Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday madness

I took apart our old treadmill and installed a new one. It just reminded me of how the consumer society is affecting all of us and making our lives less enjoyable. It is something we never hear about. The real cost of cheap items. It is a cost we all pay, each and every day.

The old treadmill, a HealthRider R65 had a sturdy frame, a solid platform but a weak motor, plus some useless "features" to attract buyers. A lot of parts were made of plastic and many broke or chipped over time so fixing it was no longer an attractive option. It was not just a matter of price, although the price to fix it would probably buy a new one. It would have also required replacing many items that were intrinsically OK.

Unfortunately, the HealthRider was a compromise made for a cheap sticker price that resulted in an underpowered, overgadgeted machine.

The T12.80. Lots of plastic.

The new treadmill is a Reebok T12.80. Despite the name, it is in essence a new version of the same machine made by the same people. All these are Icon Fitness treadmills. Healthrider, Reebok, Nordic Track, etc. are just labels. They identify feature sets that attract different market segments. Unfortunately none of these segments is quality oriented. They are feature-oriented instead.

The new machine has even more silly features that I will never use. It has a beefier motor but to compromise the frame is no longer a solid piece of metal. Instead it consists of pieces that are mostly molded plastic. Already some parts are showing signs of wear and the thing is less than a month old.

Because treadmills are sold to consumers who will rarely use them, and almost never after the novelty wears off, they are loaded with useless junk that attracts eyeballs, but breaks easily and may -in some cases condemn the machine. Instead of spending money on sturdy construction, treadmill builders cut corners where it matters most and spend money on eye candy that adds little or no value.

You could argue I should have bought a real treadmill, but these items are so expensive it is no longer worth the cost. I would need to install special circuits and make other modifications to the site. It is too much trouble, especially in a warm climate like California where you can run outside on most days. But even when you go upscale, you cannot free yourself from the market research results, and you still need to pay hundreds of dollars for features that are without any value.

The treadmill market, like so many markets has essentially split down the middle. And the middle, that sweet spot of value for money has all but disappeared. So now we have low end junk and high end super-premium equipment that is only worth it if one spends one's life there.

Treadmills are not the only products subject to these forces. The very same thing is happening to all appliances and electronics. But it did not stop there, cars have become overweight, overstuffed mobile living rooms, that are no longer fun to drive. Then again, where can one drive? Driving has been replaced by commuting, that smog spewing, rage provoking shuffle that is played out on freeways every day.

Wednesday, a 20 mile mountain ride with Alistair on single track in Joaquin Miller park. A bit too technical for me.
Thursday, a 38 mile ride to the golf course in Castro Valley.
Friday, a 20 mi solo mountain bike ride on fire-roads in Redwood. That is more my style.
Saturday, a 1:12 hr/8.9 mi run on the new treadmill. Ran the first hour at 8.1.
Sunday, a 33 mile ride to San Pablo and back over Wildcat, El Toyonal and Lomas Cantadas, with Alistair.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Winter Solstice

We passed the winter solstice so now the days will get longer. Not that it is very noticeable yet but it soon will be. This is also the time of year people celebrate various holidays and buy gifts for one another. Even though I don't go for Christmas gifts -in Belgium people give New Year's gifts and then only to those who bother to visit on New Year's day- here is a list of things I would consider for the multisport athlete.

Big ticket items
End of season is a great time to buy big ticket items at deep discounts. If you need a new frame or a new wetsuit, now is the time. XTerra Wetsuits has been advertising deep discounts but I am sure the other manufacturers are too. I personally like my Blue Seventy wetsuit. What I like best about it is the low neckline that does not put pressure on my windpipe. That goes a long way towards preventing a claustrophobic feeling that is common with some wetsuits.

When it comes to bicycle frames, I saw some great deals on Kuota and Look frames. I just built a Kuota KOM and I like the way it rides. One of the best and lightest frames I ever had. My top three road frames are Kuota KOM, Look 595 and BMC SLC01. For triathlon I ride a Griffen. My mountain bike is a Kona Kula Supreme with SRAM components. I like the feel of it.

Every one of these I bought at season end, often getting discounts of 50% or more. Given the enormous markup on such items, even 50% off is an outrageous price to pay. I was told by someone who knows that the average high end carbon fiber frame (made in a mold in China or Taiwan) enters the US for $270, taxes and duties included. Most of these are then sold for $3,500 and up. No wonder everyone is so keen on carbon.

Small items
If you are looking for small item stocking stuffers, here are some ideas. Tubes are always useful even for those who prefer tubeless tires. That said, a new set of tubeless tires may be an even better idea for that special gift. Once again, expect deep discounts this time of year. Even better if you can wait until after Christmas. That is one reason New Years presents make so much more sense.

