Category Archives: reviews

The Summer of Ice Cream and Beer

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I decided to spend the summer of 2012 voluntarily “under-employed” as I transitioned from one job to another, in order to test the efficacy of my rigorous training regimen of consuming as much ice cream and beer as possible.  Finally all my hard work and thousands of calories ingested were about to pay dividends.  And no one would try to strip me of my Strava KOM’s if they discovered I’d been “doping”.

The annual conference for my national professional organization was being held in Charlotte, NC, at the end of July.  Since I was not technically practicing in my field of specialty, I thought it might actually be fun to attend the meeting for a change.  I was also interested in spending a little soul-searching time in nearby Boone, NC.  In Lance Armstrong’s autobiography “It’s Not About the Bike”, he identifies Boone as one of his favorite training areas, and where he describes “coming back” on the bicycle after surviving his battle with cancer:

“Arizona? Too hot. Colorado? Too high altitude. Then I said, ‘Remember Boone? That little hippie town in North Carolina?’  Boone was high in the Appalachians on the route of the old Tour Du Pont, and I had fond memories of it. I had won the Tour Du Pont twice there, and I had spent many afternoons cycling and suffering on its biggest peak, Beech Mountain, which was the crucial climbing stage of the race. It was arduous but beautiful country…”

Clearly bucket list-worthy.  With or without EPO.

I departed Thursday morning on an approximately 2-hour direct flight from BDL to CLT.  Upon arrival, I rented a car and started the easy, scenic drive into the high country of North Carolina.  It took about 1:45 to roll from Charlotte to Boone, where it was a comfortable 10 degrees cooler, and noticeably less humid, than the steamy city.

On the way I passed through Blowing Rock, so I stopped in to check out this local attraction.  I wandered the grounds for 10 minutes or so, and the expansive mountain views and geological formations were worth seeing.  It’s not a very large area for exploring, so the $6 entrance fee might not seem worth it for everyone.  But at least the gift shop is very prominently featured.

Soon after arriving in the small college town of Boone, I stopped by a local joint called “The TApp Room”, situated directly across from Appalachian State University.  There I enjoyed some tasty fish tacos and a side of fresh pico de gallo, paired with a nice “Seeing Double IPA” from Foothills Brewing Company (Winston-Salem, NC).

Since it was only early afternoon and I had plenty of daylight remaining (and, notably, I was still sober-ish), I decided to head to nearby Boone Bicycle and Touring, where I’d reserved a rental bicycle for some local adventures.  The shop is tucked away at the rear of a small, shared parking area, but its understated storefront belies the neatly organized and comprehensive operation within.  I was promptly greeted and assisted by a staff member named Joseph, who was exceedingly helpful and accommodating.

Within a few minutes I was checking over a Trek Madone 2.3 (2-series aluminum frame) in very good condition.  The rental included a shop-provided seat bag with emergency repair kit (CO2 pump, spare tube, and tire levers).

The bike was an ‘H2’ fit, size 54 cm, and some customization was in order.  Joseph quickly mounted the pedals I’d brought from home, attached the bike to a trainer on the showroom floor, and had me saddle-up and soft-pedal while he made minor adjustments for fit.  After about 5-6 minutes of efforts and a brief test-spin around the parking lot, I was pretty close to a solid working relationship with my new two-wheeled BFF.

Joseph was kind enough to hand-write me a cue sheet for a local ride I could attack solo the following day.  He also suggested a group ride going out from a nearby school that evening (there were no shortage of area social rides to choose from, any day of the week).  Having picked up the bike on Thursday afternoon, Joseph told me that even if I returned the bike just after the store opened at 10 am on Sat, he’d only charge me for a 1-day rental ($59).  It was clear from the shop and its customers whom I encountered during my brief time there that a rich but laid-back bicycling culture is collectively nurtured in this town.

Originally I hadn’t planned to ride on Thursday, but I already had my bike all set up by mid-afternoon, and a friendly group ride seemed like a low-risk approach to an initial exploration of the local cycling scene.  I joined the troop gathered on edge of the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests at Valle Crucis Elementary School, which turns out to be the start/finish location for the annual “Blood Sweat and Gears” event, a century with 13,000+ ft of climbing.

