Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Two Years

September 2011 was a time of rather large changes for me.  I took a new job which meant moving, and at least for the first couple of months it meant being away from my family for an extended period of time.  I had lived in Orlando, FL for 17 years, so moving to Greenville, SC was a big change in atmosphere (and altitude), and it was time for some fresh beginnings.  One of my friends that had moved to the area years before had been telling me about the cycling scene, but I didn't really have a frame of reference on what that would really mean for me.  After my first day of work, he took me out on a bike ride, letting me borrow his mountain bike to ride in the area around where he lived.

This was the start of something new and fun.  It was a lot of work, but I enjoyed the ride.  The second night he introduced me to the Donaldson Center scene.  I borrowed a road bike from another friend of his, and we rode around the loop that the racers ride.  He also let me borrow a heart rate monitor so I could see how much effort I was exerting.  While I don't have the HR data, I do remember something about seeing 200 as being a bad thing...

That was all it took to get hooked.  That weekend I went to the local bike shop and bought my first road bike, a Scott S40.  In the 24 months that have passed I have ridden 8,693.0mi while finding a hobby that has brought me into better fitness and health.

My family has since moved up to the area, and we all are leading healthier lifestyles.  Our "new normal" has brought about changes for all of us, and for me it saw my weight go from a peak of 262lbs in 2011 down to a low of 204lbs this year.

September 2011 - seems like a lifetime ago
Assault on the Carolinas 2013

I have managed to tackle new challenges both on and off the bike, but the challenges on the bike are more quantifiable.  My first challenge was just traveling the swamp rabbit trail.  I used Strava segments to quantify my improvements.  From there I set my goals to complete the Stars and Stripes Challenge, which was a cancer fundraiser that was held as a part of the US Pro Cycling Road Championships when they were hosted in Greenville, SC.  In order to complete that challenge I had to be able to make it to the top of Paris Mountain, which was the featured climb of the route.

Notice "you made it!!!" behind me

At this point I had been selected to be a part of a local radio show weight loss competition known as "Rob's Big Losers".  Having focus on my cycling goals, as well as the competition, allowed me to set sights on lower my weight and getting my overall fitness improved on a grand scale.  In the 12 weeks of the competition I lost over 40 lbs, climbed local route known as "the watershed" and completed my first 5k.

Without a doubt, I was hooked.  Since then I've completed my first metric century (2012 Wheels for Meals), completed the Stars and Stripes Challenge, climbed Ceaser's Head Mountain, Green River Cove, Skyuka Mountain Road, Hogback Mountain, and Mt Mitchell.  I completed my first century as a part of the 2013 Assault on Mount Mitchell.  I've continually set new challenges in front of me to spur me on to reach new heights.  

Looking back at the last 2 years, I started out the ride yesterday to follow the same route that I took around Donaldson Center in September of 2011.  It was windy, and a bit chilly, but it was amazing to think back and realize how far you can go with a lot of faith and determination.

I've climbed the segment known as "the last little hill at Donaldson" 29 times prior to last night, but this ended up being a personal record, beyond efforts I've done while in a group.  Being able to look back gives me a lot of pride in how far I've come, but it also makes me realize that I'm not done yet.  There are so many other challenges out there, and so many things I hope to share with my family as we continue on our journey together.  While none of them have quite gotten bitten with the cycling bug the way I have, I hope to one day see their faces when they scale Paris Mountain.

My current goals are to continue to see fitness improvements, and get better as a climber.  I'd love to see my time on the steep side segment of Paris Mountain at about 15 minutes, and to be able to complete the Hincapie Gran Fondo route (also known as the Marquis de Sade by locals) in under 6 hours.  I have also verbally committed to riding in the 2014 Ride to Remember for Alzheimer's awareness.  This would be my first "multi-day tour", as the route spans over 250 miles from Greenville to Charleston.  I'm also hoping that I can start budgeting for more events further from home.  My long term goals are to get strong enough to be "bucket list certified" such that I could do the CTS challenge in front of the Tour of California.  All of these new challenges are cumulative  and build on the efforts I've already put out.  They won't happen overnight, but having goals, and a sport that I truly enjoy, is what keeps me going out on the road.

Monday, September 16, 2013

2nd Annual Preservation Ride

Saturday September 14th was the 2nd Annual Preservation Ride to benefit Upstate Forever.  Upstate Forever is a non-profit organization that is focused on keeping areas of the Carolinas pristine for future generations.  They have worked on projects to protect land areas, helping to establish the Greenspace at Fairview, to being one of the backers of the GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail.  Last year I had the pleasure to ride the 75-mile route as a part of the inaugural event, and I have been looking forward to riding again this year.  Due to unforeseen circumstances I wasn't able to ride the long route and take on Skyuka Mountain Road again, which is definitely one of the most challenging climbs I've done in my short cycling career, I was able to get in the 40 mile route.  This turns out to be no cake run, either, but the views are just about second to none.  

