Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Review: Zwift

Last week the realization kicked in -- the days are getting shorter and so are my week night rides.  While I've ridden in the dark before, unless it's during a low traffic period, I try to avoid riding on county roads in the dark.  So I figured it would be a good time to start going over some indoor options.  The first of these I tried out was Zwift.

So what is Zwift?  In a nutshell, think World of Warcraft meets cycling.  Your bike is on a trainer, hooked up to a computer.  You ride your bike, and on the screen you are riding in a virtual world with many other people.  Sound simple?

Zwift Requirements
  • A computer from the last few years.  Can be a Windows PC or a Mac.  If it's a desktop you might be able to beef up an older system with a new video card.
  • ANT+ Connectivity.  For most people this means buying an ANT+ USB2 stick.  Most will work (except the older Garmin USB1 stick).
  • A way to get power, using one of the following:
    • A supported smart trainer.
    • A power meter.
    • An ANT+ speed/cadence sensor coupled with a supported "dumb" trainer. 
  • A heart rate monitor is not a requirement but it is definitely nice to have!

For my testing rig I used both a Windows laptop and a Windows desktop.  I had a Suunto Movestick Mini for ANT+ USB.  I have a Wahoo SC (supports dual bluetooth & ANT+) coupled with a Kurt Kinetic Rock'n'Roll trainer (supported by Zwift).  I also have a Wahoo TICKR heart rate monitor that I pair. I've been using my titanium road bike (aka the Titan) equipped with a blue Tacx trainer tire. Last but not least a 42" plasma TV and a TV dinner tray to hold my mouse, keyboard and other amenities.

Setting Up
In order to get up and running, first you will need an account.  After answering the usual questions (name, email, password), Zwift gets a little personal.  Some of this info is needed to put together your avatar correctly (gender, height) and it factors your weight in the game.  Don't worry, it's not going to make your avatar obese... mine definitely doesn't have the kegger that my body does in real life!  Last but not least, it asks you metric or imperial so it knows what you want information displayed in.  I always get so torn here; I prefer my distance in kilometers and my weight in pounds.

The next screen you see brings you into a pairing configuration.  This is where you set up your gear.  This was pretty painless to do.  If you are trying this out and can't see your gadget, remember many of them need to be "woken" up.  For a speed sensor, simply passing the magnet over the sensor will do.

Once you wake them up, you are able to search for them.  You only have to search for them the first time time; the next time around it will see them the moment they wake up.  After connecting my heart rate monitor, I connected my speed/cadence sensor.  Because I was using a speed/cadence sensor my next step was to select a trainer.  I quickly found the "Kurt Kinetic" setting and I was ready to go!

One last thing before hitting the course.... a challenge!  Currently Zwift has two long-term challenges.  You can choose either "Climb Mt Everest" for a total of 8848m of elevation or "Ride California" for a total distance of 1283km.  These are distances that are cumulative over all your rides.  In addition to a profound sense of accomplishment, there is also the promise of in-game swag

I've always had a fondness for long distance riding so I went with the California challenge.

Next I was asked if I wanted to just ride or if I wanted to start next to someone.  If you are looking to meet up with a friend this is handy.  But in this case I just wanted to try the whole course, so I selected "Just Ride."

Riding in Zwift

So at this point I appear in the game, at the side of a road.  I hop on my bike and start spinning.  My virtual self starts to mirror my movement and away we go.  Sure enough, I found my speed higher when going uphills and slower when going downhills.

 As you can see from the screen shot, there are a few display components.  Here is a rundown of each:
  • Upper left has a blue box.  This has your wattage in large white font.  Below is your current cadence and heart rate.
  • Between the blue box and white box is a faint circle.  When you have a power-up, this is where it is displayed.
  • The white box contains some other details.  First is your in-game speed, which takes into account the slope you are on and your weight.  Next is the total number of kilometers ridden this session.  Following this is an indicator of how high you've climbed.  Then the duration of your current session.  Below is a bar showing your points to your next unlockable item.
  • On the upper right are two profiles.  One is for your vicinity; it shows the grade of the slope, nearby riders and any nearby finish lines.  The one below is a profile of the entire course, showing you where you are, other riders, sprints, climbs and the lap finish.
  • Taking up most of the right side of the screen, is the riders near you.  This shows you riders in front of you and behind you.  You can see their name, nationality, estimated time from you, the watts/kg they are generating and how much distance they've racked up this session.

One of my first questions was, how do I steer?  Well, there is no steering component.  Your avatar will happily zip between riders and everyone will coexist nicely.  Though I noticed with my Kurt Kinetic R&R that I would lean into turns; it didn't have any in game effect but it made the simulation feel a lot more realistic.

Pausing is pretty easy, just stop riding.  As soon as you coast to a halt the pause screen comes up.  This will allow you to change various settings including things like screen resolution and the way your avatar looks.  Unlockables such as jerseys, bikes and wheels can be enabled here.

Right away you start to notice the other riders.  Some are blue and translucent while others are more solid looking, with kits on and different bikes.  The former are computer controlled riders (or bots) and the latter are real people.  On the right hand side of the screen you can see the names, nationality and power reading (in watts / kg) of a rider.  Everyone's name is in order of what order they are in front/behind you so the order does change often.

A few seconds later and I pass through the start gate of the lap.  A random selector begins flashing through icons until one lands.  Possible selections are:
  • Aero Boost.  Icon resembles an aero helmet with sunglasses.  Makes you more aero for 30 seconds.  I particularly like this one as it doesn't have any requirements.
  • Draft Boost.  Icon resembles a white van.  Reduces your drag reduction by 70% for 30 seconds.  Of course, you need to be drafting for it to work.
  • Lightweight.  Icon resembles a feather.  Lowers your weight by 8 lbs for 15 seconds.  I both like and dislike this particular bonus.  I like that it doesn't have any pre-requisites but I hate that its only 8 lbs.  I could be biased but I wish it was a percentage of weight instead of a static amount.
  • Large Bonus. Icon resembles a large + sign.  Gives you 250 points. (Yes, points covered later).
  • Small Bonus.  Icon resembles a small + sign.  Gives you 10 points.
  • Breakaway Burrito.  Icon resembles... a burrito!  Mmmmm burrito!  This particular power up seems to have been disabled; what it  was supposed to do was make you un-draftable for ten seconds.
So what's up with points?  Well, you get the points by riding or by getting the bonuses.  Riding 1 km nets you 20 points.  Eventually these points get you new levels, where new gear such as jerseys, bikes and wheels are unlocked.  To recap thus far; you are in a massive multiplayer online world, battling it out for points and gear... starting to sound a lot like World of Warcraft isn't it?

While I'm riding I notice a large animation on the screen that appears like two cyclists getting closer or further together, with a sign that says "CLOSE THE GAP".  I realize it's indicating for me to draft the player in front of me.  That's right, the game has drafting.  It doesn't seem to match real life drafting.  In real life, I am a quite the wheel-sucker.  But in game I can't seem to stay behind at a steady rate.

At certain places there are segments. Currently there are three; sprint, KOM and lap.  Sprints are fairly flat and short.  KOM's (aka King of the Mountain) are usually climbing based.  Last but not least, the lap is usually the entirety of the course.  Winning first place gets you a jersey; green, red polka-dot and orange respectively.

