Monday, January 30, 2012

I Guess This Is What You Call "Full Swing"

According to an email I got this morning, training starts on Wednesday. Since I hadn't seen a real training schedule and had only been told that it would start in February, I had just kind of decided somewhere in the back of my head that it would get going in mid-February. But no - Feb. 1 it is!

I am trying to regain some of my earlier enthusiasm, which I admit has flagged lately. I was all ready to dive in right after the holidays, and then again right after the kick-off meeting, and then... I just sat around and waited to hear anything definite. Winter has a dampening effect on my spirits anyway, so it's even easier for my energy to peter out if it's not fed at frequent intervals, you see. I kind of wish it were starting in a week from now, to give me sufficient time to get amped up about it - I'm kind of taken unawares by this whole day-after-tomorrow announcement - but time and tide waits for blah blah blah et cetera.

Speaking of which, we have our first group fundraising event at work on Friday. Everyone gets to wear jeans and pays $5 for the privilege, and we added a fun twist - if they give more than $5, they get a treat. I have volunteered myself to make mini-cupcakes and some brownies, which means this week now looks like this:

   Wednesday - first team training, spin class
   Thursday - bake!
   Friday - fund-raise !
   Saturday - team training, out in some far-flung suburb

Aaaaand... we're off and running cycling!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Bike Book Review

I did take pictures of my bike, as promised, but they turned out horribly. It was such crappy weather last weekend that I couldn't get out on the bike, and pictures in a basement storage room make for quite an inferior end product. So the next sunny-not-freezing day (which will hopefully be Saturday, if the weatherpeoples are right for once), I will take the bike out into a more flattering mise en scène and try again, then tell you all about it.

In the meantime, I have been huddled at home, wishing for more bike-friendly weather and reading up on bike maintenance. Or trying to. Which bring me to a wee book review I want to do, so you may want to tune out on this entry unless you are in the market for a book on bicycle maintenance or else just generally a book dork like myself.

The book in question is Bike Repair & Maintenance For Dummies and I consider it pretty much a total waste of money. Um, to be blunt. In fact, I am retroactively embarrassed by how many times I, as a bookstore employee many many many moons ago, frequently recommended the For Dummies series to customers - because what if they were all as unhelpful as this one? I shudder to think of how many innocent ignorants I sent astray.

Here are my major beefs with the book:

Like almost everything I encounter in the bike world, it's just not "dummy" enough. The book starts out saying that the only assumptions from which the authors are working are that the reader has a bike and would like to do some basic repair and maintenance on said bike despite not really knowing all the terms and tools. See, they say that, but really it feels more like they expect you to know or at least catch on to some shorthand pretty fast.

For instance, they (the authors - there are two of em) will refer to bike parts that I swear are never defined. Like this infamous "bottom bracket". I kept seeing them talking about the bottom bracket, and wondered what exactly that meant - the derailleur and the chain and the crank and pedals? Or maybe the bottom part of the frame where all those things are? Or does it refer to a specific set of things down in the general vicinity of the chain? So I flipped to the handy diagrams of bikes at the front of the book. There are two diagrams: one of a road bike and one of a mountain bike. I examined these at length and there is nothing indicated as the bottom bracket. I looked in the index and it said "bottom bracket: (see also crankset)". Oh, I thought - so are they the same thing? Let's turn to page 223 and see.

No, I have to infer that the bottom bracket and the crankset are not exactly the same thing, but the whole section cheerfully goes on to talk about the bottom bracket at length, without ever saying exactly what it is. It's really important, though, the bottom bracket. They manage to get that point across. So gee - thanks.

That's just one example, though admittedly the most frustrating. It was seriously like having a discussion with a gardener who constantly tells you how important photosynthesis is, and describes the pretty green leaves in detail but never freaking DEFINES photosynthesis. I'm just supposed to catch on that sunlight... leafiness... flowers... the end, figure it out yourself. Soooo frustrating.

Also symptomatic of the bike world as I have come to know it: If it's not road bike or mountain bike, it's like it barely exists except on some other planet. A planet where no one repairs their bike, apparently. There were only those two (incomplete, it turns out) bike diagrams, of the road bike and the mountain bike - and that would be fine, after all they can't diagram every kind of bike there is. But it's a consistent blind spot in the book. There's a little section on gears, and single-speed is never mentioned, nor three-speed. It's as though you'll either need 7-8 speeds, or more than that. And handlebars come in two main types: flat mountain bars or road bike drop bars. Never mind that the first bike that most of us ride as kids - and therefore the bikes that most of us "dummies" are sure to be familiar with - are the upright handlebars that are the most common ones around the world and are what a casual rider would likely have.