The day started out early, and as if on queue the weather was perfect.  The 40-mile route didn't start until 9am, but a few of us got there early to take a quick warm up lap around Strawberry Hill USA, just outside of Chesnee SC.  There was still a bit of chill in the air, and getting warmed up took a bit of effort.

After completing the loop, it was just about time for the mass start of the 40mi folks.  The start and finish line for the Preservation ride is the main cafe at Strawberry Hill USA.  As we got together to ride out, we got instructions from Steve Baker about the route, and then we were on our way.  

The thing that is unique about this ride, is that you spend so much time enjoying the scenery instead of spending time getting to someplace interesting.  The sky was so crystal clear, and we were out in the country literally 200 feet after we started.  Miles just melted past, and we had a chance to chat with various riders as we went along.  In the first 15 miles there were only a handful of moderately steep hills to contend with, and it felt like we were going downhill most of the time.

At about the 18 mile mark we reached the first rest stop, and learned that they had added a ~3mile loop inside of Greenspace at Fairview to make sure that the ride got closer to the 40 mile mark after some changes in the route from last year.  This area is a reserved area that Upstate Forever worked with the home owners in the area to create, making an easement where the natural beauty of the area will be preserved for future generations.  There was a lot of open countryside, with horse stables (including several folks taking their horses out for walks) and natural woodland spaces.  We decided to take the loop before making a stop, enjoying the scenery the entire way.  We spent most of this time gazing at the mountains off in the distance, tempting us to continue the journey, like sirens calling out to be explored.

The rest area was bustling when we got there, as folks were stopping either before or after they had completed the loop. After getting a chance to rest our legs and refill out water bottles, we decided that we wanted to ride the loop another time before we started the bottom half of the ride. Instead of just riding the route as marked, though, we decided it would be more fun if we went the other direction around the loop. We were not disappointed, as the ride in reverse gave us more fantastic views of the mountains, and gave us a chance to see more of the countryside as we went around. I would highly recommend to folks doing this ride next year that they take on doing the loop twice to get closer to 40 miles and get just a little more time to enjoy the area.

The second half of the ride brought us more challenges as we dealt with returning back into more populated areas as well as experiences several longer rolling hills.  We made our way over Lake Bowen and through the countryside around Boiling Springs, SC.  The only high traffic area of the ride was while we were on Highway 9 for about a mile.  While there was an established bicycle lane, it was overgrown and had a fair amount of trash that was in it, making it a bit dangerous to stay out of the way of the vehicles.  Thankfully this was an extremely short section of the ride, and we were back out into the country.  As we rode back towards the start/finish point, the rolling hills just continued to challenge us.  As we'd crest one hill we'd be presented with a decent and another climb yet to come.  One of the folks I was riding with exclaimed "they just keep coming!".  

We passed several photographers along the way, taking pictures of the riders.  For a couple of them I decided to ham it up and act like I was sprinting for all I was worth, but for the most part I took the time to sit up and wave, as I was enjoying the ride more than anything else at this point.  I felt like I could have just kept riding for hours longer, taking in the day and the beauty around us.  

We took our final left hand turn, and the strikingly red roof of the cafe at Strawberry Hill USA came into view at the top of the next climb.  Just before this point I had made a comment to Mark that last year I had made a promise to sprint out the last leg of the ride.  Much like last year, the final climb of the ride took its toll on my legs, and I used the last bit of energy I had left to make a good showing as we went by the corn maze.  My family was there to greet us, and we were greeted to a fantastic lunch.  Unlike most rides, the lunch was served on actual plates, with cloth napkins and real silverware.  This left the waste to be minimal.

Of all the rides I've experienced in the past 2 years, this has to be one of my favorites.  From the organization that it supports to the views that you can experience, it's one of the best in the area.  The routes are well marked and well supported, and it definitely is as challenging of an experience as you make it.  Having now done both the 40 and 75 mile routes, neither disappoint.  I find it challenging to ask folks to help fund raise for many of the cycling events out there, but Upstate Forever does directly for the area that I have less of a heartache with it.  I look forward to when the 2014 edition of this ride is announced, and getting a chance to challenge Skyuka Mountain road again.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Winter is coming

It's hard to make this statement in the middle of September, but the honest fact is that the short days of winter are approaching.  I've been lucky this year and have managed to ride almost as much as I wish to without being forced to resort to the enemy of all outdoor cyclists - the dreaded trainer.  These torture devices make a routine that seems barely worth putting on the bibs to go do into an ordeal of epic proportions.  You can ride 8 hours on the road, but 45 minutes on the trainer and you feel like you've been kicked by a mule.