Other ideas include wool socks, gloves, toe covers or booties, and bike lights. All these can be had for very little money and they make for great gifts that really get used. I know a lot of people buy water bottles but I have found that you can get plenty of those for free at races. I haven't bought a bottle since 2002. Another item I am drowning in is T-shirts, both regular and technical T's.

Finally, something needs to be said about sunglasses. While these are very useful, I can't see why anyone would pay $100 and up for a pair of shades. You can get perfectly fine Foster Grant Ironman glasses for $19.95 at Rite-Aid and these are every bit as good as those fancy Rudy Projects, or -in my opinion- very silly looking Oakley's that Lance and his crew seem to fancy.

Not only are the lenses identical (polycarbonate), but expensive sunglasses break just as easily, or get lost just as easily as their cheaper cousins. That is the main reason not to spend a fortune: shades do not last. A optometrist friend of mine once told me that, unless you wear your glasses all day long, they simply don't last. People who wear glasses (whether prescription, reading glasses, or shades) on and off, go through them about 10 times as fast as people who wear theirs round the clock. So unless you want to wear those Oakley's or Rudy's all the time, better save your money for other goodies.

On Sunday I rode 38, to the golf course and back. Yesterday I rested (the weather was awful) and today (very nice and sunny) I ran 10.5 miles in the hills.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Training is highly specific. There is no such thing as "being in shape" as a general category. Usually what people mean when they say there are "in shape" is that they can walk or jog a certain distance without being out of breath. In essence that means their cardiovascular system is used to a certain amount of stress that exceeds lying around on the couch all day, or working in an office.

Those people would be surprised if they suddenly were asked to perform above average in a sport that they did not train for. Then they would say, "I don't know why I feel so trashed, or why I got dropped, or why I was out of breath, I thought I was in good shape." And the truth is they may well have been and be very fit.

This post was triggered by two events. First I read one of my favorite blogs and found out the author, who is an ironman athlete and distance runner/cyclist, reported he had trouble finishing a marathon, despite having run ultra marathons in summer. It turns out he did very little running since those ultra-events and has been cycling almost exclusively. So while his cardio was good, his run fitness was not.

Then, yesterday I was out on my regular 10.5 mile hilly run (the Shepherd loop) and I too was suffering despite just completing a super power test on the bike, that put me solidly in the Cat2 power range. I.e. my cycling fitness is near its high, but I suffered on a run that -until recently- I used to run on a weekly basis. And it wasn't because I was tired from biking. It was simply because I haven't run much for about a month.

In some sense, this situation is even worse than having no training. One is fit when it comes to cardiovascular output, but the mechanical system is not on par. At best that will mean a lot of suffering, at worst, an injury. So I will try to remedy this situation before it gets out of hand. I just installed a new treadmill and will do some running on that.

On Monday I rode 20 on my mountain bike. Redwood was very muddy and I looked pretty dirty when I got back. There must have been five pounds of mud on my bike too.

On Tuesday I rode on rollers for 1:20 and on Wednesday again for 1:10. Both pretty intense workouts with a power test to boot.

On Thursday I rode my roadbike for 30 miles. I broke my rear wheel on Tunnel and had to come back and switch it out. First I thought it was just a spoke, but it turns out the rim was cracked in several places. Not good. I think I need a new wheelset for Christmas.

On Friday I ran my 10.5 mile loop -and suffered.

Today a one hour run on the treadmill. More suffering and more evidence to the specificity of training. I had trouble holding my pace at 8 mph. Not too long ago I could run 8.25.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Don't touch my yellow and charity lotteries

We have witnessed several odd events in the cycling world over the past three weeks. Let me start with the hoopla surrounding StillerStrong. I found out about this issue when I accidently saw a YouTube video of Johan Bruyneel trying to sound an ominous warning to Ben Stiller about Lance Armstrong and his legal team, "They will come after you." Later I found out that the charade has also made Conan O'Brien and the late night talk circuit.

In brief, comedian Ben Stiller has started a fundraising campaign for a Haitian school. To raise funds he is selling yellow headbands that read StillerStrong.. As far as I can tell the campaign is for real but it is not exactly a great success. One of the video's Stiller posted has been an appeal to Lance to wear the StillerStrong headband. It wasn't well received.

The use of "strong" and the yellow headwear have upset Lance quite a bit. So much so that he has started legal action to protect his "brand." The idea of branding charitable causes may rub some people the wrong way, but Lance is determined.

The most telling episode is a video of the Conan show where Lance appears and shows his disapproval. Ben Stiller then says, "So you're saying you own the word strong and the color yellow?" and Lance responds after a brief pause, "Yes." Some people in the audience were clearly taken aback by that.

