Sunday, November 4, 2012

Re: Me and Biking

So here's the thing: I haven't been on my bike in weeks.

People ask me, and I feel like it's a lot of reasons and they all come out like excuses. But the bottom line is that it's just more annoying than it is fun. That matters, as I am not really into doing things that are super-annoying and un-fun. Allow me to enumerate some of the reasons why this is.

1. The commute to work on Olivia is always about an hour each way. I am incapable of speeding this up because, as I have mentioned, she and I are both Slow. That's a lot of time and somewhere around 40 minutes in, I am ready for it to be done. And yet it's not done. So the last twenty minutes feel so damn burdensome, every time.

2. Just to take the bike out of my building's basement is this epic struggle that takes 10 sweaty and infuriating minutes. She is wedged into my storage locker (the only place for her, really) and I have to wrestle her out of there (stop, lock door), weave her through the forest of other bikes and debris that clutter the basement, through the narrow hall, then (stop, park bike) prop the back door open, negotiate the extremely narrow area just outside the door (stop, park bike, lock door), up the 6 steps, bang my head on the grill that someone insists on storing there where it leaves only about 8 inches of opening for me and the bike to pass through, (stop, park bike) squeeze past the grill/dumpster, prop open the back gate, (stop, park bike) lock gate behind me, and then - ONLY THEN can I get on the damn bike. It is impossible for me to convey how exhausting and dispiriting this little interlude is.

3. To go through that wrestling match as the kick-off to an hour-long work commute is not the best way to start a day. Sometimes on weekends I think I'll do it, but - to go through all that just so I can run errands? Well, the car is right fucking there on the street. So much easier. For godsakes. My lease is up in March, I absolutely have to move somewhere that I can more easily access the bike. As it stands, this non-riding portion of events is a very serious disincentive.

4. And even when I have been in the mood, the weather went from sweltering jungle heat to gale-force winds, with very little in between. To put up with unpleasant weather for a 20-30-minute ride is one thing. But for an hour each way? No. Sorry, but no.

5. I have had to admit to myself that it's not cars that are the greatest annoyance/danger when I am on my bike. It's other cyclists. It's amazing how assholish some people on bikes can be. Now this would not normally be a deterrent, but when you add it all in with everything else? Well, let me just say that on the train, everyone is usually in their own quiet bubble, reading a book or playing with their phones. There is no struggle to get out the door to get to the train. There is no brutal weather inside the train. The commute by train take about 45 minutes. Can you see why I opt for the train?

If I were in training, then there would be more motivation to go through all that bullshit for a daily ride. But I am not in training.

Speaking of, I honestly don't know where I stand on training next season. Part of me wants to, but it's a vanishingly small part of me. I mean, the most lingering memory I have of training is the hate. As in, my hatred of training. You know how there are allegedly some kinds of pain you forget, like childbirth? Well, training is not that kind of pain. It is memorable. The pain is the outstanding feature. Now that Dan has told me that his doctor has not approved any bike-riding, there is not much that's pushing me to do it.

As a consequence of all this - my current non-riding and my not exactly fired-up attitude toward training - I have not been building a bike or even making plans for it anymore. I still may do it, sure. But right now, I keep thinking of other things I can use the money for. I don't know - it's hard to explain, but it's like something happened to push a giant PAUSE button on all my bike enthusiasm. I'm not fighting it, because -- well, because it's just a hobby and I have better things to expend my energy and effort and guilty conscience on. Either I will feel a renewed wave of obsession about it one day, or I won't.

But I do still love Olivia, and I am planning my next living space around her prominence in my life. I don't think I'll live any closer to work, so the commute can't change. But she'll have a safe and secure storage spot, where I can more easily take her out for a ride when the mood strikes me. So even if I'm never all bike-crazy again one day, I know I'll still always love a nice bike ride. That it will always have this place in my life, and it's an important place.

That's all I really know for now. But it's enough. 

Monday, September 17, 2012


And now that the weather is pretty perfect for a bike ride, my fall allergies are kicking my ass. I never feel like getting on the bike, because in the last 2 weeks I only feel like sleeping and sitting on the couch. And even if I get up the energy, I realize that it would probaby be a dumb move to spend nearly two hours a day riding. Outside. Through parks. You know, where all the trees are.

Ugh. The worst thing is that it's getting to be habit, this not riding to work thing. And I have to admit, that if it were a shorter trip - like half the time - then nothing could stop me. But this near-hour commute so often feels like such a chore. So. I dunno. I have to think about it. After my brain is less congested with allergy-snot.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Just a Little Update

My bike life has been rather... fallow (?) lately. But I realize I haven't posted in ages, so here's a little something.

Until yesterday, the weather has made bike commuting mostly impossible for me. As a result, I am achey and stiff in random places - because I am old and need the regular exercise, and when I don't get it then all my flesh and bones get cranky. This week looks like it will be better, so I should get to ride some days, if not all. HURRAH.

Yesterday, I drove out to Barrington and helped the team by playing SAG-lady. It was really good to see some teammates again. Funny how a few weeks really does feel like forever, but Bill still has a big broad smile and a loud mouth, and Carrie still comes back with her legs splattered with more dirt than anyone else, and Rose still makes the best peanut butter honey sandwich in the midwest - so things don't change too much. It was fun to talk with Gary, too, about different courses and all the challenges they present, and what I might or might not want to do next year. Gary's a good person to talk to about these things, as he's really a tough-as-nails guy but still totally frank about how hard a thing can be, physically and/or emotionally. No glossing over anything, but no boasting or whining. Like that. Anyway, I feel a zillion miles from cycling-as-a-sport, but being in that environment again, just as support, made me feel (surprisingly) a little nostalgiac about it. Even though I'm quite content to be lazy, I know I'll want to ride again next season.

And in other bike-ish news, my bike class ended a couple of weeks ago. I don't know that I feel 100% confident about building my own bike, but I feel confident enough to get started. I missed the class on brakes and I should've made it up, but didn't. Frankly, the teaching style just didn't match up with my learning style, so even though I learned a lot and am very very glad for it - well, the teacher frustrates me more than I care to put up with right now. So instead, I'll just bring my bike to Open Shop on Wednesdays (which is Women & Trans night) or Saturdays (when someone other than the frustrating dude runs things) and do it then. Before I get started on my bike, though, I have to finish Elspeth's bike. Because in the end, her little cruiser could not be saved. After all the work I did on it, I discovered at the end that a nut was basically rusted/fused completely on to the axle of the rear wheel, and that was irreparable. To get a new wheel would cost more than the bike was worth. But all was not lost, since West Town quite generously swapped the old bike with a comparable donation bike. It's pretty sweet, too!

But before handing it over to Elspeth, I want to do a mini-overhaul on it - headset, bottom bracket, hubs. It'll be a nice refresher on the basics, and then I'll order the frame for my new exciting fast bike. In the meantime, I'll just keep hoping for nice non-scorching days where I can ride my not-fast bike to work every day.

So there's the update on my bike life. More later, if there's anything to report. Happy riding!

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Shifty Evening

Behold the seedy bikey underbelly, where shifter cables can be poorly routed until I swoop in and save the day.
Don't ask me how it got to be Friday without me telling y'all about Sunday's bike class. Suffice it to say that life has been a little nutty and I've gotten a bit flakey.

The class was about shifters and, once again, Elspeth's bike was not appropriate for the lesson, because it's a 3-speed internal gear hub. That just means that the mechanism that shifts gears is inside the hub, all enclosed, instead of (literally) hanging out where you can see it and take it apart and fiddle with it and basically have your way with it. The external kind of gears are controlled by a mechanism called a dérailleur, which is a hilariously French spelling for something we all just call a de-rail-er in a very non-French way. (Note that I am always tempted to bust out the proper French pronunciation which, in this case, involves lots of awesome guttural Rs - making it that much more tempting. Not because I'm being pretentious, but because I love any French word that sounds like its own parody. But enough of that.)

I used a West Town program bike instead, and it turned out to really need some help. It was a mountain bike, so yay hurrah: twist/grip shifters. Those are only hard if you have to replace the shifting cable, because you have to wind it around the right way and there are little bits inside that are all crucial and stuff, and guess how I know? Yeah, I had a frayed shifting cable, so it had to be replaced. If you have a geared bike, your shifting cables will eventually fray. It's just how it works. It's not TOO hard to replace, but it takes time and attention.

