Cycling to the Opera

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Crashing the Charly Miller Society

* After the first day of racing the August 17, 1901 New York Times reported, "The betting to-night is 3 to 1 against Lesna and 6 to 1 against Miller"

I find the legend of Charly Miller to be quite compelling. In the second Paris-Brest-Paris ever held, back in 1901, Charly entered the professional racers category. At that time, PBP was an actual race for the pro’s as well as for a second group of “touriste-routiers,” the randonneurs of those days. The race was held over a slightly shorter course, just under 1200 km, and on what was then the “main highway” between Paris and Brest, following today’s N12, which in those days was largely dirt or cobblestone and more suitable for wagons and carriages pulled by horses, although not as hilly as the current route.

For the long distance professionals of those days, it was quite common to be “paced.” So from the start at Parc-des-Prince, the rider would have a teammate ride ahead of him, over the bridge at Suresnes, and out to Versailles. At the top of the long climb, the first pace rider would pull off, and a second rider would take up pacing duties to the next relief point.

In addition, at each of the controles, the rider’s support crew would hand up food and replace bidons, much like the supported riders in today’s PBP. The crew would hop back in their car and drive to the next controle, and problems with the bicycles would be fixed by the mechanics on the crew.


Charly Miller had none of this. He was a track endurance rider from Chicago, who reportedly didn’t even speak French. God knows why he rode PBP in 1901, but he rode it completely unsupported (and reportedly underfunded). Despite not having pacers and not having support on the road, and despite suffering a number of punctures and having to replace his broken bicycle (he rode the final 350 km on a borrowed bike), he still managed to finish 5th, and against 112 of the top European professionals. To give you some idea, this particular PBP was won by Maurice Garin, who went on to win the inaugural Tour de France two years later. Miller’s finishing time of 56 hours 40 minutes has been enshrined by Randonneurs USA: any RUSA member (I’m not sure if they need to be US citizens as well, but it’s OK, I’m a dual citizen) who finishes inside this time becomes a member of the “Charly Miller Society.”

I find RUSA too lax in opening its membership to the Society to anyone finishing inside 56:40. To me, it denigrates the most heroic aspect of Miller’s fine accomplishment: he did it completely unsupported. He had to stop and find his own food. He had to fill his own bottles. He had to carry all his own clothing and spares, and perform all his own repairs. In those days, assuming Miller was riding pneumatic tires, a punctured tire could take an hour to repair or replace.

I would have to think that Miller was quite the resourceful bike racer, so he must have had the presence of mind to sit on the wheel of supported, paced riders. Garin’s finishing time of 52 hours shows that reasonable speeds (where drafting is possible) were possible on the dirt roads of the time.

A less influential factor was Miller’s gearing. In those days, pro’s would have been on a single gear, probably with a freewheel (invented for bicycles around 1899), maybe even fixed, as Miller was a trackie. I would say less influential, since there was far less climbing than in today’s more rural PBP.

For these reasons, I am announcing my goal of doing a “real” Charly Miller in 2015: Inside 56:40, on a fixed gear bike, completely unsupported.

I finished the 2011 PBP in just under 65 hours on a fixed gear, but this was with the 84-hour group, starting at 5 am, riding until dark or later (I rode until about 11:30 pm the first day), getting several hours sleep plus sit-down dinner and breakfast, and departing between 4:30 and 5 the next morning.  I had no drop bags and carried everything (pretty minimal – it all fit in my jersey pockets or I wore it), but I spent too much time at the controles trying to find food and supplies. I never got sleepy on the bike, though!

To set a good time, I think you need to start with the 80-hour group in the late afternoon. This ensures that you’re fresh enough to ride the entire first night, and then all of the daylight hours the next day take care of themselves. The first stop for sleep would be at one of the controles on the way back from Brest, trying to complete 7- or 800 km as darkness sets in for the second night. Here, sleep would need to be limited to just one hour before the final 16 to 20-hour rush to the finish at SQY. That’s the basic strategy.

Water bottles can be refilled at the controles, but for this ride I think it’s a good idea to avoid obtaining food at the controles. The lineups are too long, or the dining areas are too far from the bikes or too difficult to find. I think it will be much faster just stopping at “convenience stores” along the route. I was also amazed at how much they charged at the controles for the “energy drinks” that were advertised during the ride! I’m sure I can do better at the epiceries.

There is a downside; in fact, there are a few. The main downside is that I will need to ride about 30 hours before the first sleep break. On a previous 1,000 km ride (geared road bike), I was able to nap about 30 minutes at the 30-hour mark, then finish in 45 hours. But on the Hoodoo 500 (fixed gear), I took a sleep break at about 21 hours, then needed another sleep break at about 25 hours, and then a couple more later. On both these rides, I started hallucinating. On the 1,000, it was after 47 hours, while on the drive home from the finish. At Hoodoo, the hallucinations started at night after about 40 hours. The hallucinations usually involve seeing an overpass above me, like riding on the lower deck of a bridge. The hallucinations are extremely realistic. After the Hoodoo ride, large grease stains in the parking lot turned into discarded umbrellas. I could even reach down with my hand to pick them up, and my fingers would just go through them, but the hallucinations remained!

In conjunction with the hallucinations, there is usually a reduced “will” to continue. On the 1,000, I was ready to quit at the 30-hour mark in Leavenworth, as I still had to get up Stevens Pass, out to Monroe and Snohomish, then up Highway 9 to the finish at Abbotsford. But I wouldn’t be able to get a ride out until the next day, after the controle closed, so I decided that it would be quicker just to ride the bike back, so I finished the ride. And it was quicker than waiting for the car to take me.  At Hoodoo, I spent too much time off the bike after the 21st hour. Having the support car right there was not a good thing; stops were too tempting. As well, once you’re tired, you get disoriented, and that combined with the hallucinations makes you question whether or not you are even on the right route. This is where a very strong and sure crew chief becomes invaluable. Failing this, a working Garmin is the next best thing. For PBP, I’ll have the external battery pack attached to the Garmin. The nice thing about the Garmin 500 is that it lights up when the external power is turned on, so I can read it at night while it’s charging.

