May 26, 2012

Biking the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail

Last year while looking around for a good biking route for testing out a triathlon at the in-law's cottage on the lake, I stumbled upon the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail. I happened to have the 'bike trails' option still selected on Google Maps when I looked at the roads in mid-Michigan around the cottage. To my surprise there was a big long line through the whole map.

It was a bike trail. And good golly it went all the way to Grand Rapids! I did a little more investigation and found out that it was the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail, an old CSX rail line that was turned into a bike path. That was the good news, but the bad news was that it wasn't all paved. The section near the in-laws cottage was still gravel for several miles. But, I was thrilled to find out it would be paved last fall. Just in time for winter. Great. This weekend was our first time back at the cottage since the winter, so the wife and I brought the bikes and investigated the trail.

The scenery was very nice and the trail was amazingly flat. It was so flat that one could feel like superman on a bike. The hills that did exist were so gradual that you didn't even notice them. The trail cut through woodland, scrubland, marshes, farmland, and a few very small towns.

We went out around 8am and found lots of wildlife.

There's a deer in this picture, I swear.

Is that a turtle?!


Occasionally the trail would intersect with a road. Most of them were dirt roads like this.

Since it rained before we started we got a little dirty along the way.

We only did 30 miles on the trail, so we saw just a small bit of it. But what we did see we liked very much and I know I can't wait to put several more miles on that trail this summer.

May 15, 2012

TOSRV Double Half Century Recap

Over the weekend I participated in TOSRV (Tour Of the Scioto River Valley), pronounced, well, I have no idea how it's pronounced. I heard people say it as toe-serve, tah-serve, and too-serve*. So, it seems no one really knew. The full TOSRV is a two day cycling event covering 210 miles, riding from Columbus, Ohio to Portsmouth, Ohio (at the border with Kentucky), it's a double century. The half TOSRV (what I did), starts half way and ends half way, at Chillicothe (pronounced chill-ih-kaw-thee, this one everyone was certain of). The organizer's math is a bit off though, because the half TOSRV is actually 110 miles, not 105, but hey, those are bonus miles, right? This is one of the first organized cycling tours I had done in several years and I have to say I was impressed with its size and organization.

I packed a lot of stuff. I realized, as I was packing for the trip, that it is far easier to just roll out of bed in the morning, look outside, put on appropriate clothing and then go cycling than it is to plan for a cycling event half a week out. Being springtime I also wanted to be sure to cover all meteorological possibilities. After all, if I were to get to Ohio and then the weather forecast changed (as it can in spring) I'd be out of luck if I hadn't packed what I needed for the unexpected weather. So, instead of thinking hard and planning ahead I just packed a ridiculous amount of stuff:

  • Cycling shoes
  • Cycling socks
  • Multi tool
  • Spare inner tubes
  • CO2 cartridges
  • Tire levers
  • Rag
  • Chain oil
  • Bike lock
  • A pack of gels (Gu's and PowerBar)
  • A pack of mini PowerBars
  • A pack of Stinger Waffles
  • Two containers of Muscle Milk
  • A water bottle
  • Gatorade powder
  • Biking pants
  • Jersey
  • Gloves (both full fingered and fingerless)
  • Skull cap for under the helmet
  • Ear warmers for under the helmet
  • Tri Suit (for some reason I use this instead of bib-shorts, maybe because I'm cheap)
  • Long-sleeve jersey
  • Arm warmers
  • Towel
  • Rain shell jacket
  • Cycling jacket
  • Assorted toiletries
  • Headphones (for after the bike ride)
  • Phone charger (of the solar persuasion)
  • Cycling glasses with multiple lenses
  • Yoga mat (the woefully inadequate padding for under my...)
  • Sleeping bag (55+ degrees rated)
  • Extra sports bag
  • Camel bak backpack
  • Compression socks
  • Kindle (for after the bike ride)
  • Ear plugs (best $0.50 ever spent)
  • Tire pump
  • Oh, yeah, and a bike...
This was, obviously, a ridiculous amount of stuff to pack for just two days of cycling. I have to agree with Fatty. Bike gear is a gas that takes up the space allowed. 

Day 1
A typical view on TOSRV
Amazing weather set the tone for an upbeat and optimistic start in Chillicothe. After riding a few miles I began to realize that I've been riding the same few routes over and over again for the last couple of years. It was very refreshing to get some new scenery. The rolling foothills of the Scioto river valley were a beautiful sight. The terrain reminded me of the Huron River Drive loop that I make regularly. It was just the right mixture of flat lands and rolling hills with a few short but steep hills to keep things interesting.

The path was marked very well with arrows in the road. There were arrows even when you didn't have to turn. Just there to reassure you that you haven't accidentally missed your turn and ridden an extra 10 miles. The markings, however, were almost superfluous. As it turns out 3,000 people make a pretty good crowd and it was nearly impossible to go anywhere without passing or being passed by a fellow rider. In fact, most of the time there was a full peloton within sight.

Every few miles and at most major intersections there were volunteers or local police watching over people and to help if anything should happen. In some of the small towns people would gather outside their houses and ring cowbells or cheer as we went by.

I was so excited to be out in such great weather with such vast and unexplored amount of road in front of me that I had a tough time pacing myself. I kept looking down at my bike computer and realizing that I had been doing nearly double the speed I had targeted. I eventually settled down and just followed a group that was capable of proper pacing. Four hours and 3,921 calories later I arrived in Portsmouth.

I arrived in Portsmouth! (no, I didn't crash, I'm just stretching)

After arriving in Portsmouth I set up camp in the local high school's gym. 