With the segments come a few more details.  Your display at the top of the screen expands with a few more details.  The most prominent on is your time and the slot you are competing for.  It also gives details on how far away the finish line is, your estimated time of arrival and your personal record time over the past 30 days.  An additional cell pops up on the left hand side of the screen -- it varies between the current standings of the segment and your personal attempts at the segment.

As I approach the first large incline, I notice my speed slow to a crawl.  I start to mash the pedals down to make more power, which ends up translating as a trickle of speed.  It kind of feels like climbing in Gatineau Park.... I'm going very slowly and straining very hard.  The main difference is gearing and cadence.  In the park, I'm in my climbing gears and trying very hard to keep at least 70 RPM.  In Zwift, I'm in faster gears, and my cadence is higher.  This is the experience from a non-smart trainer point of view.  I'm told on a smart trainer, the resistance can increase or decrease depending on the slope, which provides for a realistic experience.  That being said, from the sweat pouring off me, this feels plenty realistic!

With more game-play come more goodies.  There are achievements unlocked for power challenges, like sprinter apprentice for hitting 800 watts or Sprinter in Training for hitting 900 watts.  One particularly amusing achievement was called "Shut up Legs" for holding 500 watts for ten seconds.  Some are speed based, such as Speed Demon at 50 mph (most speed challenges I saw were for MPH even though I was set for metric).  Other achievements exist for distance challenges, like Marathoner for riding 40km at once.

Zwift Mobile Link
I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the Zwift Mobile Link.  This application is for iOS and Android.  If you aren't logged into Zwift it enables you to sneak a peek at who is riding.  If you are online, it becomes both a handy dashboard, action menu and display of other riders around you.

In the dashboard screen, the very top shows you the current boost available.  By pressing it, you can activate the boost.  The next few lines are details about your current session; your power in watts, your in-game speed, your in-game odometer, elevation climbed this session, your total session duration, current cadence and heart rate.  There is a button to run the lap in reverse as well as a button to stop.  I'm assuming it's pause but I haven't tried it yet.

Swiping the screen leads to another menu filled with mostly emoticons.  You can activate actions like waving or elbow flicking.  There is also a group message selection that allows you to speak in-game to other players.

A third screen can also be accessed showing you which players are nearby.

The only thing I didn't like about the app was the way it relayed chat messages.  They usually cover the top part of the screen.  More than once I've tried to press a boost near a finish line, only to press someone's message instead.  When you do this, the app assumes you want to write a message back and opens up a dialogue.  Trust me, you don't want to hear what I'd have to say after you just screwed up my boost on a sprint segment!!

What I like about Zwift
Looks like Zwift gets the job done!
First and foremost, I like the way Zwift makes a trainer interesting.  One of the most difficult things about using a trainer indoors all winter is to stave off boredom.  Zwift helps keep things fresh.

I also really enjoy the zPower aspect of Zwift.  I can see a good estimate of my power without having to fork out for a power meter.  A much bigger deal for those of us who don't have power meters.

The fact that Zwift is a social game appeals to me.  Or maybe it's the old adage of "Misery loves company."  Either way, I get to interact with a bunch of other bike nerds who are enslaved to a trainer inside.  Some nights there are hundreds of players in Zwift, all riding on the same course I am.  It definitely makes it feel a lot less lonely.

I like the way Zwift engages my competitive nature.  In addition to playing with many others, you will find people who end up being the same, or slightly faster, than your in-game speed.  I find that encourages you to try harder, to be far ahead of these other players, rather than sucking at their wheels.  I am a person that responds well to a rabbit in front of me.

The Strava integration is important to me.  I'm a data nerd and I like to see my stats, they help motivate me.  With Zwift and Strava I can easily monitor my progress.  With Strava feeding calorie counts to my food app, this means that my Zwift sessions will also automatically be taken into account.

It's free.  That's right, not even a penny out of my sporran!  Well, for a limited time anyway.  Free while they're in beta.  I get the feeling they are going to start charging this winter.  As long as their subscription fees are in line with Tour de Giro and TrainerRoad, I don't see that being a problem.

What Zwift Needs Prior to Going Gold:
"Going Gold" in video game parlance means the game is at a point where it is a "Gold Master", when publishers ship the game out to be sold.  In this case, I refer to the point where Zwift starts charging subscription fees (as opposed to the current free beta).

First up to bat is workouts.  Yes, it is really fun to ride around in Zwift.  But riding a trainer all winter is going to require some structured workouts.  Having real workouts is something worth paying a subscription fee for.  This is something the Zwift team says they are working on.

I'd list voice chat as a must-have.  Yes, there are better solutions out there already and they shouldn't develop a voice chat in-house.  But they could at least standardize on a system.  Chatting live is going to be a lot easier on a bicycle than the current system of typing on a keyboard.

Teams!  I want to easily identify others in my local club; I want to see their name highlighted or marked in some way, I want to proudly wear our kit while riding in Zwift.  I want to be able to use the aforementioned items in conjunction with this; I want to be able to do structured workouts in sync with my team; I want to be able to voice chat with just my team.

While the two current courses are great (Watopia and Richmond), I can't see myself paying a fee for just two courses.  If I had a number to choose from, it would make a subscription a no-brainer!

Bluetooth!  While I'm already set up for ANT+, I know lots of people who use Bluetooth sensors.  If you already have a Bluetooth speed/cadence sensor or power meter and a computer that supports Bluetooth, its really annoying to dish out additional funds to get an ANT+ stick and ANT+ sensors.  It would definitely make the subscription fee easier on the wallet for people in that situation.  Zwift has posted that they are currently developing Bluetooth connectivity.

Last but not least, a little more polish.  I should be able to enter promo codes or change my avatar without completely logging in.  I should be able to link Zwift to Strava from both the web site (where it is now) and the app.  Maybe a logout screen so I'm never left wondering, "Did it just crash or exit gracefully?"

Well, I've definitely been having fun with Zwift.  At the time of this writing I've clocked close to 200km and 1500m of elevation in-game.  So far it has become my go-to when I want to do an early morning fat burning session.  September/October rain in Eastern Canada is also pretty frigid so Zwift has become my main ride when the precipitation falls.  I'll be watching the development of this software closely.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Group Ride Addict

Last year most of my rides were solo rides.  When I wasn't solo, it was usually a leisure ride with my spouse.  In my mind, cycling was a very solitary activity.  Living in the sticks means you don't often see cyclists, familiar or not.

This year I joined a local club and got a taste for riding in groups.  I went from enjoying it, to becoming an addict.  That last year of riding almost seems alien to me now.  The majority of my rides this year have all been with others, anywhere from 2 or 3 to 20.

At first it was the rider development night that got me hooked.  This is a slower paced ride where new and experienced cyclists can mingle.  It got me up and running on group etiquette, group technique and helped build my endurance and stamina  Below is a time lapse video from one of my club's development nights.

Being in a group literally means safety in numbers.  As a lone cyclist, you might be unnoticed by a motor vehicle.  But a pack of cyclists is very noticeable.  While the majority of motor vehicles sharing the road are very courteous, I've noticed I am less likely to get harassed in a group.

When things go wrong, it helps to have supportive people around.  You might be short a leer or a tube, or need a spoke wrench or a chain breaker, there's usually someone who can loan you something.  Or if you're inexperienced at a road side repair, there's usually someone who can show you how it's done.