Cold Days are ahead

For preparation for the winter, I've been trying to put together a better training plan for 2014.  Going into 2013, I had the primary goal of completing the Assault on Mt Mitchell, and as a biproduct of that I had placed goals to increase my base mileage on the bike from ~4,000mi in 2012 to 5,200mi+ in 2013.  This equates to averaging 100mi a week.  I'm definitely ahead of schedule to meet the challenge, but the problem with this type of challenge for me is that I focus too much on the numbers, and not enough on enjoying the experiences. Beyond that, I don't believe just having an ever increasing base mile number as my primary cycling goal will get me to a place where I'll be happy with my own fitness or cycling ability.

For 2014 my planning right now is to focus more on performance and less on pure mileage.  Without having concrete plans written down, I want to feel like I can continue to improve my form and overall fitness without feeling like I have to put in a monstrous number of base miles.  Having a few focused plans to work on key areas of my development is going to be a big part of that.  I already have a few workouts that I bought last year in preparation for the 2012 Gran Fondo Hincapie that I'd like to make a dedicated effort to complete, and I'd like to take the time to get in an 8-week CompuTrainer class from Greenville Cycling Center.  These types of workouts should help me to continue to quantify my current fitness, and give me more concrete numbers to understand where I am as far as cycling fitness.

Part of doing any structured workout routine is managing how to get in the workout on the wet/cold days, when leaving the house just isn't a good idea.  I recently got a second hand trainer from one of my friends, so I now have some options.  I took my spare wheel and I've set it up to use on the trainer with an older tire and my old cassette. This way I'm not putting undo stress on my good rear wheel, nor excessive trainer mileage on my tires.

Once I had the basic hardware worked out, I started trying to figure out the software.  While poking around, I had run into both Cycleops VirtualTraining and  Both of these have the promise of allowing you to ride along a pre-established venue on your computer, while mystically using your speed/cadence sensor to estimate your power and adjust your time on the course accordingly.  They even show virtual cyclists racing with you and attempting to steal your KOM!  These looked fantastic, and I thought they would be a great option for keeping the time on the bike interesting, as well as allowing me to virtually work on some of my rides while indoors as a change of pace.  The first problem is that to even see how well these programs work, I'd have to plunk down between $10 and $15 for a subscription to their service.  I am always nervous about "buy before you try", and in this case it was probably warranted.  I went so far as to install the base software for Cycleops to try out their demo routes, but I ran into technical snags getting my PC to connect to the speed sensor using their software.

The problem, after much searching I found out, is that the USB ANT+ stick that came with my wife's Garmin watch, is a "1.0" varient.  This means that it can only read 4 different ANT+ sources at a time.  The Cycleops software was originally designed to be used with their higher end trainers, and as such required more than 4 sensors to work properly.  Thus Cycleops requires you to use an "ANT+ 2.0" adapter.  This is a road block to me, as I didn't feel that I needed to rush out and spend $50 for a new USB adapter so I could spend money on a monthly service to ride indoors.  It looked like the holy grail of affordable computer-based training would be elusive.

While searching out solutions to my USB adapter issue, what I did find was reference to an open-source training option known as Golden Cheetah.  While the software is not as wiz-bang as the pay for play options, it does have a lot of really nice features and supports older "1.0" ANT+ adapters.  I was easily able to input the make and model of my trainer, and pair up my heart rate and speed sensors to the software to try out a workout with estimated power.  I was able to export the workout to a TCX file and upload it to Strava manually, as the hooks in the software to upload it automatically were having some problems with my Strava account.  I was able to upload the workout directly from GC into TrainingPeaks, though.

The Import of Data into Strava

There do seem to be several features that the pay-for-play software guys have an advantage, though.  For example, while it will play a video while you are riding, it really doesn't have a way to have your telemetry data show up as a HUD on top of the video (that I can tell so far).  I'm also not sure if it will let you simulate riding famous courses (or even a GPS route you upload) at this point, either.   I've only gotten a small amount of time between the trainer and the software, but there is promise that I can get some solid structured workouts set up.  The documentation in general is a little bit sparse as well.  Going through the user's guide there are several sections, especially in regards to live data, that had empty entries.  The wiki was likewise slightly sparse.

