Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Syntace C3 Aerobars - 1st Impressions

(see 1 year after report here)

(Artist's rendering of the "Johnny Cash" bridge without chainlink bike barrier)

After days of welcome rain, the skies cleared yesterday, and with temps in the low 60s I headed out for a nice 33 mile ride from my front door to Beal's Point at Folsom Dam. It was the first good outing for my new Syntace C3 aerobars with the "Double Helix Bend" kinkiness that is supposed to support better climbing and produce less shoulder and upper back stress. If nothing else, they'd make great sock drying racks.

The new bridge gives us bikers on the American River Parkway Trail - bought, built and maintained by bikers for bikers at the turn of the last century - our own spectacular underpass. No more weaving through construction zones, forests of orange hazard cones, movable chainlink barriers, and the occasional earthmover or three. There is an 8' tall chainlink barrier, with rolls and rolls of razor-wire on top to keep Al Queda from blowing the bridge supports (roll eyes), but that barrier is all that will keep you from falling head-first 200" into the river below. It makes for a breathtaking view I just have to get some photos of.

I couldn't help myself, and did a bit of racing near the bottom of the descent. The trail is rough and broken in places, but once the descent straightened out a bit I was able to catch and pass my rival. In spite of braking and killing most of my speed to avoid a head-on collision, I ended up on the wheel of a pair of riders I passed going up a short hill. Riding together and drafting into a decent 10mph headwind, they caught me a half mile later. I was surprised how long it took them to rejoin me, and pleased I could pull them for another mile or so before tiring. We took turns at the front of the draft until they peeled off at Hazel St and headed for the Nimbus Fish Hatchery.

The wind along the west side of the lake is pretty strong, getting funneled into a narrows flanked by a steep embankment of 150ft or so. The effect of the aerobars was pretty obvious there, and later as I powered home on the bike trail from Hazel to Sunrise.

My upper back is a bit sore today as the hunched position seems to have aggravated an old injury sustained in an auto accident, but not cripplingly so. I have hated ALL of the aerobars I have tried before, but these are much kinder on the back and I am really liking them, so I hope the back strain issues will not prevent me from using them. Part of the problem is my unfamiliarity with them, which is causing me to ride tensed. I kept catching myself and relaxing during the ride. So much nicer riding relaxed.

The climb up to Beal's is from 5-9% grade, and I did all of that climbing in the aerobars. My neighbor who is riding Syntace SLS bars warned me I would not be able to climb in the bars, so I was quite happy he was proved wrong. They are also quite stable in turns, and I think that is because having the elbow pads behind the main bar, the normal biometric motions that make for turning left or right work as expected.

My goals for the bars were to increase my average riding speed, and to get an alternative, comfortable position for long, flat rides. We have a lot of very flat land around Sacramento if you ride down-river, as indicated in my ATOC coverage. Of course, if you head up river you are into some very serious mountains in 15-20 miles. I am happy to report that these bars provide a VERY comfortable position to ride in - cushy even. I find myself favoring these bars when the road gets rough or broken because the combo of the fork, stem, bars, and bar pads makes for a Lazy-Boy recliner comfortable ride - even over 2-3" asphalt washboard.

I made a few changes after a trial ride as follows.
  1. Moved the seat back 7mm
  2. Lowered the nose of the seat 5-7mm
  3. Raised the tips of the aerobars 30mm
The aerobars are mounted as far apart as I can get them on my FSA wing handlebars, and the pads are within 5mm of their widest position, which produces a nice clean line at the end of the pad mounts. I have wide shoulders, so I am riding a 46cm bar with "lots" of drop - not that any of the current crop of Wunder Bars seems to have much drop. Riding in the drops on a bar with classic drop dimensions will add 1-1.5mph to your speed, more in the wind, but gimmicks such as shallow drops and short reaches seem to be ruling marketing departments right now. At any rate, I opted for the full drop bars, not the compact bars.

Assuming my low back flexibility issues won't prevent it, I'll probably flip my stem to get the aerobars into a lower position, as I think they are still a bit too high. I wouldn't mind having the drops be actual drops, and if I don't have to ride in them too much, in favor of riding on the hoods or on the aerobars, I think I will have a better set of trade-offs. I'm also considering a front brake handle on the left bar and rear shifter on the right bar so I have my most important controls on the aerobars. The danger seems to be during the transition from the main bars to the aeros and back, so I'd like to eliminate as many of those transitions as possible.

I have thought about going to a long, droop-nosed saddle for climbing, and the forward position those saddles are designed to support, but that purchase has been escalated now because the forward position, and more position choices in general, are needed with the aerobars. At this point I can see myself spending 80% of my riding time in the aerobars, if the injury history of my upper back and shoulder allows it. Spending that much time in a more streamlined position will help on long Century rides - long on the clock - and plowing through strong headwinds out in the Delta this summer.

In summary, in spite of a long layoff due to rains, using these bars made for one of the fastest and most comfortable rides yet up to Beal's point, and with a little luck, will prove a great addition to my bag of riding tricks. I highly recommend the C3 aerobars.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Stage 8 - No Tomorrow

"Saint" Lance's gritty, iron, determination shows

For those race fans asleep under a rock on another planet, welcome back, and let me tell you, the story of the 2009 ATOC was the absolute iron grip Astana had on the race from Stage 2's Bonne Doon road break-away by Levi Leipheimer onward. That effort by Leipheimer and Popovych cemented their control over the race for all of the remaining stages. The only time that was in jeopardy was in the Solvang Time Trial, and Levi used that to put the nail in the coffin of any other rider's aspirations for a winning the overall CG.

