An admitted shoe geek waxes philosophical about running, triathlon, and life in general.
Comments welcome!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

I know I said I wouldn't...

It wasn't long ago that I said my next bike would be one I built myself...

But N+1 is a mighty force, maybe even the proverbial "irresistable force" that cannot be overcome by the "immovable object".

Note: This is NOT my bike -- this image is from the Surly site.
Yep, I bought another bike. A Surly Cross Check, to be precise. Well, back up a second. I bought a Surly Cross Check FRAME. And fork. I'm building it up with a combination of parts-bin goodies and eBay/community classified selections, a somewhat eclectic mix of parts new and old.

The bike is a bit of a tank. For good reason. Yeah, it's heavy. Indestructible heavy. Which is good. Fender and rack eyelets, clearance for BIG sneakers, cantilever brakes. Cyclo-cross race-able if you don't mind hefting the beast onto your shoulder.

I bought it for a few reasons:

* The Barkley Softride I've been using for my commuting is limited to 28mm tires. Not small, as my TiCycles Softride is limited to 23mm tires even without fenders. The Cross Check has clearance for 45mm tires without fenders, and just slightly smaller with fenders. I'll be running 35mm initially, and may go wider later. Big meats on the rims means riding with abandon. Or at least more abandon. Not having to worry about running off the pavement if situations get dicey, not having to loft the bike over every crack in the concrete. A little more forgiving to both rider error and intentional tom-foolery.

* The bike screams "utility", like a Volvo station wagon. Not the yuppie, soccer-mom 2000's version of the Volvo, but the 1970's nerdy-engineer type Volvo that is driven because of it's economy and longevity. I can't quite bring myself to entertain the idea of racks and panniers, though.

* The bike also screams "thrash me". I plan to do that as well.

* These things are cheap. Not "cheap" as in crappy, "cheap" as in inexpensive. Sure, it helps that I have access to wholesale, but even at retail these things are a bargain.

* Initially, the shop was wanting to do a "6-pack" deal and was taking pre-orders. I got in on the deal partly to help out the shop. Turned out that mine was about the only one, and the owner didn't want to bank-roll another 4 frames/bikes for shop stock. Can't blame him for that. But I was hooked in, and excited.

* It makes me feel like a kid again. You know, back when I didn't have a "road bike" (or three) and a "mountain bike". I had "a bike", and it went where-ever I wanted to go. Trails, the REAL trails, were for hiking, or goofing around in the woods. But I rode my "a bike" on roads, driveways, dirt paths, gravel roads...

This will become my commuter. And will see a lot more duty as well. Maybe even to the point that I (*gasp!*) sell a bike.

And when I'm riding along and see some dirt road that takes off somewhere, I'll be able to just veer off and see where it goes.

It was delivered to the shop on Monday. I've got it about half built up now... I'll post up a "test drive" report soon...

Don't get me wrong on this -- I'm still going to build bike frames at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later. I've still got the itch (in a BIG way) to get creative with a torch and steel. I've been killing a lot of time and brain cells in frame building forums (fora?) lately, getting my brain all smart about building and brazing. The thing that holding me back? Practical experience. 

And equipment. Is that another N+1 coming on?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Oh, the joys of ulcerative colitis...

As I wrote about some time back, I've got a long history of ulcerative colitis. My first flare-up was in 1997, and I've had several since, though my last one was some 8 years ago. Each time, though, Prednisone brought the flare-up under control

Since my last flare up eight years ago, the colitis has been held at bay with a combination of Colazal and Imuran.

Until last weekend.

I'm not sure what brought it on, I thought I'd figured out my biggest triggers (lack of sleep), but I had about a week where I couldn't finish a run without seeking refuge in the trees to empty myself out. I should have seen the signs. A little over a week ago, the bleeding started. I doubled up on my Colazal and Imuran (going to my originally-prescribed dosages), but still I bled. Finally on Tuesday, I went to see the doctor, and again I was given Prednisone to bring the colitis under control. I've always responded very quickly under a Prednisone regimen -- the bleeding stops almost immediately.

The only real issue I've had with Prednisone is that I have to taper off it VERY slowly. Like, WAY slowly, or I'll flare up again. In fact the last time I was on Prednisone, it took me almost a year to taper off it.

I've never had any of the myriad negative side-effects from Prednisone: the weight gain, the puffiness, the irritability (I mean, come on, I've ALWAYS irritable, right?). But this time has been different. I'm still bleeding almost a week later, I'm feeling very run down (not sleepy, but physically tired, but this may be a function of the fact I'm still bleeding), I've been getting a muscle-crampy feeling when riding, and when I weighed myself after my trainer ride today, I found I've GAINED eight pounds since last Thursday. Now I'm not really concerned with the weight itself, as I know it's the result of water retention. But it was kind of the final thing to convince me that, yeah, I'm actually feeling the effects from Prednisone.

