Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Strava Reset

A couple of years ago the GPS input based physical activity tracking and sharing web site Strava came online. Much like Facebook, at first first it seemed to be just another variant on MySpace, or in this case, on the Garmin Connect site or MapMyRide or any of a number of other sites to which you upload your GPS recorded trip data for analysis. There were subtle differences with Strava though, ones that placed it firmly into the social media genre but more importantly, features that added a competitive flair.

Strava was billed from the beginning as a training application designed to help promote activity and competition and that it did. With some smart targeted marketing, like promoting competitions within the competition at certain races, people quickly saw the features and perceived the benefits. Those benefits were often in the form of self gratification in the form of seeing your ranking on the leader board. The leader board feature, a feature that tracks the best time on a certain segment of terrain, is probably the most distinct functionality of Strava and the one that has given it much of it's success.

You see, a segment as it is called in Strava, is either a categorized climb based on minimum gain/length criteria, which is automatically generated, or a manually entered portion of a route that a user creates and names. In either case, a leader board is maintained as well as complete results for all riders completing that segment. It also ranks you against your previous performance on the segment as well, tracking your top few attempts and giving feedback against those.

Adding the competitive flair is, in my opinion, what has caused Strava to catch on. It is easy and it is anonymous. It makes every ride a race. And that is where the rub can come in, that is, if you let it by taking the whole thing too seriously. We often joke about some of the behavior that the whole Strava segment competition has inspired. The term 'Strava whoring' has come to denote one who goes out on a ride with the sole purpose of obtaining Strava records, or in some cases, a single record. The case of 'Strava sessioning' is where you go and do intervals of a single segment over and over. In many cases this is harmless, such as when people do repeat intervals up a certain hill but some have been known to session a flat or downhill segment just for the glory of their name in lights. I've even heard of people whose entire ride centered around attempting a particular segment, to the point of having their spouse drive them to the segment.

As with everything, people take it to the extreme case and get way too wrapped up in the details. In terms of the records, they don't really give you the complete and accurate picture, at least not by default. They don't track whether or not it was a solo attempt versus a group ride. They don't track whether you were on a time-trial bike or a tandem vs. a regular road bicycle. They also have no insight into whether or not you were drafting a school bus or motor-pacing behind a scooter with your wife or if their was a 30 mph head or tail wind.

It also doesn't and can't take into account the fact that GPS units are inherently flaky, both in recording tracks and in recording timing. I can't tell you how many times Cathy has beaten me on a segment by a lot, literally double digit seconds, when we were riding the tandem. She apparently got one of the GPS units with the built in handicapping feature. I've also gone into a segment last, finished it first and still been beaten handily by one of the people in the group when it is uploaded. That said, who cares, really? Yes, it would be nice to compare oneself apples to apples but really, you just want to know if you are doing better or worse than before.

I would like to see some more granularity though in the default reporting. In their defense, Strava offers custom filters for sorting, however the default display behavior is always all entries and all time. I think that a really telling piece information in getting better accuracy for a given segment record is whether or not the attempt was an individual versus team effort is one useful piece of data.

The other thing I would love to see is a default yearly reset on the records where by at the start of the year, they all reset. Sure, keep the historical records as well but make those a filtered display option rather than the default display. I suspect this would actually aid in giving folks extra incentive to hit the segments early in the season, a point in the year where it is often difficult to find motivation.It would also make it easier to filter out abnormal results and give a clear picture of how you really stack up at that particular point in the year. Most historical records are set during the peak of the season, which has little bearing on the current state of the peloton in New England in January.

Strava is a fun social app, much like all of the other social apps. Is it a real training tool? For me, no, it's just a novelty. Do I go a little harder on some rides when I'm doing a known segment, sure and I suppose that for that case, the tool is really aiding in training. Is it getting some folks out there doing more and possibly doing it harder, I'm sure that it is. Is the public nature of the results tracking helping to promote peer encouragement? Sure it is. The fact that people are seeing what you are doing and can give feedback is a good thing. I certainly like the site and use it consistently as do most of my friends. It's a clean, consistent and convenient way to share data and give and receive feedback. I think it does what it set out to do and does it well.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

And So it Begins Again

 It seems as though it was ages ago when last I put together a race report. The reality was that it was not and in fact, it was only early last month that the cyclocross master's worlds were held. The winter here in New England, as those from the region will freely admit, has seemed long and harsh. It has been a real winter, one with persistent snow and cold and wet, gritty roadways making cycling a daunting task. The first snows and cold for that matter, were late to appear so we, or at least I, was lulled into thinking  this would be another no-op winter. Soon after we got home from the worlds event I was proved wrong. A long line of steady storms and below average cold weather was in store. Riding bikes became a chore of bundling against the elements and in all honesty, we have yet to really diverge from that.

In the meantime, another season of bicycle racing has crept upon us while we weren't looking. This past Sunday was the first race of the season, a short MTB time-trial called the King of Burlingame in RI. This race has been going for some number of years yet Cathy and I had never done it. Part of the reason is that it's a short race and a relatively long drive. The race also used to conflict with a more local road race that I would do back when I was road racing more. Last year we actually registered for the race but when we woke up early to a steady downpour the day of the race, we decided to stay home instead. Turned out the conditions were fine in RI of course.

We got in what was supposed to be an easy road ride on Saturday but ended up being two and a half hours of misery fighting a brutal headwind and cool temperatures. That evening we attended the grand reopening open house at the newly revamped Blue Steel Cyclery in Manchester, NH. We had a great time seeing the new shop and hanging with cycling friends. It did however mean we were home late which when combined with up early to head to the race, made for a painful Sunday AM. Fortunately we got the gear and van packed up the night before so without much adieu we were on the road, through Providence and at the venue, the Burlingame State Park.