So in replacing it, I found that the two shift cables were routed in such a way that they criss-crossed each other. Which is one of those things that makes you go "What moron did that?" And after rerouting, I adjusted the derailleur, which is surprisingly controlled by these tiny little screws that look like they're just there to hold the derailleur in place. But they're not - they mess with your derailleur. So just a warning to anyone feeling all DIY: if you inspect your derailleur and see teensy screws that look like they could stand to be tightened down: DON'T DO THAT.

I really, really enjoyed that class. The thing is, I very much didn't enjoy wheel-truing and then I had a week off, and then on my way to class Sunday I was feeling very misanthropic (just because after my work conference, I needed a break from human interaction) and not looking forward to it at all. So it all culminated in me wondering if I was even interested anymore, as going there felt like a bit of a chore all of a sudden. But even though I was outwardly impatient for class to be over, afterwards I realized how much I enjoyed it and would totally want to do that again.

So: yay, bike interest continues despite dislike of wheel-truing!

Now I just need to make up the class I missed, on brakes. I will try to do it tomorrow. I coulda done it earlier in the week, but allow me to repeat: I am flakey just now. Then when I make that up, there's only one calss left. Which seems nuts, but there you go. And then I will order my road bike frame and start building my own bike! Wheeee!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

So Very Gripping (ha ha)

Bringing home the bacon is far less important than bringing home the beer.
My crazy time at work is over (yay sleep!) and now here I am to show you pictures of the bike I haven't ridden in ages. I am hoping to ride to work tomorrow, now that I'm back from far-off lands and the heat seems to have broken. Better than just "the heat has broken", in fact - on the ride home from the airport I wanted to stick my head out the cab window like a joyful dog, tongue flapping in the cool breeze. Thank god, because I am sick of air conditioning and I miss Olivia. 

Did you notice what's different about her in the above picture? I mean, aside from her dignified hauling of my less-than-dignified groceries. 

Gleaming! Golden! Gorgeous!

New grips! I shellacked them and popped them on a while ago, and have gotten in a couple of rides since. They feel downright heavenly, compared to those hard corrugated plastic things that used to live on my handlebars. It was actually really easy to do - just three coats of amber shellac (bought at Amazon for like $6 - the grips themselves were $8) and then slide them right on. Taking the old ones off were far more difficult, until I asked the internet and found a forum where everyone swore by the following method: pry edge of grip away from bar with a screwdriver or something, squirt a wee splash of rubbing alcohol in there, and voilĂ . They were completely right - popped right off, like magic.

Anyway, my hands feel oodles better, and I think they look rather fetching, don't you? The color makes me happy. Like warm buttery toast.

In other news, I don't know what we're covering in class on Sunday (shifters maybe?) but I missed last week, which was brakes. I'm bummed to have missed it, but I'll make it up and then tell you all about it, eventually. And in the meantime, I will sleep and hopefully wake up and be joyfully reunited with my bike commute. Fingers crossed, people!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In Pursuit Of True

The wheel in the thingie goes round and round, round and round, round and rou---scraaaaape.
Currently, I am in the thick of it at work so I can't really be lengthy here. (Because I need sleep. So so so much sleep.) But this week's class was on wheel-truing and we trued the wheels. Or, um, tried to.

Turns out I hate wheel-truing. I think because I suck at it. What you do is you feel the spokes, like squeeze the ones that are parallel to each other, to see if any are more loose than the others. Apparently, like a 5-pound difference in tension is WAY noticeable, to anyone not named Beth. Seriously, man, they all felt about the same to me, even when there was like a 10-pound difference. So the idea of being some Master Wheelsman (or whatever they call themselves) who can adjust the tension just by feel? Pshaw. Not gonna happen.

Bridget and I - wait, did I mention Bridget is my classmate, and she's at the workstation next to me so we share tools when necessary and frequently mutter things under our breath to each other, usually about what complete spazzes we are when it comes to threading? (Not eyebrow threading, ladies, I mean the threading on, like, things that screw in to other things. I often get the direction wrong, and so does Bridget, because rightie-tighty lefty-loosey doesn't always apply to bikey things. It's embarrassing.) Anyway, Bridget and I spent the class hogging the single tensiometer so that we could use actual objective measurements instead of just going by feel. It worked, we got the wheels true. But I didn't exactly have a great time.

So I'm not a fan of this particular task, which is a real shame since I had previously been hoping to build my own wheels at some point. But screw that, man, I will pay someone else to build them. And to true them. Godspeed and good riddance. I seriously have no interest in it anymore. How sad is that?

Another thing I learned is that Elspeth's poor bike was not just forgotten for quite some time, it was downright criminally neglected. I mean just look at the petrified salt and corrosion freezing this sucker up:

Dear Elspeth:  Your wheels are shitty. Sorry.  Love, Beth
(Oh, another thing: I had to un-attach the 3-speed cable and the coaster brake, which was not EXACTLY a walk in the park, okay, especially with all that rust and all. And the wheel rims are steel, so it all weighed circa 30 metric tons, is all I'm saying. ANYWAY.)

Despite the shape it's in, from having sat outside through at least 3 out of 4 seasons of a year (before being moved inside for another year or more, to just sit and rust over), it's not a terrible diagnosis for the bike. Since it's not a primary form of transport and since it's really only going to be used for a mile here, a mile there, take her to the train in the morning, maybe pick up some groceries on occasion, etc, it'll do. It's not worth sinking money into it to improve the bike, though. It's functional, and she can ride it til it dies, as should be done with any good old rust-bucket.

Let me just take a moment to say that in my experience - both in riding bikes and in learning about them - it's worth investing time, effort, and money into your wheels. I mean, if you have to choose just one thing to really worry about and/orconcentrate on, make it the wheels. Be cavalier about other parts, but not the big round ones that make you go.

Aaaaaand, I'm off. Have to skip next week's class (subject: brakes!) because I will be working out of town, so I'll pop back in after that.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

No News Is Not Exactly Good News

Bike class was cancelled Sunday, so I have no tales of wheel truing to share.

I did, however, replace the grips on Olivia - got rid of the horrible painful plastic things the Pashley factory put on her, and replaced them with lovely cork grips. I've shellacked them and am quite anxious to give them a whirl.

But apparently I have chosen the worst summer ever to try out bike commuting. Every single day is either a freaking heat wave or a violent thunderstorm. I can't even keep up with the weather alerts anymore, and I swear my leg muscles are turning to jelly as we speak. Bah.

I said BAH.

So... When I can haul Olivia out into the sunlight without developing heat stroke, I will take a picture of the new grips. Mind you, that may not happen until sometime in November at this rate.

In the meantime, my bike-life is boring. Days full of bad weather and sharp longing. Oh woe. Woe is me, people.



Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Hubs Are Harrrrrrrrrrrrrd

This is a hub that's been disassembled, cleaned, bearings packed back in, in the process of adding more grease, and prepared to be adjusted.  Please be suitably impressed, thanks.
Sunday night's class was All About Hubs and, while there is ever so much to learn and do and see and discuss about hubs, allow me to condense it all down for you into one succinct statement: Hubs are freaking hard, and I suck at them. The end.

The hub is the center of the wheel, see, and it doesn't LOOK like it should be so hard. But it is! I swear to god, and I can't even say exactly why they're so fiendishly difficult. They just are. Apparently every hub is a little different, so that adds to the stress. It takes a lot of practice - you do 10 hubs and then you'll start feeling more comfortable, apparently, more familiar with the assembly of innards. But even if you get good at it, it's terribly time-consuming and there are a lot of rotating bits all coming together in one little centralized spot and it's just complicated.

Do you have an internal gear hub? Then I can't help you, that's a whole other class. Were you under the impression that the scary cassette thing (above, to the right, all them teeth) was the hardest part? You're wrong, it's pretty easy - and might even be fun if you get to use a chain whip.

Yes! A chain whip! It sounds and even looks like some sort of advanced AP sex toy:

I feel like this should be part of a Halloween costume.

Anyway, I found it all very complicated and confusing and I just need to do it several more times. You have to adjust the hubs so that they're not too loose or too tight (and you should really check yours, because that happens a lot), and the adjustment is just a bitch. Plus, none of the ball bearings are caged, so that's always fun when you open everything up and ping ping pingpingping there go your wee little silver balls everywhere.

Also apparently if you have long hair, it is absolutely inevitable that your hubs will have hair in them. It's just a law of bicycle physics: long hair + spinning wheel = hair wound up in hub. Gross, yes. But at least you know.

Overall, this is the one thing we've done where I am not 95% confident I could do again on my own without supervision. I think I'll come in and practice on other wheels, to get used to it.

