Friday, December 18, 2009

Garmin Edge 305 Review

This has been a long time coming, but I've finally logged enough miles and found enough time to write a review on my Garmin Edge 305 GPS cyclocomputer. There have been plenty of debates about the value of biking computers. Many find that riding without a cognizance of speed yields a more enjoyable experience than pouring over the minutiae of elevation and heart rate zones. An equal number seem to find great value in tracking their numbers over time. I fit into the second half. I'm not a racer but that doesn't mean I don't want my riding improve. It's tough to improve when you don't know where you're starting from. Having some numbers to compare from ride to ride has made a big difference in my cycling.

The 305 has an easy to read screen with plenty of information

The 305 comes in four different packages. The one I chose came complete with heart rate monitor and cadence sensor. Installation was a breeze. Since everything runs wirelessly, once all the components are mounted you're ready to ride. The toughest part was lining up the spoke and crank arm magnets with the cadence sensor. The 305 is fully featured, tracking the most important statistics a cyclist cares about. What separates it from it's big brother, the 705 is a lack of turn by turn mapping and power meter compatibility.

The 305 has a very compact size that fits well on a road bike stem. The screen is easy to read and all the buttons are fully accessible while riding. One of the big benefits of the 305 is the ability to customize the unit to exactly what you want. The main display can be changed to show up to six of the statistics the unit tracks simultaneously. If you still need more in-ride information, there is a second page that can also be fully customized.

The Garmin cadence sensor was the hardest part of a simple installation process

If you need a feature on the 305, it is likely there. In all fairness there are many which I don't use such as Virtual Training Partner and cadence alarms. However, I would like to highlight some of the features I find most useful. The first is the ability to program interval workouts into the computer based on either time or distance. Once programmed, the 305 makes an audible sound that signifies the beginning of each rest or effort interval. The inclusion of GPS also allows the user to set an auto-lap point which marks a new lap each time it's crossed.

Looking over my data over the past few months, I've seen both my average speed and cadence increasing steadily. Now that I can accurately measure laps and time, challenging myself to complete my home loop in faster times has pushed my fitness to higher levels. The ability to measure my cadence while climbing has helped me settle into a gear which strikes a balance between spinning and power. I can clearly see the improvement in my riding ability and I can feel the difference in my lungs and legs. Perhaps my improvement is due to more cycling experience, but either way I can now physically measure my improvements and that has been a help.

The entire Edge 305 package

Garmin provides an online data tracking system which users can download their ride data to. Garmin Connect is a website that allows Edge users to store their ride data and provides telemetry such as speed, heart rate, elevation, and cadence tracking. It also allows users to generate reports and see the routes other Garmin users are taking. Although there are other comprehensive data programs (such as Ascent and Sport Tracks) Garmin Connect is a great service that's free to Edge owners.

The 305 isn't without its faults. The lack of power meter compatibility means that if I want to add a system to measure my power output, I will need to upgrade to either the Edge 500 or 705. Since power is not measured, the calorie counting algorithms grossly exaggerate the calories burned by as much as 50%. Any discussion of the 305 would be remiss without mentioning the battery issues many users have faced. The message boards are full of owners wondering why their Edge 305 shuts off mysteriously mid-ride. The problem seems to be narrowed down to loose battery contacts and poor case design. To their credit, the Garmin folks have resolved these issues for the most part, but when spending close to $250 on a computer, it's a hassle that any prospective 305 user should be aware of. For the record, I've had my 305 for five months and over a thousand miles without a single issue. Buyers currently in the market for the 305 are in an unique position. Garmin has just introduced the Edge 500 which incorporates the 305's features into a smaller computer that's now compatible with power meters. The emergence of the 500 is a strong indication that the Edge 305 is probably on the way out. However, that's not necessarily a bad thing since it means the current 305 can likely be had for a deep discount.

The 305 is an outstanding entry into the world of GPS based cycling computers. As long as you're content to train without a power meter and ride familiar routes, the 305 is an exceptional value compared to the Edge 705. The bottom line, the 305's easy installation, the ability to download data to the computer, and precise gps measurements make it an outstanding bike computer. If you're interested in seeing your current ride numbers and how they change over time, there are few options better than the Edge 305.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Where Do You Feel Safest Cycling?

Safety is of particular interest to me. I'm typically a solo rider thanks to an ever-chaning work schedule. Since I often work weekends, group rides are out. Although I take a cell phone, I live alone. So whom would I call in the event of an emergency? I do take all possible precautions. I ride with all my necessary equipment and know how to perform just about all basic bicycle repair. I never ride my bike at night. Nothing about riding at night seems particularly compelling to me. Cycling is unique in that cyclists actually share the road directly with drivers. There is no separation provided by a sidewalk. For this reason, many cyclists seek out deserted roads that receive little to no competing traffic. Should the worst case scenario happen such as mechanical failure, health issue, or serious fall, how safe is a deserted road?

On my night time run, a thought crossed my mind about cycling safety. While running, I often venture onto empty and deserted streets with little fear during the day. At night, I restrict my running to well lit but busy streets. Besides the protection of light, my thought is if a careless driver takes me out, I'm more likely to receive aid and some witnesses on a busy street. Obviously there is a point of diminishing returns where a street becomes so busy that it's dangerous. However, a consistent stream of cars at night adds a level of comfort during my night time runs.

