So Far at the Vuelta

If the Tour de France is an eldest son who is a successful brain surgeon, the Vuelta is his younger brother who runs a well-respected nonprofit but is inevitably overshadowed, ignored at family gatherings while his big brother steals the spotlight. Or something like that.

It’s been an exciting first few days of racing at Spain’s grand tour. Some observations:

  • The course is not flat. This fact scared away lots of big-name sprinters from even showing up and also has made for more interesting racing, with breakaways having a chance or succeeding on every stage so far and Chris Froome launching a big attack on Stage Three. Personally, I find sprint stages to be far less interesting than lumpy ones, and I’ve enjoyed seeing these stages play out in surprising, tactically diverse ways.
  • Speaking of Froome, he’s crushing everyone again, and–bold prediction!–I think he will win it all.
  • Chaves is back! So far, the little Colombian with the best smile in pro sports has been one of the few GC contenders with the fitness to stay on Froome’s wheel during attacks that have blown apart the rest of the field. After such a poor performance at the Tour (and more importantly, on my fantasy team), it’s great to see him riding strong.
  • Thomas “Off the Front” de Gendt is at it again. Color me not at all surprised. This dude is a beast and it’s a shame that he didn’t win the Most Aggressive Rider jersey at the Tour. Hopefully local biases in Spain don’t screw him over like they did in France.
  • Spain looks nice. I’d like to go there sometime. Maybe not in August though.
  • I don’t know what’s more hilarious about the Eurosport broadcasts: Carlton Kirby’s unwavering frustration with shoddy camera work, or Sean Kelly’s monotone brogue as he describes lung-busting efforts and riveting racing with an startling lack of enthusiasm. They make a great pair.

The Struggle is Real

With a lull in my bike build process (waiting on the rest of the components to arrive), thought I’d be productive by putting tires on my Mavic Ksyrium Elite wheelset. Just a quick 15-minute job that would get me one step closer to riding this thing. I grabbed my tire lever and a pair of Vittoria Corsa 25 mm tires with bitchin’ tan sidewalls (which I worry are becoming so popular–more than half the field at a recent race had them–that they are losing their retro exotic beauty) and got to work.

Two hours later I finished. My skin was coated in a couple layers of sweat and my knuckles were bleeding. I could barely move my raw, beet-red fingers and my blistered thumbs were numb. My meager accomplishment, two wheels with tires and inflated tubes, leaned against the wall as if to mock me. I looked as if I had made the tires myself in an ancient, sweltering factory.

What happened?

Well, the bead was tight. So goddamned tight. Tighter than a…well, you can fill in the blank (how’s that for a Rorschach test?) Maybe I’m doing it wrong or something, but I’ve never had problems with putting on tires. Not like this. My self-taught, awkward method usually works reasonably well (except when group ride companions are gathered around watching like leering middle schoolers at the monkey cage). It didn’t work for these tires. I pushed with my thumbs, yanked with the tire lever, pulled with my fingertips. Nothing worked. I worked myself into a lather, opening cuts on my hands, taking a break to punch a pillow. Followed my dad’s strange suggestion to spread dish soap along the rim. Nothing.

I sincerely wondered, at many points during the process, if I would ever succeed. Bringing a half-on tire into a bike shop results in permanent riding license revocation and endless shame, so obviously that was not an option. And my hands were so mangled that I saw no way those last few inches of sidewall were going to stretch over the rim.

Finally, as I considered giving up for the night or maybe the month, I made one last desperate attempt. Wrapping the tire lever in a smelly t-shirt to prevent further hand mangling, I pushed it in between the rim and tire and pulled as hard as I could towards me. It didn’t budge, and then it did. Done. The tire was seated. I collapsed to the floor, too frustrated to be happy.

The tires do look pretty rad though.

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Ride and Run, Appalachian Trail Style

My training plan called for a 12-mile run this weekend, the longest yet. There are lots of places to run around Harrisburg because, after all, you can pretty much run anywhere. But most of the city isn’t all that interesting to run through. The Capital Area Greenbelt is a great option, but I’ve circumnavigated it what feels like a thousand times at this point. I wanted to run somewhere new, preferably on one of the many trails within a not-too-far radius of the city. One of those is the Appalachian Trail, which snakes from Michaux State Forest to the southwest, through the Cumberland Valley to Blue Mountain, then along the ridge towards Maine. While thru-hiking doesn’t really appeal to me (I’d rather spend six months biking around the country than walking through a forest), the trail offers great opportunities for hikes and runs of any length. So I decided to do my run on the section near Boiling Springs, about 15 miles away. The guilt of driving such a bikeable distance and the desire for something I could reasonably call an adventure outweighed my hesitance to ride 30 miles and run 12 in the same workout.

I lathered on sunscreen, filled two water bottles, and headed out, trying to go nice and easy to save energy for the real exercise. It was a gorgeous morning, slightly cool but warming quickly. This time of year everything is growing and green and the farmland looks like it could feed entire armies. Perfect rows of corn, six or eight feet tall, cover scalloped hills. Acres of soybeans form a dense carpet, surrounding big houses set back from the road with pickup trucks in the driveways and swings under shade trees. Roadside vegetable stands are unmanned, with prices listed and a locked box for honest people to put their money in. The sky was blue, brushed clean like fine china, and the sun was hot. Five miles in I was already glad I rode, and that feeling only intensified as I passed through Mechanicsburg and out into the country.

