Saddle Maintenance

Today I realized with a jolt that my practically brand-new Brooks saddle needed a little TLC. You see, I went so far as to buy Proofide, but never applied it. Meanwhile, my poor bike is sitting in our detached, unairconditioned garage, where the temperature is probably hitting 110 on hot afternoons. Of which there are a lot lately. Time to quit thinking about saddle treatment, and actually treat the saddle.

Before:
saddlebefore

During:
during1

during2

After, with my Minnehaha bag installed:
withbag

Which, surely, I must have done wrong, because it was incredibly irritating.

Gratuitous shot of full bike (some non-black bar tape is on the docket, and I promise that carbon-fiber water bottle cage was not purchased by me):

bike6-8

Application was straightforward. I followed the instructions, and I used the cloth that came with my kit. Drying time was in the realm of 30 minutes, in weather that’s somewhere between “warm-ish” and “eye-searing,” with a healthy dose of humidity. As per instructions, I put Proofide top and bottom, since there are no fenders on this bike. Next up: finding somewhere to really ride this bike, rather than poking around on my city bike.

On Pedals

K and I started out fundamentally at odds on the question of appropriate pedals. He was dedicated to clipless. I was, and still am a little, terrified of them. I have some serious phobia of having my limbs restrained. (I’ve been known to have a near-panic attack trying to get out of my winter coat.)

Last time we went out, I heard him say something I never imagined. “You know, when I get a real road bike, I think I’ll put flat pedals on this one.” See, his current “road” bike is a steel cyclocross bike that would, honestly, make a perfect man’s town bike. I’ve even caught him eyeing mustache handlebars lately. Not that it will amount to anything–he’ll buy every mountain bike on the market before he decides to prioritize another road bike.

In the meantime, I’m recognizing that my road bike really is designed for, and thus needs, clipless. I’ve scraped my shoes on the pavement one too many times. In fact, I think the risk of falling may actually be higher without the clipless pedals than with.

This convinced me:
pedalstrike

Little Obstacles

sidewalkobstacles

I snapped this photo while I was walking to the store yesterday. Notice how, in the next block, the sidewalk is replaced by trees? The sidewalk doesn’t go around those; it just ends. Behind the trees is a heavy fence. One block, randomly without sidewalk. There isn’t an inch of shoulder on that 4-lane wide, major road, either.

I’m not trying to whine about it. I can go around the block easily enough, and I certainly wouldn’t advocate cutting down trees in this climate just to add pavement. When I’m going in this direction on foot, I walk against traffic while they sit at the next red light. (Crossing this street is…imprudent.) On my way back, or when I’m biking, I make the block. I just thought this was a nice, illustrative example of the obstacles to city biking here.

I’m also guessing that somebody, somewhere in this town, wonders why there are so few pedestrians.

Not the Weakest Link

The truth is, I’m the weak link on any kind of expedition. Hiking, biking, running, you name it. Unless I happen to be out alone, or with someone who is a rank beginner, I’m the person holding everyone else back.

Example, from last spring: K and I were climbing Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. Everybody and their cousin hikes up this mountain. My guidebook ranked it as moderately difficult, but the read-up included a cheerful account of climbing it with a small child. And, you know, everybody does this hike. The main trail was packed, so we took an alternate way. It was lovely, but it did make the climb a fair bit longer. We stupidly carried plenty of water, but little to no food. Once we were most of the way to the top, I realized I just couldn’t climb the rest of the way–not if I wanted to get down. I sat on a secluded patch of rock and took this photo:

boots

which in my mind has always been captioned “Boots: A Portrait of Despair.” I was tired. I was hungry. We were a fair distance up a mountain.

K, on the other hand, blithely went on and took this photo from the top:

P5220211

and then ran back down.

The way down was worse. The “regular” route was my worst trail nemesis–an endless, irregular staircase of broken granite. Half a mile from the car I stopped by the side of the trail, sobbing, while people in flip-flops jaunted past me. I finally pulled myself together, got back to the trail head, and bought the most delicious bag of M&Ms ever created. (Lesson of Monadnock: carry more snacks.)