Rewinding a day to Stage 7, I have to say I was amazed at how easy these riders made Stage 7's climb up to 5,000 ft seem. They have some serious power in those legs and they can keep putting it down for an hour or more if the climb requires it. Btw, I have a nice bike calculator I found online which calculates power from speed and vis-versa. Based on the calculator, when Cavendish hit 51mph, out-sprinting both Hincapie and Thor Hushovd, he was generating 2,292 watts! Mark's got quite an engine there. :D (I've found this calculator to be pretty accurate, and used it extensively to inform my choice of 46/38/24 gearing)

I was, of course, very sorry to see Francisco Mancebo hit a rock and crash out of the race. I was going to mention sand on the road as a factor in the race after the rains, but rocks are an equal hazard in the San Gabriels. They aren't as decomposed as the rock in the Marin Headlands at the north end of the Golden Gate bridge, which will crumble into a mini avalanche of rock if you simply kick it with a good hiking boot, but that sandstone is pretty hazardous on the road right after a rain. I have to think Mancebo would have challenged Team Astana on the Cole Grade climb and changed the complexion of the race.

As it was there were a lot of tired legs, and a handful of notable names dropped out of the race from fatigue and futility. This may well have been Lance's best day too, as he crushed any hope of a run at Team Astana with the savage pace he led the Peleton with on the Cole Grade climb. Nobody had the legs to attempt a breakout off the front of the Peleton, and the Peleton had already been shattered into 2 or more pieces by the pace of the first long climb up to Mt Palomar.

On the descent from Palomar I saw the first really talented descender of the race - Vincenzo Nibali. He was smooth through his line, his positioning on the bike - whether sitting up, tucked over the drops, or chest on his hands resting on the tops of his bars - was well chosen for the tightness of the turns, grade, and speed. His transitions from these positions were well-anticipated and smooth - never rushed or twitchy.

Above all though, the one thing that made his skill obvious was the way he stuck his inside knee out into the wind to pull himself through turns. This not only moves your center of gravity well inside the line of the turn, but by plowing through the wind 18" from the centerline of the bike, it's like an inside air-brake that sucks you through the turn. It's something you see all the time from motorcyclists, but not nearly often enough from bicyclists. This small addition to technique can save your life if you take a bad line through a turn and need every last advantage to get you through it. The small amount of extra drag is usually more than offset by your ability to carry extra speed into the turn.

(To kill a lot of speed quickly if approaching a turn too fast, sit up, stick both knees and elbows out in a figure 8, and brake lightly over the front of the hoods with both brakes - then tuck all but the inside knee in and get low in the drops, putting your outside foot all the way down, thigh pressing lightly against the top tube to prevent wheel shimmy. Resume the same "dirty" aero position to kill more speed, once through the turn, if necessary.)

Descending down from Mt Lassen on a tour, loaded with 50lbs in my panniers, I was horrified to watch as my front brake pads began to melt, liquefy and pour off the back of the brake while I plummeted down an 8% grade into a hairpin turn. These techniques and a divine wind of about 80mph right at the turn are all that saved me. I ended up stopped about 3 inches from a solid stone barrier and a 1,500ft sheer drop. The next day in Quincy I bought a pair of Scott Mauthauser high temp brake pads and never used black rubber pads on that bike again. The magic ingredient in those pads? Iron oxide. Kool-Stop bought the patent on them years ago, so now most of us ride them. I don't know who was more shook up, me or my wife at the time, who was a quarter mile behind watching in horror as I careened toward a certain death. More so than in most things, in biking, small things matter a lot.

Stage 8 was all it was cracked up to be, a long steep climb followed by a short very steep climb. The Mt Hamilton climb from Stage 3 in 2008 is shorter than Mt Palomar, but is at least as steep as Cole Grade. Mt Hamilton done from the Patterson side also comes after an 8-10% grade from Franke Raines Regional Park to the little town of San Antonio. The descent down San Antonio Rd to the base of the Mt Hamilton climb is a great relief, and a lot of fun - until you realize you are going go have to climb back every last foot of that descent to get up to Mt Hamilton. Both Cole Grade and Mt Hamilton are rated "hors catagorie" - beyond categorization. Mt Hamilton averages about 9% with pitches up to 25% grade. You can ride it as the Lick Observatory ride in the Canyon Classic if you like a challenge. I'll be there.

Aside from the dominance of Astana and Leipheimer, the other standout was the crowd. Reported to be at 2 million for the race overall, it beat my estimate of 1 million handily. On the all-important Stage 2 day I couldn't get into the Tour Tracker as it was maxed out at 100,000 viewers. I hope the race organizers will offer a DVD of the entire ride with some of the interviews and other coverage that didn't make it into the Tour Tracker environment.

I have been Googling around to try to find out what the total race attendance is for the Giro d'Italia, but I have to think the Amgen Tour of California is now nipping at the Giro's heels in terms of fan participation, and increasingly, in importance for professional teams and their sponsors. I wish for all the riders, especially those who crashed, a speedy recovery and quick return to racing. Thank you Amgen for the many lives you've saved, and for sponsoring a fabulous event and a fantastic spectacle.

PS: My sympathies to my Blogspot friend Rachael on losing her friend Dean. May his after-life be as fruitful and rewarding as this one.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Stage 7 Predictions

Tomorrow's route could well be called "short and brutal". I know the route fairly well as I used to bike up to Mt Wilson from Pasadena, the descent route for Stage 7. After the tragic crash of Aeromexico flight 498 in 1986, I, and many other pilots found it safer to fly through the San Gabriel mountains than risk the over-burdened corridor between the Rose Bowl and Van Nuys created when the LAX ATC was closed to small aircraft. The route I used to fly was the climbing route for tomorrow's stage. The idea being that if things got quiet under my toes I could land the plane on the road.

