Bicycling

The National Games

After the National Senior Games, I can say that as a bicycle racer, I am, like Garrison Keillor’s mythical children of Lake Wobegone, above average. Nothing more.

In three races, I came in above the midpoint in all three races, barely in one case.

I had no business being in the 5k time trial. In fact, I was arrogant to ride it, with my endurance frame road bike. I placed 20th out of 41 riders. It was an insult to the riders who train for the time trial, buy special TT bikes, wheels, handlebars and helmets, and race often. With a time of 9:20, I was nearly 90 seconds behind the winner. Still, I finished with that taste in my mouth that I describe as blood in my lungs but is probably neither blood nor in my lungs, but it does make me feel that I gave it my all. As does the cough that starts immediately after finishing and which I still have a few days later. I averaged 265 weighted watts. I was disappointed, but unless I buy a TT bike and train on it, I think that’ll be my last TT race.

1 - Before the 40K (003)In the 20k road race, I finished with the leaders, number 10 out of 41 riders. I was with the lead group going into the last turn, but as often happens in turns, I got spit out the back. I can corner tightly, but I think I don’t trust my tires, afraid they’ll slide out from under me. My weighted power average was 233 watts. Being in the top ten in one of the races was my minimum goal, so I finished that day feeling, if not good, not embarrassed.

But good enough that I thought I had a chance to compete in the 40k. Yet, the day I reconnoitered the course, I was intimidated by a 0.8 mile, 2.5% grade hill. While I made it up the one time in the 20k race, the 40k required three ascents. The first I made with the lead group. The second time around, I struggled. My legs cranked as best I could. Then that sinking feeling commences as I see the wheels in front pull farther ahead and I’m powerless, literally, to do anything about it. It’s not that my legs are tired or hurt. They simply have no power. They are too weak to hurt. They turn, but the bikes stays still, seemingly not to move at all. By the time I reached the top, the group of 14 riders was too far ahead. They were within sight for a while. Then they were gone.

I looked around as I crested the hill and found no one behind me. The other 20+ riders had fallen off the pace. Could I keep them away? For the next 14 miles I did, save one who caught me near the end of the penultimate loop and then promptly announced he was abandoning the race. I placed 15th of 35 who finished. (Several either abandoned or were pulled so the organizers could start the next race on time.) My weighted average power was 215 watts. I was nearly five and half minutes behind the leader.

Despite these middling performances, I saw glimmers of hope. Keeping the rest of the pack at bay was cool. I blocked out the riders in front of me and pretended those behind were trying to catch my breakaway. Staying with the big boys until the end of the 20k was nice. A perhaps pathetic positive was knowing that I will move up to the 70-74 age group next year. Maybe they will be kinder to me. (My time would have placed me third in that group.)

But usually I tend to focus on what went wrong. I lose speed in corners. Need to fix that. I need to lose weight. Ten fewer pounds and I might have made it up that hill. Getting closer to the front at the end of the race gives me a chance to compete for a podium spot. Being at the back doesn’t.

And I look at the guys who beat me. They’re old men with wrinkly skin and thinning gray hair!

Maybe, too, I need to train smarter. By that I mean not harder, but even more systematically and perhaps a little easier. In the weeks leading up to the Games, I had some tough weeks. The production of endorphins and their impact on me are undeniable, so it’s hard for me not to go hard. At the end of a tough workout, I feel accomplished and energized, even if I need a nap later in the day.

I would have liked better results. In the days before the races, I visualized my hanging on to the end, positioning myself just on the outside of a wheel toward the front and then sprinting for the finish. I even allowed to see myself raising my arms in victory. But still, the vision of that hill kept intruding. It looked steeper than 2.5%. I felt heavier than 190 lbs. I could visualize my legs giving way. And as it turned out, I witnessed the power of negative thinking, something I’ve struggled with all my life, mitigated only by 32 years of being with the most relentlessly positive woman in the world.