Hopefully the UC will come under control soon, and then I can start my taper again (slow as it may be) and get back to "normal".

In the mean time, to borrow a phrase from Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List (a great movie), "never trust a fart".

Monday, December 3, 2012

Altra Superior Zero Drop Shoe Review

Eric is a fellow triathlete, and a training partner. We also work fairly close to each other at the same company, though our jobs don't interact much, so we'll run together at lunchtime on the company grounds a few days each week, usually in the neighborhood of 4.5-7 miles.

After I had seen the Superior in sneak peaks from Altra, I was excited to give them a try. I did get a chance to try them on a few weeks ago, but I didn't purchase them (oh, the power of delayed gratification).

Well, Eric went out and got a pair this past weekend. Color me jealous. Here's his review from our run today.

This shoe is new to the market and is marketed as a lightweight performance off road shoe. The Superior is a Zero Drop shoe, has a removable rock plate and comes in at 7.9 ounces per the Altra Web site [in size 9, Eric wears a size 13]. This is my first experience with Altra and a zero drop shoe and now with the first run complete I will put them in the “like” Column. I am looking forward to my next run in these shoes.

Most of our daily runs in the past included Dave putting up with me wearing shoes that were not designed for trail running. One set of shoes that I frequently run in were designed for triathlons, having drainage holes in the bottom that “love to pick up rocks and sticks” that poke you on the bottom of the foot. Many times we would need to stop running so that I could dig the offending rock or stick out of the shoe. This is what started my journey to find a trail shoe. Dave had mentioned to me on several occasions about Altra’s and how much he has enjoyed running in them and that I should give them a try [I have a pair of Instincts that have over 500 miles on them]. With Altra adding the Superior to the lineup, now looked like a good time to give the Superiors a try.

The Altra Superiors have a nice look and feel of functionality like it was made for trail running. I like the color combination of grey and green even though I prefer red. If anyone from Altra is reading this, I really like red – just ask Dave or my family. Shoe material looks and feels like it will last the abuse of trail running.  Weight of the shoe is comparable to my other trail shoes that I have run in. The removable rock plate is a feature that I am looking forward to trying out as my running varies from trail to road often.

The first run in the Superiors was during our regular lunch time run at work that covered 4.6 miles. Our trails (fire roads) include a mixture of asphalt, hills, compact dirt, gravel and small to medium rocks and the occasional barking dog, grazing deer or misplaced ball from one of the nearby houses. As with most days in Washington, our trails were wet, had puddles, a few small lakes and a bit of mud giving us just the right conditions to try out the Superiors.

The first thing that I like about the Superior is the ample toe box that Altra builds into the shoe. My toes felt relaxed and not boxed in. The interesting part of getting used to the shoes was the very noticeable Zero Drop. The other trail shoes that I run in have a 4 mm drop. Though the change in drop was noticeable, it was not uncomfortable. You do notice the zero drop on down hills since I am a heel striker to begin with; the shoe gives an immediate feedback to runners that heel strike. Hopefully with time, running with the Superiors I can start to correct this.

The removable rock plate was not noticeable during the run and it was not overly stiff either. It protected my feet comfortably during the varying terrain that we encountered. I tried to hit different types and sizes of rocks to see how the protection and responsiveness of the shoe worked during our run. I was very impressed on the comfort and protection that the rock guard provided. Not being overly stiff and being removable is a great feature. My future runs will be with the rock guard removed so that I can have a comparison. Having a functional and removable rock plate makes the shoe more usable to the type of running that I do. I have found most shoe manufacturers make the rock plate either nonexistent or overly stiff. Altra got it right with the Superior.

Since we had a bit of rain prior to the run, it gave a chance to see how the Superior was going to react when wet and in the mud. Surprisingly with the shoe getting wet, it did not feel heavy. I have had other shoes that with just a bit of water they felt like I was running with bricks on my feet. Having a shoe that drains well is important when you live in Washington as most of our runs throughout the year will include rain to a varying degree. The superior does not have an overly aggressive tread as compared to my other trail shoes and I would say they are more of a road tread like design. The benefit to this design is that they don’t pick up stones, however when you hit the mud they have the tendency to slide, so be aware [we talked about this during the run, and my impression from Eric's description was that the sliding is more a sideways settling]. I did not find that the lip on the back of the shoe [Altra calls this a "Trail Rudder"] flipping up material as other reviewers have mentioned in their articles. More than likely what I was feeling was the lip hitting my inner calf. After a few more runs and getting used to the shoe, the lip on the back should not be an issue. If it does, I may trim a bit of material to help out.

