Thursday, January 8, 2009

July 2005: 2nd Annual Health & Fitness Letter - Cycling

Biking Phase I: William Saroyan once wrote that “the bicycle was the noblest invention of mankind.” I am inclined to agree with him as I am kind of addicted to cycling.

I ride more now than ever, but truly the love affair is rooted in my youngest years. Learning to ride a bike was a big thing, no a huge thing. It began with a tricycle at the age of three or four. I graduated to a bike with training wheels, culminating with the first ride on just two wheels. There is a sense of freedom when one realizes they are riding on their own and their Mom or Dad is no longer holding on.

I learned to ride in the city of Detroit. We had sidewalks, which is exactly the thing a new bike rider needs. As my skills improved, I would venture further from home: one, two, three houses. Freedom! I graduated from that first bike sans training wheels and solid rubber tires. My parents got me a new bike. It was bigger, cooler, and had pneumatic tires. It was plush and fast.

With that bike, I was ready to circle the block. More freedom! What a trip that was, what an adventure. At first, it was a monumental, momentous trek into unknown territories. Within a few days, it became routine and I was counting the number of laps.

I remember the Christmas when I got my first adult bike. Funny, I do not remember the exact year, but only the event. It was a black English racer. It had a steel frame, 26 inch wheels, hand brakes and three whole speeds. In retrospect, it was not really a racer but a light touring bike. It had front and rear fenders along with a chain guard adding weight that no real racing cyclist would want. I loved that bike.

With that bike I took the next big step. When I was eleven or twelve, the age when, with my parent’s permission I could legally ride in the streets. If learning to ride was freedom, this was freedom cubed. There were no limits. I could ride… anywhere. Well anywhere in the square mile that was my universe at the time. I could ride to Brad’s house. I could ride to Cooley High School where we could meet to play baseball. We would ride to explore. We would just ride to ride and talk. It was very cool. There really wasn’t much traffic and we avoided the “busy” streets like Hubbell and Lyndon. On those streets, I still rode on the sidewalks.

In ninth grade, I was riding on Hubbell. This allowed me to take my first long rides. I would ride south on Hubbell until it became Chase Rd. in Dearborn. I would go to my grandmother’s house. The ride, one way, was about six miles. I am guessing in took me 30-45 minutes. It seemed like forever and, the next day, I felt sore in the thighs and butt. I made that ride four or five times.

Biking Phase II: After that, I took a long hiatus from biking. Through high school and college, I rarely rode. Upon getting married and having kids, I never rode. Somewhere, in that time frame, my English “racer” was given away or sold in a garage sale and I was without a bike for many years.

In 1997, I got serious about trying to get fit. I was given an indoor stationary bike as a Christmas gift, a most thoughtful gift and no doubt a subtle hint to lose some weight and get into shape. It was a most modest, department store, bike. I set it up in the basement and started riding it. Riding a stationary bike can be as exciting as watching paint dry. Luckily, I had a TV in the basement, in front of the bike and that kept boredom from setting in. But it was not real sturdy, and when I put the seat at the right height for me… well, let’s just say my substantial girth at the time stressed the seat post beyond its design specifications. In physics, F=ma. Force equals mass times acceleration. In this case, I believe we were operating under F = ma, where Force equals the Mass of my Ass.

I was in a health equipment store buying some dumbbells and inquiring about the kinds of stationary bikes I have seen in hotel gyms and health clubs, the kind laden with computers and lights. These LifeFitness bikes were like $2,000. Yikes! I asked the owner of the shop if he had anything cheaper, much cheaper. He told me they just supplied a health club with new LifeFitness bikes. He offered me one of the club’s old bikes that he had refurbished for $150. Yes, now we were talking. I went home with a scuffed up Tunturi Fly Wheel bike that could easily handle my avoirdupois and more.

