Monday, June 17, 2013

How to train for a century

5:00 am and the alarm is beeping. Swat it silent. Do math on night before. Kids wake during the night? How often? How long? How much better will my day be if this next hour is spent moving or sleeping? Hit alarm again.

Shamble out of bed, dig out jersey and shorts, find socks. Cell phone in ziploc bag to keep out grit and sweat. Bagged phone in center jersey pocket. Eat half banana, few gulps of water. Fill bottle.

5:20 am. Take bike from hook in wall. Check rear tire that always seems to be a bit low. Thirty seconds with the frame pump. If rain is possible, lash jacket to rear rack.

5:25 am and I'm caged in, checking for new squeaks or clunks. First stop sign is also a check on the weather. Find the wind, turn my head into it. I ride the headwind for half my time and take whatever roads look suitable, trying to remember each by name and last known condition. I'm often wrong, and gravel often changes.

I find new hills, new combinations of paved and gravel. The unending checkerboard pattern of roads mean that any A to B has numerous variations to suit mood and weather. I grind up hills and try to hang on on the way down, hear the tires humming on paved and spraying grit on the gravel. Pick my shifts carefully, reaching for the downtube just before the loose patches.

Turn away from the wind. The sun is up and the jacket is off. Reach down and turn off tail light. Check watch, maybe add a loop if time permits. Legs are starting to burn. Return to town. Maybe chase a car, maybe sit up.

6:30. Return. 15 miles or so in for the day. Time to clean up, eat, brew coffee to share with my love, kiss the kids goodbye, and start the day for the second time.

Monday, June 10, 2013

WOW in the wet

I am eastbound, cycling into a quartering crosswind, attempting to draft while avoiding the rooster tails of the others in my group. We're about 35 miles into a 50 mile ride. It has been raining since mile 5.

We pass a farm where a hog confinement is being unloaded into a waiting semi. In my life I have loaded thousands of trailers with tens of thousands of hogs. I know exactly how warm and dry it is inside that building.

I'd rather be out here.

The Wellness on Wheels ride is an annual charity ride that takes a loop through the north central part of Sioux County. Generally intended as a rec ride, the two lengths (35 and 50) also serve as training ride for local riders prepping for RAGBRAI. Climbing is minimal, and the ride is fully supported with food at three stops, and SAG wagons patrolling the route.

I arrived at the start about 6:15, where about dozen riders were signing in before the 6:30 departure (an 8:00 start was also available). Typically the ride draws about a hundred riders, but the 100% chance of rain kept many away.

I saw a few familiar faces, and after filling out the (I-won't-sue-if-I-get-struck-by-lightening) waiver forms, I joined up with a group of four and rolled out. Heading west out of town,  we were immediately confronted with a deep dark blue horizon that could only mean rain. Two of our group immediately announced that they had no intention of riding in the rain at all, and would turn around if (when) it began to rain. We were all dreading that first roll of thunder that would immediately end our ride.

As we approached our first turn (look for an ethanol plant) the first sprinkles began. True to their word, two of our group turned around and headed home. I suppose when one has been doing rides like these for decades, the need and desire to ride in the rain begins to fade.

The remaining two of us continued north. After riding together for a few miles through increasing rain, I jumped onto a passing group. We rolled into Rock Valley under light but steady rain. I dismounted and started heading for the cooler full of food. Then I learned that the group I was with was on the 35 mile loop, while a group just heading out was on the 50 mile route. I quickly remounted my bike and tagged onto the departing 50 mile group.

One of the reasons for wanting to do this ride was the chance to ride with experienced cyclists who would (among other things) hold me to a slower pace. All my training rides are around 16-19 mph, which I cannot sustain for more than 30 miles. I have finished every ride longer than 50 miles utterly wasted because I always start too fast. B sticking with a group, I hoped to hold a more sustainable pace.

As we exited Rock Valley, the rain increased. The group was mixed, including a cyclist who had never rode more than 40 miles before, and another who was preparing for her second cross country tour. We held to a 14-16 mph pace as we turned towards Doon, the second town on our ride. This leg was quite pleasant, spent most of it talking and getting to know the cyclists in the group.

By the time we reached Doon, we were all soaked through. We were the lead group for this route, and the person responsible for bringing food and water had not yet arrived. A few calls through ziploc bagged phones, and the food was on it's way. This part of the course actually looped out before returning to Doon, so we decided to head out and reload on food on the return trip. We hustled on out, motivated by the thought of something to eat, and our quickly chilling bodies during the brief minutes of the stop.

While riding, I actually was quite comfortable. The jacket I wore eventually became saturated and ceased to keep me from getting wet, but it still kept me from being cold, and a light pair of gloves kept my hands from going numb. The dynamics of the group helped as well. Say what you will about the people of NW Iowa (boring, too conservative, narrow minded, etc.) they're incredibly stoic when it comes to enduring bad weather. No complaints were heard. If a person decided to drop out, they said so, wished everyone else well, and headed home.

