Oxygen Deprivation

A day like today calls for a long ride.  Warm air, low humidity, nothing on my schedule.  I’ve been building up to longer rides, but as I whined earlier in Wait. Weight? Don’t Tell Me!, it’s been a slow start to the season, and my shape is not what is usually is by the end of April.  I ended up doing 15 rides this month, though, so that’s a good foundation for the rest of the summer, except that I’ll be away from the bike for a while in May.

Anyhow, today I rode the 38.67 miles from here to Ashburn and back, via Hunter Station Road on the  way out.  The air was vibrant, bright, and warm, and moving somewhat swiftly in the range from NW to SW.  I promised my self I’d take it easy and ride at about 90% of my usual intensity to save energy, because today’s ride was a good 7 miles longer than any ride I’d done in 2010. (1)    But my vow was hard to keep.  I come up on a slow rider–or more irritating yet a fast rider who is freewheeling and rubbernecking instead of maintaining a steady pace–and when I pass that rider my instinct is to keep up the pace to assure they don’t pass me again.(2)   Not because I am racing, but because I like to pace myself at my own speed, and not be forced to ride at the pace of other people.

So by the time I got out to Ashburn I was feeling some fatigue, having battled a headwind/tailwind switcheroo all the way out.  More tail- than head-, but enough to keep me from settling into a rhythm.  Going home is more downhill, but was also relatively speaking more headwind.  I was averaging 15.7 mph when i turned around, and ended at 15.o.  (3)  So heading back I was “on a roll,” trying to keep my pace up, my cadence steady, and my effort even.  With the quartering headwind I experienced much of the time, though, I was drained.  By the time I got to the center of Vienna, Maple Ave., I had 2 miles to go.  I was too low on energy to really push it up the mile-long upgrade that extends halfway to our house from Vienna (the rest is downhill and level).  I was in oxygen deficit.

Oxygen deficit happens on a long ride when the body demands more energy than the lungs can provide by oxygenating the blood.  Without enough oxygen the muscles lose power, the brain responds more slowly and less acutely, thus handicapping the rider both in strength and decision-making.  One can, and I did, demand more of the body than it wants to give.  That puts it further into oxygen deficit, however, and one can’t sustain that very long.  (4)  So up the hill I went at respectable but not my best cadence and speed, down the other side, and home.  I had to force myself to look carefully both ways at the one remaining road crossing; oxygen deprivation short-circuits the brain’s usual cautionary role. (5)

When I got to the foot of Academy St. I did my usual “sprint” uphill past the house to the top of the street, followed by a U-turn and downhill glide into the driveway.  I pulled up, noticing that the garage door was open.  I removed the bike computer, went into the garage, hung up the bike, took off my helmet and gloves, got my sports drink to cool off with, and went inside.  Only then did I see out the front door that Jane and grand-daughter Emma were sitting on the front stoop.  I hadn’t seen them coming in!  That’s the tunnel vision, reduced visual and mental focus, of oxygen deprivation.  I was wholly concentrated on getting my body through the last several miles of the ride.  I was less than fully comprehending, less than fully rational.

Some other time we’ll talk about “pain,” which I deliberately put myself into today.  I finished at 4:00.  It’s 10:30 and I still feel pretty “knackered,” as the British say.  But oxygen deprivation in and of itself is worth being aware of.  You’re never much aware of it while you’re in it, though.  No perspective.


(1)  That in itself is evidence that I’ve not gotten into my usual shape.

(2)  Today it was a young and athletic couple.  He had a Scott; I didn’t catch her bike.  But they couldn’t quite accelerate past me smoothly at the same time.  She’d forge ahead, then he’d try but couldn’t quite get past.  She’d slow down to help him catch up; I’d go past her; he’d pass me; she couldn’t get by, etc.  Finally they cut the crap and took off, but it was ludicrous, bordering on harassment.  At on point, shortly before they blasted by, he said “you can just pass us if you want.”  What was that all about?

(3)  The ride to Ashburn is completely on the Trail except for the short loop of a couple of mile that takes me up Hunter Station Road, and then around through the eastern reaches of Reston and back onto the W&OD Trail at Sunset Valley Road.  Fundamentally the Trail goes uphill from Vienna to Reston, level out to western Herndon, and then down and up to Ashburn.  An old railroad line, it keeps to a 3% or less grade except for a couple of points where over- and underpasses have been added.  But it gains probably 300 or 400 feet from Vienna to Ashburn, so it’s more downhill on the way home.  When the wind is from the S to SW, though, it is a quartering headwind on the way back because the trail runs roughly SE into Vienna.