As the software started out as a way to gather data from the seldom-standard power meters 6 years ago to analyse and upload to various training software, what it does as an open source product is quite amazing.  I'm intending to spend more time with it during the upcoming months as the weather turns cooler, and hopefully I can post updates as well as tips and tricks.  The idea of riding on a trainer still doesn't instill a lot of joy in me, but having a distraction and data to play with definitely will help move it along.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Broken Spokes

August seemed to be the month where I had to deal with bike issues.  It's the first time that I've had to deal with a broken spoke, and before the month was out I'd have to deal with 2.  Of all of the things I've had happen to me to prematurely end a ride, I have to say that a broken spoke has to be the most disheartening.  Both times I've had it happen when I was in a groove, and feeling like I could put out a really good effort, just to hear a strange metallic "ping", and the feeling that something was off.  Unlike a puncture or some other mechanical issues, there really isn't anything you can do to fix a broken spoke, either. That said, these experiences have given me a chance to review a few things on my own form as well as reaffirm my decision to get Boyd wheels instead of a high end warehouse brand.  

Broken at the J bend

Not a sight you want to see
There's your problem, right there...

From a personal performance point of view, I have to re-evaluate how I ride.  One of the big stressors on wheels is compression, specifically from hitting pot holes and other road hazards.  Because of my larger size, I put a lot of instant stress on my wheels when I go over these hazards at speed than a typical ~150lb rider.  In general I have taken the attitude of being more willing to "eat" a pothole in order to stay stable and not wreck than to attempt to avoid hazards at the last moment.  I need to adjust this and pay better attention to road conditions.  On routes that I know fairly well, I know where to look for these hazards and make sure I'm in a proper place to avoid them.  Beyond that I need to make sure I'm looking far enough ahead to avoid issues when at all possible as well.  Swerving at the last minute isn't an issue, but I shouldn't need to swerve to avoid road hazards as much as just make sure I'm looking for them.

In the cases where I cannot avoid a hazard, I need to make sure I'm not sitting with the majority of my weight on my back wheel.  This put a lot of unneeded sharp stress on those spokes, which can in turn cause weak spots to form.  Ideally I should get out of the saddle to handle the hazard, but just evening out my weight should go a long way to helping relieve just a little of that pressure.  

I also need to start making a much more concerted effort to document when I've had hazard hits and verifying that the wheels stay true and inspect the spokes.  If I can determine that a spoke has formed a weak spot before it breaks, it should mean less time hobbling back to get my wheel fixed.  I'm already working on spending more time doing general bike maintenance, and I'm going to be making an effort to start having a regular monthly deep clean and review of the bike to look for issues.  I can definitely add a more thorough wheel review as needed.  Something as small as making sure that the rear derailuer is working properly, and isn't throwing the chain into the spokes at all could mean the difference between no issues and almost constant repair.  I can definitely improve in this area.

Shortly after having the second spoke break in the month, I started getting down about my wheel decision.  I had gone through a lot of research when picking out these wheels, and I felt that I had make a good decision when I picked up these wheels.  With 2 breakdowns so close together, I had started second guessing if I had made a good decision.  Personally I put a lot of stock in dependability and confidence, especially on my bike.  After I have any sort of breakdown or change it takes me several rides to get confidence back that I'm not going to have another issue that could cause me to damage myself or the bike.  Not having confidence in the machine that I am using definitely puts a major crimp in what I feel willing to do.  I start having doubts about longer rides.  I don't want to get stranded.  After reviewing how I can take better care of my ride, I think I have places where I can improve and see improvements on the longevity of my investment, both in myself and my bike.  It's just going to take a few good rides to get the confidence level back up.

Through all of this, the most phenomenal thing for me has been the service that I've gotten from Boyd's.  I've heard horror stories of people having to ship their wheels back to the manufacturer to have warranty work done on them, and having to deal with loaner wheels or even worse being unable to ride for weeks at a time.  Since I live in Greenville, where Boyd's puts together every wheel by hand, I have to luxury of bringing the wheel back and having them take a look at it easily.  Beyond that, the courteous nature of the staff and the confidence that I have when I get the wheel back that everything is okay is exceptional.  Instead of just repairing the broken spoke, they took the time to inspect the wheel and even replaced a few that I had somehow damaged without noticing it (more than likely from chain issues).  They also take the time to make sure to build it back up, instead of just putting in the new spoke.  In the end this gives me confidence that when I get the wheel back I'm not having continued issues, but I should have a wheel I can rely on.  

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Boyd wheels to anyone, even with the recent issues.  My current wheels should last well beyond the life of my bicycle, and serve me well.  If they do happen to have any more issues, I also have the confidence that I can get them taken care of properly and professional, by folks that know not just how to repair a simple issue, but know how to build a wheel the right way.