I have two "home" routes I typically ride. The first is a simple two lane ranch road without a shoulder that dead ends after 4 miles. The second is a farm road that varies from a two to four lane highway with a wide shoulder that goes on for as long as you can ride. The shoulder-less ranch road is typically deserted. A car might pass by once an hour if you're lucky. The highway is busy enough that cars pass by frequently. I'll typically see one every ten minutes or so. The wide shoulder provides a safe buffer against vehicles that can reach 80 mph, and there are plenty of law enforcement officers passing by.

The ranch road is short enough that even if I'm at my furthest point, I'm only 4 miles away from my car. So even in the worst case scenario I can walk (or limp) back home. The highway has enough traffic that should I need help, I feel like it's just a matter of time before a good samaritan (hopefully) stumbles upon me. All things considered, I feel my usual two routes are very safe, and they've bolstered my confidence riding and dealing with traffic. Where do you feel safest riding? A deserted road? A busier one? What do you do to keep cycling safe?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Perspective on the Importance of the MS-150

Times are tough... There are reminders everywhere of the economic crisis we're enduring. Turn on the TV and stock tickers race by with plummeting markets. A trip to the store takes you through empty foreclosures which have turned bustling neighborhoods into deserted canyons. People everywhere are struggling to maintain the basic necessities of food, water, clothing and shelter. Yes, it's very difficult for individuals these days.

However, the difficulty of the individual pales in comparison to the challenges faced by the medical research community now. If people consider healthcare costs to be outrageous, they would be floored to see some of the price tags laboratories have to deal with. A simple order of restriction enzymes, the most basic of molecular biology tools, can easily top $10,000. By itself, this isn't a major issue. However, as researchers we are intrinsically tied to the grants which fund our research. I'm sure you see where this story is going - the money for research is drying up faster than the Sahara.

First a bit of background. If you're not sure what multiple sclerosis is, you're about to get a crash course in exactly why it's so important to find a cure for this disease. Our nerves are covered in an insulating material called myelin. This insulation makes it possible for nerve impulses to travel from our brains to move our toes without delay. In patients with multiple sclerosis, this insulating myelin is destroyed by the immune system. Since our nerves control our bodies, the demyelination of nerves lead to symptoms which range from nausea, weakness, muscle spasms, blurred vision, depression, and headaches. After the initial onset it is almost impossible to predict what symptoms a victim of MS may face or when they may go into remission. The symptoms can flare up without warning and go into remission just as quickly. It is uncertain as to exactly why that is. Although there appear to be genetic predispositions to MS, the basis of the disease is not purely genetic so it is difficult to predict whom it will strike. There is no cure and there are few treatments for this disease. Whether it is doctors trying to treat the disease or patients struggling to live with it, the only certainty with MS is uncertainty.

This is why events such as the MS-150 are so important. Charitable organizations such as the Livestrong foundation and the National MS Society provide a vital source of additional grants which make research possible. Twenty-six cents of every dollar raised during the MS-150 rides goes directly to funding MS research (overall $0.82 from every dollar directly funds MS related activities). As a researcher, I can tell you first hand that every penny obtained makes a major difference in the amount of work a lab is able to accomplish. However, fundraising in the MS-150 isn't measured in nickels and dimes. Last year, the Frisco to Ft. Worth MS-150 raised over $2 million. The BP MS-150 from Houston to Austin raised over $17 million.

But the MS-150 isn't simply a fundraising event. The ride itself helps bring important attention to the cause as well as the people who bravely fight this disease every day. There is no greater source of inspiration than folks like Rodney who live with MS and undertake the daunting task of pedaling over 150 miles. That's the reason why I ride the MS-150 and am working towards raising money for it. For all the talk of scientific theories and dollars and cents collected, the real reason why the Bike MS rides are so important are people like Rodney who have to confront the uncertainty this disease creates every day but find ways to shine through it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bike the Bend Ride Report

Sunday, I had the pleasure of riding the Bike the Bend for Literacy ride which benefits the Literacy Council of Fort Bend County. I would be doing the ride a disservice by failing to mention the goal of the literacy council, which is ending intergenerational cycles of illiteracy by improving adult literacy skills and generating community-wide literacy awareness. The ride itself is routed through the country roads north of Sugar Land on the Southwest side of Houston. If you're a Houstonian and haven't ridden through the roads around Fulshear and Brookshire, you're missing out on some of the best cycling in the city. The roads have wide shoulders, little traffic, and are swamped with cyclists on the weekends. The ride organizers picked the perfect location for their route. There were three options for ride length, 19, 32, and 59 miles for cyclists of all skill levels.

After two solid days of rain, I awoke to clear skies, sun, and COLD temperatures (for Houston that is). Air temperatures in the morning were in the high 40's with a slight breeze from the North. The ride began from Foster high school in Richmond. There was ample parking as well as restrooms, water, and food available to riders before the start. By the time I arrived at 7:45 most of the riders were lined up at the start at the East end of the parking lot. I quickly joined them, and then the ride began. Thankfully organizers decided to stagger the start, sending riders off in groups of 100 with a minute or two between groups. Inevitably, I have found the start of charity rides to be the most dangerous time, with beginner cyclists struggling to clip in, or nervous about riding in close proximity with other riders. The staggered start made it smooth as silk.