At the Lisburn Road parking lot I stumbled a few paces into the woods to stash my bike, worrying about ticks the entire time. I took off my longer, more socially acceptable shorts and stripped down to my very short, only-acceptable-while-running shorts. I drank one bottle of water and saved the other for afterwards when I would surely be parched. Then I started running.

Forest, farmland, rocks, some mud, more forest, animals rustling. Only trail running provides such a buffet of sights and sounds and smells. The miles passed quickly, even without a podcast playing in my earbuds. I plan to do the marathon without the aide of audio distraction, so I need to ween myself off of that now. I remembered how much more I enjoy running on trails than streets, and how much more it hurts my knees. I think the constant focus trail running requires–obstacles, elevation changes, uneven surfaces–makes the miles add up easier. Sidewalks don’t require as much mental bandwith, and an empty mind stretches the length of seconds and minutes.

At Boiling Springs, a tidy little trail town with an algae-spotted lake, I lost the trail, and ended up on road for a bit, but it was a road in rural Cumberland County on Sunday morning, so it was basically a sidewalk. I think I saw two cars in three miles. A woman stood in her front yard training a dog. “Leave it!” she snapped as I ran past, offering me a small wave.

I turned around, caught the trail again in Boiling Springs, and retraced my steps. I was amazed at how easily I reeled off the miles. Seven. Nine. Eleven. I passed a thru-hiker for a second time and he looked peaceful, filled with the serenity that four months alone in the woods apparently brings. Then I was done.

Final stats: 12 miles, 8:23 per mile, 142 average heart rate (all tracked by my new Garmin Vivoactive HR watch, which is amazing so far).

The ride home actually wasn’t tough at all. Maybe because it was such a beautiful day, in a beautiful part of the world. Or maybe I’m a better runner than I think, and 12 miles isn’t really that much for my legs to handle.

All in all (how’s that for a grade-school concluding phrase?) I’m glad I made the trip to run somewhere new–seeing unseen things is always worth it. Whenever I put my feet on untouched ground I never regret it.

Groupsets and Guilt

Well, I made a decision. Decided on a frame, clicked a digital box, paid invisible money. It will be here in a couple days.

I went with the Cannondale CAAD 12 Black Inc., which seems to offer the light weight, race geometry, and badass looks of the Canyon I had planned on buying, at a similar price. From what I can tell, the whole “Black Inc.” thing doesn’t really mean much; it’s the same as the CAAD 12, but with a cooler paint job. Works for me–a paint job doesn’t make a bike, but it can certainly break one.

So, with a frame and wheels figured out, I’m on to the final step: groupset. I know I want to go electronic–I made that decision when my shifter cable snapped 60 miles into a century last winter. I waffled between Sram Red eTap and Shimano Ultegra Di2. eTap is more expensive, but there are no wires to deal with, and even a mechanical novice like me can supposedly install it. Di2 is about half the price and offers many of the same shifting advantages, but isn’t cable free and is reported to have some issues with cables popping out of batteries and the like.

I’m leaning towards eTap. Here’s why

  1. This is the last bike I will buy for a long time. As Donna says, treat yo’self.
  2. I spend more hours per week biking than on any other voluntary activity (work does not count as a voluntary activity, since the purpose of it is to accumulate money and vacation days to spend on biking.)
  3. I’m getting a sensible aluminum frame and aluminum wheels, not elitist, fragile carbon, so I can allocate money elsewhere in the build.
  4. Shifting is the aspect of riding I notice the most, so why compromise?
  5. Cables and seat tube batteries intimidate me. I want to be able to (mostly) put this bike together myself, from scratch. I want to actually attach all the various pieces I’ve assembled, to see the bike go from a collection of objects to a fully functioning machine. That’s one of the main reasons I opted not to buy a complete build. While I suppose I could figure out how to install Di2, it seems a hell of a lot more complicated.
  6. Early adopters look cool when the technology becomes ubiquitous.

But these could all just be post-hoc justifications of my wanting something that is maybe a little too nice, a little too expensive, a little too unnecessary. Rationalizing a want, rather than wanting something rational. For the difference in price between Di2 and eTap (or between either and a perfectly good mechanical groupset), I could literally save children’s lives in Africa by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation (one of the world’s most effective charities that distributes anti-malaria mosquito nets around the world). That fact is not lost on me; I am aware of my own selfishness. Yes, I already donate monthly to charity, but I could donate more and spend less on this bike without affecting my own happiness in any substantial way. Peter Singer’s famous analogy gnaws at me because I know I could do more, because I know that lots of what I buy is by any definition unnecessary.

Or, think of it this way: for the $1,000-$2,000 difference in price between groupsets that are ultimately 95% similar in performance, I could buy more than 10 Buffalo bikes for people who need bikes to go to school and retrieve clean water, needs which make mine (things like “my mental health” and “getting a good workout in”) seem pretty puny. The truth is that any of us cycling-obsessed people could. All the money spent on kits and racing and bikes, most of it to look cool or be a few grams lighter, doesn’t really make us happier. It could do more good elsewhere. Ultimately, I think we would still enjoy cycling with vastly less stuff. Fewer bikes, fewer jerseys, fewer wheelsets. If everyone had a perfectly decent aluminum bike with Shimano 105, we wouldn’t stop feeling the wind in our faces or seeing beautiful vistas or laughing with friends.

I’m not lecturing. Just plumbing my own guilt. Because despite knowing these things, I am still going to get eTap. No doubt, it will be crisp and wonderful. But it won’t be morally defensible. Not really.