“We swore we’d never take pictures, pictures only prove you can’t convince.” -The Format
Long 5 hour rides used to scare the pants off of me. The slight but enduring pain of tempo always made me feel self conscious of my ability to complete these marches. They are vital to competing at road races, and I would begrudging drone through them weekend after weekend. Yet I’m always amazed at how the body can condition itself, and now it’s what I crave and look forward to after a week of 2 hour interval rides.
Last week Bill Fiser and I traveled 20 minutes south to Pearland, and met up with Michael Pincus for a 5.5 hour soirée. In doing this, we saved ourselves the trouble of riding from downtown through decreasingly urban roads to the open countryside. In Houston, this can take up to an hour each way. He said he knew good roads, and putting all my trust in him, we embarked, me not having the slightest clue where we were going. I knew the ride would be challenging as Pincus is one of the cyclists in Houston my ego or legs cannot overcome. I know he is stronger than me. He delivered on a great ride, and he rarely saw the draft.
Some people decry Houston (especially Austinites) for how horrible the riding is. Just flat ground everywhere. But it is really perfect for long endurance rides. There is nothing to distract you or take your attention from the task at hand. There is no reason to stop and marvel at the picturesque scenery. I never stop to take pictures, because there is nothing worth photographing. There is nothing but you and the bike’s constant fight against deceleration. And that is what makes it beautiful.
Most of the ride was in Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, which has nothing in it but grass, dead trees, water, and gators. After a week of riding to and from work through urban sprawl and concrete jungle, this was bizarre. The roads have nothing to cause them to deviate, so they are completely straight. Dead, gnarly trees line the roads, and I can’t imagine a time where they were actually growing, because their bleached branches are so appropriate to the rest of the landscape. A slight emotional stress bubbled inside me, because I had no idea where Pincus had taken us. There is absolutely no elevation change, and you can’t see much more than 200 ft around you. We were riding too hard to have meaningful conversations, so I pedaled thinking about nothing, hearing nothing but wind and my breathing.
At the other side of the park, we came across a bayou bridge where the road goes over a major waterway. After the last 20 miles of flat and straight, the 50ft tall structure looked monolithic. As we crested the top of the ‘hill’ I looked behind me, and I was stunned by the abrupt vista. You could suddenly see for miles and miles, nothing but swampland. It was beautiful. I braked and thought about dismounting to snap a photo, but decided against it. It honestly wasn’t very scenic. A photo would only show the small country road disappearing into the distance with green and blue all around. The beauty came from the effort it took to get there, and how I could suddenly see where I was and where I was going. My location made sense. There was no way to convey that feeling in a photo. And I wanted to keep that impression to myself and not share it with anyone except the two that had made the journey with me. So I just smiled and tucked low for the 50 ft descent down the other side like I was speeding down the Alpe d’Huez.
We stopped near the ocean for a water bottle refill, and I could smell the saltwater and fishing industry around me. It had turned out to be abnormally warm for December, even for Houston, and we laughed and joked as we headed home.
Houston usually has beautiful weather for winter training. The weather is very mild through the winter months, and there are not many super rainy days. Because of this I have never bought clothing for extreme conditions below 40 degrees. This is my weather cutoff, and buying clothing for colder conditions is just not worth it. For times when it is colder, I have the trainer.
The last two days have been around 30 in the morning, so it was too cold for me to commute to work. Plus, I have lost one of my winter gloves (I suspect my dog). By the time I get home from work, it’s dark and cold again. This is always the most depressing time of year, when I spend the whole sunny day sitting in front of a computer instead of enjoying the sunshine. I guess I manage only because I really like my job.
Because I don’t ride the trainer often, I always have trouble reaching the same power numbers on the trainer than I do out on the road. Everything feels harder. 300 watts feels like a sprint! This is a common problem that has been addressed across pretty much every cycling forum known to man. Here is an article by an Australian coach, and is one of the best explanations of why this phenomena occurs.
What always helps me the most is having a fan, being super motivated, and not cranking down on the wheel to barrel interface. I used to really crank the wheel down to where the metal would even rub off on the tire. This was causing a lot of friction and making the trainer have too much resistance. Now I keep it looser. The only downside is that the tire can slip if I sprint.
The Shama Christmas Party is coming up this weekend, and it will be good/funny to see everyone in non-spandex clothing. I’m also working on building up a ‘beater’ road bike to ride around on so I don’t risk my race bike with power meter being stolen at the bar or supermarket. I just ordered some flat bars!
