The Clydesdale Chronicles: 2014 Cycling Season in Review

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Beginning the 30 mile descent from Big Hole Pass

I’m grinding up my third pass of the day, and its mile 88 of 121. After getting beat up by a stiff headwind for six miles, the group broke up as we reached the comparative shelter of the first switchbacks. Each one of us withdrew into our own private world of sweat and effort. I drift to the back because I am large. I am a helmeted draft horse in spandex: I’m a Clydesdale.

Everywhere I ride I’m the biggest guy. My 62 cm bike dwarfs other machines. It’s been suggested that I might take up basketball, or apple picking, or some other sport for tall people, but I have an aversion to running and standing on ladders. In the cycling world I’m an oddity, but one thing I know: folks love to draft behind me because it’s like riding behind a semi…you can feel the suction. I pedal, they coast.

I’ve come to accept my station in the cycling world.  It’s not that I can’t climb – hauling around my body weight makes me pretty strong. Its just that I climb slower than my 150 pound colleagues. The places where I go fast are on the flats, in a headwind and on rolling terrain. My lot is to deliver the climbers to their climbs with fresh legs. Giddyup.

The bike is on the trainer, the cycling clothing washed and put away, the Christmas tree is up, it’s snowing outside, and….

It’s time for my 2014 cycling season in review – beginning with my top 10 list:

10top1. My first 20 mph century ride: Some days are special, some are special-er. After putting together a 21 mph avg on the level, I managed to hold it together for the last 65 miles of rolling terrain with no help from the wind.

2. Seven flats and a set of tires in seven days: I’m not certain whether Montana roads are more abrasive, or what. After the last ride of my Montana trip, I packed up my bike and noticed…you guessed it…a flat rear tire. I’ve not had another one for the rest of the season.

wpid-att_1405999183576_photo-4.jpg.jpeg3. Going to the Sun Road: One of the classic rides in America, GTSR climbs 3600 feet from MacDonald Creek to Logan Pass – averaging 200 feet per mile. We dropped down the east side to Siyeh [pronounced si-yee] Bend and climbed back to Logan Pass. You get to pass through tunnels and alongside waterfalls. On the descent I went through the water falling from Weeping Wall. You can read more about this ride here.

4. A Solid Training Plan: Nothing like it. During the winter I did 12 weeks of weight training and then moved to an indoor trainer for my workouts. I trained with power for the first time, and there’s no going back! Heart rate fluctuates with conditioning, and is not an accurate measurement of effort by itself. 280 watts, on the other hand, is 280 watts every day of the week – even on Leap year. Kudos to TrainerRoad for their indoor training plans.

firstday20145. First Early Season Ride: With 20″ of snow left on the ground we finally got our day in late March – where it was 38 degrees and brilliantly sunny. After 4 months riding indoors it was what I imagine getting out of prison must be like. Hope springs, and you just know it won’t be long before we ride in shorts. Of course, the reprieve was was followed by another three weeks of 40 degree rain – dubbed by the locals as a Norwegian Monsoon. [That’s right, no umbrella drinks]

6. Bananas: It’s time to pay my yearly homage to the miracle fruit and wrapper, all in one. What has the power to energize, inspire and otherwise lift you higher? The banana. Don’t leave home without one…they cure most everything.

7. Wisconsin: The land of cheese-eating Trolls is a cycling paradise, and I spent the better part of two weeks training there with my cycling compadre Mike. The Little Bedder motel in Mt Horeb is our base of operations, and comes complete with a property manager who likes to dress up like Audrey Hepburn. Truly. I wouldn’t joke about something like this. I left my garlic press behind in September, and hope to find it when we return this June.

8. A Century a Week Keeps the Doctor Away: Want to go faster, go longer, and ride stronger every day? More than anything else, the weekly century delivers the goods. At first you suffer, but then you kinda get used to it – and then almost look forward to it. You will become a two wheeled Godzilla.

9. MS 150: This was my charity ride for the year. We rolled the first day in torrential rain, and I got pretty borderline hypothermic. I wore every stitch of clothing and never got better than almost warm. The second day was brilliant sun and a tailwind, to boot. A worthy cause, and a supremely fun way to generate love through pedal strokes.

