Sunday, December 6, 2009

Wind and Snow - A "character-building" and sublime 200K

In a quest to avoid having the Cascades be the superlative of anything, Road Pixie decided that a Permanent in December in Minnesota would be a great idea (of course, many have called me crazy). So I contacted the closest brevet organizer and planned my adventure. Originally, I had hoped this would have been during our stretch of unseasonably warm weather (with highs in the 40s). Alas, that weather ended just before the ride. So this was my first brevet ever in which the temperature never got to the freezing mark. Add a gradually shifting weather pattern to ensure a constant headwind and a start at a balmy 12 degrees, throw in a light snow and very little real sun and you've got the makings of a "character builder".

I met Rob, who was kind enough to call me brave instead of crazy, at the Kwik Trip in Apple Valley just before 7:00 am on December 5. Since both of my normal brevet bikes are either under repair or out of state, I was on my Trek Madone which isn't really set up for brevets, but it was only a 200K (at this point, I don't seem to consider that a long distance). Preparations included doing everything possible to avoid a flat including putting new puncture-resistance tires on with tubes containing sealent. The tires themselves had a light tread which later proved to provide some additional fun. Rob took pictures beforehand; always good to have photo documentation in a case like this one.

After the start from Apple Valley, the first stop was Faribault - about 34 miles more or less to the south. A nice south wind was blowing making this stretch much more strenuous than I might have thought. Of course, a 5 mph wind added to the 14 mph bike speed at 12 degrees works out to a wind chill of about -4. Fortunately, I was very well dressed (not too hot and not too cold). I noticed that the previous days' light snowfall was still around on the sides of the roads, a dusting to about 1/4 inch. The sunrise was really beautiful with the cold air as I left Apple Valley so even though I wasn't really making good time, I didn't care. About 30 minutes into the ride came the first nasty surprise: even with electrolytes in my sports drink, it had turned to an undrinkable mush (we're talking solid - can't even drink by unscrewing the top). I stopped at a truck stop near Bagley Road to throw one bottle in a microwave so that I could drink something. One of the truckers suggested adding some vodka, but I really think that might get difficult as a long term solution; I settled for adding additional salt.

The traffic was still light and I arrived at the Faribault control with about an hour extra in the bank. I got a bottle of gatorade, a Starbuck's Double Shot and some peanut butter cups. Fifteen minutes later, I was headed for the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail. I had really been looking forward to this section. It winds through the countryside close to Hwy 60, but far enough away to feel secluded.

Arriving at the trail, I noticed that there was enough snow to completely obscure the pavement and any irregularities. My headwind had turned into a crosswind (at least it was a change), but I found that pushing slick road tires through just 1/4 inch of snow took quite a bit more energy that one might have thought. I could comfortably ride about 12 mph without sliding on the pavement or being jarred by unseen hazards. I saw 2 people, along with hawks, woodpeckers, bunnies, a raccoon and a ton of animal footprints. I considered switching to Hwy 60 to pick up speed but every time I looked, all I saw was semis and no shoulder and the trail was really very pretty. So I stuck it out and I am very glad I did; the skeletons of the trees looked like lace against the sky and there are few things as impressive as a lake on the brink of freezing for the winter.

I managed to be so enthralled that I missed the unmarked turn onto Cty Rd 26 and did some bonus miles riding around Madison Lake. No one seemed to know where Cty Rd 26 was, they just drive by landmarks. Finally I mentioned that I was looking for the Casey's and immediately everyone knew where I was going. I arrived there with about 45 minutes to spare, had a quick bite and bought new chemical toe warmers (Rob had given me two sets, but in the cold they lasted 2 hours, not the 6 advertised). I dumped all the slush from my bottles, filled them with hot, salty sports drink and headed north on 26, at last a tail wind!

