Sunday, October 27, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: Doing the math

It's been a year since I bought my road bike and started riding. I've improved immensely since my first ride. There are many reasons why, the least if which might actually be me.

Yesterday I bought cycling shoes, real honest to gosh cycling shoes. I got them so that my feet would be warm in the winter. Leif wanted me to get them for other reasons. They're mountain bike shoes so that I can actually walk in them when I get off the bike, but they have incredibly stiff soles which is desirable for cycling. I've been told that the right shoes would make me 10% more efficient. Which got me thinking about the math.

When I bought the bike we knew it had a few issues. First was a new center hub at the pedals (no I don't know the actual name for it), then the new derailleur after the old one folded up on me. Those two things practically doubled the number of gears available to me, which of course makes me more efficient. Then I was given a set of wheels and discovered that my old wheels weren't turning much at all without lots of effort, so I have to add some more for the efficiency of wheels that actually turn. Now I have the shoes which are an additional energy savings. So a brief tally (using randomly chosen but probably realistic numbers) looks like this:

                    10% (new derailleur)
                    10% (new wheels)
                    10% (shoes)

So, as I figure it, without having  to train at all I've increased my efficiency by 30%. That's right, without getting on the bike my potential improvement is phenomenal. I totally rock.

Now, if I can lose my Minnesota driving habit of leaving enough space between me and the bike in front of me for a quick stop (should it be necessary) I can add 10-15% from the drafting. Seems a bit risky, and I probably should save some room for improvement next year. Don't want to peak too early in my career.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: At what time should I just say "Uncle?"

Seriously folks. It's like I'm a magnet for mechanical failures and assorted mishaps. The Black Hole of Bicycling. I should have t-shirts made. Someone should have a telethon to keep me in spare tubes and pumps.

If you've been following along then you know that I've had more than my fair share of flat tires this year. I haven't even told you about all of them. At last count we believe there were ten. Several happened right in the living room. Weird but true. All my flats while riding have happened while riding slowly, thank goodness. What if they had happened as I was throwing myself down a mountain? No, let's not even go there.

You can just about imagine the expression on Leif's face yesterday when he heard that little "POP" sound and looked back at me to confirm that it was just a rock, and I couldn't confirm that at all. A back and forth conversation of "Really?" "Really." "Really?" ensued. With just a little more practice I think we could have a great little comedy sketch there.

I was ready to carry the damn thing home and worry about it another maybe sometime next year, but Leif seemed to view this particular flat as a challenge. One I should strive to overcome. Since he was the one actually changing the tire I couldn't argue much. So he carefully changed the tire and we continued our ride that had started a mere hundred meters earlier. Soooo wish I was kidding about that.

Other than the now constant worry that every weird noise is another tire preparing to blow (accompanied by the vivid picture in my mind of both tires blowing at the same time, propelling me into the air and landing on my back in the middle of the lane of oncoming traffic, only to be run over by an elderly Fiat 500 driven by a significantly more elderly driver who can't see over the steering wheel) or just as bad, riding on a flat tire till it peels off in long rubber ribbons (and I lose control, hurtling over the steep embankment and into the mighty Arno River) and ruin my almost new I said, other than that, everything went well.

We made it to I did that while holding my breath waiting for disaster to strike I'll never know, but I did. On the way home we (as always) passed an older rider who viewed my passing him as some kind of challenge to his male-ness and did his damnedest to pass me. This time all he could do was benefit from drafting off me and making his ride 10-15% more efficient. I hear that phrase a lot. As in, "You know Michele, if you'd get closer to his wheel you'd be 10-15% more efficient. It would be easier." Obviously this guy decided if he couldn't actually pass me he would benefit from following me.

So...high fives all around when we made it home without another flat. I hate to celebrate too much though. I picture the assembled gods and goddesses of cycling mayhem looking at each other and wondering what to plague me with next. I'm still a little rebellious in their minds.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Second chances

This week I got to experience something I missed with my own children. See, I had to work when the kids were little. I think I only took a couple months off when my daughter was born. So all those things parents are supposed to be there for, all the milestones one should be committing to memory with pictures and videos and phone calls to everyone on the planet, well, they just somehow got missed because someone else was there when it happened. I got the news via short conversations or little notes, both easily forgotten and lost in the struggle to survive.

On Monday I watched a little boy take his first walk across the kitchen of his house. It was the most amazing thing to watch. He'd take a few steps and stop,  bend his knees a bit, straighten up and walk again. The closer he to to the other side of the room and me, the bigger his smile became, until he finally fell into my arms laughing at how brave he thought he was. I don't know who was prouder at that moment; Nicco for doing something he didn't even know he could do, or me for the days of work that went into convincing him that he didn't need me to get from point A to point B.