Part of our lunch time runs includes time on asphalt and where the real comfort of the Altras comes into play. As with several of my other trail shoes, I find transitioning from trail to road uncomfortable as you are using a shoe that is designed for trail and not really for the road. In most trail shoes you will feel the stiffness of the rock plate. The Superiors transitioned from dirt to asphalt quite well. They were comfortable and the increased flexibility of the rock plate became apparent. After running on the trails, I had almost forgotten about the zero drop until I hit the road again. As time goes on and I get used to the shoes responsiveness, the feeling of transitioning to different surfaces will become less and less.

Part of our run includes a downhill road route, and again the Superior reminded me that I was heel striking and that I needed to shorten up the stride a bit and work on landing more mid-foot. That is the nice thing with this shoe  -- it does give the runner an instant response when your technique is off. I liked how the shoe felt on the road surface and I am looking forward to trying it out on some of my longer road runs.

Overall I am very impressed with the Altra Superior a give them a definite "recommend" rating as they have resolved several key issues that I was having with my other trail shoes around comfort, stiffness and feedback. Comfort while running is everything and having a removable rock plate is a big hit with me as it adds flexibility. The Superior did not have the stiffness issue that I have had with other trail shoes and transitioned nicely from trail to road. I liked the instant feedback that the Superiors gave and the confidence on handling different surfaces, slopes and conditions. During my first run the shoes felt comfortable with no hot spots or the need to stop and adjust lacing. The bigger toe box was a definite plus and my toes really appreciated having the extra room. I am looking forward to my next run in these shoes and the half-marathon in March where I can the Altra Superiors a try at race pace.

[Note: The first three images are stock images from the Altra website. The last is Eric's actual shoes, after the first run.]

Friday, November 30, 2012

MicroShift White -- a budget alternative to Shimano Ultegra

Chris Morelock, a fellow BeginnerTriathlete regular by the handle leegoocrap, posted a GREAT review of the MicroShift White component group.

When I was looking at piecing together a group to put on my coming Surly Cross Check frame, one of the things I considered was to go with MicroShift -- price-wise they're WAY ahead of Shimano, while being completely Shimano compatible. I chose to go with cobbing together the build from used, eBay, and forum classifieds parts, but if I were going to do another true performance build (say, re-speccing one of my road frames for racing again), I'd likely go with MicroShift as Chris did. And I'd likely go with a funky color of the White group.


After a nice visit with my orthopedic doctor yesterday, the diagnosis is not so bad: Mild rotator cuff tear, some tendonopathy, tendonitis, and general inflammation. No need for any surgical correction.

The options are to do physical therapy, either supervised or on my own, with options to go with a cortisone injection or strong anti-inflammatory medications (or not, just depends on what I want to do there).

I chose the at-home exercise plan, and I'll do the anti-inflammatory meds. I've got a nice long thera-band to use, along with the tubing I've already got stock-piled from previous bouts. And when it's all over I can use it to make a great slingshot.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Slices of me...

I've been having some shoulder trouble lately, and the funny thing is I haven't been swimming. Nada. Nothing since September when the local YMCA did a bait-and-switch on the pool schedule rendering my (low-cost) membership useless. They allowed me to cancel it immediately, as I was EXACTLY 30 days from when I activated it, but that was the last time I got in the water.

So it can't be "swimmer's shoulder", because I haven't been swimming.


I think it happened when I was changing the re-mounting the wheel on my car in the (steep) driveway, after plugging a hole made by a 1/4" bolt that had lodged itself through the tread.

Anyway, I went in some 3 weeks ago for the initial exam, and after a lot of painful manipulation demonstrating the limits (and way beyond) of my pain-free mobility, he declared a suspected torn labrum, and ordered up an arthrogram.

For those who might not know, an arthrogram is an MRI with contrast, a liquid pumped into the joint via a needle threaded INTO the joint capsule.

Strangely enough, my wife has been having similar issues with her shoulder, and had gone through an arthrogram just a week before mine. She'd had considerable pain when they were injecting the contrast. Me, being the wimp I am, was dreading that part of the procedure. I'm not all that fond of needles (though you'd think I'd be okay with it, given that I have to go through many blood draws to track medication levels due to my colitis).

But I've got to give Paul at Sound Medical Imaging props -- aside from the first poke, that part of the procedure was nearly painless. 

The other part of it was that going with Sound Medical Imaging go me into the procedure a good two weeks before the place my doctor had originally sent me to to get the arthrogram.

So anyway, after listening to classic rock, being fed into a tube and told several times to hold my breath and not move (just for short periods of time), I walked out of there with a CD of all these images, like a spiral sliced ham laid out like a deck of cards that is my left shoulder.

The phrase "any way you slice it" comes to mind...

So that was over two weeks ago. I (finally) have the follow-up appointment tomorrow morning to go over the results. Hopefully it's something that's easily fixed... Even though I haven't been swimming, I still want to be able to click off a few laps.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Three from the hip... What are you thankful for?

