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What’s the Deal with Gravel? (In a Jerry Seinfeld voice)

So I feel like the kid in the 1950s pot commercial; I rode gravel once and now I’m hooked and my whole life has been turned upside down. I just can’t see the road the same. I now see cars and replace them with trees, signal lights are now steep hills, cement streets are now dirt paths… Everything has flipped and I love it.

I had tried cross and it was plenty fun. Not like every day fun, but fun once-in-awhile-fun. I will/must/don’t want to admit how bad I am on a mountain bike. On a road bike is where I was the most comfortable. Gravel does not come natural for me even if I’ve tried most of what cycling has to offer. For me it’s not the descents because I’m not all that confident in my skills. It’s the views as I suffer and drag my 200 pound butt up these climbs that normally lead to some hike-a-bike situations. The climbing can be brutal but like the Instagram inspirational quote with a majestic background says, “It’s just a hill, get over it.” If you can, then you will get a new perspective; your eyes will open to everything you’ve missed on a road bike or a mountain bike.

On a road bike you ride with your eyes wide shut. That’s the appeal for me, a lot of it is just not thinking and just going; you can zone out on a climb and even forget about the views. On a mountain bike you are more aware but there is still a level of letting the bike do it’s job and going for it. The closest thing to riding gavel (on a rigid bike with drops), in my opinion, is riding a fixed gear bike. On a fixed gear bike you have to be aware of everything around you. From the cars to the road conditions, the signal lights to the pedestrians, you are on full alert all the time. Not having real brakes will do that to you. Gravel is somewhat like that, you have an idea of control but it’s more controlled chaos then precision.

The real beauty of gravel [(…and I get a ten-cent commission every time I type G R A V E L)- Gravel] riding is that it’s not just about riding, hiking is also a big part of the experience. On a road bike you can take another route, on a mountain bike you have a lot of gearing and a more capable bike, so when you get to a section that’s above your pay grade you either push yourself or hike-a-bike. You go on a ride and you really don’t know if you are going to be able to ride every section of it. How much of a route you can manage changes as you improve and get more confident/stronger. I tend to fall more on the climbs than the descents. I’ve also done a lot to improve my gearing.

Nonetheless, gravel is my new obsession. So much so that this summer I am planning a Summer Adventure Gravel Series (SAGS) around the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California. The adventure part is that there will be no routes given out. We will have to stay together, this will help avoid douchebagery. This is not a race. This is not about being first, fast, or better. This is about the people next to you, the landscape that surrounds you, and the route in front of you. Aside from maybe the Cannondale Slate [(with a gearing upgrade) no pun intended] there will not be a perfect bike for every situation. After, I hope we question our bikes but not our time in the saddle. I’m currently doing recon for the S.A.G.S ride- details will come.

The struggling cyclist.

Before I explain where I am let me mention where I came from.
I was always an outsider to sports. I had the determination and heart but I never had the raw skill. In golf they use the term L.O.F.T. Google it . Baseball, football, soccer, whatever, I was not really very good. I came into cycling after an injury. It was meant to be rehab for my back. That lead to the idea of commuting. Well, what it would lead to  was an obsession. At my lowest point I was fighting multiple addictions and cycling was what kept me going the streight path. I began racing and riding daily. I would race for a few years for a few teams and even for myself (unattached) when I lacked the fitness to race for a team .

Fast forward 10 years, I’m now married, a father of 3, and I have a dog to boot. In many ways I have what I want. I still have the drive to go out and test myself when I’m riding but there are many weeks that I just can’t ride, some weeks I’m just too tired, and yet others I’m not willing to make the sacrifice to get a ride in.  The fire is still there but the time/motivation/will is at times lacking. I set goals but get confronted with realities. Sure I could ride Saturday but one son has practice and the other has a soccer game. Did I mention my two-year old? So my choices are 4am ride or no ride. I made my choice before I typed it.

I don’t think I’m alone in my position nor do I think I need a small violin playing “sad romance”. What I need is a spark, something to convince myself to ride when it’s difficult to get going . As it turned out that spark that made me want to ride was a ride. That and something I heard on a podcast, something about second degree fun. It’s fun, just not from the idea or start. Like a climb, not really fun as a idea but as you get to the top, you can look back at the climb as a good time. Albeit a miserable, painful, good time .

So what keeps you going? Do you ever need a break or time to miss riding? Are you the type of rider who just wishes they had more time to ride? Let me know as that’s one of my motivations (I love hearing about others passion to ride).

Wanna race?

And it starts like most races do with a little hesitation, some trepidation, and a lot of anticipation. I roll out and set a steady tempo. I know my fitness is not where it used to be so I decide that a long range attack allá Contador is the way to go. I’m receiving information and it’s telling me I have a 30 second gap. I’m holding steady pushing about 20 miles per hour. I have some luck on my side and I have not had too many reasons to slow down. As I’m approaching the first climb, my first true test, my breakaway has gained me 2 minutes.

The climb shines light on the cracks in my foundation. I’m coming undone and I’m starting to Pedal in squares. The 2 mile climb is pushing my heart rate to 190 beats per minute, I’m bleeding time and fading fast. This climb that tops out at 7% and has taken my two-minute lead down to one minute. In the last mile of climbing I’ve fallen apart and this climb has taken its toll and although the major climb is over there is still more climbing to be done.

