RAMROD Ride Report

Day’s Verse:
For even young people tire and drop out, young folk in their prime stumble and fall.
But those who wait upon God get fresh strength.

Isaiah 40:27-31

Well, here it is, two days after RAMROD, and I still haven’t written about my experience yet. What to say? I’ve been thinking about this ride since January. I trained for it intensively for 16 weeks before the ride, and rode with an eye towards preparing even before that. In that time, I’ve eaten innumerable Clif bars, drunk endless bottles of Ironman Perform (lemon-lime), consumed uncountable pounds of pasta and oatmeal, and pedaled millions of strokes and thousands of miles. It’s been one of the pre-ride rainiest seasons anybody can remember, and several times I rode soaking wet and cold, refusing to let bad weather derail my training. I’ve spent so Saturdays away, Ian has an entire Saturday routine that doesn’t include me.

So you could say that I’ve been keenly anticipating this ride for some time. Yes. Of course, everybody’s fear was that it would rain, but as Thursday approached, it became increasingly clear that we would have excellent weather: clear, sunny, and warm but not too hot.

Wednesday evening, Dad and I ate yet another pasta dinner together at Mom and Dad’s house. We packed the car and laid out everything we wanted beforehand. And at about 8:00 pm, I went to bed. We planned on leaving the house by 3:45 am (and that means getting up by 3:15 am), which is early enough that it’s hard to decide whether it qualifies as “extremely late tonight” or “outrageously early tomorrow morning.” The previous couple mornings I had prepared for this hideous wake-up time activity by getting up ever-earlier, and Wednesday woke up at 4:00 am. This meant that when I turned the light out at 8:00 pm, although I was excited for the ride and it was still light out, I actually fell asleep fairly easily.

My body woke me up at 3:00 am on Thursday morning. This worked well. I put on my kit, to which I’d already affixed my number (one less thing to forget), and made myself yet another bowl of oatmeal. It was so early, Carmel didn’t even know what to do. After breakfast, we loaded the last few things into Dad’s car and hit the road just about on time. The sun had not yet risen, and we enjoyed the benefit of highly-responsive stoplights that changed in our favor as soon as we pulled up. It took us almost exactly an hour to reach the start line in Enumclaw.

Of course, we needn’t have hurried — with 17 people in our group, it took the usual inexplicably long time to get us all together and ready to ride. About 5:30 am, we were all there, provisioned, bathroomed, and ready to roll. Here’s a picture of some of us waiting at the start line.

As we left, we passed through a narrow start lane where volunteers removed one of two detachable numbered tags from our jersey numbers. This was their way of counting which people had started the ride. When we finished, they took the matching tag and presumably paired it with the one they obtained at the start, to ensure all the riders made it off the course safely.

Then we rode. We rode in a very long “paceline” — that is, people in the front rotated through, taking turns pulling. After a certain amount down in the line, that system fell apart and people just rode without rotating to the front. We rode fast, averaging about 21 mph for the first 30 miles. I took my turn pulling a couple times, and then decided to let stronger, faster people do the work. At one point the group got split up, and I chased down the clump of people ahead of me, riding in the high 20s for sustained periods. When we pulled into the stop in Eatonville* at mile 30-ish, I decided that was plenty of that; we still had all the climbing left to do, and I needed my legs to last another 120 miles. However, the route was quite beautiful, all these rolling green hills, the sun rising against Mt. Rainier, the air cool and fresh and clean… it was heavenly. Here’s a picture of the group very early on.

Here’s a picture one of my riding buddies took at the rest stop in Eatonville.

Just before Eatonville, one of my friends — Heather — had the misfortune to have a mechanical that the wrench at the stop couldn’t fix. Her official RAMROD was over at that point, but she did manage to redeem the ride by getting her bike fixed elsewhere and doing the last part of the ride.

After Eatonville, we left in a large but reasonable-sized group, but fairly quickly split into increasingly small groups. This was good. I let the fast people go off and be fast (and they were; they finished 100 people ahead of me, and I only ever saw them once on the rest of the ride), and rode with a group that went a pace I could sustain. I pulled a fair amount for the next 25 miles and felt fresh, strong, and overall great. The sun continued to rise, giving us fabulous lakeside reflections of wooded hills lit by morning sunlight with clear, light blue skies. One of the guys I rode with, Blake, had a video camera that he kept whipping out. I hope I get to see some of the footage, because it was really beautiful. No pictures of that stage, sadly. GPS battery held out through this point, astonishing me.

