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

Thursday, May 29, 2014

What goes up, must come down.

"I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing....only I will remain."
 -- Litany Against Fear, from the book Dune, by Frank Herbert

"A coward dies a thousands deaths, but a brave person dies but once."
 -- Unknown

I spent part of last evening riding with a couple of the kids from the youth triathlon team that I help coach, taking them on some easy hills to help boost their confidence a bit.

Here's the deal -- one of them had a pretty nasty crash a few weeks ago, and since has had some fear issues on the bike. TOTALLY understandable -- the mental aspects of recovering from a crash are usually far more complex and take much longer to heal than the physical injuries.

Back in my road racing days, I had a back crash in a mountain bike race that ended with a broken collar bone and a season totally shot. I didn't get back on the road for a good 4 months.

But I also had problems mentally from that crash: I would lock up any time I had riders on both sides of me, soon finding myself in the back of the pack and having to work my way back up. It took me three years to completely overcome the anxiety in a group of riders.

She's doing great getting "back on the horse", but gets very nervous on any kind of downhill. Add in a corner, and it's a lock-up moment.

I talked her through a couple of the downhills, and even in the short amount of time we were riding together, she was showing good improvement. Mostly, though, she just needs to spend time on the bike and rebuild the trust in her machine and riding skill.

But that got me to thinking about a general audience and what tips might help some one descend "better" -- under more control, safely, smoothly, and maybe faster.

People who downhill ski tend to grasp the concepts pretty easily. Much of the mechanics of body position and weight shifts are similar.

So here are some of my tips on descending, in no particular order:

* Relax. RELAX! A death-grip on the bars really is a DEATH grip. The bike wants to go straight, or carve a bend according to your weight shift and lean. Let it! A tight grip on the bars or rigid arms just transmit any road bumps into your body, shifting your weight to somewhere it shouldn't be. Keeping the hands and arms loose allows the bike to make slight baubles and bumps and return to stability underneath you. Don't fight it.

* Use your body as an air brake before you resort to the bike's brakes. Aerodynamics is your friend on descents both in reducing drag and increasing it. Opening up the speed? Tuck down low, level the pedals, pull the knees in, maybe even put your hands next to the stem and get your nose between them... Need to slow down a bit? Sit up, hands on the hoods, flare out the elbows, maybe even flare out the knees. Use your body like a parachute.

* If you need more slowing power, feather the brakes on a bit, starting with the back brake. Apply the pressure slowly. There is no panic, so don't grab a handful of brake lever and expect everything to remain peachy.

* When the road goes somewhere other than straight ahead, set up early, get your speed under control to what you want to take through the corner, and then let 'er rip. Meaning stay off the brakes IN the corner. Applying the brakes in a corner makes the bike want to stand up and go straight. Kinda difficult to carve a turn that way, eh?

* Like on skis, the outside pedal goes down and stays down, and you should be putting all your weight on it. This is true for corners on the flat as well as downhill. Lean yourself and the bike together, keeping everything in essentially a straight line -- bike and rider. Keeping your body low will lower your center of gravity, making the bike more stable as well.

* If traffic allows, use the full lane to your advantage. The old outside-inside-outside line helps to increase the radius of the corner and maximize your speed.

* If you find yourself in a decreasing-radius corner (it gets sharper), or going into a corner too fast, there's a technique called "counter steering" that may well save your bacon. It amounts to leaning the bike more underneath you by pressing the inside hand down into the corner harder, while keeping your weight hard on the outside pedal. Avoid this on wet roads or on debris or sand (I'll say more about this in a bit). In 99.99% of cases, your pucker-factor will give up long before the traction of your tires. 

* When the road is wet, or has sand or other debris on it (like rocks), counter steering makes the bike want to slide out easier. In these cases, you do the opposite -- lean your body and keep the bike more upright. Still keep your weight on the outside pedal! This allows the tires to drift a little without the bike sliding out from under you.

* Fear... Hey, it's normal to be nervous. But only to a point. Nervousness that gives you a healthy respect for what you're doing and helps you be hyper-aware of what's happening is good. Fear that makes you tense is not. I find that most fear is based in thinking about what can go wrong rather than on what you need to do and how you need to react to your surroundings. Quite frankly, if you have time to think about those things, you're not going fast enough! Okay, not really. But practicing the skills, even on flat terrain, will help ingrain the body mechanics and reactions before they become a NEED IT NOW item.

My recommendation is to find a nice hill, one that can be part of a regularly ridden loop, maybe one that you can do multiple times on a single ride, and just practice. It should come to the point that you know where every pavement crack and divot resides. Aim to take the hill a little faster each time (assuming traffic and weather are conducive). Get comfortable with how small changes in your body position affect your speed, and how you can make small changes to your line through the corner to avoid things like glass in the road.

I really can't take any ride from my house without taking some significant hills. I relish the mornings when there is no traffic there to slow me down...

I'm one of those strange cats who likes uphills, and not just because I get to come back down.

Hope that helps. Happy flying.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The view only changes when you're in front.

Yeah, that's the tagline on T-shirt about being the lead dog. But that's not the real point of my post today.