As a kid I rarely competed in sports. I ran track for a year in high school, but that’s the sport for non-athletes, the guys who could claim to compete only with themselves. Or perhaps for those who weren’t coordinated enough to play any real sport. I didn’t play football except in the touch variety in the streets. My mother, who never took chances, didn’t want me to play so I wouldn’t get hurt. I let her be my excuse for not wanting to compete. Same with baseball. I couldn’t hit a curve ball and didn’t want to learn in public. As a young adult, I ran a lot, but always training, never racing. In competition, only one guy could win; the rest were losers.

As we were driving home from Birmingham, I was fresh off my disappointment of not staying with the lead group in the 40k, the fast guys, the big boys. Yet, I felt oddly satisfied at the same time. Perhaps it was because I competed and lost and survived to tell about it.

So I am not the national champion and there are no photos of me standing on the podium with my arms raised in triumph. But then, I’m staring 70 in the face, and I race bicycles, for God’s sake. And…I’m above average. I’ll take it.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

Many of my neighbors across my part of town sign up for Nextdoor Neighbor, an app that allows residents to exchange messages–about contractor or doctor recommendations, to report a loss dog, or to offer items for sale–or free.

It’s that last part that got me to thinking: If people have end tables, nightstands and other assorted “stuff,” as George Carlin would say, to give away, maybe some folks have old bikes they’d want to part with.

It’s a hassle to rent bikes for friends who come into town, and I had just cleared a spot in my garage that looked naked. I could easily imagine a few bikes hanging there.

So I posted that I would be happy to re-purpose old bikes folks didn’t want anymore. I immediately got a few responses. In one day I picked up four bikes.

A big beach cruiser had been sitting outside under a shed for years, so the chain was rusted. One was just tuned but the lady said she wanted a racing bike instead. And another woman had two she didn’t ride anymore.

One bike was in great shape but very small and missing a front wheel. I would donate it to the Free Clinic, where our bike club member Patrick Ruta fixes bikes for those who need them to get to work or run errands but can’t afford to buy one.

My "re-purposed" bikes.The other three you see here. One needed a shifter cable. (I learned how to change one of a Shimano Revoshift shifter.) Another needed a rim strip and a tube. One just needed to be cleaned up and lubed.

Last night my wife said, “Let’s take a couple for a spin.” A few blocks away she said, “This is great. Nice ride.” Because I had bought her a new townie bike a few months ago, she said, “Gee, we didn’t need to spend money for a new bike. This is great.”

Sure, I thought. Can you imagine if I had said to her, “I know I have an $8,000 bike, but I’m going to find you a hand-me-down that no one wants”?

No, these bikes are for visitors and for me to ride downtown and not be heart broken if it gets stolen.

You may have noticed that they are all “step-over” frames, what we used to call “girls” bikes. That’s OK. I will proudly ride them anywhere in tribute to my first bike as an adult.

In 1972 when I was working in downtown D.C. I grew tired of the car commute and parking fees, which I really couldn’t afford on my $8,098 annual salary. (Which, however, was good enough to allow me to have my own apartment in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Va., right across the Key Bridge from Georgetown, something today’s kids starting their careers probably can’t afford.) A secretary I worked with said she had this old bike she’d sell me–for $7. It was rusted but serviceable. To further dissuade thieves, I bought a can of orange spray paint and another of yellow. Holding one in each hand, I painted it. It was so hideous (or psychedelic–remember this was the early 70’s) that I figured no one would steal it–and no one did. I rode it down Pennsylvania Ave. and then Constitution Ave. and chained it to a lamp post.

So yeah, it’s a girls bike. You want to make something of it?

Now I’m going to post what I really want to ride in downtown St.Pete: an old steel racing bike with downtube shifters and a look that would dissuade any potential thief. Let me know if you have one.

Shaved Legs

I shaved my legs for the first time the other day. Cyclists do that. I don’t know why. I don’t think they know why.

I couldn’t come up with a good reason to do it. But I couldn’t come up with a good reason not to. Hell, at 66, I’m too close to the end of the road only to reach it and say, “I cycled for 50 years and never shaved my legs.”