At the rest stop around mile 55, I looked around and realized we’d left a number of my buddies behind, including Dad. We regrouped at the rest stop — which had food that I didn’t eat; I had my own Clif bars, and somehow riding after having eating chocolate croissants sounded terrible. At every opportunity, though, I used port-a-potties and refilled my water. I diligently drank at least 1 bottle per hour, and ate almost one Clif bar per hour, working hard on consuming the recommended nutrients. It really helped, I think, too, even though it felt like I kept constantly choking down more food or pulling out that bottle again. After a while the bottles and cages got so coated with partly-dried sugar stickiness that they started forming some kind of adhesive that made it nearly impossible to remove the bottle from the cage. I had to start rinsing the bottles and cages off, and even then, the problem wasn’t fixed until I got home and used soap on both surfaces.

Back to the ride. After that second rest stop, we gathered up our group — which continued to shrink — and headed into the park. I had to let out a whoop of excitement when we officially passed through the gates into Mt. Rainier National Park, it was just so exciting! As we rolled through, park rangers called to us to slow down and spread out. Then they read out our bib numbers to other people with clipboards. I assume this was to keep “bandits” (non-registered riders) from joining the ride, a practice most strenuously discouraged. I was number 809**, but they read it as 808 initially. I wonder if there were any repercussions for the real number 808…

Entering Mt. Rainier National Park really marked the beginning of the serious climbing. The first big climb was up to Inspiration Point, which people talked about as the road to Paradise. I know Paradise is a place in the park, but I couldn’t help but mentally agree: It felt like a road to paradise. The huge old-growth trees, with the sunlight filtering through; the winding road; the glimpses of the mountain’s snowy peak; the bridges over rivers somewhere far below; it was just wonderful. Partway up, the two guys — Craig and Jay, both people I knew from Earthdreams and previous RTS rides — I was riding with stopped for pictures. All we had were not-very-good cell phone camera pictures, but here’s me with Craig.

We took a short detour for a better view, and the guys took some more pictures. When we pulled back onto the course, we passed Dad, who had apparently been not far behind us and got ahead while we were enjoying the astonishing vistas. The valley was so far down (and we’d ridden that entire way up!), the river down there winding through the trees, with the mountains marching off into the hazy distance… Well, more of the same, but never boring. I couldn’t have accommodated my camera in my pockets, but I wish I had some way of recording some of the panoramas we saw.

When we got to the top of Paradise, after about 20 miles of climbing, there was a water-and-bathroom stop. We peed, refilled bottles, and I saw Dad. He wasn’t feeling too hot, but we took a happy picture anyway. It was so much fun, I could hardly contain myself.

Then we started the descent from Paradise, and it was glorious. The road wasn’t in the best condition, but the views of the mountain in Reflection Lake; the lupines and other wildflowers blooming on the sides; the valleys; and did I mention THE MOUNTAIN?! Holy smokes, it was so fabulous. I know I keep saying that, so I’ll try to move on now. Craig took this picture of me on the way down.

Because of all the views I kept wanting to gaze at, I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the road. I really needed to keep my eyes on the road, too, because it was somewhat winding, the guard rail protecting us from thousand-foot-tumbles wouldn’t stop a child on a trike, and the road had a lot of frost heaves and cracks. I followed Craig’s line, since he’d done RAMROD before and had an idea of where to put himself to avoid the worst of the road (in the oncoming traffic lane, often, but we only saw about 3 cars going the other way, so it was fine). I believe this picture, by one of the official course photographers, was taken on the descent from Paradise, although it may’ve been the next one, coming down Backbone Ridge.

Backbone Ridge was the next climb, and it just didn’t feel like that big of a deal. It was short and sweet, with a good descent that we were able to fly down. I practiced cornering, something I’m generally no good at.

Then we got to the bottom of the climb to Cayuse Pass. I took off my arm warmers and vest (which came off for every climb, and went back on for every descent). Thus far, Craig, Jay, and I had been holding back, saving energy for the climb up Cayuse. When we got to the start of the climb, Jay decided he was going to take off. We waved goodbye to him and took our time, riding at a pace that allowed us to have a (slow, multi-pause-per-thought) conversation. It was so very peaceful and quiet. We hardly saw anybody, bicyclist or motorist.

A bit more than halfway up the 12-mile climb, we came to a much-needed water stop. Cayuse is the steepest climb, and it’s also the third one. By then you’re fairly tired, you’ve been drinking quite a bit, and it had a good number of open, sunny stretches that could’ve been really blistering if it was any hotter. The stop felt good. I rinsed my bottles and cages off for a slight improvement in on-bike bottle extraction, a gain lost not long after as I spilled more sticky energy drink all over. After the halfway stop, Craig and I got separated. I pulled ahead, increasing speed to a whopping 8 mph or so. I got to the top feeling quite good, much less tired than I would’ve imagined. (Don’t get me wrong, I was tired. Just not exhausted.) Jay was waiting at the top, and we then waited for Craig.