I lead an alternative lifestyle, because every year between Thanksgiving and New Years, I lose weight. This is the heart of base training in cycling, and I believe can determine how your race season will go. But I find it to be the hardest time of year to train, with no light and terrible weather. In the end, you just have to get out there and ride.
Last year between Christmas and New Years, I did a whopping 18 hours on the bike, which was around 4 more hours than I had ever done in a 7 day stretch. This year, I wanted to do more.
What I planned was a full “crash training block,” which means you ride your legs off and reach your limits (without getting sick).This would stretch my body to overcompensate, and to really top off my tank of base miles of endurance and SST paced riding before starting shorter more intense efforts in January. Over 7 days, my goal was 25 hours of good steady training. I came in at around 23 hours, which I felt was a great success. I took off work and went after it like a cycling gypsy. Below are some tips and tricks that I learned along the way.
7 days (one off day)
Birds of a Feather
I don’t know a lot of people that can ride hours after hours alone and not get bored. My limit is usually 3.5 hours alone on the bike. After that, I lose motivation and crave someone to talk to. So I made sure to have a couple of people around me that wanted to put in some good mileage as well. In doing this, we could feed off of each other and keep each other accountable and motivated. The only problem with riding with others is the group can get too big, and then you draft too much of the time. This can lead to junk miles, where you are going too slow to really be stressing your system. I found that 4 riders is optimal, where you can ride side by side, taking 10 minute pulls at about 85-90% of FTP.
I ate a lot, and still lost weight. It is amazing how many calories you go through riding 4+ hours per day every day. I focused on good healthy nutrition, but with more carbohydrates than the normal person would eat. I also ate a ton of vegetables and fruit, because these are like free snacks. If I got hungry, I would slice up some cucumber and eat it with hummus. This left me satisfied with good nutrition. I used to be the guy eating Dairy Queen before a race, but I have changed my ways. And honestly I feel a lot better on and off the bike because of it. Having said this, I still had fried chicken on one ride…
Don’t Get Sick
The Black Kids have a song which goes, “Listen to your body tonight, it’ll treat you right!” While they were probably NOT talking about endurance sports, but no truer words have been spoken. After 5 days of hard riding, I was supposed to get up for a group ride at 730am. I got up, started to get dressed, but felt awful. I felt slightly obligated to show up, but instead I went back to bed and slept soundly for another 3 hours. I decided to hang it up for the day and spend some time on the couch. Because I was aware of my body’s warning signs of possible sickness, I was able to throw in the towel for a day and take an unplanned rest day. After a full day of laziness, I felt great again and more ready to get on the bike. The best advice I can offer is that training load should reflect your ability to recover.
Don’t Ride the Trainer
Trainers are good for short 1.5 hour workouts, but ultimately I think they make you weak mentally. If you are shying away from the slightest chill or drizzle during training, that is all you will be thinking about when you race in those conditions. Cycling is a tough sport and you have to be tough to do it. The weather last week was honestly pretty crappy for Houston. The temperature hovered around 45 and there was no sun. Just damp, cold, rainy, and windy. But I was able to bundle up and brave the weather, gaining a sense of pride for riding in those conditions. And I am confident that the weather won’t get any worse during the race season so I am prepared for anything. And I won’t be thinking about how cold or wet it is when others are shivering and complaining.
Back, Back, Back It Up
When I fill out training plans, I always work backwards. Meaning, where do I want to be fitness-wise on what day and what rides are required to get there? Training plans are just easier to fill out this way. I have no scientific evidence to back this up, but try it some time.
I tried not to be jackbooted about my rides. The point was to get a lot of endurance and tempo riding in, but I was up for the occasional hammer session or town-line sprint. For me this kept it fun and lighthearted as I was completely stressing out my body.
Anyways, I made it through, and it was a great 7 days. Now it’s back to the grind of work. I will start doing some more intense shorter intervals in my workouts probably once a week through the next four weeks. After all, the Texas race season start in 3 weeks. Whoa.
If cycling fans haven’t heard, Timmy Duggan decided to retire from professional cycling. I’m sure it was a very hard decision for him. Here is a great interview from on what lead to the decision.
I loved how he talked about using cycling to learn how to set goals and achieve things. Cycling is great in this way. It has definitely taught me the lesson that anything worth having in this life will be hard to attain, and you will have to work extremely hard to achieve. This carries through to my home and work life.
What really struck me was how he talks about cycling being a part of you, but making sure that you have other parts of your life that are important. I believe this also means having something to fall back on. In Timmy’s case, this is skiing and his family business in real estate.