A quick change and we headed out for a short pre-ride to get a sense of the terrain. The start was about a half mile from the parking lot up the road so we made our way to the trail-head. The terrain was hilly and there were lots of pine and rhododendron growing everywhere. This was very similar to the cape, which was no big surprise as we were only a short distance from the shore. As we got into the first mile or so of course it was very fun trail that was well designed with good flow, making excellent use of rocks and technical features. The difference between this trail and most of the stuff on the cape is that these trails were designed and built for MTBs rather than dirt-bikes. The new Scalpel was handing the terrain really well, good as this was only the second ride on dirt for the bike. I just hoped the carbon wheels would survive the rocky sections. Given the time we had to turn back and get ready for the start. This included adding a little more air in the tires, just in case.

For the pre-ride we wore some extra clothing but for the race you wanted to pare down a bit so as not to overheat. The rub came from the fact that the start and finish were in different places so we opted to not wear extra clothing and drop it at the start. This was a bad idea as we literally stood there shivering, unable to get warm. Because this was an individual time-trail, the racers were set off individually in order at 30 second intervals. I registered late so was one of the last of my wave to go. Finally I was off and the world melted into the task at hand, as always, the race. The race has come to be an old companion, a familiar and dare I say, comfortable place where everything else fades away. All of the worldly troubles and woes disappear. For all the pain and suffering of the race, I really enjoy the luxury of the single minded purpose and focus. I tend to excel when I am focused but freely admit to struggling with that same focus in many aspects. Guess I'm just not wired that way, to multi-task, juggle or walk and chew gum at the same time.

For me, last year's race season has really kind of run into this year's race season, the lines blurring and there being no real distinction. It's clear that at some point there will have to be some distinction and down time but I'm planning that for late summer. For now, I'm working with the fitness I've retained while trying to build the endurance back up gradually from that of the short and intense cyclocross race format. So far so good though like last year, I'm seeing massive fall-off when I try and do too much. If I do a couple of solid two plus hour efforts during the week then there doesn't seem to be much in the tank on the weekend. If I get a hard long weekend of riding, I'm in the hole for much of the next week. Hopefully a couple more cycles of that and I'll be able to muster a few hard efforts a week and still be able to stay on top of recovery. I can say for sure that I'm still dealing with the after affects of a really long and tough week a couple weeks back. That said, I had some good efforts in the cold and pelting snow last Thursday which have me hopeful.

Sidetracked again. The race, yes, I was talking about the race, which is actually not all that interesting, especially given that it was an ITT. Within a quarter of a mile I started to catch folks that had started in front of me. That started a steady chain of catches every half mile or so for the first few miles but then settled down. Most of the passes were fine though a couple of catches were in technical sections that didn't promote passing. Rather than be a douche I tend to just wait until it's clear. This only costs a couple seconds and affords a small reprieve to catch your breath and really give it heck for the actual pass without digging too deep. On the section of road that very thing happened where I was catching a racer and knew that I needed to get ahead before we ducked back into the woods. That meant killing myself on the road, which resulted in the successful catch and pass but included me promptly washing out on a corner and laying it down. Fortunately I kept hold of the bars and got my feet under me while still sliding and was up and on the bike before the racer came back around me. That effort really left me gasping for air though.

The course was fun, fast and twisty with loads of high speed log hops and some good rocky technical sections to add some excitement and challenge to the mix. A couple of these sections, rocky stepped ups, would have been better had I seen them before so as to practice them. The result was that I blew a couple and had to scooter up the last step or bail off and run up. This is always sloppy when performed at the last moment. After my washout we hit bridge after bridge. I'd been pushing as hard as I could the whole time and felt like I was moving well but was still a bit disappointed with my numerous bobbles. That coupled with the running time that I could see on my Garmin had me way off the pace from the previous year. I was already over 38 minutes and no end was in sight. It wasn't long though, literally seconds, and I saw someone on the side of the trail waving frantically and then I saw the finish just up ahead. I dug deep for the final sprint and passed under with just over 39 minutes on my Garmin. Unfortunately the stupid GPS shuts off when speed drops below a certain level, like in really technical sections, and is then slow to pick back up. The result is a lag and disparity between the running time and the elapsed time. I've seen this before and knew that I should switch to elapsed time but the setup is a PitA so I didn't. Official results had me at just over 40 minutes, which from the previous results was not stellar.

As I rode back to the finish, where instant digital results were displayed on a monitor (they used timing chips for the race) I was told my time was not in fact that bad and that I'd narrowly edged out Mark, who had been leading the old man's division prior to that. I felt good about that and spend some time chatting with Geoff and Rich and a bunch of others waiting for Cathy to finish up. She did in good form as always and then we headed back to the van for some warmer clothing.

After changing the plan was to go do some more riding but first we took a look at the results. Mark was congratulated me on 2nd and I was a bit taken aback wondering who in the old mens category had beaten us both. He said no, second overall, which I hadn't realized yet not seeing the results. As it turned out Brian, a slightly less old man in the age bracket one up from me, who did a last minute day of registration, was the only one to go under 40 minutes on the day. Apparently the course last year was bone dry it was a little warmer and a little faster. Brian is a fierce competitor and incredible athlete and champion so I take no (well, at least little) shame in losing to him. Truth is the only times I've ever beaten him were when he had mechanical issues. I do wish I'd found those few seconds to duck under the 40 minute mark but like all time, you can never get it back.

It was a good first test and a great first race on the new Cannondale. The bike literally flew and handled great. Cathy had a great ride and worked super hard as she always does. We are going to work on polishing the technical skills and confidence that she already has long had but have tarnished a bit. I'm really hoping for some good things this year and a progression from the wonderful results of last year. At least this is a start on the right foot.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

CX Disc Brakes

A bunch of people have asked me about my experience with short pull cable actuated mechanical disc brakes, specifically for cyclocross and specifically in regards to pad wear during foul conditions. What I have told them is that if the disc brakes are properly setup, they are not in my experience a problem for cyclocross. They are also a big advantage in that they provide consistent, reliable braking performance regardless of the conditions.