Too seldom do I, or I suspect most of of us, take a pause to reflect on the fortunate circumstances in which we find ourselves. Sometimes by design, sometimes by blind happenstance. More than likely a blending of each tending towards the latter, or in my case, being fortunate in spite of my best efforts.

And so I tender these meager offerings of gratitude to God, Allah, The Great Spirit, The God of Chance, or whatever personification of fortune you prefer:

* The relative health I enjoy, enough so that I can pommel myself in pursuit of athletic mediocrity.

* The love of my wife, daughter, friends and extended family, and their support in my life. I can't look in the mirror and say that I deserve either, but they're with me nonetheless.
* The life I've lived that has made me what I am today. I can't look back and say that it's any kind of "example" to follow, but I can point to myself and say I'm stronger for it.

What about you?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Trying on the Altra Superior

This past weekend I had a chance to get my hands (and feet) on a pair of Altra Superior trail running shoes. And I've gotta say, they're everything I was expecting, and more.

The day started with 2 hours on the stationary bike, then shower, breakfast, and bundling up to spend a couple hours honoring our veterans at a parade. Then on the road to my old bike shop to tie up a couple loose ends, lunch, and then a stop by The Balance Athlete (I had called ahead to make sure they had the shoes).

Picking the shoe up, it feels lighter than the Instinct, though not racing-flat light like the Skechers Go Run. But this shoe isn't meant to be that light. It's a pared-down version of the Lone Peak, and I think they've made something that will, at least for the trails in the Pacific Northwest, work every bit as well if not better than their beefier offering.

The fit is very much like the other Altra shoes -- snug in the rearfoot, where it's supposed to be, and free in the forefoot, where it's supposed to be. Toe room is ample, nothing pushing anything in the wrong direction. The collar feels more cushy than the Instinct, but doesn't feel like it's giving up a secure fit.

For some reason I had envisioned the rock plate similar to that used in other shoes -- a piece of plastic in the forefoot making the shoe stiff. Even when some one asked me about a "negative drop" feeling when trying on the Superiors, I had answered that maybe removing the rock plate would help (it did, but not for any reason I had thought). I really had no idea what the rock plate looked like... I figured it was attached to a full-length insole that was removable. I was surprised to see that it is a full-length insole-like plastic insert, separate from the "Contour" insole. My shoe-geekness is slipping! Underneath the Contour insole and the rock plate is the flat "Strengthen" insole sewn in.

I put the shoes on (going up a half-size -- the Superiors run slightly small compared to the Instinct) with the Contour insole and rock plate in place, trotted around the store, and just grinned. My Instincts have a lot of miles on them, and they're finally getting to where I need to retire them from active duty (at about 18 months). These felt even better than those shoes did when new.

But I did leave the store without buying the shoes.

I know, it was difficult. But I was reminded that Christmas is just around the bend, and I DO have a lot of shoes...

Ever since a hike with my wife this past August, I've been planning on doing a long (for me) run/hike circumnavigation of the Crystal Mountain basin next summer, and have been giving some thought to which shoes I'd wear for such a day-long excursion. I wore Merrell Trail Gloves that day, but if the terrain had been more severe, I'd have wanted something more. I think the Superior is just the ticket for a day like I have planned -- long, mix of running and hiking, trails and rocks...

Friday, November 9, 2012

You don't just run with your legs

I've been watching with interest the running gait research and theories with great interest. But I also watch it with a bit of amused chagrin.

Researchers like to simplify things in order to more easily analyze them. I get that. Engineers use things called "free body diagrams" to lump large structures into a single unit in order to simplify calculations.

Much of the research and theorizing of running gait likes to treat the upper body as a "free body diagram" and isolate the running movement to those parts of us from the hips down. Further, the motion of the legs is simplified to acting like springs, neglecting the complex coordination of muscles and skeleton.

I've gotten into discussions with some of these people with regards to the landing of the foot under the body's center of gravity. They mostly vehemently declare that it is PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE for the foot to make initial landing directly under the center of gravity unless it is undergoing acceleration. I maintain that it is not only possible, but also preferable, for the initial landing of the foot to be directly under the body's CG.

It comes down to resolution of moments, and realizing that the body CANNOT be simplified to acting only in the legs. The body is constantly rotating about the body's center of gravity, the hips coming forward and backward relative to the CG, the arms swinging, the shoulders rotating, the feet providing forward force as well as vertical force (and not in direct proportion to each other)... Rotations in three axes that allow what, on paper and over simplified, seems impossible.

Yes, if you ignore all these rotations and moments, and look at the body as a static mass at the hips (and also ignore the rotation of the hips about a vertical axis near the spine), then I agree -- the only way to keep the mass moving in a constant velocity is to balance the stance phase of the gait in both directions, forward and backward, about a vertical line through the CG. But this isn't reality. Simplifying the human body so makes any conclusions drawn as far from reality as the assumption that everything above the hips is static.

