Thursday, August 13, 2009

London-Edinburgh-London: Building the right bike

During my first season of ultra-distance cycling, I realized that I needed a new bike. My stock Bianchi Imola just wasn’t cutting it anymore. What worked fairly well for 100 miles was not adequate for 375. While a decent entry level road bike, the Imola is not designed for long distance cycling. The geometry is much too tight which causes it to be somewhat twitchy on descents, Shimano 105 components are not as smooth or reliable as one would want, and the dimensions of the frame limit my ability to use accessories like full fenders that would improve the riding experience. I had no idea how much difference a better bike would make, however, until it arrived. I wanted a bike optimized for brevets, double centuries and randonees such as LEL, but I also wanted a bike that was quick and light that I could strip down for races as well. My budget was $4000.

While it would not be accurate to say that I built the bike specifically for LEL, with this ride on the horizon for 2009, LEL was very much on my mind when I designed the bike and chose the components and accessories. I received the bike in September of 2008 and put several thousand miles on it, but it LEL would be the true test.

Choosing the right builder:

Throughout my first season of randonneuring and ultra racing, I was a sponge sucking up tips and useful information about frame type and bicycle design from more experienced randonneurs and ultra racers. I also poured over past and present issues of Bicycle Quarterly, the outstanding journal lovingly devoted to the performance and aesthetics of long distance bicycles. I scoured old issues of BQ, and read test reports of various custom-built bikes, learned about the importance of a wide range of engineering principles, and drooled over the pictures of vintage and modern constructions. In fact, the currect issue has a whole section devoted to choosing a custom frame builder. It was actually a tip I ran across in an old issue of Bicycling Magazine, of all places though, that sent me in the direction of Independent Fabrications (IF), the small, Boston-based frame builders I would decide to use. A reader had posted a question about designing a randonneuring bike specifically for PBP several years ago and was advised to look into the IF Club Racer.

The Club Racer, designed for randonneuring or (the more commonly understood) “light touring” is basically a cross between the IF Crown Jewel racing frame and the IF Independence touring frame. The geometry (which is fully customized) includes an appropriately long wheel base and room at both the fork and seat stays for full fenders. The Club Racer can be made in steel (which I could afford) and titanium (which I could not). It would be optimized to my particular body and riding style as well as to randonneuring in general with all of the esoteric bags and components I would need. Since it would take me another year, at least, to afford a frame from one of the boutique frame builders that specialize in creating French constructeur frames, I decided that Independent Fabrications was just what I needed. A frame builder with a great reputation who could build me the bike I wanted at a price I could afford within a reasonable timeframe.

Getting the correct fit:

All IF bikes are custom build and I found that Signature Cycles, an operation run by Paul Levine a fit specialist with a great reputation in the New York City area, was listed as a dealer on the IF web site. I called up Signature Cycles to discuss the process, and found that working with them as a dealer, the price of a professional fitting would be included in the price of the frame. After saving my nickels and selling just about everything that wasn’t nailed down in my house on eBay, I made an appointment to meet with Paul. Before opening Signature Cycles with offices in Manhattan, Greenwich, CT, and Central Valley, NY, Paul ran the Serotta Fit School where he developed his craft and trained others in fitting cyclists of all types to custom bicycles.

When we met, Paul explained that he had some interesting experience fitting randonneurs, having flown down to Puerto Rico in 2006-7 to fit over two dozen local randonneurs on bikes in preparation for PBP 2007. He also explained that he had fit a RAAM racer or two along the way. Paul’s office is graciously appointed with leather chairs, half a dozen beautiful steel and titanium frames on the walls and a large stationary bicycle hooked up to and computer that looked like elaborate wide-screen TV. The process started with a long interview during which Paul asked myriad questions about my riding plans and the fit and feel of my current bike. He also tested my power output and pedal stroke on the stationary bike, saying positive things about my power output and giving me a few tips about building my core strength. We also discussed the importance of frame dimensions to accommodate wide tires and fenders. After about an hour and a half, Paul sat down with me to share the CAD drawings he put together based on our conversaqtion and I made a final decision about color and decal placement.

Selecting the best components:

After much research, I decided to outfit the new bike with Shimano Ultegra components. While Campaniolo would have the advantage of freeing up valuable real estate for a front handlebar-mounted bag, I thought that the greater popularity and ease of repair associated with Shimano STI parts might come in handy someday should I encounter a breakdown out in the middle of nowhere. Since nearly all US bike shops stock Shimano parts, it would likely be much easier to find replacement parts should my shifters give up the ghost in the middle of nowhere one day. I went with the compact 50/34 crank up front and a 10-speed 12/27 cassette in the rear so that I’d have plenty of options for both hills and flats. For brakes, I choose the Shimano “Long Reach” to compliment the Ultegra drive train, but found upon installation that what Shimano calls “long reach” are actually “medium reach” and were not wide enough to accommodate my 43mm fenders. After a bit more research, I swapped out the brakes for a set of Tektro R556 which are truly “long reach” and work quite well. I also chose Kool Stop salmon-colored pads for their improved braking power and wear under wet conditions. I was shocked to learn how easily standard pads can wear in the rain during the New England Fleche 2008, but that’s a story for another day. For wheels, I went with Mavic Open Pro rims for strength, durability and security in the event that I ever run into trouble with a spoke on a long ride.