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Lost Trail Pass

10. Big Rides: There’s nothing that quite outdoes the scope of an epic ride. At this year’s Cycling House Tour de Montana we followed a 93 mile ride along the Bitter Root range with a 121 mile jaunt with three passes [mentioned above] and 7100 feet of climbing. Elapsed time was 9 hours 13 minutes. Other contenders included the Wright Stuff Century with 6800 feet of climbing, and our Minnesota home grown Headwaters Tour with 113 miles and 5200 feet of climbing. In these big rides you cross a line where you realize you’ve found something very special. Free your mind, and your legs will follow: long rides are cleansing.

11. 6000 miles: that’s over 31 million feet. 31,680,000 and some change, to be exact. Thirty one million feet of headwinds, tailwinds, rain and sun – each foot another reason why I love this sport.

The 2014 Season by The Numbers

005I consumed 13 quarts of Hammer Gel and 43 bananas on the bike. I slurped 104 servings of Hammer Perpetuem – a remarkably effective gooey food product the consistency of pancake batter. Along the way I wore out 2 chains, 2 cassettes, 2 sets of cables, and a crankset. I used up 4 rolls of bar tape, 2 sets of tires, 11 tubes and a pair of handlebars. My carbon bars developed stress cracks from two previous crashes in 2013, and began to delaminate. SCARY MOVIE. And, by the way, the number of crashes this year? NONE. Okay, there was one when I forgot to unclip and fell over. There was blood.

My longest day of climbing was 7821 feet, longest ride 121 miles, and fastest speed 51 mph. All this over 6000.6 miles and 206, 470 feet climbed. That’s 1400 something more miles than last year, and almost 60,000 feet more climbing. I spent 332 hours and 10 minutes on the bike over the course of 134 rides – 18 of them a century or longer. My average speed for the year was 17.8 mph.

What does this mean?

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The Espresso Group

I’m looking at the Black Pearl across the living room carpet leaning up against the wall. Two days after finishing up the season I’m already lonesome for her. And, by the way, what was the point of all this? From a purely practical perspective all this pedaling doesn’t really produce anything. On the other hand, most of us don’t ride for pragmatic reasons: we ride because we love it. No, it doesn’t pay the rent…but it pays other dividends.

There’s an exquisite freedom to the road. We’re free to let our thoughts roam further than our legs can take us. We’re free to make our ride quiet and contemplative, or to thunder along at top speed with a shout. There’s a reckless joy in fast descents – coupled with disciplined form that makes rolling  40+ mph on an inch of rubber both possible and safe.

Occasionally I get to see cycling through the eyes of someone new to the sport…someone who tells the truth. Riding with a friend training for his first race, after 15 miles he remarked, this is hard. Cycling is a game of motivation. Some days we spend a fair bit of time and energy talking ourselves into getting on the bike – all the while holding out hope that we’ll find something special. I’m a chronic doubter, even though I’ve been proven wrong so often. John “Robot” Lewis who writes for the Red Kite Project says,

Can we all just agree that motivation is priceless? I have been riding bikes my whole life, and the motivation to ride hard or far or even just continuously has sometimes been stronger than others. The alchemical recipe that produces the drive to ride consists of momentum, fun, fitness, weather, inspiration, friends, opportunity and possibly some other things I’m overlooking. Mysteriously, sometimes when I have both opportunity and fitness in spades, I am still woefully short of the motivation to capitalize.

I don’t understand it.

As for myself, strangely enough, I found some motivation. I had a novel idea when the cold and ice of Northern MN drove me indoors. Instead of getting fat, how about trying to carry some form through the winter? Instead of eating and thinking about training, why couldn’t I train and think about how I eat? Adding a trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway in the spring to my ride schedule provided enough motivation [er, fear of embarrassing myself] to get me to put together my winter training schedule. It also helps that my riding buddies have taken on races or events that they’re equally scared to suck at. Self preservation is a wonderful motivator, and so I’m grinding away on the cycleops, spinning on the rollers, and working the strength routine. What keeps me going is the possibility of hitting the road in late March ready to ride centuries.

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Lunch break Tour de Montana

Dream Season

Indoor training is fueled by next season’s dreams. On the schedule already are a week of hill training in WI, the Habitat 5oo, and the Colorado Rocky Mountain Bike Tour. An after Easter trip to the Blue Ridge or Tucson is taking form, as is a possible Trip to the Cascades with Cycling House. I want to ride a 22 mph century and push my season climbing total to 300,000 feet.