I mean, my bike has the flat bars, so it's fine for me. But to omit a third extremely common type of handlebars? Come on. It's just one more way that you're either a mountain biker, a road biker, or you're not reading this book. Cargo bikes, utility bikes, city commuter type bikes - those are all "fringe", you see, and only mentioned in passing, as a matter of courtesy. I suppose in a maintenance sense, bike parts are bike parts (seat, pedals, frame, wheels, etc), but it reveals a pervasive bias that conspired to make me feel rather left out unless I am one of those super-athletic cyclists in spandex. And frankly, it's a bias that is everywhere in the (U.S.) bike world and I'm bloody well sick of it.

Some basic stuff is left very vague in the book and you're referred to your local bike shop. Isn't the whole point of wanting to learn basic repair and maintenance that you maybe don't have a bike shop nearby? Or at least that you don't want to pop into the bike shop all the time? For really basic stuff, I'd want this book to replace my need for a local bike shop.

Don't get me wrong - so far, my local bike shop is pretty awesome and I don't want it to be replaced by a book! But one reason I default to thinking of bike repair as a DIY thing is because in the town where I grew up, there was no bike shop. At least not that I ever knew of. The little orange banana-seated wonder from Sears on which I tooled around for a few years in my long-gone youth was serviced entirely by my father and my brothers. They repaired flats and squirted grease in all the right places and adjusted seats and handlebars and put the chain back on when it fell off. I have always considered those to be things that any bike-rider should know how to do without the aid of a local bike shop.

Yet, a section that I eagerly flipped to was on quick-release wheels. My bike has them, front and back, and I figured something so basic and common would be laid out in helpful detail. And it kind of was - at least I understand how to theoretically get the wheel off and then back on. But then they mention a secondary retention system, which you should really learn how to manage if your bike has one (and it likely does, they say). Go to your local bike shop and have them explain it. Really? You can't give me even a sketchy outline? Grr.

A silly quibble, but here it is: this book should be pocket-sized, ideally. There's a whole helpful chapter on how to change a flat tire (at least it looks helpful, but I suppose there's no way to know until you use it when fixing a flat, right?) but when I get a flat tire, I will be out somewhere on the streets and this big bulky book will be gathering dust on a shelf in my home. It'd just be far easier to download videos of basic bike repairs to your phone or your ipod or whatever. I guess I'll probably do that.

So there you go. A really unhelpful book for dummies, I think. It might be a good bet for anyone looking to do some more advanced stuff - they go into how to set up your own bike workshop at home, and things like how to install derailleurs and stuff. So if you're already a bike "geek" (their word, not mine), then this may be a good buy. If that's the case, you can have my copy for the price of postage.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mostly bleh, but one good thing

Look away, I am hideous. Seriously.

My doom and gloom attitude continues (oh leaden January skies, how you suck my will to live) and I really have little to report except how very low my morale is. I mean I've DONE stuff, but... well look, I've:

  1. Done two spin classes this week, and am very much improving even though I still loathe it.
  2. Ordered a pair of so-ugly-they-rival-Crocs cycling sandals (which are on super sale at Sierra Trading Post, btw) which will help with spin class and with summer cycling in general, especially if I get those clip-in pedals everyone keeps telling me are sooooooooo important. But I cannot be happy about ugly shoes, and I deeply resent making a non-thrilling shoe purchase. Because shoes should always be joyful, dammit.
  3. Sent out updates to donors to remind everyone I'm still doing this, and to anyone I know who hasn't donated to remind them I am still fundraising and please donate. This part sucks even more than the ugly sandals thing, because asking people for money is very unpleasant and not very easy. Though it was fun to put the update together. 
  4. Oh! Since last I mentioned, I DID take the bike out (Monday) and practiced starting and stopping and NEWSFLASH: I am no longer thrown into a panic when it's time to apply the brakes. Huzzah! Okay, that's the one genuinely bit of purely happy news.
About starting and stopping: the little demo video from LGRAB was really the trick. Shocking how something so basic can be so hard to intuitively grasp, and how I could WATCH someone start/stop over and over but still not understand it without the verbal breakdown. The fact that you shouldn't be sitting on the saddle was quite a revelation, and the key to my getting anywhere. The other tip I'd throw in, in case you're thinking of getting on a bike and (like me) are pretty clueless, is that you're not going to immediately fall over when the bike stops. Weirdly enough, gravity isn't lying in wait, eager to grab your ankles and drag you down the moment it gets a chance. There's no need to panic, because you get this nice slow couple of seconds where you can lean slightly to one side and put your foot down, and it's all okay. 

