Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Cold

Friday morning's dawn patrol was much more comfortable at 26 degrees than the previous one had been at 36. The air mass was drier. The pavement had dried. Mud and wet sand had frozen like pavement. And there wasn't enough surface water to have made ice a serious navigational hazard.

Sub-freezing temperatures with a breeze called for more layers of clothing, better gloves and something over my ears, but nothing out of control. It was a much more pleasant ride. Too bad the day didn't turn out as well, but I'm here to look forward to tomorrow morning's ride. If all goes well and I work at it, I could get 4000 miles for the year. It isn't much, but it's a round number.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Finding the Time

This time of year, if I don't ride to work I have to ride first thing in the morning before work. That means I either have to roll out of bed straight onto the bike or as close to it as possible. If I miss by more than a few minutes, I'll be noticeably late to work.

I've never been passionately addicted to punctuality. Those who know me may now laugh. Yes, I'm known for the opposite. But I do try to hit a time slot, if not a dot. Too late and even I think of myself as late.

On the other hand, if I go too many days without exercising I will kill somebody. So it seems a small price to pay, dragging in a little later than usual, in return for a sunnier attitude.

Sunny is relative, of course. My favorite clothing color is black. But the druids considered black the color of life and white the color of death. So there. I'm mister black sunshine.

This morning, riding was work. Overnight rain had left wet roads and temperatures around 36 F. The damp cold coming in met my sweat moving out and joined forces to chill me progressively throughout the hour. Not even the constant effort of the fixed gear generated enough heat to warm and dry me. I knew I wasn't going to die of any of it, but the endless clamminess made me glad I wasn't going to spend a night out in it.

It's over now. I reap the benefits this afternoon. I have more energy. It doesn't make work any more interesting, but I can nurse the hope that I'll do something worthwhile with my evening. I got the ride out of the way. It had to be done.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Ride Long and Prosper

I love my Sport Hill clothing. It’s wonderfully effective, and a lot of it crosses over well between cycling and cross-country skiing. I just wish it didn’t look so much like Star Trek uniforms.

My Pursuit II top, in black and red, comes from the Sport Hill: The Next Generation collection.

I don’t know if they did anything in Deep Sports Nine. But they do have a Voyage Pant. A sly homage to Voyager by chance? And they have a Nomad Pant. Nomad was a poor, confused little space probe in the very first series, who had decided its mission was to sterilize (i.e. destroy) anything it deemed impure. Get real. What in this cockeyed universe isn’t at least somewhat impure?

If Sport Hill styled things this way on purpose, maybe they’d appreciate someone noticing. If it was an accident, maybe they’d appreciate someone pointing it out. And I guess it’s okay in any case. I’m just sick of getting the Vulcan salute when I run into Trekkies and I’m in my chilly weather garb.

Competitive Commuting

Real bike racing is hard, dangerous and exhilarating. It’s also expensive. It’s hard to stay active in the sport. But the lessons learned there transfer very well to transportation.

In a bike race, a whole lot of vehicles of similar capability charge around a course, shooting for the same objectives. There we all are, jostling and elbowing, attacking and counterattacking. Everyone wants to win. Someone’s bound to go down.

On the street, you’re not competing as directly. Believe it or not, you are safer in traffic than you are in a bike race. Racing motorized behemoths, the bike has the advantage in agility. We all know the car is bigger, faster and stronger, so we’re not competing on that basis. That leaves the cyclist free to work to his (or her) strengths without worrying about the ultimate test of power one frequently faces in a race.

Sporty cornering and strong climbing are good traffic skills. Strength barely adequate to even the amateur peloton will still surprise the motoring public with your ability to hang in there. You will have more confidence and enjoy the ride more if you take a bit of a racing attitude, filtered through a sense of humor and humility. Practice those handling skills.

Read the traffic to decide where you should be. When the cars are stopped or crawling, you can move up beside or between them, but resist the temptation to lord it over them by zipping by in a blur. They’re big, unpredictable creatures that could fling out an appendage without warning. Observe how they fill the lane. Use the spaces available, left, right and center, to ease forward, ready at any moment to stop or turn.