Speed and endurance play a factor here too.  A group that is drafting is going to be able to go both faster and further than the individuals in that group could go on their own.  A weaker rider can easily be taken along in a group with a higher pace if they are able to draft the faster riders.  Eventually those fast rides become more manageable, next thing you know you are taking your turn pulling up front.

The social aspect is pretty awesome.  It's been said many times that "Cycling is the new golf."  I completely understand that phrase now.  When riding in a group, positions change often and you'll find yourself riding next to someone new quite often.  So you get to chatting.  Then the group order will naturally change; before you know it you've just talked to 15 different people!  Riding together tends to help people bond quickly.  I can see why, when every ride is a story and the suffering is a shared experience.  You can't beat that for networking!

Nowadays I ride various paces and distances but I'm almost always in a group.  I still ride solo but it's gone from every ride to once every week or three.  As a friend of mine would say, group rides are ggrreeaatt!

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Ottawa Gran Fondo 2015 Part Three: Epilogue

(Continued from Part Two)

Sweaty, exhausted, sun-burnt, victorious.  Those are the words that remind me of what crossing the finish line was.  My exhilaration for the finish line was matched by my anticipation for food and a cold beer!  After eating nothing but gels, fruit bars, bagels and the occasional banana, I was looking forward to something real, tasty and not on the upper ranges of the glycemic index!!

That being said, I was really happy I stuck to the nutritional plan that was outlined for me.  Sticking to only high glycemic products (gels, sports drinks on me; bagels, bananas and Fruit2 bars at aid stations) really helped with my digestion and helped keep my energy up.  Sticking to sports drinks instead of water ensured I had enough electrolytes; though in the future I might get some electrolyte tablets for water when I need a "Gator-break" (break from Gatorade).

After ten minutes of digging through the car I found my meal ticket and headed back to the canteen area.  After stocking up a big meal, a few soft drinks, a water and a cold brew from Clocktower Pub, I met up with my small group.  Everyone chatted in french.  I struggled to keep up but I felt like I had to try; after all, everyone spoke in english to me for the last several hours.  I think I would have had an easier time but I was just so beat.  But it was good to just sit and enjoy some time with people who shared the struggle and came through it with me.  I was really thankful to have found some great people to survive the ride with.

I'd also like to mention how thankful I am to have found a local cycling club who was so supportive of my endeavor.  I got great tips advice on how to ride in both every-day riding and the Gran Fondo itself.  Two riders in particular come to mind (TB & GB) for always having me along in rides and always pushing and testing my limits.  I feel like such a strong rider now as a result and don't think I could have managed the Gran Fondo without their help!

Most of all I'm thankful for my wife's support.  She believed in me so strongly and let me know every day.  She never complained about me training incessantly even though I slacked in my chores a bit (sometimes quite a bit).  This of course in addition to her being both hot and awesome.  I love her very much & I am a very lucky man!

It's not all cheers and good news though.  I am really disappointed with Wahoo Fitness.  In addition to the speed/cadence sensor dying, it also lost all data from my ride.  The app crashed when I was trying to save after the ride.

When I contacted Wahoo Fitness afterwards, I was told sorry but you lost your data!  I'm not sure if "sorry" as in "sorry for your lost data" or "sorry you're bugging me."  I honestly felt like I got the brush off from their support.  I was told my situation was unique and they had no data for me.  When I mentioned I had sent in lots of crash dumps, they said they would forward my message to the developers.  When I asked for possible causes (so I could avoid crashes in the future) I was basically told there was no problem.  When I tried to push further and offered my free time to help them diagnose the problem, they just closed the ticket.  For a company that prides themselves on fitness data they certainly take a flippant attitude for it.  Can't say I'm impressed with their product!  If you are shopping for a bike computer and you're serious about fitness data, save yourself some anguish and just get a Garmin!

All in all, I'm really glad I signed up for the Gran Fondo.  I'm also really glad I took it seriously and trained up for the distance!  I'm already on the lookout for more Gran Fondos and long rides.  In addition to joining long club rides, I'd like to try out this year's Thousand Islands Gran Fondo.  Next year in addition to the Ottawa Gran Fondo, I was looking at trying out the Tremblant Gran Fondo and the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Ottawa Gran Fondo 2015 Part Two: The Ride

(See Part One here)

So on race day I helped myself to a very carb rich breakfast in preparation of the event.  I also had a few "carb load" low GI bars to eat about an hour before the actual ride.  Between all this and the heavy carb meal from the night before, I was almost vibrating with energy.

While going through some pre-checks I discovered my Wahoo speed/cadence sensor had stopped working.  Not sure if it was malfunction or a battery issue but I was not impressed.  So I enabled GPS on my phone for speed; not a great option if you were trying to set the pace as the speed is delayed and jumps around a lot.  But since this was the 11th hour I didn't have much of a choice.

For those of us on the "Gran Fondo" distance (180 km), riders would leave in two waves.  I was under the impression that Group A was fast and Group B would be slower; but neither would be crazy fast.  I also figured if I got dropped by Group A, I could always get picked up by group B.

At this point I am reminded of a famous quote from a Robbie Burns poem, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley."

I left as one of the lead riders in Group A.  Speed built up on the flats in the 35-45 km/h range.  I was behind a few riders so it wasn't impossible to keep up, but I was definitely pushing my heart rate in the higher part of my anaerobic range.  Then the first timed section came up, which included a decent size hill.  That's where I got dropped like a rock while everyone rocketed past me.

No worries, there were other stragglers in Group A.  I managed to snag a wheel and keep up with them.  Then we ran into another hill.  Dropped.  Then Group B came along, which was maintaining the same pace as Group A.  Another hill, I got dropped again.  Passed two aid stations but still was self-sufficient so I skipped them.  Occasionally I would run into other stragglers and hitch a ride.

One guy I met up with was struggling with hills too.  He gave a good effort but didn't seem to have any group experience.  He didn't point out obstacles or hazards, would ride aero bars while pulling and broke pace rocketing down hills at top speed.  Other riders seemed to be offended by it and would break off from our tiny group.  Eventually we parted ways at an aid station.  I saw him a few times later and I sincerely hope he was able to complete his ride.

In retrospect it made me appreciate all the group ride training I had gotten from my local club.  I might get dropped because I was slow on hills but I'd never get dropped because people were unhappy with my behaviour.

For a little while I rode solo, then caught the wheel of a rider on the MediaFondo (100 km) route.  I could tell as we were all easily identified by coloured bracelets.  We never exchanged a word; in fact I never saw his face.  I just caught his rear wheel and followed him for a while.  I remember he had a sticker on his back that said "In memory of Mum," which was very touching.  He let up a bit on the hills but eventually we hit a big incline and I got dropped again.

After another brief solo ride period, another group of 4-5 riders caught up and invited me to hitch on, which I did for a small period of time.  They needed to hit the fourth aid station and by that point, so did I; I could have kept going but wanted a bio break and to re-apply sunscreen.  I also wanted some cold water and something that didn't taste like gel.  I took a bit longer and they headed off.

When I was ready to depart I rode on solo again for a while.  Shortly afterwards I ran into a husband/wife team riding alone.  I asked if I could hitch a ride and they were happy to have me along.  We hit a hill... and we all maintained the same pace!  They both had extremely good group etiquette as well, not only pacing well but even stated change in position (saying "UP!" each time they stood on the pedals) and a holding the bottle out clearly any time they were going to drink.  While they were francophones they spoke in english for my benefit (my french comprehension is so-so but terrible while exercising).