Of course all of this is really just mental gymnastics on something that is so natural that it's comical to ponder it for too long. That some people are getting PAID to study this in so much (horrific) detail is mind-boggling. It's interesting, but...

It's so much better, and more fun, to just run.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The other boys don't do crack. Why do you do crack? That's not RIGHT!

If you remember my N+1 post from some time back, you know that I have a mountain bike. It was cheap -- an no-badge eBay frame find that I nabbed for $2.35 plus $30 shipping. Oversized aluminum tubes, tig'd and painted, ready to rock, elevated chainstays... Reminiscent of the Nishiki Alien from the early '90s, minus the square down tube. The only new parts I had to hang on it were the stem and headset. Everything else I had as remnants from other bikes.

I keep this one at work most of the time so I don't have to transport it back and forth, and I ride it during my lunchbreaks on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I've made some comfort revisions to the handlebars, varied between being a single speed and a 1x7...

I've also had a lot of issues with the rear wheel, specifically flats. Lots of flats. I changed the tube, the rim strip, the tire, filed and Dremel'd the valve hole. No dice, still flat. The next step was a new rim.

Eric, my training partner, volunteered to let me use another rear wheel. So I brought it home along with the bike today to be sure the wheel would work -- solid nutted axle, wide range gear cluster. I have an old road rear derailluer on the bike, so it can't handle a normal wide range of gearing.

So as I was taking it out of the car at home, I noticed a dark jagged line on the down tube coming from the mid-tube weld. And another one on the seat tube at its mid-tube weld. I did the fingernail check, and sure enough, they're cracks. Big ones.

All this time that I was hearing creaking and thinking it was the bottom bracket, or the crankarms, it was probably these cracks growing. They're almost half-way around the tubes.

Steel or titanium, it would be likely repairable. Aluminum? No go. This frame is now dumpster fodder, a gigantic paperweight.

I've had 6 mountain bikes in my life. This is the third one that's cracked, the second aluminum one that's cracked. Of the others: One I gave away, one got left with an ex, the last was sold to a friend.

Lesson? Well, I could say that I've learned to not buy aluminum MTB's, but the first one I had that cracked was steel. Or maybe it's that I need to not buy no-name MTB's off eBay. But it's given me well past my money's worth, and no other bike has cost me so little.

I know one lesson is to inspect the frames more often, so I'm not alarmed to find a crack in my frame that's almost half way through a tube. That would be smart.

Or maybe the lesson is that I need to have more than one MTB... Yeah, that's it. Always have a back-up.

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Inspired Ride

I'm moving!

Well, my job is moving. No, not my "day job", the one that provides the vast majority of my income and utilizes my university degree (into which I invested a whole lot of time and money). That one's staying right where it is, thank you.

No, this is my moonlighting job. My "passion" job. My job spinning wrenches at bikes. And it's moving closer to home.

Inspired Ride Bicycles
of (South Hill) Puyallup has hired me as a part-time mechanic and shop-keep. I've been doing some of their Saturday morning rides (more social than hammerfest), and have been talking with the owner, Nyer, for a couple months now, and everything is now in place -- I'll be starting on November 3rd, with an alternating Saturday schedule.

This is nothing against
Mr. Crampy's Multisport, where I've worked since January -- I've truly enjoyed working there, the people are great, and it's been an awesome opportunity. Kyle, MacBeth, and Justin have a good thing going. They're moving into their new digs this week, and I wish them all the best. But it's also 44 miles away. Yup, each way. That's a long haul for a part-time gig.

Inspired Ride is less than 4 miles away from my front door, so the cost of entry for me is much lower. I could even run to work. I'll have to check on showers...

Inspired Ride Bicycles opened for business in March, and has been slowly growing its clientele. The mainstay is commuting types, road bikes, and bmx. There are plans to move into a more high-end market and triathlon as well. It's a good fit, and I see it going in good directions.

So here's to smooth transitions and new jobs!


Sunday, October 14, 2012

The case for the 650 wheel size

Much has been said for the use of 650 wheels on small frames -- often with the words "the only place they're useful". And I think that's just wrong. Usually the next few utterings will be of the many misconceptions regarding 650 wheels.

The fact is that the smaller wheels usually are found to only be useful on small-sized ROAD bikes, where toe overlap is a very real issue, but for tri bikes, the case can be made quite convincingly that 650's are useful, and maybe even necessary, for creating a stable-steering tri bike well up the frame size range.

There's a myth flying around that a tri bike is less stable than a road bike. I submit that this isn't true, IF the tri bike is properly fitted to your riding position. [Note: this is the way a bike should be fit - to the rider's position, and not the position to the bike.]

