Mid-course Corrections

Whew. It’s been a while. A lot has happened. And a lot hasn’t.

Like most of us, I started the year with plans for getting fitter, faster, and more mindful. And like many of us, those plans didn’t quite pan out. But, I think I’ve made the best of those disruptions even if I still feel like I’ve plateaued with my growth as a cyclist (and even backtracked in some ways).

Maybe part of getting on in years is realizing how much is beyond us and how much is behind us (and hopefully how much is in front of us).

The other day I was riding in Myles Standish State Forest in Massachusetts, which in many ways represented a different kind of riding than I’ve been doing in Louisiana. First, while most wouldn’t call it a hilly ride, after a steady diet of flatter than flat riding, it was hilly. And twisty. And a bit chilly. And then I got off the road and onto what may have been a paved bike or just a walking path. It was twisty. And bumpy. And fun. It reminded me a bit of mountain biking. Rather than requiring steady effort with peaks of power, the trail require short bursts of moderate effort followed by some coasting, but not the dumb coasting of a long straight downhill on the road. Instead the coasting or low effort moments required some technical skill–tight turns, off camber turns, lumpy pot hole type avoidance, etc. Sure there were no real obstacles–no logs, no patches of shifting surface, but still it brought back good memories of mountain biking from the 1990s.

And then I got back on the road, with its rollers, descents that did more require coasting, etc. I enjoyed both. At no time was I really looking at my GPS for speed, or cadence, or power. (But yeah I did look at them later on Strava). The ride was a good break from being focused on power numbers (see below) and since it was a solo ride, it was a good break from having to be so focused on the group dynamic. I could focus a bit more on the scenery and the road.

The trip (and in part my plan on taking some time off from Louisiana and coming back to Massachusetts was to try and rediscover and explore new kinds of cycling) reminded me how much I like cycling and how challenging it can be. So far it’s mirrored my year. I haven’t done everything I planned to do, gave up on some of the plans before I even left Louisiana, and am feeling like I’m doing a good job of adjusting my plans as I go with an eye to focusing as much to the day to day, week to week actions, as I am to the overall goal or plan (lose weight, increase my FTP, etc.). The trip will also challenge my abilities to say no, to guard my time, and take care of myself in the midst of family obligations–challenges that will help me grow and be able to say no, guard my time, and take care of myself when I get back to Louisiana and its demands.

And the trip helps me focus on investing in experiences and actions over gear. Earlier in the year I purchased a power meter. For a few months it was interesting to look at the data, but I didn’t do much with it–it was threatening to be another investment in things rather than me. Then I decided to get a bike fit and really invest in the riding aspect, the fitness aspect of riding (strangely this insight was preceded by getting spit out of the group about three quarters of lap into a race). A few weeks ago I created some workouts for my GPS unit and started doing them 2-3 times a week and riding with the local group less. So far so good–I noticed myself riding stronger a few weeks into the plan. And riding in specific power zones has reminded me how much cycling is about the ability to focus and not focus at the same time. That is to focus on the power number, on the feelings it produces in my legs, my lungs, my heart, and overall body, but how to not focus too much on those pleasant and not so pleasant feelings because I know they’ll end. And the trainer power workouts regime is making me realize how much I’ve let the demands of the group, the demands of the world, dictate my cycling and thus my fitness.

So while I might not be able to set up the trainer and work on my FTP in as a structured manner as I was at home, I know that once I get back to Louisiana it will be hot and I won’t want to ride outside as much and I’ll be ok with the trainer. In the meantime, I get to ride some hills, around trees, and in weather that isn’t trying to kill me. Riding in some hills has helped me apply the focus not focus mindset from the trainer–telling myself to ignore the hill while paying attention to it. Several times near the end of the ride, I found myself reminding myself that the hill never rides as bad as it looks–that it flattens out.