The descent down Angeles Crest Highway will be a very fast one. I used to climb up to Mt Wilson, a nice 4,000 ft climb, just to get my thrills flying through those curves coming down. I'm sure the road will be closed tomorrow, but Angeles Crest is the playground of Ducs and Kaws and other exotic crotch rocket farm animals. About 10:00 AM the ambulances would start showing up to recover those whose luck and skill ran out before fate was done with their day. They didn't really like sharing the road with a "glider" as it turns out! :D Speaking of gliders, Mt Wilson is also a favorite place for hang-gliders to launch from, and on a good day one can glide all the way to the beach - it's a mile high. Fun times.......

All of this is by way of saying that the climbers, and especially, good descenders, should be the stars tomorrow, and I look for Mancebo and Levi to feature prominently in the day's drama. The big question is how much the riders have left in their legs at this stage. Levi showed today that he is the strongest rider in the race, bar none. There's no place to hide in a time trial - but it doesn't give much consideration of how much weight that strength comes with. Climbing does. Landis hasn't really been a factor, and one has to assume whatever factor he'd be will be saved for his home turf on Sunday.

I'll be watching with special interest, given my familiarity with the terrain, but it should be the best stage yet, or at least as interesting as stage 4, and as scenic. I expect Mt Baldy will have a snow cap and the San Gabriels should be dark green with vegetation this time of year. I look forward to a great race on an epic day. Let the games begin!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Stage 5 Results

Tour of California - Stage 5 "Predictions"

If you took note of the time stamp on this post you know the only reason this is a prediction is because I'm depriving myself of watching the race until I get this post done. Life does get in the way of fun from time to time. I HATE it when that happens! :D

Today's race course is flat as a pancake. It is also not very scenic, so expect lots of helicopter shots of the gorgeous, snow-capped Sierra Mountains in the background until the very worn down coastal range near Pasa Robles offers some relief from what are the very northern edges of a huge salt marsh just to the south of today's route - the last remnants of the lake that the San Joaquin Valley once was.

When riding the flats, power and speed are king, regardless of body weight. If you ride with clubs like the Stockton Wheelmen they have some big powerful riders that are over 250 lbs. These are 6'+ big hunks of men who would get dropped in mountain stages like yesterday's, but can plow through mile after mile of flats, staring down brutal headwinds (not a factor in today's ride) and pull long lines of smaller riders behind them. The name that comes to mind here is Tom Boonen, and maybe, Popovych for Astana, who is normally a role-player.

After Mancebo's sacrifice to drop back into the Peleton to avoid having his teammates run down by Team Astana and the Levi-Lance machine - who are doing a brilliant job of absolutely dictating the behavior of the Peleton - he will be demanding to be let loose on the world today, and I sure can't blame him. I have to say, as a spectator, Mancebo has done more to make this Tour interesting than any other rider - by FAR. He also appears to have energized and even improved the entire Rock Racing Team. The guy has the most awesome "no guts, no glory", "double or nothing", "damned the torpedoes, full speed ahead" attitude we've seen an a long time. The audacity of hope meets tenacity and strength.

I have to think Floyd Landis will be going for broke about now too. As I sat quietly composing this post in my head, my beloved Jimi Hendrix rendition of "All Along The Watchtower" was floating through some dusty corner of my mind - though I think Dave Mason's version was the most beautiful. The passage "two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl" and "the hour is getting late" were ringing with special fervor. Today is Stage 5. The race will be more than half over at the end of the day. For guys who had hopes of doing well that have been dashed, today is a day they should stare themselves down in the mirror and risk it all. Time is no more for these guys.

Mark Cavendish is another name that comes to mind. His win yesterday was redemption he obviously wanted badly. I have to think his team got a thorough dressing down after the debacle at the end of Stage 3, and they've responded beautifully, though Hincapie was noticeable by his absence at the celebrations at the finish line yesterday. I think Cavendish will not want to settle for that, but looked to me to be energized by his win yesterday. Whether as an individual contributor, or as a role-player getting Cavendish into position today, George Hincapie could well be looking for some redemption of his own after being shunned by Cavendish at the finish-line yesterday. If Hincapie goes early with a breakaway group, and Cavendish joins late in the race, these two themes will flow together.

Special kudo's btw to Cavendish for being a good sport and donning the cowboy hat during the closing ceremony. Those people worked very hard to put on a great finish, fighting tight city budgets I'm sure, so Levi, take a cue from Mark and learn to be a better emissary for the sport. Mark's boyish grin and good-natured play to the crowd was immediately endearing - in stark contrast to his ruthless race persona - as is often the case with true champions.

So where does this leave us? I think a large group of very talented riders will be attacking viciously early, and as that breakaway group begins to stay out there and become a threat, it will grow as other riders will risk bridging up to them until most of the strong riders will be in the front. Where will Lance and Levi be? I think, despite my focus on individual riders above, the real story SHOULD be Team Astana putting on a real display of power and mastery today, and firmly taking control of the race. They were not pushed very hard yesterday, and should be pretty well rested today relative to the other strong teams in the Tour. It would be a strategic blunder for Astana not to take control today.

My prediction is that Astana, at some point, perhaps on the shallow climb up the Coastal Range, will bridge up into the strong breakaway group after setting a ferocious pace for the Peleton to keep the time gap low, gather themselves in the breakaway group, and then put on a display of power by breaking out as an intact team to decisively take over the race. Columbia Highroad and Team Cervelo' will likely contest vigorously, but I don't think they have the guns to stay with Astana. Expect Popovych to play a key role today for Astana.

