Saturday, December 29, 2012

Building heirloom furniture

A couple of months ago, I discovered one of the new found joys of aging.  I became a grandfather for the first time.

Beckett Aaron Keller entered the world at a fighting weight of 8 pounds 8 ounces and immediately asked for the training wheels to be removed from his stroller, along with an upgrade to its derailleur to a 10 speed cassette.  He also asked for someone to order him a custom cue for delivery in a few years.

Doesn’t that just sound like an overly exuberant grandfather?  Of course!

But instead……

When my son and his bride called me and MB to let us know that we were going to become grandparents, they asked for something to celebrate the birth.

I’ve been an amateur woodworker for about 25 years or so, and have built all kinds of furniture and heirlooms.  My son grew up in a house with a bunch of stuff I’d made but none of it moved with him when he grew up.  He and the soon to be mom, wanted a crib.

I couldn’t have been happier to oblige. 

I asked them to go online and find a style they liked so that I’d have a starting point to work from.  After a few weeks, they let me know they were really intrigued by something called an Oeuf Sparrow Crib.  (Oeuf is French for “egg” for those of you scoring at home.) I told them, I was sure I could come up with something very similar, perhaps even improve upon it. Here's a picture from their website of the crib in Maple:

So, I did a quick Google search, found the web site, located a retailer that sold the crib here in Richmond, and went down to the store to take some measurements and look at the construction.

I also found a drawing online in the Sketchup Warehouse.  Sketchup is a program that allows you to draw in 3D on your computer.  It has a huge worldwide following (It’s been a free google product for quite a while) and the warehouse is a place where people from all over the globe store drawings they’ve made of, well, everything.  There are entire city blocks that have been rendered in Sketchup that are stored there.  It’s one of the coolest programs I’ve ever used and the support is top notch because it’s all user provided. 

(Seriously, users are the best.  The drawing of the crib that I found in the warehouse wasn’t drawn to exact size, in fact it was miles off.  I posted a query on a woodworking forum looking for someone who had the drawing to scale.  Within an hour, I got an email from someone who had found the drawing in the warehouse, looked at the Oeuf website, re-sized the drawing, and then sent it to me.  How incredibly cool is that?)

Once I had a working scale drawing, and had made some additional measurements from a display at a store downtown, I was ready to set to work.  I started with selecting materials and immediately decided to use black walnut, juglans nigra, for most of the crib.  I have a stash of this from a tree that I harvested a few years ago on the Northern Neck, next to the Rappahannock River.  Since I’ve air dried it, instead of kiln drying, the colors are far more diverse and vivid in this lumber.  It’s really beautiful.

I needed a contrasting wood for the end panels.  Our family is pretty green when it comes to the environment.  I had been given a 125 year old church pew that had been pulled out of a nearby church.  It was in rough shape but the wood in it was red oak, quercus rubra, and I thought it could probably be recycled.  When I told the kids about it, they were very excited.  They loved the idea of the past uniting with the future in this project.  I milled up about half of the pew to make the end panels and the color difference is really nice.

The last thing was the hardware.  I typically use Woodcraft, a chain of woodworking stores for this sort of thing but I needed RTA (ready to assemble – also known as knockdown; like you have to use to put together something from Ikea) hardware and they don’t have much of that.  Instead, I went to, a competitor geared more toward the professional woodworker, to order what I needed.  In a few days, everything was in my shop and ready to go.

Get to work!

The first step in a project like this is called rough milling.  That’s where you take the material you’re using, and get it down to the approximate sizes you need.  In this case, it was a matter of taking some large planks of walnut and putting them through a series of steps and machines.  The first step was to narrow the planks down to about 6 inches wide using a band saw.  Why 6 inches?  That’s so they would fit on the next machine, a jointer, that’s used to make one “face” of the board perfectly flat.  This becomes a reference to make the thickness of the board equal.  Each pass on the jointer removes a small amount of wood until, eventually, a final pass is perfectly smooth and dead flat.  This is a jointer.

The boards were then run through a thickness planer which slices off the opposing face until it’s also flat and perfectly parallel to the first face.  (It really looks like a board now, but with rough edges.) This also takes a number of passes through the machine as you can’t remove too much wood, all at once.  The final pass through the planer ensures the opposing faces are now, both, dead flat. Here's a planer.

Now that I’ve surfaced two sides, the next step is to make one edge perfectly straight.  I take the boards back to the jointer and run them on edge across it until that edge is dead straight and at a perfect 90 degrees to the faces.  (This is called jointing an edge.  The first trip on the jointer was called jointing a face.)  I can then put that edge against the fence of my table saw and rip cut the opposing edge parallel to it.  At this point, I have boards that are square, uniform in width, thickness, and length, and they’re ready for secondary milling that will bring them closer to the finished size. 

I cut a bunch of the boards into ¾ inch wide strips; these boards had been thicknessed to ¾ inch so that this step formed long, thin sticks that are perfectly square.  I was planning on making these into the dowels you see in the picture, that form the sides.  But how does one turn a perfect square into a perfect circle?
I used a router.  I set it up with a 3/8 inch roundover bit that turns a square edge into a quarter of a circle.  Once I had it set up exactly, I ran each “stick” through four times, turning the stick 90 degrees after each pass; four quarters of a circle equals one full circle!  The dowels were milled and only needed to be sanded and cut to length. (I thought it was a pretty inventive trick.)

I sliced the other, thicker, boards into narrower ones, 2 inches in width.  From these, I cut pieces of exact size to make the stiles and rails for the sides and ends.  (Stiles are the pieces that are vertical, rails are horizontal.)  When the time came to assemble, I would hold them all together with dowels and glue.