Avid BB7 mechanical cable disc.
With that, let me go into a bit more detail on the point. First, let me start by saying that most of my 13 years of mechanical disc brake experience are with the Avid BB7 though I will try and speak in general. Some of the lower end models have limited adjustability in comparison and some of the new models that will hit the market will be more advanced. Proper setup of mechanical disc brakes is a little trickier than their hydraulic brothers.

At present, with most of the mechanical disc brakes out there now, you have control of the cable length and tension as well as the position of both the inboard and outboard brake pad. Through these individual adjustments you control how far away from the rotor the pads sit at rest. This is very different from hydraulic brakes, which are self centering in their pad position and distance from the rotor. They also self compensate for pad wear, a key aspect of the mechanical brake issues.

The only way to adjust for pad wear with a cable actuated disc brake is to readjust the pads. This unfortunately requires getting off the bike and screwing the inboard and outboard dials individually on an Avid BB7, a pain in the butt. You can, however, get half way to dynamic in-ride adjustment by installing an inline cable adjuster, which effectively lengthens the cable housing, shortening the slack on the cable. This has the effect of actuating the lever arm which sets the outboard pad inward, toward the rotor. The downside is that the inboard pad remains fixed still. The new TRP cable actuated mechanical calipers that are supposed to be out soon actuate both pads via a crossover arch and will solve this issue, making them manually adjustable on the fly. Of course, the TRP hybrid cable actuated hydraulic calipers will be really sweet when they show up.

Avid BB7 SL rear.
So that is the mechanical lowdown in a nutshell. Let me get to the proper setup of which I spoke. No big secrets here, it is all pretty straight forward. Because the road brake levers take up so little cable, the brake setup at the caliper is crucial. This is also why pad wear as felt at the lever is far amplified over the longer pull MTB models. Anything you can do to improve the feel and minimize flex in the system helps. To that end, good quality cables and housing are important. Compressionless brake cable housing makes a big difference. It is also crucial to have rotors that are straight. A small bend is going to produce an annoying and costly pad strike when you run the pads really tight to the rotors. That is the next key, getting the calipers setup level and even so that the pads make even contact with the rotor is important. If the caliper toes one way or the other it means the pad will contact unevenly, reduce power and probably squeal. Getting the pads in as tight to the rotor is also important. You want them on the verge of rubbing but not quite.

The last tip is one that I've discovered to be helpful over the years. What I do is to preload the actuator arm a little bit. This means that with the cable taught, there is some back tension on the cable from the arm wanting to return to full rest. I'm not sure if the arc that the actuator arm makes during the travel stroke is slightly non-linear (doesn't appear to be) but this seems to drastically improve the feel. Of course by preloading you start actuating the outboard pad but as long as it isn't rubbing, you are fine.

With this setup I have been able to race up to 1:08 in some very, very sloppy and gritty conditions (2012 Plymouth P/1/2/3 day 1) and 45 minutes in some insanely sloppy conditions while working the brakes over really, really hard on the steep downhills (2012 Downeast M45+ races), for the entire races on the same bike, without losing braking. I was also never required to adjust mid-race via the inline adjuster. I'm not sure why so many people were running out of brakes but I have to guess that it was due primarily to setup.

Noticed the bulge last night. All done.
Oh yea, and this is the biggest reason why disc brakes are a way better choice than rim brakes. You don't wear away a structural component to the bike by applying the brakes, namely the rims. This is the latest of many casualties I've had over the years, which I discovered this morning. It is often catastrophic, especially at road pressures. When the brake surface of the rim separates enough that it can no longer support the tire pressure, it explodes. That usually involves shrapnel and long shards of sharp aluminum. It also makes the wheel un-usable. Not fun.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Steam Power

Pegs on which to lay the work to be steamed.
A while back I put together a pair of wooden bicycle fenders. These were made from hardwood ash slats that I soaked and bent by hand. That worked OK and gave a partial bend but the reality was that I needed a perfect bend, such that there was no spring to the fender that could work loose from the hardware affixing it to the bike. I knew that the real answer was to steam bend the pieces. Steam bending is a process by which wood is immersed in a steam bath for enough time to raise the temperature of the material to about 212 degrees Fahrenheit. The hot steam helps to open the poors of the wood and soak water into the core, making the wood pliable and easy to bend rather than breaking. Bending wood or in reality, bending anything involves stretching outer portions of the material and compressing inner portions of the material. The harder and drier the wood, the more reluctant it is to bend rather than break.

Because I need to bend long thin strips of wood, I needed something in which those strips can be housed and then bathed in steam sufficient to raise the temperature above 200 degrees. I remembered seeing an old This Old House or the New Yankee Workshop program years ago where Norm used a chamber made from PVC to steam some work. A quick Lougle search and there was tons of info on such apparatus as well as steam production units. In terms of steam production units, the easiest approach would be to take a hot-plate and a tea-kettle and plumb the steam into the steam chamber. There were hundreds of variations of that premise out there using everything from wood-fired rigs to turkey-friers. I decided to purchase a self contained unit that was specially designed for this and came with everything required except the chamber.

Fitting for steam hose and steam delivery.
For my chamber I used 4" Schedule 40 PVC pipe. This stuff is your standard waste water pipe that is used in most modern homes. Rather than cut a section from the plumbing in our house I decided to head to the Depot and pick a piece up. It comes in 10' lengths and cost about $19. For fittings on the ends of the pipe I had some choices. The easiest was a 4" cap but since PVC components apparently use a material based price model rather than how intricate the piece is, a simple end cap (which did have a mess of plastic in it) cost more than a clean-out and cap combined. I liked and purchased the latter as it affords easier access though it does slightly reduce the ID of the chamber entry.

One note on principle here when dealing with steam. Captured steam is really, really dangerous. For one it is hot, above boiling as we all know. It also pressurizes and can generate enormous power. Remember, they used it for powering locomotives and also recall the first steam heater that they produced without safety blow-off valves, which would trip when the pressure got too high, lead to come catastrophic failures. I think Mythbusters did a segment on them as well. So, this means your steam chamber should not, ever, be air tight. There should be no pressure building in it at all. Rule of thumb is that if you have a 1" hose delivering the steam to your chamber, you should have at least a 1" hole to expel the pressure.