The whole thing was more than a little humiliating. Even more so, in fact, because I just realized that this hike was the first I took with my Garmin. I went back to look it up, and the whole thing was four miles, with a little under 1500 feet of elevation gain.

My fitness has improved since last spring, beyond a doubt, but that hike still haunts me. We’re thinking about our upcoming vacations, and after every suggestion I think, “Well, I should wait until I’m stronger for that.”

No more. No more waiting. No more being stronger later. No more weakest link. I will be stronger and fitter and faster, starting now.

Hot

After an oddly cool, and wonderfully pleasant, May, June seems to have a need to settle the score. The thermometer in my car hit 100 yesterday. The icon on our weather forecast is the sun, burning yellow on an orange horizon. “Hot.”

For a native Southerner, I’m bad with heat. I grew up in the Southeast, in an area with wickedly high ozone levels. With the heat, the humidity, and the bad air quality, I learned to get from one air-conditioned place to another as quickly as possible. “There’s no air in that air!” I would joke, “just water vapor and ozone.” I moved to an even hotter climate for graduate school, but it was drier, too. The rule of thumb there was that anything between 90 and 100 degrees wasn’t that bad. Over 100 was stupidly hot, and under 90 meant clammy, heavy air.

My last two summers were spent entirely in New England, along with most of the two before that. One of my favorite things to do was to hit the u-pick Blueberry patch on days when it got to 90 degrees. I had it all to myself. I took great delight in telling people who complained about the heat that “You should try 108!” (This was purely in retribution for them mocking my sweaters in June.) K would race to the mountain bike trails on those days, certain that he would be the only person on the trail. Those New England summers are amazing. 85 degrees in July, with an ice-cream stand in every town. People in New England love summer the way people in a drought love rain.

I’m having some trouble reconciling these two views in my brain. One part of me knows that 97 degrees is hot enough to be dangerous, even without adding exertion. The UV index most days is “10+.” I wear SPF 30 and a hat the size of a patio umbrella just to go to the grocery store. I worry about biking, both because of the sun exposure and because of my aptitude for heat-induced nausea. Another part of me remembers rejoicing to see that late summer evening light, which meant we could ride twenty miles after K left work.

I think the sad truth is that we’ve mostly missed the best cycling season. I’m annoyed by this, because I have a virtually brand-new, fun, very fancy road bike just sitting in the garage. I was never dedicated enough, or hardy enough, to ride year round in New England. Once the roadsides covered with snow, I retreated to the bike trainer. In contrast I’m feeling a kind of stubborn determination about this heat. Somewhere there’s room for reasonable caution to coexist with biking, and I’m going to find it.

Restless

bbike5

Yesterday a friend of mine got the kind of medical diagnosis a young, healthy person in their early-30s just isn’t supposed to get. It was the first time in my life I’ve done that grim thing adults do–gather together to console each other in times of crisis. My other friends and I told funny stories and “took her mind off things” the way I’ve seen my mother do a dozen times. Within twenty minutes of hearing the news I was in the kitchen making cake. I always wondered why people do that; now I know. In the vast and complicated world that tragedy reveals, cake is something that makes sense.

Two weeks ago I turned 30, which is supposed to be one of the milestones of adulthood, right up there with having children or getting married. Staying in school as long as K and I did messes up the track a little. People at parties ask when we’re having babies, or buying a house, and my immediate gut feeling is “Ridiculous! We’re too young for that.” 30 didn’t seem like a big deal, either. Last night, after everyone was gone, I sobbed into my pillow, selfishly, as much for me as for my friend. When did we get old enough for life to be this hard?

Today I gave another, closer, friend a stack of our leftover moving boxes for her own move next month. I drove away from her house and wondered if I’ll see her again. Now that I’m within a few hour’s drive of my graduate school friends, they’re dispersing. This was just the first of many goodbyes to come; everyone I know will be finished within two years. I resent this progress with a kind of fierceness that surprises me.

I feel like literally outrunning the whole emotional mess, the inexorable movement of time. No sound but the wind in my ears and no feeling but the burn of my muscles. Which somehow, also, seems like the most selfish thing.

Book Review: Ghost Trails, by Jill Homer

You may be familiar with Jill Homer’s blog, Jill Outside, formerly known as Up in Alaska. Around here we affectionately refer to her as “Crazy Jill,” because some of her adventures are, well, a little crazy. We started following her because of her beautiful pictures of Alaska, but it’s hard to resist her tales of derring-do.

More of those tales are exactly what you’ll find in Ghost Trails. I grabbed a copy of the book thanks to a promotion Jill is running right now, and I’m really pleased that I did. The story is episodic, alternating a linear narrative of her bike race on the Iditarod trail with stories from further back in her past. The older stories explain, ultimately, how Jill ended up in Alaska, but they’re illustrative of character and psychological development, rather than presenting a firm chronological biography.

The Iditarod story is gripping, in the same way that Jack London stories are. Outdoor memoirs have a certain disadvantage in terms of suspense–obviously the author survived–but Jill keeps you fascinated. The other, more autobiographical narrative is equally compelling, with each moment left more on its own. Jill resists the memoirist’s pitfall of explaining why every moment matters, instead letting things play out on their own poignant terms. My favorite story is the oldest one, of a failed hike Jill took as a little girl.

That narrative of failure sets a tone for the rest of the book. Failing is always just around the corner in all of Jill’s adventures. What if, each story asks, this is the time that things don’t work? More importantly, the stories question why the foreseen failure didn’t happen this time. What is the difference between a race you finish and a race you don’t? Why can you push through some things and not others? How fictional is the line between success and its opposite? At the same time Jill also touches on all the kinds of commonplace problems and setbacks of the outdoor lifestyle. As someone who often totally fails in very commonplace outdoor adventures, I loved this very human touch. Let’s face it–most outdoor memoirs are written by men, and men don’t usually admit to things like falling off the side of a trail or forgetting to eat.

Unlike in many self-published books, the writing in Ghost Trails is clear and lovely. I taught college writing for five years, which makes it impossible for me to read bad prose. Combined with the page-turning nature of the story, it makes for a fast read. My “few chapters before bed” turned into “reading until 2:00 in the morning” which turned into “finishing the book during breakfast.” Jill is running the book discounted as a promotion for her new book, due out sometime very soon, which I will also surely be picking up.

Gear Review: Skirt Sports Lotta Breeze Capri

Lotta Breeze Capri
Image via Skirt Sports

I bought this little capri/skirt combo last summer. My version is a mesh-weave on the legs and a solid fabric on the skirt; I’m not sure how exactly this compares to current models

I’ve worn it a few times for biking, most recently on a short bike trip through town, which prompted me to review it here.

This garment combines a fair level of functionality with a fair level of cuteness. The legging portion is a comfortably breathable mesh-type fabric, with pockets on each outer-upper thigh. The pockets aren’t large, but they would hold some essentials. You do have to lift the skirt substantially to reach them. It isn’t indecent, but it might get you some raised eyebrows in a store.

The skirt is shorter than I would wear solo, but again, perfectly decent because of the leggings. It’s a nice length to not get hung on the bike saddle, and a respectable bottom-covering length for people who dislike showing the world their spandex-covered backside.

This is not a cycling garment. Skirt Sports doesn’t intend it to be worn for cycling; they have other models for that. At the time those models all featured a longer skirt and shorter shorts, and I thought this model was cuter. These capris do not have a chamois, and there are definitely seams where cyclists would prefer them not to be. The seams are, however, flat and unobtrusive. The pockets are not in an ideal position for cycling at all.

I’ve worn these capris two ways. First, over regular, padded bike shorts, for long rides that included some shopping. This is not ideal. Most importantly, wearing two pairs of pants plus a skirt gets hot, especially when all three layers are synthetic. Also, the leggings are just sheer enough, and the skirt just short enough, that the cycling shorts are still visible. Wearing the capris solo is much nicer, though you do obviously give up the chamois.