I milled the oak panels for the ends by creating thin boards from the church pew wood, then gluing them edge to edge to make a wider board.  Once I’d cut this to the right size, I milled a small tenon on the ends of each.  This tenon, a thinner place of the panel, went into a slot on the end rails called a mortise, with about a half inch open at each end of the slot but covered by the end of the panel.  This type of joint, often referred to as a breadboard end, is classic for holding a panel within a frame so that as it expands and contracts, it doesn’t cause anything to break apart.

Wait! What?

One of the difficulties to be managed in woodworking is called wood movement.  Wood is the product of a living thing, a tree.  Even after the tree has been harvested and the wood dried to a certain point, the wood still changes shape.  The woodworker has to take steps to reduce the impact of this movement on the piece being built or, over time, the joints will weaken and fail.  (This is one reason that commercial furniture makers use something other than solid wood.  Plywood and medium density fiberboard don’t change shape very much.)

How much does wood move?  That depends on a number of things including species, how the log was milled in relation to the growth rings, and the environment in which the wood lives.  In the case of this crib panel, oak is a pretty active species.  The wood was mostly quarter sawn (if you look at the end of the board, the growth rings run from face to face – the most stable way) and the panel is about 20 inches wide.  I expect that from mid-winter to mid-summer, the panel will grow about 3/8 of an inch.  (I’ve seen flat sawn boards - where the growth rings are parallel to the faces - of that width grow almost ¾ of an inch in the same time frame.)  So, this wood movement can be a pretty serious thing.

(If you own a piece of solid wood furniture that has cross grain joints, such as where a chair leg and arm come together, you may be able to get an understanding for wood movement yourself.  In the middle of winter, run your fingers across the joint.  One piece of wood will be “sticking out” more than the other.  (This is known as being “proud.”)  In the middle of summer, the other piece of wood will be proud, opposite from the way it was 6 months before.  Yep, woodworkers have been fighting to overcome this for centuries.)

By trimming off the last quarter inch of just the tenon at each edge and only gluing the middle of it in the mortise, I gave the wood someplace to go in the summer time without breaking anything.  It also allows the panel to shrink in the winter, without splitting, from being held too tightly by the mortise.  Wood movement, solved.

Sanding for fun and profit…oh, who am I kidding?

As I completed the milling of each part to final size, I took time to sand it.  Doing it this way, instead of assembling everything before sanding, makes it much easier to get a nice, smooth surface.  It also reduces, to some degree, the drudgery of sanding.  Sanding is dirty, dusty, mind numbing work and, I’m told, it takes up about 30% of the time of any project.  (My middle brother, who was a professional woodworker for about 20 years, told me he realized he’d spent almost 6 years of his life just sanding.  I had to talk him down, off the ledge.)  Yeah, so, not a fan of sanding but it’s a necessary evil if you want to get just the right feel to the surface.  By sanding in between other operations, I spared myself doing it for ten hours straight.

The hard part of sanding on the crib was the spindles.  I had a notion of using my lathe to do it quickly but the spindles were too narrow to spin without whipping around rather violently.  (Don’t ask; it was exciting.)  Instead, I sanded them one at a time on a sanding mat that held them gently enough and allowed me to roll them while sanding.  I gave them all a final pass with 220 grit sand paper, hand sanding the length of each spindle.  It was tedious but slow.

Assembly or why don’t I have more hands?

Gluing up a project is always a bit stressful for me.  I’ve gone to great lengths to make everything fit together properly with my joinery and now it’s the moment of truth.  There’s nothing worse than beginning to put everything together and finding something isn’t exactly right.  Doing that with glue in the joints is the wrong time to find out.  I did a dry run first, to make sure everything fit properly and to understand where and what type of clamps I’d need.  (It’s also easier to have everything laid out where it’s going to be needed than to run looking for it while the glue is drying in place.  Experience really is the best teacher!)  Once I was sure of the timing of everything, I glued up the first side, clamping it and setting it aside to dry.  It went so smoothly, I glued up the other side a few minutes later.  Then I glued up the end panels and, just like that, the crib was ready for final assembly and finishing.  (Once the glue joints dried, of course.)

Getting the crib Ready To Assemble

This is the first time I’ve built something that would be assembled elsewhere and by someone else.  I had to learn to use several different types of mechanical fasteners which added a degree of complexity to the project.  The RTA products are from Europe and the directions have been translated into English by way of going through Klingon so they’re a bit hard to follow.  Add in the fact that they also refer to everything in millimeters (weren't we supposed to switch to that system at some point?) and I’m totally screwed.

I took my time and a great deal of care (totally unlike me, by the way) on this step, not drilling any holes until I was absolutely certain about their location and depth.  As a result, I only had to patch one incorrectly drilled hole which I did immediately after five minutes of swearing, followed by a couple of thrown inanimate objects, and drinking a beer.  (The resulting patch was excellent.  Good to see that practice really does make perfect!)

Once I had all the hardware in place, I began taking pictures for use in creating the assembly instructions.  (I wasn’t worried about this; my son is at least as good as I am at putting things together.  I don’t know if he’s an instruction reader like I am though so I thought I’d better be safe.)  Then I disassembled the crib again and prepared for the final step.

It’s called The Finish.  Because calling it The Done would be improper.

It was time to apply the finish.  (I’ve heard people call it stain, varnish, top coat, finish, all kinds of things.  I call it top coat, although that sounds as if I’m fitting it for a London Fog raincoat or something.)

I’ve used all manner of products over the years and the manufacturers continue to improve these, making them easier to use, safer for the environment, and safer for the user.  Currently, my favorite is something called General Finishes Arm-R-All, a blend of tung oil and varnish that goes on easily, builds quickly (more coats make it look richer) is reasonably durable, and is easy to repair.  It’s also safe for a baby which, in the end, was my main motivator for using it.

I applied 3 coats to all of the crib and 4 to the area most likely to get wear, like the tops of the rails and end panels.  I spent time sanding with extremely fine sandpaper between coats on surfaces that would come into contact with little hands so that there would be no chance of injury.

