Monday, October 26, 2009

Dazzle camouflage

I was riding with Alistair this weekend and he was wearing his '08 Team Specialized Jersey. The jersey is bright red with a large white S cutting across the front and back (see picture). When you look at it really stands out. Yet when racing in a pack I -and many others- had always noticed how hard it was to find him, or his team mates in the group.

Then I was reminded of something I read a long time ago about camouflage. There is such a thing as "very visible" camouflage, technically called Dazzle Camouflage or Razzle-Dazzle.

It sounds counterintuitive but when you paint an object in bright and large patterns it plays tricks on your visual system, especially when the object is moving.

Dazzle camouflage was used briefly in WWI to confuse enemy gunners. It was said to interfere with the gunsights that were used at the time. But I can attest to the fact that you don't need a gunsight to be confused. What matters here is the contrast, the size of the patterns, and the speed of movement. When these three interact within certain ranges, things can become very difficult indeed.

Here is a picture of a British warship painted in Dazzle. The British abandoned this type of masking when radar was introduced. Painting dazzle is more expensive and time consuming than "regular" camouflage.
What happens in dazzle is that your visual system wants to break up the image along the very visible edges and then your brain puts pieces together that don't belong together. I.e. it is as if you parse a piece of text the wrong way and make words out of groups of letters that don't belong together. That makes all subsequent recognition next to impossible. The trajectory, the speed, even the boundaries of the object all become hard to find, let alone the actual recognition of a person.

The newer Specialized Team jerseys have a smaller S pattern and less contrast making for a much improved experience.

On Saturday I went to Hellyer and did a three hour track workout. I am still trying to get used to the fixed gear. Things work well as long as speeds are reasonable. But I do not like going all out on a fixed gear.

I rode a 200 m time trial with flying start and got to 15 s -which is pretty slow-. I know I was holding back for fear of locking up once past the finish. Apparently my intentions were obvious because one of the guys came over afterwards and told me, you didn't look like you were going all out on that bike? Well so much for that.

I wish we had a track in Oakland or Berkeley so I would not have to waste so much gas just to get a workout. Driving to a workout is not something I like doing.

On Sunday, I rode with Alistair and Barbara up Redwood to Chabot park. I tuned up KOM some more beforehand and we are getting close to perfect. Some minor glitches (the saddle squeaks a bit) remain to be worked out but the bike is almost perfect now. It is a great ride.

Friday, October 23, 2009

100 psi

While we are on the subject of numbers, I really wonder if people have forgotten what air-filled tires are all about? I was reminded of a crash I saw where one guy's tire blew up because it was over pressure. He wanted to claim a free lap but was scolded by the referee for endangering other people. A fight ensued and the cyclist left the scene angry even though the evidence was solidly against him.

It turns out roadies are a bit better at this than triathletes, who seem obsessed with high pressure tires. Eager to get rid of that last bit of rolling resistance, triathletes love to put 150+ psi in their tires. Frequently tires give out -you can often hear them popping in transition- but nobody seems to make the connection.

A tire is there first and foremost to provide traction (i.e. friction) and comfort. If these did not matter we would all ride on cast-iron wheels. I think you agree that this would be most dangerous and unpleasant. While it is true friction means rolling resistance it is also necessary to provide traction so one can corner and accelerate, and brake when needed (think ice if you doubt this). In the rain and on slippery surfaces a larger contact patch (read lower pressure) is desirable.

Furthermore, since a bike has no suspension, the tire is supposed to give a bit and provide some measure of shock absorption. All these desirable properties disappear when you pump your tires as hard as a rock. It may not matter as much in a one hour effort, but riding rock solid tires in an Ironman event will take its toll. You will be more fatigued than you need to be.

Additionally, as the tire heats up for a variety of reasons, the pressure inside increases. So if you start up with a tire near bursting pressure, you are asking for trouble when temperatures rise throughout the day or when you have to brake often (or both). Popping a tire on a long descent is not unheard of and it can be quite dangerous. More dangerous than a pinch flat due to insufficient pressure.

