walking around in tap shoes and pyjamas since 2010 - my cycling log (opens in new window)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Things I've Learned in 2010: A Third-Term Report Card

The nearly-beginning of November seems like a good time to reflect on things learned in the past almost-year: not yet time for a final assessment, but a good time for a progress report. Think of this as a kind of third-quarter report card, like the one your parents might have used to determine whether you were going to summer camp or summer school when you were a kid ;)

Cycling-wise, it's been a pretty good year for me. I bought my first serious (albeit old, though we prefer to say 'classic') road bike; I rode my first metric century, even though it was supposed to be Imperial; I finished my first 'cross race (slowly, but dangit, I finished).

This isn't to say that 2010 hasn't had its difficult moments -- I blew up my knee 'purty good' after making a truly bone-headed cornering error on my faithful old hybrid; I bonked hard around mile 70 of my first imperial (as in miles-vs-kilometers) century back in July -- but the great moments have overwhelmingly outnumbered the sticky ones.

I've also learned a lot, and for that I owe thanks to a bunch of great local bike-geeks, roadbikereview's forums, bikeforums.net, the immortal Saint Sheldon's venerable website, and an ever-growing list of bike bloggers (Connecticut-based racer Sprinter della Casa stands near the top of the the list).

Meanwhile, a good number of other bikey people have kept my obsessive nature from running away with me and helped forestall my tendency to obsess about gear ... well, at least, somewhat (what do you mean, I can survive a few more months without a proper 'cross bike? ...by then, 'cross season will be over!).

I'm recording my thoughts on what I've learned here primarily for my own amusement. Someday in the future, I plan to look back on this post and chuckle at my seemingly-impossible naiveté.

However, if you stumble across this post and it makes you laugh and reminds you of a time when you barely knew how little you knew, or helps you feel like there's some hope that someday you, too, will disentangle the great mystery of freewheel-vs-cassette-vs-freehub, or whatever else, then this post will have done double (maybe triple) duty. That's icing on the cake.

So, without further ado, here are a good number of things I've learned in 2010.

The Technical Bits

The little stick in the middle of the presta valve stem is supposed to be loose when you unscrew the little metal thingy that keeps the valve closed. This does not mean the stem is broken*.

There is no such thing as a 21-speed bike, or a 27-speed bike, or even a 10-speed bike -- rather, there exists a staggering array of bike frames, all of which are compatible with at least one combination of cog- and cranksets. However, not all parts are compatible with all frames, and almost no parts are compatible with some frames. The existence of track dropouts does, however, mean that the animal known as a 'singlespeed bike' does, in fact, exist.

Given creativity, a set of tools, and a sufficient budget for parts, it is possible to customize almost any bike with almost any array of gears, as long as the frame doesn't have track dropouts. Some racers swap out their cogs according to the demands of the race at hand. Some of them even carry multiple sets with them to races.

Cassettes are not freewheels. Freewheels are not freehubs. Freehubs are not hub gears. None of them are derailleurs, no matter how you spell derailer.

Some things are best left to the professionals, and if you leave them to the pros, it doesn't mean you're a totally worthless home wrench. That being said, if you can't change a flat, you might want to learn before you head out on a century.

Yes, good quality components do make a world of difference. No, you don't have to buy them new.

Spinning is winning. Mashing is ... bad for your knees.

The Reflections-About-Myself Bits

If pressed, most of us in the cycling world will admit we have specialties. I am okay at sprinting (a good skill to have if you ride in traffic a lot) and pretty good at just plain old rolling, but God Almighty made me a climber. I'm grateful for that.

That being said, there are still plenty of hills out there that can whup me good, so I'll never forget Who's in charge, here. Likewise, there are plenty of climbers better than I am, so my ego won't get too overblown.

Eating when it's 100 degrees out with 89% humidity when you've been pulling faster than you should have been into the wind for way longer than really was necessary is a skill. More precisely, it happens to be a skill I don't have. Likewise 'pacing myself.'

Crashing gracefully, on the other hand, is part skill and part talent. I am grateful that I seem to have both. Had I not, I would probably be dead by now.

Yes, it really does help to take a day off once a week.

Goals also help.

I am a hopeless bike junkie. I have no desire to admit there's a problem and change.

The Philosophical Bits

It's better to own a crappy bike that you actually like riding than a high-dollar beauty you can't stand. Moreover, it's okay to ride what you have. I've always believed both these things, but I've lost sight of them and relearned them from time to time, so onto the list they go.

A high-quality bike will, in fact, help you ride faster in less time if you're using it to replace a not-so-great bike -- but it doesn't have to be a new, state-of-the-art carbon soufflé miracle with unobtanium stays or something. A good-quality steel-framed racing machine from the early 1990s will do the trick, as long as the components are solid, provided you can find one. Moreover, people will be significantly more impressed and/or pissed when you leave them in the dust on just such a steed.

That being said, it is still cheaper and more effective to trim some weight from the rider than it is to trim some weight from the bike. Likewise, bear in mind that when you're used to riding a sweet, light beauty, you will suffer the next time you find yourself straddling a rented beach cruiser.

If your bike could still outrace you if it had a better rider (well, and I guess if you had two of your bike), it's not time for an upgrade yet (there are certainly folks who disagree with this philosophy; that's okay, too). In the immortal words attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to Eddy 'The Cannibal' Merckx, 'Don't buy upgrades, ride up grades.'

In a 'cross race, even if you're Dead Effing Last, remember that there were probably eight guys who dropped out in your category, and next year, you probably won't come in DFL. In a road race, from what I hear, there were probably twenty who DNFed, but you still might come in DFL next year anyway, so you should at least try to inject some heroics, like pulling the guy who eventually wins up some big hill or something.

That being said, discretion is the better part of valor: 'When all else fails, run away / and live to fight another day.' It is okay to quit if you aren't feelin' the mojo, unless you have sponsors, and then it's okay to quit under whatever condition your sponsors say it's okay to quit. I don't have sponsors, so I can't comment further on that. I do have my own personal soigneur/team driver/cheering section/awesome boyfriend, but since he's a physical therapist, he's very much in the 'don't kill yourself if you don't have to' camp.

Finishing a century is an awesome achievement, but so is having the brass 'nads to start one, even if you don't finish.

Not every ride is a race. That being said, there is no such thing as a 'non-competitive ride.'

Anyone who says otherwise is probably lying.

*Ironically, I actually did break a valve stem core this morning. Um, oops. It was time to pop Quicksilver's rear wheel off and clean the cogs really thoroughly, anyway. Yeah, that's it. That's the ticket...

In other news:
Adorable Kitty Pictures. Sort of.


  1. Good work on first metric century and cross race. I have no desire at all to try cross racing, but I rode my first (and second, and 5th) imperial centuries this year. Long rides can be addictive!

    I like your practical thoughts on bikes.

    DFL > DNF > DNS

  2. Thanks very much, and congrats on all your centuries! I really love long rides, solo or otherwise -- they're one of the few activities that can be meditative, competitive, and, um, social...itive all at once.

    Also, amen to DFL > DNF > DNS -- I think I want that on a bumper sticker (or maybe a backpack patch, since I don't own a car).