Learning how to bicycle farther and faster

July 5, 2018

Ultra-Distance Cycling: An Expert Guide to Endurance Cycling, by Simon Jobson and Dominic Irvine (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2017)

I became aware of this book when I saw it on display at the public library near my downtown apartment. It is slightly oversize (7.5 by 9 inches) with high-gloss paper and magnificent photos. Although the text is double-columned with small type, the format is reader-friendly.

On the back cover, the publisher states that “this definitive guide provides riders with everything they need to ride longer and faster, and to excel at ultra-distance cycling events.” The book is premised on the fact that “what once was elite is now common place, and today thousands of dedicated riders cycle up to and over 100 miles on ultra-distance rides every week.”

Until picking up this book, I had always associated ultra-distance cycling with events like El Tour de France and Race Across America. The closest I’ve come to that kind of cycling was in 1987 when I rode BAM (Bicycle Across Missouri), 540 miles from St. Louis to Kansas City and back, in 58 hours, sleeping about two hours on each of the two nights. Much easier was RAIN (Ride Across Indiana), a 160-mile ride from Terre Haute on Indiana’s western border to Richmond on the eastern border, which I rode during daylight hours on a Saturday in 1994.

The authors of Ultra-Distance Cycling, however, set the entry line much lower. They include cyclists determined to ride “a very long way, fast,” and able to do at least 160 kilometres (all measurements in the book are given in metric measure), which converts to 100 miles, over a 24-hour period. Across the nation, thousands of ordinary cyclists are able to ride that way, which is demonstrated by the large number of festive century rides that take place every weekend during the cycling season.

Although this book is pitched for cyclists who can ride the much longer, usually competitive events, six of the nine chapters discuss topics that are important even to  the 100-miles per day ultra-riders: (1) Riding Technique; (2) In Balance: Life, Work and Cycling; (3) Diet and Hydration; (4) Equipment; (5) Fitness; and (6) Approach: Developing an Ultra-distance mindset. Three chapters are for the long-distance, competitive cyclists: (7) Sponsorship and PR; (8) Teamwork; and (9) Putting it All Together.

“It is anticipated,” the authors write, “that the reader will dip in and out of the book, trying out the ideas and suggestions made, and then coming back to experiment a bit more.” That’s the way I’m reading it, and at this point have given primary attention to the chapters on riding technique, fitness, and diet and hydration. Much of what the authors say is similar to principles I have worked with across the years. The authors, however, update the information and discuss topics that are becoming the new orthodoxy, such as the conclusion that wider tires with lower pressure are faster than the narrow, very high pressure tires that used to be standard for most “serious” cyclists.

Simon Jobson, the primary writer, is a professor in sport and exercise physiology at the University of Winchester, in the United Kingdom. Dominic Irvine is a competitive cyclist who trained with Jobson and with a partner set a new tandem record for the UK’s “End-to-End” race, 1,365km (848 miles) from Land’s End to John of Groats, riding it in 45 hours, 11 minutes.

One of the most satisfying aspects of this book is that it is written in clear, straight-forward language, with none of the clever, sometimes off-putting descriptions of cyclists other than those to whom the book is addressed. Sometimes, the authors use playful common sense language to state their case.

The chapter on diet and hydration, for example, “combines diet and hydration information…from academic research with advice from the authors’ experiences of ultra-distance cycling. There is, however, no substitute for trying it all out yourself, during training and non-priority cycling.” Later in the paragraph they note that “palatability is as important as the scientific complexities of the event’s nutritional demands. Sports foods are all well and good when the sun is shining and you’ve been on the road for two hours. However, when riding over a mountain top in freezing mist at 4 a. m. after 24 hours of pedalling, all you really want may be a bowl of hot porridge.”

I’ll continue using the library copy of Ultra-Distance Cycling for a few more days, but then I’ll buy a copy for my home collection to refer to in the future and share with others who want to ride farther and faster. Most important, this book will help me as I learn how to become a senior ultra-distance cyclist.