I feel like I need to admit that I now want to basically be a bike mechanic. Or at least I want to take apart people's bikes and put them back together again, a lot. Aside from me generally being a Little Mis Fix-It by nature, I think it's super addictive because of the huge variety in bikes and parts and potential problems - and the vast array of goofy-looking tools. So anyway, consider yourself warned: if you're around me and there's anything I can detect wrong with your bike, I will undoubtedly beg you to let me take it apart.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Scolded By An English School Marm

Yesterday while riding in to work I found myself thinking just relax. Relax relax, don't push, take it easy. This has to be pounded into my head because I find myself fighting with Olivia.

That's not to say that my bike and I don't get along, it's just that we're getting used to each other. I'm pretty sure she finds me exasperating, the way I'm always pushing and trying so hard. It was a few days ago that I realized I was struggling like this unnecessarily - that no matter how hard I push, I can only make a few minutes' difference in my travel time. The Pashley has its own pace, and that's all there is to it. It's mostly a very agreeable pace and, as I've mentioned before, it's not a slow pace - it just feels slow to me. I guess because it's such a smooth and solid ride, and so effortless, that I can't imagine I'm going as fast as I did on Pepe.

With Pepe, I always felt like I was urging him on. Like the bike would only go fast if I pushed it to. The speed with Pepe was directly proportional to the effort I was expending. In contrast, Olivia goes just exactly the speed that she feels I should go, no more nor less, and she'll thank me very much not to think I'm in charge of everything.

Seriously, when I fight against the pace, it's like I can hear my bike talking to me. The voice I've given to her in my head is the same voice I conjure up when reading Bertie Wooster's Aunt Agatha, in the Jeeves books. (Jeeves, incidentally, is a great name for a bike. If you felt like keeping the bike impeccably clean and always feeling inferior to it, that is. But I digress.) I can just hear her saying things like, "Kindly do not treat me like horse, young lady!" And, when I find myself  pumping hard, hunched over, trying to beat a traffic light, I can clearly hear "Unseemly! Sit upright and stop sweating, you vulgar young chippy."

And so on. Olivia has no patience for my impatient ways, and so I've learned to go at her pace. Which I was going at anyway, I just kept fighting to go faster. Even though, with all that effort, I rarely if ever went faster on Pepe.

This is Olivia's kinda scene. (That is to say, all bucolic and shit.)
As we ride along the lake front path, it's like I can hear my mom hissing at me to sit up straight, young lady, shoulders back, chin up. And so I do relax my grip and stop mashing the pedals, and I suddenly feel absurdly proper and downright stately. And I must admit that Olivia is really on to something, because it all becomes terribly pleasant the moment I let her just do her thing without my attempts at interfering.  When I do it her way, I suddenly notice the breeze, and how pretty the light is on the water, and are those snapdragons over there, and isn't this just a lovely way to start and end a day... I just glide along feeling like the Queen Mother herself and resisting the urge to wave at my imaginary subjects.

It's pretty awesome, even if it does require lots of admonishments on Olivia's part. That's me, a headstrong young lass needing to be whipped into shape. By a bike.

(Let it never be said that my imagination gave out in my old age, people. The voices in my head are, as you can see, as alive as ever.)

Monday, July 9, 2012

From The Bottom of My Bracket

This is a one-piece crank in all its glory, with a side of caged bearings. 
 Last night we learned bottom brackets. Which, FYI, rather scare the everloving crap out of me for some reason but now that I've disassembled and reassembled two (two!!) of them, they only scare some of the everloving crap outta me.

Side note: I walked into work, saw Elspeth (who like most people finds much of this terminology to be about as understandable as ancient Aramaic), and I was so excited to tell her about my latest disassembly of her bike.
Me, bursting with pride: "I totally took off your bottom bracket last night!"
Her: "Shouldn't you, like, buy me dinner first?"

Anyway, back to the class of scary bottom brackets. Why are they scary? I guess because they usually require a lot of force to get off, and you're levering all your weight in very close proximity to the sharp teeth of the chain ring. (Which, you'll note, looks not unlike a buzz saw.) Also, the bottom bracket, like the headset, has a lot of pieces and not all of them are intuitive and I worry about putting it all back together the wrong way and causing Massive Damage in the long run. Or even in the short run. But it's also a bit nerve-wracking because there just seems to be a lot of variety in the bottom bracket community - species and sub-species, and oodles of tools to match - so I felt like I was doing a lot of guessing and hoping I was right. I was, generally speaking. (Yay!) But still, I won't feel remotely confident until I do it like 10 more times.

So there were 3 bottom bracket types that we went over - I don't know that there are only 3 types, but they do seem to be the most common and we had examples of each in the class. The first was the easiest and, frankly, most boring: the cartridge. Once you pull the crank arms off (crank arms are the metal sticks on the ends of which are your pedals), you just reach in and voila: there's a cartridge. It's all sealed up inside a cylinder-ish thing, nothing to see really, and if it's damaged then all you can do is throw it away and slide in a new one. (See? Boring.) This is the more modern kind of bottom bracket and it seems to be pretty standard anymore.

The second type was more interesting, complicated, and a pain in the patootie: the adjustable bottom bracket. And hey, I don't know why it's called that, I can't for the life of me remember anything that you could really adjust in there. Anyway, it's got all these stupidly complicated bits holding it together, so you have to use all these fussy tools to get in there. And when you finally do, there are ball bearings and a spindle (a.k.a. axle) to take out, inspect, clean, pack with grease, etc. Since my bike doesn't have this kind of bottom bracket, I pulled apart a Jamis Commuter that was just hanging around the shop. Even though it was recently fixed up and all freshly greased, it was still pretty damn time-consuming. Stupid lockring wrench thingie. Stupid pin spanner. WHATEVER.

Then we come to the third kind of bottom bracket, which is the kind on Elspeth's bike: the one-piece. It is what is pictured above and, as you can see, it is aptly named. It is all one piece. Which makes it fun to wiggle  through the hole in the bottom of the bike, but it's generally pretty simple. I have to say that I am a fan of the one-piece. I know it's a low-quality component, but I am all in favor of any bike part that does not require special tools. I just grabbed a big adjustable wrench and that was it. Like the headset, there was nothing but the dried up residual memory of grease, so I slathered it all over.

It's a very satisfying business, packing bearings with grease and smearing it on threads and whatnot. But it's also what makes last night's class the messiest by far. I mean, look at my hands - and this is after three washings!

The horror! THE HORROR!
Good thing I'm not all about my manicure or anything. Especially since I rather enjoy getting my hands literally dirty. It's just a sign that good honest work has been done. Or so we tell our white-collar selves.

In other bike-work news, I've decided I have to get new grips on Olivia. I think the handlebars are low enough, because my forearms aren't all tensed up and fighting anymore - but my hands are so damn sore after riding and I realized that at least part of the problem (if not all) is the grips. I can't imagine that anyone could be okay with the hard, cutting, plastic grips that come stock on the Pashley, they're such uncomfortable crap. Ya hear me, Pashley? Shabby job, old boy. Shape it up.

So I think I'll buy some cork grips. Cork is cheap and softer and has a little give to it, so it's worth a shot. I could take it to the shop and have them put it on, but after my bottom bracket adventure I am flush with  confidence, so replacing handlebar grips seems downright piss-ant. Of COURSE I can do it myself, pshaw! Nothing easier.

And with those famous last words, I will go browse cork grips in various online shops. Fun!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Bike Commuting in Chicago: Tips!

Olivia v. The Big Bad City

I was talking to Dawn the other day about bikes and biking, and she shared that her city (Indianapolis) is trying to get more cyclists on the roads, create an infrastructure of some kind, and educate drivers on how to share the road. Having lived in Indy and visited often, my hat is off to them - this is not so much a modest initiative as it is a monumental task. The drivers there are not well-disposed toward the idea of sharing the road with other cars, much less with bikes. People think of Chicago as having terrible drivers, but in the city (not to be confused with the many expressways around the city, which is what most outsiders experience) the driving is not bad, once you understand the rhythm of it. There is generally more patience and caution here than there is in less-huge cities, which I attribute to the presence of cops who love to write tickets for Very Large fines, and the presence of pedestrians everywhere.

Thinking about how bike-lucky I am to live here, and how every place has its own cycling personality, so to speak, I thought I'd share a little about the act of bike commuting here. And since everyone at work knows I commute by bike (most days -but of course not in this wretched dratted dashed beastly sonofabitch heat wave, grrr), I often get questions about safety, clothing, and isn't it sweaty? That sort of thing. I think all bike commuters get this, especially women. Anyway, since I find myself saying the same things about it all the time, I thought I'd share the bitty bit of wisdom I've thus far attained. It IS only a bitty bit, but here's the stuff no one ever told me that I seem to be sharing lately.

