Saturday, October 25, 2014

Tour Divide 2015: Cracking the Nut

Now that I'm in this thing, how am I gonna get it done?  The more I ponder the possibilities - and assuming I actually can get it done - the more the following three things come to the surface.

Go alone.  Learn.  Keep moving.

Go alone.

First, I'm going alone.  Technically, anyone who challenges the Tour Divide does so as an ITT - Individual Time Trial.  Man against the clock.  The rules say that "Divide racing may be challenged at any time."  They then go on to say "TD emphasis is on a second Friday in June (southbound) 'grand départ.'"  That's when most southbound Tour Divide challengers congregate in Banff (or, if nobo, in Antelope Wells) for the grand départ.

I will not be among them.  I'm not anti-social or anything, but I'm waiting until late July to fly to Banff and point my bike south.

There are a couple of reasons for this.  First is weather, which, on the Tour Divide is like a box of chocolates.  But after watching the GD racers get pounded by the elements for a week straight this year, I'm hedging my bets, and hoping things have dried out by the time I start my run.  Not sure what this will mean when I hit New Mexico during monsoon season, but unless I start in September, monsoon season is going to be hard to avoid anyway.

The second reason is my own weakness when it comes to riding with others.  By going solo, I can circumvent my own propensity to try to keep up with stronger racers.  Maybe you can ride with others and not fall into this trap, but for me, it seems like no matter how I try, if there's a carrot out there in front of me, I'm a-gonna go for it.  Long ride, short ride, doesn't matter.  I can't help myself.  I know it's a trap, and I fall into it every time.

"Dave, see that trap?"


"You sure?  That trap right in front of you?"

I see it.

"Really?  'Cause it looks like you're about to step into it."

I'm good, I got this.

"Okay, go!"

Smack!  I fall into the trap.  I've pushed too hard and blown myself up, and within a hour, all I want to do is lie down in the ditch and take a nap.  

Pacing.  Sticks and carrots.  Impulse control.  Guarding my reserves.

Still working on those.


In The Cordillera V5, one of the things that really stayed with me was Erick Armentrout's observation that "The first time you race the Divide you're not racing, you're learning.  When you come back you're racing."  Actually, this advice came from someone Erick met at the mercantile in Hartsel, Colorado.  In any case, it had the sound of wisdom, so this is the approach I'm taking on this, my rookie attempt.  Whether or not I ever return to "race" the Divide, well, we'll just have to wait and see about that.

When I talked about this approach with a friend, he coined the term "fast recon".  It's still racing, but I'm not out there to smash records or even approach the podium.  Frankly, I'd be thrilled with a qualified finish.  25 days is pretty much the outside limit of what is considered a competitive run for men, so that's my baseline.  There are so many variables out there, so many unknowns.  If I can shave a day or two off, great!  But this is my rookie run.  If I can make it to Antelope Wells in one piece, I'll take it.

Keep moving.

In the trailer for Ride The Divide, Matthew Lee gives away his secret to a successful run.  "Always need to keep moving, keep moving, keep moving.  Always."  I think that's the name of the game.  I don't necessarily need to move fast - unless there's a tailwind, or a descent, or both (score!) - but I do need to keep moving.  I think I remember one top-ten finisher saying "I don't ride faster than anyone else; I just sleep less."  Be smart about the time I take off the bike.  I mean, I'll take time to take pictures, smell the flowers and chat with the locals when opportunity presents itself.  But no lazing about in town when there's trail to be taken.

That's the strategy.  Preserve my capacities.  Learn all I can.  Always keep moving.  Finish.

And maybe someday I'll get to come back and really race this thing.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Tour Divide 2015 - Contact Part 3: Feet

If you've been following this journey to the Tour Divide, my writing style may suggest that I know exactly what I am doing.  While I'm not a total doof, I am making a lot of this up as I go, gleaning information from what I hope are reliable sources and building on my own experience.  In some cases, I'm pretty confident in my decision making.  In others, I'm, uh, less confident.

Which brings us to the feet.

Feet are probably the most important contact points, simply because it's through the feet that power is transferred from body to bicycle.  As such, the feet are subject to stresses that hands and butt just don't experience.  Of course, I've never had a saddle sore on a hand or a foot, so I guess each contact point has its own set of challenges.  

