It’s OK to Say Hi

The mercury hit 70 degrees in Omaha yesterday. By any stretch of the imagination, that’s pretty ridiculous for January. Last year at this time, we were girding for another winter storm to hit.

And it did:

As it turned out, that was the last gasp of winter. We were outside with regularity within a week. This year, it’s been so dry I can count the number of days I’ve been forced inside because of bad weather: one. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been cold; that it hasn’t been windy. But you can dress for those conditions. Add more layers and get to it.

Really, the biggest challenge has been riding to work with more regularity. It’s early and chilly, generally, and somehow there always seems to be a headwind on the way home. But I’ve been doing it. There have been some cold, cold mornings. And, actually, there have been some cold, cold evenings, too.

But despite that, I’ve fallen into a nice routine. And there are others along my route in a similar routine. Half of my ride in is on one of Omaha’s paved recreation trails. It follows a creek that runs through the city north to south. There’s no traffic to speak of and it’s fairly flat, making it a good place to walk, run, ride or be totally oblivious to your surroundings thanks to your iPod headphones.

Each morning, I say hello to the same people — at approximately the same time and place — on the trail. They’re into their routine, too. It’s a friendly greeting — a salutation to a fellow traveler — and it takes one second. I typically arrive at the office happy, relaxed and ready to tackle the day. (Or, depending on the strength of the coffee, ready to tackle my coworkers.)

With the recent heatwave, the trail system — in the afternoon, at least — has been a lot busier. More walkers, riders, runners, kids, dogs (and a cat, for some reason) and people totally oblivious to their surroundings thanks to their iPod headphones. On the way home last night, I saw a few dozen riders in total. I nodded and waved, much like I do in the morning.

And I was almost completely shut out. Not a not or a wave or a grunt or any form of acknowledgment from any of them. Nothing until I came upon a fellow racer, who said “hey!” before I could even get my hand off the bar to wave. The rest of them? Not even a twitch.

Even the people who were totally oblivious to their surroundings thanks to their iPod headphones were more responsive than that.

Cycling is at its best when it’s a communal undertaking. That’s why my morning greetings make me happy — especially on the coldest of days. That’s why most of my weekend riding has been with a group. It’s way more fun that way.

Keep that in mind next time you’re out there hammering away. It’s only bike riding. There’s no need to be so wrapped up in your own world that you can’t offer a wave or a nod. I’d take a grunt even. It’s supposed to be fun. And it’s OK to say hi.

Random link time:

  • Had Alberto Contador been sanctioned immediately, as he should have been, his suspension would be three-quarters over by now. But no — it’s still dragging on. And at this point, I really don’t care anymore.
  • The Capo Padrone thermal jacket got some love from Bike Radar recently. You can buy it here — and it’s on sale.
  • The men’s world cyclocross championships was, in essence, a replay of the Belgian national championships. More impressive to me, however, was Marianne Vos’ ride in the women’s race. He’s easily the most dominant cyclist in the world right now. She can win anything, and watching her dismantle not only the course but her opponents, too, is a treat.

Crazy Talk

If you spend even a moderate amount of time on a bike, you have at some point — or maybe at regular points — heard this: You’re crazy.

I’ve heard it upon arriving at work and upon leaving work. I’ve heard it at hardware stores, grocery stores and — inexplicably — a bike store. I’ve heard it in hot weather, cold weather, rainy weather and windy weather.

I’m not alone — you’ve heard it too, right? And I’m not crazy, either. I’m motivated or dedicated or maybe, juuuust maybe, kinda tough. But crazy? No, I’m not crazy. I just like to ride my bike.

The latest bit of crazy talk came on Saturday morning. Chill north winds ripped through the day before, turning my “I’m leaving the office early for a few extra miles” ride into an “I wish I’d driven to work today” ride. The wind chill upon my arrival: 8. As in 8 degrees Fahrenheit.

Things weren’t much better the next morning, and after my wife walked the dogs around midday, she declared to me (and to our kids), that if my friends and I still planned on riding, we were all completely nuts. Insane. Crazy.

Because I’m not decidedly crazy, and because I now took that as a challenge, I kitted up and rolled down the driveway. The conditions upon departure: 14 degrees, but with a wind-chill factor of 5. Why? I don’t know — why not?

Both my buddy and I had all morning to think about it, so we’d each dressed in our absolute warmest gear. It goes like this: Grab all of the very warm things from your closet and wear them all at once. Put charcoal warmers in your gloves and shoes and heavy lotion on the exposed skin on your face. And then you’re ready to go.