That summer, I decided I was ready for an outdoor bike. I went to Smart Cycles in Norwalk, CT intent on getting a Mountain Bike. Alex Stanek, the owner, showed me a few and we settled on a Schwinn Sidewinder, black, thick knobby tires, and a steel frame for $220. I left went home and jumped on the bike. I was going to die on the first few hills, huffing, puffing, grunting, sweating profusely but not giving up. On the third hill, about two and half miles from home, the front tire started rubbing. It was out of line. I figured and dreaded that I had bent the poor fork just as I had bent the seat post on my first stationary bike. I was deflated.

I took the bike back to Smart Cycles. Alex said there was no way I could ever bend the frame or fork of this bike short of colliding with a car and apologized for not tightening the retaining bolt enough. What a relief!

I began to ride that bike, at first 2-3 miles huffing and puffing, working my way up to a 6.5 mile circuit from home around the Weston Schools and back. At Christmas, I got a computer that measured speed, average speed, maximum speed, elapsed time and also had an odometer. I began to keep track of my miles. The next summer I did 500 miles. I averaged about 11-12 miles per hour. Yeah baby, I was a cycling maniac.

In 2000, I complained to Alex that people would pass me, though I was pedaling at higher rpm’s than they were. He told me that the wide tires, knobby treads and 26 inch wheels where a distinct disadvantage to thinner slick tires on 700cc (27.56 inch) wheels. So, after a week or two of deliberation and research, I bought a new bike, a Giant Ferrago. It was a Hybrid bike: mountain bike comfort and geometry with road bike sized wheels. It was a silver aluminum framed beauty with a suspension seat post and front fork to smooth the bumps in the road. I rode faster and longer than ever. I did my first fifty mile ride and broke the 1,000 mile per year barrier on that bike. I equipped the bike with clipless pedals that required special shoes that click into the pedals. I started wearing spandex (don’t spend too much time imagining what this must look like) padded bike shorts and got my first colorful biking jerseys.

I replaced that bike in 2003 when I turned 50. I should have gotten a road bike but was still afraid of the really skinny tires and drop handle bars on those bikes under my very un-cycling body type. So, I got a really nice Hybrid, a Rocky Mountain Whistler. It was bronze metallic aluminum framed gem with Shimano Deore gears. I have done several 50 mile rides on this bike and my only Metric Century: 100km or 61.2 miles. It also has a suspension seat post and front fork. I did 1,800 miles mostly on that bike last year. It is a pleasure to ride. I average about 13.5 mph on this bike.

But, it was not enough. Too many people were still passing me. I knew I needed a road bike, F=ma be damned. So, I began scouring the local tag (garage) sales to find something inexpensive to try and see if indeed I was ready to invest in a road bike. But, I could find nothing suitable. I discussed this desire to find a good, cheap, road bike to try with my friend, road biker, and reader of this e-letter Gaby Chirinian. Gaby is a seasoned tag sale shopper. He told me he would keep his eyes open and let me know.

A few weeks later, Gaby called and asked me to stop by. When I did he presented my with a vintage Peugeot steel framed 10 speed. It was in great shape and I rode that bike last summer. It was clear to me that I was road bike ready.

About the same time, a great bargain came up. Columbus Tubing, the company that supplies the steel tubing to bike companies and frame builders, was worried. They were worried about the custom frame builders in Italy and elsewhere making it through the winter. Alternative materials, such as aluminum, titanium and, especially, carbon fiber were dominating the high end bike market. The custom frame builders specializing in classic steel frames were in for a long sparse winter. So, the Columbus tubing folks offered a free upgrade, basically making their Nivachrome frame half price. Antonio Mondanico, a renowned frame builder from Milan agreed to participate in this program. As Smart Cycles is a Mondonico dealer, Alex Stanek was thrilled to offer this deal of the century to his customers: a custom sized, steel, lugged frame from Italy at half price. It didn’t take much selling for yours truly and twenty others to take advantage of this deal. We designed the frame for my size and included my particular F=ma characteristics into the design. Being steel, the finished bike would have a natural flex and be more comfortable than aluminum or carbon fiber bikes in traversing the bumps and holes of our local roads. We ordered Campagnolo Veloce gears, hubs, shifters, brakes and an Italian saddle to make the bike as Italian as possible. We decided on a classic maroon color.