So, what do you get when you qualify for Le Societe Charly Miller? A medal? A certificate? No, you get nothing. Zip. Which is fine with me, because the highest accomplishments usually go unrewarded. Prizes are embarrassing; it’s enough to just have done it. And it’s not about me, it’s about Charly Miller, an American about whom hardly any Americans know anything. He is even less well-known than Major Taylor, who would be in Paris the following year during his European tour, racing the best European track cyclists (he had become a World Sprint Champion in Montreal in 1899).  But the legend of Charly Miller is an inspiration worth knowing.

Experimenting with a Front Disc Brake: Results

Disc brakes are pretty standard now on mtb’s, but for the road they seem to be a solution looking for a problem. They provide much better modulation, but mechanical disks don’t provide as much maximum power, and they are heavier than caliper brakes when you factor in that heavy steel rotor. They are a good excuse for using carbon fiber rims, but the major advantage is in saving the front rim in wet and dirty winter riding.

I have been experimenting with a front disc brake this past winter, and I am impressed with its capabilities. I would recommend a front disc for winter riding on the road, but would also conclude that a rear disc is unnecessary and superfluous, unless you are set on using carbon fiber wheels front and rear.


The benefits, after 4,000 km of winter riding in the Pacific NW (and some riding in California):

-       The front rim is absolutely pristine. In previous years, the front rim would be worn down enough to form longitudinal cracks, or even fail when the tire bead would bend the rim from 100+ psi of tire pressure, allowing the tube to expand and explode. This could be a safety issue. Typically, a rim would last 15-20,000 km before this would happen, but lately I have noticed current rims have started to “bow” outward after only 7,000 km. This suggests that the rim manufacturers are using less material.

-       My first set of disc pads lasted about 3,500 km. This compares quite favorably to the 500 km rim pads will normally last in a wet winter before needing replacement. It helps to use sintered metal pads rather than organic pads for durability.

-       Even with a mechanical disc brake (Avid BB7), modulation has been good enough to be able to use front brake only over snow. More on this later.

-       Because I’ve used primarily front brake only (especially on dry surfaces), the rear rim pads have lasted much longer than the disc pads.

-       For travel, or for long-distance riding, a set of spare disc pads is far easier to carry than a set of rim pads. The disc pads can also be replaced without tools (at least on a BB7).

For the past several years, I’ve been using a Rodriguez fixed gear bike almost exclusively on the road. The typical summer configuration uses an ENVE carbon fiber fork with Campag Chorus caliper brakes front and rear. In the winter, I typically change out the handlebar/stem and attached brake assembly to Campag Centaur and vintage Record. This past winter, I wanted to experiment with a front disc in order to address the front rim wear problem.

The first issue was obtaining a proper disc brake fork. Most authorities are adamant that a fork must be built to specifically handle the loads of a disc brake. They show pictures of broken forks that are bent just above the disc mount. Another issue is that the force of a disc brake tends to move the wheel downward in the dropout. One hears stories of disc brakes causing wheels to eject from forks. Finally (after years) this justifies the use of “lawyer tabs,” which I have always filed off on all my forks so that I don’t have to mess with the quick release to get the front wheel on or off.

The second issue was finding a fork built to handle a disc that had a 367mm axle-crown measurement. This is pretty standard for a road fork, but most aftermarket forks are built for touring or cyclocross, with axle-crown distances of 380 to 400mm. You would think that product managers would make 367mm disc forks readily available for riders wanting to upgrade their road bikes for front disc/rear caliper use. Especially when used with a hydraulic disc, this setup would allay fears of losing brakes entirely if the hydraulic fluid overheats and causes the brake to fade on a long, steep descent; at least you’d still have the rear caliper brake. But no, the only production 367mm disc fork is made by ENVE for a tapered (1 1/8” to 1.5”) steerer. Most disc forks are built for cyclocross use and provide plenty of clearance, but they also raise the front of the bike slightly (and mess with the resulting rake/trail).

Fortunately, I was able to order a Wound Up carbon disc brake fork, modified with a 367mm axle-crown distance, and with a 45mm rake. The Wound Up disc fork appears to be their standard fork with the attachment of a standard disk brake sleeve (which says a lot about the strength of their standard fork. Wound Up, by the way, is about the only company to make a tandem-certified carbon fiber fork). The fork is ugly as sin, the aluminum crown is still massive and provides just enough clearance to a 23mm tire, and the carbon steerer is reinforced with an aluminum liner so that a standard starfangled nut can be used, but the result is a 650 gram fork (compared to the 350-gram ENVE 2.0. At least, like ENVE, the Wound Up forks are built in Utah, and are not from some unnamed factory in China!

The other preparation required was building a new front wheel. I used the SRAM 506 front disc hub as the basis. Since I like to have the outward spokes radiating backwards (with the rotation), I had to build the wheel asymmetrically. The theory is that you want the outward spokes radiating against the forces being exerted next to the spoke flange (“wind-up”), so the drive side of the rear wheel will have the spokes radiating back. Because the rotor is on the left side, the outward spokes must radiate towards the front (against the rotation); thus, the asymmetrical front wheel, which must also be dished. 32 spokes are sufficient; I’m not sure disc hubs with less than 32 holes are commonly available. I typically build my front wheels (for caliper brakes) with 28 spokes (I weigh 170 pounds/78 kilos).

Because there is so little stress on the front rim, I have resolved to build a second front disc wheel, but it will have a carbon fiber clincher rim!

I was able to obtain compressionless cable housing (highly recommended), and installation of the disc was quick and easy. After mounting the rotor to the hub with the six torx bolts, you install the front wheel in the fork, then LOOSELY attach the disc caliper unit, tighten down the pads against the rotor, and tighten the caliper unit to the fork. This ensures that the pads are properly aligned to the rotor. You then attach the brake cable and adjust the pads so the wheel spins freely, but lever travel is minimal. I didn't even bother to attach the cable adjuster – its sole purpose is to take out any cable stretching. The instructions are adamant about not using it to adjust the lever travel (other than taking out the initial unproductive part). The lever is a standard Campag carbon fiber with the gearshift internals removed. Lever travel is equivalent to a well-adjusted rim caliper.