Finally, I gave the crib several coats of paste wax and buffed it out with a soft cloth.

It turned out very well, I think. MB made the quilt that you see in the first picture.

The kids are really thrilled with how it looks in the nursery.

A Long Arduous Journey

The Crib’s trip across the country from Richmond VA to Portland OR must have been a lot of fun.  In order to ensure its safe travel, I built a wooden crate.  Then I wrapped each part in bubble wrap, taping the wrap in place.  I placed more bubble wrap between each layer of crib, placed the hardware bag and assembly instructions in the crate, and sealed it up. Here's a picture.

The crate, fully loaded, weighed 105 pounds.  MB helped me load it into the truck and I drove it to the UPS Store to ship it.  UPS charged $190, including insurance, to ship it by UPS Ground across the country; this took a week for the trip.  I didn’t think that was a bad price, all things considered.

So, I shipped it and then watched the UPS Tracking site to see how it was going.  On the appointed day, it showed as being delivered and I was ecstatic, expecting to receive a phone call at any moment from my son to tell me how wonderful it was.

Unfortunately, the call we had was not what either of us were expecting. 

When UPS showed up and off-loaded the crate, my son signed for it.  It was covered in packing tape, totally wrapped in the stuff, and I’m sure he thought his old man had gone manic in sealing everything up.  (If I had put the tape on there, I would have thought the same thing.)

As he began cutting through the tape, however, the crate began disintegrating / falling apart.  He stopped and laid it down so nothing would be injured. From there, he began to unload the parts.

Unfortunately, the damage had already been done by UPS during the shipment.  At some point in the journey, the crate had been dropped from a substantial height and landed on one corner.  The impact had caused the sides of the crate to pop off and the contents to spill out.  (I can only imagine what this looked like at the time; the phrase “yard sale” came to mind.)

At that point, the UPS workers did their best to reassemble the crate and place the parts back inside it, pretending they hadn't done anything. (Hey, who dropped this crate? Nobody!) They utilized some of the bubble wrap I had used to pack it but in discarding the rest they also disposed of the bag of hardware (About $100 worth). After getting everything back in the crate, they used a great deal of packing tape to wrap it all up and hold it together.

My son was beside himself as his first child was due any minute, his wife was very pregnant, and now he needed hardware to assemble the crib.  That’s the call I received. I told him to shoot as many pictures as he could to document the damage to the crate and any damage to the crib, especially. He told me there were some scratches in parts, and a few gouges but that he felt it was still serviceable.

I immediately went to Rockler’s website and reordered the parts with an overnight shipping option and he had them the next day which enabled him to build the crib with time to spare.  I also went back to the UPS store where the shipment originated, reported what had occurred and filed an incident report to collect on the insurance value.

It was then I realized, how upset I was. I’d put a ton of work into building this crib; along with sweat and blood. (I frequently say, if I don’t bleed in the shop, I’m not trying hard enough.) Some hourly buffoon’s lack of attention, had ruined all my work.  

Okay, they hadn’t ruined it but it was no longer perfect. I was really pissed and I desperately wanted to make UPS pay.

The process for collecting on the insurance took some time; about 30 days, in all. Someone had to inspect the crate, then they needed pictures of the crate and the damage to the crib, then they needed to see how I’d come up with the value of the crib ($1200) and decide, was it really worth that much.  Finally, they offered to reimburse me for the full value if they took possession of the crib (not gonna happen, dude) or 75% if my kids kept it.  We settled on the latter.


About half way through the insurance process, I stopped being angry about the whole thing.  I came to realize that there was no malice involved, it was simply human error – an accident.  While the poor crib had sustained some damage (when I got to see it in person, I was mollified to see that it wasn’t all that huge – more like “character marks”) it was still usable and safe. In most pictures, you can’t even see the damage. The cross country journey, the crate dropping, the mad scramble to get new hardware will become part of family lore. I can live with that.

My grandson is sleeping in his new crib and, before too long, he’ll be standing up in it, making noises, calling for his mom and dad, crying, laughing, jumping up and down.  I think it’s really cool that he’ll get to do it in something I made. 

And, he’ll get to give it to his son, too.

Yeah, my shirt buttons are straining.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

So, that's a Real Bike Town!

Keeping It Weird

Last week, MB and I packed several bags, jumped on American Airlines, and flew to the Pacific Northwest to visit Portland OR for a week.  This wasn’t a vacation, mind you, as we both had to work; we’re fortunate enough to be able to work remotely thanks to the magic of the internet, VPNs, email, conference calls, and webinars.

The whole idea behind the visit was to spend time with our new (and first) grandson, Beckett, who is only 8 weeks of age and already a baller.  He can sleep, eat, and poop at the 98 percentile already.  Can’t wait to get him on a bike, pool table, golf course, and into the workshop with me.  Yeah, I’m a doting grandfather already.  Wanna see pictures?

We did spend some wonderful bonding time with him and his parents but we hate to be high maintenance to anyone, especially brand new parents.  Good grief, they’ll be suffering from sleep deprivation for some time, I don’t want to add to the stress.  At least, not yet.

As a result, we spent each day working East Coast hours – roughly 5 am to 2 pm local time – and then had time to visit the city as well as the kids.  That gave me a chance to explore and get to know about the city that’s been voted Best Bike City in America.  (As I live in Richmond, the town that hasn’t been voted anything except maybe City with the Largest Collection of 2nd Place Trophies 
Robert E. Lee Monument
1 of 7 on Monument Ave.

and host of the 2015 World Cycling Championships, I was hoping I could take something back for us to work on.)

Easy to See Why!

