Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Breaking Away" with my son

Being an ultracyclist means that, by definition, I have to put family time on hold more than I would like. While my cycling is not a rejection of my kids, I know they must feel like it is.

Including your family in the fun is, of course, the logical place to start, but riding on a 3-mile rail trail is not quite the same thing as a 100-mile training ride or a 300K brevet. The cycling I did as a boy fuels my love of the bike even today, but my dad wasn’t a cyclist and I’ve noticed that kids can quickly develop an aversion to the passions of their parents so I try not to push too hard.

The other day, I was stuck with a conflict between a two-hour training ride and an afternoon of caring for my 9-year old son. I decided to set up the trainer in front of my laptop, invited my son to pull up a chair and the two of us watched “Breaking Away.” The film is one of my favorites and he’s always up for an excuse to watch a movie during the middle of the week.

As we watched the film together, he asked a range of questions about the cycling, “Are you going the same speed as them, dad, or faster?” “Why doesn’t the main character just tell the judges that the Italian team cheated?” “Wow, I don’t want to get my finger stuck in that rear wheel of yours!”

As you may recall, the film is also a timeless story about the powerful generational dynamics between a father and a son. As if in counterpoint to my own story, it is the son who is obsessed with cycling and the father who just can’t understand the attraction. By the end of the film, the two reconcile and the middle-aged father even takes up cycling for fitness. As the credits rolled, my son looked over and asked, “Dad, will my bike fit on the trainer, too?” It brought a tear to my eye.

By some odd coincidence, I received an email yesterday from a group called Team Get Outdoors that is sponsoring the “International Challenge of Endurance” for children aged 9-20 to spread the good word about endurance sports and love of the great outdoors to the next generation. There are four different age groups each of which has different minimum distances for qualifying miles and certificates and medals are awarded to finishers and mileage leaders.

When I mentioned this opportunity to my son, he said, “Sign me up! How far is it to school, dad? Maybe we could ride together.”

Maybe our interests won’t be so far apart after all . . .

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The UMCA Indoor Challenge

What motivates you as a cyclist? It's hard to say, right? In a perfect world, the ride itself would inspire us to pedal forward every time. While I do enjoy most of my rides and would rather be cycling than doing most other things, intrinsic motivation does not work all the time. In order to push ourselves to a higher level of performance, whether that means increasing speed or adding volume, we need to train through the tough times, too. This challenge seems particularly present in the northern latitudes, where snow and ice blanket the ground during the long winter months. These fall during the crucial base building phase where long steady miles are required and yet it’s often too cold, dark and icy to ride any meaningful distance.

This year, I decided to participate in the Ultra-Marathon Cycling Association (UMCA) Indoor Challenge as a way to stay motivated while logging important long miles on my trainer. The Indoor Challenge is open to all UMCA members and is held from November through March. Participating riders log indoor training sessions over two hours in length through a convenient on-line tool. Times are ascribed point values; the longer an individual session, the more points it yields. There are currently 32 riders from around the globe participating including several riders training for RAAM, the current world record holder in the 24-hour time trial and the former world record holder for the longest time spent on a trainer. Since November, participating cyclists have posted sessions of up to 24 hours in duration. Most rides are in the 2-6 hour range.

It's easy to lose perspective on your training needs when you ride longer than most riders in your local club and your wife and kids have long ago written you off as a lunatic. “Why can’t you just go out for an hour-long ride like a normal person?” they ask. It’s easy to lose sight of how much is enough and projects like the indoor challenge connect participants across the spectrum of ultra-marathon cycling. It isn’t the competition per se that gets me on the bike; it’s more the feeling of community with other endurance cylclists and the knowing what other riders are up to that provides me with extra motivation to log long indoor miles even when I don’t feel like it. In what can be an isolated and isolating sport, this feeling of community is important.

One thing I love about being a part of the ultra-cycling world is that as crazy as my wife and friends may think I am, there are plenty of crazier riders out there for me to take inspiration from. Knowing that there are RAAM competitors completing 24-hours indoor training sessions inspires me to get on that trainer and pound out another century myself. Hell, next to 24 hours on a trainer, 6 hours seems like a sprint!

Information about the UMCA Indoor Challenge and be found on their website. While you’re there, look at all of the other great things UMCA has to offer. There are outstanding training articles, other mileage competitions and a full ultra race calendar for the coming year.

So, most of the time it is the pure joy of the ride that gets me on the bike, but sometimes we all need an extra push. The Indoor Challenge is one of the things that helps me get on the bike when I DON’T really want to ride or when the roads are too unsafe to navigate. Hopefully, this will make me a stronger rider when the snows melt. Enough for now, I’m off to grind out another century on the Cycle-ops. Spring is just around the corner.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

My Caffeinated Commute

With the recent thaw here in the Hudson Valley, I have resumed my regular bicycle commute to work. Commuting to work by bike is, without a doubt, one of the best ways to add miles to your weekly training. As I have gotten further and further into ultra-distance riding, finding the time to log miles has been a challenge, especially as a parent of two school-aged children. Luckily, I live 15 miles from work which is just about an ideal distance for a bicycle commute. It’s not so close that it barely seems worth suiting up and it’s not so far that it takes 2-3 hours just to get there. I also have a shower and locker at my disposal which makes even a wet, sweaty and dirty commute stress-free. Rolling into my office fresh from a crisp ride and a warm shower never fails to put me in a good mood.