Will any of this play out? Who knows? As they say, that's why they run races - to find out. Enjoy the race. Time for me to hit the road myself.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Make or Brake

Taking a break from the ATOC for a post, I have been doing a lot of work on my mountain bike, and will be sharing some of my wrenching skills here over the next week or so. Taking time out to make videos and good macro still shots slows things down a lot, but with Sheldon Brown gone I'd like to offer some help to those interested in learning how to maintain their own gear.

Don't be alarmed by my rapid hand motion at the end of the cut. The Dremel is not nearly powerful enough to move your hand out of the way that fast. I was moving my hand to try to prevent the cut-off blade from getting caught and breaking. This doesn't happen very often, but with the light so close and the camera lens to worry about getting showered with sparks it was a bit harder to position myself in the usual way.

Having the use of both hands is also a big help, but if you have a friend to hold the end of the cable and pull on it a bit, and move it slowly so as to open the cut up, it will go very, very smoothly. Just be patient and go slow. If you are doing a lot of cutting (IE: having a re-cabling party with friends) put down an old rug or some cardboard to protect the floor and wear old clothes.

Many, many bikes come assembled with improperly cut cables, being too long or too short, and occasionally, being so poorly cut that it makes brakes and shifters perform poorly. Cables that are too short create kinks, while those that are too long create unnecessary drag and can be a danger for snagging.

Brake cable housing and shifter housing are not the same, and using a shift housing for a brake housing will result in catastrophic failure. This is due to the way the wire is wound, or not wound, as it were, on shifter cables, where the wires run lengthwise from end to end to minimize compression. This makes shift cable much less compressible, but putting a few hundred pounds of load on it will make it burst through the plastic sheathing and leave you without brakes at a really bad moment. Always double check to make sure you are using brake cabling and housing when re-cabling brakes.

Here's a short video showing the simple cutting station I set up with a brief discussion of the important features.

These photographs are from two ends of the same cable. One end I cut off with a Dremel cut-off wheel, and the other is the end the bike shop that sold me the cable made when they cut it off a large spool from the mechanic's bench. As you might imagine, the torn, stretched and cork-screw shaped end from the bike shop will not seat properly, will want to bend and "walk" its way around inside any fitting, turning the cable.

This brake cable would make for very spongy braking with the cable moving around a lot when put under load. If it were a shift cable housing the shifting performance would be very poor, resulting in noisy gears and jumping of gears on the rear dérailleur.

When you cut the actual cable, use some metal duct tape (no, not the plastic stuff, the metal stuff) to wrap the cable with during the cut. You don't want a cable strand coming loose while you cut. The heat of the cut will weld the cable strands together and make a much more durable end. Use the cut-off wheel as a grinding wheel and put a nice dull point on the cable. Again, the heat will weld the cable strands together. It makes for a perfect cut and a cable that will thread perfectly.

I prefer a piece of metal duct tape cut in the shape of a little flag to the little metal ends you get from the bike shop. Squeezing those ends is usually what breaks off a strand, which you don't find out about until you take it off, and then *poof*, you have a frayed cable you'll end up having to replace. If you cut the cable on the frame, which is perfectly acceptable, use something to protect the frame from hot sparks, which will pit paint and carbon fiber clear-coats.

It takes a bit more effort to do this work yourself, but personally, I wouldn't trust something as life and death as brakes to anyone else. Also, I really want my shifting to be as crisp and clean as is humanly possible, so I am happy to do this work myself so I get perfect cabling.

Tour of California - Stage 4 Predictions

The weather today is gorgeous, sunny, light and variable winds and temps into the low 60's. The terrain is very mountainous with flats on both ends. This is a day for climbers, so I expect Mancebo will once again be at the front of the race - provided Rock Racing has a team to put him in a position to win those 5, count'em, 5 KOM climbs on today's stage. That cold, thick air gives you tons of cardio, but that allows you to push your musculature to the limit, and all the riders at the front, and especially the sprinters, really got wrung out yesterday. (you can feel the extra drag on your body in cold air - it's noticeable)

Lance and Levi are tired and beat up, Astana having done most of the work into that brutal wind yesterday, and both men have crashed now. Levi's lead is down to 30-40 seconds on about 5 riders, so I expect Levi to give up the CG lead after making other teams work hard to take it from him, pulling he and Lance along in the process. If Team Astana can hang onto the yellow jersey today it will be a huge coup.

I expect the Columbia High Road team with Hincapie and Cavendish to make a hard run at Astana today. Cavendish needs some redemption today after blowing it at the finish line yesterday, and Hincapie is likely to feel like doing a bit of free-lancing today after his efforts to put Cavendish in a position to win the sprint at the finish were wasted.

While this will be the climbers day tactically, strategically, this is a day where it's all up for grabs. With Astana being so dominant, but now very tired from all the time spent pulling the peleton through the heavy winds yesterday, this is a day when 4-5 teams have chance to put on a strong performance and grab the stage win, and SaxoBank and Columbia have a chance to take the CG lead from Levi and Lance. Props, btw, to Popovych on the Astana team for doing most of the yeoman's work out front yesterday, saving Lance and Levi and all the wheel-sucking wanna-Bs just trying to hang on. I'm sure a lot of riders stumbled into bed and collapsed last night, and the massage tables will all have waiting lines this morning.

For us spectators, this should be a spectacular day of breath-taking vistas, exciting climbs, lots of team tactics and strategy playing out, and the stronger teams trying to reel in the climbers at the end. If Levi still has the legs, he might surprise us all and pull off a stage win, or at least, hang onto the yellow jersey. I'm hoping for a fast race, because I need to get out and have a fast ride of my own before dark, and before the rain sets in again tomorrow. Enjoy!!!