Due to time commitments I chose the 32 mile route to ride. The first half of the ride was common to all cyclists and it was fairly crowded. It was impossible to pass cyclists without taking the lane of the road. Thankfully the presence of Sheriffs and SAG vehicles kept riders safe. I stopped at the first rest stop to get some air in my tires, it was very well stocked with food, and restrooms. After the first rest stop, the concentration of cyclists thinned out and the ride became much more enjoyable. My first of two major peeves of the ride came on the first turn off. The ride had volunteers at the first turn and signs labelled with only colored squares representing the routes. I could not remember for the life of me which color my route corresponded to and had to yell across the road to figure out which route I needed to take. I hope ride organizers invest in better signage for the route next year, because every rider I spoke with held this same feeling.

The 32 mile route. I missed the first turn due to poor signs.

The route itself went through quiet, winding country roads lined by white fences and green pastures. It was quiet and domestically picturesque. Most of the roads were in excellent shape, devoid of potholes, and very smooth. However, one stretch of road on the 32 mile route was in very poor shape with lots of cracks and some major potholes. In the future, ride organizers should consider driving the routes beforehand and marking potholes with orange paint for rider safety. If I have one complaint that I would like the ride organizers to take home, it is this - at the end of the ride, the turnoff to the school was extremely dangerous. There was no direction at the intersection and traffic on the road was busy and moving at 60+ miles an hour. Riders were forced to negotiate a move from the shoulder to the center turning lane dodging traffic the entire time. A rider in front of me came so close to a pickup attempting this maneuver I had to turn away for fear of the catastrophe I saw coming. Thankfully she narrowly avoided serious injury. I missed the turn to the ride finish msyelf due to a pack of cars and had to catch the second light. There needs to either be ride volunteers or police officers present to help cyclists finish. Better yet, rather than having riders turn right onto FM 723, have them continue straight past the light and turn right into Foster.

With that grievance aired, it's hard to ignore the highlights of the ride. The peaceful route, the wonderful weather, and courteous riders all made this an event I will be attending yearly. The volunteers were friendly and helpful, the rest stops were fully stocked and staffed with mechanical support as well. The positives of this ride far outweighed the negatives. However, I am looking forward to what was a good ride becoming a great one with some minor changes.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sam's Club MS-150 Prologue Blazing Pedals It Is

A little less than a year ago, I bought a road bike knowing nothing of the sport with the singular goal of completing the Frisco to Ft. Worth MS-150. I'd seen plenty of cyclists on the road, but never had any inclination to dress in spandex and dodge cars with them. As fate would have it, I was presented with the opportunity to join a MS-150 team and for some reason I pounced on it. Once I bought my bike and went on my first ride, I was instantly hooked. For the sole reason of introducing me to the sport of cycling, I will be forever indebted to the MS-150 ride and will do my best to support the event any way I can.

Once again this year, I will be riding in the Sam's Club MS-150 which takes riders on a two day ride from Frisco to Ft. Worth, TX and covers a little over 150 miles in the process. Last year, I finished the first day in a driving rain storm. Unfortunately the second day was cancelled due to the fear of inclimate weather. This year, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for much better weather. After one year, I've become a much stronger and more skilled rider. My fitness is better, my equipment is better, and my technique is much better. I'm anxious to test my improvements over the course again.

However, what I'm truly excited about is a rejuvenated team. Last year's team, Elliot's Eagles did very well fundraising and riding in the event. However, separate schedules, and a very late start kept us from really building a cohesive group. This year however, will be a different story. We've begun preparing a full six months ahead of the event. We have twice the number of people interested in joining the team and have devised a training schedule and group rides so hopefully we can all finish the entire event. But riding is only half the challenge. The MS-150 is unique in that it asks riders to fulfill two requirements: fundraising and riding in the actual ride. I'm excited to see how our team excels in achieving both these goals.

For now, we've made a crucial step in the right direction, one that I'm particularly proud of since it's my brain child. We've finally picked our team name - Blazing Pedals! My idea came as an homage to one of my favorite movies of all time, Mel Brooks' role reversing western spoof Blazing Saddles. Hopefully each member will don a yellow jersey with a silver star and the words "Blazing Pedals Rock Ridge Sheriff" on the back. Unfortunately my team slogan of "Hey, where are the white bikes at?" was immediately rejected.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Check Your Chain

Just about all cyclists know the correlation between a clean, well lubricated chain and proper shifting performance. However, not many cyclists take the time to check the wear of chains and cassettes. A worn chain by itself won't contribute to poor shifting. However, a worn chain will lead to greater wear on the cassette. A worn cassette will inevitably lead to ghost shifting and very poor shifting performance.

Chain wear is often referred to as "strech." The actual part of the chain that stretches are the holes in the plates which contain the chain pins or bushings. For an in depth explanation on all things related to bicycle chains, Sheldon Brown's bicycle bible is a great read. A properly lubricated and cleaned chain should provide between 2,000 and 5,000 miles of service. However, dirt, debris, and friction can lead to premature wear. But how do you know when to change your chain?