After riding for a bit we introduced ourselves; my fellow riders were Carl and Marie.  There were two others who would ride ahead and drop back around us (I can't remember their names now) but this was the group I ended up staying with for the remainder of the route.  We took turns pulling in the wind and kept a pretty good pace the entire ride.

As my odometer began to climb I noticed I kept getting closer to the magic number of 125 km.  That was the longest I had ever been on a bicycle for a consecutive ride.  Any distance beyond that officially qualified as my "longest ride".  My excitement built as I got closer and closer... that's when the worst happened.

I pulled over to the side of the road to discover that my front derailleur had malfunctioned.  The bracket that contains the chain had literally snapped in two different spots.  I tried to use duct tape to fix it but it was apparent that there was nothing I could do to get going.  My companions came back for me to help and asked me if I needed to call in for a ride, with crestfallen looks on their faces.  I knew at that point I had three options.  One, give up.  Two, call the roving repair station and hope to hell that they somehow had a front derailleur I could use.  Or three....

..... I could just keep on riding with just the small chain ring up front.

I remembered a quote we like to use in our local club, "Suck it up, buttercup!"  It would be harder but I knew I could do it.  When you think about it, I really needed the small chain ring most of all for climbing.  I knew I could go downhill fast on mass alone; for the harder parts I knew I could employ a fast cadence to keep up.  I gave my riding companions a big smile while telling them what my intent was.  So we headed off again.  Each consecutive kilometer thereafter was my new long distance record and I wasn't going to get held up by a bum derailleur.

Even without problems, a long distance starts to take its toll.  I had started feeling a bit sore around the 80 km mark but was feeling a second wind by the time we hit around 110 km.  After needing to stop at the 125 km mark, I was a bit sore again until I caught my third wind.  But by the time 140 km rolled around, I was really feeling sore.  I stood up a lot just to get some blood circulation in my rear end and ended up stretching my legs and back a lot while riding.  My hands were buzzing from the long distance and some of the rougher roads we traversed.

Coasting down hills was normally a good break for me.  At this point of the ride it was more of a hindrance than anything else.  After coasting downhill for a good stretch, my legs felt sore when I began spinning again.  The only way to keep them fresh was to continue spinning my legs, even when I didn't need to.

At some point another group caught up to us and asked us if we had lost an iPhone.  After saying no, I put on an impish grin and said, "Wait, is it an iPhone 5?  Upgrade time!" and everyone had a good laugh.

While enduring the growing pain and exhaustion I noticed another milestone pop up on my odometer.  One hundred and sixty kilometers, or as people south of the border know it, 100 miles.  It was my very first imperial century distance.  Around that time we ran into the second last aid station.  We stopped to stretch, scarf down more food and fill our bottles with sports drinks and water.  The volunteers manning the station told us there was "only one little hill left" and that we were almost at the finish line.

We discovered afterwards there really was only one little hill left... because the rest were monstrous!

A few kilometers later, my companions would encourage everyone by saying how much distance was left in french and english.  I remember when they said, "Dix kilometres!  Just ten kilometers!" because it was the start of the longest ten kilometers of my life. 

Our group continued to count down the kilometers but it felt like we were no closer to completion.  We were still riding on rural roads even when two kilometers away.  But right around the last kilometer we found ourselves in Kanata on urban roads and just moments away from the finish line.

As we pulled up on Innovation Drive in Kanata, other riders began clapping and giving us the thumb's up.  Volunteers were ringing bells and chimes and spectators were clapping as we crossed the finish line.  As I passed that line I felt a surge of pride in myself and a feeling of great accomplishment.  At that moment I felt like I knew what I was made of,

Continued in Part 3, the prologue.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Ottawa Gran Fondo 2015 Part One: Prologue

I had always enjoyed reading about large organized rides.  I really wanted to try it out and get a feel for the experience.  The Gran Fondo seemed like a good place to start; it was a long distance ride with lots of support.  Aid stations with food and water, roving support and repair units and lots of fellow cyclists to enjoy the ride with.

With choices of 65, 100, 180 and 235 kilometers, I went with the 180km route.  I figured this was a distance I could handle but later noticed the elevation... 990 meters of climbing!  As a heavy clydesdale I was always at my weakest when climbing elevation.

My training took three forms; distance and climbing.  For distance, I began to ride more and more with local cyclists, my every day riding increased in distance and duration.  I also tried to have one long distance ride per week.  Climbing consisted of finding hills and climbing them; eventually I headed out on trips to places like Gatineau Park.  Both distance and climbing taught me a lot about myself, what I could handle and how to pace myself appropriately.

The night before the Gran Fondo I went in to pick up my bag of goodies and my bib shorts.  Now, in European sizes I have to go up a size, and race cut usually means going up a size or two, so I had originally ordered the shorts in 4XL.  When they handed me my shorts, they gave me a 3XL.  I was informed there were no 4XL's and they could get them for me after the Fondo.  Disappointed, I tried the 3XL on... and it fit great!  I guess all the training paid off and had slimmed me down a bit.

The timing setup for this year's Gran Fondo was kind of interesting.  There was an electronic strip embedded in a sticker that would hang from the seat post, which would be read by sensors along the way.  This is how they measured time for the 4 timed sections of the ride as well as the entire ride itself.

The Gran Fondo also held a Nutritional Seminar.  I'm very glad I went to it!  Not only did I get a few extra samples because few people attended, I found I was making some severe mistakes in regards to my nutrition on the bike.  To date I usually just packed water and Clif bars.  After a ride I would always come back bloated and would have endurance issues with anything above 100 km.  In the seminar they explained to avoid anything with protein and fat, since it just made digestion more difficult.  When you are riding endurance you are simply burning carbs, so stick to food and drink high on the glycemic index.  I was also neglecting electrolytes.  So I planned to switch to just gels and sports drink for this ride.

In preparation of the ride, the bike I selected was my Valence.  It was a road endurance bike that was literally designed to ride Gran Fondo distances comfortably.  With tires at a 25mm width and a carbon fiber fork and seat post, it would give me plenty of comfort on an aluminum bike.  I added some Profile Design water bottle holders to the seat post which would also give me a total of 4 bottles.

Since I have more than a passing relationship with Bad Luck, I also over-packed a bit.  Three tubes along with four CO2 canisters (the new bottle holders had 4 CO2 holders).  I packed my usual emergency kit of a multitool (with chain braker), tire levers patch kit and tape (duct and vinyl pieces rolled onto a light piece of plastic).  To make sure my phone had enough juice I brought a few USB batteries along with a cable.  I packed my smaller saddle bag as it was the only one that fit with my new rear bottle holders.  Anything that didn't fit in there got stuffed into my front bag.  I also planned to bring my foldable goggles and first aid kit, but opted to leave them behind at the last second.  I did pack some sports drink powder and a scoop in case an aid station had no sports drink.
Gels and carb pre-loaders packed for the Gran Fondo.

As I mentioned earlier, I packed enough gels to last me for eight hours, just in case.  I half-filled all my bottles with Gatorade and left them in the freezer overnight; in the morning I topped them up with more cold sports drink.

My final preparations were simple but some of the most important.  A big pasta supper and a good night's sleep!

