Midwinter Shape

I’ve braved the continuing cold weather, though it’s been nearer to normal just lately, to go out cycling four of the last six days.  None of them have been unusually long rides, but the four together add up to 86.5 miles.  The result is that I have dropped a little weight, and physically felt a little better.  Could it be that I’m getting a bit of shape back?  Not the kind of conditioning I have in the summer, mind you, but something like a mini-phase of being in respectable condition, the kind I’ve never been able to duplicate entirely by riding indoors.

Today was supposed to be quite cold, and I had errands to do, so I just wrote off any possibility of riding.  But at 1:50 p.m., arriving home to temperature reports in the low 40s, chores all done, I couldn’t resist this outright gift of a rideable day.  More rideable than yesterday, actually.  We had freezing rain the day before, but yesterday the sun came out, the air warmed up during the early morning, and the vestigial remains of ice on streets, sidewalks, and lawns melted.   The cold ground and humid air, though, left the streets wet all morning.  So when I went out I wore my plastic cycling rain jacket over my Gortex jacket.  That way I wouldn’t get a stripe of grit up the Gortex’s back from the stuff coming off my rear tire.  Only problem is that my Gortex and underlayer both are “breathable” fabrics, but the rain jacket is not.  All the moisture my body was giving off got trapped under the rain jacket layer.  So at the end of the ride both the underlayer and the Gortex jacket were super-saturated with moisture.  Ironically, the Gortex survived unscathed, but my bike had a layer of grit on most of the frame.  I was able to towel it off before it dried on, but I need to get back and oil a few exposed cables.

Today all surfaces were dry.  That meant both no spray and more reliable traction.  Bike tires pick up moisture so easily, and on the Jamis they’re not a matched set anyway.  The front is a Vittoria Randoneur, that has tread and inflates to 85 lbs.  The rear is a Forte slick that inflates to 100 lbs.  Both are former front tires.  I was trying to use them up and they’re lasting longer than I thought they would.  So I’m always a bit leery of fast corners and other maneuvers that might cause the back wheel to slide out when its wet.  But today it was dry, and I headed inbound on the W&OD for the first time this year.  A standard route took me through some neighborhoods as well as along the trail down to  Shirlington.  It’s basically downhill outbound, and uphill on the return.  That’s especially good with a SE wind like today’s because I get a tailwind most of the way home.  Cycling along, I had good strength and power, and even wanted, for the first time in quite a while, to deliberately shift to a more aggressive gear in certain situations, confident that by doing so I could make the bike go faster, instead of fearing that the increased resistance would just make me slow down.

And I came home at just about the same weight I was six years ago on this date.  Good omen!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

The Gypsy in My Soul

When I set out on my bike yesterday, I was planning to take one of my neighborhood cycling routes.  It was chilly, with a noticeable breeze out of the northwest to reinforce the 35° air temperature, and so if I took the neighborhood route I’d be cycling around my own house for 21 miles of road distance, able to break it off and get back quick if I got too cold.  But I would take a side trip up the right-of-way to the Bike Trail just to check out how much was left of the slowly melting ice.  For future reference.

But when I got up there and saw it was clear either way as far as I could see, those plans flew out the window.  With only an instant of reflection, I was rolling into the wind toward Herndon.  It’s an instinct that is distinctively (though of course not uniquely) part of the American character, whether in real-life characters from Johnny Appleseed to Davy Crockett to Pa Ingalls to Amelia Earhart to Woody Guthrie to Jack Kerouac, or their fictional counterparts like Huck Finn, Daisy Miller, or Shane.  When you see the open road, or river, or sky, you’ve got to go.  And so I went, not so bravely or so far as the intrepid heroes listed above, but far enough.  Farther than most individuals I saw on their bikes, skateboards, or feet yesterday.  Far enough to feel good about turning around for home, and close enough still to be warm in my winter duds when I got there.

