cycling

TABR training notes

I mentally committed to riding TABR 2021 at the end of January 2020, and started training in earnest in March. I didn’t know what I was doing at first—I was still figuring out structured training, but by June, I had the rudiments of a training plan. I’ve been refining and tinkering with it since then.

That should have been plenty of time for me to get in shape for the TABR, but now I am 11 weeks away, and I feel like it wasn’t.

I can attribute part of this to some health issues (some related to my training, some not) that started cropping up in October and weren’t resolved until February. My fitness didn’t deteriorate during that time, but it didn’t improve either.

But part of it is simply being too complacent with my training plan. I could have pushed myself harder during the four months October—February. And I definitely could have started pushing myself harder immediately after that.

I saw a comment from a coach who has worked with at least a couple of successful TABR racers that one should get one’s cumulative training load up to 120 before the race. I don’t see a good way for me to do that right now.

There are a few concepts to understand here:

  • Every workout has a training stress score (TSS) calculated for it. This is a single number that represents both the intensity and duration of the workout. The formula for working it out is complicated.
  • Cumulative training load (CTL) is a recency-weighted average of the training stress scores for one’s workouts over the previous six weeks. This is also sometimes called “fitness.”
  • Acute training load (ATL) is a recency-weighted average of the training stress scores for one’s workouts over the previous week. This is also sometimes called “fatigue.”
  • Training stress balance (TSB) is CTL minus ATL. This is also sometimes called “form.” In order to be making progress, this needs to be a negative number, but if it is beyond -30, that indicates overtraining. This also lets one optimize one’s taper for a race: by easing off training immediately before a race, CTL goes down but TSB goes up. However, I’m not sure how applicable TSB is to a multi-day event like the TABR.

In any case, there’s no way for me to ramp up from where I’m at right now (CTL of 82 as of this writing) to a CTL of 120 without my TSB going deeply negative. In fact, there’s no way for me to ramp up my mileage to where I want it without spending some time in the TSB red zone.

My current training plan has me doing two 60(ish)-minute interval workouts, two 90-minute recovery rides, and a long weekend ride each week; I am using a mesocycle of three weeks, where I ramp up my long-ride distance by 10% for each cycle, and in the third week of each cycle, give myself an easy week with a relatively short weekend ride.

In order to build this plan, I’ve had to estimate the TSS for all my workouts. For the weekday workouts, this is a non-issue. I build the workout in Training Peaks and then I ride it on my stationary bike, so apart from the smart trainer having minor tracking issues, the result is nearly identical to the plan. There are no confounding factors like hills or weather. For the weekend road rides, I alternate hilly rides with flat rides; I worked out an average TSS/mile for both categories based on past rides, and use that when estimating the TSS of upcoming rides. I don’t have a power meter on my bike, so TSS for past rides is calculated based on heart rate (which I know is less accurate).

For my most recent weekend ride, this didn’t work. I had estimated a TSS of 355. Due to steep hills and strong headwinds, it turned out to be 465. It’s three days later and I barely feel recovered from it.

My current plan gets me up to a CTL of 105 before the event, and that is after a recent retooling to give me a more aggressive ramp rate. But now I’m wondering if even that is too aggressive. Especially since I’ll intentionally be hitting TSSs of 465 on some of my weekend rides as I ramp up, and I know how much that took out of me. I am worried that I’ll be both overtrained in terms of my health and undertrained for the event.

With my current training plan, I am cramming most of my TSS ramp-up into my weekend ride. In theory, I could change my training plan so that instead of comparatively light weekday rides and a very heavy weekend ride, I would ride at more consistent TSS levels throughout the week. This would avoid blowing myself out on one weekend ride, but would be harder to fit into weekdays, and in any case, I feel like I need to have the experience of long, uninterrupted hours in the saddle to prepare.

Take to the Sky


This is my new bike.

