Under the Weather

The last twelve months have been really strange ones for me in terms of general health. Most years, I have one severe bout of allergies in March or April when plants start to bloom and pollen fills the air. But, when I say severe, I mean feels-like-the-flu-with-bodyaches-and-chills severe. There is usually a period of two or three days when I simply do not leave the couch. I’ll put on an entire series such as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and sleep through most of the episodes.

The following week, I generally sound awful because I lose my voice, but I feel so much better overall that getting up and facing the day actually becomes a pleasure.This provides my answer to the age-old philosophical question of whether a thing can exist in the absence of its opposite. For example, can we really appreciate capitalism if communism has died a lingering death throughout the world? In this case, I would argue in the negative, because since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union, U.S. voters have lurched decidedly to the left, expecting the national government to take care of more and more of what they need.

But back to illness. I know that I tend to take my academic and athletic abilities for granted, and this carries over into my expectations for the state of my health. [Notice I didn’t say “wellness?” That word irks me almost as much as “blog.”] I am extremely fortunate in that I have no long-term health concerns of any kind. Because of that, I have come to believe it’s important to feel lousy once in a while so that you appreciate how good it feels not to be sick.

This past fall, you’ll remember, I had a lingering multi-week sinus infection that made it painful to turn my eyes to the side or be in any kind of bright light. It was unpleasant, but I figured I was done being sick for a good, long time. Then, two weeks ago, my wife came down with a draining, plugging, sniffling, coughing head cold. Because it happened in the week between leaving her old job and starting her new one, we both figured it came from a long-needed relaxation and drop in the adrenaline on which she had operated constantly. It took her almost exactly a week to start feeling better. By that time, guess who was feeling sick.

Correct. Twice in nine months is just too much. I refused to be stopped by a tiny little virus. And by this time, I had additional motivation to carry on. The weather was beautiful. (See how that makes the title a double entendre?) It was the second week of March at a temperate latitude, and the daily high temperatures reached the 70s. I put away the cyclocross bike and went out for daily road rides!

To my surprise, I felt almost as if I had attained mid-season form. My average speeds were surprisingly high. My pedaling felt smooth. My shoulders and neck did not complain about spending multiple hours in a riding position. Best of all, I could breathe. My nasal passages and lungs felt better than any over-the -counter decongestant could have made them.

So, what was going on? It occurred to me that I may have unwittingly experienced performance-enhancing drugs. Decongestants are on the banned stimulant list for UCI bicycle races. But I think that if I experienced congestion, then the ephedrine would just have put me back to normal. My fitness level would have been just whatever it already was, right? If that were the case, something had made me stronger than is normal in March. For the first time since the Carter administration, I did not go cross-country skiing a single time over the winter. It just never snowed enough here. That would mean cyclocross got me strong and fit in just a handful of rides. I’d call that plausible, since a cyclocross rider has to work hard just to maintain any speed at all in snow, mud, and grass. Plus, jumping off and running up hills while carrying a heavy steel bike can’t hurt.

I prefer, though, to believe that I was embodying what Nietzsche believed his Super Man would do: put himself through physical challenges in order to prove his strength and superiority to others. Why climb Mount Everest? Because it’s there. Why go out and put yourself into oxygen debt when you’re feeling sick? To show those germs who’s boss. I do know that when I relaxed in the evenings after my rides, the pressure, congestion, and post-nasal drip returned.

I think from now on, I’ll just ride the microorganisms off my wheel.

Cyclocross Chronicles

It’s been a couple of weeks since I decided to play around with my beater bike and try cyclocross. Here’s the scoop.

What I did:

When my knobby 32 mm tires came, I glued them onto the wheels I built last summer.

Cyclocross - 02

Aren’t those gorgeous? Plus, for traction, cyclocross tires use much lower pressures than road tires. Low pressure = comfort. These have 40 psi in them, and that feels perfect for all kinds of terrain.

I removed the water bottle cages.

Cyclocross - 09

The cages would get in the way when you have to put your arm through the frame to carry the bike on steep or unrideably-muddy stretches. Since the longest cyclocross competition lasts about an hour, there is no need for hydration en route.

I switched to a shorter stem and raised the bars a bit from where they were before.

Cyclocross - 04

Because the speeds are so slow compared to road rides, there is no need to maintain a streamlined aerodynamic position. Also, the shorter reach helps to maintain control over rough sections.

Because I had to remove the old handlebar tape to change stems, I replaced it with cotton twill cloth tape.

Cyclocross - 05

Where has this been all my life? Granted, after a half dozen rides it is starting to look dirty, but this is not about style. This tape gives me incredible grip without feeling tacky or spongy like others do. I like the feeling of firmness and control.

I changed the saddle.

Cyclocross - 03

I took this one from an old mountain bike. It’s not leather, but in cyclocross the tires constantly throw mud and water up onto and under the saddle. The synthetic composition of this one will withstand the elements much better. Also, this saddle has a narrower profile than the ones I use for road cycling. This makes things easier when I need to dismount to run or remount after running.

I swapped for the double-sided pedals that had been on my mountain bike.

Cyclocross - 06

Because cyclocross necessitates transition from riding to running and back so often, I thought it was much more important to have these on this bike than on my mountain bike.

I left my gearing alone.

Cyclocross - 07

Combined with a 39-tooth small chainring, this 14-28 five-speed freewheel gives me all the range I need.

I kept the moustache bars.

Cyclocross - 11

These are much wider than those I would use on a road racing bike. but the wide stance gives me lots of control and stability on downhill and technical sections. Also, these bars put your hands in a great position for climbing, much better than drop bars.

So there she is:

Cyclocross - 12

(Gratuitous shot of bike and new-to-me workstand.)

I’m so proud of her. So now that I have a dozen rides under my belt, what are my thoughts on cyclocross so far?

Things I like:

I stay warm. For one thing, he speeds are much slower than those of road rides. There is no easy riding on a cyclocross trail. You’re either riding through grass, thick mud, or snow, and when you can’t ride any more you pick up the bike and run. Also, the trails are generally narrow openings in woods, protected from most of the wind. In all the years I’ve been cycling, I have never found a way to keep my hands and feet warm while riding on the road in cold weather. You name a glove or boot or overshoe that is guaranteed to keep you warm, and I’ve tried it, unsuccessfully. On the other hand, this past weekend I finished a ride having worked up a lather sweating, while wearing normal wool socks and thin running gloves. When I checked the temperature, I was shocked to discover it was 34 Fahrenheit. I never could have lasted if I had been on an open road at 17 or 18 mph.

The rides are shorter. Bicycles are such efficient machines that it normally takes three or four hours to get a worthwhile workout. That’s fine in the summer, but winter evening comes much earlier, and I like to pack in as much activity as I can in a day. Because you work so much harder just to maintain your forward momentum in cyclocross, you can get a decent workout in an hour.  For me, that means being able to go home, clean the bike, shower, read for a while, and still go out with my wife for sushi before it gets too late.

There aren’t the usual road hazards. Whether it’s traffic, glass and other detritus, or red lights and stop signs, there are lots of things that can break up road rides. I’d much rather avoid a tree root that nature put in my way, or stop for a family of ducks to cross my path, than deal with anything man-made.

 

Things I don’t like:

People walking unleashed dogs. In the state where I live, dogs must be on leashes when they are in public. But no matter where I go, there seems to be someone who can’t be bothered to leash his pet. So here I am, trying to maintain control of a skinny, light bike on a technical trail, and along comes Fluffy, running into my path and jumping up on me when I stop so I don’t hit him. Invariably, the owner lollygags around the bend and says, “It’s all right. He’s friendly.” Well, you might be friendly too, but if you jumped on me, that would be assault, pal. I love dogs, but you don’t know that. It takes a really selfish, entitled person to assume someone else doesn’t mind being jumped on by a dog.

That’s it. My dislikes constitute a really short list. Notice, also, that the dislike list has nothing to do with cyclocross itself. Unleashed dogs can ruin any activity I want to keep to myself.

There really is no satisfactory way to avoid the presence of others.

I Spoke Too Soon

I’d like to apologize sincerely to all those inconvenienced by the weather Friday and today. After all, I caused it. All it took was one mention of how warm and dry the winter has been and how I’m looking forward to getting an early start on cycling and this happens:

I Spoke Too Soon - 1

Yeah, that was all me.

I Spoke Too Soon - 4

And that’s where the bikes live.

I know what you’re thinking: “But you love cross-country skiing as much as cycling, if not more. Wax up your skis and get out there.” [Of course my cross-country skis use wax for grip instead of those fish-scale patterns on the bottom. If you’re surprised by that, you’ve learned nothing from these essays.] Well, it’s not that simple.  Right now, there are four inches of dry powder outside with nothing but dead grass (and rocks and tree roots) underneath. Without a base of older snow, the skis go right down to Mother Earth, and there is a reason you don’t see this sport in the summertime. So, yes, there is snow, but it would ruin my day to try and ski on it.

But that’s all right, because I have embraced the precipitation and the mud that will result from its eventual thaw. I have a new project in my life, and it came from a most unlikely source: sporting scandal. It seems that…someone just got caught cheating in a bike race. [Try to contain your surprise.] This time, the performance enhancement came from a motor inside the frame instead of from drugs inside the athlete.

Now, permit me a small digression here. I’m shocked by the shock so many people in the cycling world are expressing. They are so angry that there is a call for a mandatory lifetime ban from the sport for any rider and mechanic involved in using a motor. Riders who have had their victories stripped away because they tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs routinely claim to be clean and re-join the peloton. When they win again, broadcasters praise them for [allegedly] realizing their errors and setting a better example by reforming their ways. But Femke Van den Driessche might as well be projected on a telescreen for the next Two Minutes Hate.

1984-front

And drugs are better than motors?

Anyway, I was less interested in the cheating than in the event in which it occurred- cyclocross. I know this is the hot new trendy thing among people looking to buy still another bike, but I remembered reading about cyclocross decades ago in Greg LeMond’s Complete Book of Cycling.

1989-4th-tappa-Lemond-in-az

[Why did nobody think aerodynamic handlebars were “mechanical doping” in 1989?]

Cyclocross began as a way for European riders to keep fit in the winter months. They would put tires with a little more traction on their regular bikes and ride through cow pastures or along wooded trails. When they came to unrideable sections like rivers or steep muddy hills, they had no choice but to dismount and carry their bikes across or over. Doesn’t that sound perfect for a curmudgeon? “Son, when I was your age, we didn’t have these fancy mountain bikes with all their granny gears. We ran up the hills. And we were thankful!”

1930_champparis

[Real men.]

 Because riders could not go anywhere near as fast as they could on the road, and because they had to run for significant stretches, it was much easier to keep warm and stay happy.

Now, as my hero Bike Snob NYC recommends, I have a metal bike whose configuration I can change around any time I like and try out new stuff. Remember it?

Components2

Because I built light, strong, tubular wheels for it, I can simply put knobby, slightly-wider cyclocross tires on it and give a new (to me) sport a try. The fenders will need to come off so the knobs don’t rub, but they will find their way onto whatever I ride on the road in the rain.

Tell me this doesn’t look like a blast.

Not a doper or a piece of carbon fiber in sight.