That didn't last long. I made the turn onto MN99 just in time for the 10 MPH wind to shift from the south to the east. For fifteen long miles (plus some nice rollers at the end) I had some significant swear words for the wind gods, MNDOT (who neglected to put a shoulder on the road), the continuing cold, and just a few lesser words for the route designer (Rob). There is always a low point on a brevet and this was it. When I finally turned north onto Cty Rd 21, my mood improved considerably - not to mention I got a crosswind. I rolled into the Lonsdale Control just as the sun began to set at about 4:20. I had picked up 30 minutes. I rushed the control since by this time, I noticed the only time I was really cold or wet was just after coming out of the warm stores. I emerged and turned all my lights on. On cue, the winds shifted to the NE so I got a nice new headwind. Despite this, I really picked up the pace. I started seeing Christmas lights after a beautiful sunset. And I only had about 25 miles left.

Some difficulties emerged on Scott Cty 8 with snow. Scott County has apparently decided that their 2 ft shoulders should dedicate at least a foot to a brutal buzz strip. That leaves only a bit left for bikes to ride on. Unfortunately, it was covered with snow making it hard to see where the road ended. Additionally, some very minor melting during the day caused it to ice up in places. This stretch was difficult in the dark with lots of traffic preventing me from just riding on the road. Finally, I got to Dakota County which has really nice bike paths and shoulders.
In Lakeville, many must have been doing holiday shopping since traffic was thick on a Saturday. Only 10 miles to go. I rode on as many roadside trails as possible since it kept me out of traffic. North of Lakeville and into Apple Valley houses were decked out with so many lights I thought there must be some kind of city wide clearance sale on them . Entire streets were covered so this was a really nice final stretch to start cooling down; I actually sang some carols at one point. I also passed an operating ski hill, how many brevets do you see that on!

I rolled into the Qwik Trip at about 7:15. My GPS said that my overall average was about 10.5 MPS and my moving average was 13; not the fastest brevet, but not bad all things considered. My bonus miles total 4 - 131 miles for the day. The cold and wind definitely took a toll - my HRM says I burned more calories on this ride than going up Mt Lemmon. But it was definitely worth it, I can't remember a brevet, or any other long distance ride, that I looked saw so many beautiful things that really made me feel like I was part of the changing seasons.

  • The clothing was essential to the success of the ride. For posterity, and those wanting to try it out themselves, here was my successful recipe for a windy ride that started in the teens and never hit freezing:
  • Lake Winter Cycling Boots with 1 pair heavy smartwool socks and toe warmers.
  • Craft long underwear top (Craft makes the best long underwear I have ever seen), a Perlizumi Vector winter cycling jersey, a thin North Face fleece vest, and a Novarra wind jacket.
  • Skull cap, fleece headband under my winter cycling helmet (which has ear flaps and does not have vent holes), and a tubular neck wrap.
  • Cycling shorts, thin fleece tights, and Perlizumi Amphib bib tights.
  • My Specialized wind gloves under a pair of lobster mits.
  • Sunglasses
Female only note: Forget the bra for this kind of ride - I've tried a ton and there hasn't been a decent winter sports bra made that wicks properly. They just trap water next to your skin at the worst possible place. Besides, with the jackets and layers, who's really going to notice?

I left everything on at all times during the controls (I only took my helmet off once) and I spent as little time as possible inside, 20 minutes was the longest. My skin was always dry, but the outer layers of clothing were always a bit damp especially the fleece vest, this is how layering is supposed to work. The inner layers wick moisture to the outer ones where it can evaporate without cooling you off. It works beautifully when done correctly. The secret is to avoid warming up to the point where you sweat enough to overwhelm the bottom-most layer and get it wet. Many in the controls were surprised how little I was wearing, but in all honesty, the goal is to block the wind and keep the core warm. Layers that are bulky make pedaling difficult and don't allow adjustment. It's also good to think about how easy it will be to use the facilities; a long strip-tease in a truck stop stall gets to be a real drag.

Though I adore riding at night, I am also paranoid about being seen. I had two tail lights, one attached to my helmet and one on the bike, which I left on all day, and a headlight. I carry two sets of backup lights just to be certain. I also created my own ankle/leg bands by using reflective clothing tape to put streaks on my shins, calves and thighs. Since these are moving, they really improve visiblity. I also had piping on my wind jacket, a reflective vest, shoes, and gloves. I like putting reflective tape on my gloves so that cars can see a turn signal. Someone actually pulled alongside of me just after Lonsdale to comment that they could see me from a least a mile away. I was glad to get some real feedback not to mention knowing that the pickup slowly following me was not a serial killer.

