A Year of Cycling

Jemal Goes Electric

In the spring of 2022, my wife Shelley decided that she wanted to get back into cycling, if only for her commute. She works in DC, and takes the train one or more days each week, and driving to the train, paying for parking, and then walking to her office was a bit of a slog. She ordered a folding e-bike that she could take on the train, and has been a happy bi-modal commuter ever since. 

By the fall of 2022, I was getting very jealous of her many bike rides. I grew up on bikes and loved riding. I lived in rural and suburban environments from 4th grade until I graduated high school, and my Sears Best Tourney 10-speed was my main form of exercise, leisure and transportation. When friends wanted to get together, we rode bikes. When I wanted to go to the library, it was on a bike. My bike wasn't the coolest or fastest or lightest, but it was candy apple red and I loved it. 

People write eloquently about the feeling of riding a bike, and how you and the machine sync up and with some practice your frail mortal body suddenly becomes capable of reaching speeds faster than Usain Bolt can run. Riding on a nice day with the wind in your hair gives an intense feeling of freedom, especially for somebody living in the middle of nowhere. 

Once I headed off to college and then the military, I didn't have room for a bike or much of anywhere to ride one. By the time I left the military, I was married with one kid and another on the way, and had very little time for leisure, exercise, or taking the long way to get anywhere. Besides which, I was in a land of cars where cycling wasn't particularly safe. I got pretty sedentary. 

In 2013 I bought a new bike. We had moved into Baltimore, and Shelley, a former collegiate triathlete, wanted to get back into cycling, and I wanted to hang out with her. But... we lived at the North end of Baltimore and there wasn't any cycling infrastructure, and everywhere we could go was downhill. Steeply downhill. The kind of steep that makes it exhausting to get home, especially if you haven't really exercised in 15 years. So after a handful of rides, and an attempt at commuting, the bike went into storage. 

In October of 2022, when I could no longer contain my jealousy of her e-bike and all the fun she was having, I ordered a Swytch kit. Swytch will sell you a battery, a wheel with a built-in motor, and all the cables and zip ties and controls you could need to electrify an existing bike. When it arrived in March of 2024, I assembled it and got to riding. 

Many people have written about how freeing and thrilling e-bikes can be, and they're completely right. All those hills that were killing me, especially after 20+ years of sedentary living, were easy to climb. With the press of a button you feel like Superman has swooped down out of the sky and started pushing you up a hill. Eventually, you feel like you and your bike can conquer anything.

So of course, I overdid it. 

I've talked about this a lot, and written about it a little, but I'm not a person who does things half-way. When I got into cooking, I start making complicated dishes from scratch and buying the best cookware and appliances I can. When I got back into reading comics, I read 30 comics a week and knew all the current and past storylines for every character worth knowing about. So when I got back into cycling... I went pretty hard.

One of the first things I bought was an Apple Watch. Riding your bike is great, but how fast are you going? How hard is your heart beating? How will you track your progress, discover your strengths and weaknesses and improve? It turns out that a fitness watch can do most of that. 

I started commuting to work. I started getting better and better at going up hills, first using the e-bike's pedal assistance, and then without. I started looking for harder rides up steeper hills over longer distances. And pretty soon, I stopped using all the e-bike features of my bike. By mid-June, I had taken the battery, wheel and all the cables and switches off my bike, reasoning that if I wasn't going to use it to pull myself up a hill, it was just extra weight. But I had a new problem.

I still don't know why, but after riding my bike so much, I had started hearing a clicking while I was pedaling. And the harder I pedaled, the louder it got. I started looking into it and noticed that my right (drive-side) crank arm was hitting the chainstay and knocking clear-coat, paint and bits of aluminum off of the frame. This should be impossible. I checked and the forged aluminum crank arms weren't bent. My bottom bracket was securely in place. I took the bike to our local worker-owned bike shop, and they couldn't manage to duplicate the problem no matter how hard they pedaled, but could see the marks on the bike.

The first thing they tried was replacing the bottom bracket with a wider version, but that left me with a bike that made a weird clicking sound when I was pedaling hard that nobody else could duplicate, and it drove me nuts. So I ordered a new bike and gave my old one to our local non-profit bike shop where it quickly found a new home. To this day, the only guess I have is that I was pedaling too hard?