That is why 100 psi is the recommended tire pressure for most people. And when it is very wet and slippery, 80-90 is better. Will you lose some effort because of higher rolling resistance? No doubt, but the amount is minimal and the cost benefit is simply not there.

One should be even more careful in a road race or criterium because a blown tire may cause others to crash as well. That is less of an issue in triathlon where you can't (or at least aren't supposed to) draft. But triathlons tend to last a long time and so there is plenty of time for the pressure to build up.

Today I rode 40 miles on the KOM. Nice day, comfortable temperature and sunny. Tomorrow, track.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

More 10,000 hour rule

Two days ago I wrote about the 10,000 hour rule. Then I read a blog post by masters track world champion Larry Nolan discussing the fact that it had taken him 10 years of hard core cycling to reach the top. QED.

It is interesting to note that the 10,000 hour rule appears to apply to any physiological endeavor, be it abstract reasoning, mathematics, computer programming, playing an instrument, or engaging in something purely physical such as cycling. At first it may seem counter-intuitive that such diverse pursuits, ranging from almost-exclusively "mental" to "part mental and part physical," to almost exclusively "physical" behave so similarly. But that is entirely to be expected. All these are in fact bodily adaptations.

The brain is as much part of the body as any other organ. Contrary to what you may think, brain activity ("the mind") is no different from other bodily activities ("running"). Both require a synergy between the actions of billions of cells. The fact that such "diverse" processes behave identically is in fact quite reassuring and to us. It is an indication that there might be some truth to the 10,000 hour rule.

Let's look at some other ways to formulate the 10,000 hour rule that may make it more intuitive. The formulation in the book "Outliers" has one big problem: it focuses on exceptional circumstances. It also has another big problem but more about that later.

It is obvious to us that while it may 10,000 hours for someone to become "world class," not everyone who spends 10,000 on a given activity will in fact become a world champion. It does take innate ability to become a champion, and most who would try to spend 10,000 hours on a random venture would never become world-class. So you may ask, what is the value of the 10,000 hour rule?

Here is another way to look at the rule. When you engage in an activity you can expect to improve for at least the first 10,000 hours that you spend on it. Does that make more sense? I.e. humans have a very long learning curve and they can keep improving for a very long time. We take about 10 years to learn a language for example. Or we could turn the rule around and say that once you diligently spent 10,000 hours on something you are very unlikely to improve any further. I.e. you are at the top of your game now.

Note that 10,000 is a convenient number. It is not to be taken literally of course. It gives us a range, a ball park figure. We can say it takes 10,000 hours give or take a few thousand. Or we can say that it takes more than a couple thousand, but far less than 50-100,000. And that is a good thing, given our lifespan.

Note that 10,000 is remarkably close to the time it takes humans to grow up and become adults. That too is not surprising because an adult is a person at the top of their game. Growing up is, after all, the quintessential physiological process.

It should therefore come as no surprise that they key theme of the book "Outliers" is flawed. What the author is trying to prove in that book is that genetic or inborn traits are not what determine our success as individuals.

And part of that is certainly true. It does make a difference where or when you are born. That is what evolution is all about. Changing traits continuously to adapt to the changing environment.

What is flawed is the idea that some sort of independent dedication and hard work are needed to cash in on genetics. As if such behaviors are unrelated to your genes. As if dedication and hard work are attributes of a person that exist in a vacuum. Maybe they are part of your "soul?"

That is nonsense of course. If anything is important in evolution and natural selection, it is precisely that, behavior. Much like physical traits such as a big brain, a big heart, or big lungs, a tendency to work hard, or be dedicated to achievement is a genetic trait.

And so are great interpersonal skills, another trait the author deems outside of genetics. Surely one has to learn to interact with others. But to say that there is no genetic basis to how well you will end up doing that is the same as saying there is no genetic basis to how well one will end up running.

