1/31/11

embracing winter on the 2011 pub crawl

I am not by a long shot the first person to ride a bike through the winter in Minneapolis. But in the winter of 2004-05, my first winter on the bike, it was a rare and surprising thing to see another bike track in the snow on my morning and evening commutes or on my weekend recreation rides. When, in those tentative days leading up to my first bicycle winter, I looked for information on winter bicycling, even the world wide web contained limited information about the topic. Sure there were some eccentric inventive types making their own studded tires, and guys with grizzled beards creating special pedal-powered vehicles specifically for snow and ice, but no normal people were involved in this seemingly nutty endeavor. With a successful winter under my belt, the following Spring, I got my first bike shop job at Freewheel. In November of that year, the fellow who did the purchasing at Freewheel told me that I had single-handedly sold more studded tires than they sold the entire previous winter. Winter cycling was apparently catching on in Minneapolis, and I felt like I had a small hand in bringing it into the mainstream (to the extent that any utilitarian cycling is mainstream).

Now, in the winter of 2010-11, I see lots of bike tracks in the snow. In fact, some of the city bike paths are challenging to ride because of the numerous interleaving bike tire ruts that get encrusted into the snow and ice. Even after a fresh snow, I have to be out pretty damned early to have any hope of leaving the first track.

As far as winter cycling conditions go, Sunday, January 30th, 2011, was a perfect day to have a pub crawl. It wasn't warm, but mostly clean, dry streets, little wind, and even some sunshine made it exceedingly pleasant to be outside! And what a fine time it was, spending the entire day riding around town, stopping at intervals to eat and drink, and generally enjoying time with some of my favorite people. Folks came and went, and many did not ride the entire pub crawl, but one informal head-count early in the day put the number of riders at around 40. Imagine that for a minute. An event without a charitable cause or any high-dollar publicity or any race-victory glory at stake draws 40+ people to spend the day riding bikes. In the winter. In Minnesota weather that terrifies most of the country as they see it represented on the Weather Channel by frigid looking blue isotherms dipping down out of Canada.

At the last stop of the evening, as I was making ready to head for home, a half-dozen friends gathered to ride out at the same time, in the same direction. It was well past sundown, and it was certainly chillier than it had been in the mid-afternoon sun. I felt under-dressed and a little cold as I extracted my bike from the snowbank where it was locked to a wrought iron fence. I contemplated taking the train. But the group seemed to collectively veto the train, so we just rode, mostly in silence, lost in our own tired thoughts and trying to pick our lines through icy intersections and around potholes. Close to home, I split from the group and rode a mile or so alone. I was hopped up on the fun of the day and on the exercise-induced hormones flowing in my body. I was thoroughly tired and happy. It occurred to me that, at that moment, I was experiencing something special, something that some future cycling nostalgia-fetishist might possibly refer to in an inflated way as "classic cycling" or some such nonsense. This is the Golden Age of cycling, if you ask me. Keep that in mind.

12/1/10

how I've been losing weight

Throughout my life, I have been overweight and had trouble getting my weight down and maintaining hard-won weight loss. Most people assume, correctly, that I get a fair amount of exercise, but even with lots of cycling, walking, and a little strength training, I was still pudgy. In fact, increasing my exercise usually just made me hungrier, and caused me to eat more and gain weight! I did calorie-counting, which worked, but it was hard to stick to it, and I was often hungry and had wildly fluctuating energy levels.

Over the past four months or so, I have adopted a new way of eating, which I am reluctant to describe as a "diet" as much as a food-lifestyle (cliche I know!). During the first week or two of this new food regime, I effortlessly dropped probably 10 pounds and, more strikingly to me and people around me, my face instantly became thinner and less puffy. Now I am down to a weight I haven't seen since my first year of college fifteen years ago, and I feel great. My energy levels are stable throughout the day, and even on long bike rides, I no longer experience the roller coaster of energy levels that I futilely tried to manage before. By the BMI scale, imperfect as it may be, I have gone from "obese", passed through "overweight", and now I'm on the brink of "normal". I don't really care to share my total weight loss numbers, because people tend to get wrapped up in irrelevant numbers and comparisons and miss the point. I will describe my methods, as they have worked for me. I am not a nutrition expert and I have no idea if similar strategies will work for others. I also have no idea about the long-term health effects of my strategy, though I do have some idea about the long-term health effects of being a lard-ass.