The good news is that everyone has the basic tools required to measure chain wear - a simple ruler. Twelve links in a brand new chain should measure 12 inches. When the twelve chain links measure 12 1/16 inches or more, it's time to replace your chain. This is a reliable method. However, it's not always the easiest or most convenient method. Thankfully, there are affordable specialty tools which can accurately and easily measure chain wear.

A simple measuring tape is all that's required to measure chain wear

Park Tool makes a simple CC-3 template gauge that inserts between the links of a chain. The CC-3 is a "go" or "no go" gauge. There are two sides, one which indicates .75% of chain stretch and 1.0% of chain stretch. If the .75% side doesn't fit, chain is like new and you're good to go. If the .75 side fits, time to start pricing a new chain. If the 1.0% side fits, you'd better run to your local bike store for a new chain. This simple, but effective tool can be had for between $7 and $10 from any Park Tool dealer.

A second option is the Park Tool CC-2 Chain Checker. For people who want to know exactly how fast their chain is wearing or a more accurate measure of chain wear, the CC-2 is the tool you need. You simply insert the two pins into the links and swing the gauge tight to see exactly what percentage your chain has stretched.

At .5% stretch I will start examining my chain more often for wear

The best thing you can do to promote long chain life is keep it clean and well lubricated. The next is taking some time each month to see just how it has worn. Keeping your chain well maintained will ensure many miles of trouble free cycling.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Mellow Trip to Austin

It's official, work and travel have consumed my life. In order to keep riding and running, something had to give, and it has been my blog. Thankfully I've been able to maintain about 200 miles of riding and 50 miles of running a month to maintain a bit of sanity. Last weekend, I decided to take a little diversion from my travels and visit an Austin institution - Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop. Probably most famous for it's 7 time Tour de France winning owner, Lance Armstrong, Mellow Johnny's has become a mecca for cyclists. Even if you're not buying anything, just gazing at some of Lance's history making memorabilia which makes up the store's decor makes the trip worthwhile.

Located in the heart of downtown Austin, the shop fits in perfectly with Austin's eclectic decor. The outside is covered in brightly painted murals. The shop itself is a model for the perfect local bike store. Part bike shop, part coffee shop, part gym, everything a cyclist needs is rolled into one great store. The physical size of the store is huge. However, if you're looking for brand diversity, this isn't your shop. The website claims they carry brands such as Pinarrelo, Cinelli, and Merckx. But as I wandered through the bikes, all I saw was Trek, Trek, and more Trek. The apparel section does have a variety in brands; however, most of the items are branded with the Mellow Johnny's logo.

The iconic Mellow Johnny's sign and mural

What Mellow Johnny's might lack in brand diversity, it makes up for in features. The store takes great pride in acting as a "commuter hub" providing bike storage, showers, and lockers for commuters to the Austin area. If it's too cold or wet to ride outside, the Pedal Hard Training Center has training classes where sophisticated computrainers allow the measurement of power output and even lactate threshold if you really want to test your limits and define your power zones. To top it all off, why start a weekend group ride at Starbucks when there is the Juan Pelota cafe inside Mellow Johnny's. The staff at the store was also very impressive. They were friendly and courteous, ready to help if needed, but never overbearing or pushy. They're obviously well conditioned to tourists wandering in for a look.

There are some bike stores with training centers. There are others with espresso machines to satisfy their customers. However, Mellow Johnny's incorporates them all, and does so in an package that's cleanly laid out and an impressive blend of both form and function. Admittedly, this isn't a bargain hunter's paradise. My two souvenir t-shirts came to just over $70, some Fizik bar tape pushed my total to over $90. Like an Apple computer, Mellow Johnny's seems to cater to consumers who don't mind a premium price for quality products. Other bike stores looking to establish a shop that's valuable to consumers should consider Mellow Johnny's blueprint. Anytime you're in the Austin area and want to take a peek into an impressive bike store, Mellow Johnny's is well worth the visit.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

FTC Mandates Blogging Review Ethics

Things have been slow on the riding front and even slower on the blogging front. My work and travel schedule has limited my riding to short 20 mile rides every few days and left little time for writing. However, I was thankfully able to head out on a nice 30 mile ride yesterday as well as another 20 miler today. Although it's not directly related to cycling, I feel compelled to write about a news story which caught my eye yesterday that will affect this blog as well as every other one you read. Yesterday the FTC decided to finally address the disclosure of product reviews and advertisement in the new wave of social media (blogs, Facebook, and Twitter).

Previously, bloggers who received products for review had no obligation to disclose how the product was obtained or any compensations for a review. How do I know this? I have a closet full of golf clubs I received for review when I was writing for an online forum. In fact my driver, fairway woods, and irons came free as review models I could keep. Purchased from the store, they had a rough value of around $1,800 . Thankfully I had the backing of a company who dealt with obtaining these products for review, so I felt no pressure to give a glowing recommendation where there was none. However, I can imagine the pressures faced by individual bloggers who felt the need to write positive reviews to maintain a cordial relationship with a company. After all, what company would invest time and money sending products for review just to have Joe Blogger tear them down? It's a win / win situation. The bloggers get free product while the companies essentially get free advertising. This became such an effective strategy, I know of a few top-tier golf club companies which abstained from traditional print media reviews in favor of seeking out bloggers and online forums.