The Local Bike Shop; Not Dead Yet

The Local Bike Shop has taken a lot of heat over the past twenty years. Like anything run by people, opinions can run high. Folks, often in the same paceline, can have very different opinions about the LBS. And then there’s the rise of the Internet bike shop and the idea took hold that the LBS is ripping us off. And yeah, the LBS can have higher prices. And yeah the Internet shops can have lower prices on most stuff and can and does have amazing deals on some items–the loss leader to get you fill your shopping cart. And yeah, the LBS often makes you wait a few days or doesn’t have the exact thing you want. But the LBS is still worth something and if you have one near you, that’s a good thing.

And yeah, I’ve done a lot of clothing, bike part, and even bike shopping online. I own a Lynskey I bought online. I’m rolling around on some Gatorskins I bought online. I’m also riding a bike I bought at the LBS. I get it from both ends–saving money and having the convenience of the local. I’ve even worked in a shop so I get it.

The past two weeks has reminded me of the value of the LBS. First, while changing my handle bar tape I saw how corroded the shifter clamp bands were getting. My LBS (BG Bicycles in Houma) ordered me some titanium Dura Ace ones–I live in Louisiana and am that guy with the corrosive sweat. A few days latter he called to say they were in so I headed down. Only thing was only one of them came in, but Rod was willing to take one band off of a set Dura Ace shifters he had in stock while he waited for the other band to arrive from California. And he helped me figure out that the Dura Ace clamp bands will fit Ultegra shifters no matter what the service manual says. Cool. I’m on the road and have shifter clamp bands that won’t rust in the Louisiana heat and humidity (it was 80 degrees today).

Then over the weekend the front shifter died. Or just kinda died. The downshift paddle on my Di2 front shifter stopped returning to neutral and thus wouldn’t initiate a shift unless I manually pulled it back out. Bummer. Especially when you’re in a paceline at 24 mph in a 15 mph headwind blowing across sugar cane fields.

A quick trip to the LBS. Rod and dosed the shifter in T9, electrical contact cleaner, etc. And we tried taking it apart, but no deal. That was Saturday. Monday afternoon, Rod calls and texts to say Shimano was sending new shifters even though the old ones are 28 months old. He says come down, I’ve got some shifters in stock and we’ll put them on; I’ll put the warranty ones in the box when they get here. Tuesday afternoon, I’m putting on new shifters, borrowing a new junction box to make the firmware updates go faster (the external battery, 2 year old derailleurs and junction box didn’t respond to the new shifters without a firmware update). An hour and half later, I’m rolling out of the shop with new shifters hooked up to my old stuff–junction box included. Try that with shifters you order off the Internets (and not have to buy the Shimano interface).

Shimano Ultegra Di2 Shifter
Shimano Ultegra Di2 Shifter

I doubt any of that would have happened without a LBS. I doubt any of the Internet shops would have helped me warranty 28 month old Ultegra Di2 shifters–one half dead the other rattling like a box of rocks. I doubt any of the Internet shops would have helped me not panic when the new shifters seemed dead.

Sure I race for BG Bicycles–if you can even call what I do racing. Sure, I’m the faculty advisor for the local collegiate cycling club. Sure, I hang out a bit and help him around the shop–changing flats, doing quick tune ups, putting together a bike, etc. And sure, he doesn’t have everything I want. Sure he couldn’t sell me the Gatorskins for the price I bought them for because he couldn’t buy for that price, but that’s ok. I’m ok with paying a bit more for some stuff and for settling for something other than that exact thing I saw on the Internets or in the magazine. But really, is that exact handlebar tape, or that exact water bottle cage, etc. really all that important? I’m ok with him being cranky at times. I’m ok with him being an opinionated ass at other times–I’m cranky and opinionated too. I’m ok with all that because, when I need a tool, or I need to use his stand, or need a repair done, or just need a part and I’m not sure what part, or need something warrantied, Rod is there. And when I want to just hang out and talk about bikes with other bike geeks on a rainy day, Rod’s shop is there. There’s a LBS down the street from him too. And that’s a good thing because sometimes, it’s good to know that there’s a person there. A person who will let you plug your new Di2 shifters into his computer and update the firmware. A person who will open his shop for the club to use as a try on station for that clothing order.

