Monday, November 22, 2010

Racing - Details versus Overall Picture

The other day I spent a good part of the morning in a state of delirium. The prior night I'd collapsed in bed, exhausted, at some early time (8 pm?). I did have the presence of mind to wear my Expo hoodie, a nice warm season-saving garment. Nice and warm because it's nice and warm. Season-saving because for the first time in many, many, many, many years, I didn't get sick in the spring. It could have been the lower weight (but wouldn't fat insulate me and allow me to stay warmer?), it could have been some diet change, but I attribute it to the Expo hoodie.

That's because I wore the hoodie everywhere, including (and most importantly) to bed. I stayed warm overnight, no drafts on my neck, no chilly morning air. In January in Southern California (the nights are cold) and in Connecticut I wore the thing religiously and, guess what?

I never got sick. Not truly sick anyway.

Anyway, I put my trusty no-sick Expo hoodie on, went to bed, and fell asleep, at some point pretty early on. 8 PM let's say. Or 9 PM. Something like that.

At 12:05 AM, shortly after midnight, I woke up. I wasn't hungry but I was wide awake. I trotted downstairs and read and played Age of Empires and checked my backups and stayed up until well after 4 AM. I stumbled back to bed, exhausted (once again).

Unfortunately the next wake up call wasn't self-imposed, it was due to needing to get up. I struggled through the REM haze because if we didn't get a move on, our breakfast place would get swamped. Normally I'd beg off and do some quick shut-eye to get my body out of REM mode, but not that morning. The Missus and I hit breakfast out on the road (unusual for us nowadays), ran some errands, and started doing some chores around the house.

Then, finally, I couldn't function. I needed to get some sleep.

I escaped to the bedroom, a few cats joining me for some warm (and therefore welcome) company. I closed my eyes and tried to let my body recover from the interrupted REM sleep.

This REM recovery sleep is not that deep, nor does it last that long. Yes, you lose consciousness. But you also get this horribly disorienting kind of thought process where you're not sure where you are or what's reality.

And that's when I started thinking of something that made me think of bike racing.

See, recently I'd read this incredible book named Replay, written by Ken Grimwald. It's an incredibly deep book that resonated with me in my life as it is now. The main character basically relives his life but with the benefit of knowing what will happen (at least for the most part). Since he gets to relive his life over and over, he kind of experiments with the whole thing. I'll leave it at that for those that haven't read it (I highly recommend it), but suffice it to say that although the character knows about a lot of stuff, he himself doesn't change.

No matter what happens, he doesn't start his "re-life" suddenly built like Arnold or a woman or whatever. He starts off the same. His playing cards, physiologically speaking, are the same.

Yes, he knows some of the big details of things that'll happen. Like, say, the JFK assassination.

Initially he starts off worried about the details. He wants to make money, and he can. He knows the huge trends, like the fact that people will start buying these gizmos called "personal computers" or that they'll be a few gas crunches.

Later, though, he worries more about other things, things in a broader scheme of things.

And that's where my delirious mind brought me on that short little nap.

In the old days, when I first started racing (with stone wheels and sticks for axles...), I worried obsessively about the details. I worried about whether saving a few grams for aluminum toe clips was worth the shorter life span (and higher cost) relative to the steel clips. I thought about 5 grams here, 3 grams there.

Later I obsessed about 280 gram versus 330 gram rims. I hedged by buying both. Tellingly my 330 gram rims still exist in my inventory - the 280s are a bit tweaked, good only for non-rim brake bikes (track bikes). 50 grams, though, was significant.

Nowadays... I worry about hundreds of grams. Thousands of them. Going from an 1150 gram frame to a 1500 gram frame? I was okay with it because, first, it fit better, and second, because I lost about 13,000 grams off a different part of the racing unit. Meaning off of me.

In my delirium I realized that in life I also seemed to focus initially on the details. I watch the store baby (as I call him - he's about seven months old now). He focuses on immediate, small things. Food. Being picked up. Diaper.

Our cats are only slightly more long-termed than he is right now. They can think about moving into a warm sun spot on the rug - the store baby hasn't figured that out yet.

As the baby grows he'll focus on slightly less immediate things. Food is fine, sure, but when there's a toy to be had... Or maybe there's one toy and he wants another. His thoughts will extend a little, just a little past immediate.

I think our cats are about this point. For example, if Hal is watching a squirrel on the front steps and the squirrel goes to Hal's left, out of sight, Hal will quickly run away from the window (i.e. away from the last known point of said squirrel), go to the bathroom to the left of the front door, jump up into the window, and wait for the squirrel to pop up below the window.

Hal, it seems, understands that the squirrel exists, not just in the window, but "outside".

The store baby hasn't figured that out yet. He doesn't have the concept of object permanence yet.

(I think. I have to test him next time he's in.)

When the store baby starts to realize that you can't always get what you want, but, for the most part, you get what you need, he'll start to think even further out. His thought should turn to the point where he's starting to think of things like consequences. If he's hungry he won't just grab food off the shelf and start eating, not if he's in a store. He'll get it, pay for it, then eat it.

Of course as he progresses in maturity (i.e. get older), he'll think even further out. Retirement. Insurance. "Adult" things, not kid or baby things.

What's that got to do with bike racing?

When I woke up from that delirium-ridden nap, a bunch of thoughts came tumbling into my head. I thought about how I haven't worried about a few grams on the bike (at least not so it counted) in a long time. I look for ball park numbers, not specifics. I don't choose one stem over another because it's 4 grams lighter. I choose a stem because it's been measured as being stiffer or tested well in an independent testing organization. Of course it would fit, too, else I wouldn't have considered it.