My method is simple: no grains, and no sugars. It's probably impossible to cut these out completely, so I settle for minimizing intake of these items, and even allow the occasional indulgence. Also, some healthy foods contain a small amount of sugar - for example, most fruits contain some sugar, but I believe fruit is worth eating from a health standpoint and the modest natural sugar in most fruit is not enough to offset the positives. Also, I do not drink any calories (milk, pop, juice, sports drinks, even zero-calorie diet pop), and in general I avoid processed foods (if it comes in a box or a bag or other container and contains more than one or two ingredients, I probably don't eat it). The basis for this strategy is rooted in studies of the glycemic response and its quantitative descriptor, the glycemic index.

In a nutshell, the glycemic index (GI) is a scale that quantifies carbohydrates according to how fast they cause blood sugar to rise, followed by the corresponding insulin response. GI applies only to carbohydrates - fats and proteins do not cause a glycemic response, and therefore do not have a GI. The general belief is that foods with a higher GI, while they may or may not contain many calories, tend to trigger the storage of fat. Counter-intuitively, fatty foods that have a low GI (or no GI) do not trigger fat storage.

In addition to fat storage, high GI foods tend to cause the blood sugar to spike, and then the insulin response brings sugar levels back down. This is perceived as a fluctuating energy-level, and appetite, generally, is stimulated. I believe this is why most calorie-counting schemes are so difficult to maintain. The "healthy" breads, cereals, and sugars that we consume within the daily calorie limits tend to stimulate the appetite. By cutting these out, it is much easier to stay within the calorie limits, without making a conscious effort!

A lot of armchair nutrition experts will reflexively label my approach as extreme or unhealthy in some way that will become evident in the future. So I will make a list of what I do eat, in no particular order, and the reader can judge accordingly:
Meat, cheese, nuts, fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, eggs, potatoes, plain yogurt, dark minimally-sweetened chocolate, and coffee. I also take a daily multivitamin, just in case.
Some people laugh at this list, since it seems to encompass every type of food. But I don't drink milk (high in lactose sugar) or eat breads, cereal, sweetened items, or anything that has ingredients that I don't recognize as some sort of food.

Friends have suggested to me that bread is healthy, and I don't dispute that there may be some components of bread that are beneficial. But, on balance, I have determined that bread for me is not a good thing to eat (I feel shitty afterward, and get fat). Also, unless I make it myself, even the breads that are marketed as "healthy" tend to be junked up with all sorts of frightening ingredients. Nonetheless, the ferocity with which pro-bread people cling to this healthy-bread belief is amazing. Part of it is that breads and grains have been enshrined in the USDA food pyramid for a couple generations, and part of it, I believe, is something resembling addiction. The glycemic response of high-GI foods is a sort of "high", complete with withdrawal cycles, and just as smokers, alcoholics, potheads, and car-centric types tend to focus ridiculously on the positives of their vices, folks in the throes of a sugar-addiction are reluctant to acknowledge any criticism. In describing my "diet" to various people, saying "no bread" either makes them walk away or causes them to launch into some unfounded explanation that cutting back on bread will cause long-term damage to some of my organs (they desperately want to hear that I lost weight by riding my bike, while eating without restraint). My stance is that grain is, relative to the human species and its predecessors, a new thing. We evolved for millions of years without agriculture, subsisting on meat, fruit/vegetables, nuts, and eggs. For many of us, 5000 or even 10000 years of wheat cultivation has not been sufficient time to adjust our metabolism to this radically different food type. Your mileage may vary.

If you are overweight and have trouble losing that weight, I suggest trying my method for a week or two. What's the worst that could happen?

10/27/10

my current bike project

I decided that a new bike was in order for Trans-Iowa. My choice was a 2011 Redline D660, which may surprise some long-time readers and friends.
Redline D660 TransIowa race bike

I made some modifications to it right away. First, I replaced the stock wheels and tires. The stock wheels seemed fine, but I wanted to save a bit of rolling weight and add a generator hub for all-night riding.
Redline D660 TransIowa race bike
 I used Sun Equalizer EQ23 rims, which are light and cheap. I used another Sun Equalizer rim (ELQ21) on the "race wheels" for my Goodrich, and they are doing fine after 1500 miles of fairly hard use. The new tires are Kenda Small Block 8, which are a good combination of light, cheap, and non-aggressive tread that seems ideal for gravel roads.

