Winter Shape

In the lead-up to the Christmas break, I thought I was in the best winter shape of my life.  An erratic autumn schedule and weather pattern had resulted in some clunky form, ongoing aches and pains, and the like.  But I put in some good hours on the bike from Thanksgiving until a few days before the 25th.  My shape was evident in the decent times I was doing, some stronger sessions on the indoor trainer when I had to use it, and most of all how I felt.  My quads, which had been aching more than usual since September, started aching less and putting out more hard power, and my stamina seemed to be better after long rides.  The one fly in the ointment was my weight, which hung in the 211 pound range.  I’d have preferred to see it more like 208.

Then came the Christmas break.  In Cheshire, CT, I usually don’t do many reps of anything but the Fork Lift (plate to mouth) or the Glass Raise (elevate, move to lips, tilt, repeat).  I often go with Henry when he walks Charlie rather briskly, but that’s about it.  After a few days of such blissful luxury my muscles and joints have definite reactions.  Some muscles cramp randomly.  Some joints ache, and when the ache is in the knee it sometimes extends down the shin. Random pains come and go.  My back and legs tighten, so that sudden movements can result in pulled muscles.  Several hours of relatively little movement in the car may exacerbate any of these.  And at the same time that all this is going on, I am gaining weight, despite my best efforts.  I know I’m in trouble when the bevy of post-holiday TV ads for weight reduction schemes leave me vaguely guilty and, worse, slightly interested.

This time our first couple of days back from Christmas in Connecticut were chilly and blustery.  I still feel able to cherry-pick my riding days pretty much, since we are getting recurrent warm spells.  So on Wednesday and Thursday I rode inside, especially since such a strategy would ease my body back into an active routine.  I chose to inspire myself by watching sports activity while riding, not DVD Tour de France but DVD baseball.  [It is the 5th game of the 2007 ALCS.  The Indians are up 3 games to 1 on the Sox.  Playing in Cleveland, they hope to clinch the series at home.  I remember telling an Indian-fan student at the time “you better hope they win it tonight, because they do not want to try to win it in Fenway Park.”  I watch now with sheer pleasure, knowing that as C. C. Sabathia takes the mound the Indians have won their last game of the season already, that they aren’t going to clinch it on any one of the next three game nights, that the Sox are about to begin a 7-game winning streak.  Summer fun for winter exercise.]

The power of exercise shows itself.  In 45-minute workouts on my two consecutive days, I hit almost exactly the same numbers for “distance” (10.1 miles) and calories burned (643).  But on Tuesday my average heart rate is 128 and on Wednesday it is 123.  Tuesday’s work conditioned my body to be significantly more efficient the next day.

But today I took the next step: the outdoor ride.  With weather in the high 40°s and a light southerly wind, I headed the Fuji out toward Herndon.  I was trying to take it calmly, but also to push myself a bit.  The cool but not bitter air felt good in my lungs, the sun was out enough to make its warmth evident.  By the time I cleared Vienna heading westward I heard the old siren call from Hunter Station Road.  I felt great; the weather felt great; I hadn’t attempted this steep climb in months.  So at the Hunter Mill Road crossing I veered slightly left, passed the small car park between Hunter Station and the Trail, and headed for the foot of the hill.  I noted with approval that the road had been resurfaced.  There’s enough to worry about on the climb without wondering if I’ll hit a pothole or a patch of loose pavement.  I didn’t exactly glide upward, but I wasn’t having to fight the surfacing.  It was exhilarating to make it to the top, even if I was lugging about 10 too many pounds on me, as well as 15 more on the heavy bike than I would have on the Trek.  My quads ached a little but were not burning; I was pushing the pace.  And going down Sunset Valley Road I hit 32 mph on my way back to the Trail.

The rest of the ride was a joy, and I am confident my shape made another quantum leap.  When things are going well, good form begets better form.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.


Brake Job

Brakes wear out eventually, and since my Trek hit the 6500 mile mark a couple of weeks back I was not too surprised to hear the rasp of metal on metal when I hit my left brake lever a couple of weeks ago.  Worn brakes are no joke; it doesn’t take long for the rims to get badly grooved by metal contact.  I like my wheels and am not looking for an excuse to upgrade, so my next logical step was to get replacement brake pads immediately.

Caliper brake on the Trek 2.1. Note the lettering on the shoes.

