Sunday, May 31, 2015

Riding Brevets in the Old Days

Although long, group rides became popular soon after the invention of the safety bicycle (distinct from the penny-farthing, bone-shaker, and earlier styles), the first Allure Libre events, with the exception of a solitary PBP like event in 1891, were not held until 1904 under the auspices of the newly formed ACP. As the vast majority of randonneuring in the USA is of the Allure Libre style, let's consider what it must have been like to try to ride one of those first French 200k brevets.

By 1903 Sturmey-Archer had started manufacturing internal three speed hub gears but they were probably not in wide use in 1904 so riders still used single speed with a freewheel to allow them to coast or a reversible wheel fixie with a different sized cog in each side so the rider could stop, reverse the wheel, and continue in a new gear - a far cry from the electronic shifters I am starting to see. Modern derailleurs would not be invented until the 1950's.

I note that American machinist Johnson patented and manufactured a two-speed internal hub gear in 1895 but it seems unlikely that French cyclists would use them.

Fortunately pneumatic tires were available by 1889, greatly reducing the weight and increasing the comfort of bicycles. As tires were previously made of solid rubber, you can imagine this brought great relief to cyclists of all denominations. Pumps were made of wood or steel and looked very much like frame pumps do today.

1904 Gentleman's Meteor Rover
Wheels were heavier and wider but you could take the 27" wheel off a 1904 bike and install it on a modern touring bike and ride it with no problems.

Take a look at the pedals on this bike. They are platform pedals with rubber grips. Toe clips existed at the time, in fact photographs of Tour de France racers from 1904 clearly show them. Below is a photograph of Maurice Garin - winner of the first Tour de France in 1904. You can plainly see his toe clips. Our modern so-called "clipless pedals" were invented by Look in 1984. So early randonneurs rode with platform pedals or, if they were wealthy, with toe clips.

Maurice Garin and his toe clips
The frames in 1904 were made of  steel tubing or sometimes bamboo, but the tubing and components were much heavier than even today's cro-moly bikes, with total bicycle weights in excess of 50lbs being common before adding bags.

Talking of bags - they haven't really changed all that much. The invention of Velcro and reflective tape have improved things somewhat. Carradice, a major manufacturer of today's randonneur's bags wasn't founded until 1932, and Gilles Berthoud were not around back then either but the duck canvas and leather that they use today were widely used in 1904 so the bags would have looked very familiar to us.

Saddles have changed as much as you want them to. In the photo of the Meteor Rover above you can see the saddle is a Brooks B73 which is still made over 100 years later. The owner of this bike was obviously a serious tourer. With a saddle like this, who needs a fancy carbon or titanium frame?

One last thing to look at on our 1904 bicycle photo is the front brakes. There are no cables - it's a solid pull rod that pulls the whole brake mechanism upwards and pushes the brake pads against the underside of the rim. The rear brakes had a similar mechanism running alongside the top tube. There is a lever mechanism just above the brakes that magnifies your leverage but you still had to squeeze the brake levers really hard to get any stopping power. Imagine that with road numbed hands.

Veeder odometer circa 1895

Early randonneurs had no computer to tell them how far they had traveled. When I was a lad I had a mechanical device that attached to the front fork that had a five spoke wheel that got moved forward 1/5 of a turn by a pin in the spokes and gave me some indication of my distance traveled, although even with young eyes it was hard to read and impossible at night. This device actually existed in a similar form prior to 1904 so many of the first randonneurs may have owned one. GPS? We have it so easy!

Take a look at the carbide lamp below. Although battery lights were available for bicycles in 1904 they were weak and didn't last long. If you had to do much night riding you would attach one of these lamps to the front of your bicycle (take a look at the standard lamp mount on the front of the Meteor Rover above).

"Carbide lamp on a bicycle". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This lamp works by placing calcium carbide in the lower chamber and dripping water onto it from the upper chamber. This released acetylene gas (C2H2) through a jet which was then ignited and burned with a bright white flame. I'll take a Li-ion battery and a 5 Watt LED thank you very much! Tail lights, which have lower power requirements could be battery driven even in 1904.

I was surprised to discover that bottle dynamos (they aren't technically dynamos because they deliver AC whereas a dynamo uses a comutator to deliver DC) existed in 1904. In fact there is a German patent for one dated 1886. It's quite possible that some randonneurs would have used one of these instead of the carbide lamp. Can you imagine riding in the rain, hoping your stash of calcium carbide wouldn't get wet and explode?