And I’m ok with buying some stuff online, and he’s more or less ok with me showing up with Gatorskin tires he knows he didn’t sell me.

So yeah, the LBS might be dead. But if you’ve got an even just ok LBS, spend some money there. Put your ego aside. They’re people too and have bad days. They’re not perfect, but neither are you. And neither are the Internet shops.


Holiday Bikes & Gear

It’s the holidays. It’s gift giving and getting season. Blogs, magazines, newspapers, and social media are full of “best of…” or “look what I got” posts. Cyclists are no different. And we bond with our stuff–we imbue it with some weird kind of spiritual baggage. We remember our bikes for all the epic (or not epic) rides, we use them as totems for our growth as riders and people. And they remind us of our all friends we’ve ridden with, hung out with after those epic (or not epic) rides–the parking lot conversations, the trips for post-ride Taco Bell cheats, the post-ride couch time reliving the ride, and more.

Last week while looking at Spooky Cycles’ Twitter feed, I spied (yet again) the Mulholland in purple. Yep, that purple. The one that was everywhere in the 1990s mountain bike scene. That and teal. Seeing the Mulholland reminded me of my first adult Christmas bike–or rather Christmas frame–a GT Zaskar.

Spooky Mulholland
Spooky Mulholland

It was a the mid 90s. I was working in a shop down in south Florida. Doug the GT rep started telling me about the warehouse blow out, special pricing for shop employees on “warehouse seconds” on Zaskar frames. After a bit of back and forth I told Doug, “Ok, I don’t care what color it is, just make sure it’s a good looking frame–no dents, dings, scratches, funny looking welds, etc.”

So there I was, sometime in November or December awaiting a mystery color Zaskar. Would it be silver? The teal? The already, almost passe purple? And then it was December. If you’ve never worked in a bike shop in December, in south Florida, well… I was busy and didn’t really have time to dwell too much on the incoming Zaskar. Instead, I spent time wrenching and riding my trusty Miyata mountain bike I had purchased a few year before at City Bikes in Washington, D.C. It had a good CroMo frame, a rigid fork, and a slew of upgraded parts including Deore thumb shifters–a summer of real mountain biking in mid state New York had proven the early Shimano low end RapidFire shifters not up to the task of riding in the mud or shifting under any kind of load, or shifting at all after a few miles of east coast muck. The geometry was nothing special and in true Fred fashion, I was sure a new bike with a good geometry and a suspension fork would make me a better rider–especially on the twisty single track/BMX trails we rode in south Florida.

Weeks went by. And amazingly, despite it being the week or so before Christmas, I had a day off. The days before there were rumors that the Zaskar frame was in route so I told my fellow mechanics “If my Zaskar comes in, don’t open the box.” Yeah. That was going happen.

Two days later, back at work, there’s a purple Zaskar frame sitting in an opened box. Yep. They opened the box. “We had to make sure it was ok.” Sure. Doug was true to his word. He had made sure the warehouse manager picked a good one. The only problem with the frame was bit of ano specks on the back of the seat tube. A few darker spots in a otherwise beautiful, glowing purple frame. And man, that frame was light. And the welds were beautiful.

I put it back in the box. Brought it home the night before Christmas and told my parents, “put a bow on it.” I opened it on Christmas day. My parents were a bit amazed–perplexed even. Who buys a bicycle frame? Maybe this bicycle thing was something. Is it a cult?

The next day, I brought it back to the shop and hung it up on a u-hook. Once the holidays were over I’d pull the parts off the Miyata and put on a Manitou 4 suspension fork and a Sachs rear derailleur–because, hey I worked in a bike shop. All in all, with the exception of the thumb shifters, it would be state of the art for 1995 or so.