Stage 3 Recap

It was thrilling to watch some of the best riders in the world take on the terrain I cut my teeth on - flat, windy, San Joaquin valley country roads. The San Joaquin Valley used to be a lake, and it is almost completely flat for the almost 400 miles from north to south.

I watched and smiled knowingly as the riders lined up in echelon formation to try to draft in the heavy quartering winds. To this day I find it amusing that many riders get nervous when I draft closer than a couple of feet off of their rear wheel as our little 3-man racing team back in high school used to draft with our front and back wheel overlapped up the the lead guy's axle. We get very strong on-shore winds here in the valley we call the "Delta Breeze".

This "breeze" is actually a very persistent wind from 15-35mph and will absolutely tear your legs up. More than once I have sat on the side of the road and dug cramps out of my hamstrings, burning from the constant strain. Thirty miles from home and facing a stiff Delta Breeze is a tough ride.

They say wind is the hill that never ends for good reason, it is exactly that, and only the best teams can beat it and survive to ride the next day. There were a LOT of dead tired, and even completely exhausted riders in the case of the 4 who attempted a break-away yesterday. Yesterday's winds were just the normal storm flows flowing up against the Sierra Mountains from the south bringing the rains we need so badly this year. California leans west as you go north, so the winds end up being SSE.

It was good to finally see team Cervelo' make its presence known yesterday, and they executed to perfection at the finish. Cavendish was a bit under form yesterday, but did get cut off at the finish line, so he may want some redemption and payback today. Levi and Lance have both crashed, Lance several times, and that might be a factor today.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Predictions for Stage 3 of the Tour of California

Here's some tasty footage from VeloNews. I do think they are overestimating the chances of individual riders in Stage 3 though. The climb comes too early to be decisive, and is not nearly the test that last year's Mt Hamilton climb was. I'm betting the best teams will be able to recover on the long flat stretch that makes up the last 50 miles of this stage.

How flat? Some of these areas are flood irrigated, and for that to work there has to be less than 4" of rise in a mile! Winds will play a more important role, and they will be all headwinds tomorrow, although not very strong once over the hump and into the San Joaquin Valley. This stage should favor Astana, which is dominating with riders in 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th places.

Dressing for the Amgen Tour of California

Having ridden all winter here in Sacramento, in much colder weather than what the Tour of California riders have ridden in so far, I wanted to offer a few tips on how to dress for warmth with breathability sufficient to keep the heart from having to pump 20% more blood to cool the body during climbs, but with enough protection to avoid hypothermia on the descents.

Doing a head-to-toe, I'd like to start by recommending the Turtle Fur 2mm micro-fleece balaclava. For it's slight weight and low bulk it offers more thermal benefit than any other garment. As a bonus you get free wind-burn protection for your face, it tucks under your collar to keep your neck warm, and keeps your ears from freezing.

It allows enough air through to wick the sweat out of your hair, and keeps the rain from running down your hair into your eyes. I am wearing it here with a PI headband because where your glasses' stems go under the balaclava it forms little air scoops which will freeze your temples below 40 degrees. The PI headband has holes to push the stems through and solves this problem, but it's not nearly as helpful by weight or bulk as the balaclava is.

Before we go onto any more particulars, let me just say a word about coloring. When riding in the winter your eyes will often be teared by the cold wind, your glasses will often be fogged from sweating on climbs, and the short days mean starting out and ending up rides will often be done in poor light.

Having layers with dramatically different colors will be a huge advantage when groping for zippers stacked on top of each other in layers. Make your own zipper pulls, and make those as unique as possible too, but please use color to your advantage. It's free, and it's a BIG help groping for a zipper when cresting a hill.

I suspect everyone has their own favorite base layer, especially the jersey, but I will put in a plug for the Slice Kodiak Light Long Sleeve Jersey. Mine is bright orange, on sale at a great price, but I have noticed from group photos that it can be seen for at least a mile away. Not what you want when mtn biking, but on the road, a great color.

When the temps drop below 40 degrees I have an REI fleece sweater that I wear instead of a jersey (no 3 back pockets like a jersey) that is a big step up in warmth. It is very warm even when you're soaked in sweat. (note in hydration planning)

They don't sell the exact REI fleece base layer I have anymore, but this Mountain Hardwear Power Stretch Lightweight Zip-T is pretty close. Mine has the Napoleon pocket like the Marmot Mountain below, but this one's arm pocket should hold keys, cell phone, or ride fuels just as well. At 314 grams, this is the heaviest weight base layer Mountain Hardware sells.

This Marmot men's Power Stretch half zip is almost EXACTLY the same garment I have - except mine is a 3/4 zip. Use as a base layer only as it has no pit zips. Again, absolutely warm even when wringing wet. That Napoleon pocket will hold at least 4 Powerbars and the folded balaclava.

For the kind of low 50's temps we've had for stage 1&2, this is too warm. Stick with a good jersey. With snow levels dropping though, keep this in mind. Campmor has it on sale most of the time for ~ $75.

The best 2nd layer I have found is a Columbia Men's Ballistic II Windproof Fleece Jacket with pit zips. If it doesn't have pit zips, forget it. You'll never get rid of enough heat on climbs. You could even go with a short-sleeve jersey under this. Fleece is bulkier than say, a wind shell, but I've tried both and the nylon windshell had me soaking wet in 10 miles and steaming hot on climbs. Shells just don't work well. (if you stop and your skin is wet against your base layer, your outer layers aren't breathing well enough) This does. Both this and the fleece base layers above come in women-specific versions. .

Mountain Hardware makes a similar wind jacket. My Columbia Titanium is an '05 and has wind resistant material everywhere but the front of the chest. This sounds like it would fail as a biking garment, but with a mesh backed vest this gives you tons of venting options. Also, this jacket does NOT have a zipper wind-barrier on the inside, and this is not a mistake. It is designed this way to allow the maximum amount of air to pass through the jacket when you open the front zipper.

