Monday, July 11, 2011

Speed Cycling

Last week riding home from my office, I latched onto the draft of a large pick-up truck pulling a huge fifth wheel travel trailer or, as they call them now, RV.  It had just gone past the intersection at which I had a stop sign.  It was clear for me to proceed.  The RV was not going 20 mph, so I sprinted to get in its draft.  I rode with my front wheel about six feet off its bumper.  The truck slowly accelerated.  The rode curved slightly, and the RV looked heavily loaded as with each bump or dip it seemed to rock and roll a bit.  Eventually it got up to 35 mph.  I rode in the path of the left, driver’s side wheel in case there were any road killed raccoons or ground hogs.  I assumed that the driver would try to avoid directly running over road kill, since that too might bounce the trailer around.  Slowly the pace climbed to above 45 mph.  I did not look back.  I kept my vision focused on the rear bumper.  I assumed that, given how slowly the driver accelerated, when it came time to slow down, the driver would decelerate slowly; there wouldn’t be any sudden increases or decreases in speed.  I could pedal half a dozen strokes, then coast.  I didn’t know if I could stay in the draft.  I thought that if I stayed close enough, within six feet, I’d have a chance.  The speed limit for that section of road is 50 or 55 mph.  If I got out of the draft I’d quickly slow to 20 mph.  After two miles, he began to slow down for an approaching stop sign.  At the stop, he and I turned left.  I again accelerated with him.  But one-quarter mile down the road, he turned right and I needed to go straight.  Shortly after, another driver in a pick-up truck passed me, and yelled something out the window.  I didn’t comprehend what he said, but it did not seem unfriendly.  I am sure it was an extremely unusual sight for him to see a bicyclist going over 45 mph, something to tell the dog, wife, and kids about.  It is certainly not the sort of thing sung about in country music.  When I got home, I checked my cyclocomputer and it showed a maximum speed of 47 mph.  That is likely the fastest I have gone on my bike in a couple of years.

The first time I went fast was during the first bike race I entered.  The race was a circuit road race.  The circuit was five miles, and we did six laps of it.  I have ridden my bicycle a lot since I was a young kid.  I grew up ten miles from the nearest small town.  Over two miles from our house was Wright, where there was a Catholic church and elementary school, a bar, and a corner store.  Back then they called them corner stores; now they call them convenience stores.  They might have a few grocery items, but mostly they were places to stop to get candy, ice cream, sodas.  They might have sold cigarettes, but more likely you would have to go next door to the bar to get them out of a machine.  No beer, wine, or liquor.  Again, you got that next door.  Probably didn’t even have milk, as as most folks I knew had a milkman who delivered once or twice weekly.  By the time I was eight, I could ride, usually with a sister or two, up to Wright.  Along the way we’d pick up beer bottles to return for deposits at the bar to get money for candy or ice cream novelties.  The bar felt like such a forbidden place: dark even in the middle of the day, cool, smoky, only men in there, unless the owner’s wife was tending, and most of them were retired farmers.  When the owner’s wife was tending, it would not draw a younger or a female crowd.  It is just that she was the only woman I ever saw in the bar.  Beer was served in six or eight ounce glasses.  Probably only Stroh’s and Pabst or Schlitz.  And no light beers, as they had not yet been invented.  A couple of times each year we, my sisters and I, would ride our bikes the ten miles to school.  Nobody locked their bikes.  By the time I was in junior high and high school, I would more regularly ride ten miles to friends’ houses.  When I turned sixteen and got a driver’s license, the bike was more a child’s toy.  I still would pack it in my car, take it to a girlfriend’s house to go for a summer bike ride with a girlfriend.  But it ceased to be transportation; it was recreation.  Then in graduate school in my early twenties, I started riding the bike more for transportation, and some for exercise.  When my children came along, I got the kiddie seat for the rear of the bike to take my kids for bike rides.  From those days in my early twenties onward, I have worn a helmet while cycling.  In my mid-thirties, I was doing a lot of running and races.  I developed plantar fasciitis.  So for my distance workouts, I rode my bike, keeping the running for speed-work over shorter distances.  Eventually as my kids got older, when they were in fourth or fifth grade, and I could afford it, I got an entry level racing bike during a November end of season sale.  And next May, I entered my first race.