The setup

Frame
Kinesis RTD. This is a 55.5 cm frame, bigger than the 54 cm I would usually ride, which I chose at the suggestion of a fitter, who was concerned I wouldn’t be able to get enough stack on the smaller size. As I’ve got it set up now, I could probably lower the stem and still be comfortable.
Wheels
Just Riding Along “Mahi Mahi” rims (30 mm front/50 mm rear), SON Deluxe front hub, JRA house-brand rear hubs, Sapim X-ray bladed spokes. I felt like this would give me the best balance of aerodynamics and handling in crosswinds.
Group
mostly Dura Ace.
Cranks
Easton EA90. (Bottom bracket is also from Easton.) I got over my pride and decided to use 46/30 chainrings. For the amount of power that I can produce and my style of riding, I don’t need anything bigger (I sometimes see cyclists in bike forums asking about putting bigger chainrings on their bikes and I wonder “can you really push that gear?”). There aren’t a lot of road cranks that will take rings in those sizes (Shimano’s GRX have a wider chainline, which I could imagine causing shifting problems), which is why I went with Easton cranks. Although I don’t have a power meter on this bike now, Easton’s spindle-based power meter would be a relatively easy retrofit.
Cassette
Ultegra 11-30. Having small chainrings meant that I could put a relatively close-spaced cassette in back. This still gives a very low low gear, and a top gear that’s higher than the 52×13 that was typical when I started cycling. If I feel like I can pull it off, I’ll use an 11-28 instead.
Seatpost
Redshift; can toggle between a conventional position and a TT position on the fly. I got this used, along with a set of Redshift aero bars. After only one ride, I’m not convinced that it suits my purposes, but it is a well-made piece of equipment.
Saddle
Fabric Race Line Shallow, which seems to work for me.
Stem
Old stock from Zipp. Available cheaply; bought as a placeholder to confirm my positioning; I will probably replace it with a shock-absorbing stem from Redshift
Bars
Old stock from 3T, also available cheaply.
Pedals
Speedplays zeros. I would like to use SPDs, but they don’t offer a lot of float, and that has been causing me knee trouble lately, so at the last minute I made this change.
Tires
Continental GP5000 tubeless, 28 mm. I waffled on whether to go tubeless on this rig and ultimately decided that I would. I’d read horror stories about how hard road tubeless tires can be to mount and inflate, and about how tires that are the tiniest bit out of spec with the rims can blow off. In this case, I was able to mount the tires by hand with little trouble, and even inflate them with just my track pump, no air blaster required. Getting the valves set up took a little trial and error, and I misjudged the ideal length for the stems.
Chain
Wipperman Connex. Has a reputation for being especially durable, and the master link uses a clever design that does not require a tool to connect or disconnect.

Build notes

This is the first bike I assembled entirely myself. I had a shop face the brake mounts and bottom-bracket shell, and I bought prebuilt wheels, but the rest I did on my own.

The number of weird, specific bits and pieces I needed came as a surprise. I wound up getting a special socket driver for the bottom bracket and another one for the lockring that holds the chainrings to the cranks. I had bought the levers and brake calipers used, and had to buy barbed fittings and “olives” for the hoses (as it turns out, I should have bought new hoses as well). The rear caliper requires mounting bolts that are sized exactly to the frame, so I had to get those as well, and Shimano’s documentation on this is somewhat lacking, so that took a fair amount of research.

Apart from needing two new tools, getting the bottom bracket and cranks set up was a breeze. Although the preload adjuster didn’t stay locked in place.

Cutting the steerer tube was nerve-racking–do it wrong, and the fork is a total loss. Bleeding the brakes was especially nerve-racking. I’ve tried it before and gotten it wrong. I may still need to re-bleed the rear brake, because the bite-point seems a little late, but they both work.

Routing the cables and hoses was surprisingly fussy and involved a fair amount of trial and error. Although the result is OK, cosmetically it could be better. The frame routes the cables and rear-brake hose through the inside of the downtube, which was a slow and fussy task. I’m guessing that a Di2 setup would be considerably more fussy.

Using Shimano’s documentation to get the derailleurs set up was an exercise in frustration, and I really didn’t feel like I had it right until I took the bike around the block a few times and played with the barrel adjuster. I wound up ignoring Shimano’s documentation on bleeding brakes and went with Park Tools’ instead. As a Japanese translator and technical writer, I’m kind of disappointed with Shimano’s documentation–both the translation and the overall approach.

Ride notes

So far I’ve only gone on a couple of neighborhood shakedown rides and one real ride. I’m still getting my position dialed in.

On my one full-length ride I had the tires over-inflated and wound up letting some air out at the turnaround point; I could probably still let more air out. The frame is reputed to be especially smooth-riding, but I was feeling slightly beat up. I may change the seatpost for one with a little give (something my Felt VR30 has), or perhaps a suspended seatpost. I was buffeted by a stiff crosswind the whole way, which was a good test for those aero wheels (these the first aero wheels I’ve had). They definitely took a little extra wrangling, but not more than I expected. My average speed for the ride wound up being about 1 mph faster than I would have expected on the Felt I’ve mostly been riding lately.

Bad rides

Ride Time: 4:53:17
Stopped Time: 27:16
Distance: 75.08 miles
Average: 15.36 mph

I went for a ride yesterday that I can only describe as a bad ride. It was cold and rainy. When I rolled out, I thought I’d be warm enough. I wasn’t. My left knee starting bothering me after about 20 miles. I had planned on riding 85 miles, but got discouraged and turned around early, so I only put in 75.

But you don’t learn anything from a ride that goes perfectly. When things go wrong, you can learn a lot. So what did I learn?