I want to talk about pacelines. Good practices, things that will make it easier and safer, and how to keep one moving well (or not, in some cases, but I'll get into that later).

The impetus of this post was a training session I had with the youth tri team I help coach. Many of these kids have little group riding experience, some have none at all. Add in varying abilities, and... well, you get the idea.

First, just to get the most important point and the underlying idea out there: A paceline is all about being smooth, everyone working together at the same level and speed. When you see it in action, it's a thing of beauty, looking effortless.

So on to the tips.

* When the rider in front pulls off, the next rider maintains THE SAME SPEED. There's always a tendency for that new lead rider to accelerate. Yes, you're no longer drafting, so the EFFORT will increase. But the speed should not increase. If it does, you'll just open up a gap behind you, make it harder for that rider who just pulled off to get back on the end of the line, and disrupt the rhythm of the group. If you want to increase the pace, do so SLOWLY. But I recommend against this -- if you feel so much stronger, then take a LONGER pull instead of a FASTER pull. But don't fry yourself to the point that you don't have the strength to make it back up to speed to catch on after your pull.

* When in the line, avoid rapid speed changes. Remember that any speed changes you make will be amplified to the rider behind you, and even more so to the rider behind them. The Slinky effect. Don't coast unless you have to -- instead, soft-pedal a couple revolutions. The gap to the rider in front of you can ebb and flow slightly, and that's okay. You'll still get plenty of draft. Make reactions to that change in gap smoothly. Don't hit the brakes unless a collision is imminent, and even then it's likely you can avoid it by coasting and overlapping briefly (to the side that the lead riders are NOT pulling off toward). DO NOT bother with dropping your hand in the "slowing or stopping" signal. This only introduces instability into your position and handling as well as slowing you more quickly, causing further disruption in the line.

* When you're in the front and about to pull off, signal to the following rider and pull off, THEN slow down. Too often the lead rider will look over their shoulder for traffic, signal, and coast all at the same time, and then pull off, causing all the following riders to deal with the speed change. Don't slow down until you're off the lead.

* Okay, now that you're off the lead and on the way to the back of the line, don't slow down so much that you have to sprint to get back on. Remember, you're not actually resting until you're back in the line. If this is on a hill, I recommend actually keeping almost the same speed as the line, to minimize the need to accelerate to catch on.

* When falling back, don't wait until the last rider has passed you to accelerate up to speed again. It helps when the last rider gives a warning (a "last" or "last rider" warning given by that last rider). Again, think smooth -- a few pedal strokes is all it should take to get back to speed, and you should be at that speed by the time that last rider is just past you, and you slip in smoothly behind them, already matching speed.

* The time to eat or drink is when you're in the back of the line.

* When warning for cars approaching from the rear, unless your paceline is 15 riders long (in which case it should probably be broken up into two lines) you only need ONE person to yell "car back". Every one will hear it, trust me. You don't need 7 echoes of the warning.

* In a race, often the pulls are very short, and it'll be more like two lines, one moving slightly faster than the other. In cases like this, it's helpful if the the last person to pull off calls "clear" to the lead rider once they're far enough back to allow that lead rider to pull off in front of them. The trick here is to keep the speed in the "resting" line fairly close to the "working" line -- lead riders will often slow too much, causing a cascade reaction of slowing (and slowing, and SLOWING) all the way to the back so that those riders are slamming on their brakes at the same time they're trying to accelerate to catch onto the back of the "working" line.

Those are most of the major points of good paceline riding. But, as I said before, there are cases when you might want to disrupt a line, make life difficult for every one. Like when you're in a break-away but your teams lead rider missed out, and you want to make sure he (or she) can catch on, or the break gets caught. In those cases, you'd do the opposite of some of the above tips.

* When you get on the front, slow down a bit. Take a longer pull while you dial the speed down slightly. It will then take the rider behind you to pull through (and if they're savvy, they will) to get the groups speed back up. Don't be too obvious about this, though.

* Let a gap form in front of you in the line, then sprint to close it. Riders behind you will each have to accelerate successively harder (remember that Slinky effect) to keep the line closed up, and remember that the farther back that acceleration travels, the more tired those riders are from their pull.

* When pulling off the front, coast for a couple seconds before you move over.

* When in the back and a rider is coming to the rear of the line, drop back and open a gap, and tell them to jump into the line in front of you. This causes momentary confusion as you communicate this, and usually causes that rider to have to accelerate harder to get in the line than they would have normally. More fatigue for them, more disruption for you.

Most of the time, these tactics will only work for a while before frustration will result in one of two things: the group will dissolve into non-cooperation, or you'll be be labeled a jerk and relegated tot he back (not necessarily a bad place -- you'll be drafting off everybody).

So remember, the goal of a paceline is for every one to work together to increase the group's speed. Smoothness is key and should be the mindset of every rider in the line.

Anyway, I hope that helps.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Elbe Multi-Strada Loop Ride -- Doing the Deed

It is a good day to die...
Leading up to this day was a crazy week, with both my wife and I scrambling every which way to get things done while juggling child-care between the two of us.

And the weather all week had been so nice! Three days over 70 degrees, one of them over 80, and I was loving it.