... inside-out view with no zipper barrier

So what do you wear over the wind vest on a day where the wind and rain are competing to make you miserable? My suggestion is a fairly tight, lightweight, but breathable water repellent windbreaker. Having both the vest and the windbreaker, especially if the vest and windbreaker have good venting in the rear, gives you a lot of options in letting air into your arms, into the pit zips, or into your core with all zips open.

The fleece jacket is bulky and I'm sure controversial, but doesn't weight that much, provides ready places to store energy bars, and will protect your body in a crash - always a concern in the rain. I almost never ride with a windbreaker over my fleece wind jacket because it seals off the pit zips too much, but I am rather barrel chested, so if you have trouble keeping your core warm, this is something to consider.

I think you'll find the wind fleece jacket's arms are very wind-tight, but if your core gets chilled easily, go with the thick fleece base layer, the fleece jacket, and a vest or convertible vest that has zip-on arms. This should take you down to below freezing weather, or gale-force winds.

For the kind of temps encountered in the first 2 stages of the ATOC, I would recommend a jersey, Titanium wind fleece with pit zips wide open, and the Novara wind vest with a full mesh back as pictured below.

The Novara vest's back zip pocket is HUGE. You can fit a small loaf of bread in it, and can stuff your windbreaker in it if you need to take it off and put it back on. I wouldn't wear the windbreaker - too warm - and the fleece jacket probably eliminates the need for a long sleeve jersey or arm warmers while providing better protection. On long descents pull the pit zips shut and zip the vest all the way up - it's windproof to 60mph. How good of a descender are you?

I usually have a thin piece of cardboard I fold to 5"x10" that I slip inside my leg warmers or tights before putting them in the back pocket. It not only keeps them from wadding up at the bottom of the pocket, it helps them dry out and keeps my kidneys and lower back super warm. Packaging from stuff at REI seems to work really well. Thin, but quality cardboard.

Gloves are a sore spot with me, as are Shimano shifters. I have the Pearl Isumi AmFib and have a friend with the Gavia gloves. Neither of us is completely happy with the warmth nor the dexterity they provide. I sure wouldn't try riding with fingerless gloves in this weather.

I love the Novara gel shorts, but find in weather below about 45 degrees the gel gets very hard and cold, so I am riding PI 3D shorts like everyone else is. I do think bib tights with a full chamois is a great way to go, as long as your cadence doesn't suffer.

I wear snowboarding knee socks with the thicker calf pads, then PI MicroSensor leg warmers and then pull my shorts over that. I wish I had bib shorts because my lower back tends to get chilled and that would help keep it warm, but right now I don't.

I noticed that Lance Armstrong gave up on the macho but self-defeating "Belgian Knee Warmers" and rode with full tights, or at least leg warmers today. I'd recommend the rather hard to find Pearl Izumi MicroSensor legs warmers. They are far superior to the more commonly available ThermaFleece ones. In fact, they are warmer than full ThermaFleece tights!

They have sticky rubber stuff both top and bottom inside and spatters of it at the top of the legs on the outside. Also, the zippers are in the rear, so you can wear tights with side zippers over them without issues. (yeah, laugh, but when the temps drop below freezing your 'nards will freeze with just leg warmers!) They also have loads of reflective piping to silhouette you at night.

The reason mammals succeeded where reptiles failed is because we have the ability to regulate our body temperatures and keep ourselves warm and fully functional when the weather turns cold. Turning glucose into ATP in the Krebs/citric acid cycle is a chemical process that works faster with heat. Don't be a reptile, ride like a human. Mother Nature worked hard to give you that gift, use it!

Now for the shoes. I bought a pair of full length PI AmFib neoprene road shoe covers in early December and still my feet got cold. I tried putting aluminum foil over my shoes before putting on the shoe covers, and that worked for 2 rides and then tore. I happened to be showing a neighbor what a space blanket was and got the idea to try folding a swatch of space blanket over my shoes and taping the ends together behind the cleats. PROBLEM SOLVED.

Space Blanket - the crazy tough winter shoe covering material

The stuff is crazy tough. My first attempt is still going strong after 2 months. 100 lbs of pulling on it won't tear it, it is more reflective, absolutely windproof, and seems to move heat around inside the shoe somehow. If you drag a toe it will tear through, so you might want to tape over the toe with duct tape, but this is an amazingly effective solution for keeping toes warm. You may well decide to ditch your shoe covers entirely - and your cadence will thank you!

Speaking of Space Blankets, keep one like this in your seat bag just in case. If you crash and go into shock, this may very well save your life.

"She froze to death 30 ft from the road..." NOT!!!

This is a high dollar wool blend snowboarding sock, but Thoro and Burton snowboarding socks are also excellent. Snowboarding socks have extra padding over the calf to pad it when leaning to carve when heel-side on the board. For cycling, this extra thickness keeps your calves much warmer under tights or leg warmers (or both on a really cold day).

UPDATED: 1/22/2010 to update links and refresh content

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Amgen Tour - Stage 1 Predictions

The Prologue yesterday was a rock concert. Total madness. Reports are that 100,000 people showed up. You get a sense of the size of the crowd from this great pic posted by Jeffery, one of the organizers here in Sacramento.

The weather is extremely windy today, and the rain is soft to driving, but there is a silver lining no one seems to be talking about - its a tailwind!!! The wind is from the SSE or SE and at 20-30 gusting to 50mph. On long, flat stretches these guys are going to be flying. I just checked the winds on for Lake Berryessa, and they are forecast to be 26mph from the SE. That is a long, flat, open stretch, and should be super fast. Expect speeds of 35-40mph on the flats and a blistering pace throughout. Even on the climbs they will get a nice boost. The cold, thick air makes those lungs very efficient, and keeps the body temps under control too, so with fresh legs and near hurricane upslope winds anticipate some amazing climb numbers.