The bike came with one of the new SRAM 2x10 gear set-ups.
Redline D660 TransIowa race bike
So far, I like it.

Even though this bike is a departure from my usual style, it's the aero bars that really cause confusion:
Redline D660 TransIowa race bike
Bike people tend to like neat and tidy categories of bikes, and among the neat categorizers, aero bars belong in the pigeonhole occupied by time-trial and triathlon bikes. Why would a normally sane person attach such an accessory to a mountain bike? Why would that same sane person ride a mountain bike at all when the intended use is lightweight endurance touring on roads? I'll let you know when I have answers to these questions. But at present I am busy searching for and/or creating a high-capacity food-bag that will hang off my aero bars. This search has led me to some weird places on the internet. Mostly Slovenian midget porn, as it turns out.

10/20/10

bicycle touring as a means of exploring the soul

As long as people have pedaled bicycles, a few have pushed limits to ride long distances, often in difficult conditions. More than other forms of human-powered locomotion, the bicycle seems particularly well suited for this sort of undertaking. I know walkers/runners and people who paddle canoes push boundaries, too, but most runners can't realistically venture more than a few miles from home, and boat people are generally limited to navigable water routes. Every kid and former kid who ever left home on his/her bike knows how tempting it is to pedal just a little farther, over the next ridge, into the next neighborhood, or to venture down some hitherto unexplored trail.
deep snow

A couple years ago, on an early season ride, the weather was thoroughly unpleasant, cold and rainy and windy. Around the 90-mile mark, at a much needed pitstop for fast-food and warmth, I was very close to calling some potentially sympathetic person who might be willing to give me a ride home. The thought of continuing for another 30 or more miles nearly made me cry. But after ingesting a little food and warming our cold, wet selves a little, my loyal companion and I resigned ourselves to pressing forward. The remainder of the ride was easy and even fun. On that day, I pushed through a personal breaking point, brought on by cold, low blood sugar, fatigue, whatever, and it was glorious. I have had many rides in comfortable weather, with amazing scenery/company/food, and less effort fighting cold headwinds, but none have imprinted such vivid sensations of living on my memory. The really brutal rides are sort of a compressed version of life, with lots of ups and downs, and triumphs and disappointments. Control of the situation is an illusion; I can control only my response to the situation (sometimes).

The thing that fascinates me so much about Trans-Iowa, which is on my mind constantly now, is that it is intended to be difficult. Suffering is not accidental. Three-hundred miles on rough, muddy roads, with no support and very little in the way of services on the route, is a recipe for testing my mental toughness, not to mention the toughness of my ass, legs, and digestive system.

Today, the Pugstigator was reborn. I am planning on putting together an "adventure bike" specifically for TI, and that will be unveiled pretty soon. But the Pugstigator is going to get the nod for winter training. I'm planning to keep up with my preparations on this blog, but we'll see how that goes.

10/17/10

Trans-Iowa

I have gotten myself onto the roster for the 2011 running of Trans-Iowa. With 300+ miles of gravel and "B-roads" in the Spring of the year, this will likely be the toughest thing I've ever attempted on a bicycle. Here's a photo I took while volunteering for last year's TI.
part of TI v6 route

I have a lot to do to prepare myself for this in the next 6 months or so. Physical conditioning is one thing, and I know how to do that, but I figure at least 90% of TI is half-mental.

7/6/10

Evolution of an unorthodox machine

The Thill Family Bicycle started as a stock 1992 Santana Arriva tandem that I found in nearly-new condition for a good price on Craigslist.
I upgraded the wheels with the heavy-duty touring wheels I had originally for my Atlantis (which I sold). I also replaced the unnervingly skinny 700x26 stock tires with some Jack Brown Blue 700x33, which were a bit of a squeeze. Most importantly, I modified the stoker position for a small child (namely, my daughter Elissa, age 4 at the time), using some stock stem and bottom bracket adapters marketed under the Problem Solvers brand (from QBP). My friend Mark at Bikesmith Design provided a crankset with the arms shortened to 90 mm (and threaded for tandem, of course). The subsequent addition of the child-seat (shown above with my son Oliver, age almost 2 at the time) was a short-lived experiment that made the bicycle difficult to control. Anyway, Elissa and I rode the bike maybe 100 miles last Fall before we had some crummy weather in October that compelled me to put the tandem away for the winter. During the Winter, I asked Bikesmith to make me a 1-1/4" quill adapter (diameter of the adapter is 1-1/8" or 28.6 mm). The quill adapter slides into the threaded steerer tube like a normal 1-1/4" quill stem, and is just the right diameter to accept a 1-1/8" threadless-style stem. As you may know, there is not a wide selection (new or used) of 1-1/4" quill stems (the stock stem from Santana was not terribly comfortable), but there are hundreds of options for 1-1/8" threadless stems. The quill adapter gave me much more flexibility to fit the bicycle to my body, and made longer rides more comfortable and fun.

