Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Life at Twelve Miles Per Hour

I have been thinking recently, and by recently I mean the past thirty years or so, about simplicity and bicycles and how it is very easy to get caught up in the minutia of efficiency. In mulling these things over I keep coming back to one basic idea: in terms of speed and distance, a bicycle amplifies a human by a factor of four.

Now we can quibble about exact numbers, but for purposes of this discussion I'm going to keep the numbers round and the math easy. Let's say you can walk comfortably at three miles per hour. Without a lot of training or a very fancy bicycle, you can probably roll at twelve miles per hour with similar effort. And the distance that you'd think of as a reasonable walking distance is probably about one fourth the distance that you could easily cycle. In terms of distance, the factor is probably greater than four since you can sit down on a bicycle and you can also coast. But that simple machine really amplifies your traveling capacity by a factor of four.

Now here's where I think it is easy to go awry. We take that simple amplifier and we say "four is good, but five is better." Or even six. Or maybe more. There is nothing wrong with that, with pushing the limit, but the business of bicycles and the culture of cycling is pretty much entirely built on marketing this or that as being better because it is faster or lighter or more efficient. And while it is not wrong to think about those things, I think it is wrong to only think about those things.

Thoreau wrote, "It would be worth the while to build still more deliberately than I did, considering, for instance, what foundation a door, a window, a cellar, a garret, have in the nature of man..." and Gandhi said, "There is more to life than increasing its speed." Taking advice from these two wise fellows, I built up my latest bike, the bike I got for $20, with an eye not toward speed but toward simplicity -- considering, for instance, what foundation foot retention, a cycle-computer, spandex, carbon fiber, or a heart-rate monitor have in the soul of man.

Gandhi also noted that "actions express priorities" and my priorities do include carrying stuff and riding at night and staying dry in the rain, so my bike has baskets and lights and fenders. And I have fat, tough tires rather than fragile fast tires because I don't enjoy repairing punctures.

And I tend to pedal the bike at about 12 miles per hour.

I'd been commuting on this bike but this past weekend I rode it 100 kilometers up to Arlington Washington. Next weekend is the SIR 400 kilometer brevet, but I volunteered to work one of the check points for that ride. The week before the event, ride organizers do a "pre-ride" to check out the course. This pre-ride lacks the staffed controls of the true brevet but we ride within the time limits and get our control cards checked by locals and the pre-riders are counted in the official brevet finishers.

I rode up to Arlington Friday after work, taking advantage of the chance to check out the Centennial Trail that runs north from Snohomish almost all the way to Arlington. This converted rail-trail is a nice, quiet alternative to riding up Highway 9.

I think all the other brevet volunteers stayed at the motel in Arlington but I enjoy getting in touch with my inner hobo on these trips so I rolled out my 25 year old Goretex bivy and slept in a convenient patch of darkness not far from the motel. Sometime after 4:00 AM we all breakfasted at the Arlington Dennys and at 5:00 AM we all rode off.

There were nine of us on the pre-ride. On brevets I tend to be somewhere in the middle of the finishers, but I wasn't sure how this trip would go. I hadn't really tested this bike on any long rides, and I wasn't sure how things would go. I wondered how it would be navigating without a cycle computer and I wondered if I'd miss having Power Grips holding my feet to the pedals. I also wondered how my moustache-ish handlebars would work for the long haul. I always advise new randonneurs not to make a bunch of changes before an event and my bike was really something of a departure for me. I also advise folks to train, but I hadn't really done that. Sure I'd ridden a bunch of brevets in the past but this year, I've been mostly just commuting and riding around lugging bike maps to commuter fairs and things like that. On my weekends off I've been doing wonderful things like having tea with my wife instead of logging the long kilometers.

What I found out on the pre-ride is that vague math is all I need to navigate and 12 miles per hour really works fine for brevet riding. I took a lot of pictures with my nine dollar camera. I chugged along, following a cue sheet marked in miles. I figured about five minutes per mile, kept my eyes open for the next turn and really enjoyed looking at the scenery instead of staring at the numbers on a cycle-computer.

And my feet felt wonderful.

The four fast guys were off ahead of me all day, but I saw the other four riders at the first couple of checkpoints. At the end of a long day, four folks finished ahead of me, four folks finished behind but brevets are not races. We all were well within the 27 hour time limit (actually we all finished in under 24 hours). There is more to life than increasing its speed.

I did tweak the handlebar setup after the ride. I been running some thin rubber grips on the bars and after a few hundred miles of rough roads, my little fingers were numb on both hands. But Sunday morning, on the ride back home to Issaquah, I found a hunk of pipe insulation on the road just outside Arlington and I fashioned some temporary hand grips pads from that. When I got home I wrapped the bars in some old cork tape that I covered with inner-tube rubber.

It's all a learning process, but I'm liking life at 12 miles per hour.

