Modding the bike

Friday I went in for a bike fit. That is, I had somebody who knows what he’s doing adjust my riding position for optimum performance and comfort. I had done this a couple of years ago, but things change. My body has changed, and the guys at the bike shop probably didn’t put everything back exactly in the same position when I had the bike repainted.

The adjustments we made range from a few millimeters forward or back in some places, and a full centimeter in saddle height. It feels completely different. It’s amazing how less than an inch of modification in the riding position can feel so totally alien.

One of the changes involved replacing the stem (the part that holds the handlebars). The old stem was almost horizontal and made a perfect place to put my Garmin bicycling computer. The new stem has a fairly steep angle, as you can see here.

The only problem with this arrangement is that I have difficulty reading the LCD at that angle. So, putting my wood carving tools to practical use, I created a little wedge, hollowed out the back a bit so that it would fit on the stem, and then finished it. The result is that the bike computer again rides horizontal.

This should work well, although the wedge is still a bit unstable. I’ll take it for a test ride tomorrow morning. If it wiggles too much, I can replace the rubber pad between the wedge and the stem with rubber cement. That should hold reasonably well. If it doesn’t work, I’ll have to fashion a bracket that clamps around the stem to hold things in place more securely.

There are other options. I could mount the bike computer on the handlebar, where I had mounted the old one. I prefer it on the stem, but if the wedge doesn’t work out I’ll probably get tired of messing with it and put the computer on the handlebar.

And, no, I don’t envision slowly replacing components with wood until I have an all-wood bicycle.

Katy Flatland Metric Century

I decided to do an organized ride to get an idea of where I am in my training. It’s also a good chance to practice group riding and dealing with rest stops. The Katy Flatland ride seemed like a good event because it’s well organized, has a reasonably large number of participants (about 2,500). Also, the course really is flat. Total elevation gain over the 62 mile course is less than 300 feet. Contrast that to my last 50-mile ride, where I climbed 1,700 feet. I wanted a flat course for this test.

The Katy ride has an open start. That is, riders can start any time after 6:30 AM. There’s no grand start as there is in most other events. I rode up from the hotel (about a mile away), and arrived about 15 minutes early. A large group of riders was already there, and we started off right at 6:30 AM.

It was cool for the Houston area, about 75 degrees, cloudy, and almost no wind. The first mile of the ride is down a narrow two-lane road. With so many riders packed into a narrow space, it’s best to just stay with the pack, patiently passing slower riders until the road widens. After about two miles, the pack had thinned out and we were moving right along. It was still crowded, but not dangerously so.

I was prepared to do the entire ride “by myself.” That is, I wasn’t planning on joining a paceline or teaming up with any other riders to share drafting. I don’t have anything against drafting. It’s just that I’ve had some bad experiences with following other riders who do stupid things. Still, the benefits of riding in a group are difficult to ignore. In particular, you can save a lot of energy by drafting.

I was cranking along at about 78% of my max heart rate and caught up with a large group. I sat at the back to rest a bit and open a package of food. After scarfing some quick energy and washing it down with a couple large swallows of water, I looked down at my heart rate monitor. It read 72%. I was going perhaps .2 MPH slower than what I had been doing at 78%, but was using far less energy in doing so. I decided to stay with the pack a while.

These groups are constantly changing during the rides. Others like me will catch up, or people we pass will latch on. And riders are always dropping off the back, realizing that even with the benefits of drafting they’re burning too much energy. I’ve done it plenty of times in the past. When I saw this group splitting–the faster riders pulling away–I accelerated to keep with them. After a while there was a group of five or six of us (including one tandem), each taking about a 3-minute turn at the front before dropping to the back and working our way up. We stayed together for perhaps 10 miles until the 27 mile rest stop.

I left that rest stop with one other rider who had been with me in the larger group. Unfortunately, he was doing the 44 mile route, and headed the other way at about mile 30. From then until the rest stop at mile 49, I was on my own.