The reasons all have a patina of truth.

It makes massages easier. For who? My masseuse said it makes no difference to her.

It makes road rash easier to treat and promotes healing. I can see the point. No sticky hair to gum things up. But whereas pro racers crash, suffer massive strawberries and then get up and immediately ride another 80 miles, I crash and break several old, brittle bones. I’m laid up so long the strawberries are long gone before I get back on the bike.

The ladies like shaved legs. At my age, there are no ladies left, only broads, and they take anything that’s still walking at 66. They don’t care whether the guy’s walker is hairy or not.

Others say, it’s just tradition and you’re not taken seriously unless you shave. That’s attractive to me, since no one now takes me seriously.

But the best reason is that shaved legs make you faster by reducing aerodynamic drag. Are you kidding me? Losing the extra 20 pounds I’m dragging around would be far more effective for me.

But Specialized engineers beg to differ. Over 40 kilometers, one of their subjects saved 82 seconds. That’s huge for a racer. For me, not so much. My riding buddies’ coffee will still be cold by the time I make it back to our sidewalk cafe.

But hey, makes you faster is good enough for me. I’m sticking to that story–unless my wife vetoes it. But then, why does she shave her legs?

Mount Evans & the Descent Through Hell

Climbing Mt. Evans is a rite of passage for Colorado cyclists. It is not a steep climb but the road to Mt. Evans is the highest paved road in the U.S., topping at 14,000+ feet. I took the route from Evergreen, where we have a home. The climb from there is about 7,000 feet.

on the way to Mt. Evans

On the way to Mt. Evans

Admittedly, I was apprehensive about the climb. I didn’t want to die of a heart attack above the tree line, and I certainly didn’t want to have to call for help because I couldn’t make it. Most intimidating about the climb is the altitude. For the last 25 years I have lived at or near sea level. The past four months I’ve been in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the biggest climbs are over the various causeways. I’m in the best shape I’ve been in a while, thanks in large part to the members of the St. Pete Bicycle Club. Daily rides with some of the members, where I inevitably get dropped on the aggressive “second loop” of our morning rides, have made me stronger. But we’re at sea level (and sometimes under it during violent storms) and the closest hills are an hour away.

So I talked to folks in Colorado about the climb. One guy was trying to be encouraging but then said I should eat Clif Bar gels with caffeine because, “If you don’t have your food intake just right, you can hallucinate in the upper altitudes.” I could see myself prostrate on the road communing with the spirits. Others said to start early, especially in early September when, as one guy put it, “They get a lot of weather atop Mt. Evans.” I once had a backpacking buddy who used to love it when we “got weather” on the trail. Once was at 11,500 ft. when we were hit by a blizzard and then tried to hike through it to the top of the 14,000-ft. mountain. We didn’t succeed, but more importantly, we didn’t die what I and many others would think a foolish death. Starting early for the Mt. Evans climb, I was told, meant 6 a.m. Hell, I have a hard time making the group rides in St. Pete that start at 8:00 and I live only 10 minutes away. So I compromised: I would shoot for 7:00. I actually started the ride at 6:45. Those 45 minutes proved costly.

Over planning as I often do, I made a list of what I needed to bring. Warm clothes for the descent were first on the list. It is 20-25 degrees cooler at the top than in Evergreen, which meant that it would likely be in the 40’s this past Monday. I didn’t put on the list things I bring on every ride, so I got to the parking lot where I would start and discovered I left my riding sunglasses at the house, so my prescription glasses would have to do.

The climb went as well as I could expect. I had arrived in Colorado five days before and rode three times, one less than I had hoped. But I was encouraged that the altitude didn’t seem to be a big problem. I wasn’t fast up the hills but my heart rate stayed low and steady. I had actually planned on riding Tuesday, but learned on Sunday that the road would be closed for paving, so I pushed it up a day.