If I am fancy free,
And love to wander,
It’s just the Gypsy in my soul.
. . . . .
There is no other life
Of which I’m fonder,
It’s just the Gypsy in my soul.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Still Cold

Here it’s been six days since I posted.   And until yesterday, it had been ten days since I had ridden outside.  Just too inclement and/or cold.  We keep having these little snowfalls, from a dusting to a couple of inches.  And unlike most Virginia winters, when even a few inches of soft, slushy snow melts by the following noon under the benign beams of the southern sun, this winter it’s been either cruelly cold or sullenly cloudy, or both.  Thus the thin covering of ice and snow lingers for days on the trail, and even for a couple of days on the street.  And often the low-30s temperatures are abetted by brisk, cutting winds.  Last year by January 18 I had done only three rides, at average temperatures of  35, 50, and 50.  This year I’ve done four, at temperatures of 35, 37, 40, and 35.  We have not had a high of 50° since early December.

But I have been out there the last couple of days.  Today was another W&OD Trail ride that demanded navigation through patches of uneven melted-and-frozen ice fields, and a few snow patches.  I now have these pretty well located in four places (going outbound from Vienna to Herndon):
–uphill on the rise between Cedar lane and Vienna Community Center
–downhill on the same rise (the worst snow patches are here)
–just after crossing Hunter Mill Road, in three separate but closely spaced patches
–between the Wiehle Avenue crossing and the Reston Parkway overpass, in two patches of dense shade.
The worst spots are generally on the inbound side, because the outbound side gets marginally more sun.

I actually did pass somebody going outbound today, right after Hunter Mill Road.  And I passed maybe six riders going the other way, most of them on slick road bikes.  I had my hybrid Jamis Coda Comp, because I trust the 28 mm tires a bit more in these conditions.  But this proves once again that in extreme conditions (35“F) it’s the serious cyclists who are out.

I must say that today’s ride was lots of fun.  What matters a whole lot at these air temperatures is whether the sun is out.  The radiant heat is a lifesaver.  And today I rode home with a tailwind, though that followed 12 miles of ploughing into a 5 mph breeze at 35°.  I suppose that means the perceived windchill, corrected for my velocity, was about 20“.  But I felt better after 24.2 miles today than I did after 21 miles yesterday.  No twingy left knee, for one thing.  Just shows that my body was ‘way out of shape after 10 days off the bike, and it just got into its active mode groove after today.  Unfortunately, we’re supposed to be in for a very cold day tomorrow and then 36 hours of “mixed precipitation,” that deadly DC area mix of sleet, freezing rain, and rain.  But today, I loved the cold air in my lungs, I loved hammering homeward with the wind at my back, I even loved traversing the bumpy ice patches.  One more day in a string of several hundred when I came home from a ride thoroughly glad I had made the effort to do it.

Cycling means never coming home disappointed.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Intervals

In late fall and winter weather, life itself and my cycling seem to go in intervals.  We’ve had strong winds the last few days, winds that have pretty much completed the leaf fall (except for a stubborn Pin Oak in the front yard that threatens to shed leaves on the driveway all winter).  that means that on some days, when I need to do an hour or two of cleaning out the shrubbery beds around the house and in the back corners of the lot, I just don’t have it in me to ride outside or on the exercise bike.  I know it’s not aerobic exercise, and it’s not even decent cross training, but I’ve just had enough after that kind of outdoor effort..

And then there’s the temperature.  A deep Arctic air mass has settled over our area for a couple of weeks, and another is predicted next week.  While the average high temperature these days is a rideable 49º, the highs for several days have barely exceeded freezing, if they’ve done so at all.  That’s especially true when the near-freezing air is gusting around at 25 to 35 mph, as has been the case for much of the cold snap.  Both the leaf fall and the windy cold have made riding outside an in-and-out proposition, possible only at intervals.

Yesterday I was feeling particularly frustrated and itching for some action.  For almost two years I have been riding the exercise bike at a moderate level, at which my heart rate is at about 80% of my lactate threshold.  That threshold is the heart rate at which breathing becomes labored, at which you can no longer converse comfortably while riding.   This turns out to be about double my resting heart rate.  Aerobic exercise is regarded as sufficient if the exerciser’s heart rate is at that level for 20 minutes a session, several times a week.  Anything beyond that, or higher than that, is for other kinds of conditioning.