Continued in Part Two: The Ride.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Touring the Counties Part Two

For my second loop I wanted to stretch my legs a little more.  This time around I was going to start in South Stormont but move to North Dundas, then swing back east to check out North Stormont, then back to South Stormont again.  My other reason for setting this loop up was to get another metric century in; it's been entirely too long since my last attempt!

I always like routes to start with a place that has adequate parking.  For this particular route a good start place is the Long Sault Parkway on the Ingleside end.  There's lots of parking available; if you'd prefer a slightly longer route, you can always park at the Long Sault end and kick things off with a ride on the Parkway.

From Ingleside I headed north to Osnabruck Centre and then westwards on County Road 18.  The 18 is what I like to call a variable road.  It can be smooth asphalt with paved shoulders, and switch right over to shoulder-less "chip and seal" road, complete with an annoying dent every 5 meters.  You know, the kind of jolt that makes you feel like your entire skeleton just got hit with a jarring blow.  Fortunately west of Osnabruck Centre it leans more on the smooth asphalt side and has a pretty decent paved shoulder.  Traffic is usually sparse and courteous when encountered.

The next village I encountered was Gallingertown.  I don't have a lot of history on this place but I know it was named after the Gallinger family that settled the area.  Unlike many stops I've had, Gallingertown has a very small sign designating it.  Not sure why, I feel like Harrison's Corners is smaller but has a large sign.

St George's Graveyard along CR18
I headed westbound along CR-18.  At some point the shoulder disappeared and the road became a bit rough.  But a few kilometers later the road became smooth and the paved shoulder re-appeared.  Shortly after that my turn to head northward appeared, a small road by the name of Beckstead.

Beckstead Road was a quiet little county lane I discovered last year when I did my first metric century.  There is no paved shoulder but very little traffic to speak of.  Sometimes the road is quite smooth and sometimes its a bit lumpy.  Sometimes the forest closes in close to make a natural tunnel of greenery.  At other times marshes swell on both sides of the road.  This time around though I was discovered something less than pleasant; two pieces of wood with nails facing upward.  They look as though they were placed to deliberately puncture car tires.  As soon as I saw this, I dismounted and removed them from the roadway.

Further on Beckstead Road curves 90 degrees until it ends at a T intersection on County Road 8.  I continued northward on CR-8.  This is another county road that is in great shape with a paved shoulder.  On the next T intersection I continued to head northward on County Road 7.  The bad news about the 7 is that it is a rough strip with a fair amount of traffic.  The good news, it's a short distance until it meets with County Road 43, then it becomes smooth and easy going for the rest of the ride into Chesterville.

Along the South Nation River in Chesterville
Chesterville has a very rich history.  The first settler in 1817 was George Hummel, a Loyalist.  Eventually it took on the name Armstrong's Mills, named after Thomas Armstrong, who operated the saw and grist mill.  When the post office opened in 1845 the settlement became known as the village of Winchester.  The name Chesterville was adopted after the local telegraph office opened in 1875; named after the first telegraph operator, Chester T Casselman.  The south Nation River cuts through the town, with both halves joined by a large concrete bridge.  Adjoining the bridge is a covered gazebo.  When I was coming through town, there was a farmer's market operating there, with fresh produce grown nearby.

Continuing northbound on CR-7 I expected to find another settlement called The Ninth.  I could find it on Google Maps and there are vague references to it online.  But when I approached the location of this settlement, all I could see was an old church building.  Nothing else but farmers fields and a dirt road intersecting CR-7.  No sign or anything.  So I headed further north, looking for something a bit less desolate.

Morewood was my next stop heading north on CR-7.  The town's name was selected in 1862 by Postmaster Alex McKay.  The Postmaster was given a list of names from the government and selected Morewood due to the settlement being surrounded by very dense forests.  While the forests have been replaced with farms, the name carries on.  That being said, there are a very healthy number of trees surrounding the beautiful century homes in town.  Turning east on Main street (aka County Road 13), I headed towards my next segment.

Now, 13 is considered an unlucky number.  But my ride on CR-13 had no problems at all.  In fact, you could say it was a breeze; I had a tailwind helping to propel me.  I took a brief heading north on CR-32 to check out Cannamore, home of Cannamore Orchard.  If you happen to be here around Halloween I recommend you check out the Spooky Wagon Ride.

Bridge crossing South Nation River in Crysler
I turned back to the intersection of CR-32 and CR-13 and headed east again on CR-13.  With both the wind at my back and a gradual down slope, I had a very easy ride to my next stop, Crysler in North Stormont.  Crysler was named after Militia Colonel John Crysler, one of the original settlers.  A concrete vehicular bridge, constructed in 1975, crosses the South Nation River.  Heading southbound on the main road through town, I stopped to check out a community garage sale before departing to my next stop, Berwick.

Southbound on County Road 12, just six short kilometers away, and I was in Berwick.  It was named after a village in Scotland where the early settlers came from.  Today it is the administrative center of North Stormont.  I took some time to stop in at the McIntosh Park Conservation Area, found at the intersection of County Road 12 (named Cockburn Street in Berwick) and County Road (named Union Street in Berwick).  The park was beautiful and well-maintained.  I stopped in at the large covered gazebo for a quick break.

After a few minutes of rest, I made my way eastbound along County Road 9 to a place named Lodi on my map.  Prior to planning this trip, I'd never heard of Lodi and I was curious about what was there.  While there is a gradal incline going towards Lodi, I had a good tail wind and didn't even notice it.

When I got to the end of County Road 9, where it ends in a T intersection with County Road 15.  Found... nothing.  There was trees and farm fields and that's it.  Not a trace of anything else..  So I headed southbound down County Road 15 aka Avonmore Road.

If roads were people, Avonmore Road would be my nemesis.  Hills are the hardest thing for a clydesdale weight cyclist to overcome.  Avonmore Road has a rolling road which has you either climbing up hills or panting while you coast down them.  I have a profile of the part of the road I was on below.  While I hate the road, this is where I practice all my hill climbing; powered by pain, sweat and a lot of choice curse words.

Eventually the Avonmore Road leads to Avonmore village -- bet you didn't see that coming!  After a short break induced by a passing train, I made my way onto the main street.  The settlement was originally named Hough's Corners after one of the original founders, John Hough.  John was a versatile fellow; he built the first sawmill, manufactured coffins and built houses.  He had several roles such as preacher, magistrate, blacksmith, doctor and shopkeeper.  The town's name became Hough's Mills, but when the post office was established in 1864, the town was renamed Avonmore (which means Great or Big River).  It is claimed that it was named after a river in Ireland but I have my own theory -- the town was named on April Fool's Day and the nearby Payne is a small stream.
 I headed out from the village, again southbound on Avonmore Road.  After about six kilometers I ran into a "Welcome to Northfield" sign.  It was founded as a very small settlement but today just seems to be a few residences along the road.  When rooting around for some history on the spot I saw a tavern application from 1879.  Unfortunately the tavern wasn't there any longer, so I headed further south.

I came down to Harrison's Corners, where Avonmore meets County Road 18, and headed westbound until I arrived at Osnabruck Centre, then south again on the 14 to Ingleside, then easterly on CR-2 back to the parking lot.  I already covered Harrison's Corners, Osnabruck Centre and Ingleside in Touring the Counties Part One.