I actually like riding by myself but after an hour and a half of group riding, being alone is something of a shock. And it’s a lot more work, too. This stretch also had some of the worst roads on the whole course. But the routine is the same: pedal, watch the heart rate, drink and eat on schedule, watch the scenery, do a little on-the-bike stretching when things get stiff. Oh, and keep an eye out for direction signs. It’s very easy to miss a turn on one of these rides and end up out in the weeds somewhere.

This was the worst part of the ride for me. The only other people I saw were two girls at about mile 32, directing me to make a right turn, a few Boy Scouts at the 37-mile rest stop (I didn’t stop), and a single other rider on a recumbant bicycle. He was far ahead of me when I first spotted him, but I was steadily gaining on him. When we turned into the wind at mile 41, he wasn’t more than a hundred yards in front of me. I don’t know if he started feeling better or I started feeling worse, but as soon as we turned into the wind he started pulling away. Perhaps the reduced wind resistance of the recumbant made the difference.

That eight miles was the worst part of the ride for me. The road was almost perfectly flat there, and I was cranking along at 17 or 18 MPH, but at a really high heart rate. My legs were sore and my left foot kept going numb. And the wind, light as it was (less than 10 MPH), was dispiriting. The rider I had been following was out of sight and I was truly alone for the first time in the ride. I started to get concerned after a while, thinking that I had missed a turn sign. I knew that there was a right turn before the 49 mile rest stop, but didn’t know just how far before. It would have been nice to see a few “keep going” signs posted on that road. That half hour of the ride was lonely.

I stopped at 49 miles to fill my water bottles and stretch a moment, and I was back on the road. Only 13 miles to go. A couple miles out, I joined up with another rider and we started trading off pulls again. Once more, we were sharing the road with riders doing the shorter distances. Those riders are slower, which doesn’t really present a problem, but they’re also less familiar with the rules. They tend to ride in the middle of the road, weave a lot, and not pay attention to the possibility of others coming up behind them. So lots of calls of “on your left” preceded our zipping by as we made our way to the finish.

Unlike many rides I’ve done, I finished this one strong. I had plenty of energy left when I crossed the line. It was, I thought, one of my better rides.

I’m happy with my performance. I covered 61.2 miles in 3:18:56, giving me an average speed of 18.5 MPH. I spent a total of 10 minutes at the two rest stops. My moving average speed was 19.5 MPH. Average heart rate for the entire ride was 155 beats per minute, or 75% of my max.

More interesting to me is the difference between the first and second halves of the ride. I did the first half of the ride (mostly with a group) at an average speed of 19.4 MPH (moving average 20.4 MPH), and an average heart rate of 73%. The second half of the ride, most of which was by myself, I covered at 17.6 MPH (18.6 MPH moving average), and an average heart rate of 77%. It definitely pays to stay with a group!

Overall, I think it was a great ride. I have a few things I need to work on, and I know that the Waco course isn’t anywhere near this flat. But then, I have two more months of training before that ride.

Lost functionality

Have you ever noticed that quite often “new and improved” means lost functionality? Consider, for example, the difference between watching a movie on DVD and watching Hulu or Netflix. Overall, I like the Netflix experience. But sometimes I miss something and want to back up a few seconds. With the DVD remote, I could press a button and start viewing the video in reverse. It took just a moment to back up to where I wanted to be and then I could hit the Play button again. That’s not possible with any of the video players I see online.

With the browser-based players and even with Microsoft Media Player, I have to grab the slider and move it back. But it’s very difficult or impossible to move the slider back just 10 seconds. The procedure is something like this:

  1. Note the current video time, if it’s displayed.
  2. Grab the slider.
  3. Very carefully move the slider to the left, noting the displayed time.
  4. No matter how careful you are, you will go back too far.
  5. Move to the right.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 in a binary search pattern until you get to the proper time index.
  7. Let go and hope you got it right.

Because the slider is scaled, the longer the video is, the harder it is to get this right, and you can’t get infinite precision. For example, if you’re watching a 2-hour movie and the slider is 1,000 pixels wide, then every pixel on the slider equates to 7.2 seconds.