Don't do it without watching the demo first, though. That was really the biggest takeaway. I need to practice more, because my starting is still pretty awkward - and I need to turn some corners and such. I'll do it if the temps climb above freezing this weekend. But let's not hold our breath on that. It is January in Chicago, after all. 

Bleh. Stupid winter doldrums. No matter the weather, though, I will take the pictures of the bike (despite the crappiness of my camera) and talk a bit about it, as promised. It's good to have a goal, you understand, because otherwise I'll just stay under the comforter all weekend, dreaming of Tulum.  So even though a bike report is not a beach cabana, it's something to do. 

Now I'll just go to bed dreaming of riding a bike around Tulum.

That should help with morale.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

On A Winter Evening

At this particular moment, it seems impossible - and stupid, and flat-out deluded - to think of tooling around on a bicycle within the next couple of months. My head gets filled with visions of learning so well, and being all geared up and full of enthusiasm that I'd happily jump on the bike in even the awful-but-not-deadly weather we get around here. But then the visions just fly away and it seems as far-fetched as a quick little jaunt to the moon on the back of a unicorn.

Real Winter(tm) has blown in, and hence my mood. This is the view outside my window tonight:

Even when it warms up this weekend (allegedly), there'll be slush everywhere. Plus, it's so cold and the wind just cuts through you, it's so miserable. And it'll probably be like this til about May, so how will I ever get up to speed on a bike? I won't. EVER. IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN DOOM GLOOM BAH HUMBUG. So says the Pessimistic Polly within. I like her far less than Perky Pollyanna. And that's saying something, as I am not a fan of perky, unless you're describing, like, fresh fruit.

Anyway. I just have a long way to go, is all. It really, really doesn't help that I've only managed one workout this week. (My schedule is conspiring against me, and I really need to make it work for me. Freaking time management and unexpected interruptions in the workday, etc.) I compensate for this lack of real work by stuffing my head with book-learning. Aside from books, there is the glorious internet and all its wonderful videos. My friend Megan, Bicycleuse Extraordinaire, referred me to a great Chicago biking blog called Let's Go Ride a Bike, which I adore and is where I found this terrific little video on how to start and stop. Honestly, everyone should be made to watch this kind of demo before ever thinking of getting on the bike:

Here's hoping I can actually get out and practice starting and stopping this weekend. I should AT LEAST try to have that down pat before training begins. All I really need is one little clear patch to practice on. So, fingers crossed.

I plan to take some pics of my bike and tell you a bit about it. It's nowhere near as fun as the bikes at LGRAB (I have an unbearable, desperate, aching longing for the Civia Loring now, on the basis of looks alone), but I think what I have is good for the upcoming job at hand and probably quite good for other types of riders as well. Since the info I found about it online was frustrating to me, I figured I owe it to the internet to put my own thoughts out there. So that'll happen if it's nice enough to haul the ole girl out of the basement this weekend.

In the meantime, I want my flannel sheets, a wee dram of something Scottish, and a few pages to read before I nod off. Maybe it'll improve my current hopeless-flavored thoughts.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Baby Steps

Baby Step #1

Saturday I got to meet my fellow Tahoe-or-Bust cyclists and my coaches. Well, it’s possible there are plenty of other cyclists who will participate but didn’t come Saturday – and let’s just take a moment here to note that we shouldn’t use the term “cyclist” to describe me, since to be an “-ist” of any kind, one needs to have done the relevant activity for more than like 30 minutes in recent memory. In any case, I was the noobiest noobie there. Which is daunting.

But fortunately I have Matt, a great teammate who is super-helpful, and the coaches, who are – how shall I describe the coaches? They are kind of hilarious and awesome and I already love them. They’re not super-young and/or frighteningly athletic, which is kind of how I expected. They’re three middle-aged guys who you most easily imagine throwing you a cold one during a backyard barbecue, not riding 100 miles in the mountains every year for several years. They’ve all obviously known each other a while, or at least long enough for there to be back-n-forth, family-like bickering and good-natured ribbing. Basically I keep thinking of them as my fairy god-uncles. They did a little show-and-tell with a bike and various pieces of equipment, and they’d occasionally wander off into their own bike-speak tangent, debating the various merits and drawbacks of whatever thingamabob at hand, which made me kind of hide my grin as they fussed at each other. It was like watching a couple of foodies in the kitchen discussing the best way to make bulgogi, while a normal person sits back and wonder what the hell bulgogi is, anyway. 