Two of our group decided to return to Rock Valley rather than continue. The remaining riders were the cross county rider, and a college prof on his first 50 mile ride. A crosswind began thrashing us with the rain, which continued to come down steady. We set up a staggered pace line trying to keep a tight group despite the wind.

Even though this leg was only a few miles, it felt like the longest of the ride. We were just over halfway, we were soaked, barely staying warm, and alone. For all we knew, we were the only riders still attempting the course. The remaining miles would be all facing a growing wind, and rain that showed no signs of lessening. The rain was pouring down at this point, and running down the road in rivers. I think the concentration required by riding in a group kept me from dwelling on the fully deteriorated conditions. By myself, I don't know what I would have done.

Then came the turn south. Somehow, knowing that we were now getting closer to home helped my mood. We continued our staggered pace line, swapping every mile or so. We remarked that passing cars had been very respectful  I supposed the oddity of three riders riding nearly abreast (taillights ablaze) in the pouring rain was enough to get their attention.

Hull came up sooner than expected. We stopped long enough to pound bananas and granola bars, and I quickly texted "Hull. Wet." to my wife, before getting back on the road. The work of bucking the wind kept us warm, and I knew the distance remaining was now falling towards the single digits. The virtue of the slower pace showed as only now did my  legs begin to feel tired.

Sioux Center came up almost as a surprise. We pulled into the parking lot, got a photo of our drenched selves, and headed home to a very welcome warm shower.

Total Mileage: 55
Ride time: 4hrs
Average speed: 14.6

(I apologize for the lack of photos, but the rain meant the camera absolutely stayed at home.)

Monday, June 3, 2013

May in review

I suppose you could call it the blogger's paradox: When you have time to write, there is little to write about, conversely when their is much to write about, there is little time to write.

In May, spring finally showed up...sorta. The early part of the month gave us below normal temps, and we received nearly ten inches of rain over Memorial Day weekend, which caused some localized flooding and residential damage.

I was happy to work in significant use of bikes for my day job. My work requires taking photos of homes in the towns in this county, and using a bike seemed like a good alternative to a car. The experiment was an unequivocal success. I regret that the project is now done, and I can find no reasonable excuse to get out and ride for my work. 

In spite of the weather I managed just shy of 300 miles of riding. While not amazing mileage, I feel pretty good working in those rides while balancing 1.5 jobs and a young family. Almost all of my training rides happen between 5:30 and 6:30 am, before kids are up and before I need to deliver baked goods at 7.

The cool and wet spring has made a maintaining a consistent riding schedule tough. "No such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing" turns into a lie when lighting gets involved, especially in an exposed landscape like NW Iowa.

A big change in my training this year has been the inclusion of gravel roads. In my area around 80% of the roads are gravel, so adding them has radically increased the potential routes. By their nature, the gravel roads are less traveled, so I get to have the roads almost completely to myself. The catch is the ever changing nature of the roads. Weather, maintenance, and use can alter the road conditions overnight

I've found the increased difficulty of these roads has made me more confident in my bike handling and stronger while climbing. Initially I felt that my 1980's steel lugged bike would be a poor choice for gravel, but it easily fits 32mm tires. Unfortunately the 27" wheels do limit my tire options to sizes 32mm and narrower. I am very interested in trying tires 35mm and larger, and hopefully a 700c size bike is in my not too distant future. When the roads are in poor condition, especially when soft, the narrow tires do make handling difficult. That said, when I can find a good track, my pace approaches that of riding on a tar road. A side note: downtube shifters are not a good idea for a gravel bike, they make downshifting when managing bad road conditions way more trouble than necessary.

The first test is coming up this weekend, a 50 mile loop on paved roads with pretty minor climbing. This spring I have been unable to get in a ride longer than 30 miles, so I'm actually rather nervous. The biggest concern is the weather, I'm not much of a match against some of the headwinds that this region can cook up.

In regards to the bike shop, things could not be going better. Once the weather began to warm up business picked up dramatically. I should clarify, business picked up once people had a chance to take their first ride and realize they wanted something better to ride. I continue to be amazed how easy it is to sell someone a bike. My wife and I operate on a very strict budget, so I'm baffled that customers walk in, take a bike for a ride, and walk out with a new bike in under 15 min. Maybe I over think things, but I could never make a decision on a bike that easy, nor drop that kind of money without seemingly a second thought. I promise I'm not trying to shove them out the door, but people come in with their minds made up, and if they're happy and riding, I'm happy.

Repairs have tapered off a bit, mostly just assembling new bikes and fixing many, many flats. This weekend I passed a wrenching milestone when I tire I was inflating exploded. My boss was standing a few feet away with his back to the tire. I'm quite certain I removed a few years from his life. Sorry boss.