When your comfortable cruising speed matches traffic speed, take the lane and work with the vehicles around you.

Pilot Fish Technique takes a tip from the fish of the same name, a stripy little guy that accompanies big sharks. The pilot fish rides the shark’s pressure waves to save energy (drafting) and uses the space other creatures give the big fish to slip by unmolested. Just remember not to get bitten by your own protector, and don’t fall off the pressure wave.

The cyclist pilot fish rides near the bigger vehicle, usually off one rear corner. It’s actually better if the driver does not know you’re there, because most drivers don’t know how to be helpful to a cyclist anyway. Really, the best thing they can do is drive as if you weren’t there, because you are completely responsible for your own safety. Watch their brake lights and turn signals, but remember bulbs maybe burnt out and the driver may swerve without a signal. You have to decide for yourself whether you and your shark are traveling at a safe speed.

The shark can lead you through intersections, avoiding the danger of someone yanking a left turn in front of you. You can use the shark as cover for your own left turns, if you find one going your way.

Avoid riding right next to your shark, where you can’t see its signal lights and you can’t get away from a sudden turn or an abrupt dive into a parking space.

At higher speeds, use the column of moving air created by traffic to get at least a partial draft. Confirmed car chasers can draft tightly behind motor vehicles, but the danger here is obvious. Big, boxy vehicles pull the most air. Loaded trucks are less likely to stop abruptly. Just give at least a passing thought to all the things that could go wrong before tucking yourself into the pocket for a little steel surfing. Some piece of debris could come shooting out from under that truck’s rear axle and be the last thing you see before you drive your face into the pavement.
It’s wicked fun, though. Woof woof.

Back 'n' Up

Night riding on mixed surfaces has made me notice a few things about riding position.

I like to sprawl on top of my road bike, with a long cockpit and a low back. My eyeballs practically migrate up my forehead by the end of the season.

I know a more upright position works better off-road. When I ride the Cross Check on rougher trails I wish I’d set things up that way. But most of the time I’m commuting on faster terrain, in daylight.

Darkness adds a new element. For the night commutes I just put on a slightly higher-rise, shorter reach stem, to bring me back and up.

In daylight, peripheral vision around the entire eye, top and bottom as well as side, provides a lot of information you might take for granted. Night cuts that off, as vision is restricted to the patch of light thrown by the headlights. I find I want to bring the center of my visual field closer to the outer end of the light patch, especially on the unpaved bike path. That means I keep pushing myself back, trying to sit up more. Average speed is lower in the dark, so a more upright position does not have as much impact on aerodynamics.

Two-bolt bar clamps make stem changes easy enough to become a routine part of seasonal adjustment. The bike doesn’t feel that different on the road, so I may just leave it that way.

The Forgotten Muscles Remind You

One form of exercise always seems to lead to another. When I started cycling a lot in the late 1970s, the cycling-related parts of the body grew stronger. Other parts of the body soon reminded me that they needed attention, too.

Many cyclists experience neck and shoulder pain, and other discomforts. Once the bike is properly fitted, the rider needs to put some effort into strengthening the supporting muscle groups to help avoid problems there.

My program is simple and cheap. It uses free weights and standard exercises to provide a minimal level of conditioning for a commuting or recreational cyclist. If you want to get more elaborate, go ahead. A hard-core, high mileage rider in a racing or near-racing group will probably want more. But most of us can benefit from a concise routine we can fit into a tight schedule.

I know my system works because I can feel the difference when I don’t do it. This summer I let it slide and was able to get by on residual strength until quite late in my normal season. But then I developed neck problems. The neck pain comes and goes. It has many causes, from accumulated injuries over the years to tucking a telephone or a violin under there. I’m far, far better on the telephone than on the violin, but I continue to throw myself at the challenge of learning some kind of musical instrument before I die. I won’t subject anyone to my results, fear not.