You then have to seat/wear in the disc pads. This is done by taking the bike down a steep hill and riding the brake for about 10 seconds. My first ride with the disc brake took me down Thermal in Coquitlam in the rain, which requires far more than 10 seconds of braking. I rode only  the front brake most of the way down with no problem. At the last stop sign, I put my gloved hand on the rotor, which immediately started smoking! The rotor does get hot! Later in December, when I took the bike to California and rode up and down Mt. Diablo, the rotor had changed to a darker color by the bottom of the descent!

Since I installed the disc brake, with very few exceptions all of my braking has been front brake only. This was initially to test the efficiency of the brake, but I was so confident with the result that I just continued to use front brake only. Yes, you do need to revert to rear brake only on icy roads, but on soft snow, I've even had the confidence to apply just the front brake due to the disc’s superior modulation. I think the greater modulation is due to the mechanical disadvantage of the disk vs a rim brake. On a standard caliper rim brake, the calipers are located at pretty much the same part of the circle where resistance (ground force on tire) is applied, so the forces tend to cancel each other out, and it is easy to apply too much force to the brake, which causes traction to be lost. With a disc, though, the braking force is applied closer to the center of the wheel circle, and the resistance of the ground is multiplied by the greater distance (moment arm) of the hub to rim distance vs the hub to rotor distance. But because braking force is reduced due to this difference in leverage, it is easier to make small changes to the braking force without significantly disrupting the tire traction. The loss of leverage makes the brakes less “twitchy,” enhancing the ability to modulate braking.

I think the advantage of a hydraulic brake has more to do with the ability to apply greater forces at maximum braking, since there is some leverage provided by the hydraulic reservoir. I think this would provide more uniform modulation across the entire lever travel, including at the maximum extreme, where the mechanical disc’s inferior leverage requires more hand pulling force. But we will find out when I upgrade to a hydraulic disc for next winter.

And if the front disc is good, wouldn't adding a rear disc be better? For the road, I think not, and for the following reasons:

-       The weight penalty of a disc brake and rotor vs brake caliper.

-       The rotor requires dishing. Combined with the dishing inherent in a rear wheel with cassette, this would result in a very narrow base for the rear wheel’s spokes, making for a weaker rear wheel.

-       If the front disc is hydraulic, a mechanical rear caliper would be a better backup option than a second hydraulic disc.

-       There is far less of a safety issue with the rear rim cracking due to pads wearing the brake track than with the front rim failing.

-       The rear brake does not require the same amount of modulation as the front. Basically, it just needs to be on or off, since the front brake does most of the work. In the worst-case emergency braking situation (assuming no ice), both brakes are applied at maximum. The resulting weight shift unweights the rear tire, causing it to start skidding. Rather than modulating the rear  brake, which will have absolutely no effect since the rear tire is nearly weightless, the competent cyclist will maintain the same rear brake pressure, but will ease up slightly on the FRONT brake. Although this will reduce deceleration slightly, it will also reduce weighting to the front, providing equivalent weight to the rear, and giving the rear tire more traction, causing the skidding to stop as the rear tire weights, and rear tire adhesion helps slow the bike. Pressure is then reapplied to the front, which is modulated as needed according to the above to control the rear tire skidding.

-       In my own particular case, with a fixed gear in a track end, a rear disk is impractical because it would be difficult to move the rear disc brake caliper in conjunction with the rear wheel as it is gradually moved further back due to the chain stretching.  As well, one of the big advantages of my particular fixie is that it can be quickly converted for track use by removing the brakes and handlebar/stem and replacing them with a track handlebar/stem. With a front disk, I must also include a fork change, but a useless rear disc brake caliper assembly mounted to the seat stay would make this harder to achieve!

Reflections on Wagner’s Ring, Seattle, 2013

The recent cycle of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) which concluded in August 2013 in Seattle’s acoustically splendid Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, marks the ninth complete live performance of the Ring I have attended. This particular production premiered in 2001, and was performed in 2005, 2009, and 2013, and I have seen all four.

My first Ring was Seattle’s 1995 production of its previous Ring, also produced by Seattle Opera’s general director Speight Jenkins, the most knowledgeable and energetic man in all of opera. There is something of Richard Wagner in Mr. Jenkins, but in a nice, positive way. Wagner tended to be somewhat of a control freak; he wrote all his own librettos, all the music, including orchestration (as did all classical composers – today’s composers of Broadway musicals will write the score, but someone else will arrange it). He wrote extensive stage directions as well as endless tracts regarding his philosophies as reflected in his music. Towards the end of his life, he built his own opera house in Bayreuth to present his “music dramas,” and he was working on lighting when he died in 1883.

Speight Jenkins, now 76, has been producing operas in Seattle since 1983, and will be retiring in 2014. He writes extensive program notes for each opera, gives numerous lectures, does the casting, greets operagoers in the lobby, does commentary for a local radio station during the second Saturday broadcast of the opera then in performance, and answers questions from the audience after every opera, often staying past midnight, among all the other duties handled by the general director of a notable regional opera company. Such is his boundless energy!

Other Rings I have seen include Arizona (produced by Glyn Ross, who produced Seattle’s first Ring, and held at Ardrey Auditorium, which – just like the theater at Bayreuth – has the orchestra pit located under, rather than just in front of, the stage), San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. The latter two Rings were heavily weighted in terms of their designers: Achim Freyer for LA and Robert LePage for the Met. In LA, the characters wore outlandish costumes and sang atop projections of moving clocks, while in NYC, the centerpiece was a pivoting machine that looked like seesaws strung together and changed to suite the scene.

Seattle’s current Ring is more traditional, with an abundance of lush, detailed scenery that replicates the Pacific Northwest. It’s called the “green Ring” because its basic theme is the harm and imbalance brought about by the violation of nature. The scenery is directly contrary to most of the sparse stages often seen in European productions, sparseness influenced heavily by the successful postwar Bayreuth productions of Wieland Wagner, Richard’s genius grandson.

The Ring can be interpreted in many ways, and there is no “correct interpretation.” It is a story of the power of love set against the love of power; of the illusion of free will, the hero’s journey, and the corruption of nature by civilization, among other things. Because Wagner started work on the Ring in the middle of the 19th century, George Bernard Shaw ascribes to it a political interpretation, encompassing the industrial revolution and socialism, seeing it as an expression of Wagner’s youthful radical ideas formulated with the leading socialists of his day (most notably his contemporary Mikhail Bakunin), leading to the Dresden uprising from which he escaped a fugitive.