I don't worry about training as much. Again, maybe some ball park numbers, but not specifics.

I think, "I really ought to ride tonight since I haven't ridden in a few days."

I don't think of specifics: "Tonight I need to do ten intervals of 60 seconds each where I do max rpm in a 42x18." That's a real thought I had back in the day. I cringe at that thought today.

I obsessed, and I mean obsessed over gearing. I plotted out shift patterns based on cogs and chainrings, debated whether I wanted to get less than, say, 5% differences between gears (it would require two chainrings close in size like 53/49) or if 10% would be okay (that's the normal
jump between big gears when shifting a cog at a time).

I spent tons of time manually calculating gears. I can't believe how much time I did that. When I flip through some of my old notes (I've saved some from various times, mainly because I use the unused page for more notes), I inevitably find yet another try at the "ideal gear ratios".

Now, when someone asks me what gear I used for a particular bit of terrain, I don't know. Heck, sometimes I don't know if I hit that hill in the big ring or the little one. I haven't even memorized my cogs so I mentally count to see if I have a 16T in the cassette. Mentally and using my fingers. I have ten cogs, ten fingers, and I start counting while sticking out a digit for each cog...

"11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25... hm, nope I don't have a 16T."

However, based on that, I know that my 12-25 does have a 16T.

More than a few riders won't know that.

A new rider needs to think about specifics. This encourages learning, especially important when part of the sport involves some technical things. We're not F1 drivers, where we need to describe to our engineer/s exactly what happens in the turn when we shift from 7th to 4th gear under braking and the back end wiggles a bit, but mainly on sweeping lefts and not on rights and not when going uphill.

No, we don't need to do that.

Bike racing does involve a bike though. We need to understand at a broad level the gizmo we're pedaling. We do need to know at some level what gears we use, what gears we need. If I get spun out on descents all the time in a 50x13, it would be good to know that:

A - I have a 50x13 top gear
B - What I can do to increase the gear

If I had no clue about gearing (and I see a lot of new riders who don't know their cassette teeth counts, and even a bunch that have no idea of their chainring sizes), then it would be very hard to figure out, on my own, why "I keep getting dropped on long, slight downhills".

Or why I can't move up when the group is going fast.

We also need to understand how things work so that we can analyze and understand any oddities in performance.

For example, knowing how tires react to tire pressure helps the rider understand when something is wrong. I know SOC had a scare earlier this year when he dove into a turn on a newly-and-silently-flatted tire. It wasn't flat 100 meters earlier and it made no noise on the straight - I was a couple wheels back and I never heard a thing. When he dove into the turn his front wheel slid a few feet to the side. The tire, a tubular (and tubulars would react better in these situations than a clincher, and you should know that too) stayed on the rim, gave him some minimal traction, and he recovered beautifully to stay upright, not hit the curb, and to be able to stop to check his bike.

If he didn't know about tire pressure, he may have kept going, thinking the tire just slid on something. If he'd been using clinchers he'd most likely have crashed.

So what's that got to do with me, here, now?

For the most part I realized that I'm over the details. I've stopped thinking about one or two or three grams. I may save a few grams here and there but I know and truly understand that my own weight plays a much more significant role in my bike racing. I've gotten past that first reliving in Replay, where the character just tries to make his own life "more better".

I think about gearing at a broad level. I know I like having a 53x11 at hand for descents and for moving up hard when the pace is extremely high (35+ mph). Heck, it helps when drafting a truck too, but that's not the primary reason I have the 11T. No way.


I understand and accept my limitations. I am not trying to change things. No extreme this or that, not anymore. I had a TT bike a long time ago - disk wheel, aero bars, aero helmet, skinsuit, the works. I was the biggest joke on a TT bike ever. I tried really hard, I was really serious, so much so that when I launched off the line at one state time trial the guy behind me asked the officials if I was a pro. The official that told me the story kind of laughed because he and I both knew how poorly I time trialed. It's not offensive to me to say that; it's funny.

It's like someone mistaking me for a climber. Imagine?

So... If you can relate to how your bike affects your riding, if you know how bearings wear and their effects the bike's feel, if you know about broken spokes and true wheels and loose headsets and limit screws and centered brakes and overtightened seat clamps and why frame tubes might crack... then you're ready to leave the material world behind. You can stop worrying about it.

But until you get to that point, you should learn. Use the off season to figure out your gearing. Examine your frame material and read up on exactly how it would fail, how it holds up compared to other materials. Check your components. Think about how different things would affect the bike. Make sure your brakes are centered, and if they're not, figure out how to make them so.

Check your training program. Is it sensible? Does it allow for a normal life? Will you really be a pro?

I woke up to myself. Hal was on the bed, so too was Riley. The two white ones. Mike, the big tabby, was there too. Riley likes Mike so she sidled over to him; he in turn grabbed her head and neck with his paws and started licking the top of her head (not unwillingly). Hal likes his love too and moved over to get the top of his head licked.

I watched this scene of domestic bliss for a bit until first Hal then Riley decided enough was enough. They moved back to their sun spots, intent on basking in the sun.

That was my signal. I dragged myself out of bed. I wasn't a pro cyclist all of a sudden. It wasn't 1985. Nothing had changed. I was just a guy who needed to help his wife do some chores around the house.

So that's what I did.

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