The group of about a dozen riders were mixed in age and gender, but they were all universally tanned and sinewy from riding these southeastern hills all season.  It was an easy-going and earnest crew who seemed very sincere.  They even engaged in a heartfelt group prayer before launching the ride.  I realized this wasn’t all that different from my own pre-ride ritual at Nerac events, although mine was typically a silent prayer along the lines of “Dear Lord, please let John Sattar’s chain break on the first long climb…”

There was plenty of elevation gain during the first half of the ride, all the way up to the turning point at the Tennessee state line, where we paused to reassemble, collect stragglers, and catch our breath.  As I was exploiting the rest opportunity to eat half a Clif bar, the ride leader called out “Where’s Doug?!”, knowing that I was the lone newbie Yankee of the bunch.  After I responded with a full mouth, one of the women in the group turned to me and advised, in a considerable understatement, “We’re gonna pick up the pace a bit.”  And with that, I witnessed the almost spontaneous formation of an orderly and efficient paceline, with regulars taking turns pulling at the front, as we dropped into the serpentine rollercoaster of the valley below, dancing with the shadows of the setting sun.

The Trek’s Shimano 105 components allowed smooth and confident shifting and braking.  The Bontrager seat, wheels, tires, bar, and stem provided a stable and comfortable platform for mountain road riding.  This Thursday night group ride ended up as approximately 26 miles and 2000 feet of climbing, with an average speed of 15 mph. The data recorded by Strava can be found here:

After a long day of travel and riding, I was eager to remain faithful to my summer training regimen by gorging myself on some local grub and swill.  I chose the Hob Nob Café, a farm-to-table local/organic/seasonal themed eatery with a very extensive and eclectic menu.  I saw everything from Caribbean (Jamaica and Cuba), to Southeast USA, to Southeast Asia.  I sat at the small bar bustling with wait staff activity and chose the “Goddess Salad” (go on—mock me if you must) with fresh spinach leaves, flavorful local cheese, house-made dressing, and including excellent hummus and thick slices of hearty toast as an accompaniment.  I should have quit there but couldn’t help myself—I also ordered the Vietnamese pork sandwich, a panini-like feast with pork, ham, homemade slaw, chili aioli, hot peppers, and habanero sauce.  Good thing nobody was sharing my hotel room.  The sandwich also came with a side of roasted cut potatoes that were something like home fries, only better.  I washed all this down with a Foothills Brewing Endo IPA, and a Bells Two Hearted IPA (Kalamazoo, MI).  Oh yeah, and leave your credit card at home—Hob Nob is cash only.

On Friday morning I set out relatively early to beat the predicted thunderstorms.  I used Joseph’s reliable hand-written directions to wind my way out of town and climb to an entrance of the famed Blue Ridge Parkway.  The route to the BRP was straightforward, scenic, and fun:  quiet roads with plenty of climbing.  Rolling along Shulls Mill Road in particular was a blast, and well worth the price of admission all by itself.  The BRP turned out to be more bike-friendly than I had anticipated, with relatively low traffic volume, excellent pavement condition, a sedate speed limit of 35 mph in most areas, and the motorists seemed generally respectful.  However, I was able to envision how cyclists could easily find themselves in trouble on this road, as it is a major thoroughfare for sightseeing autos, and the long hills provide ample opportunity for sustained high speeds on a bike (during one continuous downhill section of my BRP ride, I descended about 1000 feet in less than 6 miles).  This subject is addressed in a recent book, “The Road Back” by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Vitez (already on my “to-read” list).  In 2008, University of Virginia student Matt Miller suffered life-threatening injuries when he collided his bicycle head-on into an oncoming vehicle on the BRP at high speed.  Following his recovery, Mr. Miller competed in an Ironman triathlon, and is currently a medical student at University of Pennsylvania.

My own BRP out-and-back ride ended up as about 40 miles with 4000 feet of climbing, and a very touristy sub-13 mph average speed.  Between the predominantly uphill outbound route and my leisurely photo-op stops, it took me about 2 hours to reach the halfway point, but only about 1:20 on the return ride. The data recorded by Strava can be found here:

The promised thunderstorms never arrived—in fact the weather was spectacular during my two days in Boone, with abundant sunshine, temperatures in the mid-80’s, and low humidity.  The threat of severe conditions was a blessing in disguise—by midday Friday, my legs had no more miles remaining in the tank.  I returned my rental Trek to the Boone bike shop and headed off for a late lunch.  I checked out the Boone Saloon, where I tucked into a tasty homemade veggie burger with garlic yogurt sauce, served folded in naan, pita-style.  I paired the food with a Foothills Brewing People’s Porter.

Of course, immediately following lunch I had to decide where to eat dinner.  Although I wanted to be adventurous and sample a different gastronomic venue on Friday night, I couldn’t resist returning to Hob Nob Café since the menu was so extensive.  This time I picked a table in the popular outdoor seating area and tried the Thai bowl with chicken—spicy and flavorful with basil, lemongrass and rice noodles.