After Christmas I’m going for a comprehensive bike fit to fine tune my position on the bike. Gone are the tall stack of spacers on the headset – a lot has changed in my strength and flexibility in the last two years. After all the feedback I’ve gotten about my time trialing ability, I’m saving up for an aero racing frame to make me go faster. The Trek is going to be modified and re-purposed to become my gravel bike. But at the end of the day, it’s not about speed as much as the journey. To that end, I wish you well on yours. Here’s to unexpected joy, childlike faith when the road is challenging, the peace that keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously, and the profound touch of God that keeps it all real.

The New Steed

The New Steed

Fueling to Endure

I’m writing whilst recovering from an extremely grim and nasty chest infection. I’ve dealt with pain before, but never above-category awful. The drugs I’m taking would get me investigated by USADA if I used them in competition…steroidal stuff, mostly. Anyway, after losing 10 days of training, I’m reflecting on two things. First, better days will come: they simply must. Second, it’s been a while since I’ve done a nutrition issue. So, without any further delay – with tissues close at hand – Fueling to Endure.

During the 36th annual Wright Stuff century ride back in September I came across a drama that I see regularly. A guy was standing, knees buckling, draped over his bike. I passed him, but he looked so sick I pulled a u-turn and headed back. Cramps, nausea and dizziness: poor hydration, low electrolytes, and not eating on the bike between rest stops. It was an 86 degree day with bright sun and higher than normal humidity, and the guy was flattened. I gave him some electrolyte supplements, made him drink his water, and told what to grab at the next rest station. I heard later he was able to finish the ride.

eatingonabikeLet’s start with the basics because, well, they’re basic.  Like the law of gravity which has been in force for quite awhile, the basics are just how things are. No one is exempt. I’ve had my share hard lessons here.

HYDRATION. Think of your body as it is…an energy processing machine. Because we’re carbon-based life forms like they say on Star Trek, we need water to function. Without it fuel can’t be processed and used to sustain exercise. Dehydration causes system shut down. Before exercise pre-hydrate with a high quality sports drink or just plain water – not coffee, which is a diuretic that will dry you out. Plan on 20-24 oz of water or sports drink per hour. I use the Camelbak Podium insulated sports bottles that hold 25 oz.

SPORTS DRINKS. In speaking to the cramping guy, I asked him what electrolytes he’d consumed. “Gatorade” he replied. Yes, the veritable kiss of death. Gatorade is mass marketed artificially colored junk. Don’t listen to the latest G2 ads that say it’s approved by the NFL, instead read the label: 250 mg of sodium and 38 grams of sugar in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. That much sodium is a source of stomach upset and too much salt for a long day on the bike. In a pinch you can pick up some Powerade at a convenience store mid-ride. It has less sugar and salt, and adds some essential B vitamins that help with exercise stress.

ELECTROLYTE SUPPLEMENTS. Electrolytes are necessary for two big reasons. They prevent the build up of lactic acid and other waste in muscle tissue that cause cramps. They also play a role in supporting energy production at the cellular level – which is how your fuel becomes available to keep you going. In my fueling program I use Hammer Endurolytes which I carry in a clear flip-top bottle that fits in my jersey pocket. They have a flavored tablet version you can drop into your water bottle, if you prefer the taste of lemon or mango [my two favorites] in your water.

eatingonthebikeGRABBING CALORIES. Quality research has demonstrated that a 4:1 carb to protein ratio is best for endurance athletes. By introducing that small bit of protein you stimulate your body to burn fat as fuel, instead of only burning glycogen and using up your store of blood sugar – hence to become hypoglycemic. We call this the BONK. No energy, you’re done, and time to crash land just short of the runway.

The one rule we must never transgress when eating on the bike is that it MUST BE EASILY DIGESTIBLE AND FREQUENT. Brothers and sisters I have sinned, oh how I have sinned…but I’ve repented, and learned something, too. No matter how appealing a thick gooey piece of pepperoni pizza may seem in the middle of a hard ride, don’t do it. [We should probably also examine why we would want to eat pizza from a convenience store…there’s help for this, and it’s not the malted recovery beverage in the cooler] It will make you miserable, and likely return to the light of day at a time not of your choosing. Consume 100-150 easily digestible calories every 20 minutes. Live this simple truth, and all will be well.

hammerIt’s a little daunting to figure out caloric intake and fueling ratios, but fortunately Hammer Nutrition has products that give you everything you need: as you fuel three times an hour. [Yup, there’s that rule] Perpetuem is one such product that I always use on rides longer than three hours. It is however the consistency of pancake batter, and easy to grow tired of…er, quickly. I choose to look at it as a means to an end, and fantasize instead about my post-ride recovery smoothie and meal. Once you find out how this fuel works for you, you can experiment with more variety. For example, I substitute a ‘slurp of perp’ with a favorite energy bar like Kit’s Organic Cherry Pumpkin Seed. Bananas are great if your legs start to tighten up. I enjoy peanut butter and banana sandwiches on whole grain bread with honey drizzled on top. You can cut em into quarters and package them so they don’t ooze into your jersey. I also use Hammer Gel which comes in a rainbow of flavors, and now includes peanut butter with the protein.

