Thursday, August 10, 2017

My Own Little KOM

I saw a post recently on BikeSnobNYC about how he recently set up a Strava account (actually, it was a guest post on Outside Online). I'm sure most readers know what Strava is, but just in case someone out there doesn't, let me briefly explain that it is a social-media type of service where riders and runners can track their performance using their smart phone and/or GPS. It also lets users compare their performance with other Strava users.

It might come as a shock, but I actually set up a Strava account over a year ago. Not exactly a Retro-grouchy thing to do, but let me explain a little about it.

For a long while I had doggedly resisted getting a smart phone for various reasons, and was more than content to keep using my old flip phone as long as possible. My old phone made calls, and took calls, and that was all I needed or wanted it for. I suppose it also could take really low-quality photos, but I had no idea how to get them off the phone, so I never bothered with it. Well, it finally got to where technology and phone services had moved on so much my old phone was no longer supported and couldn't even be updated to work properly anymore. So I grudgingly got a new phone, and joined the current era by getting a smart phone. I did download some apps for it, and I do like the fact that I can take decent pictures with it in the event that I don't happen to have my better camera with me, but mostly I still just use it as a phone.

Not long after I got the phone, I downloaded the Strava app. Not because I was interested in tracking performance, or comparing my results to anyone else, but because I thought it might be a good way to verify the distance of some of my rides. I always knew roughly how long my commute to/from work was, but not exactly. So I set up Strava and tracked my commute (both ways, since I take different routes in the morning and afternoon). It turned out that my daily commuting mileage was about a half-mile longer overall than I'd realized, so that was useful info. But while checking on my mileage, I also spotted something that surprised me. There are a number of hills on my commuting ride, and many of them are ranked segments on Strava where you can compare your speed to anyone else using the service. The top ranked rider on the segment is the KOM or "King of the Mountain." Okay, that much I already knew about - but what surprised me was that on one of these hills I was ranked 2nd, only a couple of seconds slower than the KOM. The hill in question is a short but steep one that I have to climb on my way home every day. It hadn't even occurred to me that it might be a ranked Strava segment.

Being so close to the KOM on this little hill (without even really trying) got me thinking I should pick up my pace a little next time and try to take the top spot. The next day I did it. When I approached the foot of the hill, I shifted up instead of down, got up out of the saddle, and sprinted to the top. Checking the results when I got home, I was the new KOM! I mentioned the accomplishment to a couple of my cycling coworkers, more out of surprise than anything else.

Another day or two later I got a message from Strava. Someone had beaten my time by several seconds. Not only that, but a second rider had exactly matched my best time (and I mean matched the time and speed exactly! unbelievable!). As it turned out, the person who had matched my time was one of my female coworkers, who took the title Queen of the Mountain as a result. She was one of the people whom I had told about my little accomplishment, and I guess she took it as a challenge. The man who'd beaten me was her boyfriend, a guy who is pretty competitive with one of the local racing clubs. Both of them ride the latest in carbon fiber wünderbikes.

Suddenly I had gotten a taste of that Strava-induced competitive urge I'd heard about and possibly even mocked. I decided I'd have to get my KOM back. The next day, I took my most modern "raciest" bike ("raciest" being a relative term in my case - it's still a lugged steel frame, but has modern shifting, clipless pedals, and has no racks, fenders, or bags). I got to "my" hill and hammered my way up. Checking later, I found that it wasn't enough. In fact, I hadn't even beaten my previous best. Sheesh.

The next day I decided I was going to let it go and try not to care. I wasn't even going to turn on Strava to track the ride home, because what was the point (remember that I'd only done it in the first place to check the distance). So what if some guy I don't even know was a little faster than me going up the hill. There are plenty of other hills along my route where I'm not even close to being the fastest, so why should this one be any different? The fact that I had been the fastest, even just briefly, was what made it different I suppose.

On the way home from work that day, I was feeling pretty good. As a last minute decision, I turned on Strava again. One more try wouldn't hurt, right? On the approach to my hill, a bit before the actual climbing began, I wound up some good speed in a high gear and tried like hell to keep it going all the way to the top. When I crested the hill, I knew I'd had a great run. Checking it later on the site, I saw I had done it. I was the KOM again.