Letting my legs take over the ride

June 15, 2018

legsWith my injured leg muscles well again (thanks to my therapist’s counsel and a winter that stretched into April), it’s time to regain strength in my bicyclist’s legs. The sports medicine doctor assured me that I will be able to continue cycling the way I have done all these years: many miles per day, day after day (age-adjusted, of course).

My sister, a few years younger than I, has invited me to an aggressive ride up Hurricane Ridge Road in the Olympic National Park in celebration of her mid- August birthday. A four-day bike tour of the Columbia River Gorge earlier that month will help me resume this kind of cycling.

My training plan to get ready for these events combines advice from doctors, expert long-distance cyclists, and my own experience as aggressive open road cyclist.

Ride enough miles all year to keep good base strength. For several years, I’ve been cycling about seventy-five miles a week, including one vigorous ride of thirty to forty miles. During this winter of reduced mileage, that base has declined, and now I’m beginning to rebuild. Progress during the past month is encouraging.  

Overtraining does more harm than good. So get your rest days in. This wording comes from an article by Dr. Conan Chittick with IU Health Physicians Family and Sports Medicine. A day of reduced activity after three days of hard activity, he writes, allows muscles to restore and regenerate. At this stage in my recovery, I’m finding that one long, hard ride per week, two or three shorter but vigorous rides and at least one day with no rides at all is a pattern that works. I’m back to seventy-five miles per week and feeling better!

Ride about 10% of your miles, especially on longer rides, at close to maximum effort. This is one of the recommendations that ultra-marathon cyclist Lon Haldeman gives to cyclists who sign up for the challenging tours that he and Susan Notorangelo conduct through their company PAC Tour (Pacific Atlantic Cycle Tours). I’ve done ten of these tours  and know from experience that this guideline works. These short bursts at full power output help legs and lungs learn how to ride that way and gradually all of a cyclist’s miles become faster and overall condition improves.

I don’t keep a close count on these miles; instead, I let the road do the counting. Most routes have hilly sections, even if some are little more than highway and railroad overpasses. Rather than gearing down, I keep pushing and often can ride right through.

Hydrate more. On one of my many several stays in Claremont, California, I was cycling up an easy grade on a lower slope of Mt. Baldy. Twenty minutes into the climb, I stopped to watch a filming crew at work. Standing there, I grew so dizzy that I had to lean on my bike to keep from falling. As soon as I got home, I talked with my doctor (also an experienced road cyclist).

After examining me and finding nothing wrong, he recommended that I wear a water carrier on my back so that I could more easily keep hydrated. On long rides, especially in remote areas I do what he recommended because it is easier to keep the liquid flowing in when the drinking tube is right there by my mouth. On shorter rides, I still depend upon water bottles. The purpose is to keep drinking so that the heart more easily can keep the blood flowing.

“And don’t push so hard; it might be dangerous.” As I was leaving, my doctor added this warning, explaining that no matter how much you train your heart slows down as you grow older. It made sense, partly because on my own I had recognized that I could push too hard. Maybe thirty years earlier, I was climbing legendary Mt. Tabor Hill on the Hilly Hundred cycling event near Bloomington, Indiana. At the top, I nearly passed out and vowed to ease up a little. I also got some lower gears on my bike to help me in the effort.

A corollary to the rule: “There’s no hill too steep to walk.”

Pay attention to muscle memory. On a thirty-mile ride two weeks ago, I realized as I neared home, that my head was telling me “Slow down,” but my legs kept saying “Go!” There are times when pedaling cadence, breathing, and muscle load are in perfect balance and you can go forever, or so it seems. On two or three rides this spring that same feeling has come, and for a few minutes I quit thinking and let my legs take over the ride. The next day, of course, I sit around a lot.