I confess to my obvious bias toward Hammer. Their knowledge base is deep and definitive, and they helped me learn how to fuel effectively and, as a result, occasionally dish out some hurt on other riders. I’m also a Hammer VIP athlete. So, for the sake of balance I’ll wrap up by introducing you to my favorite endurance food superstore, The Feed. They have gels, chews, bars, shots, shakes, supplements, and home baked organic goodies all available in single servings. You can also sign up for a monthly shipment at a discount so you don’t run out of your secret weapon energy stash.

I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed the writing. Better yet, fuel well and go grab a new personal best.

All Good Things

blown-away-in-patagoniaIt happens every year. The leaves fall off the trees, and the autumn winds begin to blow in earnest. This year we had two reprieves of 60 degree temps and sunshine…for which I’m grateful…seeing as it is October 25th, and all. Most years the weather gets putrid by October 10th. Such are the charms of northern Minnesota.

We are governed 8 months of the year by Canadian air. Even when the jet stream is running pretty far to the north, we’re far enough north to remain in its frigid grasp. While the rest of the lower 48 is basking in above average warmth, we are decidedly below average. This week all the leaves dropped as if a switch and been thrown, leaving considerably less protection from the wind. And now, the expected gusts blowing across the Manitoba prairies have reached us.

Not that I’m complaining, [Okay, a little bit!], but today I was beat up pretty good by the wind. We’re talking about a wind that makes the grass in the fields lay down flat. From the side, these winds blew me out into the traffic lane several times. Head on, they reduced me to 11 mph of forward momentum. After 53 miles of this, I decided it’s time to bring the bike indoors and commence off season training at the local YMCA.

Tomorrow I’ll go for one last ride to end on a more positive and less windy note.

 

The Flip Side – a kinder, gentler inner beast

So...do you find me beastly?!

So…do you find me beastly?!

There’s always a flip side. A headwind becomes a tailwind; a climb gives way to a descent. This contrast of opposites is part of the allure of  cycling.

All through May and June I could feel my form building with perceptible gains every week. I was on form for 5 glorious weeks in July and August: grinding up alpine climbs and time-trialing at 22 mph across the flats. Fellow riders would ask politely if I could slow down the pace a bit. Some others started referring to me as a BEAST. I don’t think I’ve been called that before, but I’m pretty sure it was meant as a compliment.

But then came the flip side. Our bodies cannot stay at peak performance indefinitely. Life happens: you miss a few rides, other responsibilities call out, you eat garbage for a few days because you think you can get away with it…and the like. I heard my body telling me it was in no mood to go as fast, as hard or as long. My inner Godzilla wanted nap-time in his schedule, and a kinder, gentler routine.

The fitness physiology gurus say that energy production on the cellular level simply needs to take a break. ATP [Adenosine triphosphate] is a major vehicle for transporting food energy in the form of glycogen to fuel the cells in our body. No one knows for sure when this energy system needs to rest from the constant high demand of competition – only that eventually an athlete will see the signs and symptoms. We need to rest and rebuild…hit the reset button, so to speak.

resetbuttonAnd so, as I work toward the end of the cycling season, I’ve reduced mileage and intensity. It sounds backwards, but even after 5300 miles of riding, I needed to press that RESET button. After a couple of weeks of rest, I’ve been building back to the point where I can ride a few more centuries while the uncharacteristically nice October weather lasts in Northern Minnesota. 

Endurance athletes tend to love reaching peaks of performance – we are driven to press further and dig deeper. But we need our flip sides, too. We build, we peak, we rest, and then we reset and rebuild. Cycling has taught me that rest is a valid and important component of strength. It’s a necessary counterpoint in the rhythm of training, and a reminder that we do this because it’s ridiculously fun.

That is why we do this…right?

 

It pays to listen to your inner Godzilla.

Small Men with White Goatees

gnomebikeEarlier this season I took part in a century ride on the south shore of Lake Superior, in Wisconsin. The ride was quite enjoyable, and the weather fine, but I drove home with one nagging question:

Who were all the small men with white goatees?