(4)  I confess bad planning too.  Leaving om my ride at 1:00 pm, I’d eaten only a small bowl of cereal and some milk this day, and had a mug and a half of coffee.  Caffeine can only take you so far when power is an issue.  I forgot to take along an energy bar as I had planned.

(5)  This condition is not the same as a “bonk,” in which all the available short-term energy in the body has been used.  That’s far worse and more painful.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.


Exercise in Spring

With winter’s chill and blustery skies
My e-bike’s fine for exercise.
But when spring comes and weather’s fair,
I ride outside in sunny air.

Yet all too often chores demand
The cycling time that I had planned.
Appointments, deadlines, supersede
My heart’s joy, and my body’s need.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue
And I should like so much to ride,
To have to exercise inside?

With profound respect for Robert Louis Stevenson, whose sentimental yet droll A Child’s Garden of Verses is still one of the best children’s books ever.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.


Early bicycles did not have the ability to “freewheel,” or “coast,” as kids said in my childhood.  The chain drove the rear sprocket, which was attached to the rear wheel’s axle.  When the wheel was rotating, the sprocket rotated.  As early as 1898 a freewheel mechanism was invented, which allowed the  driven shaft (wheel axle) to rotate faster than the driving shaft (the sprocket or sprockets attached to the rear wheel and turned by the chain).  That meant the cyclist could stop pedaling and the bicycle would still roll.

In the early years of the Tour de France, into the second decade of the 20th century, the freewheel hub was banned.  The race’s founder, Henri Desgrange, wanted to keep things pure, “original,” and simple.  So to go down mountain roads fast, riders had to weld footrests on their front forks to get their feet off the pedals and let ’em rip.  Desgrange’s attitude is typical of the “traditionalist” attitude that has kept mechanical innovation in cycling slowed artificially.

Of course Tour racers and others who love to go fast don’t want to freewheel if it slows them down.  (Note that the verb “freewheel” means “the act of coasting, or traveling on a bike without pumping the pedals.”)  I’m one of these riders.  It frustrates me to come up behind a rider who’s just dawdling along, pedaling a bit and freewheeling on any downgrade, however miniscule.  I pass the rider with an “on the left,” sometimes seeming to startle him or her.  Then the rider may get re-energized and come back to pass me.  No problem, except that they seem to think I am insulting them by passing, when all I am doing is maintaining my rhythm, intensity, and speed.

When I ride I try to keep my legs moving at all times.  After all, I am out there for the exercise, and every foot I freewheel is a waste of my time, unless pedaling is going to lead me into danger.  Moving along not only maxes out my speed, but builds momentum for every uphill rise.  Momentum is so important in cycling.  Stop pedaling at the wrong point, such as approaching a climb, and you lose a built-in natural asset.  Energy that could help you up that hill is dissipated in heat and friction from applying the brakes to you wheel rims.  It’s a simple application of Newton’s first Law: “a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force.”  One outside force, of course, is friction as the tires roll on the road.  The rider more than counteracts that by pedaling.  But when one ceases to pedal at the bottom of the rise, both the uphill grade and the lack of inertia-overcoming force slow the bike down.  Why do that to yourself?  The difference between using the momentum of hard pedaling and overcoming the inertia brought on by not pedaling is huge, as measured by the degree of muscular stress and the relative speed of the bike.  The slower the speed uphill, the more your body must hurt to overcome the force of gravity.

So if you’re out to dawdle along, listen for my “passing on the left” and feel the breeze of my slipstream.

© Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Wait. Weight? Don’t Tell Me!

I’ve been cycling now for about 20 years, since meeting Jane and Jane’s kids.  Not that Matt and Andrew were into cycling or anything, but when they went to Boy Scout camp at Philmont they phoned home not because they were homesick, but to get the current Tour de France results.  I rode low-level recreationally for a while.  But about seven years ago I was checking my weight and doing the mathematical extrapolations when I realized that the trend line needed to go down, not up.  So my cycling became much more intense, part of an active program to eat healthier foods and to exercise regularly.  i rode outdoors in fair weather, and indoors in foul, on that exercise bike that I was given a couple or three years before the weight loss program started.  And I lost about 45 pounds in a year and a half.  Nothing fancy, but fundamentally burning more calories than I took in.  I still burn about two days of calories a week by exercising.