Those days have thankfully drawn to an end. As of December 1, 2009 all bloggers who review products will be held to the same standards of disclosure as print media. The FTC has stated that the disclosure must be "clear and conspicuous." While the intentions are great, I question the enforcement of these rules. There are no licenses required to be a blogger. There are no startup costs. A few clicks of a mouse and an e-mail address is all someone needs to claim their own piece of internet publishing. With literally millions of blogs on the interwebs, perusing the blogs to find violators is a literal needle in the haystack. Rich Cleland, assistant director of the FTC's advertising practices division mentioned targeting companies with misleading advertisements, such as unsubstantiated dramatic weight loss stories. Bloggers for the most part would be liable only if they have received pervious warnings and have substantial readership - blogs most likely to receive product and compensation for reviews.

So if bloggers won't be penalized for the most part, what is the point of the new rules? They place an onus on the reader to read blogs which fully disclose their ties to companies and products. Will the new rules stop the bias of bloggers who receive free products? I doubt it. However, anything which adds an extra layer of transparency and ethics to blogging will help many readers realize a bit of what goes on behind the scenes. I will say now that any product that appears or is reviewed on this blog is paid for in full by myself. I receive no compensation in any way for my writing on Life and Bikes; only the satisfaction of keeping my writing skills active and helping out a fellow cyclist on occasion.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tips for a New Roadie Part 3 - Accessorize

Now you've picked out the frame and groupset that's perfect for you and your budget. However, you're not done yet. Don't forget to budget in some of the items that aren't included in the bike, but are essential for happy cycling.

First and foremost on your list should be a helmet. I am a helmet advocate. Do helmets conclusively protect cyclists? Some studies say yes, others no. However, to me any piece of padding you can include between yourself and the hard ground is well worth it. The good thing about bicycle helmets is they are all certified by the same CPSC standard in the US. So in theory a $20 helmet should protect you as well as $200 helmet. If you're looking for a way to save a little cash, this is an item where a less expensive model can be used. What separates more expensive helmets from cheaper ones are lighter weights and better ventilation. It's a good idea to take these into account, as comfort can be very important during long rides in hot climates. The Specialized Echelon is a great helmet for entry level riders. It has the same shape and ventilation system as the $200 S-Works, is lightweight, has a great adjustment system, and costs just $60.
The Specialized Echelon is a great choice for a first helmet

The next item on your purchase list should be pedals and shoes. Your new bike will likely come with plastic pedals equipped with toe clips. These are fine on short rides. However on longer rides they can lead to numb toes and don't promote an efficient pedal stroke. "Clipless pedals," so named because they lack toe clips, are the ones you actually clip into. Since your feet are connected to the pedal you can not only push down, but also pull up on creating a more efficient pedal stroke as well as recruiting the hamstrings to share some of the burden. Stiff soled cycling shoes help prevent numb toes and ensure that all pushing or pulling energy your feet exert help to move the crank. Pedals and shoes are the one accessory that will actually make you faster. Shimano's 105 pedal is a great entry level road pedal. They are easy to clip and out of and the wide base gives a nice solid platform to prevent hot spots. Although the cleat might need to be replaced every season, it doesn't require the maintenance Speedplay cleats do. A careful shopper can find them for $60-80 at various online outlets. Shoes are an item of great personal preference, so I am hesitant to recommend a brand or model. Any stiff soled shoe will do as long as it fits and is comfortable. This is one item you should try before you buy. Most cycling shoes use Euro sizing, so the size of your tennis shoes will probably be different from your cycling shoes.

Shimano's 105 Pedals are a great entry level option

While a Camelbak might be perfectly appropriate for mountain biking, it's faux pas on a road bike. Water bottles and cages are a must. Rides can last for hours so it's important to keep your body well hydrated along the way. Fortunately this doesn't have to be anything fancy. Unless you want to shave every ounce off your bike, skip the fancy carbon cages and stick with aluminum ones. Throw in a couple of cheap water bottles and your setup is complete. A savvy negotiator should be able to negotiate these in as freebies when they purchase their bikes. If you can't, this shouldn't cost more than $15.

Along the same lines, while cycling you're bound to have a flat someday and you should be prepared to fix them yourself. Any cyclist worth his salt has a seat bag filled with a spare tube, patch kit, and some sort of inflation system (either CO2, a hand pump, or both). A portable multi-tool is also a good idea in case a bolt may need tightening along the way.

A proper pair of cycling shorts is another item I wouldn't leave the store without. Cycling shorts like helmets are another item which can get very expensive. However, this is an area where I wouldn't substitute for quality. A good pair of cycling shorts has a comfortable chamois which takes pressure off your sit bones. A quality lycra that compresses your leg muscles can help stave off fatigue. Bib shorts offer the added benefit of not having a waist band that digs into your side and the shoulder straps hold the chamois in place better than standard shorts.

