Crunch

Occasionally I have wondered about cross-training, something to supplement my exclusive emphasis on cardio-based cycling workouts.  When recovery days come, shouldn’t I be doing something else?  My problem is that I am not interested in just random workouts, and my experience has left me with the vivid conviction that repetitive non-cardio work is stupefyingly tedious and boring.  Further, I don’t want to do overall body building, aside from maintaining a basically acceptable muscle tone.  Since I don’t use a gym, weight machines are out of the question, even if I understood how to use them and wanted to, which I don’t.

At the same time, when I look in the mirror I realize that while my leg muscles are in pretty good shape by now, just north of there, in my core area, work is needed.  Cycling has really lessened (though not wholly cured) my inclination to get periods of lower back pain, but my abdominal muscles look less like a six-pack and more like an old wineskin.

So the other day I scoured the Web for low-impact abs workouts.  Got some good ideas, but then a better one came along in the new Bicycling magazine (March 2010, p. 51 ff).  It is an article about moving beyond a “plateau” level of conditioning and performance, something I think I’ve hit for sure.  Part of the plan is core strength exercises specifically focused on those muscles used for cycling.  There’s an alternative, more general, core exercise set also.   Yesterday I tried the first, and it felt great, which is to say healthily painful.  No crunches here, but reverse crunches and a few other things.  The routine is challenging, but is broken up by varied activities and resting between sets of the same exercise.  After I did this (using an old baby crib mattress for a pad) I felt for the first time that I was truly starting to work my way into a larger world of useful cycling exercise activity.  Just the thing for those “rest” days.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010

The Lance Factor: II

I was on the e-bike today, watching Lance Armstrong ride the Grand St. Bernard and Petit St. Bernard climbs, two of the toughest in the 2009 Tour de France.  Watching the best climbers in the world–and Lance was still one of them at age 37–was very inspiring to this would-be athlete who labors on much lesser hills.  Their efforts keep me inspired to push those pedals to toughen up both my legs and my stamina.  In major races the climbs can go on for 5 to 10 miles, almost relentlessly upward with barely a pause to allow a rider to catch his breath.

What makes Lance a great rider at 37–and he promises to be better in this second year of his “comeback” at 38–is his unparalleled self-discipline.  So last July he was still gaunt, barely any flesh on his cheeks or face, healthy by the obverse standards of cyclists with 4% body fat, a standing heart rate of about 40, low blood pressure, trying to keep pace with riders ten years younger and override the inexorable truth that with each passing year the body loses some of its efficiency in extracting oxygen from the air and distributing it to the muscles.  The only way to improve physically over time is better training, bringing one’s body closer to its absolute maximum potential.  I was able to do that for about ten years from the time I began to ride seriously, about 12 years ago.  Now I am at a kind of plateau, and need/want to push the “peak efficiency” envelope a bit harder.

At the end of the race stage I watched yesterday, Lance had struggled with this toll of age, but had risen heroically to finish close behind the eventual race winner.  He was in second place overall in the race, about 2:20 behind.  He ended up finishing third, the oldest man ever to stand on the podium in Paris at the end of the Tour.  What motivates him?  Can it motivate mere mortals like us?  One one level, my motivation might be the fear of not riding, the resulting diminution of strength and energy, the onset of aches and pains, that I feel when I am off training for even two weeks.  But it’s not really fear at all.  It’s knowing how good it is to ride, to have control of my direction, to feel free to decide where to go and how to get there, to understand how to manage the stability of the ride as well as its attendant instabilities.  Lance once said metaphorically that he’d like to ride as long as he could, and at the end of it all to ride into a green field and just lie there.  Me too.

{Written 1/28}

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010

Tooth and Claw

Cycling Past 50 is the book that got me thinking about what I was doing on the bike, to the small extent that I really have.  And, as I like to point out, “past 50” does not refer to km/h.  In it Joe Friel points out that anyone’s body really needs to recover from exertion, and that pressing too hard is harmful to long-range improvement goals.  This is especially important when the body takes longer to recover, as it does “past 50.”  He also advises that on training rides one should not always go the extra mile, but indeed resist the temptation to go too far.  Sometimes I ignore that advice, as I did the day before yesterday to reach 29 miles.  But this sense of being steady rather than going all-out for too long is a wise choice in both physical and mental processes.

So yesterday was a day off, giving my body a rest and my mind a chance to prepare well for my evening class.  During the afternoon I was at my desk, which sits in front of a second story double window looking out over our back yard (and the two or three behind that).  There’s a huge willow oak about ten feet directly beyond this window, with a crotch where two big branches split off at eye level.  In that crotch is a big squirrel’s nest, and I often find myself watching the three squirrels who apparently live there playing around on the branches and on top of the nest.

Yesterday I was musing and watching when in an instant a huge brown projectile crashed into the nest.  After a nanosecond of shock I realized that a big red-shouldered hawk had attacked.  This is the kind of stuff you see on the Nature Channel!  The poor hawk missed, though, as the target squirrel unaccountably escaped into the twiggy depths of the nest.  The intrepid hunter sat there for a few minutes exasperatedly plotting his next move before flying off to a nearby branch, and then away to the woods along the bike trail.

I always root for the predator in these encounters.  They’re such beautiful creatures, and we have dozens more gray tree rats than we need in this neighborhood.  Maybe next time.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010

If winter comes . . .

The blue sky today was preternaturally blue, like the vivid airless oils of some early Northern Renaissance paintings.  There was nothing, not an atom, between me and the Source.  Today, though, that sky was never one thing for more than a few minutes.  Dark, restless, full of rain-pregnant clouds all morning, it finally disgorged a fleeting deluge about noon.  Then the sun came out.  That amazingly violent blue was contrasted by billowing pure white clouds, and occasional iron-grey stratus layers racing on a SW-NE axis that made me wonder what I should do if there was another downpour.