This year, though, my weight went up in the late fall/early winter as it always does, but has not come down as much in the spring.  The seasonal oscillation has, in fact, resulted in successively higher weights for three years in a row.  And now I am a good 5 pounds above where I would like to be (“should be”?). My cycling, still intense, is part of my life for many reasons, but weight control is one of them.

Partly my plight’s a result of circumstances.  An extra week’s vacation on a cruise, six weeks of impassible trails, an extra “holiday” with feasting in honor of a spouse’s birthday, some visitors whose joyous and cherished presence nevertheless keep me off the bike–such things work against a nice steady decline of average weight as winter turns to spring.

I have about two weeks before another such hiatus, and it’s time to get serious.  No more self-indulgence.  I need to get into that food-hating mind-set that I found and embraced so fully for 18 months.  Not there yet.  Have to contact my inner anger, or resolve, or will.  Feel the way Birthers feel about Obama, Tea Partiers feel about government, Fundamentalists feel about infidels, Sox fans feel about the Yankees: deep, primordial, intense, non-rational loathing.  That should do it.  Please pass the wine.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.


Sometimes cycles of life are completely compelling, even more than cycling in life.  This is especially true in the human cycles of life and death, when we are “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees,” as Wordsworth phrased it.  And so it is with Dorothy, whom I had known far longer than my wife, almost as long as my first wife, and who, with her husband, was one of my oldest and dearest adult friends.

I met Dorothy in the fall of 1961, when I first arrived in Ithaca, NY, to begin graduate work in English literature at Cornell University.  We were part of a cadre of friends, the kind that bond together in mutual love of the subject and fear and trembling at the august professors, not to mention the vagaries of trying to establish adult lives amid the hubbub of university regulations, long days and nights in the library, gravitational forces of faraway friends, families, and lovers, class presentations, term papers, pizzas in Collegetown, issues with the landlords from whom we rented rooms, and the like.  I’d never have known Dorothy if it hadn’t been for Paul, my fellow as a new grad student, a tremendously intelligent, articulate, thoughtful, kind, and loyal guy.  He’d met Dorothy straight off when they met while registering for classes, he in English and she in French.  And they were together ever after that.

During an unusually hot, sweaty September, and an ensuing year of eye-opening graduate work, including the “Bibliography and Methods” scavenger hunt course, dinners in the Graduate Student Union with its oddball ice cream flavors from Ag School experiments, and somewhat mind-bending departmental perspectives and agendas (I’d come from an undergraduate chemistry major), we kept each other afloat with conversations over cheap grad student meals, commiseration over the same wretched academic demands, and just our mutual admiration, pleasure, and satisfaction with each others’ company.   It was no surprise when Paul and Dorothy became engaged, and a couple of friends and I were soon on hand, sharing a glass of bubbly with the happy couple.

I went on to UVa for doctoral work; Paul and Dorothy stayed at Cornell, pursuing their respective degrees.  They finished a year before I did, and found jobs in Washington, DC–Paul at Georgetown and Dorothy at George Washington.  When I was in the job market I sought, at Paul’s urging, and landed a position at Georgetown too.  For several years we were junior faculty together there, again along with five or six other couples with whom we formed bonds and started sharing dinner parties, growing families, and professional lives.  Dorothy didn’t become a mother, but a gardener, knitter, gourmet cook, and cat lover.  She embellished her personality of graduate school–larger than life, as measured by her fashions, her opinions, and her personal style.  Always a charmer, Dorothy was more and more into her French professor persona, leaving the demure conventions of suburban America behind.

Over wine and a plate of great food, she’d share incisive and devastating analysis of everything from a classic work of literature to the latest departmental liaison dangereuse.  Dressed in over-the-top splendor, with hand-knit scarves and shawls, always charming and also quite sincere and loving to her friends, Dorothy was completely lovely and completely endearing.  She knew that we, her friends, knew what she was like at the core of herself, and she and we had fun in the role-playing around that secure, faithful core.  She loved her husband, her garden, her cats, all with equally endearing warmth.

After I left Georgetown we saw one another less frequently, but she and Paul were my friends through years of marriage and academic work, some of it at Georgetown.  We remained friends through my divorce and remarriage, visiting Virginia wineries and dining together on rare but wonderful occasions at local restaurants.  Jane and I had a great meal with them a few months ago, and we had found another place that we intended to introduce them to later this spring.