All told, these items can add up. However, now is the season to buy since deep discounts can be had as 2009 models are closed out. Also, there are always deals on websites like Bonktown and Chain Love which offer 50-80% off items. Other companies like Competitive Cyclist offer deals only announced on their twitter feeds. The accessories you choose can contribute to a pleasant cycling experience just as much as a bike, so careful selection is a worthwhile investment. If you can't stand the numbness in your toes or the pain in your butt, the best bike in the world won't solve those problems.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Oakley Jawbone Review

The first time I saw the Oakley Jawbones debut at this year's Tour de France I was very skeptical. They seemed to be a big departure for Oakley's sports line which features models with no bottom rim to obstruct downward views. They also have lenses "suspended" in the rim, reducing stress on the lenses and improving optical quality. Again this seems redundant since all Oakley lenses incorporate their HDO technology. My current riding glasses are Oakley Radars. My sunglasses for everything else are Oakley Flak Jackets. I love them both and have very few complaints. I wear the Flak Jackets while playing golf, and have never experienced any distortion. However, the more I saw of the Jawbones, the more intrigued I was. Once I tried them on, I was sold.

The Jawbone package complete with extra lenses, soft case, and lens cloth.

The most obvious piece of technology in the Jawbones is Switchlock. The bottom rim of the frame is hinged and designed to swing down once the locking nose piece is flipped up. This makes switching lenses very easy and also allows the lens to be suspended inside the frame which gives the lenses optimal clarity since the frame exerts almost no pressure. The lenses are also coated in Oakley's hydrophobic coating to help repel dust and oils.

The Jawbone and Radar have almost identical lens coverage

Initially I was worried that the Jawbones might be too large for my smaller face. However, I was very pleased to find they fit great. That's not to say the Jawbone is a conservatively shaped pair of glasses, and the colors Oakley has chosen reflect that. Thankfully, matte black is a welcome option for guys like me who prefer to blend into the crowd. This model combines the most subtle frame color with my favorite lens tint. If you want, there are neon yellow, bright orange, white and Livestrong models as well.

Performance wise, Oakley may have created the perfect set of cycling glasses. I was a very big fan of the Radars. I loved the full frame coverage the lenses provided. However, the ear stems were a touch too long and frequently hit the back of my helmet causing the glasses to need mid-ride adjustments. The Flak Jackets were very light and comfortable but didn't have the lens coverage I desired while riding. With the Jawbones, Oakley created the perfect compromise between the two. The Jawbones are as light and comfortable as the Flak Jackets, but the larger lenses provide much more coverage. Oakley also shortened the ear stems compared to the Radars helping the Jawbones fit much better under helmets and hats.

Jawbone (right) has shorter and more comfortable ear stems than the Radar (left).

The frame feels very solid. The ear stems fold out and "click" into place with a very solid feel. There are no creaking noises such as the ones which emanate every time you move the Radar's ear stems. The vents on the lens prevent fogging even in very hot temperatures. The lens coverage is excellent and the shape of the lens is the first I've found that doesn't rub against my eyelashes.

Switching lenses is also extremely easy. I'm not 100% sold on the Jawbones having any better optical quality than other glasses. However, the Jawbone system makes lens changes very easy. Changing lenses with the Flak Jackets and Radars involves some bending, pushing, and pressure. It can be difficult and done incorrectly can lead to breakage. The Jawbones make things much easier. Simply flip up the nosepiece, swing the frame down, and slide the lens out. No hassle or stress at all.

Switchlock in action. Image from Oakley's Website.

There is not much I have to criticize with these glasses. One bone I have to pick are the spare lenses. Oakley was kind enough to include an extra pair of lenses for "low light" conditions. However, the second lenses are either yellow or persimmon tinted. Not typically the sort of lens I see most cyclists donning, even in very low light. For a $200 pair of sunglasses, the extra lenses are a nice touch, but how more useful tint like the G30? Also, after over two years of wearing glasses without a bottom rim, it took some time to get used to looking down and seeing a black line with the Jawbones. However, after a few minutes, it's a non-issue.

When it's all said and done, the Jawbone is an extremely comfortable and well designed pair of glasses. Their shape may not be the perfect fit for everyone, but current Radar and Flak Jacket owners who find themselves wanting a good compromise between the two should give the Jawbones some serious thought.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hitting the Trails

Most of my road biking life has been spent on the smooth tarmac of two lane roads. I've grown very accustomed to riding in close proximity with cars and fairly skilled at finding long stretches of road with wide shoulders. My limited experience with bike paths and trails has come on charity rides where the routes are closed. Over Labor Day Weekend I spent some time in Dallas and had the opportunity to ride a multi-use path known as "White Rock Ramble." As a rider who spends most of his time on the roads, switching over to the MUP was a very interesting experience as there are some marked differences between the two.

The trademark sign of the multi use path

One of the most fun aspects of riding the MUP were the turns you simply can't find on any road. I found myself smiling from ear to ear as I attacked hairpin bends that switch from right to left in just a few feet. Those are the sort of turns you can't experience on any roadway. Interestingly enough I found that I was more comfortable making sharp turns to the right than the left. After some practice I found myself getting much more confident moving to my left.