I started cycling at 21, and never thought about cycling as a career. I know a lot of younger guys that are so passionate about our sport and going pro, which is awesome. But I always caution these guys to have something to fall back to, like a useful college degree. Any professional sport is a hard career, and cycling is harder than most, for less pay. Your whole career could be over in a second with a crash, or drawn out over many seasons through lackluster results. It is a sport that only recognizes a very small percentage. Someone like Timmy Duggan knows this first hand. And sometimes you just need to hang it up.Freakonomics has a great blog/podcast on the upsides of quitting.
So should these young guys quit now and give up on their dreams? Absolutely NO. These guys have dreams to be professional cyclists, and at ages 21-23 they should go after that full steam ahead. But if they don’t make it to the ProTour within the first couple of years, that’s when you have to start thinking about going a different direction. Even though they put everything into the sport, you have to know when to hang it up and find a career paying a living wage. There seems to be a lot of domestic pro riders that say “next year, I’ll make it, next year” and they have said this for 10+ years. This might sound harsh, but if you’re 35 and still riding for a domestic pro team, it seems unreasonable to have goals to one day ride ‘The Tour.’
To me, Chad Haga is a perfect example of what to do. He raced through college and got on a top amateur team with lots of good contacts to the professional side of the sport. He signed a domestic contract and worked his tail off for two (3?) years, and made it to the ProTour before turning 25. If he would not have made it to the ProTour, I would hope that he would put that mechanical engineering degree to use.
In the end, the great thing about cycling is you can still achieve goals and win races at the top amateur level with a full-time job.
I have been riding the WestOaks Ride routinely every Saturday since I started training again in November. It starts at 7am, which is incredibly early for a Saturday. I somehow drag myself out of bed for the 5.5 hour ride. Last Saturday I just couldn’t make it. I had loaded myself up with a mountain of training earlier in the week, and the bed just felt so inviting. I slept in for a solo ride in the afternoon. I rode out to open roads through neighborhoods in East Houston. East Houston is pretty rough. Not the roughest, but not a good neighborhood.
After 4 hours of hard pedaling, I start home, only to be stopped at a train. Already waiting for the train to pass is Wayne, a 56 year old guy on a beach cruiser. We smile and I say hey, because we are instantly connected by our mode of transportation. This ‘bike bond’ is immediate, and translates through all social, racial, and cultural stigmas. Our kinship quickly diverges from here.
“Damn, how much that bike cost?”
Why is that always the first question? I hate this first question because I will have to start our conversation in a complete lie. There is no way I will tell him how much my bike is worth, because he will think I am crazy for even spending over $500 on a bike. “About $400,” I respond.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. I saw a bike at this bike shop down the street, that whip was $1000!” I pretend to be surprised, like $1000 would pay for the Aston Martin of bikes. $1000? That would pay for half my power meter. I’ve seen bikes with $1000 paint jobs.
I feel trapped in a growing awkwardness. “Nice out today… Good for a bike ride,” I muse.
“Eh, kinda hot and muggy.” Divergence. I love this weather. Sunshine, and it smells of summer rain showers. He seems uncomfortable.
“You got a job?”
“Yeah, do you?” I respond.
“Naw, been out of work about 5 years, you know, the economy and everything.” Further divergence. I give him a consoling look. There might be nothing we can relate to except cycling, which he might be doing out of necessity instead of recreation. It might seem silly to him that I am cruising around the city on a 16.5 lbs bicycle when I could be zipping back and forth at relative light speed in my perfectly good Honda Fit.
“Well, at least you have a trusty bike to ride around on, and what more do you need?”
“Amen, brotha, I know that’s right!” Success! We agree that biking is awesome, my faith in our budding relationship is restored.
But our friendship will be over all too quickly, as I can already see the end of the train coming around the corner. I think maybe I will coast beside him so we can talk some more, avoiding politics or religion until we know each well enough to forgive the differences in beliefs. Or the next block, whichever comes first.
“Well, nice talking to ya… Hey, big guy, you got some change?”
I stare at him, completely nonplussed. This guy… He has been thinking about getting money from me ever since I rolled up on my impossibly expensive bike. He thought of nothing else, while I was intrigued and hopeful of a long-last friendship. My dreams are shattered and I realize I was nothing more than a sap with too much cash. And any use of the names ‘Big Guy’ or ‘Chief’ or ‘Slick’ or ‘Boss’ is instant friendship hara-kiri in my book. Our friendship was done in that moment, and he was dead to me.
I give him a dollar left over from my gas station stop, and speed off as soon as the crossing gate allows.