At any rate, foot & ankle injuries are among the most common on the Tour Divide, for any number of reasons: repetitive stress, lack of support, poorly fitting shoes, poorly designed shoes, internal physiologic/anatomical issues, bad posture, cheap laces, crashing, rocks...  The list goes on. 

My feet are different.  Literally.  My left foot tends to pronate more than the right one.  In other words, it's flatter.  Also, after 15 or 20 miles on the bike, a wave of pain swells between the third and fourth toes of the left foot.  It hurts enough to adversely affect my pedaling.  If I pedal long enough, it'll start in the right foot as well, but not as much.  I'm not sure if we're talking neuroma or metatarsalgia, but it feels like someone has cut off my toes and drilled into the nerves - kinda like this:

Ouch.  Image courtesy of Cyclologic's facebook page.
So I start looking into custom footbeds.  This is my first experience with orthotics, and so far, it's a work in progress.  I go to the place, put my foot on the thing, they take digital impressions, and a week later I have custom footbeds for my MTB cycling shoes.  They look cool.  I go for a ride.  Right foot feels fine; the left foot waits 30 miles before it lets loose the familiar wave of pain.  Poop.

Back to the ortho guy.  He sands down the underside of the footbed to further refine the shape, and gives me a foam pad with an adhesive back to apply to the footbed, in order to better support the metatarsal heads and open up the space between the third and forth toes.  We're hoping this provides relief by easing pressure on that red nerve in the picture above.  Then I go for a long ride up in the mountains.  I do not find the relief I seek.

If anything could take me out if the race, this is it.  I'm working with Cyclologic and an orthotics specialist at Endurance Rehab to get this worked out.  If orthotics don't take care of the problem, they're talking injections or surgery.  Not being a fan of surgical intervention if it can be avoided, I'm looking into everything with regard to this issue, including natural medicine and other means of support.  Right now the custom footbeds are sitting on a shelf, and I'm experimenting with Correct Toes and Pedag metatarsal pads on a factory footbed, but I can't tell you how this arrangement works yet because I have yet to do any honest-to-goodness long rides on them.  

Oh, and did I mention I'm using hiking shoes now?  "Whoa, hiking shoes?  What happened to the MTB cycling shoes?"  Remember when I said I'm making this up as I go?  

Okay, shoes & pedals.  Initially, I had decided to use SPD pedals and a cycling shoe with all-Velcro enclosure, as this kind of shoe fits in with my "fewest moving parts" philosophy.  I don't want to be in the middle of nowhere and have a some exotic binding system crap out on me.  Simpler is better IMHO.  I tried the Mavic Pulse shoe, but as soon as I slipped it on, I could tell the bridges of my feet weren't happy.  Back they went.  Next I ordered up a pair of Shimano XC30's, a decent and inexpensive all-Velcro-closure cross country shoe.  They're comfortable and, aforementioned orthotic issues notwithstanding, they do what they're supposed to.

But I've discovered some tradeoffs that I'm not sure I can live with if I keep these shoes for the Tour Divide.  First is mud.  Nothing new here - riders have had to deal with mud in pedals and cleats for as long as there have been pedal cleats.  But it is pretty inconvenient, and all but negates the pedal/cleat interface until the mud can be cleared.  The second issue, however, is the big one, and it has to do with heel & ankle support.

Shoes: biking vs. hiking.
So check it out: the shoe on the left is the Shimano cycling shoe; the shoe on the right is my Adidas hiking shoe.  Which one is going to do a better job supporting my heel & ankle during a hike-a-bike?  The one with the wider foundation.  The effect is so pronounced that whenever I wear the cycling shoe I have to pay special attention whenever I dismount on uneven terrain - and by uneven, I mean loose gravel on the sidewalk - lest I roll my ankle.  It's like walking on high heels (so I'm told).  I can't imagine having to rely on these things to support me across miles of HAB (hike-a-bike) over rocky terrain, downed trees, avalanche debris, and water crossings.  I've thought about wearing some kind of brace to add support to the ankle, but that doesn't address the narrower heel platform.  Essentially just a band-aid fix to a much bigger problem.  Now, other shoe manufacturers have other shoes that have wider heel platforms.  Even Shimano is coming out with new "trail" shoes for 2015 that look promising.  But then you're still dealing with cleats and mud.  What to do?