I expect a lot of riders to break out of the Peleton and try to get up front. High tailwinds will make it much easier to maintain a good gap over the field as riding in the Peleton will dull the effect of such strong winds. Riding solo today is not the fool's game it usually is. My hunch is the riders will finish the race pretty fresh and that should make for some high drama at the finish line and lots of gleeful riders doing interviews after. A blistering fast day for the riders will give each of them new confidence and enthusiasm. The 2009 Amgen Tour of California is shaping up to be a smashing sucess.

Friday, February 6, 2009

What to Buy?

I was reading an old Bicycling Magazine last night, the annual buyer's guide from last year. I looked at the cover to find the month of issue - April. I resolved to get busy and write something in my bicycle blog about purchasing a new bike. Better me, having just gone through the process 10 months ago, than an industry rag hawking the wares whose advertisers pay the most.

First and foremost you must buy the frame. I'm not suggesting you have to literally buy a bare frame and build the bike up using all hand-selected parts, although that is exactly what I will do next time, but be aware that you can replace every other part on the bike except the frame, so you must consider the frame first and foremost. A good frame is like a savings account, it will continue to pay dividends over time as you upgrade worn out parts and slowly grow into the bike as your conditioning and preferences in rides change.

A good frame should do a lot of things well and not be overly prone to damage, but above all, IT MUST BE THE CORRECT SIZE. Moulton's system is the best one I have ever found. It correctly explained why at 5'9" I should be riding a size 54 frame, and not a size 48 or 49 based on my inseam. I have the feet and torso of a guy 6', and the inseam of someone 5'5". The frame and stem are fit to your torso in this case, not your inseam. I therefore ride a 54mm frame and a 120mm stem with my seat slid forward. It works beautifully. If you are riding a bike with a stem shorter than 90mm or longer than 130mm, you almost certainly have the wrong frame size. Please study this chart thoroughly before you venture into a LBS. The difference between ignorant and arrogant bike salesmen is often 15 minutes.

The 2nd biggest decision in buying a bike with a good frame is the material the frame is made out of. The choices are really steel, aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber. Steel is the classic frame material, and the material has one huge advantage, it has a fatigue limit. Aluminum does not. All aluminum components, including, and especially the frame, will fatigue to zero strength after some number of fatigue cycles. Steel is also the strongest material by volume, and unfortunately for bike frames, it is too strong.

This because as you make frame tubing larger and larger in diameter the strength of any such tube increases with the cube of the diameter. Two inch tubing isn't twice as strong as 1" tubing, its 8 times as strong. It didn't take tubing mfgs long to figure out they could double the tubing diameter, make the tube walls half as thick, and still end up with a tube 4 times as strong. If you continue with this process long enough you will make the tubing walls so thin you can crush them with your bare hands. This is called the "beer can" effect, and forces steel tubes to be made with walls a lot thicker than is required for the strength of the frame. However, steel will only fatigue down to about 80-60% of its original strength and then fatigue no more no matter how many fatigue cycles it is subjected to - we are talking billions of cycles here. The Eiffel Tower, if properly maintained, could easily last 10,000 years, not the month it was designed for.

So, why not use a material that is less dense, like aluminum? You can make large diameter tubes that have thick walls that won't "beer can" and they will still be light. Yup, and they will fatigue to failure in short order leaving the rider in a bloody mess in the street, and eventually, sobbing in front of a sympathetic jury. So why not add in some extra strength reserve so by the time the fatigue factor is getting critical the bike has been melted down into a TV dinner tray?

Well, this is what is done, but the result is very stiff tubing and very stiff frames, and unfortunately, aluminum transmits road vibration like a super-conductor. These frames will eventually fail, but not for many years of normal use. In addition aluminum doesn't rust, in part because only metals with iron in them rust. This does NOT mean aluminum doesn't corrode more or less in the same way as steel. It does, but this is almost never the failure mode for aluminum - fatigue life is. Keep in mind that "mega scale" stiffness, the stiffness that resists frame flex, and a material's propensity to transmit rather than attenuate high frequency road vibration have little to do with each other. Friends don't let friends ride aluminum.

So if steel is too dense and strong. and aluminum isn't dense enough and is too weak, how about we pick something in the middle - like titanium? Titanium is a great choice, and makes beautiful, corrosion resistant tubes. It makes for expensive bikes though, as it is an expensive material, must be welded in an oxygen-free environment, and is very abrasive for machine tools to fabricate. It also doesn't have the fatigue resistance that steel has, but it's a lot better there than aluminum, so the tubes can be made fairly small and thin for a very nice ride.

Almost every bike you buy today will have a carbon fiber fork. It's not because CF is the easiest material to make forks out of, it's because CF has this amazing ability to kill the high-frequency road vibration that numbs your hands, wrists, butt and feet. For the most part this is because in tension CF is a string, and in compression it is a reinforced piece of plastic tubing made up of epoxy and thread. Plastic doesn't transmit vibration very well at all, and very happily so. (I suspect vibration transmission, or lack thereof, is closely related to a material's efficiency in transmitting sound, but at this point that is just conjecture, not researched fact) My particular bike adds still more vibration damping by adding silicone inserts into the fork, seat-stays and seat post. I also bought a CF handlebar stem and when funds permit, I will be riding a CF handlebar, and perhaps, a CF aerobar.

