The muscle, mind, and heart of a long bicycle ride

November 10, 2016
Sheridan Terminus of the Monon Trail

Sheridan Terminus of the Monon Trail

A custom practiced by many open road cyclists is to do a birthday ride: a mile for every year of life. I’ve kept the practice many of my cycling years, but for some reason it keeps getting harder. “Of course, it will,” some would say. “More years of life, more miles to ride, and fewer muscles!”

Twice in recent years, I met the challenge by signing up for sponsored rides. The loneliness of the road was dispelled by hundreds of other cyclists so that at no point was I out of sight of others who were wending their way over the beautiful terrain of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

This year, however, I would be doing it on my own. No century ride to join and no cycling buddy to keep me company. Even so, I was determined to devote my birthday to this purpose. The simplest way would be to take Lafayette Road to the 30-mile mark at Lebanon, continue on this same road until my bike computer read 42.5 miles, and then reverse course to come back home.

The night before, however, I didn’t sleep well, and the weather forecast was unfavorable. At breakfast, I knew that the birthday ride was dead, for that day, anyway. The next day’s forecast was better, but I had appointments scheduled. The next day had an even better forecast and I decided that I would do my ride that day. Even so, I worried. The muscles of my aging body could probably power me that many miles, but motivation had withered away.

Then came an idea. At Lebanon I would abandon Lafayette Road and improvise a new route: northeast a few miles to State Road 47 and then east on that rural highway to the town of Sheridan. There I would travel southeasterly on State Road 38 until I stumbled onto the northern terminus of the Monon Trail.

Built on the abandoned route of an abandoned railroad, the trail’s southern terminus is on 10th Street, only a few blocks from my downtown Indianapolis home. The sections I’ve already traveled are wide and nicely paved, and cut a straight line through long established neighborhoods of Broad Ripple and Nora. In recent times it has been pushed further north through Carmel and on to 191st Street in Westfield.

On previous visits to Indianapolis, I have cycled as far north as Carmel, and my birthday ride would give me the chance to explore the northernmost section and ride the trail from top to bottom. My online searches, however, provided ambiguous or conflicting information about the upper segments of the trail. Clearly the physical challenge would be overshadowed by the intellectual excitement of actually finding the elusive trail and keeping on it.

Wednesday morning was beautiful, the best day of the week. The ride to Lebanon was fine. Drying corn that had been twelve feet tall when I went this way a month earlier had been harvested and the stalks cut down and removed.

At Lebanon I snacked a little and continued on my newly devised route. Now beyond the immediate signs of urban sprawl, I was riding through what looked like an updated version of traditional Indiana farm country, quiet and peaceful. At Sheridan, with my odometer reading forty-nine miles, I took a lunch break at a Dairy Queen at the junction with State Road 38 where I would back toward the city.

The high school girl who took my order told me that I didn’t have to ride to 191st Street because the Monon started right there in Sheridan, but her instructions on finding it were vague.

A couple who looked past retirement age sitting at another table came to my rescue. He had been the project manager for building the short section of the trail that travels through Sheridan. He described his work on the project and told me how to find the trailhead, which was less than a quarter of a mile from where we were sitting.

He too was vague in describing the trail south of Sheridan, and I soon discovered that it exists in disconnected segments, with virtually no signage to tell trail users how to move from one section to they next. A farmer standing near his shed and staff at a city park in Westfield filled in the missing information and I kept moving south, but this stopping and starting ate up time. At Broad Ripple, I left the trail to find supper, but daylight was fading and instead of eating I scurried south on familiar city streets to get home before dark.

Between the Dairy Queen and the trail head, my bike computer disappeared. Using Google maps for the computer less section, my estimate is that I fell short of my 85-mile goal by 5 or 6 miles. Close enough! At home, feasting on a Subway sandwich, I massaged sore muscles with my heart rejoicing.

Ride Around Clark County 2016

May 8, 2016

The first day of cycling summer in Clark County, Washington

RACC Metric CenturyWhere I live the summer cycling season begins with RACC—Ride Around Clark County—sponsored by the Vancouver (USA) Bicycle Club. It takes place on the first Saturday in May, which is well ahead of the official start of summer and explains why cyclists often ride through rain. Confirmation that summer has started in this part of the world was in full display at the Vancouver Farmers’ Market when I finished my ride: strawberries—real strawberries— were for sale in large quantity by several vendors.