When Craig pulled up, he looked pale and unwell. We made him drink a bottle of water with an electrolyte tablet in it, and then we just rested up there for a while. When Craig started perking back up, we began the fabulous 10-mile descent down Cayuse Pass to the lunch stop. Actually, they call it a deli stop, because you eat a sandwich there regardless of what time you arrive. Anyway, we had a great flight down the mountain, and the guys’ superior mass translated into dramatically superior momentum over the distance. However, I caught up with them as they soft-pedaled to the deli stop.

At the deli stop, we saw the fast Earthdreams people! They were just leaving. This was a tad disappointing, because I’d been hoping to ride with them (read: “suck their wheels”) the last 40 miles, which are known to have pretty stiff headwinds most of the way back to Enumclaw. However, I wasn’t about to give up my bathroom, water, and food break just to keep up with those guys, so they went off and finished very early while the rest of us sat around and ate. As we waited, more of our group rolled in, including Dad, so we gathered a good number of people to work together those last long miles. Here’s me and Dad at lunch.

The last miles were the hardest for me. My GPS, which had miraculously held out until about 3 miles after the lunch stop, finally died. I had no way of knowing what time it was, making eating and drinking on schedule impossible; I didn’t know how many miles we had left, making pacing incredibly difficult; I didn’t know my speed; and the wind was fierce. Our Earthdreams crew ended up in a larger group of Lakemont Cycling Club riders and some other miscellaneous people, none of whom we knew. The speed kept vacillating, one minute fast, the next slowing down, so it was impossible to get on somebody’s wheel, even if I’d wanted to — which I didn’t, because I didn’t know any of them. It’s not smart to draft off a rider you don’t know.

In short, I kept having to put on spurts of extra speed to make up gaps in the line that formed as people slowed then sped up. It wasn’t pretty, and I started getting really fatigued. Francis, who I know, filled in a gap for me at one point, and boy did it hurt to grab his wheel and hang on. At that point he told me we had 20 miles left. I just put my head down and soldiered on, refusing to let them drop me even though I was so, so tired. I’m sure that was a nice section of road, but I don’t remember it at all. Just the pain and refusing to give up. Dad, I’m sorry to say, continued to not feel his best, and got dropped somewhere along the way. I was completely unaware of anything beyond the wheel in front of me, so I don’t know when that happened. Turns out we were riding at a pace around 22 to 25 mph, which is why I struggled so hard every time I had to catch up.

Happily for me, after we turned onto the delightfully-named Mud Mountain Road, Francis pulled over for a pit stop. Most of the group continued on, leaving us with just a few people, most of whom I knew. We did the last 10 miles together, and at one point Craig even gave me a little push so I didn’t fall off the wheel in front of me. Heh, there’s something to be said for riding with big guys who can put out a lot of power.

Then we finished! We rolled in, they gave us a little patch that says RAMROD 2011, took our finishing tag off our bibs, and called out our names. And there were a bunch of the fast people, many of them showered, looking all fresh and perky and annoying me. I took myself off to find the free ice cream truck, and by the time I’d consumed my fruit Popsicle, felt much better. I couldn’t get at my chocolate milk or food, since it was all in Dad’s car and he had the key, but I just sat and chatted with my buddies. We shot the breeze, rehashed the ride, exclaimed over the excellence of the weather and the ride in general, and looked at pictures of ourselves the official course photographer had posted. I bought mine for $10. I think it was worth it.

Dad rolled in a while later, very tired. We took a while recovering, taking showers, and generally getting combobulated. Then Dad heroically drove home again, dropping me off at my house with my zillion bags of stuff.

And that was RAMROD. I can hardly wait for next year. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to High Pass Challenge, the next big ride.


* Eatonville may sound familiar because I did an OSPI training there back in the spring. I got snowed, rained, and sleeted on during that three-day stay. Happily, my second Eatonville experience, with RAMROD, was infinitely nicer.

** Later I learned that the numbers are assigned in reverse age order. So the oldest rider on the course is number 1, and the youngest is number 800-something. I must’ve been close to the youngest, with a number of 809. I wish I’d known that when I was riding! Gives me a whole different perspective on when I pass people.

PS – Most of the pictures are Craig’s, with a scattering of other peoples’ included. I snagged them all off of Facebook, where you can see lots more if you really want.