The one drawback so far has been the lack of coffee on the ride in. I drink one cup before heading out, but it’s that second cup I drink when I drive into work that really lays down a good foundation for the day ahead. This is why my favorite cycling purchase of 2009 so far has got to be my Trek Soho Coffee Mug. At 18 oz., this insulated, stainless steel mug carries a healthy serving of piping hot Joe that I can sip or chug along the way. It fits snugly into a standard bottle cage and the safety lid is relatively easy to operate with one hand. It is not quite as easy to use as a standard water bottle, but seems not to splash or leak. Just be sure to dust off the stray road salt before drinking. The insulation is adequate and the joy of sipping hot coffee while waiting for a green light in 28-degree weather is priceless. The Soho mug is standard on the Trek Soho commuter bike but it can also be pruchased separately for $14.95. My pals at the Bicycle Depot were more than happy to order me one and may have a few more in stock now; give them a call. If the Trek model is not for you, consult the Bicycle Coffee Systems website for countless other options.

The other challenge I face on the commute into work is the Mid-Hudson Bridge itself whose pedestrian “walkway” is only open from dawn to dusk and rarely ever shoveled. The three-lane roadway is absolutely off limits to cyclists and the pedestrian path limitations make it somewhat more of a challenge in the winter months than I might hope. In fact, I’ve been forced to hop with my bike over the railing on more than one occasion to simply get home in the evening after the gates have been locked. There must be a better way.

Thankfully, the non-profit “Walkway Over the Hudson” project is working to convert an impressive retired freight train line that spans the Hudson just north of the Mid-Hudson Bridge into a pedestrian path. Before the economy entered its present freefall, the plans were to open the span to pedestrians in the fall of 2009 to coincide with the Quadricentennial of Henry Hudson’s fateful trip up the river that now bears his name. With a little luck, and some generous donations, they hopefully won’t be too far off schedule. Donations can be made through their website.

To maximize my training, decompress from a day at work (and because the shoulder on the northbound side of my road is a dangerous mess) I usually add miles onto my return trip in the evening. The additional miles place me on back roads which are much safer after dark. My B + M IXON IQ headlamp is more than adequate to light up the road during the winter months and I also wear my reflective RUSA Sam Browne belt and ankle bands for good measure. With only two round-trips per week, I add a 70-mile base to my training. The fresh air, wildlife and bucolic vistas only add to the experience.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dispatch: Santa Monica

Several weeks ago, when my boss called to ask if I’d like to join her at a three-day summit on progressive education in Santa Monica, I had to pinch myself to confirm I wasn't dreaming. Los Angeles in February? Haven’t they been experiencing a record heat wave coupled with serious drought? Bad for agriculture, possibly a sign of the Apocalypse, but perfect for my winter training. With the Tour of California less than two weeks away, the Hudson Valley Randonneur was heading West!

I contacted the Pacific Coast Highway Randonnuers RBA for some advice on rentals and routes to make the most of this warm weather training opportunity. Was I available for his club’s 300K on Saturday? Well, no I couldn't back out of the final day of the conference. In fact, I wouldn’t have time for more than a 3-hour training ride. He suggested renting a beach cruiser to ride up and down the South Bay bike trail.

As the date approached, I consulted the weather forecast. Bad news: heavy rains for the entire three days of my scheduled visit. Someone recently told me that 90% of California’s weather is like heaven and 10% is like Armageddon. We were clearly in store for the 10%. When I arrived on Thursday morning, the rain was Biblical in proportions. Disappointing as this was, I figured that as a randonneur, I had more than a few experiences riding in the rain. It would be good preparation for L-E-L this summer.

Despite the downpour, I suited up in shorts, sneakers and my Gore-Tex jacket and set off to find a rental shop on the Santa Monica Pier. I did not see many cyclists on my 20-minute walk to the coast, but I did see a randonneuring bike chained to a parking meter. With a set of lightweight bags hanging from the bars and a waterproof rear-rack bag fashioned from plastic, bungee and steel chain, it was a rig worthy of P-B-P. Sadly, the owner was nowhere to be found so I could not ask to borrow it for a few hours.

I reached the pier and learned that the rental shop, shuttered for the day, was clearly not owned by a fellow randonneur. So it was not meant to be. My legs and lungs will have to wait a few more weeks to experience the joys of warm weather training. Tomorrow, I'll head back to New York and my trainer. Who knows, I hear the ice is thawing; I may even get out on the single-speed this weekend.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A heart rate monitor is reborn.

My Polar heart rate monitor conked out in July, 2007. No goodbyes, no warning, just a blank grey screen. As I was in the midst of a season of long, challenging rides, I didn’t do more than put it away in my drawer to deal with when winter rolled around again and early season training required some precision. Well, a year came and went and it was finally time to figure this out. I went into the Depot a few weeks ago to ask Mike and Geoff what they knew about replacing Polar HRM batteries. As it turns out, I was reading the web site correctly. I was going to need to send it off to Long Island with my credit card number just to change the battery. So send it off I did after realizing that buying a new monitor just because I needed a new battery was absurd.

It’s easy to adjust to life without a HRM. In the past, I used to love to pinpoint my level of exertion to meet training demands or to pace myself during long and difficult events. Over the past year, though, I’ve just approximated a 75-85% workout. Having used a monitor before, I know how deceptive perceived exertion can be. The good news is that after spending $22.63 for a new battery, gasket and shipping I have my HRM back in the same shape it was in before it died on me. The bad news is I have no more excuses for imprecise and inefficient training.

I don’t use a power meter although I know others who do and I am aware of their superiority to HRM training. A guy can only spend so much on gear in one year, though. So for $22.63, I’m back on track. Beginning tomorrow morning, shortly before dawn, I’ll drag myself out of bed, brew a pot of fresh coffee and head off to the studio for some punishment. At least now, I’ll know exactly what my heart thinks of the effort. Now I just have to remember what all these buttons are for. Hope I didn’t throw out that manual.