Clean-out end with removable vent peg and thermometer.
Back to the design, I decided to go with a 6' long chamber with the thought that if I needed more space at some point I could pick up a coupler and tack the remaining 4' of pipe back on. After cutting the pipe to size I then measured and drilled 7/16" holes along the center of the pipe spaced equally along the length through both sides of the pipe. Into these holes I inserted 3/8" wooden dowels that I had cut about an inch over the OD of the pipe. These dowels would serve as a rack for the work to be laid across so it would be completely exposed to the steam. To be creative I also drilled smaller holes in each end of the dowel through which I inserted small sections of smaller 3/16" dowels. These acted as stops for the bigger dowels so they wouldn't fall out of the holes as the chamber unit was moved around.

Finished unit, non-drive end.
For the end caps, I simply pressed the caps onto the ends of the PVC pipe dry rather cement them in place. They dry fit tight enough anyhow, dry they would act as an emergency blow-off should things go wrong and it also makes for easy access in case I want to expand the unit. If they start falling off, I may affix them more permanently. In one of the clean-out caps I bored a 1/2" hole and threaded the brass fitting that the steam generation unit came with, This is the end onto which the hose from the unit will be attached. In the other end cap I bored a 7/16" hole straight through the square cap and inserted a removable wooden dowel. This would serve as the steam pressure outflow when the dowel was removed.

Why did I put the dowel in? I had one chunk left over and it isn't in my nature to leave it unplugged. It just felt wrong. Maybe I'll put a leash on the dowel and attach the other end to the chamber so that when removed, you can't lose it. All about closing the loop. I'm thinking that I may redo that and put a threaded fitting for a garden hose on, which I could then run out the window so the unit could be used indoors without releasing all of the steam inside. Putting all of that moisture in the air would make for a wet mess. The flip side though is that you want to chamber to be hot and trying to keep it warm outside in the New England winter could be a problem.

Just because I could, I added a thermometer to the unit so I could tell what the temperature was inside the chamber. This was a simple BBQ grill thermometer that was intended to bolt onto the top of the grill. To affix it to the pipe I simply bored a hole near the far end of the chamber that was slightly smaller than the OD of the threads on the thermometer. I then screwed it into place on the outside of the pipe.

Hung in place for storage.
The last step was to make some simple feet for the unit so it would sit flat. For this I just used some scraps of 2x4 which I traced the OD arc of the pipe onto and then cut on the band-saw. To hold the blocks to the tube I just used a short sheet-rock screw run into the pipe through the bottom of each foot. I then ripped a 2x4 into a couple of 1/2" thick strips which I screwed to the outside of the feet. This was done to make storage of the unit easy. I cut some flat 'hooks' from scrap 7/16" OSB on the band-saw which I screwed to the exposed joist in the basement. These went right up against the main duct-work trunk so the unit can hang against the duct and unexposed. Important simply so you don't slam your head into it.

I've yet to use the unit as I don't actually have ant material to steam at the moment. I think that the next time I may try some different wood, depending on what I can come across. Maybe some maple. I'm not sure how well oak will bend though I've seen plenty oak furniture with loops built into it. Hopefully it all works out. Pretty simple design so I'm sure that it will.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


It is really amazing how very simple things in like can be so gratifying, bringing one a great deal of satisfaction. I was reminded yesterday how the simple act of draining a water puddle in the woods by clearing the debris choking the downstream flow, is just such an event.

I suspect this is some inherent, primal urge that humans share with beavers, the incessant need to control and modify nature. For the beaver of course, that all consuming urge to hold back the water and create a landscape that suits their needs serves an important purpose. They are creating a habitat for themselves and their little beaver families. Humans share this urge to modify nature and build a habitat that suits their ever growing desire for, more. Nature says go forth and propagate and spread your species. Nature also says find harmony or I will find it for you. Like the beaver, if left unchecked they will utterly decimate the landscape paying no heed to the future. It was man's want and need for fur that checked the native beaver population and in turn, took much of the northern frontier from the watery realm of the beaver. There is always a stronger guy out there.

Anyhow, back to puddles. Yesterday I was out in search of dirt on my new Cannondale Scalpel 1 29er full suspension MTB of doom. Though I have had the bike since Christmas, I had not had a chance to actually ride it on dirt yet. Knowing that the latest in a long string of Snowmageddon storms was on it's way, I decided to make haste for the woods. I'd noted that the railroad bed was mostly clear from what I could see in passing so had hopes of finding some respectable trail. I was delighted to find the railroad bed almost completely clear and fairly dry save for the normal sections of swamp. That said, when I hit those sections I had no taste for mud and thus, turned back. It was also way colder than I'd though so I booted home for more clothes and a couple of quick adjustments to the bike. More air in the rear shock and raise the saddle a bit.

I then made tracks for the PR, out though the cemetery. The last time we tried riding there was a couple of weeks back. Conditions were virtually impassible with way too much mashed-potato snow in the woods. This made for an absolutely miserable ride, especially given that we were on the SS MTB's which were way over geared for that type of stuff. The conditions behind the cemetery were pretty good in general so a made a nice slow loop through heading for the PR.

At the trail-head I could see snow but it didn't look all that bad. I was soon greeted by leaves and dirt and fairly dry ground. The conditions remained mostly dry as I rode around save a few short patches of remaining snow and the standard muddy spring runoff in a few choice locations. All in all, a great ride. I spent a couple of hours in the woods just easily looping around and enjoying the time that I had. Cathy even joined me later on for a quick loop before dark set in and we got hit by the impending storm. One more seat adjustment was needed as the post was slipping a bit and air was required for the front tire. The post just needs some carbon paste but the tire is annoying. The brand new Schwalbe Racing Ralph's seem to have QC problems with the casings if run tubeless. The problem is that the sidewalls leak, which happened on both the front and rear when I set them up tubeless. I thought I had it plugged with sealant by laying the wheel on the side so the sealant puddles but had another issue yesterday. I hope the darn things hold.