But the weather turned for the weekend. With a 50% chance, it was pretty much a sure thing we'd get wet. I got the final directional signs placed Saturday morning, my wife finished up the food preparations (bless her for volunteering to do that!), and after some family obligations Saturday afternoon and evening, The Day dawned to mostly cloudy skies. Which quickly turned to intermittent rain...

The Elbe Multi-Strada Loop Ride was on.

There were six brave souls who ventured to Elbe for the ride:

  • Chris Wood, a high school classmate of mine who started mountain bike racing a few years ago, and has branched out to cyclocross and road racing as well, riding a road bike with 30mm 'cross tires.
  • Chris Bonner, a young man who's been on several of the Saturday shop group rides, is new to group riding and very strong, riding an ancient Raleigh road bike with 28mm touring tires.
  • Jason Critzer, another one from the Saturday morning shop rides, a never-say-die attitude and arms that most cyclists would find intimidating, riding a mountain bike with narrow slicks.
  • Doug Dennet, the tallest man on the shop rides, who travels all over the country and does the Dirty Kanza every year, on his 'cross bike.
  • John Palmer-Rye, a tall-as-the-trees mountain man, who I just met for the first time that morning, riding his 'cross bike.
  • And myself, on my low-slung gravel bike, 1.5" road tire on the back and 1.75" diamond pattern on the front. Though I was kinda committed to being there, since I was the organizer and all...
After signing our lives away on a standard release form and a brief stop at the rest area for a final unloading, we cruised out of town with a light rain falling, heading north on the SR-7. After two stops for a flat (one to pump it up, another to change the tube), we were cruising through the S-turns on our lead-in to the first gravel section.

Pack Forest is a University of Washington facility, and I'd gotten permission to access the service roads there, emphasizing that the directional signs would be removed post-event. The roads are in fantastic shape, and the slopes are gentle and consistent. Two miles of well-maintained crunchiness brought us to Kirkland Pass, where we regrouped for the descent.

Heading down, we kept our speed in check so as to not cause issues with hikers or equestrians, and exited back onto SR-7 near the Eatonville Cutoff road. Three miles of road took us to Eatonville, headwinds blowing, then we turned east again with the wind at our backs, up the Alder Cutoff road, and to the Scott Turner road. This is a "dead end" in name only -- the pavement stops about 6 miles in, after some steady climbing, but that's where things just start getting interesting.

My wife set up the water and food stop at that point, the 25 mile mark of the ride. Perfect for the challenge that lay ahead. Much kudos go to her for waiting there for over an hour for us to arrive (I had overestimated our speed and underestimated the time it would take to get there, even after accounting for a slightly-after-9:00 start), with 8-month-old to entertain. Appreciated by all, we came in fairly tightly grouped, loaded up on some great carbs, filled the bottles, then shoved off again.

Scott Turner road becomes 8-road, part of the national park (Discovery Pass required for motor vehicles), and once past the first 1/8 mile, there is no civilization to be found. Though the road is in very good condition for a western Washington gravel road, it can still be rough in places. Chuck holes are easily avoided, though.

The climb hits in bursts of steep-ish pitches sprinkled among steady grades, with one cruelly-steep 1/4 mile near the top. This one claimed all but one of us -- Chris Wood gets the hard-man award for making the entire climb on his bike. He said he just couldn't stop, but was still wishing for one more gear. I guess that makes me the stupid one, since I knew what we were in for and STILL didn't have enough gear...

I gave him what encouragement my heaving lungs could muster as he passed me.

We regrouped at the turn-off to the Elbe Truck trail road, which has a little more climbing, almost not noticed after the steep stuff we'd just come up, and then a five mile descent back to Elbe. And descend it does. It doesn't take much to go out-of-control on this, almost as steep as that cruel patch, but downward, sometimes wash-boarded, with some loose gravel on the surface. Staying on the brakes was a must, while keeping the arms loose so that the head didn't rattle around like a bobble-head.

Oh, and add the rain again.

The descent was deemed just as difficult as the ascent.

Rolling back into town, the last 50 yards on smooth pavement, was sweet victory. And no more flats!

A victory celebrated with burgers and brew at the Elbe Bar and Grill. I had a burger they called "the Boinker" -- a bacon burger with peanut butter! I'd never even thought of PB on a burger, so I had to try it. It was actually quite good, worth coming back for. It took quite a while for the shivering to subside for most of us (John seemed to be the only one not affected -- mountain man that he is), with a lot of glassy stares. By the time the burgers were devoured, though, life seemed to be returning.

We all thought it was a good ride, challenging, worth maybe making a regular thing (though there were votes for doing it in warmer weather). I'm looking at some other possible routes in the area as well. Chapter 2 of this ride may be based out of Eatonville, but that remains to be seen.

I deem the event a success. The test-bed for future mixed-surface rides, no one getting hurt (always a bonus), and no one calling me bad names (at least to my face) and refusing to ride with me ever again.

Future plans are for a ride around Capitol Forest (possible a two-day affair), and also another route utilizing Pack Forest and surrounds.

And if we do this route again, I'll bring more gears...