Sunny Activities

Day’s Verse:
The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.
Hebrews 11:1-2

I haven’t blogged since last week for one excellent reason: The sun made a prolonged appearance! To celebrate, I spent lots of time outside and got festively sunburned on the back of my shoulders, an area that sees the sun approximately 0.8% of the year (on a good year).

Taking advantage of the sun, I also shaved our front yard, not quite to golf course standards, but to a respectable length. Believe it or not, despite the frequent summer drizzles, the grass has mostly died off again for the summer, a fact for which I am profoundly grateful. I don’t like mowing. Never have, but regardless it’s been one of my chores in homes that have a yard since I was big enough to push the mower. Now Ian and I tend to split the mowing duties pretty fairly, so I can’t really complain.

I also used the sun to dry clothes, which always feels both old-fashioned and glowingly, self-righteously environmental; of course, read books outside; and, also of course, went for bike rides. Nothing extravagant*, though, because RAMROD is this coming Thursday, the 28th. We’re all cautiously optimistic about the probability of rain on RAMROD, but rain or shine, I’ll be on my bike in Enumclaw at 5:30 am on Thursday, heading for Mt. Rainier.

My goals for RAMROD: (1) To finish; (2) To have fun riding with my friends; and (3) To average above 17 mph. But (3) is really a far, far third after the first two, and I’ll be quite happy with just achieving those. On Sunday Dad and I picked up our RAMROD packets, which contain the all-important numbers that are required for legitimate riders to prove you belong (and, more importantly, that you deserve to get the FOOD at rest stops). After six months of thinking about this and training for it, RAMROD is really happening. I just have to not do something dumb like trip on a stair and break my ankle between now and Thursday. I imagine Cadel Evans feels this way but much more so, having finally won the Tour de France.

That’s more than enough bike talk. I’ll leave you with this picture of Ian, who’s doing something that I really love because it’s so him. (He got 20 out of 48 Star Trek trivia questions right, a truly impressive feat, given the absurd detail of the questions.)
Star Trek Trivia

* I’m quite sure Ian would say it was extravagant. I rode 230 miles total during the week. On Saturday I rode 75 miles at an 18.8 mph pace with about 4500 feet of climbing with my riding buddies, but neither that afternoon nor in subsequent days did I ever feel tired or sore. I did eat three pieces of pizza at the nerd party we went to that afternoon, though.

Strange Things about Being a Bicyclist

Day’s Verse:
We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment.
Colossians 1:15-18ish

  1. I regularly spend time with men whose legs are better-shaved than mine.
  2. “Hammer” refers to “push really hard,” rather than a piece of hardware.
  3. I think I look stylish in outfits like this:
     PROS Ride Start
    (That’s my friend Laurie; we’re fresh and perky before the ride on Saturday.)

  4. Anything above 23 mph is fast. Anything above 30 mph is very fast.
  5. I pay a lot of money every month for “food” and powdered electrolyte drink mix that tastes, at best, tolerable. Usually it’s awful, but I eat it anyway.
  6. Anything under 50 miles is short. Anything between 50 and 100 miles is normal. Anything over 100 miles is long.
  7. It’s always a good idea to check the weather, especially the radar, obsessively, and then try to out-guess the meteorologists.
  8. On the weekend, I spend more waking hours with my bike than my husband.
  9. When I’m driving, I have to resist the urge to use hand signals and, when I see a broken bottle on the side of the road, call out “Glass! Glass!”
  10. There are some places I only know how to get to by bike.
  11. It’s not unusual for me to be one of three or fewer women in a group of 20+ people.
  12. I recognize people by their bicycles.
  13. I don’t recognize bicyclists I’ve ridden for hundreds of miles with if they’re in non-biking (regular) clothes, or not wearing helmets.
  14. I’m proud to keep up with people 20 to 30 years my senior, and in a group I’m usually the youngest by at least 10 or 15 years.
  15. I can have long, animated conversations about ceramic bearings, stem angle, cassette range, wheelsets, and the like. (With genuine interest: “What size cog is that?” Proud response: “It’s a 34. And my small chainring is a 34, too, so I can climb anything…”)
  16. A $100 pair of shorts or jersey is pretty reasonable.
  17. The bigger the hill, the better.
  18. I do a hard ride one day, come home exhausted, and say, “That was great!” Then the next day, I’ll go do another one.

“Ambitious” Is One Word For It

Day’s Verse:
It’s better to have a partner than go it alone.
Share the work, share the wealth.
And if one falls down, the other helps,
But if there’s no one to help, tough!

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

In Massachusetts, Ian and I made a goal of riding all of the paved bike paths. This was an achievable goal because Massachusetts has a finite number of paved multi-use trails (as they’re more accurately called). Last year, we were talking about how much fun that was — how it got us out to different parts of the state, built our relationship, and got us exercise all in one — and we ambitiously agreed to attempt the same feat in Washington.