With the slider, it’s easier to make big forward or backward jumps, but fine tuning is impossible. Especially when your input device is a wireless keyboard with a trackball, and you’re lying back on the couch enjoying the movie. I don’t understand is why none of the players I’ve seen have “fast forward” or “reverse” buttons. It seems like that’d be fairly easy to implement and then we could have the best of both worlds.


Weight loss

Before this year, I’d never made a conscious effort to lose weight. Sure, I’d be a few pounds heavy after taking a winter off from riding, but those pounds would melt away after a week or two of steady training. But I took four years off before I did my training in 2010, and I didn’t lose much weight that year. I also took 2011 off from riding. Meanwhile, I continued to eat poorly. In particular, lots of fast food and four to six cans of Coca Cola every day.

I knew that I was packing on the pounds; the scale doesn’t lie. But I didn’t fully appreciate the result until I was standing in line at a convenience store one morning. I don’t know why, but when I see something in a store security monitor I look around to see if I can spot it directly. I think it has to do with wanting to see the same thing from multiple perspectives at the same time. On this particular morning I saw a fat guy standing near where I was standing. It took me a couple seconds looking around and another glance at the monitor to realize that the fat guy was me.

At the end of February, Debra started a workout program at the gym and also started cooking smaller, more healthy meals. I had begun working from home about a week before that, and had been trying to eat at home for lunch rather than going out for fast food every day. The day Debra started her workouts, the bathroom scale said 205.1 when I stood on it. Time to do something about that.

It took me another month to get off my butt and start doing something. My first ride this year was April 18. About two weeks later I announced two goals: to complete the Waco Wild West Century in less than six hours, and to have my weight down to 170 lbs by September 22 (the date of the ride). I’ve been slowly changing my diet, and at the beginning of June (after a month of getting accustomed to the bike again) I hired a coach to help me prepare for the century ride.

This morning the scale read 184.1. So far I’m down 21 lbs in just under 20 weeks. That matches what I think is ideal weight loss of a pound per week. I’m a month into the coaching program, and I’m already a much stronger rider. I’m surprised at how effective a targeted training program can be.

There’s no doubt that all the exercise helps with the weight loss. I’m doing four bicycle workouts per week, and spending one or two hours in the gym each week working on core and upper body strength. The bicycle workouts averaged 850 calories each in June. This month’s workouts will average quite a bit more, because the rides will be longer. In addition, there’s a benefit to getting stronger: I burn more calories with the same amount of effort. That is, if I average 15 MPH when riding at 65% of my max heart rate, I’ll burn more calories than if I average 12 MPH at the same heart rate. The stronger I get, the easier it is to burn calories. I’ve already seen a 20% improvement in my speed at low intensities.

There is a downside to burning all those calories, though. My body can handle a 500 calorie daily deficit, no problem. But if I go out and burn 1,200 calories on a single ride, I’m hungry. If I’m not careful, I’ll really pig out and actually gain weight that day. It’s a constant battle, especially when I do long rides. Even at just 500 calories per day, it seems like I’m always hungry.

Some people have asked me my “secret.” There really isn’t any mystery. In addition to the exercise, I’ve done the following:

I’m now drinking diet soda at home. Considering that I used to drink four to six cans of soda every day, replacing that with diet drinks removes 500 to 900 calories per day from my diet. I also don’t much like the taste of the diet soda, and can see myself eliminating it from my diet altogether. Well, except when I go out to eat. I don’t miss the sugar. I just have to get myself off the caffeine.

I’m teaching myself to stop eating when my hunger is satisfied rather than continuing to eat until I’m full. It’s tough. Every time I get up without finishing everything on my plate, I can hear my mom and the upperclassmen at military school telling me to clean my plate. I’ve found that if I put less on my plate to begin with, I don’t get those feelings of guilt. I can always go back for more, but it’s surprising how infrequently I need to do that.

I’ve never been much of one for sweets, except for the soda. So that’s not a problem. Since I’ve become more selective about what I eat, I’ve found that I appreciate sweets more than I used to. When I do indulge, I really enjoy it and it takes only a small portion to satisfy my craving.