I knew most of this information when I was looking for my bike courtesy of a neighbor who has been a bike mechanic on and off for 30 years. We went to a LBS because they had a killer deal on a LiteSpeed Ti bike, and he just insisted I look at it. Unfortunately, it was not even close to my size. I noticed the CF forks on all the aluminum and steel bikes and started looking at all CF bikes. I had ridden the Trek Madone 5.2 and it was a revelation, so I asked the salesman to show me the cheapest full CF bike they had knowing I would eventually customize the bike and replace most of the parts. He put me on a Specialized Roubaix and I was hooked.

I ended up buying my Roubaix from an online ad, but had to drive a couple of hundred miles to pick it up, as Specialized, like most of the high-end makers, doesn't want to undercut their dealer network so they are not allowed to sell their bikes online. I had narrowed my search down to the Roubaix or a Felt. I got a great deal on my Roubaix because though it was a NIB bike, it was an '06 model and had a 9-speed gear train. With metal prices so high Specialized had put much cheaper components on the '08 Roubaix of the same model, so I saved almost a grand over a comparable '08 model two levels up. I also knew I'd use the savings to customize the bike with the components I wanted, instead of being stuck with choices Specialized made. Finally, I wanted a triple and not a compact gearing system because we have lots of mountains in California. It was a good fit.

My friend has a custom built Pegoretti, he loves it, and it is a very nice bike, climbs extremely well, and has almost zero flex, but I would not buy another steel bike because metal just beats me up too badly. In fact, I used CF spacers between the top bearing on my headset and the bottom of my CF stem to eliminate any metal to metal vibration pathway. The CF stem, a Ritchey, has an aluminum core, which they really use as a mold, but since it is impractical to remove it after the CF is baked they make you a present of it. With the combination of both aluminum and CF the stem is 3X the strength of an aluminum stem and you don't have to worry the stem will fail from fatigue in the future. It's just ridiculously stiff mounted right down on the headset, and I love it. The wheels are now the weak point in climbing out of the saddle.

This is all well and good, but aluminum is horrible for vibration transmission so before the vibration can migrate from the bottom metal bearing race through the top tube into the top race, and then into the stem, I block it with a 3mm CF spacer. My fork has a CF steering tube, so that vibration path is well damped. An all CF stem and CF handlebars would provide still more damping, but I'm on a budget, so I have to take my hands off the bars occasionally and "thaw them out". You do what you can and live with the rest.

Since I am fighting carpal tunnel I also ride with Fi:zik gel tape and use the excellent Torelli Moda Chunky handlebar tape over that. The Fi:zik handlebar tape is junk, but the gel tape is excellent and can be reused time and time again, although with the Torelli tape, that might be a few years unless you crash.

My next surprise was that bikes no longer come with pedals, and while they come with seats, they shouldn't bother, because all the places where you interface with the bike require very tailored solutions. It took me 4 seats to find one that worked well with me, the chamois in my shorts, and the seat post. As for the pedals, I ditched a perfectly good pair of beautiful old Shimano SPDs in favor of the new wider SPDs that are really a LOOK clone. LOOK had it right, Shimano had it wrong, so Shimano caved and copied.

The old Shimano SPDs have a very small area that contacts the shoe, and after a few hours they tend to create "hot spots" under the balls of your feet. It got bad enough that after a 5 hr ride I was limping, so I shelled out the money for new pedals - Ultegra PD 6620s. Problem solved. The important thing is to get a pedal that has steel on top or you will be buying new pedals every year instead of new plastic cleats.

I also replaced the stock 12-25 cassette gearing in the back, and not for any obvious reason. Shimano cassettes are really just a pile of parts, except that on the higher end cassettes, Ultegra and DuraAce, there are aluminum spiders or carriers that steel gear rings are pinned to. This saves weight, but that is not very important. What is important is the aluminum carriers span the width of 3 gears and 3 spacers so that the contact area between the gears and the splines on the wheel hub is 9 times as great. After one very steep climb I was shocked to find that my large back cassette gears almost tore through their splines and started spinning, ruining the wheel. I replaced that cheap POS with an Ultegra 12-27 cassette and it has performed beautifully ever since.

I have replaced tires, front chainrings, brakes, handlebar tape twice, the chain, the seatbag twice, lights, reflectors and cut 15mm off my steering tube to get my head down in the wind. The Ritchey stem is a 120mm, up from the 100mm stock stem, and I pitched the 20mm tapered headset collar/spacer. All in all I have dropped the handlebar position about 30mm. What I have not done is run out of frame. I still love the frame. It does everything well, and nothing superbly. That makes it very versatile.

My Roubaix still has its plush bike DNA, but it has come a long way in the Tarmac direction since I rolled it out of the bike shop smiling ear to ear. With 31.8mm handlebars low and forward, a stem 3X as strong as normal, and the stem a mere 3mm from the top headset bearing, I ride one of the stiffest front ends on the road - and yet am well protected against vibration. Everything on the bike is aerodynamically clean and while I am not a slave to weight, I pay attention to what I carry - especially in my seat bag. Go small. (The bigger the bag the more junk you'll stick in it) I ride for efficiency and really sweat the details to use my limited physical resources to optimal results.

I rock the hills with the best of them, but the long chainstays and compact frame don't make it as easy as a Cervelo R3-SL would. My triple crank is now sporting 46/38/24 gearing and I can ride straight up 8-25% grade all afternoon in the saddle. I run out of gears over 30mph but the wind drag will eat you alive above those speeds, so it's a trade-off I am happy to live with. I still hit 55 in a tuck going down a half-dozen grades around Sacramento, and love the sure and brutal stopping power of the new SRAM Force brakes. The point is, a bike is a trade-off that is very personal, and most of those trade-offs can be changed so long as you have a good foundation - the frame.