Replacing brake pads is about the easiest repair there is on a bike.  In theory.  And only slightly more difficult in practice.  Essentially it all boils down to removing the old pads, replacing them with the new ones, and aligning them relative to the wheel rim.  I’ve been doing it for years.  But I’ve never done it with the Shimano Tiagra brakes on this machine.  When I replaced the pads on the Bianca Squadra’s Compe II brakes, all the stores had for such old equipment were inferior generic replacement assemblies that included a new brake shoe; I could not get the pads alone to slip into the original slick black-painted shoes.

There are three different types of bicycle brakes, excluding the new-style disc brakes.  Racing and road bikes typically use caliper brakes, in which the unit is controlled by a wire on the right side of the assembly.  V-brakes are now pretty standard on mountain and hybrid bikes; the configuration allows for larger tires.  The same is true of cantilever brakes, whose old style configuration is harder to adjust.  The latter two brake styles almost universally have replacement parts that are a shoe/pad/bolt combination.  of these, the caliper brake is easiest to work with.  I just have to flip the quick-release lever to move the brake pads away from the rim for inspection or maintenance.  In theory at lest the pads can even be removed from the shoes without removing the shoes from the caliper assembly, because they are held in place with a retaining bolt.  Once the bolt is loosened the pads can be slid out of the shoes.

I bought two sets of Kool-Stop pads, on the theory that if the front brakes were shot the back

Kool-Stop brake pads. Front of top pad is to the right; front of bottom pad is to the left.

ones wouldn’t be far behind.  But my immediate task was to get the old shoes off the front.  I was surprised how pitted they were.  Ron, the Spokes Etc. mechanic, said that brake pads typically pick up stones, dirt, and other forms of grit that get temporarily attached to the wheel rim.  And that’s what happened with my right front pad.  It had a small but hard chunk of metal embedded in it!  This occasional flotsam, even if not embedded, pits the pads, making them more worn and less efficient.  The new pads’ only indentations are intentional, for compression and water/debris removal purposes.  They even have a little bit of “tail-in” over the last ¼” or so, which Ron says allows the pad to squeegie off a damp rim before it makes hard contact.  Apparently that wars off pretty fast, too.

No problems with the installation, and I’m now riding with silent, effective braking.  If only it were this easy with the Audi!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.


I sing in the choir of my church, an act which sets my standards a step lower than Groucho Marx, who famously refused “to belong to any club which would accept me as a member.”  I have sung in that choir for about 20 years, but I can count on the thumbs of one hand the number of times that the singer sitting next to me in rehearsal was wearing full cycling kit, from jersey to shoes.

It happened a week ago last Sunday, when Matt, son of one of our best altos, came in to augment our forces in a buildup to the annual Christmas concert.  He was wearing his distinctive outfit because he was leaving from rehearsal to go for a long ride in Loudoun County, the next county west of Fairfax.  I checked out Matt’s cycle, which he had brought into the sanctuary for safe keeping.  It was a slick Specialized cross bike.  You know they cost real money when the cables run inside the tubes.

Matt, it turns out, discovered cycling about a year ago.  He’d always been a runner, coming as he does from a family of athletes, his father a runner of ultramarathons, his mom not only a lawyer but also a track & field coach at a nearby university.  And Matt did pretty well at track.  Then, last year, he found his sport.  He’s generating impressive wattage numbers, maxing at 1000.  He’s already riding for the HPC U19 squad, and last summer won the Mid-Atlantic road race in that category, first getting into the break and then leaving that group behind to win by 3 ½ minutes.  His mom says he’s a rider in the mold of George Hincapie, somebody who can hammer along at an intense rate all day and then kick it in the finishing straight too.  And he’s got Hincapie-like size to go along with that.

Right now he’s riding a serious training regimen weekly, and will be heading for a week of team training camp in Arizona between Christmas and the New Year.  They’re building his custom Madone road bike at Trek even as I write.  Some day I may well be watching a breakaway win on Versus–the Tour of California, the Dauphine, the Tour . . . –saying “I knew him when.”

An exciting prospect!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Sunday Trail Mates

This time of year not even Sunday afternoon brings out many riders on theW&OD.   Today I passed or was passed by other riders only four times.  Three of them were slightly eventful.  Two of those four riders were the same guy.  I had to wait for him to get on the trail to start my ride.  He was anything but a cycling fashion plate, with a thermal jacket and street pants with rubber bands or something holding them tight at the ankle.   Rode pretty fast, though, and I only caught up to him after the light at Gallows Road and the crossing at Sensony Lane.  It always takes me a quarter-mile or so to get really geared up, especially with a 39° wind in my face.