During the ride I came up to one section of trail that perpetually has standing water. The problem is that the section is fairly flat and the runoff for the section is a fairly shallow grade. It also chokes with maple leaves and other debris. The fix for this is easy and brings great satisfaction at least to me if not everyone.

I recall the old days of trail work in the Fells, literally 20 years ago. Back then the relationship between us cyclists as NEMBA vs. the MDC was, strained. Actually, I guess that hasn't really changed though the MDC was consolidated and is now the MA DOC. Basically all that they would let us do was to clear blow-downs, close braids and drain puddles. We would often start the Saturday AM work day by draining puddles on various trails. Good fun. I look fondly back on those days and the good folks I met like CH, Phillip S., Wick, Rich, Miller, Bob and Bob, Mason, Bugbee, Anita and Scott, Tom and Reenie and tons of others. Unfortunately many of those puddles drained and we lost contact with, as lives cascaded forward. I do still see a few now and then though.

So yesterday's work was simple, take a stick to use as a rake and clear the debris from the outflow, letting the big puddle drain naturally down-slope to the brook. I'd done it many times before on that very puddle. It was quick and easy and brought a smile to my face as I watched the water surge forward from the puddle and out away. I was temporarily transported back to the numerous times where I'd done this very same thing as a kid. Dam it up or let it out, it was all about control of hydraulic dynamics.

I suspect that it is good to take the time for these small things, the things that evoke fond memories. We don't seem to have enough of that these days. If nothing else, were folks to take the time to drain the puddles on the trails, the trails would be a whole lot drier, upstream anyhow if not down.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Happy Saint Patrick's Day

Although it still feels like Winter here in Boston, Spring is just around the corner. at least I certainly hope so. I'm pretty darn sick of this weather.

We made a corned beef with cabbage and potato in the crock for dinner on Thursday and had excellent corned beef hash last night from the leftovers. Still have a couple more corned beef in the freezer ready for another round. Maybe this time I will put one in the smoker and let it go.

Anyhow, Happy Saint Patrick's Day to you all, even those not Irish, like me, at least not that I know, but who knows. Today, everyone is a little Irish.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Fendered Carbon

In my quest for somewhat creative ways to express myself recently, I have been making stuff. One of the things that I have been working on lately were fenders for our spring training, foul weather bicycles. Sure, you can purchase fenders, which we have done, but they typically need modification and are just flimsy plastic. I've actually built a set out of aluminum which we have mounted to the tandem. They are pretty nice looking and very functional but I had my sights on wooden fenders, as a point of style.

It is no surprise that the late winter and early spring weather in New England can get quite nasty. This year has been one of those years where the roads seem to be perpetually wet and gritty. The idea of fenders is to not only keep most of the wet, salty, road grit off of you but also to help keep it off from the person following you. early season training rides are often long, cold and miserable and are much more bearable with the company of others.

Cyclists ride closely behind each other in what is called a paceline, affording the followers a significant respite from the wind. The leaders then rotate in an organized and responsible fashion which allows the entire group to travel faster and more efficiently. On the bulk of the early season rides that we do, full fenders are mandated. Nobody wants to spend four hours getting salty grit sprayed in their face when it is 36 degrees out.

A couple weeks ago I started the project by slicing a chunk of VT ash that I had in my wood stash into the thin, about 1/4", strips which were an inch and half wide. I then stacked two of them together so that I could them through the thickness planer and meet the minimum head clearance. This worked OK and allowed me to get them fairly uniform and smooth while also reducing the thickness to about 3/16". From there I needed to get the raw strips bent to match the curve of the wheel. After thinking about it a bit I decided to make a clamping jig from an old road rim with wooden spacers screwed to it that would also serve as clamping points.

Bending the wood was the next task. The strips were thin enough to bend by hand but the trick was to get them to retain their curve. I knew that the best way was with steam. However, I didn't have a good means of steaming them and didn't feel like making a PVC steaming chamber so I simply soaked them in the tub for a couple of days. This worked OK but didn't really give the pliability I was hoping for. Next time I'll go ahead with a build a steam chamber. Anyhow, after sitting over the warm air register in the bathroom for a couple of days the strips were once again dry and had a respectable curve to them.

Next I trimmed and curved the ends, sanded and prepped them and added a decorative brand, which didn't really work all that well. As another project, I need to build a smaller brand that takes less effort to heat up. Once each individual fender blank was prepped it got a coat of lacquer sanding sealer and then a couple coats of clear lacquer. All of the hardware came from replacement fender parts that I sourced from Planetbike directly. Nice stainless steel rods and through mounting bolts. For the brackets I simply used raw 1/16" x 3/4" aluminum which you can find right at the hardware store. Aluminum 1/8" pop-rivets hold it all together.

The first set went on Cathy's new Chinese carbon cross frame. This was one of the Ebay purchases that I took a chance on. The frame is fairly nice but has some subtly nuances that made it a challenge to build, namely internal cable routing and some missing and unfinished parts. Hey, it passed Chinese QA though, according to the little gold stickers on the frame and fork. The end product turned out pretty nice and should make a nice fast spring trainer and cyclocross training/pit bike. It is also light, which shouldn't matter but in reality, does.

Back to the fenders, they took some fine tuning to get on but seem to be pretty good and certainly have a distinctive and classy retro-cool look. I'll work some of the bugs out for the next pair, such as the sizing and placement of the mounting brackets and the bending of the raw wooden slats. All in all a fun, usable project with respectable results.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Southern NH

This past weekend we got set up by Mother Nature with a Friday snowstorm. What was supposed to be a couple of inches turned into nearly a foot of snow from a storm that spanned two full days. This left a mess on the local roadways especially given that some of the local towns chose to basically ignore it all together and leave the roads au-natural.