Tip 1: Beware the Impatience "Hot Zones"
I've noticed that drivers in the city (those who drive cars, that is) are generally pretty careful of everything on the roads, including bicycles. When you drive in a densely populated city in rush hour, you just tend to be more alert and cautious. Plus, everyone's usually going pretty slow anyway, what with all the traffic.

But there are some places where drivers get careless, and I've learned to be super-vigilant. I call them the hot zones of driver impatience, and they are all places where the most patient drivers tend to just say "screw it, I'm going, I don't care!" because they just can't stand waiting anymore. These are:
  1. Entrances/exits to parking garages downtown
  2. Stop lights/turn lanes to get onto the expressway
  3. Anywhere that a delivery truck is blocking the lane and everyone including cyclists are just trying to get past the bottleneck.
Mentally put yourself behind the wheel of a car in any of these hot spots, either when you're just trying to get to work on time or just trying to get home after a long day, and you'll immediately understand the impatience and momentary lapse of caution that happens to drivers at those spots. There are probably more than just these three, but these are the ones I bike through on every commute. It's just a matter of slowing down, being aware, and making eye contact with the oncoming driver whenever you can.

Tip 2: Free and Semi-Secure Bike Parking
Finding bike parking downtown can be challenging in the summer even if you're just wanting to lock up on a bike rack. But what if you have a super-pretty, very nice bike (named Olivia) that you want to keep as safe as humanly possible? Well, if you're like me, your office building offers a locked bike room. If you're luckier than me, that building won't charge $35 per month for a spot. (SERIOUSLY. Highway robbery.) Luckier still if, when you're willing to spend the money, there actually are spots available to rent.

But luckier than all that is a nearby parking garage with a bike rack inside. This is like some kind of Advanced Biker Knowledge or something, or at least not anything obvious that would ever have occurred to me until I was walking by a parking garage a block from where I work and noticed a bike rack tucked inside, in a corner of the ground floor. I asked the parking attendant about it, and she told me it was free and that yes, there was always an attendant on duty and they can see the bike rack from where they are. The only kinda-bad thing is that this particular garage locks up at 6pm (I work til 5:30, but overtime is not unheard of) and I suspect that particular bike rack was only intended for people who actually work in that building.

Then my coworker Matt mentioned he'd seen a bike rack in the parking garage across the street. So I went and asked and yeah - free, several racks, open til 8pm, and THREE attendants are usually on duty (they do valet parking). So that's where I lock up know, always making sure to say hi to the attendants and thanking them for keeping an eye on my bike. It's so much more reassuring than leaving your bike on a random rack out in the open, a block away all by itself. The only bad thing is that they're those slotted racks like this:
So the best I can do is lock the front wheel to it. But since the attendants are there and I'd think bike thieves would target easier-to-plunder environs, I don't worry so much about it.

So there's my tip: ask around parking garages about potentially free, surveilled bike parking. (With a roof, even!)

Tip 3: Don't stress over clothes
This seems to be the first question most people ask when they learn I bike to work. "What do you wear?" they ask me, as though I should be wearing anything other than what's on my back. Honestly, if I said that I got to work via skydive, or teleportation, I wouldn't get this question, but somehow bicycling is some magical form of transportation that requires extra special clothes, according to most people.

Yes, I sweat. But honestly, if I do anything more strenuous than sit on my couch, I sweat anyway. Aside from cycling in Extreme Heat, I've never sweated on a bike commute the way I've sweated during workouts, because - and here's the key - commuting is not working out. Or at least it doesn't have to be. Here's an analogy: walking for 30 minutes is not the same as running for 30 minutes, even if both are good exercise and both use your feet, you know?

Anyway, I feel like people think they need some special clothes, or some kind of Clothing Master Plan if they want to bike to work. Instead, you'll see every kind of outfit on a bike in this town, from full-on spandex to stretchy pencil skirts to jeans and t-shirts and sundresses and bathing suits and mukluks. If you're worried you'll sweat-soak your favorite blouse, then don't wear it - bring the blouse with you and wear something more casual and comfy, same as you'd do if you didn't want to walk from the train in high heels. Ladies can invest in a pair of bike shorts to put under a skirt/dress. Suit jackets can be folded and rolled and strapped to the back rack or tossed in the basket. Really, people, it's not rocket science.

Most importantly - at least I think it's terribly important, stuck as we seem to be in the false dichotomy of Athletic Cycling vs. Cycle Chic, is this: You don't have to look cute and picturesque, like some sort of fashion plate. You don't have to looks sleek and sporty like that classic image of Cyclist we all have stuck in our heads. You don't have to look like anything at all, you just need something that doesn't unduly restrict your legs. That's it. People really need to stop overthinking this.

Tip 4: Pedestrians Win. ALWAYS.

These are people. Not obstructions. Not speed bumps. PEOPLE.
You're supposed to stop at stop signs and stop lights - why? Because there is cross traffic, yes. But also there are human beings walking across the street. That crosswalk is theirs and they deserve to walk or run through it without you bending the rules so you can zip on through. Even when they don't have the WALK signal and they are jaywalking or whatever else, you STOP for them, okay?

Why? Because you just do, you big jerk, THAT'S why. You are a wheeled vehicle. Pedestrians have the right of way. Even when they're wrong, you try not to hit them. No matter how much smaller you are than a car and no matter the narrow little nooks and crannies you can zoom in out around through, you don't do it when there is a pedestrian there. Aside from being very dangerous, it's just rude.

This goes for the bike paths too, believe it or not. I know it's awesome to have these nice little places without cars where you don't have to worry about getting knocked down or mowed over or just buzzed a little too close for comfort. People who are walking on those paths want the exact same freedom as you do. So if the couple in front of you is blocking the path and walk soooooo slow, what do you do? Do you shout ON YOUR LEFT from several yards back and then maniacally plow through the 16 spare inches that have opened up (all the while cursing them for being in your way) so you can maintain your speed? No, you don't do that, because you're not a complete asshole. Instead, you slow down a bit, maybe ring your bell if you have one, and ask them if they don't mind letting you pass. Here is a direct quote, from me, of how you say it: "Excuse me, do you mind if I can just get by on your left please? Sorry, and thanks so much." They inevitably look back at you and that's your chance to flash them a friendly smile. They smile back, move aside, and you move gently on your way. This scenario happens to me 2-5 times every commute (I go through Lincoln Park) and it works out quite well for all involved.

Because I am never in so much of a hurry that I can't be a decent human being, that's why. If you think this kind of exchange takes too long, then leave 5 minutes earlier. Call these 5 minutes your Anti-Asshole Buffer Zone and feel free to tell everyone that you make a point to devote at least 5 minutes a day to being a better person. For God and country, y'all.

There will always be some times (they could even happen every day in some spots!) where it's not just a couple of people blocking your way. Maybe it's a swarm of kids heading into the museum. Maybe it's throngs of people heading to/from the beach. Maybe it's masses of joggers who are training together on your bit of path. So what do you do then? Well they're not going to part like the red sea. Here's my radical suggestion: get off the damn bike and walk it past the crowd. Sure, you could slow to a just barely-balanced speed and weave through. But that's rather assholish and it's not like you'll be going any faster than walking, anyway.

Tip 5: It Gets Less Scary
It is scary, to be on the road with cars and pedestrians and delivery trucks and there are traffic rules and what if the stuff you put on your back rack is falling off and oh god a lane closure ahead, etc etc etc. But you really do get used to it, so you should at least give it a try. If you find yourself wishing you could bike to work, or over to that one shopping center, or across town to that one pretty river path, or whatever - if you keep wishing you could, then you really should try it. Maybe not the whole ride and maybe not alone. But try it.

Stick with it a little while and suddenly you're not scared because it's not all new and different. You'll get used to it and you'll get comfortable. (and then you'll be in danger of riding like a jerk, what an evolution!) But it will never get less scary if you don't even try. Just pick out a street that makes you nervous and go one block on it. After a few times, you'll go a few more blocks. Maybe you'll like it, maybe you won't, and maybe it will always be too stressful to enjoy that particular stretch of road - but you'll find a way to not be scared, if you just go looking for it.