I plan on riding this permanent again in the spring, summer, and next fall. I think that watching it change will be interesting and that I will see different aspects of the same places. This was unquestionably one of my more sublime rides, but isn't the quest for discovering some new aspect of the road one of the reasons all of us ride bikes in the first place.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Goat eats Lemmon on Ice

November 14th started out as a cool morning (by Arizona standards - Road Pixie found 54 degrees to be quite balmy). About 20 riders started the Mt Lemmon Brevet. At 125 miles with a 25 mile climb smack in the middle, it's a challenging brevet no matter how you slice it. Added to that is the fact that when you aren't climbing, you are riding an urban ride complete with traffic, stop signs and lights. Mt Lemmon itself is quite spectacular. It starts out as desert with cactus, then becomes scrub land, then large boulderscapes, finally morphing into pine forests. The pavement is near perfect with only one tiny section under repair at mile 10. Speaking as someone who comes from a state with lots of bumpy roads, the pavement on this ride was like glass.
Hats off to the organizers of this adventure. They provided 2 stops the first at Windy Vista, about 16 miles up the mountain, had hot chocolate, Ramen noodles, cookies, etc. Since the high for the day in the valley was about 67 and it snowed on top of the mountain (above 8,000 feet), they also provided drop bags. At first I thought having the clothing drop 5 miles before the turnaround was odd, but it really is the very best place to do it. By the time you get to the Palisades, temps are dropping and this day did not have much sun. It was about 40 degrees and I was happy to put on some of my fall gear (especially leg warmers) before the trip to Summerhaven (the turnaround). The biggest shock of the ride was the fact that there are 2 major climbs after the big 20 miler and they felt like the steepest of the trip. The first 20 miles of the mountain are a steady 5%-8%, very easy to hit tempo and keep going. Then you hit the palisades and have about a mile of climbing until a steep 2 mile descent, then another climb and a final descent into Summerhaven for the turnaround. During the final climb on the way back to the Palisades, it started snowing then ice balling on the descent to the Palisades. Ice balls sting when hitting you in the face at 25 mph!

At the Palisades are drop bags and another big round of food including delicious wraps hand made by the ride coordinator, Susan. Road Pixie normally does controls as quickly as possible, but had to hang out at these considering how nice they were. It was also nice to get to know new riders including a group of 3 from Utah. The Utah crowd consisted of a guy in his 40s-50s, his son (who was just getting his driver's license), and an older gentlemen in his 60s. I finally passed them at about mile 100, but I assume all three finished. I am impressed that a 15 year old finished this brevet.

I did screw up my directions just after control #2. I was so amazed by the approaching sight of the mountain that I missed a turn and did 5 bonus miles at the foot of the mountain. Serves me right for ignoring my beeping GPS. That took about 20 minutes or so off my time and I ended with 130 miles in exactly 12 hours clock time and 10:15 riding time. The big climb started at 10:15 and I hit the Palisades at about 1:30 and Summerhaven at about 3:00.

The final 5 miles to the finish were on Moore Road in northern Tuscon. After 28 miles of sprawlish riding, this road was completely dark and not a car or house in sight. Beautiful stars shown down and I am now really looking forward to more night rides in the desert. It's a completely different kind of terrain from Minnesota. Not much in the way of rolling; you are either doing a sustained ascent, descent or in the flats.

I was also really impressed by the bike lanes in Tuscon. They are set up so that the right turn lane is to the right of the bike lane with cars yielding to bikes to turn right. It really works quite well and puts a stop to the annoying problem of standing at a light in the right lane and wondering if everyone sees you.

In the book keeping department, these brevets use receipts instead of having the cashier sign the card. I can see the advantages of both since I almost always buy something anyways. But there is something kind of nice about handing your card to the cashier. Since our RBA maintains relationships with the quickie marts, they are aware of how long the ride is and usually offer some kind words. Somehow that makes me feel more connected to the places I am riding through - very subtle.