My patch of floor at the Portsmouth High School gymnasium

Panorama view of the "TOSRV Hotel" at the Portsmouth High School gymnasium

Day 2
I woke up at 5am to the sound of rain on the roof of the gym. It wasn't supposed to rain. I looked at the weather on my phone. "Maybe it'll pass", I thought. Nope. It was sprinkling now, but expected to be showers and heavy rain as the day progressed. Rain all day. Good thing I had packed my rain gear even though the forecast didn't call for rain. See, packing ludicrously can pay off.

Sprinkles turned into light rain.

Since I was already up and the weather was only going to get worse over time I packed up and hit the road. Maybe it was because it was 5:30am, or because it was so soon after having ridden for so long, or the excitement from the novelty of the ride had washed away, but my body just went into muscle memory mode and this day pacing was not a problem at all.

Light rain turned to showers.

Before I knew it I was already at the 25 mile food stop. I stepped into one of the porta-potties and attempted to text my wife, who was to pick me up in Chillicothe. I was, after all, a few hours ahead of schedule. Usually when I'm biking in the rain it's while commuting to work. Usually while commuting to work I use my amazingly water resistant Ortlieb panniers to carry my stuff. This was not a usual commute to work. This is when I realized that I had overlooked the fact that my camel bak backpack is not water proof. Everything I had, everything around me, was wet. The text I was composing had many spelling errors because the screen kept thinking I was typing a few characters over from where I was pressing because there were several drops of water on it. My attempts to wipe the screen off only made things worse. I could not dry the phone off because I had nothing dry with which to dry it. The wetness of the situation was total and all encompassing. I repacked the phone in the center of my backpack hoping that would at least slow the water down and keep it from sitting in pools at the bottom of the bag.

Showers turned into heavy rain.

Seeing people at the side of the road fixing flats was not an uncommon sight. You have to assume that with 6,000 tires a few are statistically destined to give out over two days of riding. About five miles from the end I spotted a frustrated looking fellow at the side of the road trying to fix his flat. This time, however, when I asked the customary "all good?" question instead of responding with some variation on "yup", he replied with, "No. Do you happen to have air"? I was nearly done. If I stopped I didn't know if I would be able to get my body to start moving again. If I were the one on the side of the road with a broken CO2 inflater, I'd hope someone else would have the decency to assist me. Damned morals. I stopped. For the next five minutes I talked the guy through changing an inner tube and let him use one of my CO2 cartridges. He was polite and grateful for the help and I left feeling good about a deed well done. I even managed to get back in the saddle and pedal the last five miles.

The goodies from TOSRV

Lessons Learned
I considered this to be something of a dry run for PALM (Pedal Across Lower Michigan) tour, which is coming up in the end of June, so I was keen on noting any lessons learned during this much shorter multi-day tour. Here are some:
  • Earplugs are a wonderful thing for falling asleep when there are hundreds of people around you.
  • One can run over an unnerving number of worms during the course of riding 55 miles in the rain along side a lot of farm land. 
  • A yoga mat and thin sleeping bag is not a substitution for proper bedding.
  • The battery pack from my solar panel worked great for charging an iPhone overnight.
  • Plastic bags should be added to the ridiculously extra-long list to keep things that are packed in the camel bak dry when it rains. 
  • The iPhone is amazingly water resistant (see lesson learned above).
  • Even when it's the only thing around for 20 miles, McDonalds is not a good breakfast substitute.
  • If it is going to rain all day, full fingered gloves would probably protect ultra-pruned and raw fingers better than fingerless gloves. 

*Note from Joe: I just heard from the TOSRV officials that the official pronunciation is "Tah-Serve". Mystery solved!

May 3, 2012

The Joys of Spring Cycling

Note from Joe: This week starts the Ann Arbor Commuter Challenge. Go sign up if you haven't already!

     Michigan is a wonderful place to live. We get to experience a full and dynamic range of seasons. Recently we went from having it snow (just flurries) to nearly 90 degree weather in less than a week. This sort of thermogyration (hey look, I invented a word!) makes planning for a bike ride in the spring challenging. In the spring the mornings can be bitter cold, but then the afternoons can be hot. This can result in some interesting fashion.
     On a recent long ride I started out early in the morning in mid-30's weather with little wind. I had on three layers- a base layer, jersey, and a cycling jacket. On my head I had a balaclava and my helmet. This was rather sane and sensible attire for the current weather. However, as time passed the sun brought the thermometer up to nearly 70 degrees. One can't be dressed like they are ready for winter riding in such heat. So, over time I was stopping to swap out clothes or to pack a layer in my camelbak. I was focused on riding well, so the few thought cycles I put towards clothing were more about what areas of my body were overheating and fixing the issue. The sun created a lot of radiant heat, but the wind (which was picking up by then) was quite bitter. As I rolled into our driveway at the end of my ride I realized how completely ridiculous I must have looked. A quick glance at my reflection in the window confirmed it. I was down to wearing a short-sleeve jersey, full fingered gloves, and my balaclava. But, I was comfortable.
     For the commuters out there, there's a moral somewhere in that story. Basically, plan ahead and dress flexibly. I always check the hourly weather chart the night before as I'm packing my gear. In spring it's not uncommon to ride to work like it's winter and to ride home like it's summer. Customizing your kit so you can swap out bits to cool off or put things on for more heat is good. I like flexible pieces of clothing like my cycling pants that can easily convert into shorts. Or my cycling jacket that has sleeves that can pop off. I have four head gear configurations: helmet only, helmet with thin headband (mostly to cover my ears), helmet with skull cap, and helmet with balaclava. And yes, there have been rides when I've cycled through all four configurations.