Some folks swear by clipless pedals, no matter what.  Some swear by flats.  Which basically means it's a matter of personal preference.  Although I'm pretty solid on my understanding of the virtues of clip-in pedals, I am now experimenting with flats. Kent Petersen, who was the first person to complete the Great Divide Race on a single speed back in 2005, did it on flat pedals.  Check out his entry for June 21 for his perspective on clipless vs. flats.  Read the rest of the story too - it's a fascinating account of an incredible journey.  Then, the folks at Rivendale Bikes have a thing or two to say in favor of flat pedals.  There's even a Flat Pedal Manifesto.  Apparently I'm not alone in my search for a suitable foot/pedal interface. 

So at the moment, it's off-the-shelf orthotic products in hiking shoes with the factory footbeds.  But again - still learning, still making stuff up as I go.  Gotta put some serious miles behind me with this configuration before I can determine whether or not it's going to work.  I have some long rides booked in the next couple weeks, so I'll post an update when I know more.  Until then...


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Tour Divide 2015 - Contact Part 2: Butt

There is nothing quite like the exquisite misery that is delivered by a saddle sore.  It's one of those things where you think you can keep pushing, just muscle through the pain, not realizing you're opening yourself up to an infection that can take you out of the game for days, if not weeks.

There are several things you can do to reduce the possibility of toxic ass-et syndrome: shorts and padding, chamois cream, training mileage, personal hygiene, and the saddle.

Ah, the saddle.

Berthoud Aspin.  As seen on eBay.
I've already mentioned how when I bought my bike, I allowed vanity to enter into my saddle selection, and bought a Gilles Berthoud Aspin touring saddle.  It was a thing of beauty.  But it never quite felt right.  When I went for my bike fitting, I discovered why.

Stephen Merz at Cyclologic is my bike fitter, and one of the services Cyclologic provides is saddle pressure analysis.  With the bike mounted in a trainer, he slips this electronic boot thingy over the saddle, you get on and start to pedal.  As you pedal, he can see in real time where pressure is loading and unloading on the saddle through the cycle of the pedal stroke.  If there are any potentially hazardous pressure points - i.e. under the sit bones - he can see it on his screen.

Before we continue, a little anatomy lesson: what are "sit bones?"

Sit bones (ischial tuberosities) are the part of the pelvis you sit on.  Think of them like the curved runners on a rocking chair.  When you sit erect on a chair, you're actually tipped up on the rear points of the rocking chair runners.  This upright posture isn't so bad because the seat of the chair has enough surface area to disperse pressure to the rest of your butt and thighs, and allows you to move around when you get uncomfortable.  Not so on a bike saddle.  When you sit upright on a bike saddle, the rear points of the sit bones exert pressure on the tissue between the bones and the saddle.

This video shows a tale of two saddles.  My two saddles in fact.  The one on the right is the Berthoud.  As it plays, you'll notice that there are three major pressure points, and they don't move around much.  The points on the left and right are under the rear ends of the sit bones, and the fact that they don't move around tells me that the tissue between the bones is not being unloaded during the pedal stroke, and is therefore less able to recover as I ride.  Concentrated pressure over time leads to tissue fatigue and eventually to saddle sores.  Ouch.

This could be mitigated if I were able to roll my pelvis forward on the saddle as I ride, off of the rear "tips" and onto the longer "runners."  In this position, the shape of the sit bones allows for a wider dispersion of pressure, and the motion of the pedal stroke should allow the sit bones to rock back and forth, allowing for pressure to load and unload on any given point.  But I'm unable to lean forward on this saddle because of the third pressure point.  The one in the middle.  If I were to roll forward on the pelvis, I'd be increasing pressure in the, um, center area.  Such pressure can lead to more than just saddle sores.

Cobb Randée.
So Stephen introduced me to the Randée, a new saddle from Cobb specifically designed for folks doing brevet-style all-day-in-the-saddle kind of events.  I spent one hour on a trainer with Randée, and immediately put my Berthoud up on eBay.  In the video above, Randée is the saddle on the left.  The shape of the Randée allows me to roll my pelvis forward onto the "rockers" of the sit bones, reducing concentrated pressure on the tissue supporting the pelvis without increasing pressure in the middle.  The pressure points that do flare up during the pedal stroke tend to move around, which shows that the tissue beneath the sit bones is better able to unload - and get some relief - during each pedal stroke.  Overall, a much better scenario for long days in the saddle.