Because my right leg was doing most of the work, I couldn’t ride as hard, so I couldn’t generate as much body heat as usual, so my kit—which might have been warm enough if I were riding harder—wasn’t warm enough. Normally my average heart rate on a ride like this would end up around 125 bpm, and be higher at the end than the beginning; on this ride it was around 123 bpm early in the ride, and by the time the ride ended, it was down to 119 bpm. It’s possible that I wouldn’t have been warm enough anyhow: I’ve worn exactly the same kit to commute to work in the same conditions, but my commute is only about 30 minutes each way, not a continuous five-hour slog. I’m not sure whether to chalk up the difference to riding faster on the commute, or just an ability to tough out the cold for a short period.

I suspect my knee was jacked up because of a combination of the cold tightening my muscles, and my pedals not giving me as much float as I’d like. My natural tendency is to ride in a very toes-out stance. I always used to ride on Bebop pedals, which had 20° free float. Conceptually, they’re a lot like Speedplay pedals, except they are more robust and the cleats fit regular 2-bolt drilling.

Bebop pedals were produced by what I think was a one-man company. Eventually he sold the works to a big Taiwanese company that continued manufacturing them for a few years, but ceased production in 2017. I’ve still got a set, but the cleats are worn out. I’ve got a watchlist set on eBay for these: in four months, I’ve seen two NOS sets listed; in both cases for ridiculous prices, and in both cases they’re snatched up immediately. If there were a Kickstarter to put them back into production, I’d subscribe.

Rather than switching to Speedplay pedals, I’ve been using SPDs. But SPDs only have 4–5° float, and I can’t position them to accommodate my weird stance on the bike. In the warm months, this hasn’t been a problem, but my past two chilly rides have been hard on my left knee, and I’m pretty sure this is why.

So what I’ve learned is that I’ve got to bite the bullet, get warmer cold-weather gear, and get pedals with more float.

Diving into structured training

I started getting interested in bikes when I was 13. My interest has waxed and waned over the years, but never really went away. I’ve thought of myself as a cyclist since I got my first pair of cleats at 17. I’ve always been interested in bikes as objects of technology and craftsmanship, and I’ve always enjoyed riding them. At various points I’ve gotten to be a pretty strong rider, but I’ve never been methodical about it—beyond following Eddy Merckx’s advice to ride lots, and perhaps alternating long days with short days, I’ve never been interested in structured training. Lately I have gotten interested, and like so many things, once you pry the lid open on a subject, you discover it goes much deeper than you ever imagined.

I’ve been trying to digest a lot of the concepts involved in structured training, but I haven’t found any one place that packages them up so far. There is a book (and a paper that preceded it) that, well, “wrote the book” on a lot of this, and I may eventually break down and get it. For now, this is my own cheatsheet. Some of this may be wrong. I’m not going to link back to citations for everything. Caveat lector.