We aimed for the nearest gravel roads on our ‘cross bikes,  hoping to stay hidden from the still-fierce winds among the hills and small groves of trees. And with the exception of two or three miles, it really wasn’t bad.

That doesn’t mean we were warm, though. It just means we weren’t frozen. My fingertips and toes got pretty cold in the last 30 minutes, despite my preparations. I suppose that’s to be expected, isn’t it?

We finished with about an hour and 45 minutes on the clock. And on the way back to my house we took a quick turn though some of the neighborhood singletrack — yes, my neighborhood has singletrack — for kicks. Why? Why not?

One cup of coffee later, we were planning the next day’s adventure. Crazy? Nah. In love with the bike?

Definitely.

Different Priorities

We are in the midst of a fairly unbelievable run of weather in Nebraska — we haven’t seen snow since I went all-in and bought winter boots and snow tires and fenders. The tires are hanging on a hook, yet to be mounted. The boots have been unnecessary because it’s been so warm.

Last week, we rode in summer kit and earned honest-to-goodness tan lines in the first week of January … in Nebraska. It’s been so nice, we feel obligated to get outside because we know how bad it could be. Thankfully, my wife understands this and has put up with me taking the long way home a few times over the last couple of weeks.

This understanding has not reached our son, who, since dumping his training wheels at the end of summer, has gone on to master a few of the neighborhood hills, a portion of the mountain bike loop near our house and has talked about building a ramp. On a nearly 60-degree January day, I finished a road ride and was getting ready to change shoes to ride with him over on the dirt. But he said no.

He said he didn’t want to go ride his bike. He wanted to play with his Legos.

“It’ll be warm again in the spring,” he said.

What? It’s 60 degrees! You wouldn’t have to wear a coat or hat! It’s January!

“Nah. I’ll wait until next weekend.”

From the adult point of view, crazy January weather is something to grab onto before it’s too late. We all know what’s coming — it will snow — so you’d better not waste this unlikely reprieve.

From the 4-year-old point of view … well, there’s a Lego situation going on right now. And these little blocks aren’t going to put themselves back together. As for the weather, he’s right — it will be warm again when spring comes. He has a lifetime of riding days ahead of him. One random day in January isn’t going to get him excited.

I ended up showering and pouring a cup of coffee, and then sat watching him disassemble and reassemble his various creations over and over. It wasn’t as good as a bike ride, but it was still pretty fun.

Random link time

  • OK, this is a non-random link from our partner site: The Bontrager Oracle, which was worn by the Schleck brothers and Leopard Trek last year, is finally in stock. (Team RadioShack-Nissan-Trek will be wearing it this year.) It’s another step up the ladder for Bontrager — Trek’s in-house parts-and-accessories brand — and worth checking out if you’re looking for a new lid this year.
  • I’ve been taken recently with the idea of a Moots road bike. I have no good reason for this, considering my current road bike is more than good enough. Still, though … this is nice.
  • The VeloNews website has always been a bit of a mess. The recent redesign is baffling.

Miles and Miles

As a cycling town, Omaha is surprisingly hilly. The landscape most commonly associated with Nebraska — endless, unyielding flatness — isn’t found until you’re past Lincoln on Interstate 80.

Out there, you’ll have to stretch your imagination Iowawhen you see a rise in the road and decide to call it a hill. But in Omaha, finding a non-hilly place to ride requires similar concentration.

During our Christmas-break travels, I brought a bike along in hopes of pedaling off the excess (insert every food in the house here). The landscape around my hometown (and that of my wife) is why the Midwest gets a bad name: pan flat for miles and miles and miles.

How flat is it? The destination on one of my rides this week was 17 miles away … and I could see it when I got out of the start town. If you want to feel like time is moving in slow motion, a ride in the flatlands will do it.

The distant grain elevator seems a lot closer than 17 miles, but as the gravel ticks away under your bike and you find yourself standing up and stretching again, you realize it’s going to be a long day.

And is that crosswind turning into a cross-tailwind? Yes, it is. Great.

In hilly areas, you can always count on a valley or a downhill to ease up on the pedals and turn some light circles. On the flat, a four-hour ride is four hours of pushing pedals.

The upside to all of this, of course, is when you stop at a convenience store to fill bottles. “You rode from where? How far is that? You’re riding back?”

Yes I am. Seeing a guy on a bike in a small Iowa town that isn’t piloted by the local eccentric or a pack of kids is an interesting happening.

But once you’re out on the road again, it’s all the same. It’s always great to be on a bike, no matter where you are.