Fast forward a few weeks. It was still season in south Florida so despite the end of the Christmas shopping season we were still slammed, but somehow I had stolen enough time to strip the Miyata and build the Zaskar. I don’t even think I had taken it out for a ride yet when one Saturday with a shop full of mechanics, we heard a 5 or 6 year old yell out “Barney bike! Barney bike!” We looked out and there the kid was pointing up at my Zaskar. Almost in unison, all the other mechanics began saying “yeah, Barney bike.” That was it. The bike was known as “Barney” and you can bet everyone in the shop was sure to let everyone in the local scene know it. I’d show up at the trail head and guys I didn’t even know would say “Barney bike.”

I didn’t care. I loved that Zaskar. It was quick. Flickable. Sure the back end was a bit happy, but I got why Hans Rey loved it. Yeah, it beat me up a bit. But still. And I was young.

Barney became a test bed of sorts. The mid 90s were a time of rapid innovation in the mountain biking world. It seemed like every week there was a new innovation or a new version of the tried and true. It seemed like everyone and everybody with a machine shop was churning out stems, cranks, brakes, brake bridges, seat posts, etc. Barney tried a bunch of them from the Sachs rear derailleur, to the Cook Bros. Racing cranks, to those crappy Tioga attempts at SPDs, to…well I lost track. Barney even got a set of GripShift shifters. It was late winter and the guys from GripShift stopped by–I mean if you had the choice between Chicago or south Florida in late February, which would you choose?

One of them said, “hey, whose Zaskar is this with the thumb shifters?”

By that point nearly everyone was riding RapidFire Plus shifters, but I was still skeptical. “Mine,” I said.

The GripShift guy said, “Man, that’s a sweet Zaskar, but what’s up with the thumb shifters?” I explained how I’d been burned by Shimano’s first attempt at Rapid Fire. “Hey, if I give you set of GripShift shifters, will you use them and not sell them?”

“Sure, if you show me how to install them, I’ll give them a try and if they work.” I had worked on a few bikes with GripShift and unlike the shop manager Ed, I was interested in them. The GripShift guy ran out to his car, rummaged through his trunk, and came back with a set of shifters. He showed me how to install them, tweak them, etc. and I rode them. I liked them. When I built up a new Trek 970 and moved on from the Zaskar I put on some of the first 9 speed GripShift and carbon derailleur–the ESP X.9.

For some reason, I sold that Zaskar. It was sitting in the back of the shop. I had just built up a Trek 970 and one of my good customers was looking for a bike for his brother in law. I sold him the Zaskar, partly because I had moved on to splitting my time between road riding and mountain biking and couldn’t justify having three mountain bikes–I still had the old Miyata. But I still think of the Zaskar. I wonder where it is. I wonder if that brother in law ever rode it–ever experienced the joy of how whippy it was, how quick it would respond to scurry up a steep rise, how it excelled at slow speed stall maneuvers–how I could bring it to a near stop and make it turn–and how fast it was? How primal it was?

Whatever happened to it, Barney was my first Christmas bike. There have been others–bikes, wheels, etc. but I’ll always remember Barney. And even though I didn’t love the purple then, seeing the Spooky, I’m wishing for some purple ano in my life. My birthday is coming up, so who knows….

Mindfulness; The Soul of Cycling

I did a dumb thing.

The other day, after a week or so of hearing my bottom bracket creak every now and then, I rushed through repacking the bearings with grease. I didn’t take time to put the bike in the work stand. Instead I left the bike in the hanging storage stand. I didn’t clean the work area and gather all the tools and supplies. Instead I rushed through and tried to work in the clutter of the bike storage room–the room that at the end of the semester and in full on shoulder season has too many pairs of gloves, toe warmers, head coverings, etc. scattered around. I wasn’t mindful.

Olof P. Nelson and trainer
Olof P. Nelson and trainer

And because I wasn’t mindful, I botched the job in big and small ways. First the small. I didn’t take the time to make sure the grease gun had plenty of grease in it. As a result I probably didn’t get a full grease purge on my Chris King bottom bracket. And because I didn’t take the time to put the bike in the work stand and to make sure I had uncluttered workspace, I made a bigger mistake.