Watt
The unit of measure for power. Training these days is structured around power and heart rate. In the past, cyclists would ride to time, or to distance, or to speed.
Kilojoule
The unit of measure for total work performed during a workout. Note that watts are a measure of instantaneous power, but kilojoules are a measure of work over time (same as watt-hours: there are 3600 joules in 1 watt-hour). Thanks to a statistical fluke, the work performed in kilojoules is treated as equal to the calories burned during a workout. So you burn 1000 kCal in a 1000 kJ workout.
Functional threshold power (FTP)
The maximum average effort a cyclist can put out for one hour, measured in watts. The gold standard for this is to ride an hour all-out. Most people don’t do this because it’s awful—instead, most people ride a 20-minute FTP test and deduct a certain percentage from that result—typically 5%, but if you’re not exceptionally fit, it should be 10% or 15%. Even riding 20 minutes on the road is difficult just for logistical reasons—you’d want 7 or more miles of level road with no stops, or a hill climb that’s a few miles long, again without stops—so I suspect most people do FTP tests on stationary bikes. FTP is a training tool: it’s used as a baseline for other workouts. All my interval patterns are based on percentages of FTP. It’s also good for bragging rights (unless your FTP is as low as mine, in which case you prefer not to talk about it). I’ve seen articles on how to maximize your FTP test results, but this seems wrong-headed if you’re using it as a training tool, since all the training you base on it will be off. The most celebrated record in cycling is the hour record, which is pretty much what it sounds like: how far you can go in an hour (on a track bike, in a velodrome). The current men’s record for this is about 55 km, and it’s estimated that riders are putting out about 440 watts at that level (which sounds less impressive when you realize it’s about 3/5 horsepower—less than a chainsaw engine puts out).
W/kg
Your power-to-weight ratio. Usually refers to Your FTP divided by your weight, but may be used to describe the power you can maintain over shorter periods. A small, strong rider will have a better power-to-weight ratio than a big rider who’s not so strong, but the big rider may have a higher absolute wattage output. These numbers can be important in different contexts: riding fast over level ground is mostly a matter of raw power because once you get past about 16 mph, almost all the drag you encounter is aerodynamic drag, and that increases with the square of your speed. But riding fast up a hill is more about W/kg, because you’re going slower in the first place (so aerodynamics are less important) and gravitational drag becomes a big part of the total resistance you encounter.
Critical power
The maximum power that can be maintained indefinitely, in watts. You can put out higher power, but only for a limited period of time, and there’s an asymptotic curve plotting the relationship between power output and duration, so you can put out very high power for a few seconds, fairly high power for a few minutes, and critical power for hours. Going beyond CP means relying to some extent on anaerobic capacity.
W’ (w prime)
The capacity for work above critical power, in kilojoules. You can put out effort in the W’ range for 10–15 minutes. The problem with going into the W’ range is that it costs a lot of energy, and once you’re done, you’re very depleted.
Normalized power
This is a weighted average power for a workout. Because all the time you spend above critical power tends to burn you out more quickly, a workout in which your effort fluctuates between high and low levels will be harder than a steady-state workout at the same average power. Normalized power reflects that.
Intensity
Normalized power divided by FTP.
Training Stress Score (TSS)
This is way of expressing a workout’s duration and intensity. Riding for one hour at FTP will have a TSS of 100. This is used to set weekly training goals, so for example you’ll aim for your all your workouts in a week to add up to a TSS of, say, 350.
Chronic training load (CTL)
Average TSS over 42 days.
Acute training load (ATL)
Average TSS over 7 days.
Training stress balance (TSB)
CTL minus ATL. I’ve also seen this referred to as “form.” The idea is that you want to be fresh for big events, so you taper off your training in the days beforehand. This metric is used to optimize your tapering.
Heartrate (HR)
Everyone has a maximum heartrate that’s estimated based on age, and heart-rate zones are all calculated based on your max HR. I’ve seen 220 minus age (for men) and 226 minus age (for women) as the most common way to compute this. Going by this, my max HR is 166 (as of this writing). I’ve also seen 208-(0.7 × age), which for me winds up being a few bpm higher (the results from these two equations match for men when they’re 40, for women when they’re 60). I’ve pushed myself to 165 bpm during workouts and held it steady there for a minute or two, so I’ll call these formulas close enough for me. Resting heart rate can improve dramatically with exercise. Four-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain was reputed to have a RHR of 26 bpm in his prime.
Zone
Can refer to heart-rate zones or power zones. Anyone who has used a fitbit with heart-rate monitoring has seen the yellow/orange/red zones. And it’s my understanding that the theory behind Orange Theory fitness boutiques is that they keep you in the orange zone. It turns out there are numerous different zone systems, with different numbers of zones and different breakpoints between them, and if you keep track of your data with more than one app/service, keeping their zones in alignment is a chore. Zones are another training tool, where you aim to keep your heart rate or power in a certain zone for a certain period of time during your workout.
Lactate threshold
A limit on sustained effort. Any effort beyond LT will basically be a sprint that can only be sustained for about 2½ minutes. This is really interesting to me. When I was younger, we thought of lactic acid as the waste product of exercise, and that lactic-acid accumulation occurred because your body was working too hard to clear it. Now we understand that lactate is part of the energy-transport system (also, we talk about lactate now, not lactic acid), and LT occurs because your body is producing it faster than it can process it. The body needs to deliver oxygen to the muscles in order to clear the lactate from them. We used to talk about the “anaerobic threshold,” that is, a level of intensity where you couldn’t get enough oxygen to your muscles to prevent lactic-acid accumulation, and to some extent, we still do, but nowadays we mostly talk about the lactate threshold to refer to the same idea. I get the impression this is because what we’re describing is the actual measured blood-lactate concentration. Apparently there are numerous ways to define LT, although the one I’ve seen used the most is where the lactate concentration is 4 mmol/l. This is also sometimes called LT2, to distinguish it from LT1, which is the point at which your body starts accummulating lactate faster than it can clear it (“onset of blood lactate accumulation” or OBLA). The effort in watts where LT1 and LT2 are reached can be measured, and obviously, the higher the wattage the better.
VO2max
The amount of oxygen you can breathe in per minute, in units of ml/min (sometimes expressed relative to body weight, ml/min/kg). The gold standard for testing this is to exercise to exhaustion while wearing a mask that measures the volume of air you breathe, but it can be approximated based on max and resting HR, or heart rate after specified exercises. There’s obviously a relationship between VO2max and LT, and LT is generally estimated to occur at 50–60% VO2max for untrained athletes, and 70–80% for highly trained athletes.
Intervals
A workout where you alternate periods of high intensity with low intensity.
HIIT
High-intensity interval training. A style of intervals where you ride close to VO2max with relatively long “on” intervals.
Sprint intervals
A style of intervals where you ride beyond VO2max with short “on” intervals.
Polarized training
An approach to training based on long periods at low intensity and short periods at very high intensity. The balance can be in the range 85/15 to 95/5. The idea is that you spend all your time in Zones 1/2 or 5, and none in Zones 3/4 (assuming you use a 5-zone system)—or that you simplify your zones to “easy/no-mans-land/hard.”
Threshold training
The opposite of polarized training: spend all your time in Zones 3/4. There seem to be different definitions for this (just as there are different definitions of zones), but the general idea seems to be steady-state training at 75–90% of FTP. Current scholarship seems to be that polarized training gets results faster, but threshold training has a lot of adherents.
Sweetspot training
Same as threshold training
Moderate intensity continuous training (MICT)
Same as threshold training
High-volume training
Long miles at low intensity. Also called “base mileage.” My understanding is that you’re supposed to have a lot of base mileage before you attempt higher-intensity training.
Cadence
Pedal speed, measured in rpm. Most experienced road cyclists aim to keep their cadence around 80–90 rpm. There’s evidence that lower cadences are more energy-efficient, but it’s easier to produce more power at higher cadences.
Bike computer
Also called a “head unit.” Bike computers used to just compute riding time, speed, and distance, and if you were really fancy, you got one with a barometric altimeter. Those still exist, but these days, fancier ones are tantamount to smartphones (many of them run the Android OS), and connect to a constellation of other devices.
Heartrate monitor (HRM)
There are two types: the traditional chest strap, which monitors the electrical activity in your chest muscles, and the newer optical type, often built into a watch or armband, which visually detects the changes in your veins as blood flows through (word of the day for this: photoplethysmograph). Chest straps are usually cheaper and have longer battery life. Some of the optical ones can also work as pulse oximeters.
Power meter
A meticulously calibrated strain gauge applied to a part of the bike’s drivetrain (pedals, crankarms, crank spider, rear hub) that transmits its readings to a bike computer. Although they’re coming down in price, power meters are still really expensive, and add at least $200 to the price of whatever part they’re attached to. Having a power meter on the bike has transformed competitive cycling, as racers know how much power they can put out for how long, and don’t make heroic-but-doomed breakaways.
Smart trainer
An old-fashioned stationary trainer would usually let you vary resistance manually, but did not calibrate this beyond “easy” to “hard.” A smart trainer uses computer control to apply resistance, and can measure power reliably. Smart trainers can use smartphones or bike computers as their controllers and front ends.
Golden Cheetah
Freeware analytic software. I first downloaded it about four years ago, and was so confused by what I was seeing that did not look at it again until last week. I still don’t understand half of what’s going on in there, but I’ve got a little bit of a handle on it.