But it turned out that the relaxed and charming meal that we had together last fall was the last time I saw Dorothy.  She died very suddenly last week, a victim of asthma, the pollen season, and a weak aorta.  Paul says that she was in severe pain for some hours, and I share his lamentation that she had to suffer that way.  Dorothy had her biblically allotted three score and ten.  But her death seems so untimely, for surely there was much energy for this world left in her soul.

And we who loved her are so much poorer for this loss, for a grand, intense, intelligent, and loving personality has left this world.  I am glad that I can remember her as I first met her, a young, energetic, very bright, pretty new graduate student nearly half a century ago, as well as the mature, scintillating, droll, and charming woman who gave me the key to her office to use in my adjunct professorial meetings, who created great gardens, loved her friends, radiated joie de vivre.  It was a privilege to know her, and I will never eat French food with friends without thinking of Dorothy at the table. Salute!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.


My ride today was really weird.  A warm, windy, day, this one lured me out into a somewhat longer ride.  It’s also the season for both sweet gum tree and oak tree tendrils to drop.  After the ride, I sat on the porch drinking my juice and watched huge balls of oak tendrils blowing off the roof during a gusty afternoon.  Scratching my neck, I finally realized that during my ride a bunch of tree refuse had been dumped all over my back.  My neck’s the only part of my body where such stuff could accumulate, with my helmet above and my jersey below shedding the rest.

The beauty of the ride today is the Potomac River.  i took Rosebike, which cannot handle (with my physique) steep uphills.  So i ride down the W&OD to the Custis Trail, down that to Rosslyn, and then down the Potomac until I hit the W&OD again where it dead ends into the Mount Vernon Trail at National Airport (we don’t use the R word).  Once down on the banks of the river, the Custis Trail runs along some wooden boardwalks over the marshes near Roosevelt Island.  It then hugs the shore until National, where it has to cut inland of the runways themselves.  Right at that point is a park where many people go to watch jet aircraft land or take off, depending on the wind direction.  Soon after I catch the W&OD back into Shirlington, riding along Four Mile Run past the Arlington County Waste Treatment Plant.  Warm but treated water pours into the Run, which results in rich algae beds summer and winter.

Today along the Potomac the SW wind was ruffling the center of the river, but the lee shore I was riding along was as smooth as glass.  Nothing like watching the great monuments of our nation roll by–the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, and the like.  I feel like saluting every time I pass here.

Last year I wrote about this route as follows:

July 16, 2009

In my cycling log, I have given every route its own abbreviated name.  Today I rode the Potloop and the Arloop.  The latter is a two-mile detour from the W&OD Trail through north Arlington, VA, a county which has been bike-friendly in providing numerous bike lanes on suburban streets and by maintaining its portion of the Trail to a high level.

But the Potloop is a trip that a bike rider can only take in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.  It consists of the W&OD trail to Shirlington in south Arlington, a trail extension to the Mount Vernon Trail, and then north past National Airport [we don’t use the R-word] along the Potomac River on the Virginia side to the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which crosses into Georgetown.  But I stay in Virginia, heading back out the Custis Trail to my north Arlington loop.

That Potomac River ride will make your patriotic heart beat just a little faster.  First the airport itself.  From the trail you can’t really see or appreciate the art deco style of the old building, built before WW II in the DC-3 era, or the new part, done in spectacular post-modern fashion with great interior decor, or even the modern Metro stop on the Yellow and Blue lines at the airport.  But just north of the airport is an open place where people come to watch the planes take off and land.  When they’re taking off northwards there’s a loud gunshot sound in advance of each one, to scare and scatter the flocks of starlings and Canada geese (two non-native, invasive, nuisance species) that threaten the safety of the flights.  The planes are already well up when they clear the end of the runway, and climbing rapidly, but they make “one helluva roar,” as the Army Air Corps song goes.  When they’re coming in from the north (like today) it’s much better.  They’re only about 85 feet off the ground when they pass over, landing gear and flaps down, and their ominous thunder precedes them.  When they’re right overhead, the roar is intense and the ground shakes.

Just north of the airport is a kind of “perfect convergence” of transportation, where the bike trail passes under a CSX railroad bridge, the cars on the George Washington Parkway whiz past to the left, Metro trains rumble nearby, boats and kayaks float in the Potomac just to the right, and the planes thunder in overhead.

Just beyond, the D.C. skyline comes into view, shifting as I move upstream.  First the Jefferson Memorial appears, with the cherry trees (in season) of the Tidal Basin.  Then the Lincoln Memorial, with the spire of the Washington Memorial and the tower of the Old Post Office building piercing the low skyline.  On the trail I cross a little bridge and the Lady Bird Johnson memorial sculpture comes up beside me–water birds in flight.  Right after that I can stop to rest on a bench from which the GW Memorial lines up directly behind the Lincoln Memorial.