Part of the reason a road bike has stable handling is due to the weight distribution between the front and rear wheels -- approximately 55% or more of the rider and bike combined weight will be on the rear wheel if it's fitted properly. But a tri bike position can be loosely interpreted as a road bike position that's been rotated forward around the bottom bracket. What happens when you move forward? More weight on the front wheel. This is why a tri bike is often unstable-feeling compared to a road bike.

Back in the day, when all we had were road bikes, and triathlons were in their infancy, we started to experiment with body position: long and low stems, arms sitting praying-mantis-style over the front wheel, saddles pushed as far forward as the seatpost would allow, or in extreme cases a seatpost that was bent forward. And the bikes handled like crap. It took some pretty relaxed arms (and a zen-like calm) to keep the bike in a straight line, or at least to not panic when it decided to grow a mind of its own.

Dan Empfield and Ralph Ray simultaneously came up with similar ideas to remedy this problem, and while their philosophies were different (move the wheels forward vs move the bottom bracket back), they were arguing two sides of the same coin -- in order to tame the bike-handling beast of tri bikes, the rider's weight needed to be shifted onto the rear wheel.

Here's the deal: When you start moving the wheels forward to compensate for the forward movement of the rider/bike center of gravity, there's only so far that rear wheel can move before it starts interfering with the bottom bracket. Sure, you could just move the front wheel farther out... But USAT has this pesky rule that says the front center can only go to 65cm, or 7/8 of the measured distance from the bottom bracket to the top of the saddle (measured 14cm behind the saddle nose), whichever is greater. So if you ride steep, and "steep" really starts at anything close to an effective seat tube angle of 80 degrees, you're gonna bump into that front center rule before you get to 55% of your weight on the back wheel. UNLESS... you use 650 wheels to allow that rear wheel to get just a little bit closer to the bottom bracket.

Many of the tri bikes of yore sported the 650 wheel size, and in fact for a while it became THE identifying factor of a tri bike -- 650's were used across the size range for many makers, including some of the big swingers: Cannondale, Trek, Fuji, Klein, Kestrel... The list goes on.

Manufacturers have gone away from using 650's for all but the tiniest of frame sizes, and have for quite some time, and I think that's a shame -- physics hasn't changed, and the resultant bikes they make aren't any more stable because they're made from ultra-bling carbon fiber.

And this gets me to the search I went through several years ago when I was making my come-back into the tri world after several years away. Namely, finding a bike that would be stable given my preferred riding position.

I'd been a triathlete before I became a bike racer (much like another famous guy who seems to like the color yellow), but I've never been anywhere near as fast. After racing for several years, settling into riding on a custom TiCycles Softride (which was never accepted for international bike racing, and sadly is no longer in production). I took a few years off to put my time into a business venture, and some life changes led me back to triathlon. I pulled out my other Softride (made by Paul Barkley) in my tri configuration, gave it a few rides, and realized that it just wouldn't do -- the handling was horrid.

I read a lot. I checked all the dimensions and weight distribution on my bike, and realized its short-comings -- the geometry of the frame and beam, while awesome for road racing, and allowed for a wide range of seat positions, wasn't going to accommodate that wide range when it came to weight distribution. Too much weight on the front wheel. I determined the position of my center of gravity relative to the bottom bracket, and then overlayed that on the dimensions of every production frame I could find (it's great to have some multi-thousand dollar 3-D CAD at your disposal), and found that the SAME problem existed for every frame made at the time. And mostly it was because of chainstay lengths determined by 700c wheels coupled with the USAT limit on front-center.

I got pretty discouraged.

But I stumbled on a frame on the SlowTwitch classifieds using 650 wheels, and set up with a long-ish front center... and at a great price. Rumor was that it had been custom made for Scott Tinley some time back. It handles pretty well, even though it's still not quite where I'd like it to be.

I'm quickly coming to the conclusion that the next frame I ride on will be one I make myself, with no regard for the USAT limit on front-center, sporting 650 wheels, and it'll handle like a dream.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Tri Bike Fit

A while back I wrote a generalized piece on the basics of road bike fit, and how it's built from back to front.

Tri bike fit has a different goal, and because of this, it has a different method of fitting, and is built completely backwards to that of a road bike fit. Yup, it's built from front to back.

While road bike fit is about finding a weight balance on the bike, tri bike fit is about minimizing aerodynamic drag while keeping as much power transfer as possible, while balancing the limitations of flexibility and comfort. I'll get into weight balance in another post, as it feeds into frame geometry and how the bike handles as well.

Articles and diagrams on SlowTwitch will often cite some ideal body angles saying that it is a classic triathlon fit. People will often regurgitate these angles when some one asks for a fit critique, overlaying them onto the picture of the person on the bike. And while this is typically a proper answer (ignoring the person's flexibility and physiology limitations), they don't go into WHY these angles are the classic fit.

