It must be professional cycling season

You can always tell when professional cycling season starts.  There is an excitement in the air, my DVR is set to record (and often conflicting recording times with other family members’ shows) non-stop. I didn’t really watch a lot of professional cycling until the past few years. I was vaguely aware of the fact that there were a few big races every year. Besides the Tour de France, there was also some race in Spain (Vuelta de Espana) and some others. Last year I sat down to really watch them.

I started riding earlier last year than previous years (even in the cold of March), and after my rides I would come back, and relax watching the pros do it. I saw the teams really struggling with the one day classics, and then the graduation to the larger multi-stage races, and then the pinnacle of the Tour de France in the summer. By then I was riding so much that I missed a lot of the tour, but I got the turn by turn plays from my riding buddies.

This year will be the same. There is something magical about the one day classics. They really prove out the younger riders and are a showing grounds for names that are newer on the teams. But most importantly, the spring classics signal warmer weather. Old man winter is finally being pushed back to his hidey-hole and the days start getting longer. The ambient temperatures go from the 20s and 30s to the 40s and 50s. The thermals get put away and the race kits come out.

The start of the cycling season signifies more than just a professional sport, it signifies the beginning of something great.

Risks and Rewards

Over the past few months I have been considering the possibility of commuting to work via bike.  Here is the lay of the land:

  • I live only 7 miles from work (a relatively flat 7 miles)
  • There are no showers at work, especially during hot summer days, I would need to use baby wipes or something.
  • I would need to arrange how to get my clothes relatively wrinkle free to and from work, or invest in more casual but durable work attire.
  • Work has a “bike room”! Storage isn’t an issue.
  • The route of the commute (for the most part) is one of the most dangerous cycling/pedestrian areas. Often nicknamed “The Boulevard of Death”. Of course I could find a route around that, albeit won’t be as direct.
  • The route isn’t “great scenic roads” but rather city streets riddled with traffic lights and busses. Perhaps not the best for my road bike. Do I invest in another bike? A commute bike that has heartier tires, frame, etc? Maybe even a single speed. (There is something enticing about this idea)

The rewards would be that I would save $11.00 a day in bus fare, and my commute would be close to 30 minutes each way (which is not the case going home, with traffic, during the summer, etc).  I would be getting about an hour of riding each day.

Rain. If it is raining, do I ride to work? Show up looking like a drowned rat? If I wear rain gear (jacket, pants, etc) and stay drier, is it worth it?

There is a risk of something going wrong. Getting hit by a car or bus, getting a flat tire, etc. These are new risks, as today I don’t incur them while riding on the bus.

This topic is intriguing, and will require some more consideration, but I think it will be clear soon that riding in to work will be a standard mode of commute for me. (I am partially inspired by reading an ‘reader’s comments’ in the current issue of Bicycling where someone wrote that they haven’t driven their car in 2 years.)  While that isn’t my goal, it is admirable.

Committed

Sometimes the best way to reach a goal is to set a deadline. Not just a mental deadline, like a promise to yourself, but a real commitment. The kind of thing that you can’t get out of. Last night I signed up for the Gran Fondo NY on May 19th. Now I am scared.

Last year at the end of the season I rode my first Gran Fondo in Pennsylvania, the Fall Classic put on by Bicycling Magazine. It was the hardest ride I have ever done. While I did finish the ride, after 8.5 hours on the bike, I rolled over the finish line as they were closing down the event and putting everything away.  I would categorize that as “survived”, but only barely.

The Gran Fondo NY is similar to the Fall Classic. A little longer (110 miles versus 90) but the hills are the same. The difference is that this year I will weigh less, have the asthma under control and be a better rider. But it is still a hard deadline that I have to make. I am committed to it.  

Underestimating progress

Uphill Climb    I started off this year with the idea that I would need to lose as much weight as possible to be a better cyclist. Essentially, that really meant, to be a better climber. I knew that being overweight was really killing me on the rides, and the hillier the ride, the more it killed me. A friend that I ride with often dropped about 60 lbs and suddenly he was flying up the hills, waiting for me at the top. So I took a long, hard, look in the mirror and decided that I too, needed to get to a more reasonable weight.

Most cyclists will tell you that cycling is a power/weight ratio sport. Changing either or both of these elements will make you a faster rider, and essentially better climber. I figured that I could stand to lose about 50lbs and still be above 10% body fat, and I would be better off. All the while during the weight loss, I have been keeping my protein intake high so that my body doesn’t break down the muscles for energy and stays working on “fat loss”.

I looked up some cycling power calculators to see how much of a difference there would be if I lost the weight.  It didn’t seem like that much. I put in my current weight, picked an incline percentage and duration and it spit out the number of watts I would have to maintain to climb. Then I dropped the weight and the watts were less, only slightly less.  But as we all know, gravity isn’t the constant that scientists tell us it is.