The first thing you notice in Portland is that nearly every street has a bike lane.  Seriously. And they are clearly marked, well laid out, and constantly used by cyclists. Even the bridges that cross the river in the middle of the city have them.  (The only place I didn’t see one was on the interstate and that’s because it’s illegal according to the Federal Highway Administration.  Oregon is pretty laid back, I almost expected to see them ignore this law.)  No matter where you’re going, if you’re going on a bike, you have a designated place to ride.

The next thing you notice is that there are bike racks in front of every business and they are constantly in use.  The only time you see a bike rack without bikes locked to it is very late at night, after a business is closed.  Even then you occasionally see one after hours, much like a parking lot with one car in it at 3 am.

The most startling thing to me is huge number of cyclist commuters there are.  Thousands of people ride through Portland every day, using the bike as a commuting device.  It can be cold, windy, dark, pouring down rain – even all four – and you still see riders out.  They simply dress for it, prepare their gear for it, and then they do it. (It made me change my mind about what’s acceptable weather to ride in.  I’ve been such a wuss, to date!)

One of the large bridges across the river has a counter that shows how many cyclists cross it each day.  On Saturday morning, about 11 am, it showed 372 had already crossed.  On work days, my son tells me the number is typically around 7,000 after the evening rush hour!  How amazing!

The drivers all seem to be pretty sane, too. Cyclists are given their due space, and give proper respect to cars.  I only saw two cars run red lights in a week and most people drive slightly under the speed limit, too.  Yeah, I know.  Weird.

So Why All the Riders?

I struggled with this question for a couple of days until I realized the answer is simple.  

Because They Can! 

Really, if you were able to get around safely and easily on your bike to get just anywhere, wouldn’t you?  I’ve been thinking about bike commuting to work for months but I haven’t been able to find a route that doesn’t put my butt in harm’s way for a good portion of it.  (Hey, Richmond!  Want to be thought of as bike friendly? Take a hint!)

MB and I were talking about it.  She said she thought we could probably do with one car between us if we lived in Portland, to which I agreed.  Those are strong words coming from two people that grew up in the suburbs of DC where a car is a necessity.

The same bike mentality carries through to other parts of the state, too.  We spent 2 days in Eugene, about 100 miles south.  The same bike lanes, bike racks, and riders are in effect down there.  The difference, being it’s a college town, is that all the riders are much younger.  Up in Portland, it’s every age up to the elderly; even older than me.  Like 70 plus!

I saw other reasons to bike…..about 100 or so…..

Portland is home to about 80 micro-breweries and these guys brew up some of the best beer in the country, according to my beer geek friend, Steve.  I was fortunate enough to get a taste of about 25 different ones during the week.  Cycling gives you an outlet for working off those extra calories, doesn’t it?  (Deschutes, Black Butte Porter – one of the best beers I’ve ever had.  Wow!)

Bike Shops galore!

With this many cyclists, you would expect to find a bunch of bike shops.  There is almost one every couple of blocks!  The difference here is that while the shops have plenty of bikes for sale, lots of commuter models – big surprise, they have a huge inventory of wearables.  Based on the many seasons of Portland weather, that makes sense.  You need wet weather, cold weather, any weather clothing to get on the bike, not to mention panniers to carry your stuff, good locks to protect, etc.  (My son’s rig is to die for; he commutes to grad school in town and has a ball.)

Several shops specialize in gear for the working cyclist.  You can get trailers that will handle and haul just about anything you need. I actually saw a construction rig that one guy was pulling behind his bike with a chop saw on a stand and a tool box all tied down.  He was pedaling along a secondary street at about 15 miles per hour, talking on his cell phone.

Bundle it all up, will ya?

In fifty five years of living, nearly twenty as an adult, I’ve never even thought about living on the West Coast.  I’d live in Portland though.  Great town, great beer, great cycling, great people, and terrific restaurants.  Who cares if the weather is a little sketchy for months at a time?

Just ride!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Suffering Succotash Century


It was just about a year ago when the announcement was made.  The UCI (the world governing body of cycling) announced that in 2015, the World Championships would return to the US for the first time in a quarter century and be held in Richmond VA.  Most of the world went, “Huh?!”

You can’t blame them.  The US isn’t known for doing much in the world of competitive cycling, other than sending our really good riders over to Europe to compete.  We do hold the US Pro Championships in Colorado every year and the Tour of California, both of which draw many of the great and nearly so from outside the country.  But we haven’t had a really big thing here since the Tour De Trump / Tour Du Pont about 20 years ago.  (The Tour De Trump was the one where the riders rode stages around The Donald’s Hair for a week.  It was breathtaking!)

The Donald & his Hair

Richmond isn’t known to be particularly bike friendly, isn’t even on the List of Top 50 cities for cycling in America.  And yet, somehow, someone’s efforts had gotten us the nod to host the world of cycling for 10 days!  How cool!

About eight months later, another announcement came out from The Sports Backers (a local organization that puts on sports events) along with some of the 2015 organizing committee.  This announcement had to do with an event to begin the countdown to 2015.  The Martins Tour of Richmond Gran Fondo would take place in October, 2012.  In addition to a 102 mile course that completely circled the city of Richmond, there would also be a metric century and a 29 miler, too.  At the time, I had just completed my first century ride, the Tour de Cure, and the pain had subsided enough to make me think I wanted to do another one.  (Just to prove the first one wasn’t a fluke, I suppose.)

Official Poster

I debated for about a week or so and then decided to go for it.  I also reached out to a colleague that I thought was a cyclist (He is a much stronger rider than me!) to see if he’d like to join me.  He said he would but would need to get back into shape.  We started riding together whenever we could make the time and, after a few hundred miles, we declared ourselves ready.  Okay, willing.

The Course

The planners of this event should take a bow.  Everything was well thought out, extremely well executed, and downright enjoyable!  (If they’re using this as a tune up or learning opportunity for 2015, the cyclists and spectators will be in for a treat!)  When you consider that 7 jurisdictions of police and EMS had to be coordinated in order to provide all of the riders with a safe route, in addition to the normal logistics of an event for about 1,000 people, it begins to dawn on you that many things could have gone horribly wrong.