Some pictures from the 400 kilometer pre-ride are here:

Here is a map of the route (click for big):


matt m said...

true indeed, simplicity is a better goal than having the next un-obtanium frame or the latest oakley aero-glasses.

ever thought of trying a single-speed or fixed gear on the brevets? fixies are the height of simplicity, although they can be a knee-killer for sure! i rode the (two day) Seattle-to-Portland on a fixie, it was great not having to shift at all.

keep up the milage!!

Kent Peterson said...

If you read through my old randonneuring and touring reports, you'll see that I've done full brevet series on fixies, including the Rocky Mountain 1200 twice on a fixed gear. And I did that fixed gear tour back to Minnesota a few years ago. And that single speed GDR thing.

So yeah, that simple bike thing is kind of a recuring theme with me!

Anonymous said...

I figured about five minutes per mile, kept my eyes open for the next turn and really enjoyed looking at the scenery instead of staring at the numbers on a cycle-computer.

You do that too?

I might adjust the time a little for riding pace on a brevet, but I estimate 5 MPM and have a clock (from Aerostich) on my stem for backup. I don't give a hoot about other data, I just care about not missing the turn.

How far to the next turn?
I check the cue sheet.
A quick and easy calculation in my head and that distance becomes a time. Add it to the current time and I get my turn time.

I ride on and glance at the watch every now and then, but typically once just before my turn.

I won't get a minute beyond a missed turn unless the cue sheet is wrong. Watching for road signs usually prevents that.

My estimation of distance and time while riding has become more acute with practice. If I'm fast or slow due to grade, I'll nudge my "look-for-the-turn mark" a little.

If anything I'm usually alerted to the turn a wee bit early.

It works out fine and I pay more attention to the ride environment and how my body feels.

FixieDave said...

Slow is nice!

Good stuff Kent!

Hjalti said...

You are my teacher.

monk3y mike said...

Amen Kent. The older I get, the less I care how much the bike cost, or how "cool" the parts. I watch some people dropping $5k on a road or mountain bike, with the intent of going faster, being lighter, more suspension travel, etc....

Been there done that. Never made me happier, faster, or better. Just poorer!

I prefer 14mph myself...

: )

Dr. Logan said...

Well stated. Einstein said, "Keep it as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler"

Larry said...

On my first 200k this season I was riding my recently rebuilt brevet bike. It is a large frame with high bars and the magnet was to far from the computer. No speed read out. Since I stopped to fiddle with things I was now off the back with no other riders in site. I continued on my way in a bit of a funk. I contemplated just calling it a day. Then I thought what would I do in the middle of a PBP if my computer failed? I realized the clock was still working on the computer and figured 12mph or 5 min miles was about right. It worked well, I navigated through the first half of the course on my own with no problems. At that point I caught some other riders and road with them the rest of the ride.

Anonymous said...

I do a couple of things that began by accident but now I see they might be by design as well.

1. I use a mechanical cyclometer, that mounts to the right side of my fork dropout. It's far enough away from my eyes that I only glance at it periodically. Since affixing a handlebar bag to my bike, the cyclometer has become hard to see wthout turning my head oddly, so I look at it even less now. I just use to tell me how many miles I rode that day.

2. I always make sure that the first thing I write in my bike log each day is NOT miles ridden, but how I felt or what I saw or heard along the way. (And of course, I write by hand in a recycled notebook, which slows down my thinking some and helps me relax.)

My cruising speed is between 9 and 10 mph (I'm an even slower turtle than you!) and most days that feels okay. Maybe not fast enough for a brevet but still enough like floating that, unless I'm late for work or something, it suits me fine.

It's all about riding your bike. Thanks for the reminder.

Anonymous said...

Kent ...

Great commentary on "simplicity" ... I sometimes find myself wondering why I don't long for all the bells, whistles, carbon fiber and $250 cycling shoes that I see other riders using ... typically to no avail (they really don’t seem all that more efficient). I admit, I love tinkering with my bikes and getting new stuff for 'em, however, my latest component was MKS Touring pedals, with no retention, for my Redline 925. As practical as I think Power Grips are, and I did have them on my bike all last year, I think I’m subconsciously , perhaps purposely , trying to take my riding experience to its simplest form.

I still feel somewhat like a outsider when I ride as I look decidely different than the vast majority of the “Lance” wannabees on the road … but, the more I do my own thing and ignore the hype, the more I think I’m right with my philosophy … keep up the thoughtful incite, it's really refreshing.

Chris / Novi, MI

Alexis said...

Thanks for a great post. I found your blog from a link from Crazy Biker Chick to your Cue Sheet post. I just got a nice fast bike, and I love it, and I also love my older sturdy hybrid. Like you say, it's life on the bike I like more than speed. I found when looking for bikes and bike stuff that many people and many bike-shop employees are always trying to move (me) up to the next level. I had a good idea of what level I wanted and tried to stay there, at a comfortable speed.

Some Guy said...

What a nice, nice post. Thank you.