When I told his mom she got a look on her face, one that I felt all the way into my heart. She missed something so very important because she was doing something that was also important. It's those times when your heart stops for a moment and squeezes so tight and the fear of missing things becomes big. So big. And then you make a choice, one that has to be made over and over and over again. There's no right answer, there's no wrong answer. But I'm so grateful for the chance to experience some of the moments I missed the first time around, and these moments remind me to pay attention now, because let's face it, my kids continue to do absolutely amazing things and I have the time now to watch and appreciate them properly.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: Some days I just shouldn't get out of bed...

I debated for some time about the title of this because absolutely none of this happened on a road bike. However the majority of it did in fact happen on a bike. My mountain bike, during a tour with fourteen Swedish dentists on Saturday.

I've done these tours a number of times now so I don't completely freak out but it's still new enough for me to feel nervous. And I've had a rash of flat tires this year (I think seven, which defies probability) so I approach every ride semi-resigned to the idea that I'll have to stop along the way and watch Leif change a tube for me. Truthfully, in my mind I see the entire bike falling apart beneath me, piece by piece. A flat tire is really more of an inconvenience than a problem anymore.

This tour started an hour later, which left Leif and me wandering aimlessly around the apartment dressed and ready to go, because an hour isn't time enough to do anything else. By the time we got to the meeting point it had started to rain slightly, really just a few raindrops here and there but enough to concern the dentists. We assured them (with fingers crossed) that the forecast didn't call for rain so this would go away.

Once we were on our way the rain did stop and I realized that this group wasn't what I expected from a group of dentists. I sort of expected them to be a little less fit, slower on the bikes. Only later did I find out that one of them was an avid "downhill mountain biker" which means taking the ski lift to the top of a mountain and then riding down that same, trail-less mountain as fast as possible. The rest just seemed to be naturally fit, even the ones who voiced concerns over being able to climb the mountain.

We got through town just fine (usually quite difficult as Swedes are law-abiding folk and Italians make their own rules as they go) and suddenly, going up the first hill, I felt as if I had never been on a bike at all. I struggled to breathe as I pedaled furiously (yet in slow motion) up the hill, all the while trying to figure out what was wrong. Had I really been off a bike that long that I couldn't even get up what has become for me a pretty easy hill? I was just about to start blaming the sports bra for unnaturally restricting my breathing (seriously, I was wheezing like an asthmatic bulldog) when I noticed that one side of my front brake was engaged. Fully. That's right, I was like a car trying to drive with the park brake on.

Of course, the tools needed to correct this little problem were with Leif at the front of the group so I moved things around as much as I could and pedaled my little butt off to where they had stopped to talk about olive trees. We managed to get everything fixed, but I was already tired and we'd barely started. Plus with the late start that meant that my coffee and pastry were later too and I was running out of fuel. But the show must go on and so we headed out to the next town and the little store where we get our coffee.

By the time we got there I was exhausted. I needed food and these dentists were riding as if this were a little bump in the road instead of the mountain that it was. We (OK, mostly me) refreshed ourselves with coffee and pastry and got back on the bikes. Which is when reality hit for part of the group. "You mean we're only halfway there?"

Turns out they weren't as fit as I thought, they'd just spent all their energy getting to coffee assuming that it was a the longest part of the ride. The rest of the trip finished much like most of our tours, with part of the group sprinting ahead, the bulk of the group maintaining a constant speed, and my little group that had to be coaxed up the mountain at whatever speed it took to get them there. I'm still pretty proud of the fact that I can take someone who looks me in the eye and swears they can't ride another meter and get them to finish the ride on their bikes. They're proud of themselves and have a glorious downhill ride as a reward. Granted, they do it with the brakes on usually, but still, it's a downhill.

After another great lunch we headed back down the mountain. As we came into town again I thought I could hear my tires more than usual. Kind of like I'd switched to snow tires halfway down the mountain. I looked down, sighed and rode to the next scheduled stop. I coasted up to Leif, looked at him as apologetically as I could and said two words. Flat tire.

He looked at me with big eyes, "Nooo..." "Oh yes," I said. "What now?" We decided that it would take too long to change the tire so I got into the support van with my bike and the group rode on without me. I was disappointed in myself, even though a flat tire is definitely a mechanical thing and no reflection of my ability on a bike. Leif told me when the group arrived at the bike shop that they missed me, were concerned that without me at their back they'd get lost and never get back. I felt a little better after that.

So we said goodbye to the Swedes and turned our attention to my bike. I needed to get the tire changed so I could go to my next job. Yeah, I took a babysitting job for after a full day bike tour. I've told you and told you, I need a keeper, someone to watch my schedule and question me when necessary.

This being Italy, you don't simply walk in, pick out a tire, pay for it and leave. No, you (read Leif) and the mechanic must discuss what kind of riding I do to determine the correct tire, discuss the pros and cons of several brands and finally arrive at a decision. This decision is carefully recounted at the desk as you wait to check out (because only one customer at a time can be helped, and they are only finished after a discussion of family and weather conditions as well as their most recent purchase) and finally you are able to actually start putting the tire on the bike.