This year cyclists rode through a perfect Pacific Northwest summer day: cloudless sky, full sunshine, and temperature near 60 degrees when we started and the low 80s when we finished. A light breeze refreshed the spirit without impeding the body.

The route is one of the most interesting century rides I know. It takes cyclists on a kinky, easily followed course through a semi-rural countryside in which country estates and hardscrabble cottages coexist in visual harmony. Unexpectedly churches appear in secluded rural locations and on the edges of residential developments. They represent a wide range of denominations, including Adventist, Catholic, Episcopal, unaffiliated, and Apostolic Lutheran (historically connected with Finnish immigrants).

Working farms and vineyards are interspersed with show places resplendent with flowering trees and magnificent shrubs, such as rhododendron, in full bloom. One large field had become a parking lot for people who were spending the day at a horse show. Only in three or four short stretches have suburban residential developments turned rural roads into angry thoroughfares.

Most of the route passes through countryside with second growth timber providing shade for cyclists. We rode through dappled sunshine with green fields and wild flowers everywhere.

The full 100-mile version of Ride Around Clark County travels across the northern part of the county, close to the Lewis River, and passes through the small communities of Yacolt, Amboy, and LaCenter. Knowing the challenging character of the Clark County hills in the region where I regularly ride, I was apprehensive when I first cycled in the county’s northern reaches, but was greatly relieved to discover that there are long stretches of gentle terrain.

In recent times, I am finding that the metric century (rather than the statute mile century) suits me, especially this early in the season. This was the route I chose again this year, although with two minor adjustments near the end in order to bypass late-in-the-ride hill-climbing challenges. When RACC veterans speak of the Felida Hill, it usually is with tremolo in their voices. Even my doctor knows this climb and suggests that it is one I should consider walking—which I hate to do on sponsored rides with the “whole world” watching.

My alternative route starts at the bottom of the Felida Hill and wanders along Salmon Creek. A friend whose family farm backed up to the creek once told me that in the early 1930s his dad would fish for salmon with a pitch fork. All year round everything in the creek bottom is intensely green, and this is especially true at the beginning of summer.

Despite the fact that registered riders number in the thousands, I cycled by myself the entire distance, but I was never alone. Always there was someone up ahead a quarter of mile or so and others coming up from behind. On these rides, there is a strong sense of comradery and riders are energized by being with others, even though most of the people around them are complete strangers. We find ourselves traveling with some of the same people all day and see them and talk as we ride along and stop at the rest stops or stand at quiet places to take photos or stretch a little.

At the rest stops, food, water, toilets, and bike repair stations provide support services for everyone, and we know that the volunteer support staff are ready to drive out into the country if we need help.

This perfect ride came close to disaster in Hazel Dell, about five miles from home, when I realized that my rear tire was half flat (the third time this tire has let me down in the last two weeks). Hoping for the best, I pumped it up again, and made it home in good shape. By evening the tire was flat, but I—showered, rested, fed, and weary—reveled in the peace of a wonderful ride on the the first day of this year’s cycling summer.

Open road cycling for people past seventy

September 22, 2013
Mule Pass on the Way to Bisbee

Mule Pass on the Way to Bisbee

In late summer, I presented a program at the bimonthly meeting of the Vancouver Bicycle Club. The title for my talk was “Open Road Cycling for People Past Seventy.” My intention was to encourage club members, especially those in their fifties and older, by insisting that most of them could continue aggressive cycling well into their later decades.

I based my presentation upon my own open road bike trips during the dozen years since I crossed over the biblical boundary line of “three score years and ten.” Two aspects of the evening stood out.

On to the Grand Canyon

On to the Grand Canyon

First, their willingness to listen was directly related to the fact that I was already past seventy and thus was offering experience-based testimony and counsel. Second, they were encouraged by the prospect that while they would gradually diminish in their performance capabilities they could anticipate many more good cycling years.

In preparing for the evening, I jotted down a lot more ideas than could be discussed in half an hour or forty five minutes. I gave club members copies of the full list but talked about only three or four of them.

When I finish my current book—which is in the field of religious history—I would like to do a bicycling book, and these notes might be the launching pad for that project. The first step is to project these notes into the cloud for whatever good they might do. The next step would be to develop a précis for each chapter in order to organize my thoughts and serve as the starting point for the fuller treatment that the book would require.

In the process two things could happen: The bike book project might take on real life and pull me forward to do the manuscript in the next year or so. Or, the project might turn out to be like a bike tire with a slow leak that soon leaves me at the side of the road with no way to finish the book.