When I did catch up with him, though, I went straight past him with my usual “On the left . . . Thank you.”  I was on the Fuji today, so was not going as fast as I can on the Trek, and when I was halfway up the hill to the bridge over I-66 on Virginia Lane he passed me (silently) at a pretty good clip.  He was a good 25 yards ahead of me as we swept downhill to the foot of Virginia Lane and back onto the Trail.  Like most of us, he rode in the street rather than on the trail, which between the bridge and the foot of the hill is effectively an asphalt sidewalk for several homes lining the street.  Too narrow to stripe along that stretch, the trail is navigable only with difficulty, each driveway and house front walk being a potential intersection.  Two cars passed us on the way down, but they had made their turns and were out of the way when we hit the bottom and took the left-hander back onto the Trail.  I knew I would catch him, because he was a freewheeler rather than a spinner like me who wants to keep the pedals pushing resistance just about every second I am out there.  Took me a little distance, but I was past him by the time we hit the crossing at Shreve Road.  That was the last I saw of him.  Whether he fell off the pace or reached his destination I don’t know.

The third slightly eventful passing was on my way back.  I had turned around at my usual spot, where the Trail, after running beside Four Mile Run Drive for a couple of miles, comes to South Shirlington Road.  Had I continued straight, the Trail would have taken me to the junction with the Mount Vernon Trail at National Airport.  But I went back on the street as far as South Oakland Street, as I usually do, past the lineup of (privately owned?) large trucks and the Ecuadorian food truck, that seems to do a good business every day of the week, summer or winter.  No stop light at South Oakland, but there is one a quarter mile or so farther up, at South Walter Reed Drive.  It’s a real pain to hit the pedestrian button there going northwest, but necessary to do so.  You have to pull way over on the median strip between trail and street, reach around to the far side of the utility pole, and punch the button.  Then, already out of the clip, you have to walk while straddling the bike back to the left-hand side of the trail.  Latecomers, who don’t need to press the button, are to your right.

When the walk sign went on, I began my crossing as usual from the left hand side, but drifted to the right on the way across to be in the right lane when I had completed crossing the street.  As I approached the other side a rider came past on my right at full speed.  He’d obviously hit the crossing just as the light changed, and thought where he went was the most efficient line to take.  Since I was accelerating into his path not expecting to be passed on the right, I got quite a surprise as he pounded by.  I muttered to myself “that was a dumb thing to do,”  and may have characterized him in certain uncomplimentary ways.  By the next light, at George Mason Drive, I’d caught up with him.  He waited quite a while as if for the light, but then pointed his bike the other way; it was his turn-around point.  He smiled and said “hi”; I bit my tongue.  When the light changed, I didn’t get the pedestrian light; though first in line, the jerk hadn’t pushed the button!  My earlier characterizations were totally substantiated.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Trail Ornithology: Early Winter

There is something beautiful and fulfilling about heading out on the W&OD on a cloudy, dark winter day.  The light glowers through thin spots in the clouds.  The air feels like rain or snow, though the temperature is too high for snow and the Doppler radar suggests there’s no precipitation for a hundred miles around.  Even the air isn’t as cold as it could be, reflecting the fact that the long line of a cold front is still a couple of hundred miles to the west and moving slowly.

On somber days like this I have time to notice the little things.  It’s a weekday, highs in the upper 50° range.  In 24.47 miles I pass one rider, and am passed by none.  The Trail is empty, silent, cool.  I’ve slightly overdressed, not realizing that the air temperature would be a good 7 to 8 degrees warmer than yesterday.  Even without the sun, which makes a tremendous difference this time of year, the air warmth makes me feel hotter than I should, especially around the neck, where I am wearing a wool mock turtle neck to ward off chills.

The birds in the brush, shrubs, and trees beside the trail draw my attention.  There are cardinals, of course.  Virginia’s state bird, they are year-round inhabitants.  You see the males (red) and females (brown-red), not always together in pairs, chucking away as they flit from branch to branch, scouting food.  Then there are all the little sparrows.  Probably some are still English sparrows, the perennial non-native misfit, aggressive and self-sustaining, eking out an existence in the low bushes and brambles that have not been mowed to ground level.  More of the sparrows this time of year are the White-Throats, larger and more spry than their non-native companions, winter birds indeed.  And there are a few other kinds, notable by their distinctive cries and flight patterns.  To identify them I would have to be on foot with binoculars rather than on a bike rolling along at 16 or 17 mph.   Along with the sparrows are the Juncos, grey sparrows with white breasts and white in their tail, definitely harbingers of winter.  When you see both White-Throats and Juncos together, you know that winter is here.