My amusement turned into a bit of an overwhelmed panic which was apparently visible (somewhere around the part when they started talking about learning the gears, I vaguely recall that swimming in my head), and Bill – who I think is the head coach, from my impressions – just kind of broke off and cut across everything with an “Aww, that look on your face, Beth! You’re gonna be okay, we’ll teach you everything, don’t get scared now, we’ll take care of you.” All said in this awesome suburban Chicago dad voice. I could actually feel myself being taken under their wing, you know? They are terrific. We’re gonna have fun, I can already tell it.

So anyway, aside from meeting my fellow Team In Training participants (and the vast majority of them are runners, btw, there's only a handful of us biking types) and learning about how to dress for winter training and all that sort of stuff, I learned that my real training won’t begin until February. We don’t have the schedule yet, but should get that by the end of this week. In the meantime, I’m supposed to keep up with the spin classes and regular workouts and all, no sitting around on the couch eating leftover Christmas candy. I’d given my coworker/teammate (runner) Elspeth a ride, so I stayed a bit later and listened to the runner’s info, which included their training schedule. I thought it might give me an idea of what I’m in for, but mostly it just made me glad I’m not a runner.

Other Baby Step, Ongoing

FYI, speaking of spin class: today’s was MUCH easier, because we had a different instructor. The other instructor is hard-core. This one set a pace I could handle. THANK GOD.

Big Baby Step

Saturday was a nice intro to this whole endeavor. But Sunday was even better, in that respect, because I actually finally rode my bike. And it was fun! Nerve-wracking too. I mean, once I got on and got going, I was like “Whee! Yay lookit me I can do this!”

Which lasted about 12 seconds (I was on a short little deserted pathway) until I realized I had no clue how to stop. My brain was seriously blank, and there was nothing but a few seconds of blind animal panic until my brain stopped frantically scrambling for a solution and it hit me: hands! The brakes are at your hands that’s how you stop!  

This of course was a wonderful moment of relief, for all of about 2 seconds. Because I honesty had no idea what to do when the bike stopped. I felt utterly helpless, because all my brain could come up with was “Motion –> Brake - > Stop –> Fall = BAD.” So I tentatively squeezed one of the handles, hoping to avoid a dramatic immediate stop. Then I was all stumbling-stuttering-tripping stop, but I did it.

It’s really because my seat was too high. I was too much on my tippy-toes, and you’re supposed to be kind of on your toes (so your leg is fully extended while pedaling down) but this was a bit too much. I’ll probably raise it later, but we  went ahead and lowered it for now, until I have some more confidence. Anyway, Laura and I biked up the lakeshore path and turned around after about maybe a half-mile or so. Aside from the importance of the seat height, here is what I learned:
  1. At least I don’t wobble, even at very slow speeds. Which means I’ve got some kind of full-body balance. Go me!
  2. Sadly, have no balance in my actual feet (a fact that my physical therapist has noted and is working with me on) so I find it next to impossible to raise my leg and step through the bike frame. It’s like 18” off the ground, maybe, but I can’t do it without nearly falling over. Laura (rightfully) made fun of me for this. I ignored her and swung my leg over the back, cowboy-style. One battle at a time, people.
  3. The regular bike seat is almost as uncomfortable as the spin bike seat. Hooray. And my hands hurt, so I need to remember to keep my wrists stright, not cocked.
  4. I am wildly awkward/nervous when it comes to getting started, stopping, and turning.
  5. Because it’s just like learning to drive, in a way. You don’t think of it, but a bike is a vehicle – and you have to treat it like that, I think. It’s not all just yay fun reminds me of being a kid, you have to learn how to drive this particular vehicle. It isn’t just automatic, it’s a learned skill. (I know this is kind of “yeah, no duh” but I hadn’t really thought of it before.)
  6. I just have to practice. A lot. Much repetition until these very basic things are natural.
  7. Holy god, I cannot imagine doing thing for 100 minutes, much less 100 miles.
After the ride, we went to Uptown Bikes where I had them adjust the seat and install fenders (which are apparently Very Important if you ride in any kind of rain. And if it rains, we train. So say my fairy godcoaches.) So I really am all set to go now.

Most of all, I learned that Sarah Oaks is right: riding a bike is far better than the simulation in a gym. It's pretty exhilarating, and oodles of fun. Um, until you have to stop. Or turn. Or pass someone. 

Next Steps

It’s a 3-day weekend coming up, and the weather will allegedly not be Absolutely Horrible (upper 30s, looks like) so I will take the bike out every day in the hopes of getting less awkward overall. The beautiful thing about Chicago is the lakefront trail, and how relatively unpopulated it is in the non-summer months. Almost as convenient as a giant empty parking lot to practice in, but far more picturesque.