There, those are my long-winded tips. Now if only I could employ them myself soon, instead of riding the train and allowing poor Olivia to languish away in the basement, poor girl. The heat wave will allegedly end tomorrow, so fingers crossed that I can get back to my own commute.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Headsets and Heat

Oh for godsakes. The humidity is at 85% and as fully determined as I was to ride to work today (I'll bring ice water! I thought. I'll stop for a slurpee! I'll say many prayers!), there's just no way that it could possibly be a good idea. I have to veto my own decision to ride today. Turns out I've developed a good inner mom voice, which pipes up when my everyday risk-taker self gets all stubborn. It's obviously the endurance training that has brought out this self-caretaker side of me, since I learned that you really can't mess around with some things, heat exhaustion being at the top of the list.

This is a smart decision and I know it. But still. Arrrrrrrrrrrrgh. It figures that as soon as I buy a bike I love and just want to ride all the time, we get a nearly 3-week heat wave that leaves me faint and gasping if I'm out in it more than 10 minutes. And it's not supposed to let up til AFTER this coming weekend. It's just so damn unfair, I could cry. Or at least pout extensively.

At least last night I got some bike-time in the form of my class. Instead of bottom brackets, we broke from the calendar and did headsets.

So look, here's the bike I am working on:

My project bike. Blurry enough for you?
In case you don't know bikes - or, like me, have had only the vaguest notion of exactly what a headset is - let me explain a little. The handlebars (horizontal bar with grips) are set in the stem (vertical silver bit just under the handlebars), and the stem runs down the head tube (short bit of tube largely hidden by the tag there) - well really there's another tube hidden in there called the steering tube, which leads to/is part of the fork (the part in front that looks like a fork and goes down to the wheel, see?) and this obviously all gets very confusing. Anyway, the headset is all the little bits that keep the stem connected to the fork, inside the head tube. Basically.

Last night, I learned how to take a stem out of the head tube. There are two different types of stems, threadless and quill. (Personal opinion: threadless stems are easier and just a smarter, cleaner design. But quill stems are far, far more attractive.) My bike has a quill stem, and look - ta-da!

Here's how it looks with all the bits of the headset removed. To get to this point, I got to smack the stem with a hammer and use a big-ass wrench to take off this rather hug nut and then there were washers and spacers and ball bearings to remove.  Then I cleaned them all off and greased them up and put them back together, hurrah!

I'd say the most important things I learned here were:
1. Never fail to grease everything. There was virtually no grease anywhere in this headset, except for some very old grease, dried to a sticky film, on the ball bearings. Where metal meets metal, Grease Is Good. So it was a good feeling to smear grease all over in there.
2. Have a system to keep all the bits in order as you take them off, because you have to put them on again. In order. It becomes a rather stressful puzzle to put together when you have no idea where everything goes.

Apparently a loose headset is a very common thing, so check yours. Or have it checked, because I can't describe how to tell when it's loose. (It's basically: hold on to the top tube close to the head tube, other hand on the stem, jiggle in a pull-apart/push-together motion, and see if you can feel anything. See? Rather a useless description.) Having a loose headset is really Not Good, so I'm all proud of myself that I learned how to inspect it, clean it, tighten it. Also I liked it because there were no special tools involved. I like things that I can theoretically do with the tools I already own.

And now back to eating lemon ice, riding the train, missing Olivia, and generally resenting meteorology. Nice life I've got going here.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Girl Grease-Monkey

This is me, cleaning off an extremely rusty, grimy pedal. 

So bike building class began last night, and in addition to learning some basics like how to use a bike stand, I also took the chain and pedals off of my project bike. The bike is crusted in many places with rust and ancient road salt residue, and it weighs a ton, and it doesn't look like much but I love it. Why? Because it needs me to get it all clean and oiled and working smoothly. And because it's just a humble little thing, some Sears-Roebuck Generic Ladies Bike that's probably as old as I am, and looks like half the commuter bikes I see being ridden every day on the streets of Chicago. If there's a general aesthetic to the bikes ridden in this city, I'd say it's pre-1980, solid, tank-like steel bikes, with spots of rust everywhere and mechanical memories of dozens of hard winters. Probably 75% of which are Schwinn. It fits here, that kind of bike. The look of them fits the look and the attitude of this city precisely. Not that there aren't other types of bikes around, but the ancient Schwinn is still the norm.

Anyway, this bike I'm fixing up is in that grand tradition, and I'm glad it's mine to fix.

Taking the chain off is tricky (unless the chain has a master link, in which case it pops right off with a quick squeeze of the right tool -  my project bike does not have a master link). You basically use the chain tool to push a pin out of a link, but you don't want to push it all the way out because it can't go back in. So I'd push it out, then wiggle to see if the chain would come off. Push again just a teeeeny bit as I cringe with fear it's too much, then wiggle. Cringe/push, wiggle. Cringe/push, wiggle. Over and over. It was slightly stressful. But I got it off.

Then we had to take the pedals off, and that was my work-out for the evening. This bike has been unused for at least 2 years, and a good chunk of that time it sat outside, soaking in our ever-so-pleasant weather. So it's safe to say that the threads on those pedals hadn't been greased in god knows how long. So I just wrestled with the pedal wrench a while. To get more leverage, I took it off the stand, put it on the floor upside down, and wrestled even more vigorously. At least 10 minutes or more, and neither pedal was budging even when I switched to the Great Big Pedal Wrench (yet more leverage). The girl next to me had the same problem. Then we realized we were pushing the wrong way. Because our bikes were upside down, see, and it's really hard to remember which way is which when your bike is upside down. So. Going in the right direction with the Great Big Pedal Wrench, they came right off. Imagine that.

Let's just call that my upper body workout.

Anyway, I had fun and came away with tremendously greasy hands, so I was pretty satisfied. What's super-cool is that I'm not the only female in the class - it's 5 girls and 4 guys. Makes me happy for the world of bikes, seeing so many of women there with grease on our hands. Girl power! Next week we're supposed to overhaul the bottom brackets, which I find wildly exciting only because I will finally learn exactly what a bottom bracket is, and can stop thinking of it as "everything down there by my feet".

In other bikey news, I went and got Olivia adjusted yesterday - seat raised, handlebars lowered, gears were slipping so a cable adjustment.
Bad news: it fits WAY better, but I still need even more adjusting, argh.
Great news: I get to keep the basket! At least so far, even bringing the handlebars down an inch or more left room for the basket. Yay!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Bad Basket News

Olivia waits patiently for noodles outside Furama
At last, the weather is nice again. So I commuted to work today and found myself getting used to Olivia. It's quite different, but the more I ride the more I'm glad I got her.

I have to say that when cyclists insist on the value of a good fit, they are about 100000% right. Road bike, commuter bike, whether you're on it 30 minutes or 30 miles, the fit makes all the difference. With the Pashley, my seat is just a tad bit too low, which I would never have known if I hadn't been riding a bike with the seat at exactly the right height. I also keep finding my forearms all tensed and aching, because I keep unconsciously pressing down with my hands, as though I just want the grips to be in a different, lower place. This leads me to conclude the handlebars need to come down more than a bit. I can't properly love the ride until it fits me, that's all there is to it.

So I stopped at JC Lind, as it's on the way home and he raised the seat for me - though as it turns out now that I've ridden it some, not enough. (Adjustments are neverending, seriously.) He also said out loud what I'd secretly been suspecting: the basket must go. That great big gorgeous thing must come off. There's a bracket to support the basket and it doesn't move. Nor does the headlight below it. So if the handlebars come down, there's just nowhere for the basket to go. It can't be there anymore. I can still HAVE a basket, but it will have to be the smaller one.

Insert sad face here.

I freaking love that basket, man. But I'll go back to the shop from whence it came and have the adjustments made and the basket downsized. I can only sacrifice so much comfort for style. Actually, I am not a fan of sacrificing any comfort for style, at least on a bike. And I have to say that it may be a good thing, because  the basket seems to bring out the paternalistic in nearly every male with which it crosses paths. Which I find exasperating. (Actually, now I think of it, I have encountered more paternalistic bullshit since I started down the bicycling path 7 months ago than I've experienced in the entire decade previous. What is it about females on bikes that brings this out in guys? Ugh.) It reminds me of when I worked in a bookstore with a  cafe: when I worked the bookstore side, normal interactions. The second I stepped behind the cafe counter, though, it was as though my IQ had dropped to single digits. This is the biking equivalent: put a basket on a bike and suddenly it gets all pre-suffragette out there. Anyway, maybe if it's smaller, or gone entirely, I won't get the daily reminders of how smart and strong men are and how much I need them, etc.