The most surprising sighting today, however, was the mockingbirds.  I thought they migrated.  In fact, I still think they do.  But some of them seem to think that they don’t have to leave.  The Virginia climate is now warm enough for them the whole year round.  I saw their distinctive shape and wing / tail white streaks along the trail in low brush.

I can just imagine, however, the conversation among Mockingbirds in the subtropics these days, discussing the one I saw who stayed behind:

Bird 1:  Where’s Eddie?  Didn’t he migrate this year?

Bird 2:  Well, you know Eddie.  He’s a bit of a bird-brain, er, a feather-head, . . . well, you know what I mean.

Bird 3:  Yeah, he must have deleted everything in his Inbox just after the Migration email came out.

Bird 4:  Probably just as well.  Knowing Eddie, he’d take off, then spot a Bahamas Tourism commercial on a big-screen TV on the wrong side of a plate glass window, think he was almost there, and head straight for it.

Bird 5:  Yeah, here’s Eddie:  “zzzzzzzzz . . . Huh?  Wait?  Where is everybody?  And why am I so cold?”

All:  Haw, haw, haw, caw, haw haw!

Bird 5:  Thank you!  Thank you!  I’m here all winter.

Bird 3:  Want a refresher for your Margarita?

Bird 5:  Don’t mind if I do.

Just the kind of dialogue for Mocking birds.

© Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Bikes and New Urbanism

There’s been an incredible upsurge in bicycling in the DC area.  Most municipalities have been adding bike lanes, refurbishing and upgrading trails, adding new routes, and improving signage.  Every day i see more commuters, recreational cyclists, and folks just going from Point A to Point B on bikes.  they include all the levels of the “99%,” from immigrants who absolutely depend on their bikes to get around to fitness nuts to competitive cyclists in training for the next triathlon on their $8k steeds.

Along with the upsurge in bicycles has come the inevitable clash with automobile drivers.  Our local traffic columnist, “Dr. Gridlock,” has regularly mediated in print the disputes about legal and perceived rights and violations thereof.  Several tragic deaths have occurred in the last few years, none involving the driver of a motor vehicle killed by an errant cyclist.  The physical and psychological landscape of New Urbanism has been changed by the new intensity of urban, and suburban, cycling.

Recently my godson Fred McNulty (blog Bloody Shrubbery at called attention to and entry in Izzy Kornblatt’s blog Concrete Aspirations ( in which he seemed quite irate about the perceived preferences given to cyclists by local authorities and the delusional arrogance of cyclists.  Now I should be clear that Izzy, though we’ve never met, is a friend of mine.  He’s a friend of Fred, and any friend of Fred is a friend of mine.  He’s a fellow avid cyclist, and any avid cyclist is a friend of mine.  And he’s a fellow WordPress blogger.  His blog addresses not only New Urbanism but also modern architecture, and he has some neat stuff on there about really interesting buildings.  He likes the same kind of new architecture that I do, and that I sometimes teach about.  And I know Izzy has defended/clarified his original stance on the cycling subject.  But since his words stimulated some reflection on my part, I’d like to contribute my own perspectives.

First, I personally would take a different tone about some of the perceived pretenses and arrogance of cyclists.  While I agree there’s a small number of self-centered fashionistas and would-be jocks, overall cyclists have always seemed to me to be a pretty level-headed group.  Maybe it’s different in New York City, the lair of Yankee Fans.  Still, I’d say:

–It’s silly to mock spandex and Camelbak water bottles. Spandex is worn for comfort, not a style statement or any kind of pretense. And any cyclist understands the necessity of a good water supply to keep hydrated. Common health sense, not fashionista focus.

–I don’t know what Sadik-Khan has done to “appease” cyclists, but any push to make more and safer bike trails, paths, and lanes is a positive for everybody, from a safety angle alone. Even if we assume that those cyclists using the new facilities are all recreational cyclists, that is also an excellent thing to foster from a New Urbanist point of view, I would think. Too many urban dwellers are Type “A” personalities who are wound way too tight. They need recreational outlets.