8.75 mile run in the hills (same as last Wednesday) in ultralights.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Barefoot lessons for bike fitting

The NYT had a blogpost addressing the question, "is running barefoot better for you?" The conclusion is rather simple: it does not seem to matter much. Surely you do change your biomechanics when you run barefoot -i.e. you tend to favor toe or at least forefoot striking- but you adapt quickly.

There were several comments however that got me thinking. One reader pointed out that there is no need to make a case that barefoot is better. Barefoot is the default option. The case that needs to be made is whether shoes are of any use. I couldn't agree more. Another reader said your calves will get sore, and those of you who read my blog, know that that too is right. Finally one said, so what, running barefoot is fun. And I couldn't agree more. But that is not all.

I have written extensively about bicycle frame fitting. I have often made the point that it does not matter much and that you can adapt to many different frame sizes and geometries. I know that from personal experience. I also know that none of this affects your performance all that much. The barefoot experience (as documented in the Well blog) seems to strongly support this idea.

Recently, I read an article about fitting in the coaches' newsletter. The argument they made was that fitting is quick, whereas adaptation is slow. In essence they agreed that you can adapt to many frame sizes and geometries, but it takes (a lot of) time and therefore you should get an optimal fit first and you can adapt later. Is that really so?

One key study the Well quotes (published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine last year, so much for a good reference), points out that your landing pattern changes as your shoes wear out and flatten, becoming more barefoot-like. That certainly points to a very dynamic and near-instantaneous response. I.e. your landing pattern changes continuously as your shoes change, from one day to the next.

I would certainly argue that -in my experience- adaptation is very fast. It did not take me very long to get used to a 51 cm frame when I started cycling again after a long break that lasted 4 years. Within a month, I rode the Wildflower triathlon on that frame and did not notice any performance issues. Surely, my bike times were not ideal, but that was due to the short training. I kept riding on that small frame for a long time and got better quickly. The key issue is that I never felt like it stopped me from hammering.

Also, although adaptation is fast, very fast really, it is not instantaneous and it cannot bridge large changes. So you can't train on your road bike and then hammer on your tribike with a different geometry and expect to walk away without being sore (or worse, injured). I also told you the story of John Cobb's bike fit session before CaliforniaMan. Although the changes he made were great and helped in the long run, the fact remains that two days later I was very sore after racing in that new position.

All adaptation takes place over several days and all requires many small steps. You can adjust a little bit every day and bridge large gaps, as long as the whole process is gradual and smooth. Or you can adjust to a large change by starting easy and gradually increasing your exposure. It's all common sense really. Think about it.

Rode KOM 28 miles today. Fun ride!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I saw a Nova program on fractals in biology last night. As with every popular science program it too was a bit simplistic. My other qualm was that the program jumped around from one topic to the next without ever explaining much or going into any reasonable depth anywhere. However it did enough to remind me of my previous encounters with fractals, chaos theory, and nonlinear dynamics.

Suffice it to say that many natural objects approximate fractals to a high degree. Natural objects also tend to be stochastically self similar and may even appear to be (almost) scale invariant. This fractal or quasi-fractal property of nature gives a nice explanation for such things as why small animals use more energy per weight than larger ones, or how brain sizes scale with body size.

Even our experiences are self-similar. I can read a race account from a pro race and it feels remarkably similar to my race experiences, although I perform at a much lower level of "fitness." Once I read an Ironman race report from a guy I did not know and it was so similar to my race experiences that I looked up who he was and what his finishing time was. Surprisingly enough he turned out to be quite young (20-24) and his finishing time was just below 9 hours.

Compare that to my age group (50-54) and my best finishing time at just above 11. Yet almost everything he described, including the remarks he made about competitors around him could have been written by me. Everything that is except the "absolute value" of the numbers. Is that self-similar or what?

Today I ran a 10K in the hills.