A final note is the performance of the Golden Goat on this ride. I am very pleased with the gearing setup. The compact cranks and the 11x32 cassette was excellent for this ride. Heart rate monitor shows that the entire climb was aerobic, even the steeper parts. I never felt like I had to apply major pressure to get up the hill - it was one big, fast spin. Most of the time, I tried to stay in the 30 or 28 cog, reserving the 32 for resting. But I will have to work on climbing speed. At my favorite climbing tempo, about 80 rpm, the lowest cogs put me at 5-6 mph. I'd like to develop some more power so that I can push the 28 or 26 cog comfortably at tempo. That will cut the climbing time a bit for the oncoming Cascades.

This ride was so nice, I am now looking at planes for New Years. The next AZ Brevet is the 200K Casa Grande Ruins. It's also nice to see Dad and my sister (I'm lucky to have family in the area).

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mt Lemmon Approaches

As a special bonus for the year, Road Pixie has decided to mix family (Dad) with biking and fly to Arizona to ride the 200K Mt Lemmon Brevet. Described as "extreme" by some who have ridden it, the brevet is 40 miles through Tuscon followed by a 25 mile climb at 5%-8% up to the top. The return descent should be something.
The Golden Goat just got FedEx'd to Dad's for the winter where it will stay, providing reasons to go see Dad over the winter. Dad rides too, just not quite as far.
There are actually very few places one can ride 25 miles straight up. Some places in Colorado, etc. Road Pixie's current record is only 15 miles up (in Oregon). More later on the lessons learned from the assault on the Lemmon.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Austrian Anyone?

IronK spends quite a bit of time complaining about the number of bikes that I own. As a result, it just makes me want to change things so that every bike has a specific and useful purpose. This has resulted in my selling of my Surley Cross Check (which never fit right) and refurbishing the first road bike I ever purchased.

Okay, I was 13 years old when I bought in back in '82. I had previously had a 10-speed Schwinn that was stolen while I was buying D&D modules at the local hobby shop. My divorce-in-progress parents were not into getting me a new bike so I had made due with a Huffy Sante Fe that I got at a police auction. Finally, a year of saving and scrimping had netted me the $234.86 that I needed to buy my very first true "road bike", a Puch Alpina.

I road it for so many miles as a 13-15 year old. Every weekend was a new exploration of Cincinnati, Ohio and the many, many hills. Begin 13 isn't easy, and I now realize that this bike must have been an atrocious fit! But I paid for it, so it was wonderful.

In all the years since then, I have never gotten rid of the Alpina. My father finally bought me a Trek 2100 (which I also still own) when I was 25, but I kept this bike somehow. It had been behind the furnace for 10 years.

When I bought the Golden Goat, it came set up as a single speed and I promptly took all the parts off and put them in a box. I was lamenting the fact that, without the Surley, I had no winter bike! Then I was looking at Sheldon Brown's various faq's and thought about a single speed/fixey. He mentioned that the best type of bike to convert for the purpose was a 70s style road bike. Down the stairs and there it was: a nice steel frame with horizontal drop-outs and enough clearance for decent winter tires.

Quick trips to the LBS and the bike came to life. Sure the bottom bracket was a trashed mess. The headset was a mess too, but did clean up at least. I regret that I didn't take pictures of the process. The dearailleurs and brake calipers went to the trash, but I kept the mounting hardware and the cranks for posterity. So was born Rasputin (Marcy, the LBS manager, gets credit for the name).

The only issue is the headset. Though the original still works, the fork is a french-threaded one. I have now done more research than I thought possible on the history of bicycle headsets (I'm sure this will help me in some future trivia game). Back in "the day", there really were not the standards that exist now. Today, all threaded headsets (and even those are going away) are the ISO or British standard of 24 threads-per-inch (TPI). In the 60s and 70s, many European makers (including Puch) followed the now-extinct French standard of 25.4 TPI. There are other differences as well including the race size (French ones are a bit thinner in the head tube), but those can be subtly altered by a good bike shop. Hard to change the threads on the fork (though my metal-working artist friend BigG thinks that's do-able too).