The entire town of Boone has a funky, relaxed bohemian vibe…I could almost smell the incense and patchouli oil wafting the streets while strolling the main drag of intriguing shops and restaurants.

On Saturday morning I departed for the conference in Charlotte, so I did not get a chance to attempt the infamous climb up Beech Mountain, which had been on my Boone to-do list.  But that just gives me an excuse to make a return trip someday.

On my ride towards downtown, which I would find warmer and wetter than up in the peaks, I contemplated this trip in a grander perspective.  My travels over the past few years have afforded me the opportunity to ride in Colorado, Utah, central Ohio, Rolla MO, Miami, Morgantown WV, Seattle, Michigan, Alaska, Southern California, and Philadelphia PA.  Boone ranks near the top of the list for my favorite bicycle memory to date.  — Doug B.

The Strava Chronicles: Volume 1

Strava—It’s not just for breakfast anymore

Pop Quiz, Sports Fans!

Which of the following items is most likely to make your waistline thinner, your wallet fatter, make you more desirable to young women, help you to survive the imminent Zombie Apocalypse, and even facilitate recovering your lost debit card?

A. Axe body spray
B. Strava cycling app
C. Tequila (lots and lots of tequila)
D. The mind-numbingly vapid rhetoric of campaign-year election promises

WRONG!  It was a trick question.  The correct answer is in fact ‘E’:  None of the Above.  (And for the record, choice ‘C’ is much more likely to cause rather than solve most of these problems for you.)

Nonetheless, based on my recent experience, Strava can at least help you accomplish one of these amazing feats.  More on that later….

Many cyclists, and most Nerac Earth Cycling members, will already be familiar with Strava.  In fact, it was introduced to me by Nerac folks last year.  For the uninitiated, Strava is a GPS/Google Maps-based smart phone app and online database for tracking cycling activities.  Strava can also be employed for running and other fitness applications, although it’s aimed primarily at bicycling.  As a fledgling triathlete (and by “fledgling” I’ve mean I choked and gasped and flailed my way through one sprint-distance event so far) I’ve found Strava to be a useful tool for tracking running workouts as well.  Strava may also be used to record indoor/stationary workouts, as part of an overall online training log.

I’m sure many of the features Strava offers are also available with a Garmin or similar device (and Strava does work with Garmin).  Historically I have gravitated towards simpler, cheaper cycling computers, as I consider them somewhat disposable, and I’m willing to spend ~$30 every few years for a new unit if necessary.  Strava is a no-brainer for me, since I always carry my iPhone in my jersey pocket while riding anyway, and the free version of Strava is…well, free.  Furthermore I’m really not interested in the grade of the climb up which I’m currently struggling (although some instantaneous navigational feedback would be valuable once in a while, especially on less familiar routes).  The only ride data I feel I need to monitor in real time is how fast and how far, and maybe what time it is.  Everything else can wait until after the ride, when I can review the information at my leisure.

Strava tracks and stores all the cycling data you’d expect:  distance, time, average/top speed, elevation gain, instantaneous/average power output (estimated), calories burned, and even graphs of elevation/power/speed as a function of either time or distance.  Data such as cadence and heart rate can be integrated as well.

Strava automatically tracks your training progress and records your adventures, keeping you motivated to continually work harder and compete with friends both new and old.  The system logs workouts with great detail, and the company seems to be quite progressive, providing frequent updates and new features.  The website is robust and intuitive, and a ‘premium’ version of the application is available for ~$6/month which provides plenty of additional goodies.  I’ve found the system works great for woods rides too, if you’re a mountain biker instead of, or in addition to, a roadie.  Plus, if you encounter any technical issues, responsive and effective support is available, even for the free version.  A word of caution, if it’s not already obvious:  running this app on your iPhone burns through battery power at a notably accelerated clip.  Anything beyond about 3-4 hours and you might be pushing the limit.  I’m not sure if Androids are quite as hungry for juice while running Strava.  For longer-duration rides (e.g., see Pete’s report on Angel Ride 2012), I’ve purchased a spare 1500 mAh external battery (~$50) that can also fit in my jersey pocket alongside my phone, effectively doubling the battery life.

One of the fundamental elements of Strava is the “segment”, defined as any portion of a ride between two points (typically climbs, but can be any section).  The user can create his/her own segment(s), and if one already exists similar to the new one being created, Strava will even suggest using the existing segment (though you don’t have to).  In this manner, you can compete against yourself (seeking a new PR), or battle others for coveted “KOM” (or QOM!) status.  You can even analyze your point-by-point performance on a given segment as compared to the current KOM, to see where you are losing (or perhaps gaining) time.