Monday, October 19, 2009

10,000 hours

In his book "Outliers" Malcolm Gladwell introduces the 10,000 hour rule. It isn't his idea but he devotes a whole chapter to it so he deems it very important. The long and short of it is quite simple: To become world class in any field, be it violin playing, computer programming, hockey, basket ball, piano, mathematics, or what have you, about 10,000 hours of practice is required.

10,000 hours is a lot of practice.

And what's more he says, in study after study, authors never found any "naturals," i.e. individuals who can get by with a lot less, nor "grinds," or individuals who worked a lot harder than everyone else but never made it to the top. All of that makes a lot of sense.

I do want to point out that there is such a thing as innate talent. Although a lot of practice is required to become good at something, it does matter where you start from.

Some people are born with the innate ability to run 5:30 miles, while others are clocked at 7 and up. The same applies to reading skills, mathematical ability, hand-eye coordination, dexterity, and musical ability. There are differences that matter and these differences have a genetic basis. There is such a thing as natural selection.

Although Gladwell appears to agree with that statement, he tends to underestimate its weight. Partly that is because he has an individual-centric view. He wants to stress how important an individual's environment and timing is for that person's own success. It does matter when you are born -great cycling talent did not do anyone much good before the invention of the bicycle. It even matters what time of year you are born -hockey players tend to be people born in January and February. And it does matter where and how you grew up and how well your parents took care of you.

These conditions are not mutually exclusive. It still takes a lot of training and good luck for the gifted to make it to world class. From a gene perspective this does not matter much. There are several individuals to pick from. Each is a role of the dice. But I digress.

For you as an individual, it is good to know that no amount of training is going to get you from being a natural slowpoke to becoming a world class runner. All we can do here is invoke the property of self-similarity at scale. If you are a natural 7 minute miler, practicing for 10,000 hours will get you to the top of your (innate 7 minute miler) class. It won't get you to challenge Gebrselassie.

Which brings me to triathlon and swimming. It is true that I have achieved much in this discipline although I never qualified for Hawaii. I would have loved to qualify for Hawaii. But it isn't going to happen without a major improvement in swimming. And although I have swum a lot since 2004, I am light years away from 10,000 hours of swimming. It would take me 2 years almost non-stop swimming to get even close to half that level. And that is not something I want to do now. It is not something I enjoy all that much in any case.

Instead I plan to focus on distance cycling. That is the sport I truly like and enjoy. It is the sport that I want to devote my energies to. That is another reason for building my KOM.

Today I rode 1:10 on rollers. I burned 1,221 calories. It is raining outside (again).

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Days at the track(s)

Yesterday, Alistair and I went to the velodrome at Hellyer. Although it was cool and foggy in the morning, the sun came out later and we had a great day. Once again we got a very good workout. Greg van den Dries was there and Alistair, Greg, and I rode some workouts together. Greg is pretty fast. The session lasted from 9 to 12 and afterwards we watched Larry Nolan's motor pacing session for a while before driving home. Larry left last night for the UCI masters world championships in Sydney, Australia.

Then, today, Annelise and I went to the Piedmont High running track, where I ran 8 miles wearing racing flats and then another 2 laps barefoot. Annelise did her part and she ran/walked about 2.5 miles. The weather was much colder than the day before and it was overcast with a slight drizzle near the time we left. It was what you call ideal running weather. Unfortunately the locker rooms were closed.

On Friday I ran 11 miles in the hills. On Thursday I rode on rollers for about 1:15 minutes. The calorie count was 1,221 but I suspect the power meter is losing its calibration again and so the "real" count is probably closer to 1,100.

I also signed up for a cycling Level 2 coaching clinic in Davis. It is time to bump it up a notch.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I finally built up the frame that I bought almost a year ago. It had been sitting in my bedroom, nicely wrapped up in the original box it came in. Why? Not sure. It is true that I did not have the components at first and then in early Spring, I was reluctant to buy new things given the economic uncertainty. For a while prices were dropping and I probably held out for too long trying to get the Record UT Crank I wanted.