Several years back I prided myself on really strenuous e-bike sessions, pedaling as long as 40 to 45 minutes at a fairly high resistance level at a rate that brought my heart up to near the Maximum Heart Rate.  I finally decided that this approach was unsophisticated, and perhaps not healthy.  yet I wanted to keep pushing myself beyond a relaxed “comfort zone.”  that’s when I first discovered Intervals.  They’re intended for training outdoors on bike or on foot, but they can be useful inside too.  In interval training I go way up into the “red zone” (near 100% MHR) for 4 minutes, then totally relax for 2 minutes to bring my HR down to about that 80% of the lactate threshold, and then repeat the 4/2 alternation.  I do a total of 40 minutes, 7 blocks of “on” and six of “off.”  With each block my body performs less and less efficiently, so the level of effort which brings me up to the MHR and keeps it there drops.  That’s especially true if I am not in top shape.  This workout results in my coming up from the basement totally drained and panting, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do.  And the consequence is that when I am riding the bike I become able to perform and sustain a maximum effort far better.

About two years ago I stopped doing intervals.  I decided that they were too strenuous, and, especially last winter, I came close to the equivalent of an “intense” workout by riding on my mag trainer at a speed and resistance suitable for a higher HR.  During seasons when I usually ride my bike outside, the straightforward “spinning” workout seems to be good enough on my rare indoor occasions.  Furthermore, Intervals are not that much fun to look forward to when I’m not feeling in good shape and well focused, even though they do make the time fly past.

But yesterday my muscles demanded the intensity of an actual ride, something they’ve not experienced in some time, and so I rediscovered Intervals.  It’s good to feel worked to the max after an exercise, though I know my efforts don’t match the levels of several years ago.  That’s one of the useful results of keeping a log of my workouts.  It tells me where I am relative to where I’ve been.  And in weather when day after day has to be inside, intervals keep my body challenged and my mind honest about the kind of effort I am putting in.

[Begun 12/9/2010; completed and posted today.  I have been doing intervals every two or three sessions.]

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

T. E. Lawrence, Bicyclist

Most of us probably know T. E. Lawrence as “Lawrence of Arabia,” and picture him as Peter O’Toole in the great David Lean film of that name.  Fewer of us have read his autobiographical accounts of his exploits in Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  Even fewer know that he died an untimely death in a motorcycle accident on a narrow English byway.  Lawrence (or “Aurans” as the Arabs phonetically interpreted his name) loved motorcycles and owned seven of them, all Brough machines.  This is perhaps not surprising, because Lawrence was a daredevil who loved speed.  The bike he was riding when he died was a Brough Superior SS 100, an ultra-expensive, top-of-the line machine.  He came upon a couple of kids on bikes as he crested a rise at high speed.  He swerved to avoid them.  Did he go flying over the handlebars?  Yes.  Was he wearing a helmet? No.

Michael Korda has written a new biography of Lawrence entitled Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia.  One of the basic concepts of the book is that Lawrence was a hero in the classical sense, and that he deliberately set out to become one.  As he set out, still in his youth, he traveled long distances from home on adventures, and to set some distance between himself and his demanding mother.  Somewhat later but still young, he toured France to see the country’s great array of ancient fortresses, castles and mansions.  And in both instances he did so on bicycles.  Lawrence was apparently enamored with fast bikes as a kid, and his father kept him updated with the latest models of racing bikes.  Then as later he loved speed.  I’m certain that the early love of bikes was transformed into his post-Arabian era love of even faster travel on motorcycles.  Too bad that in his youthful bicycling he never learned to wear a helmet.  That was not then the culture.  Helmets were not macho.  Yet he might have lived out his allotted three score and ten if they had been.  Then again, true heroes of any age prioritize adventure over comfort and safety.  But, like unheroic daredevils, they sometimes pay a big price for reckless passion.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Robbie McEwan

I became a real bicycle racing fan in the days of Greg Lemond.  Consequently perhaps, I have most appreciated those riders who can win long stage races.  They have a combination of abilities that allows them to win time trials, climb mountains well, and keep pace on flat stages.  In stage races many riders have special skills which enable them to be valued teammates, consistent high finishers, and occasional stars.  Some pace their team on long flat stages, some provide support on the lower levels of climbs, some go out early in time trials and establish a set of check times for the best time trialer on their team, some get in early breaks to keep an eye on a dangerous rider or get in position to help the lead rider later.  And on and on.