This Spring, as soon as it seemed reasonable to go camping, Elissa (now age 5) and I loaded up and headed to Carver Park Reserve.


Elissa rode about 65 miles over the two days, and had a great time. I couldn't have been prouder. On the down side, I decided (again) that the Jack Brown Blue tires were not for me (tried them on 3 bikes, and hated them every time). I switched to Panaracer Pasela 700x28, which made the bike much more lively and fun to ride on pavement. The problems with this tandem started to become obvious:

1. There was not enough tire clearance for tires that would allow me to comfortably do the kind of multiple surface rides and touring that I most enjoy. When we rode trails or gravel, Elissa complained about the bumpiness, and I felt that the skinny tires didn't provide enough control on loose materials like gravel and sand.

2. Cargo capacity is the same as on a single touring bicycle (front and rear panniers), but must be shared by two riders. It's workable, but sub-optimal for travel with children, who require toys, books, etc.

3. Elissa was a fun companion, but Oliver was getting to the age where he would enjoy bike rides, too. I felt bad leaving him behind when Elissa and I went riding.

One day, in the presence of some bike geek friends, I openly proposed the idea putting an Xtracycle on the tandem. That idea, because it is ridiculous, received some laughs. But I was half-serious. The more I thought about it, the better I liked the idea. I could carry lots of stuff, including an extra passenger, and the Xtracycle with a 26"/559 mm wheel has plenty of tire clearance. One day at the shop, I noticed my Pugsley fork and wheel lying in the corner. Porn music started playing in my head (wah-wah-chicka-wah-wah) and it started to come together: Tandem plus Xtracycle plus Pugsley. The cherry on top was the potential for using disc brakes, even hydraulic! I would be foolish NOT to do this! (yes, a headset adapter is required).

 It turns out the Pugsley wheel and tire produces some pretty scary handling characteristic with a bike of this length. Luckily, this is the symmetrical Pug fork, which will take a normal wheel, too.Off with the Pug wheel, and on with a more conventional wheel with a Schwalbe 26x2.35" Big Apple to match the rear. Mr Rose at Shockspital modified an Avid Juicy brake by adding a hose long enough to cover the span from the handlebar to the rear disc.

The maiden voyage of this contraption was a 65-mile jaunt through the river bluffs and rolling hills between Minneapolis and Wilson, Wisconsin.
 (photo by Lanny Hoff)

In Wilson, we over-nighted on the property of Dave's Brewfarm.
Elissa's previous long day was about 35 miles. On the Brewfarm trip, she did back-to-back days of 65 and 72 miles, respectively. I frequently offer her a chance to get off the bike, to take a break, but she usually declines in favor of more pedaling. After a 137-mile weekend of hills and heat, we were walking in the house and I asked if she was glad to be home. "Yeah," she said, "but I'd rather be out on the open road." Huh.

Last weekend (Independence Day weekend) we stayed closer to home, but still rode the tandem a lot for errands and general transportation. It turned out to be a 70-mile weekend for Elissa and me, highlighted by a trip to the St Paul Farmer's Market:
We also made a side trip to a grocery store on the way home, and our load was impressive!

Once home from the grocery run, my wife mentioned that Oliver (now 2-1/2) is usually very enthusiastic about the bike, and very sad when we leave without him. I immediately found some suitable clothes for him, strapped on his helmet, lowered the saddle a bit, and snugged his feet into the toe straps. We made a tentative trip around the block:

Wow, he didn't jump off or freak out! We kept going. Down the street, turn here, turn there, pretty soon over the bridge and westbound on the Minnehaha Parkway bike trail. Then around Lake Nokomis. Some old lady rode behind us for awhile before making a snide comment about my decision to have a small child on the bike, but Oliver was doing just fine and having the time of his life.
All total, Oliver has 8 miles on the bike. I suspect he'll have 100 more by the end of the year.