Then there were a number of incidents that stopped me every time I wanted to get going. Components I already had were suddenly needed to fix mine or Alistair's bike. The Ergomo I got for Alistair broke and I had to use the Campy bottom bracket I had earmarked for my frame. When I finally decided to get the Campy UT crank, I was unable to find a 175 at a reasonable price anywhere. Eurobikeparts had one for $350 but when they sold out I could not find another for less than $500.

To add insult to injury, my '06 carbon record crank lost a bolt and nut and nobody anywhere had a replacement for it. I ordered one set three times, and three times the order got canceled weeks later because the parts were out of stock and no new ones had come in. This may be hard to believe but it is true. I lost the bolt/nut combo in July and I still have not been able to find the torq bolt that I need. Record carbon uses non-standard, "special bolts and nuts." What a great idea that was!

Last week I decided enough was enough and I was just going to build it. I did and it took less than a day to do although I had to scavenge the chain from my tri bike. I was able to go ride the KOM that same afternoon. It felt great. The frame is super stiff and super light. And even though it is one of those "cheap Chinese frames that gets an Italian label and is then sold at exorbitant prices in the US" as Peter Koskinen would say, I still love it.

I want you to know that I did not pay an exorbitant price. I got the frame cheaper than what the lower end Kuota's sell for. Actually the whole bike was a super, super-deal and it cost less than some high end used bikes I was offered for sale by friends of mine.

Economists may not agree, but I say deflation is for real!

Friday: 20 miles with new bike.
Sat: 30 miles with new bike.
Sun: 7.25 mi run in the hills (with ultra-light shoes)
Mon: 1:10 on rollers. I felt pretty tired. Not sure why.
Tue: rest
Wed: 8.75 mile run in the hills (ultra-lights)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

More barefoot

Today I woke up with very sore lower calf muscles. I suspect my soleus muscles are to blame. They are stiff. My calves were sore in places I have never been sore in before. Surely this must be due to the change in position when running with very thin soled-shoes (i.e. almost barefoot).

According to the LA times article, barefoot runners naturally strike with their toes, whereas people wearing shoes tend to strike with their heels. If you strike with your toe you have a lot of shock absorption due to the lever arm. It seems like a natural thing to do.

Heel strikes on the other hand transmit the impact straight through the ankle, the knee, and hip joints. Clearly that is not so good. To compensate the shoe takes some of the impact but on the whole the situation is probably a lot worse than striking your toe. It is of course possible that you can adapt to heel strikes. The body does remodel itself constantly and if new stresses appear, adaptation takes place.

Obviously lots of people are heel-strikers and you could argue it works for them. But then again, lots of runners get injured. So much so that injury prevention is a key worry for runners. Runners are much more obsessed with injury than bikers or swimmers. And for good reason. According to one recent article in the NY Times, more than half of all runners get injured at least yearly. That is a lot of people.

I do think my position changed when I ran 11.5 miles with thin soles. I did use my toes and forefoot a lot more. When you have no cushioning, striking your heel is not pleasant. Also when there is little weight on the back of your foot it is easier to "fall" onto your forefoot. It seems almost a no-brainer.

I am sure that is why the soleus is stressed. It simply isn't used to this position and I went from essentially zero (i.e. 0.5 miles) to 11.5 miles in one fell swoop.

Today I rode on rollers for 1:15. I rode pretty hard. Interestingly enough riding does not put any additional stress on my sore calves. I must be using different muscle groups to ride. That much is for sure.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Barefoot running has always intrigued me and recently I saw another article in the Los Angeles Times touting its benefits. I have seen a number of barefoot runners in various races and they always looked comfortable and relaxed. I still remember passing a guy running barefoot in the Wildflower triathlon. The Wildflower run is on trails littered with rocks and stones and it is not the kind of place you would expect barefoot runners.

Just as I passed the guy, someone called out to him, "Doesn't that hurt?" He replied "It keeps my mind from thinking about my legs." It sounded really funny at the time because my legs were hurting like hell. And then something else happened. Just as I passed the man, I saw a live rattle snake. It was the first time in 20 years living in California that I had ever seen a live rattle snake.