For now, however, the nearly finished book—An American Church That Might Have Been—is taking all of my time and energy. You are welcome to the notes about the bike book in the back of my mind. I’d love to hear from you. Tell me about your experiences and the counsel you would offer to old timers who still want to ride hard all day long. Read more . . . Open Road Cycling

Biking wisdom from middle aged cyclists

September 16, 2011

Most of the people with whom I bicycle these days are twenty to thirty years younger than I am. Some worry, fearing that they could lose their abilities as cyclists. Others continue to hope that despite the inevitabilities of advancing age they will be able to continue serious, long distance cycling for many years to come.

Some of these “younger” riders are making constructive adjustments to their cycling attitudes and habits, and a few of them have been interviewed in Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100. Judging by biographical information I have found on line, Roy M. Wallack and Bill Katovsky, authors of the book, are themselves in this middle range of life. It would be interesting to see how they would revise it if a new edition were to come out in 2035. Here are some notes from their interviews.

Gary Fisher, closely associated with the development of the mountain bike, starts his 2004 interview: “I’m 53, but I feel like I’m in my 20s. That’s because I can still get on my bike and do what I do. It’s still the same.” Acknowledging that he’s not as fast as he used to be, Fisher continues: “All the same actions are there; standing up out of the saddle, powering through this, climbing in certain gears. The act of being able to do this is really important.” He lists the changes that have come as he has aged, especially the fact that he can’t recover as quickly as he used to or go as fast. A sign of his self-knowledge and wisdom in this comment: “I’ll ride within myself and ride fast. But I’ll ride within what I know I have confidence I can do.”

John Howard, one of the nation’s most celebrated competitors and coaches and about 57 during his 2004 interview, states that “we all reach a point where we diminish in terms of vital capacity. You can accept it or just deny it.” He describes ways that he tried to fight that diminishment and provides several paragraphs of constructive ideas about maintaining vital capacity.

The fascinating part of his interview, however, comes later in the essay when he declares that he wants to have balance. “To me, that balance is more than physical. It’s mental as well.” Howard has come to the conclusion “that all of us are geared for X-number of miles at effort. When you use that up it’s probably going to be gone and you’re going to have to find something else to do.” He’s chosen not to race anymore because for him that’s “wasteful dissipation of the energy…I’ve reached a point where I know that there is no immortality. What’s important for me is to prolong, elongate the process of life and to experience it on a positive, blissful level.” For Howard, this means that he doesn’t have to compete anymore; instead he wants to be “the best coach in the world.”

Ned Overend, a record-holding mountain-biker and 57 at the time of the interview, decares that as we get older we have to pay attention to pain, nutrition, hydration, and not falling. He recommends “banishing burnout with variety.” Even in these later years he maintains “an enthusiasm for racing and riding hard” by “cross-training and not being obsessive.”

Mike Sinyard, founder of Specialized Bicycle Components and 54 when interviewed, notes that in recent years he has worked hard at “trying to be fit.” Then comes the paragraph that speaks to me because I’m the same age as the people he describes. “What would be the ultimate goal in life? It is, like, you know: great family, being healthy. But you see some of these 80-year-old guys in Italy? On Sunday morning they’re out riding on these real cool bikes. I mean, that’s the goal, to be healthy like that. And helps ya keep perspective. You go for a long ride and you come back and you have a full glass of juice. It’s like the best thing ever.”

Patrick O’Grady, freelance writer and cartoonist (print and online), who is described as “bearing down on 50,” has a inviting list of recommendations: be less serious about training, keep riding all year round (older riders can ‘t afford off-seasons), have fun on a bike (O’Grady scoffs at “terminal serious types”), and make your cycling habitual.

A lot of this advice can be summed up with a recommendation my wife gave me years ago when I came into the house sweaty and out of breath after a game of kickball with our kids and their neighborhood buddies: “The way to stay young is to play with your kids, but not their games.”

As we move into the later decades, our goal should be to keep on biking much as we always have but in age-adjusted ways. For most of us, the two-wheeled life is still a great way to go.

Attitude adjustment for aging cyclists

September 8, 2011

By the time people are as old as I am, we have developed habits and practices that are deeply engrained. It takes impressive arguments or powerful inducements to make us change our ways. Yet, this is what Roy M. Wallack and Bill Katosky are doing to me as I look forward to another decade of aggressive cycling. Their book Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100 is making me reconsider how I ride a bike.