Back to Basics

My new bike was great: a hybrid/city bike with an upright posture and hydraulic disc brakes for safety, slightly wide road tires for comfort, and a lightweight aluminum frame and carbon fiber forks for going fast. It's a real workhorse. I was commuting on it, going on hard rides up big hills, getting strong and losing weight. 

All I wanted to do was ride my bike. I had made so much progress so quickly that hills that had nearly killed me a couple months before were suddenly a breeze. We started going to Bike Party, we talked about bikepacking, we got a trailer so we could do our grocery shopping on bikes, and I dreamed about doing, some day, a century ride.

A century ride is, naturally, a 100-mile ride. It's considered the cycling equivalent of a marathon, and while it's a longer distance (and time), it's much less hard on your body. I was only riding about 10 miles at a time, so it seemed incredibly intimidating. But an organized century ride with rest stations and lots of people on the road made it seem possible. 

Luckily for me, I quit my job at that point (for other reasons). That freed me up to go on long rides. And longer rides. And much longer rides. Shelley and I got a bike rack for my car from Craigslist and started driving our bikes up to the NCR trail. The first time we rode out 13.2 miles, turned around and rode back, completing a little marathon. The next time we made it to Pennsylvania and back – 40 miles! By the middle of November 2023, I rode 62 miles/100km - a metric century - all by myself. 

That got me thinking: if I can pretty easily ride for 62 miles, doing another 38 can't be that hard. In fact, it might be easy! But my stupid all-or-nothing brain immediately asked the question: if it's so easy, you'll get a good time, right? 

I quickly signed up for the first, flattest century ride I could find: the Ocean to Bay Bike Tour in Bethany Beach, DE. One hundred miles with some chilly ocean winds at the end of April when the weather should still be cool and pleasant – a serious challenge, but in probably the best conditions you could ask for. 

Training Days

By December the weather had turned cold and rainy. Good days for long rides got few and far between. We got a bike trainer somebody was giving away on NextDoor and I started training indoors. And then over New Years I got COVID. 

Laying in bed with my lungs going to shit, I was devastated. How was I going to get fit enough to complete a century while I was lying in bed losing cardio vascular fitness. So I turned to YouTube. 

After looking around for training information, I found an interview with John Wakefield, a performance coach who had helped UAE Team Emirates win the Tour de France in 2020 and 2021. In the video, he describes a 4-week training plan for getting into shape for the year, and one of the things I liked was that he was suggesting workouts that relied on heart-rate zones, perceived efforts and time, not power levels or speeds. That meant that you could go as hard as you needed to based on your own capabilities. 

I started researching training techniques and learned about polarized training from an interview with sports scientist Stephen Seiler. Polarized training, which has a lot of evidence behind it, says that you should spend 80% of your tie training in HR zone 2 for endurance, and 20% doing HR zone 5 work in the form of intervals to improve your VO2 max. From there I watched videos by Dylan Johnson about all other aspects of training, and started building a plan.

Once I recovered, I would use Wakefield's plan to see what kinds of training worked for me. When I was through with that, I could take the workouts I liked, keep increasing the intensity and duration, and hopefully be in shape to complete a century at the end of April.

Back on the bike, I quickly discovered that between my experience and some research that I didn't like low-cadence work and that there wasn't much science to support tempo workouts. I spent most of my time doing long HR zone 2 workouts (2-4 hours at a time) interspersed with various kinds of interval training. A week would look like:

* Monday: light interval training
* Tuesday: hard hill climbs
* Wednesday: long slow ride
* Thursday: rest day
* Friday: moderate interval training
* Saturday: longer slow ride
* Sunday: slow recovery ride

My VO2 max started climbing until I was above the 90th percentile for my age. Hill climbs kept getting easier to the point where I made a route through all the biggest, longest hills in Baltimore. In a year I had lost 40lbs and my blood pressure had gone from 130/90 to 90/55. I did two rides over 80 miles to see how I felt with no real problems. Things were pretty on track.

Put Up or Shut Up Time

The two weeks before the century ride were nerve-wracking. Could I even finish 100 miles? What if I had an adrenaline dump and freaked out? What if I got a flat? Did I have the right gear? Was I bringing the right food to snack on? What if I was being overconfident and had no chance to finish? 

