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.