My off-bike conditioning frequently suffers during the height of the summer, when I have little time to do more than ride to work, work, and ride home, rest up and go back for the next day’s repair shop madness. Lacking some of the snap I had when I was comfortably far from 50, I just don’t hop out of bed and onto the weight bench at 0600 anymore. I dive into a deep mug of coffee, eat breakfast, pack lunch and stagger out onto the road. But enough excuses.

A different affliction seems to strike me each summer. One year it might be gritty knees. Another it might be back pain, upper or lower. Muscle aches in the neck are not uncommon, though this year’s pain has been distinctly different, of lower intensity, relating to how I hold my head or move it.

All neck pain has responded well to neck curls. The muscles of the back of the neck support the head in road cycling position. Unthinking medical practitioners and chiropractors suggest silly solutions like riding in a perfectly upright position, but that is not only aerodynamically inefficient, it is muscularly inefficient as well. Cure pains by a two-pronged approach, adjusting riding position a little and conditioning support muscles as well.

Neck curls strengthen the opposing muscles to the ones used and abused by long periods of cycling with a low back angle. When I do them on a regular basis, at least three days a week, preferably four or five, I have no neck pain. They’re much more helpful than neck extensions that try to strengthen the muscles of the back of the neck. I find those muscles are usually so strong already from supporting my head that I can’t come up with a good exercise to strengthen them further.

A few exercises for the triceps help build those supporting muscles. Balance these with curls for the biceps, just to even up the strain on the elbow. You don’t need a bulging beach muscle, just balanced strength. Round out the arm set with wrist curls and reverse wrist curls for the forearm.

Strengthen abdominal and lower back muscles to support your torso as you ride. This helps take weight and pressure off your hands, believe it or not, because you can tighten the muscle complexes around the lower abdomen and lower back to hold yourself up, rather than bounce around with your weight held completely by your crotch over the saddle and your hands on the bars. That sort of floppy-spine flailing will lead to back injuries.

Feel the effect of tightening the lower abs and back when you want to push a bigger gear or climb a hill while seated. It will square your hips over the saddle, avoiding some of the forward roll that leads to crotch discomfort. At the same time, it gives your quads a firmer foundation for the hard effort. After a while you will learn how much you need to tighten to get the optimal effect without burning those muscles so much that you actually lose energy through them.

For abdominals I do crunches on an inclined bench and leg lifts of various kinds. Choose the specific exercises you like. It doesn’t have to be exactly my way.

For the lower back I do rear leg raises and Good Mornings, a forward bow with weight plates held across the shoulders. Start with little or no weight and gradually add it. I do long sets with light weights or several shorter sets, 10 reps or so, for most of my exercises. It really doesn’t take much, and you don’t want to lug a lot of bulk around.

To reinforce a separated shoulder, I do lateral raises and front raises with small hand weights, just under 7 pounds each. In the separation of the acromioclavicular joint, the collarbone gets knocked off the top of the shoulder. This is what you get in a crash when the collarbone itself does not break.

For the curls, flat flies and pullovers on the bench, the weight bars themselves weigh 4.2 pounds, and I have 15 pounds of plates on them, for 19.2 total. I don’t need much, just enough toning to offset the wear and tear of the cycling, and a little fitness base for kayaking and the beginning of cross-country ski season.

To combat boredom, I don’t do all the crunches or leg raises at once. If you do sets of 10 or 15, interspersed with short sets of the other exercises, you can add up a significant total by the end, without having to endure an endless count.

If I get right to it and keep moving steadily, the whole routine takes about half an hour. If you don’t even have half an hour, you can split the routine, half in the morning, half in the evening, or slip in a set here and a set there to get it all into a day. Because it doesn’t use big weights and a lot of calculated-destruction lifting, the routine doesn’t demand a really thorough warmup, although you should always warm up somewhat. One benefit to the short sets is that you can ease into it with short sets of crunches and light lifts, with some stretching.

If I have more time, I get more into it. In the late fall, after easy biking ends, but before nordic skiing sets in, I’ll expand the weight program and other exercises to build the base for the transition to snow. But that’s another whole topic.