We were left trying to decide what to do on Saturday. There was actually enough snow to XC ski locally, though the weather was supposed to be sunny and the warmest of the season thus far, not exactly great for XC skiing. Braving the wet, nasty and in some cases, ice and slush covered local roadways wasn't very appealing at all and never really got much of any consideration. We did consider heading north for a notch ride as all of the intel was saying that the conditions and weather would be perfect for it.

Another option, one that had been present for some time but which we had not exercised yet, was to join the Chaingang rides, comprised mainly of  Cathy's team mates from the Blue Steel Cyclery team, running from Milford, NH. Although we only live a couple dozen miles from NH, our riding experience there is primarily limited to the Northern part of the state with a few small ventures into the very southern part on local loops that dip into the Granite State. Part of the issue is that I hate driving to a road ride. It just seems wrong to me but what that means is that I am often limited in how far afield my ventures take me. This ride starts a mere 35 miles from home, an easy ride to get to, but when you add the ride to the ride to the ride and ride home, the scale quickly gets out of hand.

The weather was supposed to be nicer in NH than in eastern MA and they received less snow than we did here so the choice wasn't all that hard. We packed up the rig the for the first time since Worlds and headed north on RT3 to RT101. RT101 is a nightmare of endless strip malls and traffic lights, requiring far too much time to navigate. Alas, eventually we came to the destinations, the Shaws parking lot of RT101 in Milford. A good group had amassed with Eric taking on the organizational and leadership duties. That one fact in and of itself, the fact that I wasn't driving, was novel. It seems that I tend to be the organizer and guide on most rides. Man, if only there was an actual job to be had there. I've certainly got years of experience.

Because the group was mixed ability a moderate fifty something mile hilly loop was planned with the option for some bail points or more distance if desired. With that we were off at a brisk but reasonable pace, a pace that was actually more substantial that I had been expecting from the feedback I'd received regarding the ride. Some nice winding country road mixed into some rolling terrain that eventually started to tip upwards slightly. This slight rise lasted forever it seemed as I was on the front setting tempo and trying to get over the top so I could peel off. Literally a couple miles later we hit the top of the ridge and stopped to regroup. A little more down, a little more up and a whole bunch of roads that I'd never seen before let alone ridden a hundred time. Fresh, novel and excellent.

Though the pace was good at times the ride was kept in check and sane such that everyone could mostly hang with only minor regroups. There were a few sections of mayhem but we all stayed together. Just about mid way into the ride I heard a pop from the rear of my bike. Soon I heard another and could feel some extra drag. A quick stop revealed not one but two broken rear non-drive side spokes of my little used Stan's 340 disc wheelset. The wheel was sufficiently out of true that it was rubbing badly on the fender. I wrapped the broken spokes around some intact spokes to keep them from flopping around or getting stuck in the disc brake rotor resulting in, death. I tried to back off a couple of opposing spokes but the crappy spoke wrench I had couldn't turn the alloy nipples and would just round them off. I did manage to move the fender enough that the tire would only barely rub. All of this took a whole lot of the fight out of me and I settled into survival mode, trying to nurse the wheel back in without further incident.

Soon after that, some additional Reindeer games ensued. Not wanting to be left out I partook, completely ignoring the wounded wheel. From that point people started to break up into groups and a few decided to take a more direct route back to the start. The rest of us were pretty much hammer down from there. In fact, there was a long stretch of RT114 from Goffstown just outside of Manchester where we were absolutely ballistic at well over 30 mph, thanks to a tail wind, wide shoulders and lots of traffic heading in the same direction. Eventually we turned off onto RT122 and continued to hammer, though the road was much more rolling. By the end, it became a death march of head down hard on the flats and searing legs on the ups. We finished back in the parking lot with a great ride on what was an incredibly nice day. The temperature was well into the 50's and the sun was blazing and bright. It felt like summer, it felt really good.

On tap for Sunday, Cathy was slated for the Blue Steel Bikes and Beer Indoor TT at Milly's Tavern on the riverfront in Manchester, NH. I was torn all week between racing it and just doing a big ride. I'd even considered just riding to the event but frankly, Manchester has always seemed like a really long ways away from home. That all changed Saturday when we basically rode from Southern NH to Manchester and back. That gave me some perspective. Southern NH isn't that far from home and Manchester isn't that far from Southern NH so therefore, Manchester isn't that far from home, right? When you don't have to plan a loop or an out an back, the reality is that there isn't all that much in New England that really is all that far away. Within reason of course, but when you assume a 100 mile ride is acceptable that opens up a whole lot of terrain if you don't have to ride back as well.

In normal fashion I dragged my feet on Sunday trying to decide what to do. Looking through maps and routes I finally, at the every last minute, decided to go for it. After monkeying with my old road bike I set off for Manchester via the scary unknown with a printed Lougle map that I couldn't really read, a few notes and a cell phone. I decided to take a longer less direct route that went north and hit some climbs, eventually connecting with one of the roads we did on Saturday for the stretch back through Goffstown toward Manchester. The whole way through MA and into NH I felt pretty good and was going at a solid pace. The roads were great and most all of them were new to me. Scenic, rolling ups and downs mixed with some steady climbs and fast descents keeping the average speed respectable.

All of that changed as I turned off RT101 in Milford and onto RT13 heading up to Mont Vernon. The first few miles were a gentle rolling couple of percent grade upward. Then it all changed as I could see in the distance the roadway which was not all that far afield was situated much higher than my present elevation. Sure enough I hit a wall. My legs shrieked in terror when confronted with the thought of the effort required given the steady punishment they had already endured to that point. I stopped to make sure the wheels were not rubbing. They were not and when that happens, they never are. It's just a mind game that your lazy legs are playing trying to convince you they really are working as hard as you need them to work. Busted legs, now get off your fat ass and push. No dice. I was dying, I melted down and removed my beanie on the way up, no easy feat as it was under my helmet of course, then removed my gloves. Finally I got to the top and I was happy again, and suddenly tired.