Gravity is a harsh mistress. When going up a hill, especially one that tops above 12% grade or so, the gravity of earth seems equivalent to that of a super black hole, pulling you back to the bottom of the hill. When gliding down the other side of that hill though, it seems to barely hold on to you as you wish it was pulling you faster.

This past weekend on my ride, having lost only about 20 lbs so far, I found the hills … easy. Mother Earth seems to loosen her embrace on me in a way that wasn’t reflected in the cycling calculator. I was leading the pace line in to a moderate climb (maybe 5-8% grade for about 1/4 mile). Knowing that all day I was passing people going up the hills, I dialed it back. Way back. I dropped to my smallest gear and just relaxed as I pulled the group up the hill. At the top of the hill I looked back and to my dismay, I was alone. I had accidentally dropped them.  This was the most pleasant surprise I had all day. I wasn’t hammering, I was almost coasting up the hill, and somehow I had gotten away from them.

With another 30 lbs to lose, I can only imagine that by the time I am done, gravity will be reversed and I will be using my brakes to keep from flying off of the tops of the hills!

The last push should show dignity

The difference between me and someone that is great at doing something is that they have been doing it longer. I read an article a long time ago detailing the real differences between the professionals who are really good at something and those of us who marvel at them.  In the end, it comes down to time.  They spent a lot of time doing it. As in, tens of thousands of hours of time.

I could go on and on about “talent” and “natural ability” but in the end, those are small things when put next to human elements such as perseverance, courage, will power and some amount of not knowing when it call it quits. I am sure that those who are great at something can all attest to this. What does that mean? How does that relate? What is the point of this ramble?

Well, this morning I rolled out of bed at 7:00AM, dressed wearing layer after layer, ate a bowl of Cheerios, and went for a bike ride. So? It was 21 degrees out.  So? Well, you are you right. So what? I met up with a group a few miles away, and around 2:30 this afternoon I slowly rolled back to my apartment. It wasn’t a great ride. It was a cold ride. It was difficult, but not physically.  It was difficult to get out of bed, where it was warm and cozy. It was difficult to pile on layer after layer until I felt like the younger brother in “The Christmas Story”. It was difficult to fight against the wind and the cold, my feet frozen numb just to get to the meeting spot, where others like me assembled. It was difficult to come to grasp the fact that I had two full, frozen solid, water bottles that now did me as much good as bricks.

But after all of that, when I was tired, beaten, sore and almost home, there is a climb.  It isn’t an enormous, mother of all climbs, but it is long and steady, and as usual, the light at the base of the hill turns red as I reach it. (So much for a running start). But I climb. I keep my head high, I push the pedals over one at the time, focusing on the circles my feet are making, thinking about my breathing, watching my heart rate climb up to 185. At 100 feet from the top I realize that I feel great! The climb was easy. It was no where near as hard as it was to walk away from a warm bed this morning, or to descend the hill at 8:00AM this morning, the icy wind making my eyeballs shrivel up in my head.

By no means does this make me extraordinary. This doesn’t put me on the podium at the Tour De France. It is just one day, that I persevered.  I was afraid of the cold, the long hard ride, of getting a flat, of not being able to pull the pace line. I faced those fears.  In the end, it all ended up with a climb, alone, where I showed my dignity.  I didn’t sprint, I didn’t die at the top with my tongue hanging out. I just rode. I rode on a day when I had a thousand very easy reasons to not ride. I am not a pro, just a little better than I was yesterday.

Winter sucks!

Riding in the ColdAfter our epic blizzard last weekend, it seemed like the perfect time to go skiing. Skiing is a great crossover sport for cycling as they use the same muscle groups in the same ways. Going down a double black diamond requires concentration to move both feet in circles without applying too much pressure in any single spot, else a tumble (head first) is imminent.

This week isn’t looking great for skiing though. I rarely ski on weekends due to crowding on the slopes and lift lines. I stay especially far from the slopes on President’s Day weekend.  It is the mecca for first time and family skiers. So what to do?  RIDE!!!!

I have a 50+ mile jaunt out with the local club planned for Monday. Should be a reasonably slower pace (15mph perhaps) and reasonably flat.  It will fit right in line with some of the starting rides for the winter training (50 miles at about 40 ft/mi of elevation climb). Hopefully with the additional weight loss, I will notice a difference on the hills.

The down side? The temperature today is in the 50’s. Monday? A high of 35. Ugh. If only I had ridden TODAY. Winter training hurts. I am sure I will appreciate the comfortable spring and fall days, and somehow find fond memories of slogging through sub-30 degree morning rides.