The Century ride began and ended at Richmond International Raceway (RIR) which hosts 2 NASCAR races every year.  It’s a huge complex with all kinds of space, parking, facilities and is just perfect for an event like this.  (The shorter distances began at alternate sites along the loop, starting at a time that would get most of the participants back to RIR for the victory celebration. It worked well, I think.)

The Raceway Complex

After leaving RIR, the course ran into the downtown area of the city of Richmond known as Shockoe Bottom, across the James River and then along it for quite a ways into Chesterfield, and Amelia counties.  Once out west of the city, we turned north and re-crossed the James into Goochland, and Hanover Counties, up to the city of Ashland, and then back southeast to the RIR complex in eastern Henrico County. 
Look! It's a full loop!

The ride was a combination of flat sections along the river, rolling hill sections just above the piedmont, and a number of short but intense climbs.  Based on my calculations, there were about 3,000 or so feet of elevation changes.  A couple of those rollers were ball busters, though.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Start

I picked up my ride packet Friday night at the Raceway Complex which was very useful because I could better understand how to get there, where to go once I had gotten there, and what to expect.  I got home and spent time pinning my participant bib, #188, to my jersey along with applying the same number to my bike.  (Electronic timing on my bib and suddenly, I felt like a real competitive cyclist.)  I also prepped everything I intended to take so that I wouldn’t be stumbling around at 5 am trying to remember it all.  The 7:00 am start meant I needed to leave my house by no later than 6:00 to get there and set up.

After rolling out of bed at 5, I ate a quick, but healthy, breakfast, performed necessary pre-race ablutions, loaded up the car with my bike and all my provisions, kissed MB good bye and told her I’d be back in the afternoon, and headed out.  Since it was so early on a Saturday, the ride took far less time than normal and I was at RIR by 6:30.

There were already hundreds of riders there and there was an air of festivity in the air.  Music was playing, a public address announcer was giving time checks to ensure we all got to where we needed to be, and everywhere I looked I saw guys my age all kitted up and ready to ride.  (It was looking like an old guy fest, to tell the truth and, suddenly, I didn’t feel so out of shape.)

Greg, my riding partner, texted me that he was there and we set a meeting spot.  I finished unloading, topped off the tires, loaded up my pockets with Honey Stinger Waffles, put on my cleats and rolled over near the starting line to meet.  He showed up about 30 seconds later.

We took turns holding our bikes and using the restroom one last time.  Finally, at five minutes til seven, the PA announcer called for riders to queue up in their respective positions.  He then asked for quiet and invited us to sing the National Anthem.

I immediately yanked off my helmet and placed it over my heart and was glad to see others following my lead.  Directly in front of my, a young man wearing a US Army cycling jersey was standing at absolute attention and seeing that made me stand just a little straighter, too. 

Once the anthem ended, we mounted up and then the signal came to start us off.  The fastest riders in front, followed by the B+ group, followed by us in the B group (15-17 mph) and then everyone else rolled off.

It was really cool to ride off with 450 people all at once.  The police had traffic stopped at every intersection, lights were flashing, the sun was just starting to rise and we were sailing along the Richmond – Petersburg Turnpike heading toward downtown Richmond.  What a sight to look around and see all the colors, the bikes, the blinking bike lights, and flashing police lights!

The Ride

The initial rush wore off, for me at least, as we headed into the Shockoe Bottom area, a very historic section of the city that includes a couple of blocks of cobblestones which we hit around the 9 mile mark.  If I had to ride over cobblestones on a regular basis, I’d probably quit cycling.  It just about shakes the fillings out of your teeth on this section and I was hoping I wouldn’t lose a piece of my bike before the end of it.  I was very glad to get back on pavement after a right turn just past the Farmer’s Market area.

We rode up Main Street, which has a nasty little rise to it for about 4 blocks, and that’s where I began to lose my riding partner.  As I said, Greg is far stronger than me and I knew if I tried to keep up with his favorite pace, I’d have to abandon somewhere around the 60 mile mark.  As it was, he was leading me by about 100 meters as we headed across the bridge into Southside.  I got close enough to say, “don’t wait on the old guy” and then I lost him about 10 minutes later on the next short hill. 

(Greg finished the ride in just under 6 hours, in 100th place overall, about an hour ahead of me.  I’m glad I didn’t slow him down.  Nice ride, bud!  I can’t wait until I’m your age….oh, right, I already was.)

The next 25 miles or so I rode in various groups, hanging on for periods of time, getting passed or dropped on the hills.  Although we were riding along the river and is mostly flat, the road traverses a number of hills and some of them are very steep; like 20% grade in spots.  Fortunately, they’re short little bumps but they always take the measure of me.  I’m such a crappy climber although a good descender.  (One of my goals for next year will be to train on the climbing part of this.)

On one steep descent that twisted back and forth very sharply, I spied a rider on the other side of the guardrail looking up the hill, with his bike parked on this side.  I hit the brakes as I noticed another rider next to him, lying on the ground with his bicycle on the far side.  I asked if he needed help and he yelled back that EMS had been called and to continue.  Evidently, his riding partner had taken the turn too fast and collided with, and gone over, the guardrail.  He was moving but I’m guess he was injured pretty badly, too.  I never did hear the outcome but I hope he’s okay.

I stopped at the aid station at mile 23 to refill bottles and get a quick snack.  The volunteers were excitedly handing things out, exhorting the riders, and there were a lot of smiles.  My stop was short, only about 3 minutes, and I was back on the bike and heading out, again.