What bike had I been riding? This one:

The Rivendell weighs just shy of 28 pounds as shown.
Pretty much the opposite of a racer, but I got my one and only KOM on Strava with it. That's my favorite part of this story.

More than a year later, the accomplishment still stands (shockingly). I still have the Strava account, but I haven't actually used or logged into it since. I don't know what I'll do if/when I get that inevitable message that someone has beaten me. I'd like to think that I'll ignore it for the same reasons that I threw out my old ride computer. That stuff just isn't all that important to me. But I do have a sense of the way it can become almost an obsession with some people.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Latest in Doping - P. EWW

The latest thing in doping for racing cyclists is not a drug that boosts red blood cells, or increases oxygen levels. It's not a drug that builds muscle mass or speeds up muscle recovery. It's not even a tiny motor hidden somewhere in the bike. Nope - it is not any of those things. In fact, when I first heard about it, I was certain it was a joke. But it's real. The latest thing in doping for athletes may be something called a "fecal transplant" which is exactly what you think it is, but in case it isn't clear, I'll break it down more simply. Basically it's a "poop transplant," but it will absolutely come to be known as "poop doping."

What is driving people to borrow someone else's feces (hmmm. . . "borrow" probably isn't the right word, since they aren't likely to give it back when they're done) and place it inside their own colon? According to a recent article in Bicycling magazine, elite athletes - for reasons that aren't exactly made clear - are more likely than non-athletes to have a microorganism called Prevotella in their intestines, along with another microorganism called Methanobrevibacter Smithii, or M. Smithii. Lauren Petersen, a scientist at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Connecticut, has been studying the effects of these gut bacteria and believes that they are connected to better/faster recovery after exertion, and better use of calories from the digestion of foods. Both are good benefits for competitive athletes.
You know, as I understand it, this is actually supposed to
represent soft-serve chocolate ice cream, but . . .

How did Petersen get involved in this study? As she says in the article, she apparently battled for years with the effects of Lyme disease which she had contracted as a child. Fecal transplanting, which is a fairly rare treatment for extreme cases of an uncommon disease (Clostridium Difficile -- I had to look it up. It causes chronic diarrhea) seemed like it might be worth a try, but no doctor would perform one for her. So . . . she decided to do it herself. Apparently she found a person who was a competitive cyclist who was willing to donate his own feces. Bing, bang, boom (boom boom) and she's put his feces into her own colon (With what, I wonder. An enema? A turkey baster?). Now, did she seek him out because he was a competitive cyclist, or was he simply a willing donor who happened to be a cyclist, I don't really know.

Forgive me, but I do have to digress for a moment. How exactly does one even broach this subject with someone? Does someone place an ad somewhere? (Casual encounters. Must be disease-free. Athletic. Willing to donate poop.) How well do you have to know somebody before you feel comfortable enough to ask if you can borrow their scat? I've been married 25 years and I don't think I could ask my wife such a question.

Anyhow - so she gets this guy's poop into her colon and Guess What? Miracle cure. Suddenly she's got energy she didn't know she had, she's riding more, training more. Entering races and winning them. So of course she starts wondering what it is about this guy's caca that has boosted her endurance so much? Through her research, she finds out about those microorganisms mentioned above, and how ordinary schlubs generally don't have them, but high-level athletes do. So today, researchers like Petersen are studying the effects and benefits of gut bacteria. They expect that at some point they will find a way to make these microbes ingestible so that all one needs to do to get the benefits of an elite racer's gut is take a pill. But in the meantime, rectal doodie transplants are the reliable/preferred method.

Okay - nowhere in the Bicycling article does it say that there are known instances of athletes swapping poo. They aren't passing brown bags to each other under the stall dividers -- yet. But given what we've seen over the past decades, and what we know racers are willing to do, and the depths to which they're willing to stoop (squat?) to get any kind of advantage, it's really only a matter of time before poop doping takes off. As if the sport isn't smelly enough already.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Old Is Good: Is It Really Just Nostalgia?