Originally, the work was to be one opera, called “Siegfried’s Death,” which was to later become Gotterdammerung. Wagner wrote the poem for the libretto, but decided that some explanation was required for how Siegfried and Brunnhilde had got to the starting point of the opera, at the top of a mountain surrounded by fire. This led to the libretto for the opera Siegfried, which required an explanation as to how the young Siegfried came to be in the forest in the company of the evil dwarf Mime. This resulted in the libretto for Die Walkure, which introduced us to Brunnhilde, and to the randy twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, Siegfried’s incestuous parents. And then Wagner decided this trilogy required a one-act opening which introduced the Ring itself, and the main characters – gods, giants, and dwarves (Nibelungen), and how the Ring came to be cursed and an object of such great desire. This was Das Rheingold.

And then Wagner started to write the music, starting at the beginning, with a long, continuous low E-flat that grew into the triad based on the opening note, the motif for the Rhine River and the basis for all the motifs related to Nature, uncomplicated by chromaticism. Wagner introduced the concept of musical motifs, short musical passages tied to characters, things, ideas, and actions, that were repeated and evolved as the drama required. When he got to the end of Act 2 of Siegfried, he reached a mental block (or a romantic diversion in his incessant longing for one Mathilda Wesendonck, the wife of an admiring benefactor). This resulted in the opera Tristan and Isolde, an opera about longing, characterized by the famous unresolved “Tristan Chord” (which changed music irrevocably). Later, Wagner had an idea for a small comic opera that any municipal company could mount. Like most Wagnerian projects, this soon grew far beyond its original scope and became Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, one of his longest and most expensive-to-produce operas.

But when he returned to Siegfried, Act 3, the difference in musical texture was clearly palpable. Not only had his compositional and orchestral skills enlarged to a point of masterly sophistication, he had also changed his ideas about music. He no longer resisted the idea of ensemble singing, and he saw the voice and orchestra as a whole, rather than parts, where one might be more important than the other. All of it was equally important. The motifs were, at times, cleverly “stacked” on top of each other, rather than played alone in the foreground. Gotterdammerung contained a large men’s chorus, and at the end of the whole Ring, the final motif that tied everything together was a snatch of melody from Act 3 of Die Walkure, at the point where Sieglinde thanks Brunnhilde for aiding her, and this becomes the motif for the redemption of the world, or of nature.

To gather some idea of the influence of Wagner even today, one must only listen to movie music. Wagner was a man far ahead of his time. There are passages in the Ring that, taken out of context, sound like they are from the typical adventure movie, most notably from cliffhanger serials of the 1930’s or 40’s. He would certainly have been at home in the movies, writing the scripts, directing, scoring the music. His concept of the “gesamtkunswerk,” the total work of art, or unification of all the arts, would apply to movies today. During his own time, he created “music dramas” rather than “operas.” The action or the ideas flow continuously, with no break for pretty arias.

In fact, it’s very difficult to identify any discrete “songs” that can be performed outside of the Ring. Even though you often hear Brunnhilda’s Immolation Scene from Gotterdammerung performed in concert by established Wagnerian sopranos, this is more akin to a 20-minute dramatic monologue than to a recital piece. The closest the Ring comes to a hummable aria is near the end of Act 1 of Die Walkure, where Siegmund sings “Wintersturme,” followed by Sieglinde’s “Du bist der Lenz,” as the twins make their love known to each other.

Wagner, though, was also mired in the attitudes of his time, most notably the anti-semitism. But Wagner was a paradox. He was a political radical, but he made sure not to offend the nobility who sponsored him later in his life. He wrote egregious anti-semitic tracts decrying Judaism in music, but he hired Jewish conductors for his premiers and had many close Jewish friends. His music was later co-opted by Hitler and the Nazis, but this had more to do with his wife Cosima (as well as influential members of the far-right-leaning British nobility of the time) than with Wagner’s intrinsic beliefs. I personally believe Wagner would have been apalled at the use of his music by the Nazis, and he would have seen Hitler as an analogue of Alberich’s evil, manipulative bastard son Hagen.

Hitler supposedly admired Wagner’s non-canonical early opera Rienzi, Wagner’s attempt at French grand opera (famously once referred to by the “notoriously tactless” conductor Hans von Bulow as Meyerbeer’s best opera), even having a score with him in his bunker, a score which subsequently disappeared and has never been seen since. (Aside: von Bulow, incidentally, was Cosima’s first husband before she became Wagner’s second wife. As Frau von Bulow, she had been carrying on an extramarital affair with Richard, who fathered the two daughters – Isolde and Eva – during this time.) Wagner disavowed Rienzi, refusing to include it within his ten canonical operas. But there is no doubt that the martial aspects of much of Wagner’s music (listen to the overture to Act 3 of Lohengrin for the best example) would have appealed even to boorish,uncultured philistines such as the Nazi leaders. In fact, Wagner was less interested in German political supremacy than he was with Germanic art and culture, as summed up by Hans Sachs near the end of Die Meistersinger:

Listen to your German Masters (a scandalous line!)

If the Holy Roman Empire should disappear into dust,

There will always be Holy German Art!


And sitting through nine Ring cycles is not enough to fully appreciate the various dimensions of humans and their interactions that are at the core of the Ring. The first time I saw the Ring, when the music was fresh and unfamiliar, I felt acquainted with it by the time I reached Siegfried, the third night. My mind had already become familiar with most of the motifs, so there was a familiarity, sometimes subconscious, with each character’s motivations and meanings. By the ninth Ring, I can recognize most of the motifs at a conscious level, and I’m hearing much more of the beauty and seductiveness of the music. But of course, I continuously hear new things I had not previously noticed. And I’m already looking forward to the next Ring, wherever it may be.




An example of Hans von Bulow’s tactlessness: “The three greatest composers are Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. All the others are cretins.”  (Alan Walker, Hans Von Bülow: A Life and Times pg. 289, Oxford University Press - USA (2009). ISBN 0-19-536868-1)

London Edinburgh London Report

In order to complete a brevet of more than 600 km, or more than one day, you need to adopt a strategy. Paris-Brest-Paris, for example, has two basic strategies, depending on your start time. If you start on Sunday afternoon/evening, the general strategy is to ride thru the first night and into as much of the next day’s daylight as you can before stopping. Ideally, this should put you at around km 800, maybe 900, and setting you up to finish the next day. If you start Monday in the early morning, the likely strategy becomes riding as many daylight hours as possible, trying to complete three consecutive 400-km days.

