A faint tinge of a funky brown reek hangs in the air. Much of the wood in this building is more than a century old. The newer stuff has still absorbed grunge for many decades.

The crew from upstairs carried away the pile of insulation and the trash barrel today. They seem thoughtful and chastened.

I'm really glad we don't have gas lines up there. I'm pretty sure we don't, anyway.