Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Fall Five

This week, a unique solo stage race, Fall Five is being hosted by our local bike and coffee shop, Ride Studio Cafe (RSC). While RSC is clearly one of the best places for cyclists to hang out, drool over cool bikes and accessories and clothes, drink espresso and meet with cycling friends, the proprietors do recognize that we all have very busy schedules, and sometimes it's just not possible to coordinate and all get together for a ride/race at the same time. So they came up with this clever stage race, that let's us compete with each other, on our own schedules.

There are 5 stages, a prologue time trial, a road race, a mountain stage, a circuit race and a criterium. They are all really time trials though, since no drafting as allowed and folks are riding at different times. As incentive to be social, well at least to network socially about it, up to 5 second time bonuses per stage are given for photos, tweets, facebook posts, etc.  Bonuses and prizes are also awarded for town line sprints and possibly other criteria. I'm hoping for special category prize for 50+ female riders with brown leather shoes!

Rumor has it that strict doping controls may be enforced, as riders will be tested to be sure they have a minimum level of caffeine in their system! Ride Studio Cafe is a coffee shop after all! Various other forms of doping, like group doping (ride solo), transportation doping (no drafting cars) and aero-doping (no disc wheels or aero-bars) are not allowed. Apparently hurricane doping - taking advantage of tailwinds from the Frankenstorm Sandy is OK.

The solo racing/timing is accomplished through technology, thanks to RideWithGPS, an awesome online mapping routing tool for GPS devices.

A little aside/promotional note about RideWithGPS. I've been using this awesome routing/mapping tool for a while now to plot out various routes, including the rides I lead every Tuesday from RCS.  Once plotted (and vetted), a cue sheet can be printed (or downloaded to a GPS). I must say it is now a lot easier to create a cue sheet than the old method of plotting something out on a paper map, then riding it, taking notes, including distance at each turn, and typing it up; especially if you need to make changes mid route at some point in the future and recalculate all the distances. For a formal event, where folks will be using cue sheets, I map out the route with the software, generate a preliminary cue sheet, and then go out and ride the route, following the cue sheet and taking additional notes to be added to the generated cue sheet. The software does lots of the initial work, by getting accurate distances and including most of the cues. But I will add this one caveat for anyone using any software to generate a cue sheet, especially here in New England. Technology is only as good as the data, and sometimes the data may suggest a turn that may or may not be a turn, so what appears as a straight to the software, is actually a turn, and vice-verse.  Also the map data doesn't indicate if a road is paved or not, so if seeking or avoiding dirt roads is important, it's a good idea to check. Also map data is sometimes just plain wrong, or sometimes may show a hiking trail as a road. Finally the software  does NOT include landmarks and other hints, like mention of traffic lights, stop signs, T intersections and such that are really helpful to folks following a cue sheet. And it doesn't know about hazards and construction. It does generate a nice route profile that can be quite handy for determining how challenging a route might be. So while I highly recommend this site for creating and maintaining cue sheets, it is still important to do the on-the-ground research too.

For smaller informal rides, like the rides I lead from RSC on Tuesdays, I will alert folks if we are taking in a new route. Most of us use GPS units and we stick together for the social ride, so if we come upon something ambiguous, we can compensate. That said, I do have a library of about 10 well vetted routes based out of RSC and they can be found here.  But I've gotten way off topic!

RideWithGPS also provides the ability to upload, track and compare rides. So you can keep track of your mileage, compare efforts over a season, or compare your performance to others.  Patria, the curator at RCS, has been working with Zack at RideWithGPS to add some additional features to enable this solo stage race. Events is a new feature that allows folks to register, get routes and information and updates. Segments are used for the stages and sprints, and a leaderboard shows the standings. There is even a tab to show tweets tagged as #fallfive.

Now, I'm not a racer. I do a few hill climbs and some long distance stuff, but I like socializing while riding, lunch and photo stops and such,  way too much to put my head down and actually race. But this seemed like fun, and the stages are fairly short, so could be incorporated into a longer day out, so I signed up.