So while it’s flat and wind-blown and sometimes desolate, it is, however, a pretty nice bonus to roll up to the front door to the typical holiday spread. At least I didn’t have to worry too much about finding a way to replace all of those calories.

Getting Greedy

Winter arrived (officially, at least) in Omaha on Thursday. Even though just last weekend it hit 54 degrees on Sunday. Next week’s highs could potentially be 45 or warmer each day.

With the exception of a weeklong stretch earlier this month, we’ve been fairly free of winter weather so far at Velogear headquarters. And even during that stretch, it was nice enough outside that a cyclocross bike with good, knobby tires and a set of fenders could pretty easily handle the snowy terrain.

But that snow was gone after a day or two of rain, leaving the landscape brown and ugly. The roads, however, are now a thing of beauty — they’re dry. Not clean — the aggressive salting and sanding of local street crews will assure a dusty film on everything through March — but dry. (How salty is it? On certain roads, when a car passes you can taste the salty cloud on your lips for a few seconds.)

After resigning myself to riding the ‘cross bike for the next two months to better handle road gunk and snowy terrain, I found myself elated to be rolling down the driveway on skinny tires. And after that one ride on the road bike last week, I’ve been jumping at any opportunity to get out for just a few more miles — as if road-bike miles are a precious commodity and I must get as many as I can before it’s too late.

I think that feeling comes after the mental (and physical) preparation for plodding through winter on a ‘cross bike on gravel roads. To suddenly be able to get out on a road bike without fenders feels like a stay of execution. It’s something we take for granted all summer, but the weak December sun shining down on a clear, dry road is a reason to try to duck out of work early to take advantage of something that surely will not last.

That same frame of mind caught my son last weekend, too. Though he was initially bummed out about his snowman melting, he quickly ran down the sidewalk, looking down at his feet the whole time. “There’s no ice or snow!” he said. “I can ride my bike again!”

And so he did. And so he has, almost every day since — if only for a few minutes. I think he realizes how rare it is to be able to ride deep into December. He asked the other day if he could ride on Christmas, too. I chuckled a little bit, and told him he was lucky to be out in December, period.

But as I take another look at the forecast for Sunday, a ride may well be on the agenda. Though getting gifts is fun — especially for bike guys — a better present is spending time on two wheels with your favorite people.

Happy holidays from our families to yours. Have a great weekend.

Inside, Outside or In Between?

Winter has descended upon the Midwest. We had an amazing fall; a nice, slow slide into December.

With only a couple of exceptions — including one day where it rained, snowed and rained again … and then we had a ‘cross race — every day was a good day to ride. But with winter here, it’s time for many cyclists (especially racing cyclists) to make a choice: stay outside or retreat to the trainer in the basement?

The debate fires up every year around this time, with those who ride outside year-round claiming their toughness with a bit of chest-thumping bravado. Meanwhile, one of the area’s fastest riders over the last 10 years rides outside when it’s feasible (ie, dry roads) and puts in his time on the trainer. He comes out in the spring and beats the crap out of us.

Clearly, there are two ways of doing business.

But riding outside all winter — at least around here – isn’t as easy as declaring you’re going to do it. It gets really cold here. Two winters ago we had 87 straight days with snow on the ground. You can dress for 40 degrees with extra stuff you have laying around. Heck, I usually just wear knee warmers, arm warmers some embrocation and a vest.

Dressing for 20 degrees is something else entirely. You need actual cold-weather gear, and a bike that can handle hard-packed snow and ice, along with some gravel. It’s the ramping up, and the associated costs, that makes winter riding more difficult for a lot of people — not the “toughness” factor.

Traditionally, I’ve survived the winter much like our very fast friend. I’ll get outside when I can, but if I have to ride the trainer, so be it. I’ve always held the philosophy that the workout itself is more important than the location of the workout. If you can get things done inside, go for it. If the trainer fills you with dread, you’d better find another way to stay fit.

With the addition of a ‘cross bike to the Velo Jones family garage (I’d have more room for bikes if not for the cars. Hmmm … .), I now have a machine capable of tackling the gravel roads that are the foundation of winter group rides around here. And I ordered a pair of Shimano’s winter cycling boots, too.

I even have a pair of studded tires on the way, to better handle the commute by bike. It generally takes about two weeks for the streets to get better after snowfall, and until that time it’s an absolute sketch-fest. Riding home in the dark on icy streets makes studs pretty much a necessity.

So it seems I’ve taken the plunge into riding outside more often. I’m aiming for a 50/50 split, really. The boots should help make those 15-degree rides a bit more palatable, though that will probably be my temperature limit. I have no need to collect tough-guy points for a three-hour ride with single-digit temperatures.

