Monday, May 21, 2012

All in the cheapness of time

This post about a 19 year old Timbuk2 bag is really heartening. Bicycling or bicycling inspired products can seem ridiculously expensive at first, but as I may have said before and can't say enough: in the 5 years or so I've been cycling, I've never regretted spending too much money, and have often regretted spending too little.

Also, I've often found that once you get used to the quality and thoughtful design of bicycling products, especially details such as fasteners, fabrics, stitching, finishing and overall "feel", you start to get impatient with cheaper products in other areas of your life.

"Buy cheap, buy twice" is one of my favourite mottoes, but it's sometimes a hard one to live by, especially when you're new to a particular product area or hobby. It's difficult to take the long view and understand that the $100 messenger bag you've just bought will last you 20 years, especially when you know there are $20 messenger bags in Target.

My custom Timbuk2 small messenger bag. I also have a medium for bulky shopping duties, and like to annoy you by taking pictures of black items on black backgrounds

A couple of decouplers

So in the long period that this blog has lain dormant, the bicycles in my life haven't. (At least, the two currently in my possession. The Iro sits entombed in a cardboard box in our flat in Bangalore.) The Volpe has been on a three week, 1,200km tour in Mexico after which I've stripped it down to frame only (and bottom bracket—that guy is jammed in there TIGHT), and in return for its selfless service I've sent it off to Bilenky CycleWorks where they'll hacksaw it in half and install S&S bicycle torque couplings.

The CAAD meanwhile has received a pair of new lightweight wheels and is being thrown at every incline I'm inclined to throw it at. The two of us are closing in rapidly on 100,000 vertical feet, or about 30km of riding up into the sky. (On the other geometrical plane and across all bicycles, I hit 20,000km somewhere in Mexico.) Why all the climbing? I want to soak up the San Gabriel mountains every chance I get. Even today, after so many trips up there, I can't believe there's so much beauty and wildness accessible on a door-to-door ride in what is essentially Los Angeles. The other day, a lynx glowered at me from the side of the road as I went past.

I went. I sawed. I decoupled
I loved touring, but really hated dealing with the full bike in box. Bike Fridays, the logical alternative to chopping your beloved bike in two, make me itch a little when I look at them. It's not just about the cycling, some of it is the cycle as well right? At least for me. I need to feel a bit of thrill when I lean my bike against a post a 1,000 miles from home, and look back at it before going off to see whatever sight I'm there to see.

But what a contradiction. I love my Volpe so much that I'd rather cut it up than buy another bike. And even cut up, it's not nearly as convenient as one of those Bike Friday things, which, with a flick of a wrist and the bat of an eyelid, can be stashed in a Samsonite between your dirty undies and useless souveniers that seemed such a good idea at the time. And though it has those tiny wheels, most riders swear by all that's good and comes in small packages that the ride is indistinguishable from a regular bike. The very next chance I get, I shall ride one of these bikes with what I shall call an open-minded skepticism, where I don't believe a word of what they say, but will be ready to be proved wrong.

The S&S coupler is another of those things that they promise doesn't affect the ride of your bike—everybody who has S&S coupled their bike and written about it on the internet (and the few people I've talked to directly) swear that you won't notice a thing. However, installing the couplers involves burning off some of the paint for the brazing process and having Bilenky repaint it just way out of my budget.

Why is this of any interest to you? Because a lot of people are horrified that I'd cut up my “beautiful Bianchi” and this has made me think a little about this relationship. Just as with your body, the bicycle relationship is a mix of love and a more rational, utility-based approach. I like nice things, but ultimately understand that they are tools. They are meant to be used. In fact, by spending good money in the first place, you get something solid and durable and fun to use. Spending money on precious items (in all senses of the word, but especially the sense of 'affectation') is just not me.

Ultimately the Volpe is a mass-produced steel frame, made in Taiwan, not something that was lovingly welded with moonlight under an oak tree in Portland by a man with a big beard. If taking it to a chop shop makes it more usable and useful, than so be it.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

New wheelbuild

I am turning into a weight weenie. Here are details of a new wheelbuild for the CAAD9. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Coach? Wow, expensive tastes!