 

 

 

 


New Life in My Old Legs

May 28, 2018

My leg hurt only when I walked, never while I was cycling, even when I was pushing hard on Skyline Boulevard along the hilly ridge west of downtown Portland. So how could cycling be the reason why I limped, even when walking a few steps from my condo door to the coffee shop at the foot of the stairs? My doctor, younger than I and an active road cyclist, named my problem. “You’ve developed an IT band syndrome.”

He showed me a couple of stretches and recommended massaging my legs on a foam roller. Although the limp eased a little, the pain was still a problem. My reading confirmed his diagnosis and his recommendations. I tried, but with little enthusiasm, to do what the experts recommended. I joined a fitness center and signed on with a personal trainer. Now and then, I enjoyed the pleasure of a massage. I tried a yoga class that a neighbor recommended, but the teacher was oriented toward middle-aged housewives rather than to an old-man bicyclist and I dropped out after half a dozen sessions.

About two years into this story, both legs were sore and the one on the left side began to hurt while I was cycling. Two more years, and I had to give up multi-day, long-mileage bike trips. The time had come to consult a sports medicine doctor. He listened to my tale of grief and, pushed, pulled, and thumped my legs. After watching me walk a little, he confirmed and augmented the previous diagnosis: tenderness of the left iliotibial and left piriformis muscle systems.

The good news: these conditions could be overcome and I could look forward to restored capabilities for walking and the aggressive cycling that had been my practice.

He assigned me to a physical therapist who would tell me what I needed to do and oversee my compliance. She watched me walk, studied my limp, and showed me six routines to stretch or strengthen muscles. “Do two sets each twice a day, and come back on Friday.” On the second visit, she corrected my stretches, added two more, and in a firm tone of voice gave one more instruction (perhaps command is the right word): “If you want to recover the ability to ride the way you used to, you have to cut back on your cycling now!

That’s when the serious conversation began. I explained that cycling was my primary mode of personal transportation and that I took vigorous long rides every week in order to stay in condition for aggressive open-road cycling. “I try to ride seventy-five miles a week,” I concluded.

She acknowledged that this pattern was more aggressive than she had expected, and we worked out a plan that seemed reasonable to both of us. My personal transportation rides could continue. She also agreed to my Monday ride—twenty-two miles on level city streets, with a pastry break at the Illinois Street Emporium. “But if you want your injury to heal, you have to slow down. And don’t push. Avoid hard climbs!”

Injury. This as the word that caught my attention. No one else had said that an injury was causing the pain. My mood suddenly changed, and I was willing to work with greater diligence in the healing therapy she was prescribing. A long, cold Indiana winter became my ally. Snow on the ground and nasty wind in the air all around made it easy to adhere to the limits she had imposed.

Six months later, the limp has disappeared. The chronic pain has become an occasional twitch in my left knee, especially when I twist it awkwardly while sitting at my desk or turning over during the night. It may be too early to say that the injury is healed, but my sense of well-being as a vigorous open-road cyclist is returning.

Now comes a new challenge: to develop a disciplined process of adding miles and increasing intensity. For two weeks in a row, I have logged my former average of seventy-five miles a week, and have taken days off so that the strengthening process can continue. One day last week, I felt the old push. Even when my legs were tired, something about my union with my bicycle urged me forward at a more rapid pace. I could believe that old times would soon be here again.

It will take time, perhaps all summer, for healing the injury to be completed, but I can feel it coming:

New life in my old legs! Hurray!

 


What should cyclists eat so they can ride long and hard?

April 5, 2018

Reviewing Proteinaholic: How our obsession with meat is killing us and what we can do about it, by Garth Davis, M.D. (HarperOne, 2015)

Garth Davis, M.D., describes himself as “a weight-loss surgeon who runs a large surgical and medical weight-loss clinic [and is] on the front lines of the battle against obesity.” In 2008 he published a book entitled The Expert’s Guide to Weight-Loss Surgery, with every chapter “meticulously researched,” except the one on nutrition.