Also, I got a book. I am a do-it-yourselfer type anyway, but when you’re planning to take a 100-mile bike ride (and all the long rides to train for it), you really have to learn how to do this stuff yourself. And of course my fairy godcoaches will teach me, but we all know how lost I am without a book to reference. I am nothing if not a little Hermione Granger about these things.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Did I forget to mention?

Here’s just a small-little detail I left out when informing many of you about this bike ride: it’s in Lake Tahoe.

Allow me to explain how my thinking on this location developed.

Thought 1: 
Hmm, there’s a ride in September in Michigan… but our annual conference is in August and I’d rather not be training at the same time as I’m working so hard at my actual job.
    Thought 1a: 
    Also, who wants to do the hardest bit of training in July-August heat? Ick.
        Thought 1b: 
        Oh hey, look, there’s another ride a little earlier, in June. That’s better!

Thought 2: 
Oooh! The June ride is in Lake Tahoe! Talk about an incentive location! I WILL SIGN UP NOW.

Thought 3 (later that day): 
Er. It’s hilly there. This will be hard. Ummmm… distant misgivings… but – pretty scenery!

Thought 4 (two days on): 
Wow, everyone’s being so supportive and wonderful! What a shame it’s in Lake Tahoe, where none of my family or friends can easily come to cheer me on to the finish line.

Thought 5 (next day): 
What the hell was I thinking? I won’t even get to enjoy the scenery, really, because I’ll just spend the whole time desperately focused on survival. And afraid I’ll run off the road and off a cliff, because I am a little scaredy-cat about heights, sometimes. So much for for the whole draw of Lake Tahoe, dummy.

Thought 6 (sometime later): 
Not so much a thought as a sort of sinking sense when, in response to my referring to the course as “hilly”, my friend Paul replied that these are not “hills” so much as they are THE SIERRA NEVADA MOUNTAINS AND LAKE TAHOE IS MORE THAN A MILE UP.

And thence began a panic that only blossomed to its fullest potential when I took a look at the elevation map for the ride, found at the informational site where I also found this tidbit: It includes a challenging 800 foot climb to a rest stop overlooking Emerald Bay and a 1,000 foot climb to Spooner Junction. There are also many short rolling ascents and descents totaling over 2,600 vertical feet of elevation gain! (Note: I hate that exclamation point. Unless you throw an expletive in there, it's all a smiling, yay-isn't-that-awesome, steaming pile of horse feathers. It's like saying This particular colonoscopy is super-painful and will leave you wincing for a minimum of 14 hours!! Screw you, Gidget.)

Apparently the ride includes a little “side trip” to something consistently referred to as “Historic Truckee, California.” Gee, I wondered – what’s historic about it? Answer: The Donner Party. Okay. Well, just so long as we all know how bad it might get out there.

That's the skinny, and I don't know why I didn't say it straight out when announcing the thing to all and sundry except that honestly? It's a lot of information. Even I can't pack it all into one clean and concise message. It is indeed Epic, this whole endeavor, so I just try not to think of it all at once. And sure I could do something a little LESS Epic, but as I was explaining to Dawn -- it really doesn't have any appeal for me unless it is utterly and completely mind-blowingly insane. If it doesn't seem impossible, I'm not nearly so interested. And honestly, when I consider what the funds benefit - what those people with blood cancers and their families have to go through? It's honestly like nothing, in comparison. Nothing at all. Which I will frequently remind myself when the whining reaches critical mass over the next several months.

Okay, really quick in other news:
  1. Got the helmet from Laura and it fits perfectly AND is adorable. 
  2. Did spin class twice this week and I am still the most pathetic person in the room. BUT - I still do it. Even though so far, the only thing I like about that class is the fan. It's an Air King High Velocity Air Circulator (not that I stare at it lovingly for half the class or anything). Like at least 24" in diameter. It's so gorgeous I want to take it out to dinner and ask it to marry me.
  3. Plan to go out with the aforementioned Laura (my nearest neighboring biking buddy) to the lake path on Sunday, where I will actually ride a bike. More specifically, my bike. Hilarity will likely ensue, so I'll let you know how it goes.
  4. Tomorrow is our first Team In Training meeting, which is the kick-off to the training season. we'll get info - training schedules and a whole clinic on how to dress for winter training, and we'll meet our teammates and coaches and stuff. I really can't wait to get all the detailed info, and then -- oh god, and then we'll actually get started training in the next week. For real. Okay, but I'm just gonna think about how tomorrow's all info-and-pizza. Yeah.