Let me repeat that: Ian and I have officially decided to try to ride on all the paved multi-use paths in Washington State. Fortunately, we didn’t set a time limit on this project, because odds are it will take the rest of our natural lives. Not only does Washington currently have a zillion miles of paved trails, but they’re constantly adding more miles, so even if we “finish” a trail, in another year it’ll have another couple miles that we didn’t ride. On top of that, I don’t know of any statewide map of all trails, so even finding all of them will be really challenging. So while “ambitious” may be one word for our goal, “insane” might fit the bill equally well.

That said, today we embarked on our first ride in our Fergusons Ride Washington Trails (FRWT) series. We started manageable, with a nice flat ride to Marymoor Park and back.

My goal is to continue to update this map (or another one, if this one won’t let me edit this map with other routes elsewhere) with the other trails we’ve ridden as we complete them to document our overall progress. Hopefully by the end, we’ll have a map of all the trails in Washington marked.

Here’s what my view looked like on our ride today. It was a lovely day, lots of people on the trail, and I let Ian have the unenviable job of calling “on your left” as we passed many of them.
Ian Biking 1

Even so, here’s Ian having fun.
Ian Biking 2

And here’s a badly-framed picture of me having fun. It’s badly framed because I kind of just pointed the camera in my general direction and hoped for the best.
Katie Biking

Flying Wheels Century Ride Report

Day’s Verse:
If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you?
Matthew 6:30

Another week, another bike ride. Except that this wasn’t just any bike ride. This was Cascade’s Flying Wheels Summer Century, which I originally only did because all my friends were doing it. I don’t like big rides with lots of people, and most of the time, Cascade rides are that exact thing. However, I duly registered because, as I said, I succumbed to peer pressure. Happily, the weather cooperated and stayed cloudy, dry, and right around 60°F.

Last year, those same riding buddies averaged 21 mph on this ride. That’s a sub-5 hour century. There’s no way I could begin to touch that, and I was hoping this year they’d maybe take it a bit easier. Ha, ha, ha! This century was flatter than the average Earthdream or RTS ride, and we spent a lot of time in the Snoqualmie/Snohomish Valley areas, which have rolling hills and long, flat sections that are perfect for people to get in a paceline and fly (this is called “putting the hammer down,” or “hammering.” That’s your bike vocab lesson for this post).

The first 30 or so miles, I managed to stay with the fast people, but I could feel my legs burning up their reserves way too fast. We averaged just over 20 mph to the first rest stop. I knew it was way too fast for me, and that I wouldn’t be able to sustain that pace for another 70 miles.

After that, I felt really exhausted, and fell back from the very front people to ride with the next group. Even they, hanging out in the 22- to 25-mph range, were eventually too fast for me. I stayed with them through to the rest stop at mile 56.

At that rest stop, the fastest people were just leaving as we arrived. We waved them off and then Dad and I joined some other people we knew who wanted to go a bit slower (like 20 mph). We had an excellent 30 miles together, taking turns pulling and maintaining a good average on the flats in the valley. My legs recovered from the earlier hard hard hard push and started feeling really strong and good. I was able to pull at 20 – 21 mph for sustained periods of time, which is super good for me. We passed all sorts of people on the last climb up the from the valley to the plateau.

We paused at the rest stop at mile 85 just to regroup. Much to my delight, my buddy Dean was there with his Pedal Dynamics van doing the mechanic work. I said hi, Dean! and we were off. …But not for long. At mile 86, I heard PINGGGGG! and suddenly my rear wheel was dragging, bad. At first I thought it was a flat. I pulled over and we established it was much, much worse than a flat. I’d popped a spoke in the rear wheel, which was now so badly out of true that it was jammed against the rear brake and couldn’t even turn.

Crap (I’ll admit to using some rather stronger language than that at the time). Some mechanical issues you can fix on the road. A popped spoke, especially on a Dura-Ace wheel like mine, is not one of those. While everybody else rode on, Dad and I returned to the Pedal Dynamics booth, where Dean confirmed that he could neither fix nor jury-rig the wheel. My ride was effectively over at that point. Except that Dean had his own personal 10-speed cyclocross rear wheel in the van that would work on my bike. When he swapped the wheels — including putting my tire on, since his was too wide for my frame — my gratefulness basically went off the charts. The wheel felt weird, and the gearing wasn’t my first choice, but it worked. I’m so incredibly grateful that my spoke went out within walking distance of a stop, and that it was Dean at that stop. Amazing, really.