In related news, a blogger called FatCyclist raised more than $135,000 for World Bicycle Relief and LiveStrong so he could spend a weekend with Team RadioShack in Tucson, AZ. He managed to do this in about three days by essentially organizing a lottery where "tickets" cost $5 a pop and the top prizes were a trip to the Tour, donated by Trek Travel and two one-of-a-kind bicycles, donated by Trek and Gary Fisher.

It appears from the Fat Cyclist website that Fatty, as he is affectionately known to his supporters, has used this same lottery tactic many times before. There is at least one other event in the summer where he had an Orbea Orca/Diva (winner's choice) with Shimano's new battery powered shifting as the top prize.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cat 2 performance

I have been rollering away for several days now. Every time I do it, things get better and so I decided it was time for a power test. I calibrated my Ergomo and went at it for 20 minutes straight. Then, according to the power graphs developed by Dr. Coggan -Dr. Power himself- I went about to find out my status.

I topped out at 4.30 W/kg or solidly in the "Very Good" or Cat 2 range (which runs from 4.09 to 4.80). There is some overlap in the Coggan categories but 4.3 is well outside the Cat 3 range so that is reassuring. The lower bound of "Excellent" or Cat 1 is at 4.65. In another version of the graph -one with no overlaps- "Very Good" runs from 4.25 to 4.71.

When I first started riding in 1989, I got a Cat 4 license. Back then, Cat 4 was the lowest category. (They have since added a Cat 5 group). Near the "end" of my first cycling infatuation I graduated to Cat 3. In 1995 I took a break from cycling and it wasn't until 2008 that I re-applied for a license. My goal was to get a workout in while I waited around for Alistair.

Since I was driving Alistair to races every weekend, I wanted something to do instead of standing around for 2 hours. So I applied for a license and petitioned that they give me a Cat 4 (so as to avoid the dangerous inexperience of Cat 5) which they did. I probably could have asked for a Cat 3, but I decided to play it safe. I did a few races in 2008 as a Cat 4, but then my road bike frame broke and I did not race at all in 2009.

I think I can do even better than I did today -I could certainly lose a few pounds if nothing else- and I may be able to get my power-to-weight to the top of the Cat 2 category. Not that I intend to upgrade my license or anything, but it is nice to know that my fitness is up there.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Roller derby

We had an exciting week here in Northern California. After several days of 72F/22C degree weather, an Artic storm blew in and suddenly we had snow, icy wind and freezing temperatures. The water on top of our rain barrels froze, and there was snow on Grizzly Peak when we woke up on Monday. When the ice finally cleared, a series of rain storms brought wet weather from Vancouver to Tijuana. I don't think I have ever seen a weather map like that. Storms along the entire Pacific coast.

Fortunately I had just completed a couple of hard weeks so now was a good time to take it easy. On Monday I rested. Then on Tuesday I ran for 8.75 miles in the hills. Snow, sun, and extra bright fall color on the trees were mixed together. it was an awesome sight.

On Wednesday I rode hard on rollers, averaging 276 W for the hour. The garage was freezing cold. On on Thursday and Friday I rode for 1:30 concentrating mostly on a smooth fast cadence. On Saturday and Sunday I ran, first 8.75 miles and then 7.25 miles. Saturday was fairly dry and much warmer than earlier in the week, but Sunday's run quickly turned wet and foggy. Visibility was less than 10 yards on Grizzly making the run quite dangerous in spots.

When I got back I had to go out and find Alistair, who had gotten lost on a bike ride and was out there without much light in the driving rain. It was more than a bit worrisome as the fog was thick with practically no visibility, and most of the turns were deeply flooded. I was quite relieved when I found him near Fish Ranch Rd. Fortunately the rain jacket had done a good job and he was warm albeit a bit tired. Riding the Berkeley hills in this type of weather is not advised. Cars go off the road all the time, and in the past month alone, we have seen two go off the road, down the side of the hill.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


In the true spirit of winter training I am adding volume at moderate intensity. That does not mean I am dabbling or riding slow. But I am not sprinting or doing intervals either. I am just adding the hours (or miles).

Two weeks ago, I rode 10.75 hours. Last week I did 11.25 and this week I added 13.5. That is a total of 35.5 hours on the bike, or a 600 mile equivalent.

I say equivalent because I did not ride all those miles on the road. Some of it I did on my mountain bike, where the average speed is lower, and some of it I did on rollers, where speed is arbitrary.

During the past week I did the following workouts:
-On Monday I rode 30 miles on the road.
-On Tuesday I rode 20 mile on my mountain bike, including some serious climbs
-On Wednesday I ran for 7.25 miles
-On Thursday, 23 miles on the mountain bike, through Redwood Park
-On Friday, rollers for 1:18:00 burning a total of 1,225 calories.
-Saturday, 4 hour ride with Team Specialized Juniors, for a total of 71 miles in Napa Valley
-Today, 2.2 hour ride, 34 miles through Orinda and Moraga and over Pinehurst