At about mile 37, we turned north on Maidens Road and headed back across the James River and into Goochland county.  We followed this road for about 10 miles, a combination of flats and some rollers with a gradual increase in elevation all the way.  At one point, the road surface changed from very nice blacktop to a thin coating of loose, fine gravel.  Good lord!  It was like riding through sand for about 3 miles, really tough to hold pace.  I was thrilled when we turned off that section.

At the mid-point station I stopped for about 5 minutes to refill, eat a snack, and stretch.  I was still feeling pretty strong.  I was also right on pace for my undeclared goal to finish in less than 7 hours, about ninety minutes faster than the June ride.  At this point, the ride was still fun.  Little did I know, that was about to change.

The Suffering

I’ve found that there’s a point where, no matter how well I’ve prepared or how good I feel, that I’m going to end up suffering.  On this day, it began somewhere around mile 55.  The road was good and the weather was terrific.  I noticed that my legs were beginning to feel heavy and whenever a rider or pace line passed me, I struggled to cling onto their wheel for a draft, at least for very long.  They kept dropping me.  Without a draft to recover, and the energy savings is about 40% I’m told, my legs were taking a pounding to keep my pace up.  I ground on though, until I managed to meet up with another solo rider and we took turns pulling each other for about the last 5 miles into the aid station at the metric century mark of 63 miles.  I never did get the guy’s name but he probably saved me.  That break gave me a badly needed recovery period.

This aid station was across the street from Bethany Baptist Church and was the closest aid station to my house, only about 3 miles away.  The station was staffed by members of the church and they were acting like it was a revival.  There was great cheering, laughter, high fives, and enough smiles to make any weary biker feel good.  I refilled my bottles while they cheered my soul, had several Clif bars, hit the portajohn, and headed back out after a ten minute rest.

The route turned onto Greenwood Church Road a few miles further along.  It was nice and flat, with good pavement, and I wondered why I hadn’t ever included it on any of my rides.  We weren’t far from my house, I should figure out a new route with this road on it.  And then we started to go downhill, a nice steady drop, not too steep.  My brain began to remember this part of the road and I realized why I hadn’t ridden it.  There was a hill coming up.  If it was the one I was remembering, this was going to really suck!

There it was.  Around a bend, the road looked like a wall; okay, it wasn’t straight up but it was easily 20% or more for the first 100 meters and then it eased back to something like 10% for another 500 meters or so.  I kept my revs up as the road began to rise and started passing people that hadn’t.

I eventually geared down to my second lowest gear and pounded my way up the hill.  By the time I crested the first section, I was sucking air in big lungfuls.  I stood up for the last 25 meters or so and then dropped back into the saddle to make the rest of the climb.  I’m proud to say that I kept my speed around 10 mph the entire climb and didn’t even think about dismounting.  By the time I got to the top, however, I was gassed.  I managed to get into a slightly higher gear and pushed up to 15 mph but was getting passed by a bunch of riders.

As we went up a small rise, I heard a girl call out, “On your left” and saw a pace line coming up behind me.  They swung out to pass, 3 younger women around 25 or so, and as they came alongside, the leader said, in a very cheery voice, “Good work!......uh, sir.”  I had to laugh at that. 

“Thanks!” I responded. “I look a lot younger from the back, don’t I?”  They all giggled as they continued on by.  Admittedly, the exchange gave me a little boost of energy as did the solo rider I was able to partner with for about the next 7 miles.  We teamed up, drafting off each other, and I managed to get my legs back as a result.

By the time I got to the aid station at mile 76, I was feeling a little better.  I pulled in, took a 10 minute break for drinks and refills, a banana, a Clif bar, a PB&J and a Stinger Waffle.  I also had a bag of nuts.  This station was staffed by a group of local high school kids who, evidently, are cheerleaders.  They were engaging in a series of cheers they had made up that had everyone grinning and clapping.  It was great!  I stretched, hit the portajohn again, and headed back out.

And then the wind came up.  Here I was with about 25 miles to go, still on pace – actually slightly ahead- and a headwind of about 10 miles an hour started blowing!  This section of the ride is relatively flat, thank goodness, but the wind was brutal. 

They say that hills make you stronger but the wind just makes you mad.  They’ve clearly seen me riding into it.  I’m pretty sure I was snarling.

I kept as positive an attitude as I could, put my head down and my hands into the drops, and ground out a pace of 14 mph.  I put all my focus into pedaling circles, good riding position, using all my muscles instead of just some of them.  I worked to keep my mind blank; as many of you know, this is very easy for me, sometimes.  I didn’t see another rider during this phase of the ride but, for all I know, I passed or was passed by a bunch, so narrow was my field of vision.

 I pounded along until I got to the last aid station.  When I pulled in there, I was suffering.  My head felt like it weighed 100 pounds (the weight of my knowledge alone is pretty stout) and my neck was killing me.  My triceps were screaming at me, too, from taking most of my upper body weight for the last hour or so.  I rolled into the parking lot and crawled off the bike.  I’m pretty sure that my eyes had that “Survivor” look in them.  Several people asked if I was okay.

After a drink, a snack, and a stretch, I decided I was going to live.  But only if I found someone to draft for a little while.  I kept my eyes on a group of 4 riders that looked like me, except they were fresher; must not have been doing the century.  When they started to make movements like they were leaving, I swung over the bar and got going with them.  Good choice!  They were doing a nice 15 mph pace that I could wheel suck for a while.  I rode behind them for about 20 minutes until they decided to slow down for the one member of their foursome that was struggling to keep up.

With less than 10 miles to go, I knew I was going to finish.  The question was whether or not I could still beat the 7 hour mark.  The headwind had really slowed me down and it was going to be really close.  Every few minutes, I pushed the pace up and kept grinding to the finish, pushing through the wind as best I could.  It seemed like the wind could tell I was going faster because a gust would come knock my speed back down.  I would then look down at my bike computer, realize I was slowing down again, and kick it back up.  Or try to.