End of the ride!
One of the first things I did when I got home was try to find more information about Northfield, Gallingertown, The Ninth and Lodi.  I managed to get very sparse details on the first two but virtually nothing on the latter two.  I've asked around but so far no one seems to know any details.  I'll keep looking and if I find anything, post it below as an update.

The ride itself was fantastic, it gave me a combination of beautiful countryside with a hungering for the history of the land.  I ended up clocking over 100km on the ride and in excess of 500 meters of elevation.  Roads were all paved, many had shoulders and very low traffic density.  If you are looking for a ride that combines some great visuals with a very safe ride, this is the tour for you!

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Touring the Counties Part One

I had several distance goals this year and was looking for a way to build up to them.  I was hoping to get a few metric centuries in by the end of June, a 170km ride in July and a 200km ride in August.  When I started to plan my rides, I realized I had access to a lot of great riding right in the united counties where I live.

My simple planning exercise soon developed into another milestone for 2015.  I wanted to visit every town and village in my county and surrounding counties.  The more I thought about it, the more it made sense.  Not only were the counties beautiful, they were also varied; rolling farmland gave way to dense deciduous and coniferous forests.  Marshes, wetlands and bogs could be found everywhere in between.  Last but not least, most of the county roads were in great shape with paved shoulders.

I decided to kick things off in Ingleside, part of South Stormont township.  Ingleside (and neighbouring Long Sault) were planned from their inception, a rarity in Ontario.  When the Seaway was being created, ten villages would be flooded; these villages are now called the Lost Villages.  Ingleside accommodated residents from Aultsville, Farran's Point, Dickinson Landing, Santa Cruz,  Wales and Woodlands.  When trying to decide on a new name, the residents quarreled over what it should be, as they wanted to retain their original community names.  The reeve at the time, Thorold Lake, saw the name Ingleside on one of the houses and proposed it as the name of the new community, which was then accepted by council and residents.  The names of the former communities can be found on street names in Ingleside.

If you find yourself in Ingleside with an appetite, I highly recommend Butler's Restaurant.  If I was to describe their food in 4 words, those adjectives would be: Fresh, Homemade, Delicious, Amazing.  The staff are always friendly and helpful.  They carry my favourite beer on tap (Beau's Lug Tread).  Whether you are having fresh pasta (made, rolled and cut there) or you are a suicide wing fiend like myself, you will absolutely love it.

While County Road 2 provided a more direct route to where I was going, I can never resist the Long Sault Parkway.  Considered part of the waterfront trail, it connects several islands created by the Seaway.  The traffic is slower than County Road 2 and is more friendly to outdoor enthusiasts such as cyclists and runners.  One end is in Ingleside and the other end was my next stop, Long Sault.

When the Seaway was created, Long Sault accommodated residents from the former communities of Maple Grove, Milles Roches and Moulinette Mills.  These names live on as street names in Long Sault.  The town itself was named after rapids that existed in the area; they also disappeared when the Seaway was flooded.

My next stop was a tiny spot right next to Long Sault called Lakeview Heights.  The Lost Villages Museum can be found here, with some of the original buildings from the Lost Villages transplanted here.  But outside of that historical gem, Lakeview Heights seems to be a small, quiet, residential neighbourhood.

After going through some rollers on county roads I found myself at St Andrews West.  Why "West"?  Well, back in the 1700's when Ontario and Quebec were known as Upper and Lower Canada, there was a St Andrews in each territory.  So the one in Quebec was referred to as St Andrews East.  That place is now known as Saint-AndrĂ©-d'Argenteuil.  But for St Andrews West, the name stuck.

One of the most iconic things about St Andrews West is the beautiful Church found in the center of the village and the ancient cemetery across the street from it.  The church was built in 1860.  Predating that was the Parish Hall, also featured in the photo.  The Parish hall was built in 1801  and is one of the oldest stone structures in Ontario.  It was primarily used as a church but had been converted to be a hospital during the war of 1812.

Across from those structures is the Pioneer's graveyard, thought to be one of the oldest graveyards in Ontario.  It has been closed to burials since 1915.  This is the resting place of the explorer Simon Fraser, who charted most of British Columbia.

I headed further northeast to South Glengarry and found myself riding on a rolling road surrounded by pristine farmland.  On the corner of one of the farms was a sign that said "SHARE THE ROAD!"  While I appreciate the sentiment, I'm pretty sure it was in reference to farm equipment.  Still, share the road!

Following this route brought me to Martintown.  One of the original town's founders, Malcolm McMartin made a wooden grist mill here.  His son Alexander build the replacement stone grist mill here, which you can see just a slice of in the picture.  The McMartins also had a saw mill and a carding mill.  Originally called McMartin's Mills, this picturesque village on the banks of the South Raisin River used to be the main hub for the entire area.

Martintown is a beautiful place with a rich history.  The only bad thing I have to say about it is the road; it's like a re-enactment of the lunar surface.  I hope it gets re-paved soon!

I backtracked back to South Stormont, following the Raisin River and crossed north again, making my way to the tiny community of Sandfield Mills.  I didn't get a chance to stop and check out the little side streets but I noticed some stone ruins as I passed.  I haven't been able to find much history on this place so far.  What I can tell you is the area is quite beautiful and the chip'n'seal road going through is relatively smooth and bicycle friendly.

I changed my bearing west and arrived in the small community named Bonville.  Originally named McPhail's Corners, the town was renamed to Bonville circa 1892.  It's name is french for "good town" and I can't disagree with that assessment.  The main road still bears the name McPhail.  No paved shoulders but very little traffic.  Right at the corner of McPhail and Highway 138 is a beautiful brick house.  The house used to serve as a post office and general store; nowadays it is a private residence.  As I made my way onward I discovered that there is a Habitat For Humanity set up in Bonville.

Back out in the countryside I found myself on Myer's Road, which gave me a mix of forest, countryside and residences.  The road rolled along several hills and had very low traffic.  At the end of the road I hit County Road 15, aka Avonmore Road.

When it comes to hilly roads in Stormont, Avonmore Road is top shelf.  I'm positive a large chunk of my climbing muscles were birthed in the pain of going up hills on this particular road.  There were a few communities north of here, including the village that shares the name with the road.  But my time was running a bit short and I headed south instead.

Harrison's Corners was my next stop.  Literally four corners with a few buildings!  I believe Harrison's Corners got its name from one of it's earliest inhabitants, one Henry Harrison, who served in the War of 1812.  It was here I parted company with Avonmore Road and headed west on County Road 18.

Soon I sailed into Lunenburg, a place that gets its name from a district in Hanover, Germany, where many of the original Loyalists settlers came from.  Today at the four way stop the most prevalent feature is Crazy Dan's.  It appears to be a car dealership, corner store, combo ice cream stand & fast food, and a garage.  I don't know where he got the name, but I feel like Dan is crazy about being an entrepreneur.

Heading further west along County Road 18 brought me to my last stop in Osnabruck Centre.  Like Lunenberg it was named after a town and province in Hanover, Germany.  When entering Osnabruck Centre, County Road 18 continues north at the intersection.  At that point you can see a large brick building on the right hand side which used to be the original general store and post office.

Not bad for my first go!  Not only did I get to see some beautiful places and get a decent 70km on my bike, I'm getting to know the history behind the area.  It really does add to the experience.

I'm already looking forward to my next tour of the counties!

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

My First Group Ride

I've been a notorious loner for most of my cycling exploits.  Sometimes it's due to prevailing weather; I still haven't found someone willing to go biking with me in the winter time.  Sometimes it's due to distance; outside of perhaps 2 people, most people I know are casual cyclists that can't fathom riding further than 10 or 15 km in a go.

This year, in an attempt to try a group ride and meet like-minded individuals, I went looking for a cycling club.  There's none very local to me, but I was able to find one in a neighbouring city.  They offered to host me on a couple of development group rides without a membership.  That way I could see if it was for me, without having to pony up any member dues.

I showed up for my first group ride early by over an hour.  I had intended on being early by 30 minutes but the departure time wasn't exactly what was scheduled.  It gave me a lot of time to observe others showing up and what sort of gear they had.  It looked like everyone had road bikes with clipless pedals and shoes.  Some people were talking about how to save weight on their bikes.  Needless to say my bicycle rack stuck out like a sore thumb.

One of the first things I learned was the use of hand signals.  A finger was handy to point out hazards like potholes while several wriggling fingers could be used to describe an area with gravel or loose rock.  A pointed finger moving back and forth behind a rider warns of an upcoming railway crossing.  The real trick is being fast on the timing.  After all, if you don't warn the person behind you about the pothole, they'll hit it, and so will everyone behind them.

I also learned a bit of rural road protocol when it came to cycling.  Anytime there was no shoulder, we would ride in single file.  If there was a spacious paved shoulder, we're ride two by two.  Cars were pretty good about giving us space or waiting until safe to pass.

When I heard the paceline was going to be about 25km/h, I figured it would be easy to keep up.  My average speed on many rides is like that.  I didn't take into account that my average speed was made up of slow uphills and fast downhills.  Maintaining close to that pace uphills left me pretty winded.  It felt weird to ride my brakes downhill instead of blasting away.

Speaking of brakes, I probably used my brakes more in that one ride then I ever had by myself.  Usually when I'm solo, stop signs are few and far between.  In a group ride, you're constantly trying to keep the group speed; frequently this means applying brakes and pedalling harder in equal measures.

One of the things I found so much easier was dealing with wind.  When I'm by myself I feel like a great big flying brick, constantly trying to fight with the wind.  In a group you are shielded from that.  While we weren't a very strict paceline, we did practice drafting and it made such a difference.

The ride was considered a learning ride (development) as well as a social ride.  So one of the things I got to experience was chatting along the route.  The conversation inevitably rolled around cycling; what gear people had got or were getting, races and rides they had done, fun places to go for a ride, and so on.

It just so happened this particular group was a little chaotic and the front half of the group got separated from the back half of the group.  I was in the front half and we looped around county roads looking for the rest of the group.  Eventually we had to get back to town; it was getting dark and it seems like I was the only person who had a bike that was legal to ride at night.  We got back into town around sunset.  The intended route was going to be 35 km but we ended up doing 55 km.

The club has many rides during the week but they're a much faster paceline and a more organized group.  I will need more development rides under my belt before I'm ready for those.  But I've already made up my mind, I'll be joining the club.  Looking forward to tomorrow's development ride!

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Winter Success

My Winter Plans
Despite a few late snow falls, I think it's safe to say that winter is behind us (us as in people living in my area, at any rate).  With that in mind I thought I'd reflect a bit on the success I had with my winter plans.

Originally I had several options:
  • Get a trainer and join a local class.
  • Try out outdoor winter cycling with studded tires.
  • Get rollers to ride at home.
  • Use the recumbent stationary bike I had at home.
Well the first two options were wildly successful.  I can't say the latter two were terrible in any way.  But the indoor class and the winter cycling outside literally filled my fitness schedule and kept me engaged throughout.

Indoor Cycling
The class was the first time I exercised in a more social setting.  I'm more of a loner when it comes to hardcore exercise.  But I definitely enjoyed working out with others.  For one thing biking on a trainer is dull and being exposed to other people's taste of music and friendly banter made the time fly.  When the workouts became unbearable, seeing other people's "pain faces" gives you this sense that you're all in it together and can all pull through.  Giving up also meant doing the "walk of shame" past everyone, where you'd be sniped at by mild ribbing.  A few times I stayed in the saddle just to avoid that walk!

I found that the class also kept me pushing myself further.  By testing myself and monitoring the data at hand (speed, cadence, heart rate and simulated power) I learned just how hard I could push myself.  Then by testing at regular intervals I could see just how much further I could push myself.  A higher heart rate became easier to maintain and specific exertions would bring up my heart rate less.  Each test would set the bar higher.

Before this class I was surprisingly ignorant about breathing.  Normally with big exertions I would be gasping for breath and I'd be using my effort to try to suck in as much air as possible.  A lot of that effort is wasted especially if your arms are close to your chest.  Instead I learned to concentrate my effort on expelling air through my lungs using my diaphragm and let the air flow in naturally.  This worked well in positions like the drops where your arms are right up against your chest.

Speaking of positions, I really learned better positioning and form.  I learned to relax my upper body as much as possible, saving all the energy for my legs spinning.  I learned proper pedalling techniques that kept my energy expenditure efficient.  I got much more comfortable with going in the drop position.  Prior to this class, standing on my pedals for more than 20 seconds made my legs want to buckle.  Now it is an effort I can easily sustain.  Last but not least, I learned how to plant my ass properly in the seat with my seat bones anchored on the wings of the saddle.  Great if you want to avoid back pain and saddle sores!

Winter Cycling
Cycling in the winter is fraught with challenges.  Snow storms can reduce visibility to nothing.  Snow and ice can result in treacherous road conditions.  Obviously you have to stay warm but there is also the not-so-obvious challenge of staying cool enough.  Keeping your water or other beverages at a fluid state can be difficult.  Sometimes food got too cold to eat -- trust me, biting into a frozen Cliff bar sucks!

As I've mentioned before, my choice of bike was a mountain bike using Ice Spiker Pro studded and knobbed tires.  This particular combination did pretty well in the winter time.  It really excelled in any sort of icy conditions, whether that was freezing rain, compacted snow on roads or on lake ice.  I wasn't able to navigate in deeper snow.  Most of the time I had to avoid snowmobile trails outright.  A fat bike would have really excelled in those conditions.  I'm hoping next year to have a fat bike for snow and an ice bike for lake riding.

I learned a lot about clothing.  Layering, what worked well, what to avoid.  I took detailed notes on it all.  I now have an arsenal of clothing combinations for any weather condition Ontario can throw at me.

I feel like I developed twitch reflexes when it comes to balance and control.  Sometimes riding conditions would be so treacherous and slippery, the back tire would slide out to the side and the rest of it would go the other way.  I got used to treating my bike like it was a bucking bronco.  Even with winter gone, I'm still very sure footed and ready for surprises.

I had the best mountain biking experience of my life on a local lake.  Circling around fishing huts, terrain that was constantly varied due to blowing snow, sneaky surprises such as old fishing holes.  Not to mention the ice making a loud CRR-RACK that usually made my heart skip a beat!  I don't know if was just a great challenge or the adrenaline junkie aspect of it, but I loved this so much..  I can't wait to get out there again.