I'd be okay with my French-style headset, but this was also before the days of sealed bearings. If I turn the bike upside down, I can see the lower race bearings rolling around in there. Okay now, but with winter grim and dirt, destruction is a foregone conclusion. So I am left with only a few options:
  1. Buy a new fork. Yuch! The original matches the very nice paint and has nice scalloping and lugging.
  2. Find a sealed bearing french-threaded headset. Promising, but even Ebay is having trouble. Seems that I am in line behind proud owners of classic Peugeots.
  3. Use the lower races only of an ISO headset - the upper races aren't so susceptible to weather. Advocated by Sheldon Brown, I like this approach, but at least two mechanics have been nay-sayers. I will have to consult Marcy.
  4. Get BigG or one of his friends to change the thread-size of the fork. Hmmm, might keep this one in the back pocket.
Since it is only fall, I am still riding the bike with the old headset. 27 years later, it fits very well. I remember the days when a bad dismount meant certain pelvic doom. Now I am amazed that I don't even have toe-overlap on the thing. Replaced the original drop bars with TT bars for stability over the winter. A bunch of frame saver and a bit of touch up nail polish (thanks Sally Hansen for all those color options) was all the frame needed.

Now if I can just find a reasonable headset...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

IronK Conquers Coulees

This past weekend may have been the pinnacle of Road Pixie's yearly quest to lure IronK deeper into the sport of cycling. Along with the infamous Shredder (so named for his amazing ability to go through tires at the most inopportune time), IronK succeeded in completing the 43 mile Crusin' the Coulees biannual ride.

Highlights included a civil war era cemetary conveniently located halfway up a very large climb (no really the tombstones were way cool). Also, the $5.50 prime rib sandwich at the Waumandee Resort that saved us from certain starvation.

This was also the second ride for the Golden Goat, Road Pixie's fabulous climbing machine. A Salsa Casseroll with a compact crankset and a mountain biking rear derailleur, the Golden Goat boasts a gear ratio lower than a triple (I did the math). Alas, IronK had a triple and so relied on her iron thighs to push her way up.

A fabulous ride with only one tire falling to the Shredder....

Saturday, October 10, 2009

How to survive really foul weather (and still have fun)

I've done heavy duty exercise in all conditions for many years (and not just cycling). I did once spend a solid 5 days in the pouring rain the BWCA once and I have cycled at temps down to minus 23F and been comfortable. Brevets are somewhat challenging sometimes because you have limited space and a long time so things can change quickly and unexpectedly for the worse; that somewhat hosed me on my first one when temps dropped 10 degrees lower than we expected. I added a rack to my bike after that one so that I could carry extra clothes and stash others.