For chamois cream, DZ Nuts comes highly recommended, so I'm trying that out.  For shorts, I'm currently wearing DeSoto 400 Mile shorts, which have a 14mm (!) pad, and some high-tech wizardry involving tiny embedded ceramic beads to reduce friction between the saddle and the shorts.  The best part, though, is that they actually provide a degree of compression - more so than typical riding shorts - which is supposed to help stave off muscle fatigue.  So far, I like them.  Order large though - these things are snug!

Everyone's anatomy is unique.  I really wanted the Berthoud saddle to be the one for me, but sometimes things just don't fit together the way we want them to.  I can't recommend one saddle or pair of shorts over another to anybody.  But I absolutely recommend a saddle pressure analysis like the one performed by Cyclologic.  In my view, it's an essential part of the fitting process.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Tour Divide 2015 - Contact Part 1: Hands

When riding a bike, you come into contact with it in three places: hands, feet, and butt.  Okay, technically that's five contact points, but you get the idea.  When riding that bike for miles and miles and miles and hours and days and weeks, it's important to think about how you interface with those contact points.  Minor irritations on a weekend ride with your buddies can turn into unwanted game changers when undertaking a multi-day bikepacking race.  The last thing you want when you're headed to the middle of nowhere is for your bike to rub you the wrong way.  Literally.

The "look."
So, hands...

But before I get into that, I have a confession.

I'm usually a pretty pragmatic guy, but when I ordered my bike, I have to admit to some degree of vanity.  See, I was going for a "look."  Those of you seasoned enough to know better are already grinning at my folly.  Anyway, when I ordered the bike, I also ordered a Gilles Berthoud Aspin touring saddle, a beautiful natural leather French-made piece of bicycle art, and matching leather handlebar wrap.  I even bought vintage-looking ElevenGear riding gloves.

Quite the ensemble.

Now, I did take the extra measure of wrapping the bars with an under-layer of Specialized Bar Phat.  I mean, it's gonna be rough out there.  Gotta treat your hands right, right?

Then I took it all out and rode the Chino Grinder, and I learned a few things about contact points.  I'll save the saddle discussion for another time, but here's what I learned about that pretty, smooth leather bar wrap: it's slippery.  Especially with matching leather gloves.  Especially on gravel roads.  With washboard.  I only rode the short course, but after 42 miles, my forearms were sore from simply trying to hold on to the handlebars.  No way this stuff was going to go any serious distance.

So, off it came.  I kept the padding, but switched out the leather for Lizard Skin bar tape.  Very tacky, very grippy, and in combination with the Bar Phat, very cush.  So far, it's been great.

I haven't finalized on gloves yet.  I like the carpenter's gloves I've been using on my trail bike - simple, cheap and durable protection, although they have no padding to speak of.  I do still dig the ElevenGear gloves for warm, dry riding.  They offer less finger protection, but offer some modest padding in the palm.  And did I mention that they look cool?  Not sure if either are going to do the job just yet.  Decisions, decisions.

I haven't bought thermal or wet-weather gloves yet.  After the horror stories I've heard from those who rode in the 2014 TD (Grand Depart), I'm uncertain which way to go.

For rain, I was keen on the Mountain Hardwear gloves that Marshal Bird was going to take out, but after reading about his experience, I'm thinking twice.  I've heard similar stories about other brands of "waterproof breathable" gloves too.  So at this point, I'm looking elsewhere to find something appropriate.  So far the most promising thing I've found is from the world of motorcycle touring.  My favorite so far is the Aerostich short gauntlet rain covers, but even Aerostich offers a bullet-proof (and cheap) alternative: industrial dish gloves.  At $4 a pair, I'll probably throw a pair of these in my kit for good measure.

As for thermal gloves, I was looking at the DeFeet Wool Duraglove.  Simple, inexpensive, Merino wool.  Pretty tough to beat.  Then when it came time to pony up, my size was not available.  Come to find out the Wool Duraglove is being discontinued, as DeFeet is introducing a Wool ET (electronic touch) Duraglove to replace it.  It's only a couple dollars more than the original, and is designed to be used with touch-screen devices.  Handy when futzing with the GPS or making a phone call with the smart phone.

Looks like these just came online, so if you'll excuse me, I gots me some shopping to do.