There hasn't been much here on the Retrogrouch this summer - sorry about that folks. Who'dathought there'd be less time to write, rant, and grouch during a summer break than when I'm at work full-time? Actually, being a full-time dad is even more time consuming. People who don't know that must not have kids. Most moms already know that, but they probably don't have time to read bike blogs.

Anyhow, earlier this summer I saw an article on PezCycling News that got me thinking a bit: Equipment Nostalgia - Fact of Fiction? I finally have a quiet morning to respond.

Using the popularity of vintage-themed cycling events such as L'Eroica as a launching pad, the article goes on to rail against old componentry and to decry the love for all that old equipment as a bunch of misplaced nostalgia. Granted, the author doesn't give his age or the specific time period when he began riding/racing - but there are some hints that he's a fair bit older than I am. Even I don't have much experience with some of the stuff he ridicules. Still, on the whole, the rant seems awfully over-generalized. A lot of his rant seems to focus on stuff that was probably long in the tooth by 1970, or was bottom-of-the-ladder equipment even when it was new.

Take tires, for instance. The guy goes on to complain about how crappy tubular tires were back in his day (clinchers weren't really a "thing" on racing bikes until the '80s). But what tires does he rant against? Bottom-dwelling garbage from "behind the Iron Curtain." Barum and Wankerbar. I've heard of Barum tires - maybe even seen a few in my day (picture a cluttered old bike shop, and the grizzled old owner coming out of the basement with a pair of ancient-looking tires in his hands, saying, "If money's really tight for ya', I can let ya' have these for next-to-nuthin' but I ain't makin' no promises about 'em.") But Wankerbar? They must not have even bothered exporting them to the U.S. I even googled the brand, but came up with barely a mention.

Anyhow - this is my point - because you rode the crappiest stuff available "back in the day," all the stuff from that era is crap? Nonsense. Then, as now, there was cheap equipment, and there was expensive equipment, and everything in-between. Not everyone could afford the Clement Criterium Setas (wonderful old silk-casing tires) -- I sure as hell couldn't -- but even on my painfully limited budget (I was 18 years old when I got my first tubular wheels and tires) I was able to get some damned nice tires, and if I could still get the same tires today (and if they weren't rotted to dust) they'd rival a lot of high-end tires costing $100 or more (each!). The article mentions Dugast tires, which are the cream of the crop today - made by hand and painfully expensive - but the materials and methods used in those wonderful (and way out of my budget) tires are the same as those used in most decent tubulars of the past -- including a lot of the lower-budget ones.

The article also goes on about wheels and wheelgoods: rims, spokes, and hubs. On rims, the guy writes: "Sprint rims too were either brilliant or so soft you had to be careful when truing them or you’d pull flats in them – this was remedied by hard core wheel builders with a mallet. . . and had my buddies briefed that if they saw me with a spoke key in my hand then they should get it off me, pronto."

Ok, so were the rims bad, or did this guy simply have no skills as a wheel builder?

Again, there were some lousy rims back in the day (spokes and hubs, too) but better ones were available and didn't necessarily cost much more. The writer mentions the Mavic S.S.C. Paris-Roubaix rims as some of the good ones, and I remember those as well - so our respective timeframes must overlap a bit. The S.S.C. rims (that stood for "Special Service du Courses") were among the best rims available in the '80s and were made specially for professional racing, hence the name. They were hard anodized and stout at around 400 grams. They were also terribly expensive (if you can find them on eBay, they still are!). Thing was, however, that Mavic at the same time also offered a rim called the GP4 which was almost identical and sold for significantly less money because they didn't have that "pro peloton" marketing hype to go with them. If one were a bit more savvy and less driven by fashions, they could have saved even more money by selecting a rim called the Monthlery Pro which was basically the same rim minus the hard anodizing treatment. Yes, in the advertising they liked to tout how the hard anodizing increased the strength of the rims by however much percent - but in reality, I'm skeptical about how much actual difference it made in a completed (and properly built) wheel. Also, after only a couple of rides the hard anodizing started wearing off the sidewalls, never evenly, and ended up looking like crap. Non-anodized aluminum could always be brought back to "like new" with some fine steel wool or a bit of aluminum polish. For a few more grams and a lot fewer bucks, one could have gotten a model called the Monthlery Route, which was tough, reliable, and priced for mere mortals.