Aesthetically, these are cute, but definitely in a “cute gym clothes” way. Telling example: I got multiple compliments while wearing these in the kayaking section of L.L. Bean. Since I only wear athletic clothes in public when it is strictly necessary, they aren’t quite my style. (I also have really mixed feelings about overly-feminized exercise clothes, which I won’t go into here unless prompted.)

I can say that these are prodigiously comfortable. If I tended toward a more athletic style of dress, I would wear them a lot. I also think I would wear them more if my “social exercise” was running instead of biking. I sometimes see ladies on group runs that end at coffee shops, which would really be the perfect use for these.

The Title Photo Story

My header photo looks a little incriminating. My rule-adhering self just can’t take it anymore.

No Wheeled Vehicles

This was a beautiful ride we did last summer, in the far north-eastern edge of Vermont. We were there, ostensibly, for K to ride the famous Kingdom Trails mountain bike system. There’s good road riding all around, though, and I amused myself pretty handily. Without having to climb this:

Burke Mountain

which, if my photo-taking is accurate, is part of what the mountain bike trail does.

One afternoon we set out on a little jaunt up some rural highway. Very rural. After ten or fifteen miles, we stopped for a snack, leaning our bikes against this convenient power pole. Then we saw the sign, and I just had to take the picture. What the frame crops is the real place where “no wheeled vehicles” were allowed–a rocky, steep farm road going up that hill to the left. From the condition of it, I think the farmer was having trouble with ATVs. In any event, I promise, we did not go past the sign!

Who’s Stronger Now?

Today’s post on Lovely Bicycle! got me thinking again about rider strength and bicycle selection. I’ve been mulling this over a lot lately, as I find that our “couples” riding style is evolving in some very interesting ways. K is prodigiously strong as a cyclist. He was planning to race this mountain biking season, and would have done quite well. Then we moved, and here the season is already over. He’s also one of those generally athletic types. Ran track in high school, etc. I am not. I would like to be, but my DNA doesn’t lend itself to fast improvements. I think, after two years of cycling and various other fitness activities, I’m maybe a smidge above average. (Keeping in mind that the average American woman isn’t very fit at all.)

We bought our bikes in turns. When I bought my road bike, K had two mountain bikes. Until I was fairly comfortable on my road bike, he rode his mountain bike on our outings. Soon, even with my commuting-focused road bike and minimal skills, he was finding it challenging to keep up. Mountain bikes aren’t geared to go that fast–the priority is, at least usually, easier gears to facilitate climbing. Also, the logic goes, on a nice, technical trail, you don’t carry that much speed anyway. From what I dimly remember of those days, his fastest gear was only my mid-range. Even though he was a very fit, very strong cyclist, my pure mechanical advantage was winning.

So, before the year was out, he bought a new bike. But he couldn’t bring his mountain-biker’s heart to buy a dedicated road bike. Instead he bought a steel cyclocross bike. It has fast gearing, but a less-racy geometry. It’s heavy for a road bike and has wide, fairly knobby tires. I think the total weight is around 25 pounds, with racks but few other accessories. Still, he could run off and leave me if he wanted to. (He could also, and still can, ride through various “terrain features” that I had to walk. I resent this a little.) In other words, with our bikes fairly equal again, it showed that he was the much better rider.

When I bought my titanium bike, the whole field suddenly changed. It’s not the raciest bike, in terms of geometry, but it is certainly racier than Florence. Lower bottom bracket, shorter chain stays, significantly shorter wheel base. Last I checked, the total weight of the bike is around 17 pounds. I also lost the convenient indicators that tell me what gear I’m in. When I think to check, I’m finding that the same perceived exertion is, in fact, a significantly higher gear. The place this difference really shows is in the acceleration. Especially from a stop, or going up a hill, deciding to go faster seems to turn, immediately, into actually going a lot faster. And now, for the first time since the cyclocross bike, I can drop K if I want.

Keeping him back is, of course, a different fish entirely. His strength shows in his ability to always, without fail, pull me back in. When he gets ahead I still struggle to catch back up. One day, he’ll decide to upgrade his own road bike, and then the natural order will return. Maybe in the meantime I can get some more cycling fitness of my own.