The race had about thirty-five entrants.  Since I was new, the race director advised that I not ride in the midst of the pack, but at the back where it would be safer.  I thought he meant “safer for me,” but in fact he meant “safer for the rest of the riders.”  I didn’t heed his advice.  I had been reading about bicycle racing, and had learned some of the basics.  Two chief basic prinicples are “don’t overlap your front wheel with a rider’s rear wheel,” and “ride a straight line.”  If your front wheel is overlapped and the rider ahead makes a quick lateral movement bumping your front wheel, you will most likely become intimately acquainted with the asphalt, and he will only hear the metal grinding on pavement behind him.  Given that in bicycle racing the uniform is next to nothing, sliding on pavement is going to hurt.  I heard someone say that if you have never raced and crashed on a bicycle and want to know what it is like, strip down to your underwear, get in a friend’s car, have them get up to about 25 mph or so, then jump out the door.  Don’t’ overlap your front wheel, and the corresponding principle which is to keep the rider ahead from sending a rider behind who may not have adhered to principle one down to the pavement: ride a straight line.  I knew both principles, so I rode in the midst of the pack.  The pack started out slowly, maybe 18-21 mph.  A mile down the course we had a right turn, and were now riding with a 15 mph tailwind.  A half-mile down the road, there was a slight downhill, and the race was on.  In short order we were going 37 mph, and I felt like screaming with giddy excitement.  That was such a rush, so much fun.  Another mile ahead, and we were heading into a right turn, going about 30 mph.  Lean, lean, make it through the corner, everyone upright, hold your line.  Second lap, I start to get spit out the back.  Heading down the hill into the corner, I am gapped off but trying to get back on.  I enter the corner too fast, realize I am not going to make it through the corner without skidding out and sliding nearly naked on the pavement.  So I straighten the bike up and brake hard.  I know I am going to go off the far side of the road.  It is early May.  There is no ditch.  The fields are freshly tilled and planted.  It is a smooth run off, like the paths along mountain highways for tractor-trailer rigs whose brakes fail them, with sand or very loose gravel to slow them to a halt.  I ride into the field, come to a complete stop, get off the bike, carry it back to the road, and get going again, well off the back of the pack with no chance to catch back on.

A year or two after that I was up near Benzonia, Michigan.  There are some steep short hills around there.  I found one southwest of Benzonia that I could hit 50 mph on.  There was another road that was steeper, Traverse Avenue or Walker Street, heading east off the main street.  I probably could have gone over 50 on that, except that there was stop sign at the bottom, at the point where you’d hit top speed.  I suppose I could have had someone at the stop sign to let me know half way down if traffic was clear and I could bomb through the stop sign.  On the long downhill heading south to Hoxeyville, with a tailwind I could get over 45 mph on that hill, with a bit of work.  There were some good hills around the Manistee River, around High Bridge and Red Bridge where I could get over 40 mph.  On Caberfae Road, heading toward Harietta, there is a good downhill that I could get close to 50 mph.  Most of those were long enough, just not steep enough.