There were a couple of miles of dirt sections where workers were preparing to pave the next day, but they were packed and easy to navigate. After that, new pavement went up to Echo Lake at Squaw Pass, at 10,600 ft. above sea level and 18 miles from the start. I stopped by the lodge, which was small and quaint.  I asked the woman there if she knew the conditions at the top. “You should be fine,” she said. “Just don’t dawdle up there and watch for weather.”

I then started up Mt. Evans Road. Within a few feet there is an entrance booth and learned that they no longer charge cyclists $3 to enter. I mentioned that at the very beginning of the climb a sign said Mt. Evans was open “to Summit Lake.” (The entire road closes for the winter around October 1.) “That’s right,” the woman in the booth said. “It’s five more miles to the top of the mountain. You can go up, but be aware, there’s nobody up there if you get in trouble or have weather.” (I had the sense that these people, like my hiking partner, loved “weather.”) She also asked if I had the proper clothing because “I see a lot of cyclists go up as people and come down as popsicles.”

The thought of being alone the last five miles gave me pause as I started the final 14 miles with about 3,500+ feet of climbing. The road is not in good shape. There are many cracks in the asphalt that jolt you as you cross them. But at 8 mph, they’re tolerable. In short order, I’m above the tree line, but the work keeps me comfortable as the temperature drops. The final switchbacks culminate at the parking lot. Turns out that I wasn’t alone. There were some park employees there as they were surveying the mountain goats that had developed some disease. One guy offered that he thought we cyclists were crazy. Another cyclist was also there and we take each other’s pictures. Only later do I find that my lens has fogged up and I look like I’m literally in the clouds. There were some moving in but at this point, no “weather.”

I figure the hard part is done. I’ll need to be careful on the descent, especially on the narrow Mt. Evans Road, but otherwise, I like descending so I was looking forward to it. Well, the climb may have been uneventful. The descent was anything but.

First off, those cracks were annoying at 8 mph. At 30-40 mph they were life threatening. I had to ride the brakes all the way down to Echo Lake. My neck and shoulders were tense and tightening with every curve in the road. My hands were cramping from squeezing the brake calipers. By the time I arrived at the lodge I was grateful for the smooth road ahead. Alas, the surface may have been smooth, but it wasn’t a smooth road ahead.

I had a little glitch in my shifting that I tried to fix my adjusting the rear derailleur. Whatever I did didn’t work. When I got back on the bike and shifted into the top gear, it locked up. My chain was jammed between the frame and the cassette. The chain had come off the derailleur pulleys. I thought I would have to call my brother to rescue me. But I got the chain back on. However, I couldn’t use the smallest cogs on the rear cassette. But then, it was all downhill. I’d be coasting most of the way. Again, I didn’t “coast” home.

It started to drizzle. I was 17 miles from the car. Then I heard thunder in the distance. Then it came closer. Then a thunderclap had me doing an involuntary bunny hop with the bike. I wasn’t sure whether my heart skipped or I had been given a heart shock by Mother Nature. It started to crackled in stereo, beginning on my right shoulder and over to the left. Now I was praying I wouldn’t get fried on the way down. It rained harder.

I then arrived at the section of the road being prepared for paving. The guys were still at it and had to limit traffic to one direction. The guy with the Stop/Slow sign said I couldn’t go because cars were coming up. Then the rain turned to pea and marble size hail. Lots of it.

I leaned up against a red van on the side of the road, hovering over my bike to protect it from the hail. By this time I’m soaked to the bone. The guy with the sign owned that van and said I could get in it but my bike couldn’t . I took refuge and hoped that my recently refinished frame would survive.

As I sat in the van I started to shiver, uncontrollably. I had hypothermia once before, on a camping trip with “weather.” The hail came down for about 15 minutes. When it let up, I told the guy I was going down even though it was still raining. There was another stretch of dirt road ahead. “It would only get muddier,” I said. He nodded, as I didn’t have much choice. My phone had died and I didn’t want to use the guy’s phone and have him witness my humiliation of calling my brother to rescue me. I was determined to get back on my own.