But one kind of rider seems out of place in endurance riding: the sprinter.  Sprinters typically star on flat stages with bunch finishes.  They come into their own during the last kilometer of a race, especially the last three or four hundred meters.  They rush to the line at speeds approaching 45 miles an hour.  Some sprinters take longer to get up to speed but are faster once there, others can accelerate to their top speed quickly, some are better on a slight upgrade than others.  But they all can utilize their fast-twitch muscle fibers to good advantage to produce tremendous short-term bursts of power.  They are among the most uniquely skilled of all the specialists in the peloton.

As I said, sprinters have not been among my favorite kinds of riders, for the most part.  I appreciate their work.  But many are downright patsies in long stage races.  In the tour de France they will garner a handful of wins during the first 6 or 7 stages, which are typically flat as the riders head for the big mountains.  Then they will develop a strange kind of “altitude sickness” and drop out of the race when the roads head uphill.  Can’t hack the tough going.  Alessandro Petacchi and Mario Cipollini  are among the great sprint champions who blanched at altitudes.  Cipo, for all his Tour stage victories (4 straight one year) never finished a Tour.

But then there is Robbie McEwan.  A brash, feisty Australian, he combines good-natured banter with a smart-alek smile, a serious determination to win, great riding tactics mixed with the willingness to shoulder and elbow rivals aside (which has gotten him relegated to last place more than once).  Self-confident and aggressive, he crossed verbal swords with Lance Armstrong a couple of times when Lance was patron of the peloton, and once angrily snatched back a water bottle that a determined young fan tried to steal off his bike as he rode back to the team bus after a race, admonishing the kid for stealing and also for breaking his carbon-fiber bottle rack.  He doesn’t drop out of the Tour, but rides in the back of the pack with the other sprinters and strugglers on the tough stages, just staying inside the d.q. time limit, and sometimes popping a wheelie as he crosses the finish line.  He’s won the green jersey as Tour points champion three times, and would have won it a fourth except for a relegation when he head-and-shoulder butted a fellow Aussie sprint rival.  He earnestly maintained he had done no wrong, of course.  The points champions is generally the one who wins the most sprints, and who is the most consistent high finisher in the daily stages.   So the man has skill and a fresh personality.

The most fascinating thing about McEwan is that he’s been a sprint champion in stage races without ever having a strong team to support him.  On a good support team, there are three or four riders whose principal job it is to set up the lead sprinter to maximize his effort over the last 200 meters or so in a bunch finish.  These riders are called a “leadout train”  (as in “leedout,” not “[get the] lehd out”). They ride in front of the sprinter to shield him from the drag of onrushing air, each one riding at maximum power for 200 or 300 yards.  Then the last one peels off, when he has positioned the lead sprinter for an unimpeded rush to the line.  When in the draft of the other riders, the lead sprinter can save 30% or so of his energy.  Unfortunately, McEwen’s history is that he’s never been on a team with a really strong leadout train.  Instead he’s been a lone wolf,  riding invisibly among the top ten or fifteen riders in the last couple of kilometers before attaching himself to the rear wheel of some other team’s leadout train, drafting and shifting into the perfect position, and then coming like a shot out of nowhere to “pip” them all on the line.  it’s thrilling to see how often he can win that way.

Well, the point of all this is that Robbie McEwan left his last professional team in Fall 2010, when his contract was up with them.  He was planning to be the top rider for a new Australian team, Pegasus Sports, but that team was not granted a ProTour (i.e. “Big League”) license by the International Cycling Union (UCI).  So McEwan was looking for a team, and Radio Shack, the team partly owned by Lance Armstrong, picked him up for the self-proclaimed final year of his professional life.  And Robbie is riding with Lance on a team I root for.  Lance will be doing his last international professional race in a couple of weeks in Australia at the Australian Tour Down Under, and Robbie will be on the team too.  Since it’s principally a sprinters’ stage race of 8 or 9 days’ duration, Robbie may find himself once more crossing the line first.  Radio Shack is a team principally of old pros, and McEwan should do them proud.  No better competitor, no better pro, and that goes for both Lance and Robbie.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.