With about 4 miles to go, I realized there were still 2 hills left to climb.  This first one was over a highway and then up a bluff (RIR sits on a series of bluffs; it’s the only place they call them that around here) for about a quarter mile or so.  I wheezed my way to the top, rode down the slight descent on the other side and then came to a stop at a traffic light, the last one before I’d reach RIR.  It was downhill for about a half mile, then uphill for the last half mile climb.

I took off from the light, bent over the bars for maximum speed and shot down the hill, passing 5 riders in the process.  At the bottom I kept driving the pedals as hard as I could to make the climb go quickly.  At the top, I was still holding a good speed, over 14 miles per hour, and turned into the entrance to head toward the finish.  There were 3 others in tow behind me and they all thanked me for the pull up the last hill.  I hadn’t even realized they were back there!  I was too busy grinding it out.

As we headed toward the raceway, I wondered if we were going to go out on the track for a lap!  (I’m told they’re thinking about that for next year.)  Instead we, turned just before the grandstands, shot down a slight hill and across the finish line with the PA announcer exhorting us once again.  A large crowd was gathered, cheering each person as they finished.  I grinned as I cross the line.  Even if I didn’t hit my mark, I was secure in the knowledge that I hadn’t left much in the tank doing it.

Some folks were handing out water and sport drinks as the riders came in.  I grabbed a bottle of water and racked my bike so I could go enjoy the BBQ feast that was set up.  I wondered how long Greg had been in, too.  My iPhone had died en route so I had no way of communicating with him.

For now, I was finished and happy. 

After grabbing my gift bag, which included a finisher’s t-shirt, a finisher’s medal, and a bunch of coupons and freebies from the sponsors, I ate a plate of BBQ and drank Diet Coke, which tasted like heaven.  There’s something about the end of these rides; I feel so alive and life feels like the volume is turned up!


I got back to the car and called MB to let her know I’d be home in about 45 minutes.  She was surprised I’d finished so quickly.  Me, too!

Later that night, I received an email with my official time.  7:03:14 dammit. That friggin wind had gotten me.  Maybe next time.

Listen, any time I can ride over a hundred miles and still make it to an Octoberfest party the same night, and get out of bed the next morning without help, I won’t complain!

Can’t wait until the next one!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Empty Podiums – Just one amateur’s opinion

It's easy to get excited 
when you've kicked everyone's ass!

About10 weeks ago, Lance Armstrong announced to the world that he was tired of fighting the USADA, an entity charged with being the final say in screening for performance enhancing drugs.  His announcement managed to sound self-pitying, while lashing out at his accusers as he has at every step in the process over the years.

As soon as he announced this, the USADA immediately stripped him of all his titles won between 1999 and 2005, including his seven-in-a-row Tour de France wins.  Interestingly, as of today the Tour hasn’t said whether or not it would follow the USADA’s ruling and award those wins to someone else.  (I’m not surprised.  One almost needs to go down to about 10th place in any of those years to find someone that hasn’t been suspended or banned for doping during the same time frame.)  They could, though, and we’ll have to wait for the outcome.

Cycling forums and blogs immediately lit up with discussions, some of them as vitriolic as a presidential debate, about LA’s acceptance of guilt (by giving up) or admittance of nothing (his statement) or what a first class prick the guy is.  (Lots of reports on that one;  I’ve never met the guy, myself. Ever meet a world #1, in any sport, that didn’t have ego issues?)  The names he is called, and frankly just about anyone that defends him, are so vindictive and obnoxious that you wonder where this sort of thing comes from.  (Cancer Jesus?  Really?)

As a cyclist, I’ve been asked by many non-cycling friends and acquaintances, did Lance cheat? (I’ve even asked myself the same question.)  I’m going to try to come up with some answers here.

History Lesson

If you’re not a cyclist, let me give you a little background.  Professionals and top amateurs, in nearly every sport that is played at the ultimate level, cheat.  Or, at least, push the boundaries of the rules.  Baseball players will make it look like a catch instead of a trap to make an out.  Football linemen hold.  Basketball players attempt to draw a charge with a little acting. NASCAR crew chiefs add or adapt a part to shave weight or boost horsepower.  It’s considered to be part of the game and the reason they all have referees or umpires or post-race inspections. 

(One exception is golf. Golfers are supposed to call penalties on themselves and, for the most part, do so.  Typically, several times a year, players on the PGA Tour call penalties on themselves that result in the loss of a huge sum of money.  Their response is always, “Hey, that’s the way the game is played.” If they don’t call it, it’s usually because they didn’t know they’d broken the rule and occasionally, a TV viewer will call in.  How’d you like someone at your job watching you all the time!)

Graeme McDonnell  
Called a penalty on himself a couple of years ago; 
potentially lost $500,000 for doing so.
Yep, he's a baller. (Of the rules.)

Cycling is no different.  Cyclists have been looking for ways to gain an advantage for as long as there have been races.  The amount of suffering that each rider sustains when performing at the highest level is huge.  If one is still lagging behind others, despite having given everything one has, there has to be something to help catch up.  Don’t think so?  Here’s a picture from the 1920s of the front of the peloton at the Tour de France. 

 "Hey, Pierre, got a match?"

The top riders are all having a smoke before heading up a climb into the mountains.  Why?  Because it was thought that a menthol cigarette helped to “open the lungs” and make a rider faster during an ascent.  Wow.  It’s hard to believe that a menthol Gauloise was one of the first PEDs, isn’t it? (There was a time when I thought Marlboros were, I suppose.)

Once it was understood, scientifically, what helped and what didn’t, riders began getting more creative.  A popular helper for quite a while was Dexedrine, along with Benzedrine, an “upper” that gave more energy.  (Think caffeine with more umph!  Bennies and Dexxies were also popular in the NBA, NFL, and MLB back in the 60s and 70s.  Long road trips, night games and the like contribute to that run down feeling.)