From there I wasn't sure where I was going and things I was assuming would look familiar from the previous day, didn't. I stayed on RT13 and enjoyed the endless rolling downhill all the way to New Boston where I finally recognized where I was. Then the wheels started to come off the bus as I hit a steady frontal crosswind coupled with broken and frost heaved pavement along River Road. This is actually a nice twisty scenic road but I wanted no part of the splendor. Finally I made it to Goffstown and passed the NH ladies pen and started looking for RT114A and the bright lights of the big city of Manchester. What I found was a mass of strip mall hell in Pinardville and no clearly labeled route across the river to the downtown. In hindsight I should have stayed on RT13 way back and taken a parallel back route that would have crossed the river north on Amoskeag Street. Instead I went south to Granite Street to cross. After some looping around on Canal Street and an eventual call to Cathy for the street address of the Tavern, since it didn't print on my PoS directions thanks to our worthless Lexmark printer, I finally arrived, with 10 minutes to spare before the start of Cathy's team time trial.

Great ride and a great adventure of sorts exploring a new location. Oh, Cathy's team won their event in commanding fashion. Way to go Blue Steel ladies!

Friday, March 08, 2013

Gettin' Fat

Fat Biker - noun \ˈfat bīk-er\

  1. One who rides an off-road bicycle specially designed for travel on snow, sand or other loose terrain and  characterized by extremely large, high flotation tires.
  2. A cyclist who is overweight, lazy, or otherwise slovenly or sloth-like. Often found sitting on their couch drinking beer or on the internet touting the virtues and versatility of their unused fat bike.

Not the best idea lately.
For those that know cycling and what the market defines as the really big thing of the season, I think that, in the North at least, we can all agree that the big thing was Fat Bikes. Everywhere you looked this fall and winter, people were talking Fat Bikes. Everyone was scrambling to get one while shops were hurriedly stocking up on them. In talking to industry friends I learned that the sales of the bikes and bike parts were through the roof and driving the profits for the whole shop. Cathy and I even considered getting some this year and in fact, the only thing that stopped us was the fact that there were none available, they had all sold out.

Even before the first snow flew this fall we started to see roving bands of people plodding along through the dry leaves on their Fat Bikes. Purchase justification of another purpose specific bicycle I guess. When the first snows finally came in January of this year, all of three inches of fluff, their were out like bands of roving Gypsies. How do I know? Because I saw them out while we were all out riding our traditional MTBs through the ankle deep snow, the same as we had since we started mountain biking. Even after we got deeper snow which quickly got packed in and froze up we were able to ride. All through January in fact and into February of this year the traditional mountain biking was reasonably good.

The reality is that a few inches of fluff is fine for a traditional MTB. Sure, it is a little slick but not bad. The issue is when you get more than a few inches or when the fluff is more like wet cement. Then the traditional 2.1" MTB tire plows and makes going difficult or impossible. There is a point in fact, right around that mark, where narrower cyclocross tires actually cut through better than a wider tire, making for less rolling resistance from the snow. With a cross bike in powder you can actually ride through quite a bit of snow without much trouble. Again though, when it gets wet all bets are off. Then you need the float and that is where the 4" tires of a Fat Bike make sense. Still, they can only handle slightly more extreme conditions than a regular bike.

Not seeing any Fat Bike tracks.
Four weeks ago we got the big storm, which dumped two feet of snow on us. No bicycle could ride in that stuff, at least not until it got packed. With all of the people out riding in the fall I figured they would organize snowshoe groups to go in an pack the trails so that they could then ride. A Fat Bike should be able to ride a well packed snowshoe track quite effectively, while a traditional MTB would struggle or just sink. It never happened though. We resorted to road riding.

A couple of weeks ago we went and tried the trails on MTB as we'd had a bunch of thaw/freeze cycles as well as rain. Unfortunately the trails with the most foot traffic, which is actually ideal for compacting the trail to the point where it is rideable on a traditional MTB, had turned to ice. That required studded tires. Other parts of the trail that had seen little foot traffic were still too deep and loose to ride. Back to the road again.

This sucks sweaty monkey nuts.
Last night with all of the snow melt we'd had we decided to give it another try. The conditions we found were pretty good in places that had seen moderate foot traffic and still had snow but mud in the heavily tracked sections that had earlier been ice but had since thawed. Lots of granular corn snow which would actually be perfect for Fat Bikes but was really horrible on traditional MTBs. There just isn't enough float with the 2.1" tires and you cut and flow. Once momentum is lost it is difficult to regain. Needless to say, the ride was cut short and was somewhat less than fun.

We rode in what has become one of the most highly used MTB areas around yet through all of this we saw no Fat Bike tracks at all. The trails were not packed smooth by the bulging high-flotation tires piloted by their fit and healthy owners who, unlike the rest of the cycling community, had continued to ride out of doors through the tough New England winter. This left we wondering where they had all gone to when the weather turned and if the snow was not what they were searching for, what drove the necessity for the bikes? I guess that they are all just "Gettin' Fat".

I guess it just the same old same old and the same reason we can't seem to get people to do a two hour weeknight road ride in freezing temperatures. Soft. I honestly think that this is the perfect year for a Fat Bike. I'm wishing that we had some in reality. Maybe the used market will be good when all of those Fat Bikers realize they don't really need the Fat Bikes. I know a couple of people up north who have been riding their Fat Bikes though. Good for them.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Back in the Swing

I must admit that I'm really not psyched about this crazy weather, what with winter that was ever so reluctant to make an appearance early in the season but now hanging around well after the party is over, refusing the depart like that dreaded guest. With the threat of yet another winter storm bearing down on us as I write, this weather pattern is simply getting old. Where was the snow and cold in December and January when we would have gladly accepted it as seasonal? Nowhere to be found of course.