Seven years later, Davis published Proteinaholic: How our obsession with meat is killing us and what we can do about it. The reason for the second book: Davis realized that the patients who followed his advice about nutrition got sicker.

Perhaps more important was the deterioration in his own health. He was developing a big belly and could hardly drag himself out of bed in the morning. He was also developing seriously high cholesterol readings, elevated triglycerides, high blood pressure, and irritable bowel syndrome. Time for more research! (The bibliography of studies, in small type, is forty-six pages long.)

“I reviewed thousands of original studies, and hundreds of meta-analyses and reviews. And all of my research kept pointing to the same conclusion: Consuming animal protein is linked to chronic disorders and premature death. Eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes is associated with staying healthy” (p. 7).  Acting on this conclusion, Davis changed the way he ate.

He also developed a new pattern of physical activity when a friend introduced him to triathlons. He prepared for his first one in 2009 by running twenty miles a month. After doing a triathlon and several marathons, he competed an Ironman: a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run in a single day.

Instead of getting fatter, he now is getting stronger. “At forty-five I set a personal record in the marathon of 3 hours and 35 minutes, which is 21 minutes faster than the last two marathons I ran when I was forty” (p. 282).

In Part Two of this book (pp. 57–111), “How We Became Proteinaholics,” Davis gives a history of research and medical practice that in the early 1900s focused attention upon the positive effect that eating animal protein had upon impoverished, malnourished people who lived and worked in unhygienic conditions.

Even with the improvement in their health, they still were likely to die at early ages because of infectious diseases that had not yet been brought under control. Although animal protein is a causal factor in developing chronic diseases like diabetes, people were dying at too early an age for these problems to develop.

Conventional wisdom, supported by poorly conducted or misunderstood research, led most people to believe that animal protein was essential to good health and physical vigor. Medical providers and publishers of nutritional books followed this same line of thought and action.

In Part Three of Proteinaholic (pp. 115–236), “Death and Disease by Protein,” Davis provides a thirty-page primer on medical research and how we can evaluate its accuracy and reliability. He then outlines the evidence for animal protein’s role in developing diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, obesity, cancer, and premature death. He also presents evidence for the positive effects of plant-based foods in keeping people healthy and living long lives.

Part Four (pp. 239–327), “The Proteinaholic Recovery Plan,” can be understood as a shorter and more practical presentation of the ideas that Davis discusses in the earlier sections of the book. Conclusions that I am taking away from this chapter include: (1) “For our systems to function, and muscle to be built, we need protein and its metabolites but also energy from carbs and fat” (p. 240). (2) A vegetarian diet with enough calories, even with lower protein intake, is sufficient for the human body to produce all of the protein and nutrients that we need to function at a high level (p. 241). (3) Most people already are getting more protein than government guidelines recommend (pp. 247–8). (4) Athletes and the elderly may need more protein than other people, but even here the evidence is not clear (pp. 249 ff).

Although I’m in my eighties, I continue to be an endurance bicyclist and thus fit into two of the groups whom Davis suggests may need slightly more protein. My diet already consists largely of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, but I have also continued to use dairy and poultry products despite my growing ethical uneasiness about how they are produced.

I probably will not become a full vegan as Davis has chosen to be, but I am already increasing my dependence on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, and I’m cutting back on dairy. Davis’s forty-page meal guide has lots of interesting ideas.


Major Taylor: The World’s Most Popular Athlete

February 8, 2018

Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame, by Conrad Kerber and Terry Kerber; Foreword by Greg LeMond (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014)

The cycling life of Marshall W. “Major” Taylor is inspiring, as the authors of this biography claim in the subtitle to their thoroughly documented and graphically written biography. He was born November 28, 1878, on a farm near Indianapolis, at a time when racist antagonism toward African Americans was at a high point and lynchings were public spectacles. At home he experienced love, developed good work disciplines, and learned to play the piano.