Next I pass Arlington National Cemetery on my left; since 2001 it’s been off-limits to bikes (I wonder if Osama Bin Laden has a Trek or a Cervelo), but I can glimpse the Custis-Lee Mansion.  Then it’s under the Memorial Bridge and past Roosevelt Island (the statue of Teddy can’t be seen from the shore, and the island is also off-limits to bikes).  Then I head west to Arlington and home.

I’ve done this ride in both directions, in all sorts of weather and seasons, and it’s a bit different in its beauty every time.  The constant is the privilege of being here and visually celebrating the nation’s capital.

So the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Today it was north to south, the reverse of the above narrative.  But it’s one of the great rides of a great city.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Life’s Little Victories

Robert Pirsig not surprisingly has some things to say about the Zen of motorcycle maintenance in his best-selling book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  It’s not the major topic of the text, but his words have been helpful to me.  The gist of it is to be careful, calm, focused, orderly, and at peace with the task.  Do not consider the machine to be your foe.  A corollary conclusion I have drawn, based on the Zen approach, is not to worry about time. The task will take longer than you think.  There will be problems you have not anticipated.  Repeat your mantra and continue.

When I apply Zen to bicycle maintenance, it seems almost silly, almost overkill.  What makes motorcycle maintenance difficult is the internal combustion engine, with its precise calibrations and myriad moving parts, extremes of heat, combination of mechanics, combustion, and electric circuits.  The bicycle is, in comparison, child’s play; literally, kids can maintain their own bikes.  Bikes these days may be more complex than their ancestors of 75 years ago, what with carbon parts, disc brakes, torque requirements on some fastenings, and refined tolerances.  Still, they work about the same way the old ones did, and a set of hex wrenches, standard screwdrivers, and several specialized wrenches and hand tools will do 90% of the jobs required.

Still, I get a kick out of every successful repair I do.  The other day my Jamis Coda’s front derailleur began malfunctioning on the way home from a ride.  The chain would not lift up onto the largest chainring, nor would it drop down to the lowest easily.  The shifter had some effect, but not the usual precise, clean movement.  Back home, I found that the cable from the handlebar’s control levers to the derailleur itself was almost severed; about half of the strands had broken so it was hanging on by the proverbial “thread” of the remaining strands.  These had been stretched by the force of the derailleur’s spring mechanism that pulls the shift arm inward toward the bike’s frame.  Force applied by the cable to the shift lever is needed to pull the shift arm outward, thus seating the chain on the big chainring.

The repair is simple: remove the compromised cable, install a new one, and adjust it.  So I went to Spokes Etc., the local bike shop, and bought the $3.99 replacement cable.  Taking off the old one wasn’t so bad, except that (per Pirsig) I needed to lay everything out in the sequence in which I removed it.  Every mechanism is different, but this one seemed logical enough to disassemble and find the “head” of the cable.  The other end, at the derailleur, needed cutting so that it would slide back through the cable casing at the top of the downtube.  That done, the new cable slid through all the proper apertures, out the casing, down the downtube, under the bottom bracket, and up to the derailleur.  Right then and there I reassembled the housing at the handlebar end, which demanded only that I turn one little item so that all the holes and pins lined up right.

Adjusting the cable tension at the derailleur is always the hard part of this repair.  The derailleiur has set screws for high and low fine tuning, but getting the tension in the right ball park and tightening the screw to hold the cable in place is a challenge.  Too much or too little tension and the gears won’t shift properly.  The chain may rub on the shifter arm, or jam up, or be “thrown off” (i.e. pushed out too far so that it doesn’t stay in the teeth of the big sprocket but drops off altogether).  This is where patience, intuition, and calmness come in.  I have to put tension on the cable with pliers in one hand, while I tighten the screw clamping the cable onto the derailleur with the other.  When I can hand-crank the bike as it rests in the repair stand with the  rear wheel off the ground, shifting from gear to gear, and everything works smoothly without the chain rubbing on the mechanism, I’m almost done.  Now I can cut off the excess cable length and crimp a cap over the end of the cable.

When I have it fine tuned I take a test ride up and down the street to see how it works.  Took about four tries this time (dropped the chain twice), but it now shifts like new.  Paying a mechanic may be less hassle, but doing the job perfectly yourself is priceless.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.