Thursday, March 31, 2022

Train like a pro

 In 1980 I was somewhat sketchily employed and had a chance to ride regularly with a sponsored "amateur" bike racer. While he did not receive a direct salary for riding, he had reached a high enough level that he was able to ride as if it was his job.

During the spring and summer he was often around Annapolis. He welcomed company on his long, easy days, and on many of his interval training days, the pattern of effort and recovery allowed a few riders far below his level to play along anyway. When he had something really serious to do, he generally did it somewhere else, with riders in his category.

Because he had to ride, but he had complete control over his schedule, he mostly rode in the nicest part of every day, if the day actually had a nice part. I did go with him on one rainy day, for hours, getting steadily more soaked and gritty, but for the most part we went when the air was mild, and the gentle sun shone just enough through perfect puffy clouds -- or so it seems in memory. He did say that he preferred to train during his highest energy level, which was the heart of the day. It was a pretty seductive life. Eat well, sleep well, ride a lot, tune your bike...

He did have an obligation to perform in return for this indulgence. I got a small closeup of it one day when the group wanted to go long and mellow, but he needed to do a time trial effort to prepare for a race. I went with him when he peeled off to do this on the way back to Annapolis from south of town. We were on Route 2, for anyone who remembers what that was like in 1980, with the classic Chesapeake southerly wind behind us. He accelerated steadily to top gear as I stayed an inch off his wheel, as he had taught us. Then he pulled left so that I could ride through on the inside to take a turn at the front.

I felt like a flag in a gale. I clawed my way past him, with a bit of shelter as he dropped back. He looked down at my bike.

"You've got two bigger gears," he said.

I knew that, but I was finding out that they were mostly decorative. I shifted into them and promptly roasted my legs. I lasted about seven seconds out there before he pulled through. We tried to switch off a couple of times after that before he just told me to stay back and hang on.

There's a reason that the time trial is called "The Race of Truth."

That day offered a rare chance to see a tougher part of the process. When I was in an actual race with him, the district road championships, I saw him depart on his breakaway with a couple of other riders, and saw him no more until we were back at the parking lot when it was over. He had a job to do. I was just playing.

I think of those days now as I try to train up for commuting season more than 500 miles north of central Maryland. I try to ride in the nicest part of the day, but with a regular job, and with early season niceness often less nice, for shorter periods, I'm out there with a cold wind leaning on me on the few days when I have the option to ride when it suits me. Even so, I find it easier to dress for a slog in the frigid gale than for stationary riding in a room that is too warm and too cold at the same time.

After a lackluster winter, we're told to expect a cold spring. Once I get into the commute, the ride time is set and the weather just comes along with it. The nicest part of the day often takes place outside the shop windows in the middle of the work day and is gone by the time I head out into the chilling evening.

Bike riding is seen as a hobby and an indulgence in this country, but for me it has been a vital part of a life less reliant on fossil fuels, and more conducive to physical fitness -- not for vanity, but for the ability to live more economically within humanity's global family budget. It has also helped me to survive on really pathetic paychecks by reducing my transportation expenses. If I could go back to living without a car, I would. However, by the time our urban areas are redesigned actually to support the workforce, I will be a very old man, or the decomposing remains of one. So for now I indulge myself in rural surroundings, and push my rusty old car through the seasons when transportation cycling is not practical in this climate.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Train your customers to reject simplicity

 Another breathless article about the "advanced" features that some bike brand or other might be slopping over onto more and more models illustrates the evolution of bicycles from vehicles of personal independence into vehicles of technological dependence.

A certain percentage of bike users will learn to work on them, regardless of how complicated and temperamental the mechanisms get. These riders will feel independent for as long as they can maintain their investment in tools and time. But it reminds me of people I know who work on their own cars, but who don't own a real auto garage with lifts and compressed air, and some level of machining capability. Those drivers have to make arrangements of various kinds to use a shared facility that they have to go to at the available time. The less of a workshop a given rider has, the more that rider will need to pay for a facility in which to work or someone to do the work.

The latest article on "improvements" in bike spec reported on the steady retreat of rim brakes in favor of disc brakes. This goes along with the overall weight gain among certain categories, as electric motors are added. Motor vehicles need more powerful brakes that impart the braking force more centrally, but that comes with several costs. A brake light enough to be carried on a chronically under-powered vehicle (even with electric assistance) will have relatively small brake pads that have to be replaced frequently, if you can find them in stock. Brake rotors are more prone to deteriorate when the bike sits idle, compared to your aluminum rim. Disc brake calipers are full of little crevices in which water and dirt can brew up mischief. Hydraulics complicate disassembly.

I could go on, and I have been known to. Suffice to say that bike maintenance is ever more the province of a professional mechanic with a lifestyle to maintain, as well as his or her shop full of expensive tools that have to be constantly updated, because manufacturers like to squeeze money out of them, too. To the consumer, that means steadily rising prices and a hunt for really good mechanics, akin to what we have gone through for years trying to keep cars on the road.

Key to this progression has been the ongoing campaign by the bike industry to get customers to scorn simplicity and embrace complexity in the name of performance. Niche riders are most susceptible to this. Triathletes want the most sinuous steeds that slice the wind. Mountain bikers want bikes that serve their specific interest, which seldom means pedaling up a hill. Just as alpine skiers don't ski up the Alps, mountain bikers aren't interested in climbing for its own sake. To be fair, how many of us who pedal are truly interested in climbing for its own sake? But still, it used to be a respected skill for a complete rider. But beyond the allergy to strenuous aerobic efforts, the mountain biking community also has come to depend on the suspension technologies that allow them to bomb down their trails without picking their way among obstacles that can't simply be launched over.

The varieties of unpaved trail surfaces and degrees of slope have led to very specific subsets of mountain bikes, each more than $1,000 (at least) to purchase, and costing hundreds of dollars a year to maintain properly. Or you do what most riders do, and ignore problems until the machine simply won't go anymore, and then either dig into it yourself or dump it on your chosen expert.

A thousand bucks ain't what it used to be. I've had a theory since the 1970s that the real driver of all economic fluctuations is the price of gas. By gas I include diesel. Motor vehicle fuel, anyway. The basis of all currency is the petrodollar. Right now, for instance, Americans are all freaked out that gasoline is over $4 a gallon. Back when I started driving, and gasoline was 28 cents a gallon, I had to endure the horrifying spectacle of it doubling in price within a couple of years. By the end of the 1970s it had topped one dollar! Eek! So either gas prices drift down again or everyone gets used to it as all other pricing adjusts to make it normal. Workers' wages will still lag. The rich will get richer. The international situation will be desperate as usual.

The fact that a widespread adoption of simple bikes for transportation would have headed all this off in the 1970s isn't even worthy of academic consideration. The "ten-speed boom" started a little social movement, and the mountain bike boom drove it off the road. It turned cycling back into a consumerist hobby.

As factors combine to give transportation cycling and other riding on the public streets some leverage, it also depends on the expense and complexity of electric assistance to exert that leverage. All of these technologies have their place, but it's in addition to older, simpler machines, not instead of them. Soon, very soon, I will pump up the tires on the old fixed-gear and start riding again. It's that simple. Each bike in turn as I need it comes down off its hook, gets dusted off, tires checked, and off I go. There's not much to go wrong with a simple machine. It won't suck money out of you relentlessly.