I took delivery of my Italian dream machine on May 24th. Wow! It is really light and incredibly responsive. It flies. It seems to fly up hills. I average 15.5 mph. I will try to do a century (100 mile ride) on this bike. It is the bike in the above photo.

As I have a stationary bike at home and almost every hotel I stay in has some kind of exercise room that includes some kind of bike. It is possible to ride almost everyday if want.
I keep a log of minutes spent on indoor bikes and miles and miles per hour for outside rides. I set a goal of 2,000 miles this year. At this point, I am at 920 miles. I will have trouble making my goal because of “lost riding weekends” due to out of town weddings, graduations and non-biking vacation trip to Greece.

Lance: It is impossible to write about cycling without writing about Lance Armstrong. He just won his seventh consecutive Tour de France, an astonishing record that will not easily be matched or broken. The entire tour was 2,333 miles, Lance won coming in 4 minutes and 40 seconds ahead of Ivan Basso in second place. Over this arduous course, Armstrong averaged 26.8 mph. On my best day, June 6 of this year, I averaged 16.2 miles per hour over a whopping 13.4 mile course.

We both ride bikes, the comparisons basically stop there. But, I will continue with the comparisons anyway. The only time when Lance and the other pros pedal at my lowly velocity is when they are climbing a substantial Alp or Pyrenee. In training, Lance Armstong is on his bike for 30 hours per week, like a full time job. He logs 700 miles per week averaging 20-25 miles per hour. 700 miles in one week! I cycled 735 miles for the first six months of this year. Lance Armstong can ride 32 miles per hour for an hour. I could do that on a down hill, a very steep down hill. A University of Texas exercise physiologist, Ed Coyle, was quoted in Sports Illustrated saying that a fit college male riding at 32 mph wouldn’t last a minute. “For the first 10 seconds, they’re great. After about 20 seconds, they think they are going to die. After 40 seconds, they throw up.”

New York Ranger hockey defensemen Dale Purinton heard that Lance could pedal a Cybex stationary bike at 270 rpm for an hour. “So, I tried it. I kept it up for two minutes then I had to quit. I was totally exhausted. My whole body was aching. The man is not human.”
Human or inhuman, Lance Armstrong’s abilities are off the scale. The fact that he almost died of testicular cancer, recovered and went on the win seven Tours makes his story even more spectacular, special and amazing.

OK, I will admit it. There are definitely times, when I am out riding and feeling pretty good about myself, I imagine I am part of the pelaton, keeping up with Lance and the boys, just awaiting my chance for a world class breakaway that drop them all. Sometimes, in the midst of such reverie or delusion, I smile to myself and quote James Thurber’s Walter Mitty, “tapocketa – pocketa - pocketa,” and ride on.

"Nothing compares with the simple pleasure of a bike ride." —John F. Kennedy
"The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets." —Christoper Morley
"Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia." —H. G. Wells
"Get a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live." —Mark Twain
"It is easy to be a holy man on a mountain bike." —Mark W. Matson
"If you brake, you don't win." —Mario Cipollini
"There is no room in the Tour for the sick or the weak." —Laurent Jalabert
"Melancholy is incompatible with bicycling." —James E. Starrs
"As long as I breathe, I attack." —Bernard Hinault
"Ride like water." —Paul Adkins
"Cyclists worship legs." —Nelson Pena
"Why should anyone steal a watch when he could steal a bicycle?" —Flann O'Brien
"The bicycle is a curious vehicle. Its passenger is its engine." —John Howard
"Bicycles have no walls." —Paul Cornish
"The very existence of the bicycle is an offense to reason and wisdom." —P. J. O'Rourke

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