I also read a lot about the benefits of wide tires and I wanted to make sure that the new frame would accommodate tires up to 30mm. While I normally ride and train with 25mm tires, I knew that I’d like to have the option of running Grad Bois "Cypress" 30mm tires on long events such as LEL and PBP. To fully cover the wide tires and enhance the aesthetic quality of the bike, I selected a set of the beautiful Honjo 43mm aluminum fluted fenders. It was a toss-up between the “hammered” style inspired by the French constructeurs, but in the end, the crisp lines of the fluted version seemed preferable. As far as details go, I asked IF to include a pump peg on the inside of the head tube so that I could install a Blackburn full frame pump and a sterling silver head tube badge just because it looked so darn cool. I chose a pair of beautiful stainless steel bottle cages from Velo Orange and was also able to transfer several recently upgraded components over from my Bianchi such as my beloved saddle, a Brooks B-17 Champion Special with titanium rails (which had nearly doubled in price since I bought it in 2007!) and my Time RXS carbon pedals. Once the frame and fork were built, painted and delivered, Paul’s crew assembled the bike in their Manhattan shop and was kind enough to install the fenders for me; the precision measuring involved with installing Honjo fenders would certainly have driven me mad.

So the jury is in – the bike performs like a charm. Within two weeks this summer, I achieved two personal goals. I rode my fastest 12-hour race (finishing with 226 miles) and enjoyed the hell out of my longest randonee at LEL (875 miles in just over 100 hours). While my training and the additional experience are partly responsible, I am convinced that the IF Club Racer helped tremendously and I recommend it highly to others with similar goals and budgets. The comfort and stability of this bike over 875 miles is hard to convey. The Grand Bois tires (at 85 lbs. psi) softened the ride and smoothed out even the roughest roads. The fenders kept me as dry as could be expected under the circumstances and the overall geometry made for a very comfortable and stable ride. I experienced predicable leg soreness at times, especially in my knees, but my back, neck, rear-end and other joints felt just fine. The numbness in my left hand is likely the result of applying too much pressure on my handlebars and I will seek to fix this by improving my core strength and altering my saddle position in the future. Who knows, maybe some gloves with thicker gel would help, too. Finally, while I LOVE the look of the bike, the one decision I might rethink if I were to do it all over again is frame color. Despite what people may tell you, it’s hard to keep a Vanilla Shake frame looking clean. Next time, I might try black . . .

Thursday, August 6, 2009

London-Edinburgh-London: The Ride Report

The completion of L-E-L marks my most significant athletic achievement to date. After several seasons of completing brevets and ultra races, this was my first attempt at an event of over 600K. With almost two years of anticipation and planning, it was a challenge with organizational, mental and physical dimensions. As I packed for the journey, I was certain I was forgetting something critical. As it turned out, I was as prepared as I could be and had all that I would need. After slogging it out through some pretty brutal rains and cold temperatures, I finished in 100h 45m on a beautiful sunny afternoon in great spirits with a group of amazing cyclists.

Day One “How hard could it be?”

The field of just under 600 riders was organized to depart in two main waves on Sunday (8:00 am) and (1:30 pm). Within each of these two groups, riders were subdivided into smaller starts of 50 or so in 15 minute increments. After signing in at the Lee Valley Hostel around noon, I set off at 1:45. At first, the route shoots through a fairly congested area of suburban London, but before too long, we were riding amid endless fields and breathing fresh air. With low, grey clouds threatening rain, it was not a question of whether but rather when we would get wet.

Enthusiastic and eager, I took off at a fairly fast clip out of the gate. In no time, I was passing riders who had set off in the previous group. At the first control at Gamlingay (65K), I took the opportunity to fill my bottles and use the toilet. (This would become a recurrent theme). After a few minutes, I was off again as the rain had begun to come down in earnest. In this first stretch of road, I was alternating between riding along solo and pedaling with others. I was enticed to ride quite fast with a few Russian and British riders for an hour or so pushing big gears. The benefit of this approach was to propel me further down the road and to make up good time. The downside was that I was working too hard too early in the journey. Eventually reason won out and I let the rabbits go and rode solo for a while. I hit my first roundabouts as a solo navigator and these proved to be an interesting challenge.