In sporty cycling/bike-building news, I am borrowing a friend's old and rather dilapidated bike to take to class with me on Sunday. It will be my project bike, to take apart and put back together but better than before. As for my road bike, I've decided to take the class first and then build my own bike after I've learned everything I can. My head was just spinning with all the unprocessed info, and there were too many decisions every day for me to feel confident in making them all. I really just need to take it all in more slowly instead of plunging in so impulsively. It was a classic set up for regret, so I just decided to slow it down. It's a relief, though it means it'll be a while til I have a road bike to get on.

But that's okay. I have enough bike to keep me occupied for now. :-)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Knowing My Limits (& Introducing Olivia)


Here is a view of my city this morning, taken from the 66th floor of the Sears Tower. It looks rather harmless, no? Well, let me tell you: it has been nothing like harmless lately.

See, yesterday and today (and tomorrow, they say) it's been 95 degrees with loads of humidity. And that is  Very Very Hot. Now add to that the winds we've been having, which are clocking in at 25 mph. I rode to work yesterday and the morning was hot, but totally doable despite the hell-wind. But then the ride home - oh, the ride home. It was hotter, naturally. And the wind was not some nice steady strong gust from the south to push me home, as I'd thought it would be. Instead, it gusted from all directions and I had to battle against it the entire way. It was exhausting, and god only knows what my body's core temp was by the end of it all. I swear I could feel organs boiling. 

What I learned from this episode is that perhaps I can handle 90+ weather, and perhaps I can handle 25mph winds - but I definitely can't handle both at the same time for 8+ miles. When I got home, I really worried for a second that I would pass out. (I'm telling you, my body cannot handle heat. I am genetically geared for temps in the 60s, okay?) I hydrated like mad, but nothing could stop how nauseous I was, or the headache that had settled in. I could tell my body wanted some kind of nutrition (I left work hungry, stupid me) but the whole concept of food was just way beyond me at that point. Honestly, I felt far far worse than I did after riding 55 mountainous miles. 

So that's my decision: no more bike commute if it's 90 degrees or above. If my commute were only a few miles, that would be a silly restriction. But it's not that short and it typically takes me at least 45 minutes, which is just too long for a bod as heat-averse as my own to be pedaling away. 

This is ESPECIALLY SUCKY because on Sunday I went and bought my longed-for Pashley Princess Sovereign and I just want to ride her, dammit! I brought her home from the far-flung neighborhood on my car, because I had a friend with me and no helmet. The poor dear suffered the indignity with grace.

I named her Olivia. Which is an awesome bike name, you must admit.

I actually hesitated buying after a good long test ride, because she just felt so slow. But I figured - hey, commute with it once and see what you think. So I did, and it still felt so so slow. But I looked at my watch and realized that it was the same amount of time it would've taken me to do the trip on Pepe. So it feels slower, but it's going the same speed. I think this perception of slowness has to do with how incredibly comfortable and smooth the ride is. It's like when you're used to driving a little old-ish crappy car (note the picture: I know whereof I speak) and then one day you borrow/rent some high-end car that still smells new. There's less noise, and you're more relaxed as you sink into the plush seat, and your hands don't grip the steering wheel, and all that kind of thing - and before you know it, you're like "Oops, hey whoa, I'm going 95 mph, how'd that happen?!" 

Not that Olivia is going to surprise me by going super fast anytime soon, I just mean that how it feels can be deceptive. With Pepe, I always feel like I'm working very hard, leaned forward and going as fast as is possible for me to go. But the Pashley makes me sit up in quite a decorous way as I glide along, like some kind of stately oceanliner. And somehow I wind up with the same speed with far less than half the effort. 

I will say that so far - with nothing but one (rather awful, thanks to the weather) commute and a quick trip to the store to go on - I can already say definitively that she's more bother than a lesser bike would be. Heavy to carry up the stairs, harder to maneuver in and out of the tight spaces in my basement, and I fuss over how safe she is at any given time. But by god is she ever beautiful enough to make up for it, both in looks and in how luxurious it feels to ride. 

Even a trip to Target for paper towels is a thrilling little event. She really knows how to class up a joint.

According to the forecast, I will hopefully be able to take her for a spin again before the week ends, Fingers crossed!

(And PS: my bike building class starts this weekend. Fun!)

Friday, June 15, 2012

What's Next

I had intended this blog to chronicle my training. And, if you hadn't noticed, my training is over. For now, anyway. But I think I'll keep updating here every once in a while, in case you're interested in what's happening in my Bike Life. Because of course I have all kinds of plans whizzing about in my head.

Here are my bike plans for the future, if you want to know:

1. This weekend, I'm going to go test ride my long lusted-for Pashley Princess Sovereign. I will probably just go ahead and buy it because I am so in love with it and so ready for a right-for-me commuter bike. I did already test-ride the Britannia model, which is basically the same (just the accessories are different, really), so I know I love how it rides. So hopefully, by Monday, I will have this gorgeous thing taking me to work and back every day:

I'm sure I won't be able to resist talking about it and posting pictures and such-like. Plus, I want to winter commute - and I'm sure that will be quite an experience.

2. I will sell the newly repaired Pepe. He's got a nice sturdy new back wheel - I can feel the difference in the ride, isn't that something? I think since he's still so young and I've made some nice improvements to him, that I'll get a good price. And I do think he'd be the perfect commuter for someone. Just not me. As I've never sold anything on Craigslist before, I'll probably talk about what that's like.

3.  I will SAG for the team the rest of this season - not every Saturday, but four or five of them. Plus, I volunteered to SAG at the local ride (Blood Sweat and Tears), so I'll get to know what it's like to be Support instead of Cyclist.

4. This is kind of a big one, and my current obsession: I will build a bike. Including the wheels. There's a shop on the west side that teaches classes and I really, really want to learn how. No idea if I'll love it or hate it, but I want to learn all about components and how a bike actually functions and how to diagnose and fix problems, and this is the most appealing way to learn it, to me. Plus, building a wheel just sounds so cool. The bike I'll build up will be my road bike. I'd just rather build it than buy it complete. So I am sure I'll be all boring about bike mechanics as I go through this. But if it's the kind of thing that interests you, you can come read about it here and maybe learn a bit along with me.

5. Once I have the road bike - which should hopefully be a couple of months - I'll practice riding it on weekends, before the weather turns bad. I want to get used to it. I've never, ever ridden a road bike before, so I'd rather get the hang of it now and then when the spring season starts again, I have a fighting chance to be somewhat decent at it. 

So that's what's next for me. I don't think I'll update as much as I did during training, but I won't completely abandon this blog - and next year, when I try for 100 miles again, it'll be just a continuation of the story. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Not Done Yet

I still pretty much hate cycling as a sport. That hasn't changed. (And to be fair, I generally hate all sports. I am not a sports person. The whole idea of working so hard and constantly challenging yourself physically - just doesn't appeal. Life is short, and I prefer to chill the hell out.) But it's pretty obvious to me that I am not done yet.

I still haven't gone 100 miles. Not even close. It's just how I'm built - I can't be done until I do what I wanted to do.

And it's barely been a week, but I already miss my team. On top of that, my body has learned how to ride 50+ miles without it hurting. It feels fine to be on a bike for hours, and I worked hard and persevered for quite some time to get to that point. It seems stupid to just walk away, when I have this good foundation.

Thinking about it (and believe me, I have had so much time to think about it), I know that I'd like riding a lot more if I weren't so slow. Not because I'd like to be speedy. In fact, I am slightly nervous about going very fast and I enjoy a ride more when I can just mosey along, smell the proverbial roses, etc. But the problem is that when you've been riding for hours and you still have hours to go? That turns an enjoyable ride into a chore. I wager I'd like the whole effort more if, after I've been ready to call it quits for ages, there are only 10 or 15 miles to go instead of 30. It makes a big difference. I would never quit if there were only 10 miles left, no matter how long the ride. But if I've been riding for 5 hours and there are still 40 miles left? I don't mind telling you that to keep going requires vast amounts of guts, grit, and determination. Not that I mind busting out my considerable guts, grit, and determination every once in a while, but having to do it every week is a bit much.

This morning, I picked up Pepe (whose wheel is just SO crooked, poor guy), dropped him off to get a new wheel put on, and then I went to see a girl about a very pretty bike. Then I went to two more shops. Looking for a road bike.

Yes, a road bike. Yes, me. For real. Because road bikes are built for speed, so it should help me go faster. I am less of a beginner now, and ready to try it, though I admit I am wildly nervous.