Also in the late 1990s, two or three times I did a cycling tour with friends in early autumn in southeast Ohio, in the Ohio Appalachians.  They were two-day rides, about 110 miles each day, with about 5000 feet of climbing (and descending) each day.  Many of the descents were steep, many allowing speeds of over 45 mph.  My fastest was 52 mph.  That was on a winding road.  I descended it riding from gutter to gutter, from guard rail to guard rail.  I remember a short section with gravel on the road.  I remember blind corners where I was praying that no one was coming up the hill.  I quickly got a reputation for being a very fast descender.  “Eric the Eagle” one guy called me.  With a small pack of five or seven riders, you could go faster downhill by “tumbling” in a rotating paceline.  The rider to the front pulled over to the side to drift to the back of the group.  As soon as the next rider was clear of the rider who had just pulled to the side, he pulled to the side too.  The group continued to rotate, with no one being out front in the wind for more than a few seconds, drafting and bombing down the hill.  I got with one such group which included a tandem.  Given gravity, a bike with two riders weighed more than two bikes with a rider each, and it had less rolling and wind resistance.  The tandem could lead down the hill, with it almost impossible for anyone to pass.  On one downhill section, there was a rough looking, Appalachian old man in an older beat up Buick behind us.  After we descended that hill and got to the flat land, going perhaps 24 mph, he passed us.  As he passed us, he rolled down his window.  We wondered if we were going to get yelled at for being on his road.  Instead, with a partially toothless grin we got “y’all wir gawn bout fordy five dawn thet heel.”  I guess we made his day, almost as good as having a friend give you a pint jar of his newly distilled moonshine.  Not to stereotype or anything.

My fastest ride was in the early 2000s in northern Kentucky, west of Covington, between the Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Airport and the Ohio River to the west.  There are some steep hills around there.  I was on a ride on unfamiliar roads.  But from looking at the map, with none of the roads going straight I knew it was hilly.  After peaking one hill, a dump truck just passed me as we began to go downhill.  I got onto its draft, riding about six to eight feet off its tailgate.  I assumed that if it could go fast, the corners could not be too sharp.  The speed climbed.  I hoped the truck would not kick up rocks, that there would be no potholes, and that there would be no road kill.  That is asking for a lot in northern Kentucky roads.  I got all I asked for.  The road had very gentle curves, such that the dump truck driver could pretty much go the speed limit and more.  By the time the road leveled off near the Ohio River valley and I could check my cyclocomputer, the maximum speed registered was 57 mph.  What a thrill!  On a twenty pound bike with tires about 23 mm (less than an inch) wide.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Mid-Summer Therapies

It was a hot Independence Day weekend Saturday.  I went for a bike ride, leaving the house about 10 am.  It was about 75 degrees, but it felt a lot hotter, maybe because of the humidity.  I went west three miles, then north fifteen miles to M-21, east five miles to DeWitt Road, just a mile west of St. Johns, south through DeWitt and back to our house, 40 miles total.  It was an aromatherapy ride.  Heading north toward M-21, I went by several mint fields on the west side of the road.  St. Johns calls itself the Mint Capital of the World, with a Mint Festival in mid-August.  While it might have been 75 degrees when I started, it seemed to warm quickly into the mid 80s.  With the heat and humidity and the wind from the west, the mint seemed to be giving off scent more strongly.  That was nice.  Deep green fields of mint.  Healthful smells.  Heading south from M-21 back toward DeWitt, I rode past a couple of dairy operations on the west side of the road.  So with the heat, humidity, and west wind, the scent was strong.  Dairy operations give off a sweet manure smell, less offensive than the beef operations.  I suppose it has to do with the feed.  And dairy cattle need a lot of water.  A Holstein averages about eight gallons a day.  The record Holstein, set in Wisconsin in 2009, averaged 23 gallons a day.  It had to be drinking over 30 gallons a day.  Maybe the farmer had it on a huge IV drip to get that much fluid into her system.

I suppose it was also a visual therapy ride.  The mint fields were a rich green.  The wheat is turning to golden, in preparation for harvest within a month.  I did the ride at a moderately hard pace.  When I got done about noon, it felt close to 90 degrees.  I was hot.  We had the sprinklers going, and I got in the sprinklers to cool my body off more quickly.  Pasty white chest, moderate reddish color from the sun tan on my arms and legs.  Light tan of the dried clay fields around the house.  It is quite a shock to the body to have that sixty degree water, especially on my back or chest.  It is fine on my legs, but takes my breath away when it sprays on my chest.  Rainbows in each droplet as the sun shines through them.  Sunday morning I went on another sort of aromatherapy ride.  I rode my single speed with the panniers, to collect cans.  Over a 20 mile ride, I passed about 20 dead raccoons, skunks, opossums.  The previous day’s heat cooked the greasy and slimy road kill to a wretched smell.  The heat bloats the carcasses until they burst, spewing or oozing stomach and intestinal contents, urging flies and vultures to come to dinner.  Not much visual therapy there.  Grey-green slime just does not strike me as visually appealing.

