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.

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