From my perspective, achieving and maintaining an ideal weight is a lifestyle change. It took me years to add those 35 pounds I’m working off, so I can’t expect them to come off overnight. And I’ve read enough about dieting to understand that crash diets are incredibly effective for losing weight, but not very effective in the long term. A disturbingly large number of people who lose weight on those diets end up gaining it all back within a few years. The reason is that they haven’t made the fundamental lifestyle and attitude changes that allow them to maintain their new weight once they’ve achieved their weight loss goal.

I’m hoping that, with the changes I’m making and a modest goal of a pound per week, I can avoid the ping pong effect.

Waco Wild West Century

I mentioned a few days ago that I’m planning to ride the Waco Wild West Century in September. Part of my preparation is to learn as much as I can about the course. The event’s site has a course map but doesn’t include elevation data. It took me a bit of searching, but I finally found a GPS track of the course–including the elevations. This GPS track is from last year, but it agrees with the course map posted on the event site for this year.

Here’s the elevation profile. Click on the image to get a much larger view.

At first glance it looks pretty hilly, but it’s not as bad as it looks. Most of those inclines are less than 2%. The only bad climbs will be at 55 miles and 73 miles. Both have some grades that exceed 5%. The climb starting at 55 miles is a little more than a mile long and goes up about 170 feet. The one at 73 miles is two miles. The first half mile averages 6.4%. The rest of the climb averages about 2% but there are some short stretches that approach 5%.

The key for me will be to maintain an even heart rate as much as possible. That’s not a problem on a 2% or 3% grade, as I can easily climb those at 75% max heart rate while keeping a relatively fast pedal cadence. The 5% or steeper grades are a bit more of a problem. I’ll either have to slow down my pedal cadence or exceed my target heart rate. I’m not concerned about the short climb at 55 miles. The longer and steeper climb at 73 miles will be a bit of a challenge.

I’d like to say that it’s all downhill after 75 miles, but there are still some short climbs. Again, not a problem if I eat and drink enough during the ride. If I do that right, I just might be able to do the second half of the ride faster than I do the first half. That’d be something.

To download the GPS track, right-click on one of the links below and select “Save link as” (Google Chrome) or “Save target as” (Internet Explorer).

Google Earth .kml file. Includes lat/long and elevation data.

GPX format. Includes lat/long points only (no elevation data).

Tax cut madness

President Obama today asked Congress to extend the Bush era tax cuts for those who make less than $250,000 per year, but let the cuts expire for those making $250K or more. This is no surprise, but his arguments just don’t bear scrutiny.

A couple of quotes from his speech:

I disagree on extending tax cuts for the wealthy because we just can’t afford them.

The money we are spending on these tax cuts for the wealthy is a major driver of our deficit. We can’t afford to keep that up.

CBO estimates show that the total of all the tax cuts is on the order of about 4.5 trillion dollars over 10 years, or about $450 billion per year. The tax cuts for those evil 2% who make over $250,000 per year amount to about $80 billion per year. The total tax cut package represents 45% of the annual deficit of $1 trillion. The “major driver of our deficit” that the president is talking about represents 8% of the deficit.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the president is full of shit on this issue.

I like how he’s positioning this:

Let’s not hold the vast majority of Americans and our economy hostage while we debate the merits of another tax cut for the wealthy.

And, acknowledging that he and all of Congress agree on extending the tax cuts for “the other 98%,” he says:

Let’s agree to do what we agree on.

He’s trying to come across as a reasonable guy, but even a brief look at the numbers shows that he’s playing the same old game of demonizing the wealthy that’s worked for (and backfired on) politicians for decades.

In discussing the effect of the tax increase on small businesses, he states that 97% of small businesses won’t be affected. He says:

This isn’t about taxing job creators, this is about helping job creators.

He employs a common fallacy here: the idea that by not harming somebody, he’s helping them. It’s like a thug who expects me to thank him for not breaking my arm.

Republicans, too, are full of crap on this issue. They’ll have you believe that raising taxes on the wealthy will result in all manner of financial disasters. That’s just not true. There will be lots of grumbling, and likely a flight to tax-free or tax-sheltered investments the likes of which we saw in the 1980s. People do all manner of stupid things in order to avoid taxes, many of which end up costing more than just paying the tax. Congress and the president make these things possible by passing legislation that provides incentives for certain “investments,” and little industries grow up around those boondoggles. It’s all a huge scam.