London Edinburgh London allows you five days to ride 1400 km. Because everyone starts on Sunday morning, it is more conducive to the second strategy above. Underscoring this is the fact that the organization provides all of your meals and lodging for those five days, so it makes sense to treat this as a fast tour, covering the average of 280 km per day for five days, and getting a decent nights’ sleep each evening.

2013 was my first attempt at this quadrennial ride, and being unfamiliar with the terrain, I adopted too ambitious a strategy and had to modify it as the ride (and attendant saddle issues) developed.

The ride strategy determines where you will sleep. LEL provides a fabulous benefit for those who like riding light by providing you with two free bag drops. (Aside: they provide nice cloth stuff bags with drawstrings and printed logos that include the name of the control, and they let you keep the bags after!) Now, you don’t have to match the drop locations with where you will sleep, but since they also provide showers (and what passes for a towel, but then beggars can’t be choosers, can we?), it makes sense to place the drop bags at your sleep points. Not fully understanding the five-day time allotment, I naturally had the bags at as close to km 350 and 700 as possible: Pocklington (km 336) and Edinburgh (km 705, the halfway point). There are nine controls between Loughton and Edinburgh, and eleven between Edinburgh and Loughton, with 99 km the longest distance between controls.

What they don’t tell you is that it is pretty fast and flat between Loughton and Pocklington, but then it gets pretty hilly after that. And one big disadvantage of having a bag drop at Edinburgh is that you only get at it once. A far more clever way to arrange the drops is to take them at Market Rasen (km 246 out, 1153 back) and Brampton (550 out, 851 back), filling each for two stops, out and back (e.g., two dry t-shirts & socks, and two fresh shorts in each bag).

Carole and I arrived in London on Saturday morning, the day before the start, taking an overnight Air Transat flight from Vancouver to Gatwick. Air Transat is good to fly on in these tightly-scheduled situations because they only do direct flights. This means there is zero chance of your bike not making a connecting flight! As long as it’s loaded in Vancouver, it should arrive with you at your destination, and such was the case for both Carole and my bikes at Gatwick.

I had booked a Gatwick Express (runs every 15 minutes) to Victoria Station, and we managed to take the tube with our bike bags/boxes and carry-ons to Finsbury Park station, near my daughter’s flat. Aside: those who follow English Premier League football will know that this is Arsenal territory!

We put our bikes together and took the Overground to Stratford station, then the underground to Debden, from which we followed the gpx tracks for the next morning’s LEL prologue to get to the start for registration and drop bag setup. We found that some underground stations are off limits to bikes – Finsbury Park, for example. The “deep” tube stations don’t allow bikes, and they don’t have elevators, so you must carry the bike up and down the stairs. Technically, we weren’t supposed to have the bikes on the tube between Stratford and Leyton, but no one said anything.

For the second time this year (the first time was on Maui), I broke the seat post bolt tightening it. When I had the Rodriguez fixie built, I had wanted a separate detachable collar to hold the seatpost, but somehow I was talked into a plain M6 binder bolt directly into the frame tabs. I thought I had a spare (especially after Maui), but I didn’t, so I had to use one of the M6 bolts clamping the stem to the fork steerer. I thought this would be a simple temporary fix until I got a replacement bolt from one of the onsite mechanics at LEL, but they didn’t have one at registration! In fact, none of the mechanics I asked at any of the controls had one, so I ended up riding the entire 1400 km with one bolt clamping the stem, and the stem bolt clamping the seatpost. Fortunately it was a carbon post, greased with carbon paste, which is merely grease with tiny glass beads that hold the carbon in place, so the carbon tube doesn’t slip much under minimal tightening.

The only other problem I had was that the battery died on the crank-based powermeter, so I would not be able to obtain any power or rpm readings, since I hadn’t brought the spare battery. The battery is good for 400 hours, which would probably take most people a couple of years to reach, but I hadn’t noticed that I had reached this in about five months. But this was not really an issue, as I was using the powermeter head mostly as a gps on this ride. I was less interested in watts generated than I was in the breadcrumb tracks and in knowing the occasional percentage grade (which is usually inaccurate anyway).

I didn’t have any gps tracks showing the way from Finsbury Park to Buckingham Palace for the 6 am start on Sunday morning, so I printed off the Google Map directions. By the time we got to Euston, we were completely lost, but fortunately we saw a string of riders roll past on an adjacent street, dressed like randonneurs in PBP vests and with LEL number plates on the bikes, so we followed them. We actually went too far, looping around Trafalgar Square instead of just heading straight to The Mall at the Charing Cross roundabout, but we arrived in plenty of time for the start.

The LEL prologue rolled thru a Sunday morning London, past most of the tourist sites – Trafalgar Square, Picadilly Circus, the Parliament Buildings, St. Paul’s, the West End, still busy with traffic even between  6 and 7 am. Groups got separated at the lights, but reformed further down the road. We eventually reached Loughton, back to where we had registered, by around 7:30 am, having ridden more like 30 km than the 21 advertised. The prologue segment of the route card was stamped at this point. I had arrived early enough that I didn’t have to wait in line for breakfast. And from this point until we finished five days later, all the food was free!

Carole arrived shortly after, and we had time for coffee before heading to the paddock for our 8:30 am official start. All of the frame numbers had a letter followed by a number – mine was M5, Carole was M6, Ed Person was M7. The “M” meant we started at 8:30. L’s started at 8:15 and N’s would start at 8:45, I imagine.

On the road, along gently rolling hills in Essex county. Ed Person quickly opened up a gap while I sat in the draft of our small group. He was trying to make Thirsk by the first day, while I had Pocklington, one control nearer, in my sights. For a 1400-km ride, you don’t want to be burning matches this early. You can actually make up time more easily by minimizing time at the controls rather than making harder efforts on the road.