Clearly shoes have some uses. They do protect you from penetrating injuries. They may even protect you somewhat from snakes, although these creatures tend to bite higher up when you step on them. In winter, shoes keep your feet warm, but in summer they are often too hot. However, nobody can argue with the fact that shoes keep your feet clean. So why would anyone want to walk, let alone run barefoot? Except on the beach perhaps where shoes become awkward and clumsy and where the cool sand feels great.

Everything in life is a trade-off. That is a good thing to remember. We do pay for everything one way or another. Shoes are confining, they make your feet hot and sweaty and they sometimes rub you the wrong way. Shoes contribute to blisters. But could there be more to it than these simple inconveniences? Do shoes actually make your feet weaker? Do they accentuate misalignments and other problems? Do they cause knee, hip and back aches? Only one way to find out.

I ran shoeless on Tuesday. Not very far, but one has to start somewhere. Clearly my soft feet are not used to such exposure. Having been confined to shoes -most of them ill fitting since I have a high arch- all their lives, one has to start easy.

I have to say it was a pleasant surprise. It felt good. Even though it was cool outside, the sun had heated the asphalt and the warmth felt good to me. It is certainly something I want to do again.

Monday I ran a 10k in the hills, going easy.
Tuesday I rested except for the 0.5 mile barefoot run
Today, I ran 11.5 miles (shepherd plus a detour to fish ranch) wearing very light and thin-soled shoes. I did run about 0.5 barefoot at the end.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

On the track

On Saturday I rode on the track (read velodrome) for the first time. It was an interesting experience. I have ridden fixed gear bikes before but never on a track. The reason for doing so was rather simple: Larry had invited Alistair to join him on the track in preparation for Alistair's camp at the Olympic Center in Colorado Springs next week. Since I had to drive out to San Jose anyways, I figured I may as well ride.

At first it felt a bit claustrophobic to ride so close without brakes and on a narrow course with no clear escape. However, after a while I got used to it but then I had to deal with another problem that was potentially more dangerous. And that problem is to stop spinning. I was a bit surprised because I had ridden fixed gears before and was kind of used to it. I also ride on rollers a lot and there too you keep going. You think spin and things are fine. However, I had never raced a fixed a gear. When you race a whole new situation develops. Ironically it happens once you cross the finish line. We did some race simulations and I had a few close brushes with disaster.

It is odd but one has a natural tendency to stop spinning after a hard sprint. You simply sit up and stop spinning once you go past the finish, but when you are on a fixed gear that does not work so well. You get this sudden unexpected hard jolt in your leg and if you lock up, you have a high probability of going down. It happens and sometimes there are serious consequences. Unfortunately, locking up is almost a reflex action when your leg gets jolted. I.e. it too happens before you are aware of it. Double whammy. I quickly learned to avoid this problem by not going all out. That way you don't feel the need to urgently stop spinning and you can coast rather easily.

There was another situation where a lockup almost happened. I was coming into the last turn while passing someone and suddenly found myself very close to the guy I was overtaking. Maybe he cut into my line a bit, I am not sure but there it was. My first instinct when it happened was to stop pedaling and grab for the -non-existent- brake. That too happened before I knew it. I.e. I only realized what I had done after the fact. The upshot was a rather severe jolt that almost made my lose my balance. I also lost the sprint even though I was clearly faster than the guy in front of me.

More things to learn! Think spin, think loose.

Here is the recap of my week:
Monday, rest
Tuesday 1:15 on rollers, pretty hard.
Wednesday 1:30 run, the shepherd loop
Thursday 32 mile ride to top Redwood, suddenly developed a stiff link in my chain while shifting to climb Manzanita.
Friday 40 mile ride, Redwood to Lafayette, over Happy Valley and home. Met Darryl on Grizzly Peak and invited him over.
Saturday 3 hours on the track
Sunday 30 miles with Alistair, two hard fast climbs (Wildcat and Grizzly).