There are a series of considerations to take into account when developing your position: 
* Shoulder flexibility 
* Upper back flexibility 
* Neck flexibility 
* Hip angle for maximum power generation

I'll take you through my own "front to back" fit process and where the limitations come into play.

To start, put your hands up like you're a boxer protecting your face. They're probably very close together, maybe touching (good), elbows at about shoulder width, hands about level with your mouth. Or at least they should be. How raise them up until they're about level with your forehead. Does this cause any tension in the lats or posterior deltoids? Any pain? If it does, then you're bumping up against one of your potential limitations. You want your elbows very close to directly under your shoulders (relative to forward/aft) in the aero position so that your skeleton is supporting your upper body weight, not your muscles.

Now start bringing your elbows together. If you can get them to touch each other without having to PULL them together with your pectorals (chest muscles) then congrats -- you're one of the lucky few that can really use an extreme parallel and narrow hand and elbow position on the bike. For the rest of us, that point where it starts taking some effort to get the elbows together is the limit for how narrow we should go with the aero-bar pads.

Next comes the neck. Or, more appropriately, your ability to see up the road. The best aero position in the world does you no good if you can't see what you're about to run into (or over). So rest those elbows on the desk in front of you, with your hands relaxed ahead (be careful of what you press on the keyboard -- maybe you should move it out of the way), and start standing up out of your chair. Still able to read this? Keep going. Don't strain the neck. Keep your chin low and forward...

Okay, at some point you needed to start raising your eyebrows to see. When this happens, you've passed the point of your saddle height relative to the bar pads. Some people will have no trouble with a saddle height that is WELL above the aero bar pads. Some people need to have the pads above the saddle (this is not to say that it can't be optimized, as getting the hands and arms narrow will do near 80% of the job). The neck is why -- the ability to "turtle" (keeping the chin low and forward) and see up the road is the limitation.

People often seek a more aggressive position, wanting to get lower in front. I'd suggest that it's a backwards thought process brought about by trying to fit a person to a bike, rather than fitting a bike to a person -- it's more about getting higher in back relative to the bars by strengthening the neck and increasing flexibility. But when one is looking at a bike already in the stable, I can see how this "lower in front" concept comes about.

So now that the front end is determined, and the relative saddle height, we can look at the hips. This is going to determine the effective seat tube angle at which the rider will set up the bike. Set up all those front-end angles and pads-to-saddle differential on a fit bike...

Start with something fairly standard for a road bike seat tube angle, say 74 degrees (which is on the slightly steep end of standard). Do you need to splay out your knees so that they aren't hitting your chest (or other body parts)? Then move the bottom bracket back.

What? Move the bottom bracket back? YES! The converse of that is to move everything forward. But those points in space have already been determined, so move the bottom bracket backwards.

You will find a point as the bottom bracket moves backwards where the knees track straight, power is at a peak, breathing is easy, and you're not working against your hamstrings. Now add about two degrees. Really. You're going to find that you'll creep forward on the saddle anyway in your aero position, so bring it under you now. If you have a road bike that's dialed in, you'll find that the hip angle will be pretty close to the same on a tri fit.

Now you have all the points in space that you need to find the bike that fits your position. If you're trying to fit this onto a bike which you already own, you may find that it becomes un-rideable. This is a sign that the bike is just not configured to fit your best position. Meaning you can do one of two things: compromise your position, or get a new bike.

"But what about aerodynamics?" you ask. These things will get you there -- or within 95% of "there" -- trust me. Yes, you could spend a lot of money to get yourself into a wind tunnel and save a few more grams of drag, and likely all it will do is make your wallet lighter and your position less comfortable. If you're only doing short races, then it may be money well spent as long as it's "comfortable enough" for the time you'll be on the bike. If you need to spend 5 to 6 hours or more on your bike in an 140.6, compromising that comfort may be a day-ender.

So why are those classic SlowTwitch angles so classic? Because they're a boiling-down of this process over hundreds of riders -- an average of a bunch of positions that went through the trial-and-error process to arrive at a position that takes the above into account.

I'll go into the fit of the bike to your position in another post very soon, as it brings frame geometry and stability into play. I'll also chronicle how I landed on the bike I ride now.

My own position has evolved over some 25-plus years of riding, learning along the way. It's very compact, with an elbow and shoulder angles that is tighter than a the "classic" position, and my hands are higher. I wouldn't use this position for a long-course race, but my racing is at the Olympic distance and lower. I don't put up my position as an example of what any one else should strive toward, as it's based on my own comfort (for the distances I'm racing), flexibility, and limitations.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Bike geometry basics

The idea behind this post is to provide some background base-work understanding to build on for future posts that will delve farther into the reasons for particular bike geometries, and why a certain bike will work well for one person, while being an absolute demon for another. Relax, though. I'm not going to try to make bike designers out of every one, nor make you all into bible--thumping bike fit gurus. But maybe somewhere along the line more information will be a good thing if you're looking at buying a bike for the first time, or even a second time, or looking to check the local bike shops philosophy of doing a fit and finding out that "the best bike is the one we happen to sell".