His father, a Civil War veteran and horse trainer, often took his eight-year-old son with him to the home of a wealthy Indianapolis family where he worked as coachman. Marshall played with Daniel, the owner’s son, and his friends, and the owner bought Marshall a bicycle, which had become the rage everywhere, so he could ride with the other boys.

Marshall quickly outperformed his companions. He also taught himself how to do trick riding. Along with Daniel, he was privately tutored and learned the rudiments of reading and writing.

When he was thirteen, Marshall took his bike to a bicycle shop, one of several along Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis, and was given a job that paid a little more than his paper route. A couple of years later, at another bike shop, he met Louis Munger, a thirty-year-old racer whose legs were giving out. Impressed by the scrawny teenager’s abilities on a bicycle, Munger became his trainer and friend, helped Marshall enter amateur races, and prepared him for the professional circuit.

About the same time, he met Arthur Zimmerman, one of the most celebrated cyclists of the era, who also befriended the young, inexperienced black athlete. With help from Munger and Zimmie, Marshall became an aggressive cyclist, specializing in short distance sprint races in which he clearly surpassed virtually every other rider. Taylor’s distinctive and powerful riding style won races, endeared him to spectators, and drew ever larger crowds, much to the delight of promoters.

The cycling establishment and most cyclists were opposed to allowing black people to compete in their sport. Much of this book details the terrible odds that Marshall faced. Other racers conspired against him, so that he would be boxed in, forced off course, and sometimes injured. A low point was when an enraged cyclist jumped on Taylor who was still lying on the track after an accident and came close to choking him to death. Despite the criminal character of the event, the assailant’s attack received only a modest penalty. Read more. . . . The World’s Most Popular Athlete


Holding Winter in a Bicyclist’s Embrace

December 28, 2017

The bike riders are out today, even some on rental bikes from the stanchions across the street. And why shouldn’t they be! Bright sun, dry streets, quiet traffic. A nice day, except for the temperature, 17 degrees.

When I lived in Indianapolis during my working years, I commuted three miles to the campus where I taught regardless of temperature, even on sub-zero days, except when the roads were slick. I would do 20-mile recreational rides on sunny days when the temperature was 25 or higher.

But so far today, during the first seriously cold winter weather since my return to Indianapolis, I’ve been sitting in my sun-filled bachelor pad trying to talk myself into going out for a trial cold weather ride. During the next six or eight weeks, there are places I will have to go, including a doctor’s office next week. Some will be too far to walk, and bus connections are awkward. That leaves my bike as the preferred option, unless snow is falling and the roads are slick.

“Go for it!” the gals in the apartment rental office told me. “You won’t get as cold on your bike as you would waiting for the bus both ways.” Biking to my appointment next week will take fifteen minutes each way rather than an hour on the bus (including walking, waiting, and transfers). I still have the heavy winter gloves from former years and know how to protect my ears. By layering my civilian clothes, I can be reasonably warm while maintaining suitable appearance for activities at the destination points.

It’s not a choice between prudence or cowardice as it was a couple of weeks ago on a morning when there was a glaze of ice on the streets. Today, it’s a question of character. Am I going to live up to my regula, to borrow a word that Laura Everett uses in her book Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels?

If using buses and bikes instead of an automobile is to be a guideline for the next period of my life, then there’s no choice but to take a break-the-ice bike ride on a winter’s day as nice as this. If I lived in Erie, Pennsylvania, with five feet of snow on the ground, then bus or snow shoes would be the only options, but here there is practically no white stuff even on grass in shaded places.

So bicycle it has to be, and today is the day for moving into the out of doors that now is my world.

Even when the temperature is as warm as 17 degrees, I found out on today’s five-mile ride, my winter cycling attire needs to be improved: something to cover my face, better ear coverings, warmer gloves or mittens, and long underwear or heavier civilian pants. A trip to REI or Patagonia is in the offing.