Strength Training: I’m signing up for yoga. Despite the advice by all of the experts, I have not done weight work or strength training. My stretching patterns have been modest, consisting primarily of a few routines remembered from high school cross-country workouts. Roy and Bill discuss the value of working on agility and strength in a way that has developed a new resolve, but knowing my lifelong patterns I know that I need a structured environment. Retaining a personal trainer in order to grunt and sweat, however, still has no appeal, but there’s a yoga studio one block from my condo, and one of my neighbors continues to proclaim its merits. In a couple of weeks, I’ll start—one session a week for sixteen weeks. Maybe that’s not enough, but it’s better than what I’m doing now, which is nothing.

Bike Fit: Cyclists come in all sizes and shapes. If they are to gain maximum advantage from their two-wheeled mounts, their bikes need to be set for their particular bodily qualities. Getting a frame that’s the right size is the most important factor, but so are more subtle matters such as the length of the stem, the height of the saddle, and the placement of the cleats on your shoes. Twice in my cycling career I’ve availed myself of bike fitting services when I’ve bought new bikes, and I am confident that my bikes are close to being exactly right.

But cyclists change as they age, and the ideas about bike design and fit also go through fads and fancies. Paying attention to one of these recent fads, I have experimented with cleat placement. The result: my legs have hurt all summer and I had to curtail my cycling. I put the cleats back where they were and my legs are improving. Bike for Life discusses bike fit so constructively that I intend to evaluate the several shops in Portland and pick one that can help me revise my settings.

Nutrition: For 59 years my nutritionist has been my wife who has made good eating habits a way of life. During 40 years of hard cycling, I have developed useful ways to augment my normal diet during hard rides, such as drinking a 32 ounce bottle of a sports drink about two-thirds of the way through a long, hard ride. (A few days ago it was at mile 60 of a 79.04-mile ride.)

Bike for Life provides a thorough discussion of ways to maintain health and effectiveness, with an emphasis upon good food, good cooking, and good sense. It confirms many of the habits I now practice and provides the incentive to rethink these matters as I look forward to more years of hard cycling. As we age, our bodies provide an ever-shrinking margin of error, and a thoughtful approach to nutrition is one way of responding creatively.

Attitude Adjustment: Although Roy and Bill are a lot younger than I (as are most of the people they highlight in this book), they understand the impact of aging on body, mind, and spirit. Their discussion of these matters helps me think about how to adapt my long-time habits in order to retain the ability to perform and to increase the levels of satisfaction. Most experts say that to grow stronger, cyclists need to alternate intense training and periods of recovery.

I think that this pattern continues to be part of old age cycling, but with three modifications. First, older cyclists have to accept the fact that our bodies say “no.” With my doctor’s help, I have learned to recognize when my body tells me “Don’t push so hard. It could be dangerous.” Second, it is clear that the recovery periods take longer than they used to, which means that the training schedule probably needs to be stretched out. Third, and probably most important, is the need to modify the purpose of training. The physicality of riding faster is less important during the later years. At best, we can barely keep up, anyway. Instead, the spirituality of cycling becomes increasingly important. We continue training with the purpose of extending the span of years when self-propelled travel through interesting places continues to add enjoyment to life. It also moderates the inevitable decline of mind (and body).

The adage “practice makes perfect” needs to be corrected to read “practice makes permanent.” Bike for Life can help us revise our permanent habits so that they come a lot closer to being perfect.

Biking 100 miles on the day you turn 100

September 1, 2011

“Wouldn’t you like to ride a century when you turn a century?” Bike for Life offers a “blueprint for longevity, fitness, health, and well-being” so that people can plan to bicycle one hundred statute miles on the day they turn 100.

Genetics, the authors tell us, account for only 20 to 30% of a person’s life span. The other factors that determine how long we will live are related to life style, over which we have a lot of control. These are the factors that Bike for Life discusses. The book gives a comprehensive review of the expected topics like training, nutrition, and equipment. To this the authors add topics that are not often treated in cycling literature: osteoporosis, depression, impotence, and what to do when attached by cougars and grizzlies.

The writers are experienced journalists who have done their research in technical books, medical reports, travel literature, and cycling manuals. They handle this material deftly, giving enough detail to explain and persuade, but not so much that they bore readers and make them skip through the book. They largely ignore topics that quickly grow obsolete or seem beneath the interest of the readers they have in mind, topics like what kind of bike to buy and instructions on bike repair.

Two hard-core cyclists have collaborated in writing this book: Roy M. Wallack who has published extensively in the cycling field and is now “a fitness-gear columnist for the Los Angeles Times,” and Bill Katovsky who has written extensively about triathlons and more recently coauthored Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq, An Oral History.