Hey, I like a cup of coffee in the morning.  I see plenty of folks drinking Red Bull, too.  I need that just to get my head right!

While other sports went off to study the muscle building capabilities of steroids, cycling headed in other directions.  It isn’t that steroids don’t help.  You need muscles to pedal a bike and if you can keep the power to weight ration in line (more power vs less weight) they come in handy.  What you really need in an endurance sport is the ability convert oxygen into energy.  It’s referred to as VO2 or Max VO2 and it can be affected by exercise…..or other things.  That’s where “blood doping” comes in. 

Caution, oversimplified science coming!  
(And I’m not a scientist but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express, last night.)

You may recall from classes in school that red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen from your lungs out to your muscles.  The amount of blood cells you have in your system is kept under control by your body.  But, you can fool your body into having more of them for a short period of time by removing some of your blood (like they do in blood drives, or when you sell it at the blood bank to buy something you really need) and then waiting for your body to replace what you took out.  (This takes about six weeks to replace an entire pint.  That’s why you’re only supposed to donate once every six weeks.)  
According to Google Images this picture came from the LiveStrong Foundation
How ironic is that?

Now, put that pint back in and you’ve got more red blood cells than anyone else (that didn’t do this) and, in theory, your body has the ability carry more oxygen to the muscles and perform at a high level for longer.  Say, up a mountain stage or for a long sprint to the finish. Or for the entire length of a long bicycle race, like the Tour de France.  (That’s three weeks and over 2,000 miles.) 

Since it was your own blood, it would be difficult to trace the fact that you've done anything except that a blood sample would have a higher concentration of red blood cells.  Probably just genetic, right?

Over time, science continued to improve, both in the testing for doping and in the methods for doing it.  Instead of just pee tests for amphetamines, testers began looking at blood tests to determine if anyone was blood doping.  The riders began looking for other ways to do it (EPO is the most popular) so that the testers couldn’t detect and on, and on.  

Today, the USADA and other testing organizations claim they’ve reached the point where they’ve wiped out all of this doping.  (Sure they have.  And dead people can no longer vote in Chicago.  And my dog can’t get a credit card, either.)  They’ve cleaned up the sport and want to make a statement about it by wiping out the record of the biggest TdF winner of all, whom, they also claim, is a doper.

How many times do I have to Pass this Test?

To his credit, Lance claims to be the most tested athlete in history, and been tested over 500 times and has never failed a drug test. The USADA claims that they have examples where his blood work indicates he was doping and they have alleged testimony from other riders who watched him do it.  (Pay no attention to the fact that these witnesses have all come clean about their own doping and are willing to testify to get a lighter suspension or none at all.)  Since the USADA isn’t governed by a court of law, there is no presumption of innocence; if they say you’re guilty, that’s where things start and you have to prove differently.

Yeah, but why work on all this ancient history?

I have no idea why the USADA feels it needs to suspend someone who has retired and won the last of these big races seven years ago.  It appears that the organization is making a statement that no one is safe from scrutiny and Armstrong is, by far, the largest target. 

There must be some precedence for this, right?

The history of doping, testing, and penalizing people for doing it goes back about fifty years or so.  Except for what’s gone on in the last decade or so, penalties haven’t been all that severe.  (Hmmm....that's about how long the USADA has been around.)

Eddie Mercx, arguably one of the greatest of all time, failed testing three times and was expelled from one race in the middle, and stripped of the other two titles.  He did admit to one of those but claimed innocence on the other two.  I can’t find any evidence of do-overs on testing, which is what they're doing to Armstrong here, from 13 years prior.  That said, I’m not sure the protocols and testing was all that sophisticated back then, either, so maybe it couldn't be done.

(Eddie Mercx, by the way, was nicknamed The Cannibal.  One of his competitors was asked by his daughter how a race went and he replied that, “the Belgian doesn’t even leave you crumbs, he’s a cannibal!” and the nickname stuck. How strong is that?!  Over a decade of racing, he won almost 50% of events in which he rode!  He’s the only rider to have won GC, Points, and King of the Mountains in the same TdF!  The Cannibal was truly a monster.  Reading about his dominance in the sport helped me understand that he was the Ultimate Baller.)

Did Lance cheat or not?

There is a part of me that wants to believe he did not, that it’s a witch hunt, that 500 passed tests provide a preponderance of evidence to that affect.  For a long time, I’ve pointed to all those clean tests in support of my belief that he’s simply the best.

There is another part of me that says where there is smoke, there must be fire.  That there are too many coincidences, stories, admissions, and accusations to believe that he didn’t enhance his performance in some manner.  This part of me is growing larger all the time but won’t be my true belief until I get to see something real, and reliable.

I really believe he was the greatest cyclist of his generation and I want to believe he did it clean.  At this point, all I can say is he appears to have done it about as cleanly as everybody else, based on the testing.  (I reserve the right to retract that statement but I don't think I'm going to have to do so.)

If he did dope, he was stronger than everyone else as he won all those Tours and just about everyone was doping, too.  If he didn’t dope, he killed everybody else because most of them were doping!  Regardless of whether or not he doped, his performance was so dominating!  He was a great strategist, he may have had the best "bike smarts" in history, and he understood how to strategize and execute a great team plan.  (He was the first guy to put together a team of different sponsors, companies, equipment and make them all come together in a well-oiled machine.  Many of today's teams are trying to replicate that, still.)

He and his foundation, LiveStrong, have also done an awful lot of good, and will continue to do so, for people and their families that are living with cancer.   They’ve raised over $500 Million and the money continues to roll into the foundation, even after this occurrence.

Because of that, no matter what he did, he gets a pass from me.  Ride on, Lance.

Respectful comments are welcomed.  Anything else will be moderated.  Bring it.