Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Great Year of Bicycling

As 2008 draws to a close, I wanted to reflect on my accomplishments over the last 12 months. It has truly been a wonderful year. It started with me setting some ambitious goals, and finished with me exceeding them.

My principle goal for the year was the Death Ride in July. This initially seemed like a lofty target. But from the moment of decision, I devoted myself to methodically training for it. I did plenty of research by reading reports and descriptions, plus I talked with several Death Ride veterans about it. The training culminated with my test ride of the actual course one month before the event. The end result was that I would complete it comfortably and with no problems.

(This whole process allowed me to reflect on the topic of setting and achieving goals. I will write a separate essay on my philosophy on this.)

The other idea I had for the year was to attempt a double century. Covering 200 miles in a single day seemed beyond my reach considering my conditioning and experience one year ago.

I decided to attempt the Davis Double, which is a relatively local, medium difficulty double century in May (before the Death Ride). Although I did plenty of research, I did no specific training for it. Before it, the longest distance I had ridden was 120 miles.

This was a distinctly different approach than my Death Ride training. The reason for this was that my goal was to successfully finish the Death Ride, but merely to attempt to finish the Davis Double. Although I would make every attempt to finish it, I would not be disappointed if I could not. My goal was simply to test my limits.

As it turned out, the double century was within my capabilities. This year's Davis Double would be considered a difficult double century due to the 100°F plus temperatures. I struggled, but I finished. And what a feeling of accomplishment I had!

With the confidence of knowing I could do a double century, I decided I should make an attempt at achieving a California Triple Crown (finishing three California double centuries in a single year).

After the Death Ride, the next double century I could ride in the local area was the Mt. Tam Double in August. This was rated as a very difficult ride, so my goal again was to attempt to finish. Again, I surprised myself by finishing, although I struggled to do it within the time limit.

With that accomplishment, my goal was to definitely achieve the triple crown. I did the Knoxville Double in September. This time I would have been disappointed had I not finished. It was not totally easy, but I did it. And was overjoyed that I could share the "triple crown winner" designation with 472 other people this year.

Besides the rides I mentioned, I did a couple other centuries (Mt. Hamilton Challenge, Giro di Peninsula) and my first brevet (Chualar 200K). I also used my newly acquired breakaway bicycle on my travels to Seattle and Austin. Besides the organized rides, I did plenty of rides with friends, and many good ones solo.

Besides my drive and determination, the other key to my successful 2008 was the love and support of my family and friends. I thought of you all when my lungs were on fire and my legs were begging for rest, and each of you were in my heart each time I crossed the finish line. With you behind me, no ride could be a failure.

I have not yet set my goals for 2009. My time will be much more restricted, so the possibilities are limited. I will definitely do more centuries since I should still be in shape for those. I would like to do another ride in the Sierra (Climb to Kaiser). If things work out, I may attempt another triple crown.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Measuring Rides

The most common question people ask about my bike rides are how long they are. Almost always, "how long" means "total distance". But distance is a very poor measure of the difficulty/effort of a ride. I am never happy just quoting the number of miles because that is only a partial description.

For example, I have done some 30 mile rides that took more effort than some 60 mile rides. Just by looking at those two numbers, it is natural to conclude that the 60 mile ride was twice the effort of the 30 mile ride. But that is usually not the case.

The primary reason for this is because most of my rides involve significant hills. The total amount of elevation gain and the steepness of the road (which are really two separate criteria) make a tremendous difference for the difficulty of a ride.

Two routes can be the same distance, but if one is flat and the other is hilly, the hilly one could easily require two or three times the energy to complete.

The real measure of effort it the total amount of calories burned. I estimate that I burned over 10,000 calories on some of my double centuries, which is a staggering effort. By contrast, my leisurely 20 minute morning commute burns only around 130 calories. However, I can only estimate the calories burned because I do not use a power meter to measure it directly.

There is an alternate measure that is almost as good a measure of effort as calories — time. This is because my rate of calories burned us usually consistent for all my training rides. Most research shows that "vigorous" cycling burns 600 to 800 calories per hour [see references here, here, here, here].

Because my level of effort is the same, note that speed (and thus distance) are not much of a factor. I will keep a fast speed on a flat course, and a relatively slow speed on an incline. For a given unit of time, I will use the same amount of energy, but the distance covered can vary widely with the hilliness/flatness.

For example, on a flat road, I can keep a sustained speed of 20 MPH which requires a significant level of effort. With the same level of effort climbing a 5% grade (a moderate hill), I would more likely average 9 MPH. For a steep hill (10% grade or higher), I am lucky to keep a 4 MPH average.

So if I report that I went on an 2.5 hour ride, that means I burned around 1500 calories (the average American eats 3790 calories per day according to one study). Of course this could mean either that I rode 50 miles on a flat road, or that I rode 25 miles in the mountains.

If I go on a 5 hour ride, it almost certainly would have required twice the effort of the 2.5 hour ride. However, the distances of the rides may or may not differ by the same factor of 2.

There are other factors (like wind, altitude, etc.) which influence the level of effort. But again these are all incorporated when measuring the ride by time, whereas they would make a distance measure that much more misleading.

So if you ask me how long I rode my bicycle on a particular day, expect me to reply with the amount of time, not the number of miles.