–Surely cyclists who ignore traffic laws are annoyingly arrogant and, more importantly, dangerous to themselves and others. So are motorists who cross solid white lines, turn without signaling, weave in and out of traffic, run yellow lights, and the like. Arrogant and dangerous behavior on the road is not uniquely, or even predominantly, a characteristic of bicyclists.  This dialogue is being constructively addressed by both cycling and motorist groups, with the slogan “Share the Road” predominant.

But the main concern seems to be that avid cyclists have a “deluded” idea that cycling as a mode of transportation as opposed to recreation offers a “real solution” to “our problems.” Those problems are “our dependency on cars” and “[saving] our environment.” I would agree that cycling alone won’t save the world.  But it has been said for a long time now that the world’s salvation will be in a broad paradigm shift, rather than in one specific policy change.  I have observed the glacial but real movement forward of recycling concerns, from half-hearted voluntary efforts to community-mandated processes, over a period of about 30 years. I’ve seen the same thing in acceptance of, interest in, and prioritization of organic food products. Same with “healthy diets,” not to mention vegetarian and vegan diets. Once the purview of hippy fringes, they’re now much more mainstreamed. So with cycling. I can tell you that bike catalogs and stores these days are full of such urban appendages as safety lights, carry bags, wet gear, detachable mudguards, bike locks, and even (ugh!) kickstands. All of these help cyclists modify their recreational rides for commuter and other urban usage.   The volume and diversity of riders in this area are notable, and drivers are getting used to the idea that vehicles powered by cardiovascular, respiratory, and muscular systems are part of the on-road equation.  The days when frenetic, now-obsolete, bicycle couriers constituted urban cycling are gone.

The key to the cultural transformation in all these areas is the support of social and governmental institutions. When transportation commissioners prioritize trail building, cops patrol trail crossings for violators (motor and cycle), and community centers offer bicycling safety classes, urban cycling is becoming a part of a new holistic way of life. That way is healthier (there are few obese cyclists), more economical, and greener. This reality alone won’t save the world tomorrow, but it is part of a discernible paradigm shift, a “New Urbanism” if you will. We’re all in it for the long haul, and we’re getting somewhere literally and figuratively.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Winter Presses In

When I raked the leaves two days ago, I knew the mellow days of autumn were losing their grip.  This year they held on a long time.  Thanks to some slow-moving fronts, there were many cloudy, warmish days, preceded by chilly, foggy mornings.  The leaves fell much earlier than last year; Jane’s brother John, who usually whiles away Thanksgiving morning by raking for us, had nothing to do.  A couple of days ago I collected a third of the leaf fall since Thanksgiving in one bag.  Enough to be a bit messy, but essentially it is over.  And so is the warmth.  As I raked those leaves, the air got cooler and cooler.  The wind freshened from the south, bringing colder air.  That’s an anomaly, bit it was rotation around a low pressure area in the upper midwest that was sweeping that cold air all the way around the center of the system from the western provinces of Canada, counter-clockwise.  As the temperature dropped the air cleared and the wind blustered.

So today was the first day for winter gear.  It’s not just a wardrobe change, it’s a process.  There are thirteen items of apparel: a helmet, a cap, a neck warmer, a base layer shirt, a training shirt, two gloves, padded cycling shorts, leggings over them, two socks, and two shoes.  Most of these can be varied for thickness and warmth, depending on the degree of cold.  Today was not terribly chilly, topping out at 49°, so the mid-range training shirt and shorts were in order.

It was blustery, though, and I stuck my face into a NNW wind sustaining 6 mph and gusting to 18 mph and rode a good 18 miles to Ashburn.  I came back only as far as Sarah and Sean’s place in Herndon, where Jane was tending Emma, down with a respiratory infection.  There I stuck the bike in the car, and when Sarah got home we headed for Sunset Hills Vineyard, one of our favorites, to pick up our Wine Club shipment.  I’d sent my “civvies” out with Jane in the morning so I’d have something to change into.

It was sunny, and a good day to ride despite the headwind.  This kind of temperature insures a cool body core without raising the dangers of a real chill.  Now that my first winter ride is behind me, I am ready to roll through the months of December, January, and February, the true winter in Virginia.  Only in dire straits will I give up a chance to ride out for the alternative of an indoor 45-minute ride.  There will be enough compulsory indoor dates.  I will ride out whenever I can.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.