After riding and navigating solo for a spell, I began to question whether I was in fact still on route. During a short lull in confidence, I doubled back for a kilometer or two and ran into Audax UK rider Robin Tomes coming towards me confirming that I was in fact on the correct route. It turned out that Robin and I had much in common and so fell into riding at a similar pace. We swapped jokes and stories and ended up riding together for the entire adventure. Robin’s ace navigational skills were of tremendous value and convinced me that GPS is the way to go in the future. As we pedaled, Robin shared what was to be the mantra of our ride in the form of a quote from a fellow rider he overheard at the first control. “1400K: how hard could it be?”

After a long stretch of night riding in the pouring rain it was nice to stop at the Washingborough control (216K). Here I met Israeli cyclist and RUSA member Lev Broitman who not only rides a beautiful black Indy Fab, but also follows my blog! “You’re George Swain?!?” What a trip. Robin and I said goodbye to Lev and slogged on through the wet night arriving at that Thorne Rugby Club (321K) control at about 3:00 a.m. soaking wet and ready for sleep. After a hearty meal, we rented two blankets and were shown to the locker room floor where we would spend the night.

Day Two: “Are you sure that was a left before the 23K climb?”

The alarm went off after about 1.5 hour of sleep and I shuffled down the hall in my cold, damp clothes looking for coffee. It was grey and wet when we set off, but the sky would clear later in the day and we would have several hours of dry riding through a lovely stretch of English countryside. We passed through quaint villages filled with old stone cottages, some roofed in thatch. After lunch at the Middleton Tyas control (463K) we passed Barnard Castle and began climbing in earnest into the northern Pennines. The main work of the day was a gradual exposed climb over Yad Moss. The roads on Yad Moss are outstanding and quite enjoyable to cycle. The views are panoramic, the roads weave, and the tarmac is smooth as butler. As long as you stay clear of the sheep that range freely, you’re set. After climbing Yad Moss, we descended into the village of Alston where we would stop at the control for a meal of Shepherd’s Pie.

The next stretch through moorland England was somewhat hilly, but the transition into Scotland was abrupt and dramatic. It was twilight as we crossed the border and it was not long before we were out of our saddles and gasping for breath on climbs of 15-18%. Up and down we went as we gained attitude through the dense wooded countryside. There was a 23K stretch from the final turn on the route sheet to the control through what turned out to be completely desolate forest. I was desperately hoping we didn’t make an error since there was no one to be seen along this stretch. We pulled into Eskdalemuir (633K) after midnight. Again we ate; again there were no beds. We found spots to fill between sleeping riders and shivered for three hours before waking to take on another day.

Day Three: “Would you like a wee dram of single malt in that?”

After a truly lousy sleep, we set off into a beautiful morning sunrise with the wind at our backs. The trip from Eskdalemuir to Dalkeith (Edinburgh) is breathtakingly beautiful. The vistas are expansive, the hills dramatic and the valleys seem to roll on forever. It was a joy to cycle northbound through the early morning light. Between Eskdalemuir and Dalkeith, there was a secret control at Traquair (678K) set up in a local village hall with a very nice staff and wonderful food. The porridge was outstanding and I don’t ever remember eating something so welcome. The descent into Dalkeith is precipitous and exhilarating.

Shirley Rinaldi, one of the teachers I work with at home, was visiting with family near Edinburgh so we arranged to meet up in Dalkeith for a little visit. It was fabulous to see Shirley there with her family waving American flags and cheering on riders when we arrived. After checking in at the control (716K), I spend a few minutes catching up with Shirley and then took a much-needed shower and changed kit which had been sent forward to the control in a drop bag.

The journey from Dalkeith back to Eskdalemuir was a painful slog through hell. It wasn’t just the climbs that we knew from our northbound journey to expect. The headwinds were merciless off the moors and it became clear to us that we were pedaling DOWN while northbound riders were coasting UP the very same hills we had climbed with ease a few hours earlier. Clearly, this was a place of misery. On the return leg, I was again offered porridge, but this time with a “wee dram of single malt” in it. After the past several hours of riding I could see why that combination may have developed. Despite the pain, I declined the Scotch.

After checking in at Eskdalemuir (799K) one final time we decided to push on to Alston to stay ahead of the largest wave of cyclists since we knew how tight the sleeping arrangements would become that night. The following day, we heard reports of over 200 riders “sleeping” in that tiny space and knew we had made the right decision. It remained somewhat dry as we rode through the hills of southern Scotland and started to rain again in earnest as we headed into northern England. It was wet, it was dark, there were ugly headwinds and I was cold to the bone. Hocking the bike on Ebay seemed like a very appealing option. While gorgeous, it was truly miserable. Knowing that the Alston control would be filled, and realizing that a third night without sleep would be brutal, we began to imagine the options.