7/1/10

some thoughts about the oil spill

It was the ongoing (now 73 days, I believe) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that made me consider getting back to writing this blog. I heard and read so many heated opinions on the topic, but nobody seemed to be echoing my own thoughts on the subject. It's a closely guarded secret that I got into bicycling because I was repulsed by the ramifications of oil dependence and the car-culture (now, I just like to ride my bike). Here are the key points that I think get missed.

1. This oil leak is under 5,000 feet of water. I read that the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig (the one that exploded) was capable of drilling under 8,000 feet of water to a depth of 30,000 feet. That's about six miles from the surface, and six miles from the people and equipment that could solve any problems in the course of operations. In this case, we've seen that even under a mere ONE mile of water, fixing this gusher, or even getting an accurate estimate of flow rate is extremely difficult. That we are now routinely going to such extreme places to get oil should be a little frightening. It reminds me of a recreational drug hobby that grows increasingly serious. It starts out innocently enough, just a fun thing to do once in awhile at parties. Pretty soon the user finds himself venturing into rough neighborhoods and dealing with dangerous, unsavory people to get his fix. Sooner or later, something bad happens, and anybody who hears about "another drug deal gone bad in that part of town" on the news is likely to be unsurprised.

2. There is no small amount of surprise and anger (from across the political spectrum) that the powers-that-be in the halls of government have not yet plugged the oil leak. This sentiment supposes that the government has not only technical know-how and equipment appropriate to this situation, but that they also have found ways of circumventing thermodynamics (static pressure a mile under water is around 2400 psi, and that is not a triviality). Because the government is big, powerful, and somewhat mysterious to most Average-Joe-the-Plumbers, the tendency is to assume infinite capability. Any failure to solve a technical problem is obvious evidence of a conspiracy. Whatever fucked up thing we can do to ourselves, we don't have to worry or take any personal responsibility, because the government either has a ready-for deployment solution or will create one on short notice. Now we are learning that the government cannot solve, or even try to solve every problem. There are really bad consequences to our actions, and there is not always a safety net.

3. We often hear about the problems of long-term storage of nuclear waste. But who's planning to maintain all these deepwater oil wells for the next one-thousand, one-hundred, or even fifty years? If the economy shits the bed (and it's more than a little flatulent already!), it's conceivable that maintaining all these wellheads will become a luxury we can't afford, if it hasn't already.

4. I recently got sucked into an online discussion among otherwise smart people who seemed to think that life in the not-too-distant future will go on, pretty much like it is now, with cars powered by something other than petroleum products. The old saw "the stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones" in the context of the Post-Oil Age is the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard. We never ran cars on stones. In fact, during the Stone Age we lived in caves and ate raw meat, if we were lucky. Even well beyond the Stone Age, life was generally harder, less comfortable, and shorter than it is now. My middle-class American home has more creature comforts than were enjoyed by 17th Century Kings. Much of what we recognize as comfortable modernity could not have been possible without the abundance, energy density, and portability of oil products. Cars, aside from a very small number of experimental units and concept cars, have only run on petroleum distillates. There were no pre-petroleum cars that are worth mentioning. Sure, there are electric cars, but electricity doesn't come from our apparently infinite supply of fairy farts. Electricity comes, for the most part, from burning coal. If burning coal was a fine-and-dandy thing to do, it would be a no-brainer. But burning coal is widely known to suck ass in many respects, and it would be a lousy situation if we were forced to ramp up the burning of coal so 300 million people could continue to enjoy what Kunstler calls "the fiesta of happy motoring". The widespread use of cars is an anomaly in human history, dating back only a human lifetime or so. The presumption that the cars will keep going forever, even when refined oil isn't available, is ludicrous. Anyway, it was clear to me that these people who were having this discussion are to the point, as a result of the oil spill, of being fed up with oil and looking for alternatives. But they are still very much in the car-culture mindset, and can't see beyond that model. Also, most seem to be waiting for some clear directive from God, Obama, The Free Market, or some other authoritative entity that it's time to make a collective change. There was an undercurrent of community, as in "WE will do what is deemed to be necessary when the time comes". I wonder if it's possible that the next cognitive shift will be people moving toward direct action in their personal lives, rather than waiting to see where, if anywhere, the rest of the sheep herd is going.

6/29/10

gonna reincarnate this thing

It's been awhile since I posted to Planetary Gears, but after a prolonged writer's block, I've been writing blog posts in my head again. Time to show some of my crazy ideas to the world!