I had wanted to limit my stops to 15 minutes at the most, but this was difficult. At the first control at St. Ives (Cambridgeshire), there were long lines for food as the faster L’s and M’s caught the slower of the G’s and H’s. The tables where they stamp the route cards were sometimes hard to find, and you had to remove your shoes at most of the schools being used as controls if you wanted to eat or to use a washroom.

Getting used to riding on the left was also sometimes an issue. The most useful thing you can learn to do in Britain is to always look to the right when you come to an intersection. Left turns were easy, but right turns were sometimes tricky, remembering that you had to finish the turn in the left lane instead of the right.

In Britain, I noticed very few “Stop” signs. Most signs are Yield, or there are roundabouts, with the right of way going to whoever is in the roundabout first.

The most useful piece of equipment on the entire ride was the gps. LEL provided gpx tracks for each of the stages. At some point, you will be riding by yourself, or you may be riding behind someone who does not know the route. It’s nice to have the tracks visible, and to see the arrow following the line. And if the turns are so gentle that it’s difficult to tell whether or not to turn, you can see within 50 meters that you’re off course. A gps is far easier to follow than a printed cue sheet.

However, the downside of a gps is the limited battery life. I was experimenting with a portable charger that used 4 AA batteries attached to the stem of the bike, just underneath the gps, but despite the gps setting that was supposed to allow for charging during use, it could not operate and charge at the same time. As a result, I wasn’t able to track the LEL prologue. I did use the recharger unit each night, with the odd recharge during lunch on the long days, so I was able to use the gps for the entire ride beyond the prologue.

I ripped along with fast groups, Kirton (Lincolnshire) to Market Rasen (at the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds) and on to Pocklington (East Riding of Yorkshire) where I would stop for the night. I arrived at 21:30, feeling in good shape although my seat was feeling a little raw from too much pounding on the flats along the ofte3n-bumpy back roads. I had a decent dinner, although the drinks were suspect – they had a funny “diet drink” taste that discouraged me from drinking further. I drank lots of water instead. I don’t understand why anyone would consume any diet drinks – drinks with artificial zero calorie sweeteners – during a long ride where you need the extra Calories.

I was glad I had left Thirsk (North Yorkshire) to the next morning; it would have been tricky navigating the narrow, winding lanes that often degenerated into gravel double-track in the dark. The hills were also getting steeper – I had to walk the fixie over one of them – but the broad panoramic views of the North Yorkshire countryside were quite superb.

I had thought we would be proceeding in a northerly direction, benefiting from the strong southerly winds, but the gps showed us headed more to the northwest, and looking at a map of Britain, this made sense. After stopping at Barnard Castle (where there really is an old castle), we reached almost to the west coast at Brampton (Cumbria), just south of Hadrian’s Wall. From here, Edinburgh was due north, but first we had to cross the Scottish border and then tackle the long, steady climb out of Moffat (Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland). The road then levelled and took us along the Tweed River, between the Scottish hills as night descended, and we finally reached the control at the southern outskirts of Edinburgh at around 23:30.

This second day had taken longer than I had anticipated due to the climbing. It might have been a good idea to stop at Moffat for the night, and to take on the long climb early in the morning. I don’t like riding at night. But then on the road to Edinburgh, I was able to come in with a small group. My gps also lights up after sunset, so it was easy to navigate, although the road to Edinburgh is pretty straightforward except the last part in town.

At the southern edge of Edinburgh, we passed close to Roslyn Chapel, which figures prominently in The Da Vinci Code. I would have liked to have stopped had we passed by it!

Day 3 started with a climb out of Edinburgh. By this time my butt was getting quite raw, so climbing out of the saddle was actually appreciated. I had fresh shorts at the Pocklington and Edinburgh drop bags, but by then it was too late. I bought a container of ointment for treating saddle sores and was using it liberally, but it would take about a half hour of riding before I felt almost comfortable on the saddle. This was the biggest thing that slowed me down, and a definite disadvantage when riding a fixed gear.

Still, I enjoyed the Scottish scenery as I wound thru the quiet rolling hills, past the very rural controls at Traquair and Eskdalemuir before crossing back into England and returning to the control at Brampton, southbound this time.

Having reached Edinburgh in two days, I wanted to take three days to return to Loughton. Between Brampton and St. Ives we’d be doubling back on the same roads we’d gone out on, and the final push would take us on different roads to Great Easton and back to Loughton. Along the way I’d start seeing some of the same riders, recognizing the same jersey or bike. One “peculiarity” of LEL, for North American riders, is the number of English riders on the route without helmets. I will withhold any judgment on helmet-wearing, as there are good arguments for and against, but I will say that I was far more concerned with the absence of fenders, or of mudflaps if there were fenders, on the vast majority of bikes. There was sporadic light rain over the first three days, than a steady rain on Day 4, and you did not want to be directly behind most of the riders on LEL on the wet roads. I think we do a much better job of fenders and mudguards in the Pac NW than they do in England.

After stopping in the early evening, before sunset, at Barnard Castle, I wanted to do the same at Kirton on Day 4, leaving me with only 201 km to ride on the last day. It rained on the flat section next to the river boats on the way to Kirton, and I punctured twice. One of the punctures was the rim blowing off the front wheel. I was using the new 23mm rims (Velocity A23’s front and rear). I had a Vredestein Fortezza TriComp on the rear, inflated to 120-130 lbs, which was fine. But the front was a Vittoria Open Corsa Evo CX racing tire. It became quite evident to me that this was not designed for use with 23mm rims, as I had inflated it to 120 lbs the day before LEL, and the next morning, I found an exploded tube and the bead blown off the rim. I had kept it to 110 lbs, but the bead still came off the rim. I was able to finish the ride with the tire at about 90-100 lbs, but it was replaced with a TriComp after the ride. The Vredesteins are the best tires made (at least the TriComps are) – very puncture resistant, able to handle high pressures, even on 23mm rims!

Before the punctures, I was pushing the pace by myself. It’s common practice amongst randonneurs for one rider to pull a string of riders for kilometer after kilometer. Eventually they swing over and the lead changes. My pulls tend to be much shorter, but drifting back, I would sometimes find the last rider opening up a gap so he could stay in the sheltered last position, out of the rotation. This happened once, and I just kept slowing down to decline the opening in the pace line. So he slowed down to try to get on my wheel. So I just let the gap open, and by the time there was a good 20- or 30-second gap, I accelerated just hard enough to get back to the string by myself, not bringing the slacker up with me! Yeah, a racing background makes you not very nice, but my motto is to just leave the weak out there to die... heh heh!