This constitutes the foundation of the “social media” aspect of Strava.  Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of phenomena like Facebook and Twitter, but I can understand the appeal here.  You can “follow” or be followed (pending user approval), and the social pressure of knowing someone else is watching, and can monitor your performance, is very motivating.  The Strava folks have dubbed this phenomenon “social fitness”.  John Sattar calls Strava “addictive”, and I’ve described it as both the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to me, cycling-wise.  It’s human nature to strive for maximum effort whenever a known segment is on the horizon, and for many of us, this tends to border on obsessive.  Additionally, Strava’s “Explore” feature encourages the user to seek out and conquer local segments in any area.

Despite the “Big Brother” potential of having a community of riders breathing down your neck while you are breathing hard, there are some appreciated user-customizable privacy features.  For example, one can establish a “privacy zone” around home, within which no GPS tracking will be recorded, in order to obscure one’s actual house location.

The motivation (or competition) factor is also enhanced by the ability to cheer your friends (or jeer your foes).  It is possible to acknowledge another user’s accomplishments with simple “Kudos”, or by posting more personalized comments…for example:
“Nice effort—you crushed it!” or
“Hey!  You stole my KOM (John!)…why you gotta be that way?” or
“Please stop riding to my house to have lunch with my wife while I’m at work.”
or even “I found the debit card you lost…what’s your PIN?”

Plenty of people smarter and more experienced than me know considerably more about the features of this app, and one can simply visit to learn more and sign up.  Therefore I won’t belabor all the details here.  However, I would like to point out that there are also potentially unintended—and unexpected— legal ramifications of having Strava track your every pedal stroke.  In March of this year, an elderly gentleman was killed while crossing a street in San Francisco with his wife, when he was struck by a cyclist riding through the crosswalk.  The rider was using Strava at the time, and the data shows that at the moment of impact, he was barreling through a red light at greater than 35 mph (in a 25 mph zone).  The cyclist is being charged with felony vehicular manslaughter.  Before you pass judgment too quickly and condemn harshly, reflect on whether you yourself have ever failed to fully respect a stop sign or red light.  Furthermore, just last month, a lawsuit was filed against Strava (also in San Francisco, incidentally), by the family of a man who was killed when he lost control of his bicycle and crashed while trying to regain his KOM status on a downhill segment.  The lawsuit alleges that the KOM feature essentially constitutes a virtual race, but Strava takes no responsibility for basic measures to ensure rider safety, as would be the case in an actual organized event.

Back to my own recent experience:  on July 1, I was leading a Nerac ride I called the “Firecracker Forty”; a loop I have hosted a few times along the scenic, mostly traffic-free, varied terrain around the quiet hamlets of Lyme, East Lyme, Salem, and East Haddam.  John Sattar was the only rider who showed up that morning.  The problem with inviting your fast friends on rides in your own backyard is that they are going to beat you (and maybe steal your KOM) on your own routes and segments.  But that’s ok—I knew with John as a partner, it would be a safe, fun, and fast ride.  A few miles into the route, John and I discovered an orphaned debit card in the road, so I picked it up and carried it in my jersey pocket for safekeeping.  At end of ride, as I was walking into the house, Strava was uploading the data from my iPhone.  I recognized the name of the guy who had just bested me by one position on the “Leaderboard” for a big local climb within the past hour (and for what it’s worth, he KOM’d that same climb just a few days later).  Amazingly, he happened to be the owner of the lost debit card.  Had the timing played out marginally differently, John and I would have crossed paths with the rider himself, rather than just his debit card.  So I logged into Strava, navigated to his uploaded ride that day, and posted a comment, indicating that I’d recovered his card.  When a comment is posted, Strava emails the recipient with the content.  Within a matter of minutes, I had connected with a cyclist from out-of-state whom I’d never met, about a personal item of his of financial significance, which I’d randomly encountered while riding.  I consider this a to be remarkable testament of how broad and deep the greater cycling community is, and the powerful link Strava can provide to remind us all of our interdependence.  {insert group hug here}

So, if you are training to outrun the ravenous zombie hoard (it’s coming–don’t underestimate them!), looking to keep an eye on how chummy your riding buddies are with your spouse, or just trying to achieve new fitness goals and hammer every neighborhood climb faster than the local fast guys, give Strava a try.  It don’t cost nothing…but it might just save you something.  –Doug B.