So there you have it: I'm done with training for now, but not with riding. My plan is to sell Pepe, buy a used road bike (in addition to a new commuter bike, and yes that is two bikes, holy cow look how far I have come), and spend the rest of the summer getting used to it. Then next year, we'll see if I improve, and how much. I think I just need more training time and a faster bike, and I can do it. I don't know that I'll do Tahoe again - that will depend on my skill level. But I'll get to 100 miles somewhere, somehow.

Meanwhile, tomorrow I am volunteering at the North Shore half marathon. My coworker, friend, and (most importantly) TNT teammate Elspeth is running and I can't wait to cheer her on. Poor runners, they tend to have very individual journeys that aren't as shared as ours. I mean, the running team doesn't seem to have the same family feel as ours, not a metric tonnage of bonding going on over there, from what I can tell. So all season, Elspeth and I have shared training stories, checked in on each other after long training days, explored the world of endurance nutrition and hydration, compared gear, and all that kind of thing together. Different sports, but a shared experience. So I'm her teammate, and I'm in it with her until she crosses the finish line.

Plus I've volunteered to SAG for the cycling team for several of the remaining rides. So I really am far from being done here.

Man. I really had no idea, when I signed up all those months ago. The sign-up sheet should come with a disclaimer, like Warning: you may wind up wanting to devote a significant chunk of your life/heart/self to this whole thing.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What Tahoe Was Like

First, it was a gorgeous, gorgeous day. Brilliant blue skies and bright sun. No need at all for extra layers or gloves or my bad ass legwarmers. The sun got pretty hot later in the afternoon, but it was basically everything you could have wanted out of a summer day.

We started our ride crowded together at the start, waiting for our designated time (6:10), and I did some nervous weeping. Coach Anne says it's good to be nervous - it shows you care - and I decided I just needed to let all the nervousness out and get it over with. Then we shouted our team cheer, got on our bikes, and headed out. It's reallllllly crowded at the start, as you have like 100+ riders taking off at once. I was immediately separated from my team, which I expected.

The Switchbacks
The first ten miles are relatively flat. You go through town a bit and then it's just like campgrounds: tall pines and quiet roads. It smells like heaven. It's worth going there for the smell alone.

There were lots of other cyclists still, from all over the place, though it wasn't terribly crowded. I began to notice rather early on what some alumni had mentioned: that other teams are not as conscious of safety as we are. Some jerk from California brushed by me going twice as fast as me, and I nearly ran off the road - he never said a word. People passed on my right (a big no-no, but if you have to do it for some reason, give some damn warning) and swerved around debris that they never bothered to communicate to me. On our team, we always call out everything - cars, rough pavement, passing on the left, crap in the road ahead, everything. I'm actually not even very good at that, compared to the rest of my team, but I'm stellar compared to half the people on the road at Tahoe. Anyway, I passed my first accident before we even got to the switchbacks. A girl had fallen, and her team was with her. Later, someone told me she'd been taken away in an ambulance.

There's this long slog of a steep climb. I tried not to get impatient, but it did seem to be taking a LONG time to get to the hairpin turns. I mean, that's what makes it a switchback, yeah? So here I am, in my granny gear,  doing my typical super-slow but steady pedaling on this steep incline, wondering when the hell the turns were coming up, because I know it's supposed to get worse than this and ye gods but this is bad enough.

Then, I saw the turn. And I turned. I saw. I whimpered. Because it only gets steeper. Here's an aerial view I found, and if it looks like there's a part of the road that's going down the mountainside instead of up, allow me to assure you that it's some trick of the angle or something. The road went nothing but up. And up and up and up.

When you get to the turns and look up, you can see the riders ahead, like a line of ants marching. Plenty of people passed me, but absolutely no one was going fast. They're just so steep. And it was crowded.

Many people got off and walked it early on. Once you stop, it's next to impossible to get started again on anything that steep, especially when it's so crowded. About halfway up the steepest part, I pulled over (it was almost flat for about 50 feet of road, so exciting!) and caught my breath. Then I got back on because, dammit, I Am Beth Hear Me Roar. Screw you, switchbacks, you will not win! I made it around another turn, then kept the torture up until just before the next (and last) turn. One more turn and one last steep stretch and I'd be done. But I could tell I just didn't have much more in me and there was no flat-ish spot to pull over and gather my strength again. Then this guy in front of me just fell. Not a violent fall - he was going too slowly for that (we all were). Just a very slow, gradual surrender to gravity.

I couldn't move out of his way fast enough - I couldn't do anything fast, besides breathing fast - and I was about an inch away from being unable to go on at that point, so I just let it go. Got off the bike, walked the last bit. You can only fight the good fight for so long, especially when there's a cyclist on the ground a foot in front of your wheel. There's a photographer at the top of the switchbacks and I hopped on my bike and posed for the camera, then pedaled on. So I did my best til I couldn't do any more, but I couldn't do all the switchbacks. I was glad that I did manage to do about 2/3rds or more of them, though. Yay me.

After that was a rest stop, where I saw Coach Anne and my teammate Emmelin - probably some other teammates were there but I didn't stop, just shouted hi to them as I rode on. Coach Tom had warned that you don't want to stop at that first rest stop, because there's a hill just after it. Never give up momentum before a hill. So I just kept pedaling.

There's a steep and glorious descent from the switchbacks, which I had been intending to fully enjoy until the night before the ride. My roommate Alane had done like 10 Tahoe rides, and she told me about the year the guy just ahead of her hit the guardrail on the descent from the switchbacks at 40 mph and died. Yeah, DIED. That was my bedtime story the night before the ride. Nice. So my brakes and I had a little bonding session along that stretch of road, instead of me flying down shouting "Wheeeeeee!" as originally planned. I did get fast enough to build up quite the wind chill, though - my teeth were chattering, even. And my lips are still windburnt from it.

Then began what I like to refer to as The Stuff No One Talks About part of the ride. Because all that stuff between the switchbacks and the hellacious climb up Spooner, like 65 miles of stuff? IT'S REALLY REALLY HARD OH MY GOD. There was at least one other hill I had to walk up, though I don't know where/which - somewhere between the switchbacks and the rest stop at mile 25. It's the length of the inclines that are so brutal - every hill just goes on and on. There's nothing like that here, to train on. It's just harder. And I kept running out of breath much sooner than I am used to, which must have been the altitude. I just ran out of steam so fast, every time I had to put in some real effort.

But eventually I made it to Mile 25 rest stop (more like 27, according to someone with an odometer I talked to) and filled up my camelbak and my water bottle, used the bathroom, ate some fruit, and hoarded some granola bars. Then I texted Coach Anne before heading back out. She had asked me to text her at every stop along the way so she knew where I was. She planned to meet me at King's Beach, where the lunch stop is, and ride the last 30 miles with me to the finish line.

Truckee Trip
This was my favorite AND most hated portion of the ride.

A few miles after the rest stop, there was a sign pointing to the turn-off for the 100 mile option. I didn't know  it would take me to the bike path instead of the road, but I'm so glad it did. Very few people took the path - most opted for the road instead - so it was a quiet bit of heaven.

It was like this for miles. I loved it. How could I not? Rushing water and trout jumping and shady pines. It was so great, I want to go back and camp there. If only it had stayed so pleasant.

(A side note: My coaches said they were so so proud of me, for taking the 100-mile option instead of just continuing on the shorter path around the lake. But they know me well enough not to be surprised that I did. I mean, like there was any chance I would willingly take the shorter route? Dude. Go big or go home.)

Sadly, the pretty bike path ended after I don't know, like 5 miles? Then you're dumped onto what is basically a wide-shouldered highway which you follow all the way out to the rest stop at Truckee, where you turn around and come back along the same route. It's not picturesque, and cars and trucks zoom by. Not long after I got on there, I saw Coach Anne and Emmelin again, on their way back from the Truckee stop. They shouted words of encouragement at me, and a couple of miles later I saw more teammates coming back from Truckee, the Bufalinos. I thought Truckee would be only a few miles, but after a while I started to wonder. It wasn't long until it was just me on my side of the road, but there was still a steady stream of riders on the opposite side, coming back from the rest stop. In the last 1.5 miles or so before the rest stop, I really began to panic, because no more riders were coming from that way. I would have cut it short and turned back, except I really needed to refill the water.

I did finally get there. Thank god. It felt like forever. But after reapplying sunscreen, eating some salty boiled potatoes (which are nowhere near as tasty as the alumni led me to believe) and visiting the portapotty, I had to go back.