Besides, I was faster than most of the tough guys this year, anyway. And, ultimately, as long as you get your work in, it doesn’t matter where you ride.

Giving Thanks

It’s been a pretty solid year here at Velogear. Progress was made, things were improved, we rode lots of bikes, etc. Thanks for being a part of all of that — it’s much appreciated.

Things were pretty solid at VeloJones World Headquarters (aka my house), too. We welcomed another little one a few weeks ago, and she’ll probably go on her first solo training ride any day now. Gotta start ‘em young. The downside is that our 4-year-old is constantly challenging me and anybody else he sees on a bike to races.

Despite that, which is both awesome and scary all at once, there’s much to be thankful for this time of year. Here’s a brief summary:

  • I’m thankful for keeping things upright on the bike. No major injuries to report, no road rash. I slid out a couple of times at cyclocross practice or races, but pretty much everybody does that, so I’m not going to count it. I’m also thankful that, while on a group ride in Kansas City, that our friend, Scott, didn’t stack up the whole group when he got his rear wheel stuck in a pavement crack at 25mph. That was terrifying.
  • I’m thankful for Mad Alchemy. The chamois cream is awesome, the embrocation is awesome, the pre-ride oils are … yes, awesome. Not only do Mad Alchemy products work well and smell great, they help in the creation of funny stories. On a dark, cold, wet night at the weekly twilight cyclocross series, Kent (one of our owners) kitted up, embrocated and headed out to warm up on the course. Before he left, his son and his son’s friend asked him what he was putting on his legs. “It’s a warming paste,” Kent replied. And then he headed off to race. Well, the kids were cold, too. So they embrocated, as well. (Kids are awesome.) Later, when showering after the race, Kent’s son said it felt like his legs were on fire. Yeah, that’s about right.
  • I’m thankful for Capo socks. I have pretty much everything on this page, and after thousands of miles and racing and roadtrips, they’re all still in near-perfect shape. No other socks I’ve worn in the last two years have held up as well.
  • I’m thankful for my wife, who lets me ramble about new bike things for 10 minutes and then says, “Just go get it.” I got a new super-bright headlight the other day, because it’s really, really dark when I come home these days. All in the name of safety, dear.
  • I’m thankful for shiny shoes like these, which can be had at our sister site. They’re light, they’re comfy, and you can shine them with Armor All when they get dirty. Seriously.
  • I’m thankful to have kicked my Honey Stinger Waffle addiction. Spending less time in the shop has a way of doing that. I’ve replaced that addiction, however, with more coffee. While I’m slightly twitchier, which is all relative, anyway, it’s still cheaper.
  • Finally, I’m thankful I didn’t have to wear kit like this (Gilbert). Or this (Cavendish). Or, god forbid, this (Sanchez).

In a little bit, I’m going to be thankful for an afternoon of very little activity, outside of the scheduled (and daily) race with the boy. I think I can take him this time.

Conversation starters

Cyclists are a passionate bunch. You kind of have to be, don’t you? Riding for hours and hours and climbing silly grades and ripping back down the other side isn’t exactly normal. (How awesome would the world be if it was, though?)

That devotion tends to breed similarly passionate discussion when you put a bunch of cyclists in close proximity. Like many other groups, I’m sure, my riding buddies have engaged in all manner of semi-ridiculous debate while on and off the bike.

If your friends are a little more low-key than mine, here’s a helpful guide for inciting a near-riot at cycling function:

  • Take a very firm stance in a component debate, but don’t praise the group you prefer — rip apart the one you dislike. For example: “SRAM shifters are junk. I heard they fall apart all the time.” The best way to get this one started is to not use any first-person details. Say, “I read it on the forums.” It’s guaranteed to get loud.
  • Greet a riding partner by looking them up and down and saying, “Wearing that, huh? OK … .” And then say NO MORE. The awkward silence will speak volumes.
  • Disc brakes for cyclocross has been a huge talking point around here. You can tell who does what for the rest of the year. The mountain bikers love their disc brakes and want them on their ‘cross bikes. The roadies are perfectly happy with cantilever brakes. Whatever side you’re on, tell the other side their preferences are stupid and unpractical.
  • If you have older riders in your group, let them know that steel is real … heavy. Carbon everything from now on!
  • Talk about local team kit. Which is best, which is worst? And know which riders sincerely believe their super-ugly kit looks awesome.
  • Fire up the mountain bike wheel-size debate. The 26-inch versus 29-inch saga will never, ever end. And those who have one or the other have been forced to defend their choice for a few years now. It’s almost a part of their personal identity at this point. Wind them up and watch them spin.