Just as Day 4 was rain, Day 5 was hot and sunny. At around 100 km to go in LEL, we hit some of the worst hills on the entire ride. It was a constant up and down, all relatively short climbs, but some were pretty steep. One required walking up, the fourth climb in LEL where I had to get off and push (the other three: two in the Howardian Hills – out and back, and one near Eskdalemuir). By this time I was making the odd stop at the British equivalent of convenience stores to buy an occasional Coke, sometimes bolstered by a Red Bull. The last stop at Great Easton was nice. They had rerouted the section leading up to it, but I followed the gps tracks to get there by the original route. After more than 1,300 km, I ran into Ed Person again (we eventually finished within about 30 minutes of each other). The last 65-km stage back to Loughton wasn’t quite a victory lap, but I think I sped up as I smelled the barn. It was late afternoon, finishers were still hanging out, but I was surprised that there was a LOT of applause when I came in. I was just happy at the prospect of not having to ride the next day.

I was going to wait for Carole to finish so I could guide her back to Finsbury Park, but she had been pulled from the ride at Thirsk by one of the medical officials who determined that she was over-tired and a danger to herself on the road. Unlike me, she had been riding until the early hours of the morning to make the controls. She switched from being a rider to a volunteer and was able to talk her way into getting a ride back to Loughton, but that’s another story. Mine is much more mundane.


Highlight points for LEL:

  • If you can manage the logistics (and your legs can afford the additional 30 km distance), the London Prologue from Buckingham Palace is highly recommended!
  • No cheering spectators along the route. Well, maybe five or six along the entire 1,419 km. Until the end.
  • Scotland is scenic but hilly, with rough roads.
  • When you look down at the English countryside as your airliner descends, you see lots of quaint countryside with neat rows of hedges. These actually line the back roads and generally keep you out of the wind. England is a wonderful place to ride a bike!

A California Triple Crown on Fixed Gear

I started racing bicycles over 40 years ago in Northern California, and I remember being quite impressed with the California state champion’s jersey. It was patterned after the state flag, with the grizzly bear on it, and I’d always wanted to win one, except I moved to BC and was no longer eligible. Fast forward to some recent rides, and I’m seeing the same pattern used for the California Triple Crown winners. This is basically the same design, with the bear and the star, but it’s way easier to earn one of these: you only need to ride 600 miles.

Every year, various organizers in California put on around 20 double centuries spread throughout the state. Some, like Solvang in the spring, are reasonably gentle, while others, such as the Devil Mountain Double or the Alta Alpina 8 Pass Challenge, are totally insane, with 18- to 20,000 feet of climbing. They are all 200 miles or longer, some are timed, and all require you to finish in one day. Finish any three and you become a California Triple Crown winner and are allowed to purchase and wear the bear flag jersey.

Simple enough, so I drove down last May to Davis, CA to ride the first of my doubles. Just to make it a real challenge, I decided to do all three rides on the fixed gear, even though they don’t keep track of small things like that.

The Davis Bicycle Club is one of the biggest and most active in the state. They put on daily and weekly rides throughout the year, a number of brevets, and some major rides including the Gold Rush 1200 and the Davis Double Century.

200 miles is a good distance for an all-day ride. My rule of thumb is a 25 kmh average speed (which includes all the stops), adding an hour for every 1000 meters of climbing on the fixed gear. This would put a 320-km ride at 13 hours, plus the 8,400 feet of climbing would add close to three hours, so 16 hours would be a rough measure of prospective elapsed time. This would mean that the first and last hours of the ride would require lights.



We left at around 5h30 from Davis, in California’s Central Valley, and rolled across the broad expanse of flat farm fields as the sun rose. Large packs formed, bumping up the average speed slightly until we reached the first of the many food stops after about 40 km. From here, things broke up as we reached the Coast Range. The route winds thru the hills east of the Napa Valley, with no major climbs until we reach Cobb Mountain. Not only does this hill get steep, but it gets quite warm and the road climbs forever. Even when we reach the food stop near the top, there are still about three km of climbing before the road finally summits. My legs started to cramp up just before the food stop, and it didn’t get much better even after slowing down. I was even cramping up on the descents as I kept the fixed gear cranks spinning. I had to take one foot out and pedal downhill with the other just to try to stretch out the cramps. I managed to reach the lunch stop just past the halfway point where I could rest, eat, and cool off a bit, and things improved for the second half of the ride The rule of thumb worked pretty well, as I finished in about 15 hours, even with the cramping. The sun was just starting to set after 8 pm, so I didn’t need to turn on the light.

The next day, after driving into the Sierra foothills at Lotus, CA, I made the mistake of riding the Motherlode Century. I was going to do the 100-mile ride as a convenient training ride after the first double, but I had to cut it down to the metric century as it was far hillier than I had anticipated. I couldn’t believe some of the climbs! I had to walk up a narrow grade just after crossing a narrow bridge at the bottom of a wild ravine, and it had to be about a 20% grade, but it was certainly scenic. My ride partner decided to hitch a ride in the sag back to the start, but I managed to finish.



After spending the week in Reno, NV, with an easy ride around Lake Tahoe as part of the recovery, I drove down Highway 395 and deep into Southern California. The Borrego Springs Double sounded like a real adventure, and scheduled for the week after Davis, it made for a convenient second double. The journey starts on the floor of the Anza-Borrego desert near the Salton Sea, climbs 1,300 meters over the mountains, descends to the coast, reaching the beach at Oceanside, then returns. The notable thing about the return trip is that it pretty much follows the roads used by the Race Across America between Oceanside and Borrego Springs, at least this year, when the double century was rerouted down the “Glass Elevator” into Borrego Springs rather than down the traditional Banner Grade due to forest fires.

