Friday, June 1, 2012

Trending now ...

Before I get into the rest of this post, just wanted to share the fact that I enjoyed the first Sam's Summer Ale of the year this week. And it was awesome! 

Forget the solstice, this is how you know summer has officially arrived!

Otherwise, there hasn't been a whole lot going on of particular note this week. I did pick up some new gear, which I'll get to in a later post. But by and large, I've just been riding whenever I can and getting ready for the Granogue 12 Hour coming up on June 9th. I haven't registered yet, but I actually have a good reason for that - I'll wait until the last day to pre-register because I've been dealing with a lot of replacement parts and fixes on the Misfit lately (standard stuff, really) but I don't want to register too far in advance and then find I'm bike-less three days out. So I'll be signing up on Wednesday.

Tuesday night, I barely managed to fit in a loop at Wissahickon before a heavy thunderstorm hit the area. That storm swept in quickly -- when I started my ride less than two hours before, it was sunny with just a few clouds. But before I'd even gone 14 miles, the sky was starting to look like this:

The rain held off until I was on my drive home
I was lucky enough to see it coming in the woods (the winds really picked up for one thing) and I was done and in my car by the time it hit. 

High winds hit the neighborhood around the park.

The storm rolled in just as I hit the expressway on 309.

The ride itself was pretty good. I can't tell lately if I've just gotten to a point where I've dialed in Wissahickon or my training is actually paying off, but it's generally felt like I've been able to ride faster lately. So I decided to check and see if that is actually the case. (Warning: statistics ahead ...)

I pulled a few Garmin reports for rides in the Valley Green area. I've always been pretty careful to give the names of my Garmin activities very simple descriptions. I do this for a very good reason -- it allows me to efficiently run reports. Now, on the one hand, I'm not always able to tell a specific ride from the list of activities, but on the other hand, since I'm generally interested in improvement along specific strata, it's much easier to just give all rides a similar name and then view them over time. For example, I almost always call any singlespeed training ride in Wissahickon by the name "Singlespeed Ride Wissahickon". So without delving into the actual rides, it's tough to tell which ride involves some unique element. I try to use the comments section for these types of things, but I find that using the same name makes creating reports much easier. For example, to create the following trend line, I just had to pull reports with the name "Singlespeed Ride Wissahickon". I thought this gave me a better true comparison of race fitness, since it eliminates any rides on the road or rides on my OCLV or singlespeed rides in other venues when Wiss is my primary training grounds. (Basically, I'm trying to control for more potential sources of variation - standard operating procedure for comparative analysis.) I could use the other features (course descriptions, bike id, etc.) but I find that for quick and dirty analyses, just pulling by name is faster and more efficient.

So anyway, the chart below shows my average speed per singlespeed ride since January 1, 2011. I broke it out into last year (in red) vs. this year (in blue) and then ran independent trend lines between on the two periods.

A few things struck me about this plot. First, it confirms my impression that I am riding faster this year than I did last year. That's the main goal so that's good. But I also notice that, if I just look at the full year 2011, once I take away the "training" component of race season, I'm a pretty laconic rider. I generally don't race in the first few months of the year or the last few. And if you look at 2011, it's pretty evident that I don't use those periods to ride hard at all. In fact, my fourth quarter of 2011 speeds were almost half a mile per hour slower than they were for the third quarter.
I'm not too concerned about that because that time is technically the off-season, and I did have a number of rides there where I would stop and hang out with friends a bit more than usual. And I also think it may have been a much needed break this year, considering that for the first quarter alone compared to previous year, I was riding more than one mph faster (and what's not apparent here is that I was doing it with more time spent on the 20t vs the 18t.) In fact, that first quarter improvement from a percentage standpoint is pretty good -- I rode more than 20% faster in Q1 2012 vs Q1 2011. Moreover, the improvement for Q2 is about 14% (8.26 mph vs. 7.26 mph), and since that time period is more "in-season", I think that's even more encouraging. Of course, the weather helped out a lot -- I had better conditions to ride in this year --  but I'm still pretty happy with those numbers.

How does all of this translate to race performance? Well, that's hard to tell -- I've had a few good results so far and a few horrible experiences that had nothing to do with fitness (Michaux Trail Cup being the first one that comes to mind.) And since I can't control for the weather element, which everyone I race against can take advantage of as well, it's hard to say if that's been the kind of rising tide that's raised all boats and all of us who race endurance class on a regular basis all pretty much the same relative to one another even if we're all faster individually. But I'm not too concerned about that -- I learned a long time ago that the only thing you can try to control about a given race is how you ride individually. Your best day ever could leave you with less than a top ten finish, and a mediocre day can see you land on the podium - it all depends on who shows up to race against you and what kind of day they're having. So, oddly enough, I don't think  raw race results are always the best yardstick to measure how I'm riding. I like the idea of steady improvement, and I like the idea that I can get enjoyment from it. And those two things appear to be happening for me this year, so I'll call this year a success so far.

There's a whole lot more I could examine - all kinds of studies I could do on my own riding come to mind. Everything from case/control study on nutrition intake to climbing speed to personal perception of fitness vs. actual outcomes studies are possible. Sometimes I think it would be cool to just play around with the numbers and see what they can teach me. I'm actually not one of those people who think that getting deep into the numbers will take the fun out of riding (I mean, I am a statistician after all.) I think it would only enhance it. Not because I think I can create a formula for success or anything like that. It's just, well, this stuff is pretty cool when you think about it. Most questions we have about riding and fitness and nutrition actually can be answered pretty conclusively with nothing more than these little devices most of us throw on our bikes already. And playing with the numbers that come out of those devices actually can be fun and educational. For example, the single biggest differences for me between the red line of 2011 and the blue line for this year are (1) I've stopped trying to be a gear smasher and (2) I'm fully rigid these days. As for (1), I almost exclusively ride my 20t these days. And my rationale for doing so -- that I live and ride in an area where a bigger gear really doesn't afford much advantage because there are simply not enough flat sections to warrant self-generated speed -- makes sense when I consider that I actually do prefer to spin a higher cadence when I can. And as for (2), that may be the bigger component. I got the rigid fork almost by accident when my suspension fork needed to be rebuilt a week before the sWe race in November. What i found was that, with very few exceptions, riding rigid doesn't have to be a painful experience. In fact, I'd argue that it's made me a much better rider in general because I've had to relax my upper body so much more to avoid taking a pounding every time out. And that relaxation has made me at least slightly better at descending, which may have been my biggest weakness before.

But my point is that all of this can be measured. And that's kind of cool. Sure, sometimes its better to just turn off your brain and go eat up some singletrack. But if you are inclined to wonder about what makes you ride the way you do, it's actually pretty simple to answer most of those questions by simply designing your own experiment, controlling for what variability you can, and then interpreting the data from the GPS or other computer you probably already have on your bike (but always with a skeptical eye!)

So that's about it for now. Not so bad all this stat stuff, is it? To offset the heavy numbers in this post, here's a few closing shots of last night's near perfect ride under clear skies in low humidity in Wissahickon.

Keep on ridin'!

The moon was already out by the time I started the ride at 5:45 and got brighter as I went along

A closer view of a very clear moon

Just beyond the tree line is a major highway ... you'd never know it!

This branch was soaking wet and slapped me in the face as I rode through.

Much of the trail is very lush after the recent rain

Got a shot of the creek with the last few rays of sunlight hitting it before the shadows closed in.

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