And this is where it was awful. Soul-crushing. The depression began when I realized I was the last person out of Truckee. As in: the last person, out of like 3,000+ riders. LAST.

I TOLD you I am the slowest. Of everyone. Ever. All-time slowest. Proven.

I started down that terrible highway all alone. I just kept telling myself to suck it up and eventually I'd reach that pretty pretty river path again. But it was ages of incline - not terribly steep, but just enough to make you dislike the road. Cars and trucks whizzed by, kicking up the dust and gravel. I'd forgotten my sunglasses, so I just squinted against it and thanked God for my freakishly long eyelashes. And then the wind began in earnest.

I'll admit it: it broke me. I soldiered on for a while, singing Tom Petty at the top of my lungs for a bit (why not? there was no one to hear) and pep-talking myself. But once the wind came, all I could do was feel sorry for myself. I got off the bike for a bit, because I just didn't care anymore about making it up a stupid little hill that just made me want to die, and I texted my despair to Coach Carrie (we texted all day, she couldn't come to Tahoe but she's my morale-booster-in-a-pocket) as I wept on the side of the road.

It was about 5 miles out of Truckee, I think, and I had just been standing there, texting Carrie or drinking water or something, and I heard a twang-like popping sound come from the rear of my bike. But then a support van was there asking if I wanted help. They were the last support van out there, they said. No riders behind me. I wiped the tears away and asked if they could just take me back to the bike path. Sure, they said - it's just a few miles up the road. So they loaded my bike in the van and off we went.

My rear wheel was next to me, and I thought I heard another little pop, and I remembered the broken spoke from the day before. So I checked and found two loose spokes. I know you can ride with one broken spoke for a while without danger, but I was pretty sure you shouldn't ride with 2 broken spokes. The support van were more food-n-water people, rather than bike mechanics people, and they didn't know either. So we decided to take me to King's Beach, which was the next rest stop and where the nearest bike mechanic could be found. Once that decision was made, I got out my phone to text Coach Anne and let her know what was going on.

The Best Coach Ever

I found a text from Coach Anne, which she'd sent just as I was getting into the support van: she was at King's Beach and was riding out to meet me. Doubling back, adding another 20 or more miles to her ride, because she didn't want me to ride alone anymore. If my bike had been working and I had still been crying like a baby at the side of the road, it's the only thing that would've put heart in me and saved me and got me back to fighting strength. It was being alone on that miserable stretch that was making me so despondent. And Angel Anne was coming for me.

I just love her, is all. She's so great.

End Game

I sent her a message saying I was being sagged to King's Beach, don't ride all the way out here. Need mechanic, have broken spokes, I said. Sorry! She told me not to be sorry. But I always feel like a failure when I can't keep going, no matter the reason.

King's Beach is beautiful. But I don't know if I can ever enjoy it, since its the place where I began to fear my bike for the first time. I can't disassociate the place from the feeling of suspecting my bike might actually hurt me. I mean I'm sure it's a great spot to have a cook-out and a splash in the water and all, but it will always be a place of heartbreak for me. Kind of like getting dumped at the Eiffel Tower, or something, you know?

One of the Bufalino girls, Christina, had to bow out after the switchbacks because her lungs were burning so badly. So she and her non-cycling family were driving along the route to cheer on the remaining Bufalino cyclists and planning to drop Christina a couple of miles from the finish line, to ride across it with her sister and father. Very kindly and generously, they loaded up my bike and myself too. And that's how I spent the rest of the day: cheering along the side of the road with them, then riding the last 2 miles across the finish line with my team.

I got to see the rest of the course from the car, except the bit that goes into Incline Village. Too bad - apparently the residents there come out every year, sit at each stop sign, and tell the cyclists to come to a complete stop. If you don't, they take down your bib number, give it to the police, and you get a citation. For real. I'd been looking forward to cheerfully saying "Oh do get a life, won't you?" at each stop sign in that town. Alas. From the car, the climb up Spooner looked hellish. I doubt I could've done more than the first few miles of it. And the descent looked just awesome. God, I wanted that descent.


Anne tells me that as soon as you're too scared of your bike, the ride is over. You can't ride like that, she says. And Gary - a teammate, incredibly inspiring survivor, all-around great guy and soon to be TNT coach - said that if my wheel had failed on that descent, it would be the kind of thing that would make me never get on a bike again. I know that both of them are right, absolutely.

But. Coach Tom had two spokes break on the ride as well. And he kept going. He's a veteran of this ride, and a far stronger rider and more skilled cyclist than I am. And his wheel is undoubtedly of a much higher quality than mine, and stronger. But still. It's in my head now, that maybe I could have done it. And maybe I should have.

But I didn't, and that's that. As I said, I could tell that I couldn't have done all 100 miles in the allotted time anyway. So no matter what, I would have failed by my own calculations.

The whole time I was riding, I swore to myself that this was the stupidest thing I've ever tried to do, Whose bright idea was it to ride a bike here? Dumb dumb dumb, and I for one had seen the error of my ways.

Anne said she expects me back in Tahoe next year. I told her she's crazy. She said Tahoe owes me. It can keep owing me, I said, no biggie. You're not done with this place, she said. We'll see, I said to placate her.

I don't know. I really don't. Except one thing I have learned: Coach Anne is always right.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Only Half-Awesome

I do not have pictures to share, as my camera died on Saturday and my phone only had enough memory for a few scenic views. Anyway, I should keep this short and sweet. I'm awake too early in my hotel room, and I'd rather go back to the bed and bury my head under the pillow again.

I didn't do 100 miles. I did something like 55. As you can imagine, I reek of disappointment. The stench of it is probably seeping through your computer screen.

The ride was very, very hard, and about midway through, I broke a spoke. Actually, two spokes. So I had to be driven the 15 or so miles to the next rest stop where there was a mechanic. He didn't have extra spokes, so he rearranged the existing to better distribute the weight/bear the load, and thought it would be fine for the remaining 30 miles. But then he got a good look at the wheel and said that actually, the wheel was much weaker than he thought and had been bent (twice, because remember it was bent in shipping). After I pressed him (I could see how reluctant he was to say it was totally safe or not), he told me that if another spoke went, it would happen on the upcoming 8-mile steep descent from Spooner Junction, and the wheel would bend and I would hear/feel it hit against the frame, and that would be the end of that. Not catastrophic failure, but failure - and he couldn't say the likelihood of it actually happening. Except I could see in his face that he fully expected it to happen on that descent. 

That descent was all I'd been thinking of for hours. Because as you know, I just love downhills. But it's a busy road with cars whizzing past. And I'd have cyclists in front of me and back of me and probably passing me. And if my wheel gave out going that fast with cars and cyclists zooming down the hill all around me? It wasn't so much the idea that I might get hurt as it was the idea that I could get hurt AND cause a horrible pile up, hurting lots of other people. Coach Anne was with me and gave me the choice of going on or stopping. Since there was a part of me that was not enjoying this ride (which I'll tell you more about the actual ride later, hopefully after I'm a bit less emotional) and I wondered if I was just looking for an excuse to quit, I did a quick mental check: Coach Anne would be with me, so I wouldn't have to worry about the lonely despair I'd been suffering in the 10 or so miles before the spokes broke. My legs felt absolutely fine and I knew I could ride for hours more. 

So maybe I wasn't thrilled about going on, but I could. So, I thought - shouldn't I? And then I imagined getting on the bike, sitting on that back wheel, and going down an 8-mile, 700-foot descent on a non-deserted road. And I realized for the first time ever, I was afraid of actually riding my bike. I've been afraid before, but not of my bike. In my gut, it just felt like a bad thing to get on that bike. So I didn't.

And I cried a lot and felt like shit (and I shouldn't really be using the past tense for those activities), but really I am sure it was the right decision. It just sucks that it wasn't my own failing that stopped me. My legs didn't cramp, no horrid aches in my thighs, no full-body exhaustion. I could have kept going. Except I couldn't. 

I suppose the very bright side of this is that I did 55 miles and still felt fresh as a daisy. And really, I can see now that there's no way I would have been able to finish this course in the time allotted. Really, I'm just not a strong enough, fast enough rider. But I had wanted to keep going until I couldn't go anymore. 

And the other bright side is that with one other exception, my whole team finished the ride. I got back on the bike 2 miles from the finish line and got to ride in with lots of teammates, a few of whom had never done a century ride before. So it was quite a triumphant moment for them and I was glad to be able to cheer them on in real time. 

Anyway, that's my tale. I still haven't gone 100 miles, which means I have to still keep trying. I did have ice cream, though. I only ate half.