While it's a lot of fun diving through turns at speed, I found it very difficult to get up to speed because of all the traffic. Dodging walkers, joggers, pet enthusiasts can be quite a challenge on a road that's barely wider than two sets of handlebars. Add in cyclists traveling from the opposite direction and it goes from a challenging to dangerous. I found that many inexperienced cyclists sometimes brake too late and too hard, nearly locking up their brakes and not providing cyclists behind them with hand signals for slowing or stopping. The most dangerous instances stemmed from cyclists who attempted to pass a slower jogger or cyclist without yielding to oncoming cyclists. It creates a situation where three people attempt to ride on a path that's only large enough for two bikes. Is the risk of locking handlebars with an oncoming rider worth adding .01 mph to your average speed on a MUP? Apparently to some it is since it happened to me twice in one day on the White Rock Ramble.

Despite the close calls, I found riding the MUP a welcome change of pace. I don't see it replacing the open road as the staple of my cycling diet. However, I do think it's a great way to add in some variety at times when riding becomes monotonous. What are the advantages and disadvantages to riding MUP's in your eyes?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Book Review - It's Not About the Bike

I'll openly admit it, I am not a fan of Lance Armstrong. I respect what he's done in the sport of cycling. I respect his incredible recovery from cancer. I really respect what he's done through his foundation to advance cancer research and help cancer patients. However, if you asked me for my list of people I'd want to ride with, Lance Armstrong wouldn't be anywhere on it. Yet for some reason I felt oddly compelled to read his autobiography It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. While my general opinion of him may not have changed, I did find a very compelling read that goes far beyond cycling.

Content wise, the book is a retelling of Armstrong's life from the day he was born through his second win at the Tour de France in 2000. He goes into great detail about his childhood and the strong bond formed between his mother and himself and recounts his ascent to prominence in the sport of cycling. All the biographical sketches are just a prelude to the heart of the book: Lance's cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. These chapters are an incredibly honest and vivid description of his thoughts, feelings, and fears about the uncertainty of his life. This is the aspect of the book that makes it such as great read. In fact it's so compelling that the rest of book detailing his first two Tour de France victories ends up quite dull in comparison.

The instant Armstrong began describing the flu like fatigue and aches which were early symptoms of cancer, I found it very hard to stop turning pages. The graphic descriptions of his surgery and chemotherapy sessions made me feel as if I was in the hospital room suffering alongside him. The most impressive points of the book were his moments of self-realization. He goes to great lengths to address much more than the struggle between fighting and giving up, but also the mounting medical bills, maintaining an income, and returning to a normal life after cancer. There are far more challenges a cancer patient faces than just living or dying. Whether you are a cyclist or not, if your life has been affected by cancer or not, this book is something everyone can enjoy. Most importantly it's an incredibly thoughtful insight into one man's journey of survival.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Find My Inner Rhythm

Watching re-runs of Lance Armstrong's earlier Tour de France victories, I became mesmerized at his impressive cadence. On one hand there was Lance's legs churning at 105 rpm which effortlessly propelled him up the mountains. On the other was Jan Ullrich who was grinding his way to eternal second place finishes at 70 rpm. That was all the motivation I needed to increase my cadence.

So I set out on my project. I bought my Garmin with cadence sensor, and set out in a low gear. For two months I tried to spin the hell out of my cranks. A funny thing happened. My speed actually dropped, I found myself very tired after rides, and I was now barely able to crawl up hills. At first I chalked this up to the adjustment time needed to increase my cardiovascular endurance. However the symptoms continued. I just couldn't maintain speeds I used to cruise at. Even the mildest of inclines was a challenge. I found myself frustrated and wondering what I was doing wrong.

Last week I rode with a group of experienced riders. I was telling the group leader my goal of increasing my cadence. After a few minutes of warming up, he offered a bit of advice, "Just smooth out your pedal stroke, you don't have to spin out of your shoes to be a good rider. What works for Lance doesn't work for everyone else." What followed was one of the best rides I had in months. After lowering my cadence I felt my heart rate decrease and saw my speed increase. The hills and false flats which were giving me trouble before were easy once again. I was able to have a casual conversation and drink while riding without gasping for air.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious that a high cadence wasn't for me. I've always been more of a sprinter than a marathoner. I should have played to my strengths, namely the strength in my legs. There were other clues as well, but I didn't pay attention to them. I've always had my best success climbing using a lower gear than a higher one and like to stand frequently. Since then I've stuck to my guns and found that a slight drop in cadence, 5 rpm has helped me gain about 1 mph back on my average speed. This isn't to say I've become a complete masher. I try and keep my cadence in the 75-85 rpm range. It might not be the 100+ rpm's I dreamed about, but it's more than enough to strike a balance between my cardiovascular system and leg muscles.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tips for a New Roadie Part 2 - Group Discussion

In the first article in this series, we examined the intricacies of road bike fit. But once you decide on the frame that's tailor made for you, only half the equation is complete. Now you're faced with the daunting task of picking a group set. A bike's group set is the collection of parts that move a bike - shifters, derailleurs, crank, cassette, chain, and brakes. In the aftermarket, these are typically sold as packages called grouppos. There are quite a few models to choose from, and it can be a difficult to find the group set that fits a rider's needs and budget.