At 3:15, the sun is obscured by an apartment tower across the street, but today’s ride, even though it was only five miles and ten or twelve minutes long, is casting its own brightness for the rest of the day.


Indiana’s White River System: A Bicyclist’s Observations

December 18, 2017

Responding to Indiana White River Guide Book: East Fork and West Fork, by Jerry M. Hay (Terre Haute: Indiana Waterways, 2002).

white-river-guideAlthough I am a bicyclist rather than a boater, traveling on roads rather than rivers, I have long been interested in the waterways that shape the land and human cultures that develop along their banks. This interest influences the books I read, such as Blaine Harden’s A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia and Always a River: The Ohio River and the American Experience, edited by Robert L. Reid.

Now that I am living once again close to Indiana’s White River (West Fork), I am focusing attention on this ribbon of water that twists in an almost tortured way from its starting point near Muncie, Indiana (home of Ball State University), to its confluence with the Wabash River at Mt. Carmel, Illinois.

The first book on this river that I have been able to find, and this is in the reserved section of the Indianapolis Public Library, is a spiral bound document, with 8.5 by 11 inch pages, that provides a boater’s guide to both forks of the river. It is divided into thirty-seven sections, each with two facing pages, one primarily text and graphics and the other a line-drawing map of a section of the river that is approximately ten miles long. The map shows nearby roads, dams, bridges, power plants, access points, and other information that boaters need to know as they travel on the river. The author provides information on “reading the river,” navigation information and advice, and other material that would be important for safe boating.

The West Fork of the White River begins east of Muncie, flows 273 miles to its confluence with the East Fork, and continues an additional forty-six miles as the White River with no fork designation, for a total of 319 miles to its mouth at the Wabash. The East Fork officially begins near Columbus, Indiana, at the confluence of the Flatrock River and the Driftwood River, the longest tributary of which is the Big Blue River.  The Big Blue-Driftwood River is 152 miles long and merged into the East Fork of the White River at Columbus, flows another 162 miles to the junction with the West Fork. Adding these two figures, the Big Blue-East Fork is 314 miles. It then travels another forty-six miles as part of the White River, making a total length of 360 miles.

Larger cities along the West Fork are Muncie, Anderson, Noblesville, Indianapolis, Martinsville, Spencer, Bloomfield, Edwardsport, and Washington. Starting at the officially designated beginning of the East Fork, larger communities are Columbus, Seymour, and Bedford. Hay’s description of this two-forked river confirms what one sees when looking at maps: for the most part, this river runs through rural country. In addition to towns and small cities, and the one major metropolitan area, Indianapolis, there are many villages, and cross roads settlements along this river. Even so, travelers should pay attention to food and other supplies. When motor boats are being used, special attention should be given to the fuel supplies.

One characteristic of the White River system stands out in the line drawing maps that Hays provides: it twists and turns in a constant sequence of wiggles throughout the length of both forks and their tributaries.

I have no experience with canoes or motor boats and therefore will not be able to see the White River according to Hay’s guide. As a cyclist, I could gradually work my way along, taking little roads to the river in many spots along its nearly 700 miles (counting the full length of both forks). It would be a slow process, and I’m not likely to undertake the full challenge.

I can, however, imagine a gradual process of exploring vantage points in Indianapolis and Marion County. Hays devotes two sections to this stretch, starting at mile 101 and ending at mile 127.

Another way to develop a bicyclist’s understanding of the White River would be to develop a route that pieces together roads and trails that stay close to the river. Even if such a route could be developed, riding would have to be easy-going. Just to figure out where to turn to stay on the right back roads would be a challenge. Often the roads would be rough and inhibit fast riding. And always, there would be things to look at and people with whom to talk.

In my mind’s eye, I can see it now. But will this virtual trip translate to tires on the road? Well….? What do you think?

white-river-indps