So Dad and I finished the ride together, taking turns pulling up East Lake Sammamish. Sadly, our friends were long gone, and my magical happy legs feeling evaporated not long after we resumed. I was very grateful to finish those last miles at all, since I’d just about given up hope when my spoke popped. Unfortunately, I didn’t pay attention to eating and drinking during those last 13 miles, and by mile 90 was starting to feel weak, lightheaded, and alarmingly loopy. I hung on to Dad’s wheel and let him pull me the last eight or so miles. I haven’t bonked that hard in a long time, and it did not feel good.

Upon finishing, I found the free chocolate milk and immediately downed three little containers of it, hoping to recover quickly. That turned out to be a terrible mistake, as I spent the next half hour riding slowly to 60 Acres park with terrible stomach cramps. Mom met us at 60 Acres with the car and dropped me off at home. Eventually my stomach recovered, I ate a sandwich, and here I am. Dean has my broken wheel and hopes to have it fixed before my ride next Saturday.

Despite everything, Dad and I averaged 19.2 mph over 98 miles, with about 5200 feet of climbing. It took us 5 hours and 2 minutes of riding time. That’s significantly a faster average than I’ve ever been able to maintain before, even on shorter, flatter rides. I really enjoyed the teamwork aspect of taking turns pulling to maintain a good average. It was, in a word, fun.

Back from the Palouse & April 23 Ride Report

Day’s Verse:
Jesus called loudly, “Father, I place my life in your hands!” Then he breathed his last.
Luke 23:46ish

They call ’em the Palouse Hills, and rightly so, as far southeastern Washington does have its share of impressive hills. But I’d like to suggest another name: The Palouse Wind Tunnel. More on that later; I’m jumping ahead.

Instead of telling a long-winded tale, let me give you the highlights — but only if highlights also includes low points, because unfortunately, this trip to Pomeroy had very little to recommend it. Check beneath the fold for “highlights” of the trip, in no particular order.

On Friday evening, after driving back from Dayton, I mowed the lawn and then went to Good Friday dinner with our journey community from church. It was nice to spend the evening with friends rather than by myself.

And a quick ride report. Today I rode 75 miles, extending the 55-mile RTS #5 ride by riding to and from Marymoor, which was the official starting point. The front riders took it easy today so I was able to keep up with them almost the entire way. The RTS rides are interesting in that there’s no regrouping, so if you fall behind at a stoplight or going up a hill, you either speed up to catch the group, or you stay behind alone forever. I hung on until maybe 10 miles from Marymoor, after which I slowly fell farther and farther behind. Even so, I averaged 17.4 mph to that point, and averaged 17.0 mph total, with an average heart rate of 148 (that means I was working pretty hard overall). Dad and I took a slightly hillier way back, avoiding the Sammamish River Trail, which slowed my average a bit. Why? Because today was the most gorgeous day we’ve had since last August, sunny and highs in the 60s, and everybody else went for a bike ride or a walk on the trail. I finished the ride in shorts and short sleeves. As a result, it also appears that I’ve managed to get my first sunburn of the year, including starting an excellent fingerless bicycle glove tan that I sport every summer.

Continue reading “Back from the Palouse & April 23 Ride Report”

Choosing a Commuter Bike

Day’s Verse:
I spread out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.

Psalm 143:6

So you’re interested in commuting by bike. Often one of the first questions people have when they start thinking about using a bike as a means of transportation is “What kind of bike should I use?” I’m going to provide a little bit of bike purchasing advice that’s based on my experience, but you don’t actually need a special bike for commuting. All you need is a bike in good working order, a helmet, and a way to carry your stuff.

However, lots of people buy commute-specific bikes, for good reason, so I’m going to throw my $0.02 in. I emphasize planning and thinking before going out and buying a bike because most people buy a first commuter bike and then later wish they’d bought something else. My discussion below is aimed at to helping you home in on features you want so you can buy the right bike the first time.

Choose Features

Define your list of needs.
When you decide to go by bike, first think about a XXX factors:

  1. What is your budget? You can spend anywhere from $100 to $10,000 on a commuting bike. Expect to spend between $750 and $1500 for a good commuting bike from a reputable bike shop.
  2. How often do you want to ride? Think about what your long-term bicycling goal is. Do you want to ride 5 days a week year round, whenever the weather permits, or just every occasionally?
  3. How many miles will you ride? You’ll probably want a different bike to ride 10 miles each way than if you ride 2 miles each way. If your normal commute is long, consider a multimodal commute where you drive or take the bus partway, park, and ride the rest of the way.
  4. Do you want to use this bike for other things? If you want to take this on long club rides, on gravel trails, for towing a trailer, or for other specific uses, make sure you find a bike that supports those activities.
  5. How hilly is your commute? A 50-lb Dutch-style bike is great in flat New York City, but on the hills of San Fransisco, you’d probably prefer something a bit lighter-weight. Single-speeds and fixed gear bikes are popular right now, but aren’t so practical for most everyday bicyclists.
  6. Do you want to carry stuff on your bike? Many bike commuters use a rack and panniers (saddle bags), but a backpack or messenger bag also serve many commuters well. If you want to go the rack-and-pannier method, budget extra for those items. Some bikes do come equipped with those, but many don’t.
  7. Do you want to ride in the dark? Some commuter bikes come equipped with dynamo-powered front and rear lights already. Most bikes can support lights, but budget for a good, bright front light ($100 to $150 is about typical) and a couple of blinking rear lights ($30 to $40 each).

Refine your list of needs.
Once you’ve thought about that, ride your current bike (if you have one) on your commute for at least a month. Keep a list of the things you like and don’t like about it. This, like the planning above, will help you start getting a better sense of what you actually want out of your commuter bike.

What Kind of Bike?

With your refined list of needs in hand, you can start thinking about what kind of bike would serve your needs. I’m not going to recommend specific bikes because there are so many excellent “urban” or commute-specific bike models out there these days and every commuter’s needs are different. However, check out bikes from Trek (and associated brand Gary Fisher), Specialized, Jamis, Surly, Giant, and any of the other major brands.

Features to Consider
Features to look for that make a bike good for commuting can include:

  • Fender mounts
  • Rack mounts
  • Dynamo-hub powered front- and rear-lights, if you want to avoid the hassle of batteries — either way, plan on buying lights and using them day and night
  • Sturdy frame
  • Comfortable geometry for you — this can mean anything from a road bike with drop handlebars to a fully upright cruiser-style bike
  • Gearing suitable for your terrain
  • Reasonable weight — many Dutch city bikes and cruisers tend to weigh in at over 40 lbs, which becomes a lot of weight to haul around if you’re riding any distance or up any hills
  • Easy-to-use shifters — you can always learn new shifters, but odds are you’ll develop a preference as you try different things, and it’s worth having shifting you like since you do it often
  • Place for a bell — much nicer than having to holler “on yer left!” constantly
  • Smooth, fairly skinny tires

Here are three different commuter bikes that all have most of the features listed above.

The Road Bike Option
Commuter Bike Options: 1
This road bike has a touring geometry, which makes it more upright and less aerodynamic than a racing bike. It has a rear rack and the option for a front rack, fenders, lights, a wide range of gears, and it is fairly lightweight. The seat is comfortable for riding short distances in regular pants or longer distances with bike shorts. The tires are narrow (23x700C), high-pressure, and puncture-resistant, with a reflective sidewall for better nighttime side visibility. I ride this bike on my daily 40-mile round-trip commute.

The Hybrid Bike Option
Commuter Bike Options: 2
This is a hybrid bike with a very upright geometry, curving handbars and comfy grips. It has a rear rack and fenders, some cheap clip-on lights, very low gearing that makes climbing hills easy, and it is fairly lightweight. The seat is quite cushy and comfortable for riding in regular pants for short to intermediate distances. The tires are slightly wider and medium-pressure, not puncture-resistant or anything special, really. I like to ride this bike on short errands when I just want to wear regular clothes.

The Cargo Bike Option

Commuter Bike Options: 3
This is a workhorse bike, a Specialized Hardrock with a Free Radical Xtracycle extension on the back that makes hauling large loads feasible (but not pleasant, particularly up hills). I converted it to have drop handlebars some time ago, but now I think I’d like to go for a more upright geometry with handlebars like the red bike. It has a fairly cheap headlight, extremely low gearing that’s necessary when it’s under load, and it weighs a ton. The seat is comfortable enough for regular pants but padded shorts help. The tires are extremely wide, puncture-resistant, and durable. I like to ride this when I go on trips to the grocery store or to pick up things that don’t fit in a regular set of panniers.

As you can see, there are many different options when you buy a commuter bike. Generally, if you buy a good brand from a reputable shop, you’ll do well.

In addition to the bikes billed as “urban bikes” or “commuter bikes” — many of which come either equipped with commuting essentials or readily accept them — consider touring bikes like the Jamis Aurora, which are built to carry heavy loads and be very comfortable over long distances; and cyclocross bikes (I had a LeMond Poprad, an excellent commuter but no longer manufactured), which tend to be very strong but lightweight and often are rack- and fender-compatible.