Formulas for various concepts

Gears

SRAM just introduced a new version of their top-end road group, Red, with a different approach to gear ratios that they claim gives more range and tighter spacing. This smelled like marketing hokum to me.

Warning extreme nerdery follows.

900 miles

At the end of July, I had a routine doctor’s visit. Got on the scale. Clocked in at 170 lb. I hadn’t weighed that much since 1991. So I got back on my bike.

I still remember when I was six years old and my father took the training wheels off my bike and convinced me to ride it. I was terrified. He ran alongside me as I rode around the block. (My little sister, in contrast, took her training wheels off by herself, leaned her bike against our father’s truck, climbed aboard, and rode off.)

After that I got the hang of it, and bikes became an important part of my life. I started going on long-distance rides when I was 13. I did a little bike touring in high school, and I competed in some triathlons and bike races starting right after I graduated high school.

I didn’t have a bike during the time I lived in Japan, and when I was living in Chicago for a couple of years after that, I had my road bike but didn’t use it much (thus the 170 lb).

After I moved back to Austin in 1992, I got back into riding, and it was a great time to be a road cyclist in Austin—there were a bunch of then-pointless and unused roads that were like a playground for cyclists—360, Southwest Parkway, Bee Cave, and so on. I hardened up and could motor all day. On one occasion, I rode the 165 miles to a friend’s place in Houston in 9 hours flat. Some months later, I did it again, 20 minutes faster.

In 2000, a lot of stuff in my life changed, and I found myself cycling less and less, but in 2010, I started riding regularly again as I prepared for my Southern Tier ride, which I completed in October that year.

But that wrecked me—my upper body was emaciated when I finished. I remember at the end of the ride struggling to lift my 30-lb bike over my head. I decided I needed some kind of a whole-body workout. I signed up for a bootcamp class, and stuck with it until it petered out several years later. I never found a replacement that interested me, so I was back to a relatively inactive lifestyle (thus the 170 lb).

As of today, I’ve logged 900 miles since that doctor’s visit. I’ve clawed back a fair amount of lost fitness, and lost the weight I wanted to lose. But I’ve got a long way to go before I’ve got the level of fitness I had when I was younger—if in fact it’s possible to attain that again. It would have been better all around if I had stayed more active.