Then there was some aural therapy.  Friday night we went to a show, “Keep on The Sunny Side,” a two hour long musical play about A.P. Carter, Sara Carter and Maybelle Carter.  It was highly entertaining and the quality of the music was very good.  The woman playing Maybelle perhaps played guitar better than Maybelle did, and probably sang better too.  Maybelle picked out melodies and harmonies on the guitar.  Maybelle played a Gibson L-4 (I think), an archtop acoustic guitar (the L-4 became electric, and now the L-7 is their acoustic archtop, close to $6,000); the actress who played Maybelle played a guitar very similar in appearance to the Gibson L-7.  Sara played autoharp.  A.P. played folk guitar.  For the show, they got vintage instruments, very nice.  The show included two dozen of their songs: Keep on the Sunny Side, Are You Lonesome Tonight?, Worried Man Blues, Are you Tired of Me, My Darling?, Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow, Church in the Wildwood, I Never Will Marry, Lonesome Valley, My Clinch Mountain Home, among them.  Some of their performances nearly brought tears to my eyes.  Most of those songs, if not all of them, I have heard played first by other actors.  I heard “I Never Will Marry” about six years ago for the first time by the Peasall Sisters.  In the play, after A.P. and Sara have separated, and A.P. is still passionately in love with Sara while Sara wants to move on in her life, posed at opposite sides of the stage they sing “I Never Will Marry.”  That was painful to watch.  Maybe more painful was to watch A.P. sing “Are you Tired of Me My Darling?” to Sara just after she discussed leaving him.  That one I think I first heard from Emmylou Harris or Nanci Griffith.  I think I first heard “Worried Man Blues” from Woody Guthrie or Johnny Cash.  The play was sweet, funny, sad.  A.P. and Sara were married young.  A.P. travelled a lot trying to get record deals and book shows. Sara stayed home and raised the kids.  She got tired of him being gone so much, and ended up divorcing him.  A.P. and Maybelle (Sara’s cousin who had married A.P.’s brother) and other Carter family members continued to perform and make records.  Sara performed with them only on rare occasion.  A.P. sure wrote some beautiful songs.  One of Maybelle’s daughters (June) married Johnny Cash.  The show did my heart well.  The actor who played A.P. and the actress who played Sara are getting married this month.  I wonder how it felt to play characters who had a rocky relationship that ended in separation, just as you, the players, are about to set out on your own marriage.  Would it make you aware of the kinds of conflicts and challenges that are likely to arise?  Would it prepare you to learn how to address challenges to your marriage?  Would you more likely have a rewarding and surviving marriage?