I’ve been threatening to write more about coaching for a while now, and I’ve been putting it off. One of the big reasons that I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I have a cycling coach. But I’m finally talking about it because I know now it’s one of the best cycling decisions I’ve made. Why the embarrassment?

1) I'm not racing. And have no immediate plans to start. I might, in the future. But racing's not the reason I signed the coach.

 2) What are books and the internet for? So many people buy Joe Friel's bible, a few DVDs and seem to train extremely effectively.

Thinking it through, the whole “I’m not racing" is a bit bogus, frankly. If I’m not racing, why do I have an aggressively set up road racer with components that are built (and priced) for lightness and precision? Why do I use Speedplay Zero pedals with road cleats that have a deathgrip when on the bike, and make me waddle around like a hobbled penguin when off it? Why am I so obsessed with my average speed and heartrate? Why not just tootle about on the Volpe with its relaxed geo, Crank Brothers Candy pedals and Tiagra components--all perfectly adequate for anyone who isn’t paid to win races--and just be happy with that?

And as for the second (still doing that ‘thinking it through’ thing) it's great that some people can train from books. Perhaps they are more motivated and have an instinctive understanding of what is needed, as well as excellent proprioception. I’m not as good about being motivated to do LT tests, time trials, hill repeats and workout planning. 'Above average, but not particularly good' is my default landing zone, and I really need a bit of a kick to get me going. (Another thing to consider is about how much better those skilled self-trained people would be if they had a coach.)

Cheaper than an upgrade
Coaching has been expensive, at least for me, but looking back I realise that I don’t regret any of the expense. It is still cheaper than a set of light wheels or a carbon frame (the logical upgrades for someone who has a CAAD9 frame and RS-10 wheels). More important, I’ll bet the cost of frame and wheels together that coaching has given me vastly more speed, power and efficiency than BOTH the upgrades would have done. What’s the point of doing the same rubbish I’ve always done, just that my bike’s a bit lighter?

Thanks to the coach’s relentless focus on pedalling technique, my efficiency has gone up drastically, making me faster at a given HR. Also, it’s made my climbing so efficient that I now actually look forward to battling gravity (something I used to dread). I recently climbed 2,300m over 90km, and felt just fine. I remember how it used to kill me to climb half that over the same distance.

Also, because of the coach’s long hill intervals and constant emphasis on LT and that “lactate feeling”, I’m able to control my effort and therefore the level of tiredness during and after rides so much better. I’m now on a strength training programme, and because it’s cycling orientated and I’ve been shown exactly how to lift, I’m more motivated and confident, not just to stick with it, but to push it a little and challenge myself. (I’ve been know to hurt myself in the gym before. Nothing bad, but enough to put me off.)

And finally, it’s a huge relief to have someone who knows you and your skill level to turn to with questions. It’s here that the coach’s experience really shows, and he is able to get to the heart of problems very quickly. Very often, some of the best advice you get is stuff you knew (or kind of knew) all along--you just needed someone else to see it/qualify it/confirm it.

Monday, October 31, 2011

We're all leg men

It's probably impossible to find a group of guys who look at each others' legs more than cyclists do. Oh, and talk about their butts.

With hard exercise it seems, comes total lack of shame when it comes to the body. On bike forums cyclists happily discuss leg shaving, butt sores and even other non-cycling afflictions such as haemorrhoids.

Training changes your relationship to your body. In one way it's a more intimate connection--you understand it better, you track its little moods and know to a specific heartbeat how hard to push it. But in another way, it's a more dispassionate relationship. The body becomes another tool to optimise, just a machine that needs to be fuelled and run in a certain way to get the best out of it.

The very language you use to talk to and about your body changes. Drinking water becomes "hydration", eating becomes "nutrition" or "fuelling", and rest "recovery". In fact, the day you un-selfconsciously and non-ironically use the word "hydration" to refer to the ingestion of water, you are well on your way to being a velokundi.