Four years

Four years ago today, I was smack in the middle an adventure: a transcontinental bike ride.

When I finished that ride, my body was wasted: I had lost at least 15 pounds. You could see my ribs through my back. I decided it was time to find a more whole-body workout. I started doing a boot-camp workout with Gwen. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it, exactly, but it was definitely good for me. After a few months, I had finally resolved some weak spots left over from my broken pelvis, and had built up core strength that I’d really never had before. I was pretty regular about it for the next 3½ years or so, going three times a week, occasionally taking a month off when life got crazy. Boot camp completely displaced cycling for me. I didn’t do any serious riding after I got home from my big ride, only commuting around town.

A couple of months ago, that boot camp class ceased to exist as such when the trainer started a gym; he offers something similar at the gym, but I realized I don’t want to go to a gym. I was also missing riding. Today I went out with a friend for my first ride in four years. My neck’s a little stiff, and I was tired earlier than I should be, but it was good to get out there.

I still need to do some kind of whole-body workout. But I need to keep riding my bike.

Bike-share systems and the poor

This morning there was a story on NPR about bike sharing, specifically how it doesn’t do a good job of serving the poor. There are basically three reasons for this:

  1. The bike stations are not located in areas most useful to poor people;
  2. You need a debit card or credit card to use the system;
  3. Bike-share programs are expensive.

The story got me thinking about all the ways it’s expensive to be poor, and they’re certainly illustrated in this example.

To get a debit card, you need a bank account. To get a bank account, you usually need to scrape together $100 for an opening balance. This is not a huge hurdle to overcome, but if you never have $100 left at the end of your pay period, it’s going to take planning, and if life throws you a curveball before you’ve got that $100 saved up, you’re back to square one.

I looked at the prices for bike-share programs. Chicago’s Divvy has two price structures: yearly memberships and day rates. $70/year or $7/day, plus usage: in both cases you get 30-minute trips for free, but if you’ve got a longer bike trip than that, you get dinged $1.50 or $2.00 per 30 minutes. Austin’s nascent bike-share system has a similar breakdown, but is slightly more expensive.

So if you’re poor, the annual plans are probably out just because of the upfront costs, even though on a per-day basis, they’re a much better deal. If anything, you’re on the daily plan (Austin also has a weekly plan), although again, this presupposes you’ve got a bank account.

What about getting your own bike? You can get a beater bike on Craigslist. There are bikes listed there right now in the $20–50 range, so if you’re poor, the break-even point for rent vs own comes quickly—within one pay period. If you could afford the daily bike rental, you could afford to buy a bike. If you’re going to use a bike for commuting to and from work, it would be a no-brainer. It would also be a no-brainer for someone with more discretionary income who wants to commute by bike.

So given that anybody with even marginal math skills could figure out that ownership beats rental for routine, day-to-day bike usage, what’s the use-case for rental? It’s for when you’re out of your routine. Non-routine uses are hard to predict—it seems redundant to point that out. That makes the best placement of bike stations problematic.

Another obvious use case is tourism, and from what I’ve seen in Chicago and San Antonio, the placement of bike stations clearly targets tourists.

I don’t think it would be a bad idea for bike-sharing systems to be more accessible to the poor, but as long as those systems are run by private companies trying to turn a profit, it’s going to be difficult to balance that equation. Organizations like the Yellow Bike Project can do more to improve bike mobility for the poor right now, by providing them with their own bikes, teaching them how to maintain bikes, and giving them access to shop space.

Thoughts on an iPhone app for bike touring

I’ve played around with a number of iPhone apps for cyclists. None of the ones I’ve looked at are really optimized for bike touring—instead, they’re mostly oriented towards fitness cycling, which has somewhat different goals.

An iPhone app for bike touring would need to overcome the problem of battery life and fulfill three main tasks. Battery life isn’t as big a problem as it is generally made out to be, but even in a best-case scenario, it would be difficult to get a solid 24 hours of use out on a single charge when using the iPhone as a bike computer for a big part of the day.

The not-Nueces not-Bike Boulevard

Dear City of Austin—

I think your heart actually is in the right place regarding bikes. You want to do right by bikes. But time and again, you’ve shown that when you apply bike facilities to existing infrastructure, the streetscape is such that the results are worse than no bike facilities at all. Beyond that, the fact that compromise apparently is valued not only as an end in itself, but as a higher goal than a good outcome (which is the nicest way I can say that you lack the courage of your convictions) means that good ideas get turned into bad ones. We saw this with Shoal Creek Boulevard, and now we’re seeing it with the Nueces Bike Boulevard.

The irony is that Nueces already feels like a de facto bike boulevard. It gets very little motor traffic and is a pleasant place to ride. When the project was first announced, I thought it was smart, a way to recognize and build on what already exists.