Historically I really like the winter and enjoy taking part in numerous winter activities such as XC skiing, snowshoeing and even snowmobiling. The past couple of years though have seen winter's hesitance or non-existence result in a serious lack of enthusiasm on my part. Cathy got brand new skate ski equipment last season, which she never used. Believing we'd never have two crap winters in a row, I got new equipment this season. Neither set have seen snow and sit untouched and unloved in the bag, depreciating wildly. It's sad really as the snow is great up north, I'm just at a loss for the ambition and enthusiasm to travel north in a snow storm, which seem to be literally perpetual up there, to use them.

Speaking of frustration, I've been working to teach myself Adobe Illustrator. I must admit that I've never seen such a counter-intuitive piece of software in my life. The real problem is that the software was designed for physical artists by artists using principles that they would understand, many of the same principles that you would use if working in physical media. That is very, very different than anything I've ever used on a computer before, especially coming from the Windows side rather than the Mac. Nothing seems to be simple or easy. The tool is incredibly robust but as such, incredibly complex. I think I need a fundamentals tutorial or guide, which I haven't found yet. I've been working on a couple of more advanced tutorials which unfortunately, make lots of assumptions as to the users knowledge. I've looked for actual classes but haven't found all that much yet. We will see.

With that aside set aside, we are already a week into March and as such, the cycling season has ramped back up a bit. The weekends are seeing some longer rides and we have now had three consecutive weeks of the Turkey Vulture ride, a local weekly 45 mile take no prisoners, evening training road ride. The loop was put together to incorporate lots of cut though opportunities such that a person that gets dropped off the back on a segment can cut a section and jump back into the group. For the most part, at least during the regular season, this is a left for dead deal where we don't stop for anything. The route is well publicized and the same every week so it is up to you to find your way should you lose contact with the group.

Last week we had a blistering ride for this time of the year but it left me spent for the rest of the week. Last night we did the ride with a larger group at a steadier pace. It was dark and cold and nobody wants to ride alone. We had a great ride going that was hard but very comfortable environmentally. What I mean is that I was neither cold nor overly warm, which is almost never the case this time of year. That all changed when we had some issues with flats at mile 35 or so still headed out on RT27 in Chelmsford. While fixing one flat, another flat was discovered, which in fixing ruined the tube requiring another fix. We were all now cold and stiff from standing around. It felt as though the temperature had dropped 20 degrees though in reality it was still just above freezing.

With the longest, arguably toughest section left we hit hard and tried to stay together and warm up. For those who know, the final section is a seven mile long straight run in on RT4 from Chelmsford to Bedford. There is one nasty hill that is deceivingly long right off the bat. After that you have a few rollers and false flat grinds but nothing terrible. The games start here. Kyle hit hard up the Boston Road Hill climb and I jumped with him. After getting 2/3 of the way up I decided it was too much effort given that I wanted to regroup and start the real run in from the top anyhow, so I took the easy way out and sagged up over. We regrouped quickly and steam-rolled Kyle, who was up the road on a half-hearted break attempt.

From there we rolled strong with me slamming no less than a dozen invisible potholes. As we crossed the Concord River in Billerica I could see Eric was off the back. I told the group to continue and I would pull Eric back up. Secretly I love that kind of extra credit challenge. Unfortunately Eric had totally blown a gasket and when he finally got to me he was mumbling incoherently, stating that he was just going to stay there. I told him to just hold my wheel, to which he replied "OK" while sliding off the back of. I watched Kyle at the front of the remainder of the group drilling it to escape about 250 yards up the road by that point. I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to catch but was going to try my best.

I left Eric for dead to deal with his misery and delirium and pushed ahead steady and hard. By the town line hill I was making progress but very slowly. The crested together and disappeared over the top as I hit the climb. Once over I could see Kyle still pushing hard with Cathy in tow and Keith going backwards. I soon caught Keith and told him to latch on. A few minutes later we were getting close to the catch and I considered flicking an elbow to ask Keith for some help closing the final distance.

Looking over my shoulder however, I saw no Keith. I made the catch just before the crest of the final gentle rise before the run in to the logical finish. This is also typically the starting point of my attack for the sprint finish. I chose this point just before the crest to really hit hard and get the momentum going for the gentle downhill. I came around hard and Kyle, who had been fleeing mightily for the past five or so miles without a break, had no answer. Cathy actually jumped but decided to hold and bring Kyle with her as he had kindly dragged her along for so long. Great ride and by the time we hit Bedford Farms, the logical end of the loop, I was again nice and warm. It feels good to be back into the swing of the regularly scheduled rides. We finished up with beers, food and socializing. Good fun.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Nothing to See Here

Not a whole lot of content right now. Gearing up for the weekend and trying to decide just what to do in terms of riding versus taking off for the weekend north. Not sure how psyched I am to head to Maine and shovel the drive-way though and unfortunately, never really got psyched to ski this year. It is also that point in the season where I feel compelled to ride the bike with at least some purpose.

I did start pulling together a training plan and strategy for one of the collegiate riders that used to be part of the NEBC Junior Development Team. I'm going to work with him over the spring race season and try and help him with some structure. I've actually given some thought to doing more of that, especially with hands on work with off-road. Not sure what the market is though or if it is over-saturated.

Washed the bikes and drive-trains from the road ride, again. It has become a daily occurrence, one that I will enjoy doing without. With the roads the way they are right now thought, it will be the norm for the time being. Even with the full fenders, the salt and road grime gets everywhere. Love the late winter/spring riding in New England.

I've got some new fenders in the works. Ordered some hardware for them and have the main fender in prep soaking. Built a shaping jig for them as well. Just need to get some aluminum flat stock for the mounts and once all the pieces arrive, I will be in business.

This guy was just outside the office window. Beautiful, big healthy Red Tail parked up in the neighbor's tree. I snagged a few shots of him with the Canon Rebel EOS T2i and the Canon 70-300 zoom. A little crop, positive contrast and negative mid-tone and he really popped out, even in the dull light. That said, it is amazing how well wildlife disappears against the background. Evolution works so very well if you just let it.