The ride started at first light, around 5:15 am, so we wouldn’t need to have the lights on, and after leaving town, we immediately began the 20-km climb of the Glass Elevator. The road twists and turns at a reasonably gentle grade up the side of the escarpment, and every now and then you get a nice view of the desert floor as it drops further and further below. The climb, though, was less of an issue than the heavy winds that had been gusting for the past several days, ever since Reno. You’d round a corner and be brought to a complete stop by the stiff wind and the grade. I heard that one rider got knocked over by the wind. The sun rose as we were about halfway up the ascent, but the warmth of the desert turned into cool, then cold winds as we approached the clouds at the summit.



In addition to the wind, there was rain. The roads became wet at the summit, and the high winds were replaced by a light, cold drizzle. I fortunately had my PBP vest, knitted arm warmers, and lightweight leg warmers on, and they were just enough to keep me comfortable until we descended back into some warmth and dry roads. I also heard that at least one rider had to quit because he hadn’t prepared with warm clothes.

We followed the mountain roads as they rolled and twisted down to the coast, reaching the ocean at Cardiff, where we turned and followed the beaches to our lunch stop at Oceanside, at the very spot where RAAM would start a month later. I stopped for too long, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the ocean breezes, so I felt better when I was back on the road, at first a bike path that ran for over 10 km, then onto reasonably quiet roads that took us out of the metropolitan areas. I followed a couple of local riders, but they made a wrong turn (the cue sheet was kind of sketchy at this point) and I naturally followed them, even after we rode thru some gravel sections. We finally turned around, but we must have added at least 10 km to the route.

The way back is mostly uphill, with the longest, steepest climb up the section of road leading towards the Palomar Observatory. The climb was so hot that I finally took off the arm and leg warmers here, but the cold temperatures returned as I reached the top, back along the ridge where we had been in the morning. I put the warm clothes back on at the final food stop, where they had some welcome hot food, then started the final leg as darkness started to descend.

It was pitch black by the time I reached the top of the Glass Elevator. Because I could see nothing over the edge, just the tunnel of light reflected by the dry road ahead, the descent was no different than riding any other winding descent, other than the strong, gusty winds returning, so there was no apprehension about pushing the turns a little. The increasing warmth that came with the elevation loss also helped spur me on, and it wasn’t long before I reached the town of Borrego Springs and a burrito feast to finish the second ride.

I had to fly down to Sacramento for the third ride, as I didn’t have the time to drive down. I chose Knoxville because it uses some of the same roads used by Davis, starting in Vacaville rather than in Davis, and going the other way up and down Cobb Mountain. The official California Triple Crown breakfast was also scheduled for the following day, so it might be interesting to meet some of the riders and organizers in person.

I left the car in Bellingham, at a private lot near the airport. They charge $7 per day, compared with $9 at the airport, and for an additional $10 they hand-wash your car, probably a good idea after sitting outside all weekend. They also provide a free shuttle to and from the airport. I flew Alaska Airlines to Sacramento, with a transfer in Seattle. I shouldn’t have been surprised that  the bike arrived safely in Sacramento (Alaska does baggage pretty well), where I rented a car and drove to my motel in Vacaville. After reassembling the bike, I rode to registration at the start, then rode back a different way, finding a convenient bike path thru Pena Adobe Park that would reduce the distance I’d have to ride to get to the start the next morning.

As usual, I didn’t have breakfast, anticipating enough to eat at the food stops, and I started the ride with an empty bottle. This had worked quite well at Borrego Springs, as the first 20 km to the first food stop is up the Glass Elevator, the temperature was quite cool once on the climb so I wouldn’t need to drink anything, so I managed to save over a pound on the climb. For Knoxville, the first food stop came quite a bit later, but there were still a few climbs to get over. However, I think it’s a good idea to start with a decent breakfast, as about 150 km into the ride, I suddenly started to go anaerobic with any modest effort.

I have gotten to the point where I can no longer bonk, even if I try. I think that after a while, your body becomes so efficient at cycling that you expend very little energy just rolling easily. I’ve gone on three- to four-hour training rides in the winter without a bottle, just eating the odd Clif-Block or gel packet. But I think that Knoxville was so hilly that I needed to eat a bit more, and this loss of energy was basically bonking without the bad feeling of hunger that accompanies it. I made it to the lunch stop, and after downing a burrito – quite a common food item on these California rides - some fruit, and a couple of cans of Coke, I felt fine.

And then I hit the backside of Cobb Mountain. This is a road called Loch Lomond, and it gets very steep. When I was at 5 kmh, almost at a standstill pushing the cranks in 44x17, I finally got off and walked up. I can walk at 5 kmh, plus the shade was on the left side of the road, so I was able to cool off a bit as well. Anytime the climb eased off, I would get back on the bike until I was back down to 5 kmh, then I would get off again. I didn’t feel bad about walking, because one of the advantages of a fixed gear is that you have an excuse for walking. There were lots of guys walking their geared bikes, but I don’t think there’s any excuse for that. You should be able to ride a geared bike up just about anything; the gears are doing all the work after all.

At the top of the climb, there is a short technical section where I was able to keep up with geared riders freewheeling down on the tight turns, but once the road straightened, I was pretty well spun-out and watching the geared riders recede into the distance.



There was a full moon that morning and it reappeared in the evening on the finishing leg, as darkness descended, I could see the immense moon presiding over the mountains as I headed east. There is a demoralizing series of rolling hills leading to the final food stop, and after that it’s an easy 12 miles (with just one easy climb) back to the finish. It got completely dark by this time, but I followed the wheel of a rider with a very strong headlight. If I took the front, I could see my shadow ahead of me, so I just rode behind him to make the most of the extra illumination. The final section of this 12-mile road, just west of Vacaville, is long and straight, so you can see the taillights of cars a mile up the road. When we could see the taillights turning, we knew we were close.

I finished in the dark, probably another 15-hour ride, but they don’t take times at Knoxville; they just record whether or not you finished. They served a pasta and chicken dinner at the finish, and I rode back to the motel.



The next morning I rode to the breakfast, where they managed to run out of food, but after I had eaten. About 20 of us had completed our first California Triple Crowns this year, so we were recognized, as were those who had ridden 50 CTC doubles and were thereby inducted into the Hall of Fame. Each HOF rider had provided a long bio, and the Triple Crown organizer, Chuck, took a lot of time reading each one, so I left somewhere in the middle to ride back to the motel, pack the bike, and catch the flight back to Bellingham.