In actual fact lights would not have been a big problem for the first randonneurs because their target was to ride 200k in daylight so extended night riding would not become a staple of randonneuring for several more years. However it was a requirement for the first Tour de France riders in the same year.

As for nutrition they would have home made bonk bars for which there were many recipes. Most included nuts, fruit, rice, and some kind of binding agent like treacle. One requirement was that they didn't make you handlebar tape sticky. There would be water in the bottles, or maybe some cordial or watered down beer.

Lycra gel-padded cycling shorts - not until the 1970's by Tony Maier.
Gel padded handle bar tape and gloves - Nope. Even cork tape wasn't invented until 1987.
Aerobars - 1984 Jim Eliot.

So those riders had heavy, single-gear steel bikes with Brooks saddles and canvas bags similar to ours. They might have toe-clips, leather shoes, cotton or leather handlebar tape, shorts, and gloves. Their jerseys would be cotton or wool and they probably didn't wear helmets. They navigated with a map, compass and an odometer accurate to perhaps 5%. If they rode at night they might have had weak electric lights or a highly combustible acetylene light. And all the men had mustaches, and some of the women.

One advantage they had was that the surge in the popularity of cycling towards the end of the 19th century meant that many previously gravel roads had been metalled (paved). That, and the absence of large numbers of cars meant this would have been a wonderful time to be a cyclist.

While researching this blog I found a wonderful resource for those interested in old bicycle history at It's poorly organized and antiquated but full of old treasures.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day Weekend

I rode with the Redlands Bike Club for the first time in many years on Saturday. I recently added fenders and a Topeak rack and bag to my Trek 520 touring bike so I rode with the slow group to give them a shake down. It had rained the previous day but unfortunately the roads were dry already so I couldn't really test the fenders all that well. It was a lovely group and I got a very pleasant 43 mile ride in with some surprisingly tough hills.

I got pretty hungry from the ride so I ate at Five Guys burgers which has amazing fries. I really didn't need the burger at all.

The same evening I drove down to Anaheim to ride the Flame Broiler evening ride which encompasses the entire southern loop from my Five Rivers 300k brevet. It was a lovely ride although we had a strong headwind down to the coast. I got 54 miles on that ride for a grand total of 97 miles for the day. That's a good day.

On Memorial day Sherry and I hiked on the exploration trail from the Deerlick fire station up towards Keller Peak fire lookout. It was the first time Sherry had been on that trail and she liked it. We ended up with about 4 miles of strenuous hiking. It was a beautiful day.

Next weekend Amber and I plan on riding my Anaheim to Oceanside 125k permanent populaire with Iria. Then the Grand Tour double century in June and riding across the Rockies with Sherry in July. It's going to be a fun filled summer.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Oregon Eden's Gate 400k Brevet

Amber and I just got back from the Oregon Randonneurs Eden's Gate 400km brevet. On paper it was an easy ride with only 7000' of climbing and lovely roads. In practice it turned out to be quite difficult.

For some reason Amtrak has jacked their prices up since two years ago, and I would never fly with a bicycle, so Amber and I decided to drive up and make a road trip out of it.

Out first day of driving was from Los Angeles to Garberville which is a little north of San Francisco on the 101. Garmin routed us through downtown San Francisco via the Golden Gate bridge and I, like an idiot, just followed the purple line. Stupid mistake. We didn't get to the Best Western until late that night. Great hotel though.

On Friday morning we drove north on Avenue of the Giants and stopped at the visitors center for a hike and also the gift store where we shopped for a few extra mother's day gifts. Then back on to Interstate 5 to Wilsonville which is just south of Portland, OR. We stayed at Guesthouse Inn which was the closest to the ride start but it was a terrible mistake. It was so noisy I could not believe it. The guests were rowdy and the staff couldn't control them. It was shabby and quite unpleasant to stay in. There were obvious security problems here to. We couldn't wait to leave, but we had to ride 400km first.

We started the ride at the very civilized time of 6am along with quite a large group of perhaps 30 riders. After 30 miles of easy rollers I was lulled into a false sense of security on Cole School Road which terminates in a long 15%-20% climb. By now the temperature had reached the low 80's and my legs were screaming as my heart rate reached a new personal best.

The group we were riding with had long gone and Amber and I were slipping further and further towards the back. The only other thing I remember from this part of the ride was a loooong 5 mile climb after the lunch control that meandered up to the heavens. It was in the 85-87F range by now.