The Latest Cool Things
A word on some gimmicks:

  • Carbon fiber isn’t necessary on a commuter bike. Many bikes come with carbon fiber forks and seatposts, and it’s the latest cool thing for bike technology. Carbon fiber can make a bumpy road feel smoother on a ride, but a good steel bike can have a very similar feel without the downsides of carbon fiber (primarily its propensity to shatter or crack when impacted). Whatever you choose to commute on, make sure it’s a rugged bike that can take some banging around.
  • Fat, knobby tires aren’t good for riding on roads. Unless your commute includes some singletrack or a path covered deep in large gravel, look for smooth tires. Many people ride on fairly skinny tires to reduce rolling resistance, and that’s a good idea for long-distance or race rides. However, for everyday commuting, slightly wider tires — 32 to 38 for a 700C wheel, or 1.5 to 1.75 on a 26″ wheel — can cushion your ride and make it feel a lot less bumpy. Be sure to pump your tires up every week, and I recommend getting puncture-resistant tires like the Specialized Armadillo or the Continental Gatorskin. These cost more but save you the hassle of dealing with frequent flats*.
  • Disc brakes have pros and cons. Lots of commuter bikes are coming equipped with disc brakes, which have incredible stopping power under any conditions. If you’re planning on riding through a snowy, icy winter, or if you plan on regularly carrying 50+ lbs down big hills, by all means consider disc brakes. However, be aware that disc brakes tend to be finnicky and require frequent readjustment, and replacing the brake pads on disc brakes is twice as expensive as and significantly more complicated than replacing pads for rim brake pads. Normal rim brakes work very well for most normal commuting applications and they’re much less finicky and expensive than disc brakes.
  • Internal hubs. You can get up to an 8-speed internal rear hub. This is pretty cool. I’d definitely recommend considering a bike with internal gearing, as having the rear gears sealed away will save you all that time you’d spend cleaning off the cassette (you would clean the cassette regularly, right?). Also, my understanding is that these tend to last a very long time. However, be warned that the shifting is different from on a standard bike, and unless you’re already a bike mechanic, you wouldn’t be able to adjust much — internal hubs are extremely complicated.
  • Ten and 11-speed cassettes. These days, many bikes have 10 or even 11 cogs in the cassette. This does give you lots of options, but be forewarned that you’ll have to replace your chain very frequently — every 1,000 miles or so — if you decide to go with a 10- or 11-speed bike. Also, when you account for gears you shouldn’t use to avoid cross-chaining and duplicated gear ratios, you don’t tend to boot very much from extremely high numbers of gears. I recommend going for an 8- or 9-speed cassette, which will give you a good range of gears for climbing hills while also lasting a long time (unless you live in a very flat place, in which case you could always go the single-speed route).
  • Single-speed or fixed-gears. First, let’s define our terms. A single-speed bike has a freewheel that allows you to coast and back-pedal, but you only have a fixed gear ratio — just one cog in the front and one cog in the back. A fixed-gear bike requires you to pedal all the time; there is no coasting or back-pedaling on a fixed-gear bike, which makes going up and down big hills painful and hard on the knees. It, too, has a fixed gear ratio. I’m not into fixed gears, frankly, but I can see the appeal of a single-speed if you lived in a fairly flat area (or wanted to get really buff): It’s a simple setup with a lot fewer parts to keep adjusted and clean, a big boon in the winter when bike components can get very gunky very fast in rainy/snowy parts of the country.

Test ride bikes.
Next, go to your local bike shop — or used bike shop, if you have any in your area; a commuter bike doesn’t have to be new, just in good condition — and test ride some bikes. I don’t just mean ride around the parking lot a little bit, either. Once you have your list of bikes narrowed down, ask the shop if you can take it for a longer test ride. If you can, ride it the length of your commute. Bring along everything you’d want to carry to simulate the commute conditions as closely as possible. Test ride the level of bike you can afford. Many bike shops have good commuter bikes starting at $500 to $700. The higher the price, the nicer the components get, and that usually that means increasingly good shifting and fancier brakes. Extremely high-end components often aren’t so great for commuting because they’re built to be lightweight rather than durable, and commuting is all about finding a durable bike to keep you rolling.

Now that you have thought about features you need, explored different options, talked to your local bike shop, and test ridden at least 3 totally different types of bikes, you’re ready to buy your bike and start commuting. Remember, all you really need for commuting is a bike — any bike — in good working order, a helmet, and a way to carry stuff. Now get out on the road and get rolling. I hope you find commuting by bike as enjoyable as I do!

* Learn how to change a flat tire and always carry everything you need to do so. Every commuter will eventually get a flat, and it’s just smart to be prepared for the inevitable.