There are several terms that will come up many times related to bike geometry and how they affect handling:

* Seat Tube Angle (STA)
* Head Tube Angle (HTA)
* Front Center (FC)
* Chainstay length (CS)
* Bottom Bracket Drop (BB)
* Rake
* Trail

The accompanying illustrations will show you graphically what these terms are relative to the bike itself, and I'll go more into them below.

Seat Tube Angle (STA) is quite basically the angle of the frame seat tube relative to horizontal. While this is a frame measurement, with things like extreme set-back or forward-facing seatposts, the effective STA of the rider on the bike can be a fair bit different than the frame STA.

Chainstay Length (CS) is the distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the rear wheel axle. The shorter this measurement, it would seem that there would be more of the rider's weight on the back wheel, and this is true, but how much is dependent on the rider's position on the bike. Shorter also means more road shock and vibrations is transmitted directly to the bike saddle. But there are practical limitations for this dimension.

Front Center (FC) is the distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the front wheel axle. As this dimension grows, the steering of the bike becomes more tractor-like -- stable, but with a larger turning radius.

Effective STA (of the rider on the bike, not the frame), CS, and FC determine for the most part the weight distribution on the wheels. This, along with a few more factors has a huge bearing on how a bike handles. I'll go more into this in a future post.

Head Tube Angle (HTA) is the angle of the frame head tube (the steering axis) relative to horizontal.

Bottom Bracket Drop (BB) is the distance from the center of the bottom bracket to a horizontal line through the wheel axles. This measurement has a lot to do with how stable a bike feels in a straight line, but there's a limit to how far one can go with BB -- as it increases, stability goes up, but so does the likelihood of scraping a pedal as you power through a turn (with potentially catastrophic results).

Rake is the offset of the front axle from the steering axis. More rake means a softer ride -- more compliant over bumps. Though, especially with the current generations of carbon forks, the compliance can be built into the fork regardless of the rake.

Trail is a resultant measurement of the HTA, Rake, and wheel size. It is the distance between the point on the ground directly below the front axle and an intersection of the steering axis to the ground. Think of it like the front wheels of a shopping cart. There is a fairly narrow range within which trail yields a stable-handling ride, which is one reason that you can't just swap any fork into a frame and get the same feel.

With this basic understanding, we can go further into some of the nuances that affect bike handling, and how this can change drastically when trying to change a road bike into a tri bike, why it's a very good idea to have a professional fit done before buying a bike, and why the 650 wheel size is a very good idea on even some larger size tri bikes. Look for these subjects in the near future!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Will you still need me, will you still feed me...

So this year, my racing age is 49... I officially hit that mark just a couple weeks ago, and my wife graciously gave me the month off the blog to make some posts of her own.

But next year, I'll age up. My racing age will enter into the penta-genarian realm. The Big Five-Oh. Sure, I'm prepared to put some real hurt on the old guys.

I remember Jack Lalanne doing some crazy things every year on his birthday (like swimming with his hands tied together, while towing his wife in a rowboat). I remember being on a team ride out in a tiny town near where I grew up, and passing the father of one of my high school classmates who was just finishing up running 60 miles on his 60th birthday.

As my birthday passed this year, I thought about how I would want to celebrate the finishing of my 5th decade, and decided that I wanted to do something 5- or 50-related, and tri-related.

I thought of doing 5 sprint-length tri's in a row. Not as a burrito, but a tri training day that would be equivalent to 5 sprint-length tri's -- 5 times (.5 mile swim, 15 mile bike, 5K run). No support, no fanfare, not a race. Not really training up to make this into speedy affair. Just me slugging out a long training day on my own, and having the satisfaction that I did it as a personal statement to my joy-of-living.

But there are some problems with that. Mostly the 5x5K, which comes in at 15 miles. I've come to the conclusion that my body just doesn't handle long distance running well. But I'm not planning on racing the distance at all... Even so, 15 miles isn't going to do me any favors.

So I decided to fiddle with the distances a bit, move the miles from the run to the bike, but keep the overall distance the same. I landed on a 2.4 mile swim, 81 mile bike, and 10 mile run. Total of 150km, one day. I figure if I go at my normal training paces for a distance like this, it would take me about 7 to 7.5 hours to complete, not including stops and transitions from swim to bike, and bike to run.

I've got the routes already planned, but one issue may be a pool for the swim. And picking a day near my birthday that will have decent weather (this year has been exceptional for nice weather STILL, now past the end of September).

So I ask you, dear readers, to keep me honest on this. My 50th B'day celebration of life Five-Times-Sprint tri training day, coming in September of 2013.