I learned to always be prepared.  In the summer, a flat tire is an inconvenience.  In the winter, a dead mobile phone combined with a flat tire in a remote area could mean frostbite in the best case.  I got a CO2 inflater pump to make sure I never froze while pumping up a tire by hand.  I carried an extra cell phone for emergencies and USB batteries to go with it.  I made sure to keep my phones warm and functional, sealed in zip-lock bags.  As usual, I carried spare tubes and a patch kit.  Whenever I was on the lake, I brought ice spikes in case I broke through the ice.  I kept up several strategies to keep my fluids and food warm enough to consume.

Winter taught me to respect wind a lot more.  In the summer, headwinds can slow your speed.  In the winter, your speed is slowed and you get cold a lot faster.  Blowing snow and ice particles make goggles essential.  And as I discovered, it really assists in forming beardcicles!

I picked out several winter options because I was worried I would dislike them and give up.  I figured I would at least be able to bear with one of the options.  It was a complete surprise that I would have such a good time with both activities.

Don't get me wrong, I intend to thoroughly enjoy riding my bike in spring/summer/fall conditions.  But when the days get shorter and the air gets colder, I'll still be cycling and having a great time.

Monday, 6 April 2015

March Hiatus

In March (and a good chunk of February) I had a forced hiatus from this blog and cycling in general.  Well, from blogging, cycling, walking, sitting, standing and most positions while lying down.  I managed to injure my back and haven't been doing much of anything.

But as the song goes, I'm back in the saddle again!  My back is in great shape.  Well, good shape... no I'm lying, it's still so-so.  But it's good enough to sit in front of a computer and it's good enough to get back on my bike.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Review: Trainer Road

A structured workout from Trainer Road.
Yellow is power, red is heart rate, white is cadence.
I decided to kick my indoor cycling up a notch and use Trainer Road.  It's cycling software designed for use on an indoor trainer.  It advertises 800+ structured workouts, 40+ workout plans and live feedback from your sensors.  I had followed along with others using Trainer Road and figured I'd give it a shot.  Since they offer a money-back guarantee for the first 30 days, trying it out was a risk-free endeavor.

Trainer Road supports sensor data from both Bluetooth and ANT+ and supports Windows, Mac OSX and iOS (iPhone / iPad) for platforms.  You can watch things like Netflix while it overlays the information on your screen or you can sync it to workout videos like the Sufferfest.  You can create your own custom workout.  The program supports teams and you can set your team to have access to its own private workout.  It works on a subscription based model where you pay $10 per month (lower rates for yearly of course).

I started setting up my Windows PC, which I thought would be a perfect fit for my configuration.  All my sensors are Bluetooth 4 and my laptop has native Bluetooth 4 support.  Unfortunately Trainer Road only supports a specific Bluetooth dongle and cannot make use of native Bluetooth 4 support on a PC.  While it's a cheap fix (the dongle costs $20) I was annoyed.  I also didn't feel like ordering a $20 dongle just to try out the software.

Most of my portable devices are Android based, which Trainer Road does not support.  Fortunately Goldilocks has an iOS device, an iPad mini, which I could steal liberate borrow for my workouts.  Trainer Road works just fine with native Bluetooth 4 on the iPad Mini.

Setting up the application was pretty painless.  It paired seamlessly with my Polar H7 heart rate monitor as well as my Wahoo Blue SC speed/cadence sensor.  

In most of the workouts there is instructional information, Sometimes it is giving specifics about the workout, like what your cadence should be or information on the next interval coming up.  It will also encourage you to do things like go in the drops (or use your aerobars if you have them).  One of the things I really like is the comments on form -- tips on relaxing your upper body to conserve energy and how you should be positioned on the saddle.

The other cool thing about this software is Virtual Power.  In order to see your power output you normally would require a power meter.  But power meters are pretty expensive.  Trainer Road can emulate one if it knows what kind of trainer you have.  Using the power curve information from your trainer and your speed, it can estimate what your power is.  My trainer was in the list; it also took into account what my resistance was set to.

How It Works
The actual work out consists of a profile coloured in blue.  Your sensors generate several lines representing power (yellow), heart rate (red) and cadence (white).  The data is also in numerical format on top of the screen.  The general idea is you are trying to keep the yellow line outside of the blue profile; it's also represented numerically as "Target Power".

The 8 Minute Test
To get started, you want to find out your Functional Threshold Power.  Trainer Road provides a couple of tests to do this, the 20 minute test and the 8 minute test.  I can't really speak about the 20 minute test as I've never tried it, so I'll stick to the 8 minute test.

The test consists of a warm up with 2 fast spinning efforts to get your legs going.  After some easy spinning there is an 8 minute effort, followed by 8 minutes of easy spinning, then another 8 minute effort, then more easy spinning and you are done.

The idea behind the 2 8 minute efforts is to go hard but stay consistent.  You need to hold yourself back enough to last the entire 8 minute interval, but you don't want to feel like there is "gas left in the tank" so to speak.  You want it to be a pretty steady effort, not jumping all over like crazy.  Don't worry about having enough strength left to do the second interval, the recovery period in between will leave you refreshed enough to tackle the second one.

Upon completion the software will calculate your FTP based on both efforts.  With this number it will set each workout with your power numbers in mind.  Each time you do better on this test, the software will push you harder on subsequent workouts.

Problems with Virtual Power
I was looking forward to training with power instead of heart rate.  Heart rate takes up to 2 minutes to respond to your effort, whereas power is instantaneous.  Fatigue and other factors play a role in your heart rate, whereas power is always the same.  Of course, there are things heart rate is better for.  It helps keep your intensity in check, making sure you don't push yourself beyond your limits.  Fortunately Trainer Road also keeps track of your heart rate so you can have your cake and eat it too.

To beat the boredom of working on a trainer, I indoor cycle in a group with others.  Many of us were using Trainer Road so we sync'd our start together and performed the 8 minute test.  At the end we started talking about the results we had.  When I gave my number there was a lot of jaw dropping, eyes widening and people saying, "That can't be right."  My virtual power numbers were reading like a pro athlete.

I got in touch with Trainer Road Support to see what the problem was.  We went back and forth in email many times, each time with different ways to make sure my trainer was set up correctly.  We did everything from ensuring every setting was correct, to making sure the wheel was solidly connected to the trainer, even silly things like making sure I had only one magnet.  I took pictures and sent video of my configuration.  Eventually we did track down a problem with my tube; my tests after that were lower but still too high.

After three weeks of emailing back and forth and several 8 minute tests later, we'd pretty much gone through everything we could and my virtual power was still extremely high.  They gave me a free month due to the length of time I ate up doing everything.  I thanked them for their help and released them from assisting further.  After all, they had been thorough.  They couldn't have made any money off me either, from the amount of time support spent on my problem.

So in the meantime, if I want accurate power numbers I'll have to keep pining for a power meter.  I would love to get access to one briefly, just so I can see how the numbers compare.

Final thoughts
Despite my problems with virtual power, I would definitely recommend it.  Even if those numbers are wrong; as long as they are consistently wrong I will still progress with my workouts.  From the experience I also know that support will try very hard to help when things go wrong.

This is me with my old coach.
Trainer Road put her out of a job.
At least for the winter. :D
That being said, I wouldn't recommend Trainer Road if you are looking for a cheap replacement for a power meter.  I would recommend it as a great software to really push you and get results.

As for me, I plan on keeping my subscription going until it's warm enough to ride outside.  I'm happy with the progress.  If the numbers were closer I'd probably keep the subscription going all year.