But the whole Shoal Creek Boulevard debacle taught us that the city prioritizes convenience for parked cars above bikes. I suppose the retreat from the original Nueces Bike Boulevard plan is slightly less appalling, in that it shows the city prioritizes convenience for moving cars above bikes. But it is still galling.

I don’t want to be that guy who complains without offering solutions. Here’s mine: Stop. Stop planning or announcing any bike facilities whatsoever. You just get our hopes up and then let us down.

Survey of iPhone bike-computer apps

I’ve written before about the iPhone’s potential and drawbacks as a bike computer. And there are a lot of bike-computer apps available for it right now. Let’s take a look at them.

I’ve gone on a bit of a kick lately and tried out four different ones. There are one or two others that I haven’t gotten around to yet. I hope to eventually, and will report on them in this space when I do.

Executive summary: Rubitrack for iPhone and Cyclemeter are clearly oriented towards performance cyclists; right now I’d give the nod to Cyclemeter. GPSies seems almost like a toy, but might be of use to hikers. Motion-X is for GPS otaku.

Moving forward and circling back

zenit-3

I recently resolved a nagging issue in my life that had been like an albatross around my neck for years.

Back in ’97, I visited the Netherlands, and became interested in recumbent trikes. I’ve always been drawn to the mechanically obscure, and if recumbent bikes are weird, recumbent trikes are way out there. As is my wont, I researched them obsessively when I got back home, and eventually homed in on a model that, even by the rarefied standards of recumbent trikes, was exotic. It was the AS Engineering Zenit. Made in Russia by former Illyushin Aircraft engineers, it had front-wheel drive, a box-section aluminum frame, hydraulic drum brakes, and other unusual features.

I ordered one. It took forever to arrive—the better part of a year. I may have been the last customer to have an order filled. I know that AS Engineering stiffed several customers. It didn’t come as a finished product, but it didn’t come as just a frame (the way many custom bikes do) either: because of its many custom parts, it was somewhere in between. I began putting it together with quality parts, but after a while, I got bogged down. I had routed the hydraulic lines poorly, and didn’t want to redo them. One of the lines also needed to be re-bled, which was a massive pain. The shifting was erratic, and I had trouble getting that dialed in.

So it sat in the shed. For a decade.

Every time I went into the shed, there it was, mocking me. Eventually Gwen gave me the ultimatum “ride it or get rid of it.” and I eventually decided to get with the program. I took it to Austin’s recumbent bike store, and had the proprietor deal with its various shortcomings. At the same time, I found a website for recumbents that included a classified section. Someone saw it listed and told a friend, who had been looking for a Zenit for years. I sold it.

Putting that trike behind me was an illuminating life-lesson. I had let a molehill grow to a mountain in my mind: I had become frustrated by some minor problems and intimidated by the prospect of fixing them. Ironically, in the ten or so years that had passed, those problems became much more difficult to solve (the hydraulic parts needed for the trike had become much harder to obtain, and there was a new leak somewhere).

But revisiting the trike reminded me of an idea I had for it when I first got it: to use it as the vehicle for a transcontinental bike ride. I had completely forgotten about that goal after the tumult of breaking my pelvis, getting divorced, and getting into firedancing in 1999–2000. But reminded of it, I realized that I still wanted to do it. I mentioned it to Gwen and she said “You’re not getting any younger!” So that’s going to be my big project in 2010.

Ironically, I still think that a recumbent trike is the right vehicle, but I have no regrets about having sold the Zenit, and would shy away from using it for this purpose if I hadn’t: a trike with critical parts that simply cannot be replaced if they break is a bad vehicle for a 3,000 mile journey. And at this point it would be bad mojo to ride a trike that symbolized my own inability to complete a project.

Dean Keaton restriping

Google Maps image of Dean Keaton at I-35

When I got home from the recent road trip, I discovered that Dean Keaton had been restriped, adding reverse-angle parking, bike lanes, zebra stripes, and a generally dizzying array of new road markings. On the day of David Byrne’s recent talk about bikes, I rode this newly restriped stretch of road and found it to be a disaster for bikes.

The image above shows how the street looked before restriping. To be fair, this is an inherently difficult situation to make bike-friendly, especially westbound: there is a pullout for a city bus, an offramp, an onramp, and two places where traffic is turning across the lane. Not visible here is the fact that this is all happening on a downhill, so both bikes and cars are likely to be moving relatively fast (this stretch is signed as 30 mph, but the limit is rarely observed). Also not visible is another intersecting offramp just to the west.

As shown here, the street has two lanes, with a third lane for merging offramp traffic. After restriping, there is one lane on the left, a no-man’s-land denoted by zebra stripes, and a bike lane on the right; there’s a second lane for merging offramp traffic.