I did what I could to mitigate the things I was worried about: I get so sweaty on rides that my Apple Watch can't measure my heart rate, and trying to dry my arm off makes it pause my workout and undercount my miles, so I bought a dedicated heart rate monitor. I took the rack off the back of my bike and bought a little top tube bag for snacks. I packed all my cycling clothes up days in advance.

On April 26th, Shelley and I drove down to Ocean City, spent the night in the smallest hotel room I've ever seen, and got up early the next morning for a long ride. Shelley was planning to do 30 miles, as she was getting over a nagging knee/calf problem, and I was all geared up for a century. And also nervous as hell.

The century ride started at 7, and I was shocked by the conversations I heard at the starting point. People were heading out without having gone over 30 miles since fall of 2023! Several had skipped any training because they were recovering from knee injuries. Had I completely over-prepared or were people just making excuses in advance?

Shortly into the ride, I passed just about everyone. I caught up with some of the leaders and rode with them to and past the first rest area. At the second rest area they stopped, so I had a banana, got impatient waiting for them and headed out. After 45 minutes they caught up with me and we rode together to the third rest area. I got some water and headed back out, and they never caught up with me. After skipping another rest area, I started chatting with a very seasoned rider who thought that if it weren't for the strong ocean winds we'd have finished under 6 hours. We did the last 10 or so miles together, though he didn't even bother going to the finish line. 

I, however, wanted the whole experience, and Shelley was waiting for me at the finish line. She had felt so good that she ended up doing 50 miles instead of 30, and was kind enough to snap a picture of me at the finish (I couldn't return the favor since she started after me and finished before me). 

My total ride was 6:21:01 from start to finish, including rest stops and waiting at traffic lights and stop signs. I'm not sure if you're supposed to deduct that sort of thing from your time, but also I told my Apple Watch not to pause for stops because I was worried that it wouldn't resume. My average speed was 15.6mph, my average heart rate was 139bpm, and I felt great getting off the bike. I think I could have done a little more, especially in the middle third, but I was mostly worried about outright failure, so I played it safe.

But did I get a good time? 

This site is the only thing I can find that seems to have numbers, and according to their data, I got a time between the averages for advanced and elite levels of cycling experience. I'd say that's pretty good for a 50-year-old man who had been back on a bike for a year!

As in all things, when it came to training, I guess I overdid it.

What's Next

So I got in shape, had a great result on a century, and am healthier than I've been in a long time. Where do I go from here?

To start, I'm taking a week off the bike. I tweaked something in my left knee about 65 miles into the ride, and it's a little twingy when I pedal. I was already planning on giving the bike a break while I do a little de-training. Hopefully I will come back stronger when I get back into structured training.

Speaking of training, I'm saving up to buy some power meter pedals. Experts agree that finding out your functional threshold power and building your training around that is the best way to get faster. Right now the pedals I want are back-ordered, so I'm saving up. Anyone want to support an aging cyclist? 

In recent months Shelley and I bought a pair of vintage steel road bikes, and I've been working on restoring and upgrading mine. Mine is a Fuji S12-S 18-speed Mixte in steel blue, and I've been learning how to maintain it and upgrading it along the way with parts that are either original to the bike or more similar than what it came to me with. So far I brought back the original 6-speed freewheel, swapped a double crank for a Sugino triple more like the original, changed out the bottom bracket and changed out the pedals. With some advice from BikeForums, I've been tweaking things and adding a bottle cage as well. I'm still looking for the right saddle bag.

Shelley and I are planning on doing two more century rides this year, both on the eastern shore. (I'm hoping to ride my Fuji in the first to look extra classy while we ride together, depending on the weather.) In October, our plan is to take the train up to Pittsburgh with our bikes and then spend a week riding back to DC along the 333.3 mile Great Allegheny Passage and adjoining C&O Canal Towpath. It'll be like doing a metric century every day for most of a week, but feels doable.

I keep thinking about getting a proper modern drop-bar road bike (used), but we're pretty full up on bike storage. Our tiny rowhouse now has two vintage bikes hanging up in our living room, two aluminum hybrids hanging in the basement with Shelley's e-bike and the trailer sitting nearby. If I could get rid of some comics, I could store a bike in my office, I guess?

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