I will concede that spokes today are indeed better. Up until the '80s, one often found spokes that were chrome-plated, or galvanized (at least, I think they were galvanized - they were kind of a dull gray color), or stainless steel. Chrome ones looked nice when new, but were prone to breakage. The dull gray ones weren't pretty but may have lasted a little longer. And the stainless ones back then were a bit soft and weren't as strong as they are now. I guess the metallurgy has improved, or maybe it's the manufacturing method. But again, then or now, a properly built wheel would be a lot less likely to suffer from broken spokes.

Regarding cranks, the writer goes on to ridicule old cottered steel cranks. Again, when was he riding?  I have only limited experience with cottered cranks, and I can believe reports they could be a bit of a pain to work on (when the standard removal method involves a hammer, you do have to cringe a little) but I also have it from what I consider to be pretty reliable sources that the attachment method was at least sound and secure. In any case, there were plenty of cotterless options out there at least by the '70s, and it wasn't necessary to pay Campagnolo prices to get them.

On bottom brackets: "Bottom brackets were a nightmare, if you ventured out in the rain you had to strip them out immediately after it or the bearings and axle would be ruined – no sealed bearings back then." I'll simply say that I disagree with this as a disingenuous exaggeration.

Okay - I won't quite stop there. I do see the appeal of sealed cartridge bottom brackets (easy installation and no maintenance), but when it comes to smoothness and longevity, I'll still choose a traditional bottom bracket. Every time.

For derailleurs, the guy picks on old pull-chain, plunger-action units like this Benelux:


Now I know this writer has to be a lot older than I am because things like that have been obsolete since the '50s (even if some were still being made a decade later). As far back as the '60s, inexpensive derailleurs from Japan might not have had the drool factor of Campagnolo, or even the less expensive European brands like Huret or Simplex, but they worked quite well for their day.

The article continues to bash freewheels, leather saddles, center pull brakes, traditional toe-clip pedals, and more. I'm not going to address all of it except to say that I disagree, and that most of the complaints focus on the worst of what was available "back then" and apply it to everything from the era.

To sum it all up, it seems to me that a lot of this rant is based on overgeneralizations about low-budget components, second-hand junk, and an inability (or at least a dis-inclination) to perform proper maintenance.

In a half-hearted defense of the anti-nostalgia position, I'd point out that if there is something about the modern era that is better than the days-gone-by, it's that most low-budget equipment today works comparatively better than a lot of the low-budget equipment "back then." What I mean (and using ubiquitous Shimano as an example) is that most road bike shoppers today may not be able to afford Dura-Ace or even Ultegra-level components, but they can rest assured that the Tiagra or Sora-level stuff will still work pretty nicely even if it doesn't boast the same finish quality or top-tier materials. That's a good thing. "Cheap" doesn't necessarily mean "junk." That's always been true, but a buyer today need not be as savvy to distinguish the good from the bad.

On the other hand, the big downside to the modern state of bicycle components is that the constant quest to "innovate" and "improve" means that if someone is interested in keeping their bike for more than a few years (and given the cost of a bicycle today that's not a minor thing) it can be almost impossible because of the built-in obsolescence factor. With all the new "standards" and rapidly changing technology constantly being introduced, it can often be cheaper and easier to just buy a new bike than try to replace a worn out component. And of course, that's what the industry today wants you to do anyhow.

The article in PezCycling finishes by saying: "So all you ‘Vintage/Eroica/Nostalgia dudes’ out there, if it’s your thing then that’s cool – just don’t ask me to join in your enthusiasm for equipment which should belong in a landfill site."  To that I just say "fine by me." But while we "Vintage/Eroica/Nostalgia dudes" are still able to ride bikes that 30, 40, or even 50 years old - I wonder if the "Nostalgia dudes" of 2047 will still be able to ride bikes being made today.