Because I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing I made a big mistake: I forgot to install one of the plastic bushings or spacers required to run the Chris King BB86 bottom bracket with Shimano cranks. Yep. And I knew something was wrong when I put it all back together, but because I wasn’t mindful, I let it go. I let the strange free play and tightness of the bottom bracket go. I tried the quick fix of loosing it bit. It kind of worked. I was in a hurry. I had other things on my mind and was looking towards a goal rather than being in the moment.

Because I wasn’t mindful, my bottom bracket made a weird moaning noise at the start of the Sunday Hammers ride. And then if felt weird; tight and then eventually loose. Then if my pedal stroke was off, it felt loose.

Today, I took the time to investigate. I was more mindful. I made sure I had all the tools. I made sure the grease gun was refilled. And that’s when I noticed what I feared; I had forgotten to install on of the plastic sleeves. But because I had done the original job in a cluttered space and wasn’t mindful, I wasn’t sure if I could find the sleeve. Was it wrapped up in a rag that was in the trash sitting out on the curb? Was it lost somewhere on the floor? Luckily for me, the sleeve was on the floor. Hopefully, despite the odd metallic smell the good folks at Chris King over engineered the bearings to compensate for my lack of mindfulness. I put some fresh grease in the bearings. I reinstalled and adjusted everything, but then I was worried about the gritty feel. Was it the bearings? The chain?

Because this time I was being mindful I took the chain off. The gritty feel was the chain. I soaked it. Brushed it. And then, I stopped being mindful. The girlfriend came home. Rather than being mindful with her–of giving her the time she deserves, I tried to split my attention between her and the final step of rinsing the chain. The result? I poured the quick link down the drain. Panic. Luckily, she was more mindful than me and urged me to use the drain trap rather than panicking and going the bike shop.

So, mindfulness. Cycling is about mindfulness. As Padrig over at Red Kite Prayer wrote a few weeks ago, group riding, any riding is about different kinds of mindfulness. A few weeks ago on a Saturday ride, a newer rider went down. He had just come off the front. We had another new rider with us. We went over a bump which for all of old hands was a known thing. Someone slowed just enough. Wheels touched. And someone went down. It’s easy to blame the guy at the back. But I bet there was a lot of non-mindfulness to go around that morning. Sometimes it takes us focusing on the moment. Sometimes it takes someone else to remind us to focus on the moment. Sometimes the universe reminds us to be mindful.

Cycling demands mindfulness. Not suffering. Cycling demands that we’re mindful of our equipment. Cycling demands that we’re mindful of the road, of the weather, of the traffic. Cycling demands that we’re mindful of the others in the pack–mindful of the people we ride with. Cycling demands that we’re mindful of the traditions of the ride, of the group, and of the area. And that’s why I love cycling. Because in a world that pulls me out of mindfulness, cycling pulls me into mindfulness. Sometimes cycling does it through suffering. Sometimes cycling does it through a well functioning paceline. Sometimes it does it through the sublime sunrise, or the lifting fog, or the play of light through the trees. Sometimes it does it with the horrible sound of metal, carbon, and flesh hitting the pavement. Sometimes it does it with the smiles and looks of mutual gratitude at the end of a ride. No matter how it does it, cycling always reminds me of the importance of mindfulness.

Get What you Give

It’s been a long couple of weeks full of job-related stuff, horrible allergies, the lingering Louisiana heat, and well just life. And life without much of the bike. And a couple of flats, which is odd for me since traditionally I’ve been the “I don’t get flat tires” kind of guy. This summer I got three in a row. Then nothing. And then cane season rolled around in south Louisiana. The roads are full of mud, gravel, and cane cuttings dragged and dropped by the cane trucks. I got two flats in a row. One out on the road with friends. And then two days later as I was turning the corner on my way home from riding with some students.

It’s been that kind of October. But things are looking up. It’s no longer 90+ degrees with 80% humidity every day. The semester is finally calming down (just in time for it roar back to life with a vengeance) and I’m finally back on the road. It’s base building season. Or just riding season. Today I saw a Tweet by Joe Friel “You get out of it what you put into it.” And I generally agree with that when it comes to cycling. I tell my collegiate riders a version of Friel. I tell them, “you get what you give” and just not in fitness, but in terms of the cycling community. You put some time in the wind and people in the paceline or the pack will give you something-respect, a break, room to move up in the pack when things get hot and heavy (or you just get strong). You show up to rides, be friendly, push those who need a push, encourage those who need some encouragement, instruct those who need some instruction, etc. and eventually it’ll come back. People will stop and help you (or watch you) change a flat. Or they’ll sit up and wait for you (or not, knowing that you don’t want them to–knowing that you want to catch your breath and then flay yourself chasing them down). Or people in the cycling community will see you, a young college kid on a bike giving it your all, giving it time, giving it love, and next thing you know they’re offering to donate equipment to the club, to you. Or they’re offering to show you how to sprint better, or…. You get respect and love. You get community.

But there’s another way that you get what you give works. Spend time on the bike and the rhythm of the road, the cadence, the sun, wind, clouds, the seasons, and breathing will give you some peace if you put peace into it. Or anger if you put anger into it (though sometimes the bike lets you pedal out your anger and find some peace). And you put enough time, love, anger, sadness, hope, sweat, and yourself and you become a cyclist. Maybe wiser, but you become a cyclist.


It’s not About the Bike or the Clothes, but it Is

A couple of weeks ago, I forgot to pack my jersey. Bibs, yes. Helmet, yes. Gloves, yes. But there I was in my office with no jersey and not enough time to ride home and get one before I had to meet folks for a quick after school/work ride. And then I remembered the bag full of old jerseys, bibs, etc. I keep in my office for college kids who don’t have any and who want to try cycling.

Rifling through the bag, I ended up with an old Pearl Izumi jersey from the late 90s. Visually it’s pretty similar to the Quest with the white epaulet type things with the PI logo. It’s blue. Kind of Sky blue before the was Sky. Maybe it’s digital blue. Whatever it is, the girlfriend likes it after she overcame her suspicion of its origins. It was a fairly high end jersey from the late 90s, but wow how times have changed.

Forgot a 3/4 zipper, this thing has a 1/4 zipper, which may have been fine back in Ohio, but 1/4 zipper ain’t cutting it in south Louisiana. And that’s just the start of it.

I’ve spent the last few years riding fairly high end kit–mostly by Hincapie, Biemme, Girodana, and Garneau. Ok, so not Assos. And not top, top of the line but good race kit level stuff. After a few miles in a heavy, scratchy, and meh fitting jersey from the 90s, I realized how much I’ve been taking my good kit for granted. How much, in not having to pay attention to my kit, how it basically disappears, good equipment makes the ride better. Makes the experience better. I was reminded of this yesterday in a different way as I sat on the wheel of someone with skipping gears and alongside someone with a creaky bottom bracket. Bad equipment gets in the way of Flow. Just like riding with faster or better handling cyclists make you better, good equipment makes the experience better (and yeah I’ve had horrible days wearing my best kit).

When I bought the PI jersey in the months before leaving the bike shop for grad school, and in the years of grad school wearing it, I never noticed its shortcomings. It was one of my favorite jerseys. But now, despite the girlfriend having washed it and hung it with care–saying again how much she likes it, the chances of it getting worn again are slim. The hems of the sleeves are tight but not tight enough: they don’t move with me. Instead I move around them. The fabric is rough (this might be from all the washings). The already mentioned zipper. And then it just didn’t feel like it breathed very well. It was there and in a bad way.

I wasn’t any slower with the old jersey, but the experience of the ride wasn’t quite the same. There were other reasons why the ride didn’t reach Flow state, but the jersey was part of it.

So yeah, it’s not about the bike, until it is. And I’ll keep shopping for my off the bike clothes at the thrift store so I can ride in a nice kit.