I made it to the next job with one minute to spare. A miracle. The rest of the evening is kind of a blur for me. Baby, walking, playing, not sleeping. I didn't get to eat soon enough and so by the end of the night I was spent to the point of feeling sick.

Of course I blame this on the fact that on top of everything that happened that day I was trying to do it on the most difficult day of my monthly cycle. I was weak from blood loss, just a tad emotional and stressed about finding bathrooms when I needed them. Let's just say the last part isn't always easy when riding up a mountain into small villages on a weekend. I'm pretty sure the sports bra didn't help. I felt strangled all day.

I survived. That's enough for me this time. But I will be doing research into tires. Indestructible, possibly bullet-proof tires.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Gardening again

Just my luck there's a plant show every spring and every fall. So of course I set out, walking the 1.9 kilometers (it was threatening rain) to reach my holy grail this year.

That's right, I got it. The lemon tree. Totally tiny and I'm still not certain if it's one tree with three shoots or three separate trees and I'm sure I did the wrong thing and picked one that has lemons on it already. Four lemons ranging in size from golf ball to shooter marble. Tiny and green and absolutely perfect from my complete novice point of view. The man who sold it to me was very nice. Between his little bit of English and my little bit of Italian we established that if I had any problems or questions I should call the number on the receipt. How we would communicate without visual contact is beyond me. I still rely heavily sometimes on gestures and visual clues.

I realized this last week, when I was babysitting for a family and their intercom rang. I asked who was there and the voice on the street said "Oooh-pay-essay (mumblemumble) con parco (mumble mumble) stamattina." I said in English "What?!?" and he repeated himself exactly, which wasn't exactly helpful to me. So I hung up on him, figuring he was either a serial killer (yes, at three in the afternoon) or really wanted someone else, someone who spoke Italian. The best translation I could come up with was that someone with an unpronounceable Italian name was at a park this morning. Not earth shattering enough for me to buzz him in.

He was persistent. We did this same thing two more times before I told the kids to stay put, don't hurt each other and I'd be right back. I locked them in and went down to the door to see who was so intent on getting into the building. I opened the super-thick-super-heavy ancient doors and there in his cute little brown shorts and shirt was the UPS guy (ooh-pay-essay) with a package (con paco) that he had tried to deliver that morning (stamattina.) He was in the process of calling a friend who spoke English so (I assume) he could put his phone against the speaker and have his friend tell me that he had a package for the apartment. I'm going to blame the traffic noise for my inability to understand exactly what he wanted. We both laughed, a little embarrassed by misunderstanding such a simple conversation.

Which, to come full circle, pretty much means that if I tried to have a phone conversation with the lemon tree guy, it would probably end up much like my conversation with the UPS guy. Eventually, I'd have to find my way to have a face to face conversation to avoid the untimely death or severe maiming of my beloved lemon tree.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: Hahahahahaha

I would like to clarify that this is not hysterical laughter. Oh no. Pretty sure it's not. It's more like confused laughter.

First, I'm officially registered for the Tjejvättern in June. For a relative newbie to cycling this feels rather major, even though it's just a ride. I get nervous riding with two people; with 6,499 others I might start to hyperventilate and fall. Although I think I've shown that I fall with a particular style and grace that keeps me relatively injury free, if not embarrassment free.

Second, in my excitement (and because I suck at following directions) I left the rest of my group behind. Turns out I was supposed to be the very last person in the group to register, not the very first. Luckily my sisters are on spot in Sweden and actually speak Swedish so they managed to talk to someone and figure things out. I have a feeling that my jag älskar dig (I love you) wouldn't get me far. Or maybe it would...? It's also kind of funny that I spent a fair amount of time at each step, hesitating for up to a minute with the cursor over the ":next" button, afraid to commit to the next step, yet still managed to screw things up. I'm a master of misreading instructions.

Third and possibly the strangest thing is that my little whim has spawned a movement of sorts. Suddenly, besides the sisters in the 100k ride, we have all the men riding in the 150k ride. My husband, his brother, his sister's fiancee and his brother, and our champagne loving friend. The only people not riding in any Vättern-inspired event are the father-in-law and the nieces and nephew. Well, so far anyway.

I vacillate between feeling like a muse, inspiring people to do something they've never done before and like a siren, calling them seductively into a course filled with physical trials. But either way it's nice to know I won't be out there alone, if one could indeed be said to be alone when riding with 6,499 other people.

Now I just need to start riding.....a lot.

It's October again

It's that day so I'll tell the story again. I never get tired of hearing it.

Three years ago a (possibly crazy) woman dragging two suitcases and wearing a "pursuing happiness" t-shirt and a slightly scared smile walked off her plane and into the Florence airport and met a man wearing a suit and a smile to match hers. They kissed.

They're still kissing. I love a happy ending.