The major driver of our deficit, Mr. President, is spending. You and Congress have proven that, given more money, you just spend more. When you and Congress show me that you can get spending under control, I might consider supporting a tax increase. But then, if you could get spending under control you wouldn’t need a tax increase.

Bicycle Training

For years, I’ve been training the same old way: starting with shorter rides and slowly building up to longer rides. I’d get a little faster along the way, but I’d always reach a plateau that I couldn’t rise beyond. I’ve long wanted to do a six hour century ride but even when I do everything right I can’t seem to break six and a half hours.

This year I’m doing two things differently. First, I’m making an honest effort to lose weight. Weight loss begins in the kitchen, and I’m really trying to watch what and how much I eat. Believe me, it’s tough. I haven’t completely given up on soda, but the 12-pack in the refrigerator is diet, and I’m not drinking a half dozen of them every day like I used to. It helps that Debra changed her diet back in March. Most of the time I eat the same thing she does for dinner. No more Papa John’s Pizza in the middle of the week, and we don’t go stuff ourselves with monster burgers any more. And working at home, I’m able to be a bit more selective in what I eat for lunch. So far, it’s working. I’m down 20 pounds from my high at the end of February. My goal is to lose 15 more.

The other thing I’ve done differently is I’ve engaged the training services of Cycle Camp USA. For a monthly fee, a trainer designs my weekly workout schedule and spends about 30 minutes with me each week on the phone, talking about the results from the previous week’s workouts and goals for the upcoming week. I’ve been working with them for a month, and the results so far are spectacular. My speed at low intensity (60 to 65 percent max heart rate) has increased 20% in just those four weeks. My speed at higher heart rates (80 to 85 percent) isn’t 20% higher, but I’m able to maintain those high heart rates much longer and recover faster.

The difference in the training is remarkable, too. I’m actually riding less now than when I scheduled my own training, and half of my rides are in the 60 to 65 percent zone. I’m doing four workouts per week: two of them are “long rides” of two hours or more at 60 or 65 percent max heart rate. The other two are speed or strength workouts: sprints, hill repeats, etc. Those typically have a 15 minute warm up, about an hour of hard riding, and a 15 minute cool down. They’re hard workouts, for sure, but doable.

I used to ride five or six days per week. Now I do my four bicycle workouts, and twice per week I do “core strength” workouts at home or at the gym. Lots of sit ups, back extensions, planks, etc. I’m also doing some upper body workouts to strengthen my shoulders and neck, arms, back, etc. All of those muscles come into play on long rides. I often get off the bike after a century ride and have pains in my neck, shoulders, arms, back, stomach–pretty much everything except my butt and my legs.

I haven’t done any really long rides yet, but the results so far are encouraging. I’m losing weight, getting stronger, and getting faster. I can actually feel the effects of the secondary muscles that the speed and strength workouts help build. I have a long way to go, but it’s very nice to see the early improvement.

I’ve selected the Waco Wild West Century as the ride that I want to complete in under six hours. I gave myself plenty of time to train for it–the ride isn’t until September 22. I did that ride in 2002, hoping to break six hours then. I thought I had trained well, but I lost my discipline when the ride started. I went out too fast, burned up after 35 miles or so, and spent the next 35 miles recovering. I crossed the line after more than seven hours, having spent a lot of time at the rest stop less than 20 miles from the finish. I was overheated, dehydrated, and completely out of energy. I will not repeat that performance.

My first real test of the training will be July 22. I’m going to do the 100 K (62 miles) ride at the Katy Flatland Century. I don’t have a specific time goal for that one. The idea is to do the first half of the ride at 72 or 75 percent max heart rate, and then see how I feel. The plan is to do a negative split–ride the second half of the course faster than I ride the first half. It’s also a test to see if I can keep myself hydrated and fueled. It will be important to drink and eat enough during the century ride, and this will be an excellent field test.



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