But on my last brevet of the season, an October 200K in Rochester Minnesota, I was toasty warm and never had any issues with either the cold or the rain, both of which were ever present. Since I am lucky enough to actually have a thermometer on my bike (a feature I highly recommend), I can say that the day started out at 42 degrees once we were away from the Rochester heat island. It rained lightly, but continuously until about 2:00 pm at which point the showers started to come and go. It rained harder in Rushford, about halfway; I expected that since valleys hold clouds. It warmed up to about 46 and stayed there for most of the afternoon with brief surges. The wind picked up considerably at about 3:30. I had my clothing perfect for the weather (having honed it with year round commuting). Here is everything I had on and my comments:
  1. Wool cycling socks (high ankle) with plastic bags that I added at Stewartville. I had regular cycling shoes on which are highly vented so I added wind blockers. For me, the wind covers are great, but if I zip them up, they really constrict blood flow to my feet so I like to leave them half zipped. So the plastic bags extend up into the tights and make sure the rain water flows into the shoes, but doesn't get directly on my feet. It then drains through all those air holes. Happily, wool insulates when wet so the sweat doesn't make my feet cold. Also, I tend to completely loosen the buckles on my shoes so that I have lots of wiggle space. The wind blockers ensure that this isn't a problem.
  2. I had a pair of specialized equinox gloves that I bought at my LBS. These had a lot of neoprene in them and worked well. These were wind-proof and breathable and were warm even when soaking wet. I have also cycled with my 2mm scuba gloves (which are made to insulate using the water as the insulation).
  3. I had regular cycling shorts on with bib tights over the front. I bought these a few years back for winter riding. They are neoprene on the front and regular lycra on the back. The venting of the back ensures that they draw any sweat away, but the front blocks everything.
  4. I had a long-sleeved cycling jersey that had some wind blocking abilities on top. I added a thin vest for more wind blocking and a waterproof, breathable jacket on top. I got the jacket from REI and it's great but I notice that Novarra (the REI brand) has cheap zippers, so I am careful with them. Pit zips are a really nice feature so that you can open them and vent/dry when it isn't raining.
  5. I had a cycling beanie on my head and a lycra neck wrapper (also from LBS). I brought my balaclava, but didn't need it. I eventually put a shower cap over my helmet. My helmet is so well vented that as long as the cap doesn't wrap my head, it still vents. In really pouring rain, keeping a ton of water off your head is a good idea. In light rain or scattered showers, it's optional.
In the years of commuting (pouring rain, thunderstorms, snow, sleet, etc). I have several cardinal rules for dressing:
  1. If you are not cold for the first 3-5 minutes of the ride, start taking things off. You are overdressed. Overdressing is the number #1 cause of being cold while riding. Another way to think of it is that if you are standing around waiting for the ride to start, you should be quite cold. Have an extra jacket for this period and throw it in the car right before you leave.
  2. It's more important to block the wind than to block the rain. You generally don't need much in the way of insulation until you are at or near 32. Your body generates its own heat, your clothing needs to ensure the wind doesn't blow it away. Along with this is the importance of not wearing anything totally impervious to water from the inside out. Breathable fabrics ensure that you move the sweat away from your skin. Modern base layer fabrics work this way - they keep the side facing your body dry while the outside saturates with water and slowly evaporates. If you wear a rubber suit, the base layer can't get rid of the sweat. Then you have the problem that any time you stop, you instantly get shivering cold.
  3. Leave anything with cotton at home. In mountaineering, the saying is "cotton kills". Cotton gets wet and sucks the heat out of you. It also dries poorly.
  4. Layers don't work unless they are thin (makes them easier to pack too). I only wear true fleece (and it is only about 5mm thick) when it is under 20 degrees. Above this temp, it's generally too thick. Thin wool is in vogue, but there are all kinds of fall jerseys that block wind. Always plan that the temps will be at least 10 degrees less than the forecast.
  5. Protect your core first. If your core is warm, your extremities take care of themselves. Wear a wind vest, even if it is under your jacket.
  6. EAT - your body uses lots of calories to keep you warm. The amount you eat at 40 degrees and raining should be greater than what a summer ride is on the same course. I looked at my records and found that I burned about 150 calories per hour more on this brevet than on the 400K in late August riding at about the same pace. Who doesn't need an excuse to eat peanut butter cups? And don't forget to drink - in the cold rain, you don't get as thirsty, but you still have to drink to avoid dehydration (more trips to the restroom though since you are not going to be sweating so much so avoid drinking too much).
Everyone should read about the symptoms and stages of hypothermia which are on the net somewhere. Shivers are your body's last defense so if you are shivering and suddenly stop shivering, it's a really bad thing (unless you have come into a warm area or done something else to warm yourself up). Time to knock on someone's door and beg for mercy.

Friday, October 9, 2009

In the beginning...

There were two lesbians both of stunning latent athletic ability. One followed the route of iron and now deadlifts 210 lbs, the other decided to find out just how far a girl could go without stopping on her bike. And so was born this blog, a testimony to the few, but significant, number of females in the sport of Randonneuring. Maybe it was the whole French thing (I do have a degree in French Literature) and I was just desperate for a really good reason to go back to France. Maybe it was because I despise competition with anyone other than oneself. Maybe it was because I really like pain.

Having just finished my very first season of randonneuring by finishing the Super Randonneur series of 200K, 300K, 400K and 600K rides. I now set my next goal on the Cascades 1200 next June. 770 miles long with 40,000 feet of climbing in 93 hours seems like a great idea. So this blog will detail how I intend to get to the finish line.

Also, there will be continuing updates on the additional saga of my quest to get the weightlifter onto the back of a tandem.