Just as we dismounted to walk the bikes up a short dangerous patch of pave (cobblestones) in the town of Alston, we were approached by an angel of mercy who asked, “Would you boys like a room?” Apparently, her hotel was full-up, but she called a friend who had one more room at her B & B around the corner. At 15 pounds each, we didn’t think twice. We were introduced to the owner, a lovely, kind diminutive English matron who served us tea and homemade biscuits at 11:45 pm and placed our wet shoes into a warming closet to dry.

Day Four: “It’s a fine line between extreme and holy sh*t”

We awoke well-rested and clean after a full five hours sleep and sat down with two Belgian cyclists to a full English breakfast complete with hand-pressed coffee and warm, dry clothes. After our meal, we cycled 3K to the Alston control (894K) and felt as if we were walking into a refugee camp. It was hard to choke back the laughter, but after signing in and lubing my chain, I was off with a fresh set of legs. Riding over Yad Moss was a complete pleasure. The roads were smooth and the stretch involves some gentle and pleasant descents. Our Russian friend Anton flew by and shared an “almost untranslatable” Russian proverb with us to the effect that “in endurance activities, there is a fine line between extreme and holy sh*t!” At times, it felt like we crossed that frontier. We arrived at Middleton Tyas (969K) to see one of Robin’s riding buddies and some of his “mates.” We joined them for a second full English breakfast and heard about the weather warnings for heavy rains and serious flooding across much of the UK for later that afternoon. 2 inches or rain was predicted. Luckily it would not get that bad.

After a long day in the saddle, we had dinner at the Thorne control (1110K) and made the difficult decision to push on. At only 8:00 pm, it was really too early to throw in the towel for the day, but we were tired and sore and it was raining (again!) It seemed critical that we make it to the next control before sleeping which would leave only 200K to the finish after sleep rather than 300K. As others riders sat down to pitchers of fresh draft beers, we suited up in our wet clothes, I rubbed my sore legs and we headed out with NC Randonneurs Mike Dayton and John Ende into the misty rain. To our great surprise, the skies cleared as we rode to reveal a beautiful sunset on the horizon. We rode hard for 100K discussing past rides and making future plans. I was especially eager to hear all about the Csascade 1200K which is now firmly on my calendar for the future. We met up with several other cyclists, including Spencer Klassen on fixed, as we neared the next control. We arrived at Washingborough around 11:00 pm Spencer bending his chain ring a few kilometers from the control. After some welcome food, we were shown a large open space with cots (and no blankets!); I guess you can’t have everything. We slept for several hours, grabbed a quick bite to eat with some coffee and then head out for the final 200K.

Day Five: “Time to put this fish in the boat!”

I wouldn’t call the legs I left Washingborough with “fresh” but there was only 200K left to the finish so “how hard could it be?” Robin and I rode this next stretch along with Mike and John and their fellow NC randonneurs Jimmy and Will. It was a very pleasant ride socially; those guys from NC know how to have a good time! But it was physically pretty brutal for me personally. I was developing significant pain in my knees that would eventually grind me to a rather embarrassingly slow pace. At one point, it felt like someone was driving daggers into my knees with each turn of the pedals. I realized around mid-day when worries of a DNF began to enter my addled brain that the ibuprofen had worn off. I quickly swallowed 600mg and kept on riding.

When Robin and I stopped at the penultimate control at Gamlingay (1336K), it was all I could do to imagine getting back on that bike one more time. I ate several ham sandwiches, drank a fizzy orange soda and a few cups of Joe, massaged my legs and got up and walked out the last door we would cross until the finish. At this point, our ride amounted to 60K, a typical Sunday club ride. As we rolled out of the control, with sun out and stomachs full, something very strange happened. Not only had the ibuprofen kicked in but a serious burst of adrenalin brought life to my legs I did not think possible. I felt like I was being shot from a cannon. Our new friend “Cap’n” John Ende pointed out that “it was time to put this fish in the boat!” Robin had to warm me several times to keep it under control, fearing that I would wear myself down and bonk before the end. Robin and Mike and Jimmy and I were able to ride strong for the final stretch and stopped just a few kilometers from the finish at a pub where Mike bought everyone a drink in celebration. We had done it, 1400-freaking-kilometers. After a brief celebration, we rode the last few miles into the control.

I finished the ride in 100h45m. Before LEL began I had several “goals” in mind. Some related to time: under 90 hours, under 100 hours, and others related to finishing: NO DNF. There was no way for me to be fully prepared for what this ride threw at me. In all, I felt as prepared as I could have been. My body was well trained, my bike was solid, comfortable and reliable, and my accessories were well-suited to the journey. I made several new friends and enjoyed the hell out of the event which was far more important than pushing an abstract time goal. Randonneuring is more fun than racing and I need to remember that while there’s a place for both in my life, the goals of one should not affect the enjoyment of the other. I’ll be back in 2013!