But then came the challenge of what bike to ride. The shifters, derailleurs and cassette on my Seven were well worn, and ready to be replaced when we returned from France. I am not a retrogrouch, but I am frugal. I have old 9 speed parts on this bike that were actually transferred from a previous bike.  And as parts wear out, I have been replacing them with parts from a box of other previously-used parts that have been removed from other bikes as they have been upgraded to more modern components. The theory is that these parts are still good, since we would certainly throw away anything that was truly worn out. Well I'm not so sure about that theory anymore. I changed out various parts a few weeks ago, and have been less than happy with shifting recently, so I threw caution to the wind and broke the bank and ordered some new 10 speed SRAM parts (rear derailleur, cassette and barend shifters). They will be in later this week! So this left me with either being frustrated by mis-shifts or riding my hill-climb bike, my commuter or my fixie. I decided on the hill-climb bike. It's light and fast on the hills. It just has one tiny downside. The big chainring is a 39! So if a route was flat or had a lot of downhill, I'd be spinning a lot. I decided to go for the spin!

My 26/39 crank! With some seriously styling shoes!

John opted for fenders and 30mm tires - and some nice Irish colors!
The race and first stage started last Friday. One could do stage 1 anytime Friday or Saturday. I had already planned a 90 mile group ride on Friday, so decided 90 miles was too much of a warmup for a 2 mile race, so planned to do both stage 1 and 2 on Saturday. John headed out to do Stage 1 at lunch time Friday, but was a bit confused about the actual starting line and stopped mid-course to start his race from where he thought was the start line. He didn't realize that he had done this til uploading that night. So we asked about a do-over. Seems the software takes the best time, so the do-over was possible on Saturday.

We headed over to the underpass that marked the start. I got photos of John heading off, and a couple of minutes later, started my race.

Two miles later, we were done, so we headed over the RSC to recover and get a coffee before Stage 2. We both were coughing and hacking like crazy, after getting air in parts of the lungs that hadn't seen use in a while. Rob commented that maybe we should give up the cigarettes, but later that day, I believe he would also experience the same coughing fit, when he raced!

So after a bit of recovery time, we headed back out to do Stage 2. As a solo effort, we did not start or ride together. I started first, while John stopped to catch up with fellow team member, Jay. He then did a short warm up on a nearby hill to try and get his heart rate up and ready.

I get a little credit and blame for the first part of the course. I'd suggested a lightly traveled route out of Lexington that would avoid an awkward left turn on a busy road. It turned out to be new roads for some, so that was cool. But it did start with a short cruel climb, followed by a lot of downhill. I paid the price for my wee little gears on the downhill, as I spun away like a mad-woman!

About half-way through the 13 mile race, John came roaring past, taking photos as he did. Sadly they came out a bit too fuzzy! He powered on and posted a great time. And then cycled part way back to get some photos of me coming up Strawberry Hill. 

Pamela working hard climbing Strawberry Hill

Me and my cheering section, as seen in the mirror

A post-stage reward!

The road race concluded at the top of Strawberry Hill in Acton, but Keyks Bakery in Chelmsford offered a reward of a free cupcake to racers. These are seriously delicious and enormous cupcakes and well worth the ride out. John and I decided to share one!

Fueled by chocolate, we headed home, passing cheering crowds along the way.

The cheering crowds is Weston center!

Sunday was the start of the mountain stage. Someone had invited Sandy, the great Frankenstorm of 2012 to town. She wasn't actually scheduled to arrive until Monday night, but apparently sent out a forward party to check things out. Despite a forecast of clear skies, it was dreary and grey and misty on and off all day.

The stage would climb to the water tower in Arlington three different ways. It's a well known landmark in the area, at least to any cyclists looking for climbing. There are numerous routes up, most about a mile long. It is rare for me not to see other cyclists climbing the roads when I am doing the same. Last spring and summer, I did regular rides up, trying not to repeat the same way up in the same day, and sometimes climbing up as many as 10 different ways. The water tower has become like an old friend!