But my Yankee instincts about weather (that’s New England Yankee, not (gag) New York Yankee) were right, and it rained no more.  Plenty of wind, though.  The average was only 3 mph, but there were gusts of up to 44 mph, and some of those hit me on the way out, helped me on the way home.

Riding right after a squall line goes through is a hoot.  The tires are wet all the time–they pick up enough moisture even from damp pavement to slide all over if you’re not careful, and the spray off the tires paints a wet stripe up the middle of your back, starting a little lower than that.  The winds whip you all over the place.  Ultimately they usually back around as they did today, beginning in the SE and swinging through the E and NE quadrants rapidly to NW.  And when they get there, it soon starts to cool down.

I loved dressing to ride today for 60°, in shorts, a warmer long-sleeve top with t-shirt underlayer (taking care of the core), no sweatband, fingerless gloves, all the accoutrements of early spring.  On my ride, incredibly, I met my stepdaughter, her husband, her mother-in-law, and my tiny new granddaughter Emma taking a stroll.  And Sean complimented me on my timing, saying it would be 29° by Saturday.  Screw Saturday.  Screw 29°.  I am riding today, and I love this vivid, protean, alive weather.  I felt like riding forever, into that savagely blue sky.  But I settled for 29 miles.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

E-bike

It was good to get back on the e-bike today.  Good for a change of pace, working different muscles, a more relaxed experience that I have also standardized through lots of data provided by the e-bike’s computer.  I know a certain workout setting should produce a calorie-lost figure in a certain range.  Not that the number is so exact, but it’s the relative values that allow me to gauge my strength and stamina on a given day.

The e-bike is a CardioMax 550, made by KeyFitness.  It has been in the family for several years, maybe 10 or 11, originally given as a “gift of health” with our promise that it would be used.  For a couple of years the usage was sporadic, but when I initiated my original drive to get serious about health and regular cycling, the CardioMax became a big factor.   I have replaced the bearings a couple of times, and the magnetic drag device once, but it has held up well.  It’s powered by for D batteries; the computer records time spent, “speed,” “distance,” calories burned, resistance level, heart rate, and configuration.  The configuration can be level, a “hill” pattern of alternating greater and less drag, and a “plateau” pattern in which the resistance increases, holds steady for a long time, and then decreases.

This does the job, though I wish the seat were narrower, that the pedals allowed toe clips, and that the overall configuration allowed a body position that better simulated a bike.

To while away the time (I usually warm up for 5 minutes and then do a routine for 40 more) I watch cycling DVDs and videos.  Just yesterday it was the first alpine stage of last year’s Tour de France.  After a while I feel as though I’m riding right along with the peloton, and getting out on the bike trail the next day with all those amateurs seems like such a comedown.  I love the delusion; half of working out is a state of mind.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Zen Letdown [published 1/22/10]

Yesterday after my ride I thought–but did not have time to post:

This is the first day I’ve tried to push it a little bit, being aggressive on hills and hammering the flats.  It felt great while I was out there, but now I am really whipped.  I’m wondering if I’m more out of shape than usual, just low on the right kind of energy reserves, or what.  I’m afraid I am going to fall asleep in class tonight, and I’m teaching the class.  I better think up some interesting stuff to say to keep myself awake.

This morning on the way out to do errands I casually inspected my bike as I walked past it in the garage.  The left rear brake pad was on the rim!  Well, that explains a lot about my feeling of exhaustion.  It sets me a challenge, though, as a would-be zen mechanic.  I am supposed to be at one with the machine.  Why did I not perceive the source of the drag?  Why was I so focused on a possible malfunction of my own inner mechanics that I never considered the mechanical systems of the bike?  I need a sensibility tuneup.

Aéro Dynamik [published 1/20/10]

I am finding the wind trainer more and more mesmerizing.  Today never hit 40˚ so I just stayed in and rode it.  I like the steely click and whir the machine makes as the pedals revolve about 80 times a minute as they drive the chainring gears.  When it’s in high power mode (the biggest ring), that’s 52 teeth clicking into chain slots every revolution, or 4160 little clicks a minute.  The way the TV strobes fast-moving objects, it looks from directly above the chainring gear as if the chain is standing still when you’re pedaling at just the right speed.  The rear derailleur sings a similar metallic song as it guides the chain over the rear cogs at just the right tension.  Thanks to all this gearing, a point on the surface of one of the tires is traveling at about 18 or 19 mph, and the air being sliced by all the wheel spokes adds a sigh to the music.  If we were rolling on the road, the highly inflated treadless “slick” tires would be making their own hollow echoes.

In 2003, the year that Lance Armstrong won his fifth Tour de France, the European techno-pop group Kraftwerk released the album Tour de France.  The rhythms and sounds of each track perfectly express that particular light, rapid mechanical rhythm of the bicycle, complementing and supplementing the equally rapid and insistent rhythms of the breath and the heartbeat, the muscular tension and relaxation, of the cyclist.  I’d never wear earbuds on a ride, but the music’s so much in my head that I don’t have to.  One of my favorite tracks is “Aéro Dynamik,” which has a series of evocative rhyming phrases.  I love the multilingual play of the album lyrics, the characteristically Germanic mechanical precision of the rhythms and sounds of the group, and of course especially the German accent and spelling applied to the French words in this song.   So this music reflects and adds to the various sound components of my bike’s own techno-pop song.

Cycling itself seems to require the fusion of the machine and the human, technology and passion, head and heart, classic and romantic.  Robert M. Pirsig talks about some of these same things in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but that’s another story.

NOTE:  There are several YouTube performances of “Aéro Dynamik,” including this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQKMChV1YqY