Both men are serious cyclists and the book tells just enough about their exploits on two wheels to demonstrate their competence to write on this subject. The most harrowing of their travels described in the book is La Ruta, a three-day mountain bike event in Costa Rica, which (judging by the experience they report) must be one of hardest events on bicycles any place in the world. Since Bike for Life is not an exercise in self-promotion for the authors, most of the illustrative material describes the serious cycling of other people.

One of the most interesting features of the book is a series of 12 interviews with people who have become legends in the world of cycling. Among them are Gary Fisher, who was one of the developers of the mountain bike; Eddie B, the coach who “changed American cycling,” and Maria Streb, whose exploits on a bicycle leave me gaping in consternation. Perhaps most important, given the focus of this book, is the interview with John Sinibaldi, a 90-year-old resident of St. Petersburg, Florida, who continues to bicycle 7,000 to 8,000 miles per year.

Sinibaldi has his own prescription for cycling in old age, and it differs significantly from the advice given in the book. Here it is:

Ride your bike like crazy. Hope for good genes…Grow and eat your own vegetables. Eat red meat only when it’s on sale. Listen to classical music. Avoid television. Read the newspaper every day and do the crossword puzzle. Go barefoot most of the time. When you find a gear you like, stick with it. And get your rest on the bike while you climb hills.

The book has lots of sidebars (which seem to be required in bike books these days) on all kinds of topics. The authors, who know how to write as well as how to ride, have given readers a comprehensive book. A word of warning: This is a persuasive piece of journalism, capable of making a true believer out of casual and sometimes skeptical cyclists.

You should get the book and do what it says. 100 comes sooner than you think and you need to get started in your training if you expect to do a century ride on the day you reach a century.

I’m glad that all I have to do this year is 80.

Love Affair with the Bicycle: John Howard’s Testimony

August 24, 2011

Hard-core bicycling is a combination of muscle and mind, of disciplined technique and enduring attitude. While many books–including Mastering Cycling by John Howard–offer advice about the muscle-technique side of cycling, many of them tend to overlook the mind-attitude aspect. Howard, who is described as “legendary cyclist and coach,” is distinctive in that his book includes both kinds of material. The book is intended to instruct competitive cyclists as they move through middle age into their older years. It also intends to encourage them. Born in 1947, Howard was 62 when this book was published and therefore understood what it is like to be growing old.

More important is his evident love of bicycling, an activity that he started in childhood before he could have imagined entering into the race-oriented aspects of the sport. “Life in itself is a miracle,” Howard exclaims, “and I have found cycling to be a great way to enjoy the many miracles of living life on this planet. Ever since I first discovered cycling, I have loved feeling my heart pumping energy into my limbs and covering mile after mile by my own power. I began pedaling through the beautiful Ozark Mountains and rural countryside near Springfield, Missouri, and now I frequent the sunlit coastal beauty of southern California. I have had a lifelong love affair with the bicycle…Any bike will do. For me, it’s about feeling the joy of being alive and living life to the fullest.

Howard believes that a love for bicycles needs to be matched with demanding goals if cyclists are to reach and maintain their potential. Because he has been a competitive cyclist, with remarkable records in Ironman Triathlons, RAAM (Race Across America), and other extreme cycling events, Howard focuses upon ways that older cyclists can continue to enjoy competitive cycling. He devotes chapters to training on and off of the bike, indoors and out of doors. He discusses a performance diet, preparing to race, strategies for every event, and dealing with injuries. As proof that competition-focused cycling can serve older cyclists well, Howard includes brief descriptions of several cyclists in their seventies and eighties who have continued to race.

Although I have never been a competitive cyclist of the kind that Howard describes, I believe that challenging goals also provide an important dynamic factor for all of us whom Howard refers to as recreational cyclists. Because they are physically challenging, long tours require that cyclists prepare body and mind in anticipation of the events. Many of the same training patterns that Howard describes in full detail are as beneficial for bicycle touring as they are for racing. When we are on the road all day, day after day, we have to pay attention to what we eat and drink, and give serious attention to how we ride.

Whereas race-oriented cycling focuses attention upon the physicality of the sport, tour-oriented cycling focuses attention upon the thinking-feeling aspects of life. Whether or not we were competitive cyclists at some point in our cycling career, we can benefit from non-competitive but demanding touring. In that process this easily read book by John Howard will help us improve in the basic skills of two-wheeled travel.