We headed out from home in Watertown, so got in a bit of a warmup climbing to the tower from our side of town. John took a round about route over for even more of a warmup, so he started the race up Park Avenue well after I did and then passed me part way up. But as I approached the top, I noticed that he had stopped a bit shy of the finish line.

The stage has three segments, each a climb. Only the climbs would count, so folks wouldn't have to do crazy stuff on descents and could even rest in between. The email with all the details for the stage said the finish line was at the crosswalk in front of the fire station. The problem is there are two crosswalks and John had stopped at the first one before the fire station. I told him that he'd need to do it again! So while I headed off to do the second climb, he went back down to start over! For the fellow who rides up Burke Mountain as his warmup for the race up Burke Mountain, it seemed appropriate!

The second climb, Quincy, is actually one of the ways up that I rarely take. I use this road mostly for descending. It turns out it is a good climb. I should add it back in to the repertoire next spring! I took advantage of my tiny gears and twiddled back up to the tower, where I took some time to take a few photos and tweet.

My old friend, the water tower

Pamela, tweeting from the steps of the water tower!

John's Seven, complete with 30 mm tires and fenders

A view of the Boston skyline on a grey day, from Arlington water tower.

Pamela, hammering up Eastern Ave, with some fall foliage still on trees - pre-Sandy

Fender-doping came in handy!

Two more stages to go. Hopefully Frankenstorm Sandy will leave town before we have to do the next stage!


  1. The stage race sounds like it was great fun. I missed all of it but thought about it (and did ride some during the week). I regularly enjoy hill training getting to the water tower and agree, there are always cyclist to be seen on the roads.

  2. I tried RideWithGPS around 2010 when it just came out not long before. It did have good user interface and lots of functions that I didn't use much at that time.

    When I started to use Garmin Edge 500, the functions (output TCX file and create course point warnings) I need are not for available for the free plan. You cannot even export the cue sheet into a text file (CVS). That's when I found out and started to use BikeRouteToaster (BRT).

    Another useful feature in BRT, but not in other similar sites, is to calculate the virtual partner's speed using user settings and altitude data. That is, the virtual partner would slow down when hit the hills. This helps me to estimate the trip time more accurately. I have used this function in most of my brevet rides (to estimate my own "cut-off" time at controls).

    By the way, the elevation calculated in BRT is more accurate than in RideWithGPS, which often exaggerates the climb.

  3. I haven't tried BRT in a while, but just did now based on your comment. I did not find it intuitive to use and in fact failed miserably trying to create a simple route from my home to the local bike shop. I'm glad you've had better luck than I did.

    I do have the premium subscription to ridewithgps, mainly because I found the site so useful and wanted to provide these guys with some income so they'd continue to be around. But I logged out to check for features with the free version and you CAN export a TCX, GPX and CVS file with the free version. You can also print a basic cue sheet with the free version. The paid version adds some nice features that really help with navigating on the mapless garmin edge 500. You can set the prompts to come up a specified advance distance. When using the 500, I set prompts at 200 feet in advance, and can navigate quite well with this unit. Thanks to this feature alone, the $80 a year for the premium subscription versus the difference in cost for a 500 and an 800 with maps, can be justified. One also gets really nicely formatted cue sheets with premium. If just creating GPS files, this isn't such a big deal, but for club rides or brevets, the route sheets are great, as I mentioned in the post.

    As regards elevation data, it's basically as good as the data source. Around here (New England), I find I get pretty consistent predictions, which basically gives me a reasonable point of reference. We did find we saw exaggerated climbing figures in France this fall, but quickly adjusted our point of reference scale as we realized the predicted numbers were about 2.5 times actual climbing. I suspect the google data is just not refined enough yet. But despite the exaggerated numbers, we could still look at the route profile and determine our route was rideable.

    They still have a ways to go with refining the upload/tracking/segments. We found a few issues in the fall five, especially with the climbing segments. I'd prefer they focus their resources on improving route creation and searching and organizing, but recognize that the upload/tracking features appeal to coaches and are likely generate more income. So if that's what is necessary to keep them around, so be it.