The way the bike lanes have been striped makes them an absolute hazard. The bike lanes zig-zag across onramp and offramp traffic in a way that minimizes the crossing distance. This runs contrary to both my own intuition and effective cycling methods, where the cyclist holds a straight line across the onramp/offramp. Worse perhaps is the quality of the pavement: although the pavement in the main travel lanes is in good shape, pavement in the bike lane is very rough.

As a cyclist, I am skeptical of bike lanes in general. They seem to be designed to cater naïve riders, who don’t know how to conduct themselves in traffic, and more than that, to motorists, who don’t want to be forced to deal with bikes at all. Many motorists will interpret the existence of a bike lane as a requirement that bikes ride in it, even when it is impassable. And naïve riders will follow bike lanes, even when they’re laid out poorly. That said, there can be good bike lanes and bad bike lanes. This is a bad one. A motorist taking the onramp or offramp will come up fast on a cyclist staying inside the lane, who is swerving and cutting perpendicularly across the motorist’s path at the same time. The choppy road surface set aside for the cyclist clearly reflects our second-class status. And the plethora of dashed lines, zebra stripes, chevrons, etc, all serve to confound everybody.

That night, I went to David Byrne’s presentation. One of the speakers was the City of Austin Bicycle Coordinator, Annick Beaudet. She spoke proudly of some of the city’s new bike facilities. Including this one. I can understand a city bureaucrat taking pride in seeing a project to completion, but I have to wonder: has she actually ridden this stretch of road?

See also: How not to design a bike lane.

Ride more bikes

In the severe hailstorm that hit Austin back in May, our car took a beating—some of the dings were so sharp that the paint cracked at the point of impact. When I took it in to get a repair estimate, they told me they were going to have to replace the hood and roof. In short, major repairs.

We finally got around to taking the car in to get the repairs done, and as of today, have been without a car for three weeks. The experience has been instructive.

I’ve lived in Austin without a car before. That was as a renter, and it definitely involved compromises. It would be much more difficult to live here as a homeowner without a car.

I’ve only had to bum a ride once during these three weeks. And there are certainly a few car-based errands that we’ve deferred. But for the most part, we’ve managed pretty handily, and more importantly, it’s been a reminder that most of the short 1/2/3 mile errands we run can be accomplished just as well by bike.

It’s a little embarrassing that we got out of the habit of using our bikes for errands in the first place. We didn’t quit riding them entirely, but we didn’t ride them nearly as much as we might have. It’s hard to put a finger on why this is. Too lazy to ride? Perhaps in part. Another dumb reason might be our garage door. When we moved into this house, the garage (where we store the bikes) could only be locked or unlocked from inside. So to get the bike out I’d go into the garage, open the door, pull the bike off the wall, put it outside, come back in, lock the garage, go through the house, go out the front door, and lock that. This is not a huge inconvenience in the grand scheme of things, but it adds just enough friction to the process that we’re more often inclined to say “fuck it” and take the car. We had the garage door fixed a few months back, so we don’t have that trivial hurdle to overcome. And now we’ve been booted out of our bad habits by circumstances. I’m optimistic we won’t fall back into them.

Sheldon Brown, 1944–2008

Sheldon Brown has died. He created what may be the most extensive trove of cycling knowledge on the Internet. Which I hope will endure.

I encountered him on Usenet under the rec.bicycles.* hierarchy, where he was always a source of good information and good humor. I ordered equipment from the store where he worked a few times and was glad to have his advice. Cycling is poorer for his loss.

The Boston Globe on Sheldon Brown .

Technology on the bike

2007 hasn’t been a good year for cycling, at least not for me. I recently made a birthday resolution that in 2008 I would ride more.

Along with riding less, I’ve paid less attention to bike technology, which is something that’s always interested me. Lately I’ve been paying a little more atention. I just read about a prototype bike-computer/rear-view camera called Cerevellum. This looks like a great idea—plug-in modules for different functionality. One idea I’ve never seen implemented on a bike is a crash camera. Now, this might be more of a concern for me than most people, but the overhead would be slight and the potential benefits considerable.

I envision the system including rearward-looking and forward-looking cameras, an accelerometer, and some flash-memory storage. It wouldn’t need much—just enough to capture about a minute’s worth of video and audio (about 180 MB for good-quality uncompressed video—chump change by today’s standards). If the accelerometer detected any sudden movement (indicative of a crash), the cameras would save the preceding 30 seconds and the following 30 seconds. That should be enough to capture license plate numbers, the circumstances of the crash, etc. A manual trigger to save would also make sense, as would manual still photography capture. Equipment like this does exist for cars, but nothing miniature enough for a bike. With 1 GB memory cards as common as dirt, one could record several minutes of footage per ride, as well as a lot of still photos, which could be interesting in ways other than crash documentation.