Diminutive men with white whiskers smiled and waved at me all day. To see 2 or 3 of them is a curiosity. 5 to 7 is a wonder. 10 or more? Well, that’s a mystery of unparalleled SMALL proportion. They were everywhere. On racing bikes, on tandems, even on mountain bikes.

What’s the chance of seeing more than a dozen S.M.W.G. over the course of 100 miles? It is common knowledge that Wisconsin is over-run by trolls, gnomes and other mythical bearded creatures that don’t seem to dwell anywhere else. This seems to be the only plausible explanation, except maybe food poisoning. I have it on good authority from a friend, who was poisoned at a questionable [and only] Chinese restaurant in Rumford, ME, that bad pork fried rice can make a person hallucinate.

I assure you there was no pork fried rice for me on that day. And in case you wondered, no sampling of local wild mushrooms, either. I suppose it will remain a mystery wrapped in the folklore of the Land of Cheese.

P.S. I’ve returned to Wisconsin twice more since that day in June, but have not seen hide, nor hair of the S.M.W.G.

I was that Fat Guy on a Bike

bikebuttGlance into the rear view mirror of life, and you’ll see that the scenery has changed. Whether the scenery is familiar or foreign, change is part of the journey. This year the change has been for the better when it comes to girth and gravity. I’m not that fat guy on a bike anymore. Yes, the scenery has changed: I weigh what I did 25 years ago.

It’s all rather startling because the image I had of myself riding my bike didn’t used to match up to the photos – but now it does. Well, mostly. I could still lose another 5 pounds, but I’m pretty ecstatic that my knees don’t bump my stomach when I ride with my hands in the drops.

tdm00There is a down side to all this reduction of mass. To begin with, I have a closet full of clothes that are too big. I know it’s a good problem to have, but replacing work clothes diverts funds away from the bicycle. Having to choose between new spandex bibs and dress pants is both sick and wrong.

You may recall the adage that the gut is the first place where fat goes, and the last place to leave? It’s true. Once every other part of my body is lean there’s a 5 pound paunch more prominent than ever. Can you picture an island in the middle of a lake that’s drying up? As the levels drop, the island becomes magically larger.

I might also add that I think I’ve lost some speed while descending, but gained some speed going up the hills.

Still, there’s a lot to be grateful for. I don’t risk structural failure of wheels and bicycle frame when I roll out of the garage. Fatty and sugar-laden foods have mostly lost their appeal. I DO love an ice cream now and again, but a small cone satisfies me.

Strange as it may seem, I’m not that fat guy on the bike anymore.

 

The Grace in Not Giving Up

24 hours before the start of the Wright Stuff century ride I came down with a cold. Frustration and disappointment ran high, because this was  my training focus for the month of August, and was the reason I’d been riding in Wisconsin these past several days. It seemed beyond my grasp that it was now all about Kleenex, alka Seltzer cold remedy, and zinc lozenges. I took the day off from riding and submitted to the above mentioned treatment of my unwelcome common cold: not knowing that a faith lesson was was coming together behind the scenes.

As I lay on the couch feeling sorry for myself, I picked up my friend Marty Kaarre’s devotional book  Breathing Holes. What I read was curious: ships are safe in a harbor, but that’s not what ships are made for. Then I read the next devotion about doing things with all our heart. DIVINE CONSPIRACY? I’m certain of it – because, after reading from three books, it was all about adventure, strength and not giving up. To be more specific, God the strength giver who shows up in my weakness.

Does God care about bike rides? I don’t really know…maybe. Does God care about what I do on a bicycle [or any other endeavor] that might impact the growth of my faith or character? Yes, I believe he does. And so, I got up this morning and went for a 101 mile bike ride that climbed the better part of 7000 feet, betting everything on this. After all, faith is the assurance of things not seen.

My cold symptoms disappeared.

I felt strong.

My form was spot on.

I did the fastest hilly ride of my life, and my nose didn’t run. Some may chalk this up to endorphins and the power of positive thinking, but when I’m sick the only thing I’m positive about is lying in bed.  Others might point to having 4600 miles in my legs this season, but I know first hand how fickle my performance can be. It was about something vastly more satisfying.

I trust in a God who’s so concerned about my Greg-ness that he sends me messages of hope and courage. More than that, he’s the Lord of head colds and the fixer of bad days. I started my day, and now end it with this conviction:

If God is for us, who can be against us?

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Mike the Bike Bard and yours truly