The turnaround control was in Walterville which we arrived at just as our earlier group was about to leave. I felt like death warmed over (lightly broiled) and we stayed about 45 minutes as I dozed in the shade trying to cool down. Eventually I felt recovered enough to continue.

Fortunately, the return trip is almost perfectly flat (6100' in the first half and 1500' in the second half of the 400k) and as the sun started to set it went behind a bank of clouds and the temperature dropped quickly. Also the predicted headwinds never really materialized except for perhaps 20 miles or so.

I was able to recover almost completely over the next couple hours and we eventually caught up with our earlier group on the road into Independence. Now I was actually able to hold a conversation with them. There was Bob and his English wife, Deirdre, and their friend Ron - all from BC. These were all seasoned pros and skilled navigators so even though we could probably have passed them we decided we would have much more fun if we stayed with them.

Just before we got to Independence we passed another rider sleeping in a ditch. Bob recognized him as Barry - another BC rider. We left him alone and arrived in Independence a few miles later looking for food. We found the "mecanico" bar - a cool converted garage - and got signatures and food. Barry joined us quickly and this stop became the highlight of the ride with pulled pork sandwiches (the last food in the entire bar) and coke from bottles.

Eventually we had to leave and complete the last 50 miles back to Wilsonville. We had a 6 man (5 man, 1 woman) pace line holding an easy 14-15 mph. I needed to stretch out my back a little and only felt comfortable on the aerobars when I was on the front so it was difficult to keep my speed down and not drop the group when I was pulling. A complete 180 from the first half of the ride.

We made an impromptu stop about 30 miles later to stretch and eat. I discovered my rear water bottle was empty which meant I had run out of water. Fortunately Barry had a spare bottle which saved me from risking giardia. We trucked on home and ate at Shari's to get the receipt. Total time was 21:12 - still slower than my target of 20 hours but it's not like it's a race.

We got back to the hotel at 4am and had no guilt if we happened to wake any of the other guests up as we took our showers. We woke at 10am and got more food - this time at a small Chinese restaurant that was surprisingly good. Then we drove up to Portland to see Lonnie Wolf who had ridden the 200k the previous day and seems to own an apartment in every major city. He took us to Deschutes bar which has a splendid selection of local beers. That night, I finally slept well.

On Monday we drove to Redding, CA and while passing through Salem we found the best bistro ever. It's called the Word of Mouth Bistro and it is amazing. I'd love to go back there but it's 1000 miles from my house.
Plate of Love = Creme Brulee French Toast, veggie hash, and eggs

When we got to Redding we ate at a decent Thai place and then went for a
ride on the Sacramento River Trail which is truly wonderful, especially considering that Redding itself is a bit seedy (well the Motel6 is for sure). Here's a picture of me on the Sundial Bridge.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Hidden features

Amber, Iria, and I rode the Back Bay loop on Saturday. I was hoping Tracy and Elizabeth would be joining us, but it was not to be. Amber and I haven't ridden this route in a while and Iria has never ridden it before. We ate at the Champagne Bakery as usual and it was tasty. We tried a new bike path that heads north from Champagne Bakery and heads around a lake to Yale Ave and then joins the familiar Walnut Trail. I took a wrong turn so we left the path early, but I'd like to try it again as it was very picturesque.

It was very hot - my bike computer was reading 102F so the real temperature was probably in the mid-90s. I was so sleepy on the way home I had to pull over and take a nap until the car interior got too warm. Hot rides always do that to me.

Iria has decided that the Grand Tour triple century option would be good training for PBP so she's trying to persuade us to ride it with her. I've been thinking about riding the double for a while (we haven't ridden it since Rod Armas was killed back in 2009) but I'm not sure about the triple. We'll see.

I was reading an article about the new Apple watch that has a sensor in the back that monitors your pulse using a green led. Apparently the device can also measure blood oxygen levels but that feature is not currently turned on. Odd that Apple would chose not to enable a powerful feature.

I was playing with the Garmin Nuvi GPS system in my Prius the other day and accidentally found that it has free traffic monitoring. When I turned it on I started getting updates suggesting faster routes and showing congestion ahead. It's a really cool feature that I've not been using since I bought the device a year ago. I don't understand why it wasn't turned on by default.

Given that both Apple and Garmin are selling devices with unactivated features, I decided to see if maybe my Serotta road bike has a motor in it that no-one told me about. Alas, I have yet to find it. But I keep hoping...