When we got home Friday night after the show, our neighbor was shooting off big fireworks.  They had stopped by earlier in the week to give me a flyer and invitation to join them around 8 pm for a party in their back yard, with fireworks show after dark.  I thought they’d be over with by the time we got home from the play.  But no, they went on for twenty minutes after we got home.  And I thought they’d be not too flashy, ones that would go as high as your house, or were ground fireworks of flash and light.  But no, they were commercial quality.  I was stunned how impressive the show was.  A really good fireworks show gives me the analogy of a THC-induced laugh.  I can’t control the joy of the visual candy, the light and color against a dark night sky.  I would not be surprised if he had spent over $2000 on fireworks.  Lansing downtown was to have fireworks July 4.  We went to their Independence Day parade around the state capitol at mid-day.  What a dud of a parade!  No marching bands, no floats.  There were a bunch of tow trucks, a bunch of customized cars (late 1980s two-door Oldsmobiles, for example, with large diameter low-profile tires, cars jacked-up, glittery paint jobs, loud stereos, doors that are hinged to open vertically rather than horizontally), an adopt-a-pet group, some pony league football teams, a few dance groups (belly dancers—gave a whole new meaning to being a belly dancer, several ballet groups, Mexican folk dancers, cloggers), and I almost forgot the local flat track roller derby team, the Mitten Mavens.  The Mavens’ website says “no experience required,” and it showed.  But I suppose as mavens, some of them have some sort of trusted expertise that they hope to pass on to others, expertise on flinging elbows, dodging opponents’ elbows, jamming, pivoting, blocking, not to mention roller skating.  Overall, it was laughable for a parade.  It seemed like anyone who wanted to could walk or ride the parade route and wave at people sitting at the curbs.  Maybe that was the point.  Maybe the organizers were post-modernists trained in the craft of poking fun at us the audience.  I told Beth she should have decorated her bike and joined the parade. The Memorial Day parade in Coleman, MI (pop. 1229) was better than the Independence Day Parade in downtown Lansing.  Given that, we decided not to go to the downtown fireworks show.  We were going to attend, but after the parade, we were not confident that Lansing could put on a good fireworks show.  There was also one in St. Johns, about fifteen miles from us past the mint fields, but we stayed home.

A week before Independence Day, I rode 88 miles.  It was the first I had ridden in two weeks.  During the group ride, the leader and I broke away from the group for four miles leading to a sprint.  We were working right at our limit, very very hard, 24-32 mph.  Coming to the sprint, he led me, but the sprinters from the bunch just caught me about 30 yards from the line, and I took third.  Shortly after that, about 35 miles into my 88 mile ride, my calves started cramping.  I worked on cramp-therapy management: pedal easy, don’t put in hard efforts, stay in the draft, drink a lot, have an energy gel.  On and off for the rest of the group ride my legs were cramping.  Then on the ride back home, about twenty miles, it seemed like every muscle in my legs were cramping.  If there are such muscles as toe-flexors, they were cramping.  If I tried to push very hard on the pedals, my calves and quadriceps cramped.  If I pulled up on the pedals, my hip flexors and tibialis anterior cramped.  At one point, I almost had to stop pedaling.  I’d never had it that bad.  The very hard and long effort after not riding two weeks, and insufficient energy intake (drinking only water, not an energy drink) is what did it.  Stopping at a drinking fountain, I drank a bottle full of water and had an energy bar, and was fine the rest of the way home (except that I got two flats over the last seven miles to home).  That night I thought my sleep would be miserable, and my legs would cramp in the night.  But when I got home I pursued further cramp therapy.  I drank a recovery drink, and fixed two grilled tuna sandwiches.  The recovery drink and the protein in the tuna was perfect. In the future, I am taking Cytomax (like Gatorade, but a different brand).  I hadn’t been taking it since I haven’t been training to race, and figured water was good enough.  Plus energy drink spills on my bike making a sticky mess, and the bike needs to be washed after the ride.  I’ll wash my bike and hope to avoid such severe leg cramps.  I did about 250 miles this past week.  Fat-burning therapy.

Finally, my garden is growing well.  The zinnias are starting to flower.  I have picked three green peppers.  Tomatoes are coming, but I am not sure they will be good.  I expect to get beans in about a week.  I transplanted a cantaloupe from in the garden to just outside, and also a tomato plant that was growing wild.  Maybe they will take and produce something.  I had to spray again for the small beetles that are eating the leaves of the bean plants.  What kind of therapy is growing a garden?  It seems to me a kind of therapy, to take a bunch of seeds, till a garden area with a shovel and spade fork, smooth it with a rake, mark rows, plant seeds, weed and water the garden, tend it, watch it grow, harvest it and enjoy the harvest.  Maybe it is geo-therapy.  Becoming healthful and attuned toward the earth, from which I came and to which I will return.