You also start splitting systems into constituent parts. No longer do your thighs ache, but it's your "quads, but not the hamstrings, with some tightness in the IT band". No longer did you have a hard ride, but your "heartrate was near LT for nearly the whole way". It's a strange tug of war between understanding, accepting, even loving, your body like you never have before,and yet using cold clinical language and methods to get it to work like never before. ("Periodisation" of training, or intervals is a great example of a cruel, calculated methods to force fitness.)

Food also starts to get split up. Familiar dishes start being looked at through a kaleidoscope that splits them into the "macro-nutrients" i.e. proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Foods get analysed for quality of micronutrients too, and no matter how much or little you love food, hard exercise will change your relationship to it.

I wrote about this in an article in Gulf News, where I said: In this context, I’m often reminded of two motorcycles I used to own. One was an old Czech bike of ancient vintage, but available new in India up to 1996. I would sometimes notice that my front tyre was visibly low on air, and feel guilty that I couldn’t feel a change of something like 10psi. A few years later I rode a modern, highly engineered sportsbike and realised I could feel a change of even 1psi in the front tyre. It wasn’t that I had got more sensitive, but that less play in the system meant my connection with my front tyre was more solid and more crucial. In the same way, as exercise removes the play in one’s body, the connection to food gets more solid and more crucial, and eaters start to feel more results—both good and bad—of their eating choices.

But I know that you've still got that legs bit running around in your head, so let's get back there. It's so funny that most of my life I got teased for my largely hairless legs, but now, hanging out with cyclists, I'm envied because I don't have to shave them. (Yes wide-eyed noob who is now regretting reading this, most of the cyclists I hang out with shave their legs. Let's go there another day, shall we?)

I'm remembering how, at a recent race, I overheard one guy saying to another: "Your legs look so good man. The cuts, the striations--your legs are just amazing."

Where else, baba? Where else will you find straight men talking to each other in this way?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Like a surgeon

An interesting article on coaching by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker. If cyclists and sopranos have coaches, why not surgeons? Is the question he asks. There's insight into just what a coach does for you, but also peeks into sporting culture in general. For instance, this paragraph:
What we think of as coaching was, sports historians say, a distinctly American development. During the nineteenth century, Britain had the more avid sporting culture; its leisure classes went in for games like cricket, golf, and soccer. But the aristocratic origins produced an ethos of amateurism: you didn’t want to seem to be trying too hard. For the Brits, coaching, even practicing, was, well, unsporting. In America, a more competitive and entrepreneurial spirit took hold.
Apart from car culture and great distances, it helps explain why America tends to be a country of cyclists, unlike other countries that tend to have people who cycle. This sentence really stuck in my head:
Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.
That's exactly the learning road that drills attempt to lead you through. They break down a complex movement into constituent parts (suddenly making conscious your incompetence with one or more of these parts), and then repeat them over and over in an unnatural way, gradually leading you through to (one hopes) unconscious competence. Sometimes, the mistakes you make are simple and easy to correct. The hard part is knowing you're making them in the first place. When paying for coaching, I often remind myself of the old joke about the mechanic who hits an engine with a hammer to get it to work. When asked to give a break down of his outrageously high bill, he writes: Hitting engine with hammer, $1. Knowing where to hit engine with hammer, $999. More to come on the subject of coaching!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Back in the US, sir!

After a fun-filled, food-filled, friend-filled trip to Bangalore, where I did no blog writing (but did a fair amount of riding), I'm back to the rather surreal peace and beauty of So Cal. I suddenly saw my regular ride through new eyes, and thought I'd post some pictures.

Here, the San Gabriel mountains either beckon or threaten from the San Gabriel River Trail (SGRT). Today they threatened, since it was to be my first sustained climb in nearly two months.

A short way up, I stopped to watch the 4WD crazies churning the mud in the dried reservoir bed.

And this is the top of the ride, about 1,000m up. Shortly after this, is the sustained 14km descent, always a good time.