As I continued the descent I saw hail on the side on the road. It stuck to the trees and shrubs. I hit pavement again and was flying as fast as I thought safe as I was still shivering. Then I stopped in my tracks. As I turned a corner the road ahead was covered in hail. I pulled over. Could I wait until it melted? After a few minutes I realized that was fantasy. So I learned how to ride a bike on hailstones. Fortunately, the hail on the road was for only a few hundred yards. The last three miles were just wet. But I was very wet and still shivering.

I got to the car and threw the bike in the back and stripped of all clothes that wouldn’t get me arrested for indecent exposure, not that anybody was around in the rain.

The 5-mile ride home was an exercise in concentration. When you are shaking as hard as I was you don’t have all your faculties.  I rode the first mile with the emergency brake still on. I passed an accident scene where two motorcycles were down among the hailstones.

When I got home I did what any ignorant ass would do: I jumped in a very hot shower. But afterwards, I was still shivering. I looked up online how to treat hypothermia. First rule, don’t try to heat up quickly—like taking a hot shower—as it can cause heart arrhythmia. I put on thermal underwear and a puff vest and shivered for another half hour before it subsided.

Of course, all this except for the derailleur problem I would have avoided if I left 45 minutes earlier.

I feel accomplished in achieving my Colorado rite of passage. And I feel damned lucky to live to tell about it.

Drivers Who Hate Cyclists

First, let’s shoot all the car drivers, or at least those who don’t tolerate cyclists.

I first began cycling as an adult 40 years ago when I would commute on an beat up coaster bike from my apartment in Arlington to my office on the Mall in D.C.  (I purposely used this old bike on the chance that it would be stolen, I wouldn’t be out much.)

Since then I’ve commuted in other cities and for the last 15 years have bike around Fairfax County, though I don’t commute, as my office is in my home.  The story never changes:  Too many drivers think they own the roads and are discourteous and dangerous, willing to sacrifice the lives of those in oncoming vehicles and cyclists, in their mad dash to be somewhere a few seconds earlier.

Many cities are trying to encourage cycling.  It helps the environment, decreases car traffic, and benefits the rider physically.  Except that they run a good chance of being slaughtered.

Now it appears New York drivers want to reverse this trend. They’re angry at New York for taking away a few feet of traffic lanes that they think belongs solely to them.  Most states have laws allowing cyclists to share the road, but drivers, like too many Americans these days, don’t want to share anything.

I grant you that cyclists are not without fault.  Too many, especially those who think of themselves as the physically elite riders, frequently break the law, running stop lights and signs.  They need to be ticketed.  But that’s no excuse for drivers who feel entitled to something we all pay taxes for: the roads.

Surging bike ridership has created a simmering cultural conflict between competing notions of urban transportation. Many New Yorkers object to bicycle lanes as sudden, drastic changes to their coveted concrete front yards.

“He’s taking away my rights as a driver,” Leslie Sicklick, 45, said of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Ms. Sicklick, a dog walker and substitute teacher, grew up driving with her father around the Lower East Side, where she still lives.

All about her “rights.”  The hell with what’s good for the city.

The Transportation Department has responded to criticism by pointing to accident data showing a correlation between new lanes and increased pedestrian safety. Fatal crashes have decreased on streets with new lanes, according to the department.

“The record speaks for itself: Injuries have dropped, dramatically, for everyone on streets where bike lanes have been installed,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, the transportation commissioner.

The department pointed to the support lanes have found from community boards across the city, many of which have explicitly requested new bike lanes — along Prospect Park West, for example — in part because of safety concerns.

Meanwhile, and not surprising, some politicians are hostile to cyclists.  But none more wacko that this Coloradoan.

Outside the city, bikes have begun creeping into political battles this year. The Republican nominee for governor of Colorado, Dan Maes, wondered during the primary whether bicycles were part of a plot to ruin cities.

A plot to ruin cities.  Oy vey.