There are more ways to get things rolling, I’m sure. These are the go-to selections from our neck of the woods. Feel free to add your tried-and-true bear-poking techniques in the comments.

The more we’re able to mess with our friends, the better the cycling world is.

Wardrobe amnesia

My favorite times of year are when the seasons change. Having lived in the Midwest my entire life, I’ve witnessed plenty of these transformations — it never gets old.

(Additionally, I never really mind that crazy day or two each summer where the high is somehow 60 and it’s dark and cloudy the entire time. Change is nice, really.)

One would think, though, that armed with this seasons-changing knowledge I’d have an uncanny knack for remembering what that seasonal shift actually feels like. Unfortunately, I do not. I spent the first hour of last Saturday’s ride with frozen fingers and chattering teeth.

Those gloves that I thought were fine for 50 degrees? Well, yes, they are. But the problem was that it was actually only 44. And in that case, those gloves were not enough. And I can’t even begin to fathom how awful it would have been had I gone sans baselayer, as I was originally thinking.

All of this comes after being in the same position a year ago (and the year before that, etc.). Basically, I forgot what 44 degrees feels like. (It’s cold, if you’re wondering.) That teeth-chattering ride jogged my memory, though. And pretty soon, though, I’ll settle into the routine. If you’re interested, here’s my breakdown on what goes on, and when:

Above 60 degrees
- Summer kit. Period.

Between 50 and 60
- Arm warmers
- Cap under the helmet
- Knee warmers or embrocation
- Full-finger gloves (summer weight)
- Baselayer if it’s closer to 50

Between 40 and 50
- Arm warmers
- Cap under the helmet (maybe a full skull cap closer to 40)
- Knee warmers or embrocation
- Full-finger gloves (windshell gloves)
- Baselayer or light vest
- Toe covers in the mid-40s, shoe covers in the low-40s

Between 30 and 40
- Arm warmers or long-sleeve thermal jersey
- Skull cap under the helmet
- Knee warmers (sometimes with embrocation)
- Wool socks
- Thermal gloves
- Shoe covers
- Baselayer or vest

Below 30
- Thermal jersey or winter jacket
- Skull cap under the helmet
- Thermal bib shorts (with leg warmers) or thermal bib tights
- Heavier wool socks
- Shoe covers
- Base layer
- Heavy gloves

Below 20
- Just ride the trainer

Obviously, those are ranges and clothing choices that work well for me. I tend to dress a bit lighter than my regular riding partners. Their rule is typically, “add one layer to whatever he’s wearing.” For me, the goal is to be comfortable at the pace of the ride, not standing around in the parking lot. Because if I’m toasty warm while we’re hanging out waiting to leave, I’ll probably be too hot on the bike.

And if it’s under 20? That’s choose-your-own-adventure territory there. I’ve ridden plenty with temps in the teens, and I have to say I haven’t really enjoyed any of those rides. I spent way too much time trying to stay warm instead of enjoying the ride. And if you do go out? Wear lots of layers, and don’t skimp on the hands and feet.

From the Bottom Up

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the state of cycling as a sport.

HTC-Highroad — the most successful team of the last three years — folded after failing to round up a title sponsor. Leopard Trek, which was hailed as a superteam less than a year ago, was wrapped into Team Radio Shack. Debate rages on about which team saved which.

And on Thursday, TMC-Geox, which was home to three Grand Tour winners (Juan Jose Cobo, Carlos Sastre and Dennis Menchov) bit the dust, too.

If teams like HTC-Highroad, which didn’t win a Grant Tour but won about everything else, can’t find sponsorship dollars, things are not looking so great for the sport in general.

That said, a vast majority of cyclists in the U.S. really don’t care about pro cycling. Sure, they like the bikes and gear and technology and all, but in terms of the endless procession of Classics and semi-classics and week-long stage races, most of them could take it or leave it. It really just doesn’t matter to them.

Look at the world of running. Can you name any professional runners? And I don’t mean sprinters — they’re too easy. I mean milers, 5K specialists and marathoners. And running is doing just fine where it matters most — on the local, grassroots level.

As long as there are organized century rides and charity events and tours, cycling will be fine. As long as there are events like RAGBRAI, cycling will be fine.

And as long as there are riders out there turning the cranks for the fun of it — because riding a bike is pure, simple joy — cycling has nothing to worry about.

The pros will find jobs. If they’re fast enough, they’ll find a ride for next season.

As for the rest of us, it’s nice to just think about going out for a nice, long ride, isn’t it?