It's important to understand the parts of a group set and how they function on a bike so decisions can be made based on a cyclists needs. Shifters are one of the most important aspects of a group. Most modern bikes come with indexed shifters - each shift corresponds to a specific position on the derailleur. On road bikes the shifters are mounted on the drop bars so shifts can be made while your hands are on the "hoods" or in the drops. The rubber hoods which house them also provide a very comfortable hand position while riding. Derailleurs are the components which respond to the shifters and move the chain between sprockets. The cassette is the collection of sprockets on the rear wheel which determine gear ratio. The crank is the set of front sprockets and the arms which are attached to the pedals. The chain connects the crank and cassette and allows pedaling motion of the front crank to turn the cassette and rear wheel. Brakes are there to help you stop.

Shimano's 105 Dual Control Bar Mounted Shifters

There are two brands which dominate the factory bike market - SRAM and Shimano. The two brands both deliver quality groups with models perfect for the newest riders to the best cyclists on the planet. Shimano was the first on the market with indexed shifting and has earned the lion's share of the market. SRAM is a relative newcomer to road bikes, but is quickly eating away at Shimano's piece of the pie thanks to it's light weight, innovative Double Tap shifting, and competitive pricing. Best bet is to try a brand and pick the one whose ergonomics suit you best. Some people prefer Shimano's smooth feeling shifts and two lever mechanism. Others prefer SRAM's double tap shifting and don't mind the slightly noisy reputation SRAM receives. Ride both models, see which one suits you best and then pick the group you need. The Campagnolo faithful are likely shouting at their computers due to my neglect for what may be the most beloved group set of them all. However, since it's hardly ever found on mainstream factory bikes, I will withhold my Campagnolo article until a later date.

Once you've decided what brand fits you, it's time to pick a model. Models typically vary in their weight, material used, and feel. Nevertheless, it can be confusing to know how they're different and what that translates to in the real world. There are so many features, it would be impossible to detail them all in a short post. So here is a very basic primer on what you can expect from the various models.

Shimano Sora is a 9 speed group. It is Shimano's only group set to use a thumb lever for down shifts instead of the Dual Control used in Shimano's other shifters. The thumb shifters can be hard to access from the drops which is a problem many people find. Shifts are typically not as smooth nor as accurate as Shimano's other brands.

Shimano Tiagra is another 9 speed group and Shimano's next step up. Its shifters have the dual control levers common to all other Shimano group sets. The smaller lever is used to shift to smaller gears, the larger lever shifts to larger gears. Shifts are smoother and more accurate than Sora and once dialed in is a very useable group set novice riders can grow with. This would be my recommendation as the absolute minimal group set a new rider purchase.

SRAM Rival is one of the most popular group sets on the road. It weighs less than Shimano's Ultegra and is cheaper to boot. New for 2010 it has also incorporated Zero-Loss shifting on the front shifter, so if you move the front shifter, it will switch gears. There is no play in the shifting mechanism. All SRAM models also have a unique feature where the shift lever can be moved closer to the bars to accommodate riders with smaller hands.

Shimano's 105 group set is the first entry into the 10 speed market. The shifters have a noticeably smoother action, it takes less effort to engage shifts and shorter lever throws than Tiagra. The whole group is lighter to boot. Both 105 and Rival are excellent groups for a new rider and my best recommendation. They are affordable enough for riders on a budget but are smooth, light, and accurate enough even for die-hard racers.

Ultegra SL takes the basics from 105 and lightens the package. It is every so slightly smoother than 105. However, the addition of lighter, stronger components makes the overall group set stronger and lighter on the bike.

SRAM Force is basically Rival with the addition of carbon fiber components to decrease weight and increase stiffness. Costing noticeably more than Rival, but lacking the features of Red some question the value of Force over Rival.

Dura-Ace is the apex of Shimano's lineup. Very light weight combined with amazing stiffness in components such as the cranks make it a favorite among pros and elite amateurs. It is the smoothest shifting of perhaps any group set, even under a hard sprint.

SRAM Red is another big step up from Force and Rival. In addition to lighter weight, it also incorporates zero loss shifting in both levers. The rear cassette is precision machined from a single piece of steel and helping smooth out the shifting action.

So once you've picked the group set that's just right for you, beware of some common tricks bike companies like to use to fool customers. Many save money by using generic brakes rather than the branded brakes that belong on the group sets. There is often nothing wrong with these generic brakes, especially when you swap out the pads, but laying down $5000 for a Dura-Ace equipped bike and receiving a set of Tektro brakes can be a bit disheartening. Companies also use upgraded rear derailleurs to try and fool consumers into believing they will see better performance, such as adding a Dura-Ace rear derailleur on an Ultegra equipped bike. While an upgraded rear derailleur can provide better shifting performance, it won't affect feel or performance as well as Dura-Ace shifters.

If you're serious about road biking, I would strongly suggest investing the additional money in a quality group set, at least 105 or Rival. These two groups are a great compromise between performance and expense. They have appreciably smoother performance than cheaper group sets and perform only marginally less smooth than more expensive groups.