I’m feeling confident that I can get some of the time back on the upcoming rolling section. The problem is that this section is much less rolling then I remembered it. The next half mile has not a single negative grade and an average grade of 3%. I begin to lose more time and when I reach the two-thirds marker I’m only 20 seconds ahead. Those 20 seconds dissolve into zero, zero grows to a negative. My second best effort on this section is still about 1mph too slow.  I’m now 20 seconds behind, I’ve been caught, and I don’t have much left in the tank.

My strategy might seem to have failed me but I’m exactly where I want to be. I limp up the rest of the climb and utilize one of my best skills. The descent is my playground. I slowly see my deficit disappear and I even make up a few seconds. In my aerodynamic tuck I’m able to gain one minute and 30 seconds as I turn right, right into the last real climb. From here Colima is only 0.3 miles but with an average grade of over 6%, it can do some damage.  This climb is no test, this climb is a deal-breaker, make or break, win or lose.

My 1 minute and 30 second Advantage disappears yet again I get out of saddle I give it everything I have left to no avail. I’m riding like a man possessed but I’m two minutes behind. In 2 minutes I’ve lost 2 minutes. My lungs feel like raisins, I can feel the burn down my esophagus, my legs are begging me to stop, I consider sitting up. But for every climb there is a descent, so I hold my pace steady and continue up the climb. 2 minutes and 15 seconds is what I have to make up on a 2 mile descent.

I rearranged myself about 3 times trying to find an aerodynamic position I can hold for the entirety of the Hill. Colima Road flattens out and it’s now up to my legs pushing at times 28 miles per hour, holding my threshold as long as I can. I look down and realize I’m 3 minutes ahead. All that is left is to maintain my lead. I want to do more than maintain though, so I push each pedal as hard as I can for the remaining 2 miles. Little by little I’m gaining time, three minutes turns into four, four minutes balloons to 5, and by the time I’m at the finish my lead would tell a different story than my body. I’m a wreck but I’m feeling like an accomplished wreck.

My first race in sometime was not against a Peloton or a friend, it was against myself via my virtual partner on my Garmin 520. I had no idea that this is going to be so much fun, so competitive, and so inspiring. At the time I didn’t think twice I just thought “oh look what I can do” with my Garmin. It seems like my commute has found yet another way to keep my interest.

Watch the video

Review: ArroWhere reflective cycling jacket

Back at Interbike in September, RL ran across the ArroWhere company. Their product line “caught our eye”, as they say — with bright colors and loads of reflective accents for nighttime safety.

We reached out the the ArroWhere company and they sent us a pre-production sample of their Solid Arrow Reflective Jacket to try out. Remember, this is a pre-production sample, so minor details have changed from the actual version for sale. We’ll get into those changes in a bit.

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First, a bit about the jacket directly from the manufacturer’s website:

-Waterproof and breathable polyester fabric
-Top quality 3M reflective material
-Patent pending ArroWhere arrow design visible at night at least 1/4 mile away
-Lower tail
-Reflective panels and striping
-Fleece lined collar and pockets
-Waterproof zippers
-Zippered armpit vents

The ArroWhere jacket has an extended tail to help fight off splashes. The arms are extra long to provide coverage when stretched out on the bike — a perfect length for me. The jacket has a fine mesh lining to help it breathe. I got a size medium to test, and while it feels a little bit large when I’m standing around, it conforms nicely to me when I’m actually on the bike. There is room for underlayers, too.

The jacket has a fleece-lined collar with a protective zipper garage that prevents throat gouges when it’s zipped up all the way. The handwarmer pockets are lined in the same luxurious fleece, too — great for when your hands need a quick warmup. All the zippers are waterproof and easy to manipulate on or off the bike, including the generously long pit zips for venting excess heat:

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The cuffs have a hook-and-loop adjustment system that snugs them up nicely to prevent wind intrusion:

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This jacket is LOADED with reflective accents. The large arrow on the back gives other road users a good visual indication of what to do when approaching, and the arrow is available pointing right for users in the UK and other areas where driving on the left is the norm. The rest of the reflective trim catches the light nicely. I would have liked reflective cuffs here, though, to help make my arm-motion directional signals more visible out on the roads.

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Now, about the changes in the final jacket: I spoke to Khyle Pinkman, the founder of the company. He said that the production jacket fabric demonstrates better waterproofing than the sample we tested, and also is nicer in terms of overall fabric quality. I did not get to try this out in the wet (yet), so I can’t make any claims about the fabric on this sample.

In addition to safety yellow, the jacket is available in high-visibility orange and in navy blue. It is available in sizes from S to XXL, and female riders rejoice, because there is a wide range of women’s sizes, too! The jacket retails for $129.95, which is right at the price point many similar jackets with fewer features live at. That makes it a good value in my book.

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For my purposes, the jacket is nearly perfect as-is. It helps keep me warm, there’s room for clothing underneath, and the reflective accents are effective at night. Add in the details like the fleece linings and trim and we’ve got a winner here. As I mentioned, if there was more reflective at the cuffs, I’d call it PERFECT.

Check out the full range of ArroWhere jackets by visiting their website. They make reflective vests and backpack covers with the same quality and patent-pending reflective design for additional nighttime safety and visibility on dark streets.

Please click here to read our review disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission.