BikeTrek III – The Search for Spartacus!

In November of 2011, I weighed 352 pounds. At 5’10” tall, that meant I was obese. Morbidly obese. I wore a size 54 waist dress slack – although they were tight – and a size 21 dress shirt. I was on 135 units of insulin a day, four Metformin, and two Actos tablets in an effort to beat back Type II diabetes. I was dying, and I knew it. So did my wife.

I hadn’t always been like that. As an athlete in high school, I wrestled in the 132 pound weight class in 9th grade. That winter, though, the Arab Oil Embargo struck home to many Americans…especially my parents. We struck back by swapping our fuel oil burning furnace for a wood burning furnace. We were one of only five houses in a four square mile area with lots of woodland, so Dad bought a chainsaw, a couple of axes, a maul, a wedge, and a splitting maul, and I spent that Fall and Winter with him every weekend in the woods, bulking up. Yes, it would make for some colder mornings in the dead of winter when just a few embers remained in the furnace, but it was a nice heat…and you couldn’t beat the price compared to fuel oil!

By the time I was a senior, I was about 210 pounds, with a 50 inch chest, 30 inch waist, and could bench press more than 300 pounds, squat 600, and deadlift…well, a bunch! Some of that was our trips to the woods, but some was the result of a change in our HS football coaching staff that emphasized weight training. I gladly bulked up. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize high school doesn’t last forever. Those who become slaves to their bodies early, tend to pay the price later when their activity level declines due to limited opportunity or, frankly, life. Such was my case.

When we were married, just five years after high school, I was down to 185 pounds. I still had a decent amount of muscle tone due to the physical demands of being a music theatre performance major (yes, demands…you take all of those dance and stage movement classes…I dare ya!), a stint in the Air Force, a delicate balance of performing for a living and working a real job as a nurse on the night shift….All of that was about to change when we decided to give up performance as a career and enter music education.

For the next 20 years I experienced roller coaster weight issues. My weight would go up during the school year, and go down in the summer. God bless her, she stuck by my side, literally through thick and thin, despite the fact that she never varied more than 10 pounds from the weight she was at when we were married…except during pregnancies, but she always lost it afterwards. Me? I would vary anywhere from the 185 up to 220, down to 190, up to 260….late in the cycle, we went back to grad school…after two Master’s and completing a PhD program, I found that I was a brittle diabetic and was unable any longer to lose the school year weight gain. My physician recommended bariatric bypass as a means of losing the weight and, as a result, gaining the ability to cut back on my meds.

Back then, counseling was mandatory before a surgeon would allow you to undergo the procedure. Counseling for both of us. We were informed of the risks…of the side effects…of the benefits, and, of the massive psychological changes that may result in a couple’s relationship. I underwent the procedure the day before Thanksgiving in 2011.

One of the things in counseling that was stressed is that the procedure is effective, but only remains so if you change your lifestyle. My wife and I decided that for me, my lifestyle change would involve cycling. Other than the one and two day invitationals I have posted about before, I had also used one of my summers to bike around the coastline of the Upper and Lower Peninsula of Michigan as a fundraiser for my choral program. She followed along, and set up camp in an agreed upon destination. We had the time of our lives! After the surgery, and after I had acquired some better bikes, we once again opted to participate in bike tours…in our first Pedal Across Lower Michigan (PALM) and RAGBRAI tours during the same summer. Again, we had a great deal of fun, although it was more work for her than me, she still enjoyed the alone time to read, shop, sample local cuisine, etc. In one RAGBRAI town she was flabbergasted, amused, and excited to find out that the local library – which she entered originally in a quest for WiFi, also had a stock of character cake pans that they checked out to patrons!

That was when we decided to go the extra step and make my exit from the field of education a grand experiment in bike touring. Knowing how I felt about challenges, and thinking of the opportunities for herself, we made the decision that the year I was due to retire (2020), we would take the plunge and I would pedal from Seattle, WA to Bar Harbor, ME – about 4000 miles. She would continue as she always had…riding ahead, setting up camp, shopping, reading, etc., but would keep tabs on me and ride out on her own bike to meet me on the road when I was about 20 miles out…well, she said she would START when I was about 20 miles out, and meet me halfway…I wanted to call BS, knowing full well she wasn’t that fast and we would actually meet with about 7 miles to go, but….somethings are better left unsaid! She was willing to support me in this, and I wasn’t going to blow it!

By the time we had made these plans – early 2014, I had already lost about 170 pounds and kept it off. She was announcing to everyone that she felt like she was cheating on me with me! I was up to 5000 miles cycling every year, and plans were made to increase the mileage goal so the summer trip would be possible.

Unfortunately, life happened. I was chased into early retirement, thanks to a bungling Michigan State legislature, a greedy administration that resented my salary and educational level, and, frankly, my unrepentant willingness to use actual research data against their calls to make changes in curriculum to obtain more grant funding. At the same time, as I mentioned earlier this year, my wife began to experience her own health crises.

Well, it’s 2020. As I stated in my last post, I made the reservation on Amtrak in February and started planning the ride she made me promise to fulfill. The rest of this post will discuss the steps I took, decisions that had to be made, etc.

Again, originally this trip was to be made TOGETHER. Without her, I would have to either make the trip with a group planning the excursion and that had SAG’s employed, or make the trip totally on my own. There are such groups available, but the costs start at over $6,000 per rider. Too rich for my blood! Next, I contemplated constructing my own route and finding places to stay en route, etc. This takes a great deal of patience, knowledge, and more guess work than I felt comfortable with. So I turned to one of the oldest long distance cycling organizations in the US – Adventure Cycling. This group has routes and tours throughout the United States, and sells maps if you want to organize a tour by yourself, or with friends. The maps are incredibly detailed, take the safest roads possible, and have turn by turn directions along with listings of bike shops, overnight lodgings, tourist information, etc. The group actually had a route that departs Anacortes, WA (80 miles or so north of Seattle) and ending in Bar Harbor, ME! No brainer. I joined the Association, bought the maps with a group member discount that basically covered the cost of my membership, and began to plan my ride.

As I was in the process of planning my itinerary, I took into account the mileage, what I felt I could reasonably be expected to sustain given a bit of training, the gear I would be required to take along to do a completely self-supported ride of this magnitude, and, of course, my bike capabilities. Following a trip around Lake Ontario in the summer of 2015, I had my cyclocross bike refitted. I had experienced some real problems climbing the Niagara escarpment with panniers…basically running out of gears! Originally, the bike had a dual chain ring upfront (46-34) and a standard 12-24 cassette. For those of you unfamiliar with bicycle gearing, the numbers refer to the number of teeth in a cog. If you remember basic history, Archimedes taught that a large gear turning a smaller gear could generate more speed/power. In bicycles, when you use your largest gear up front, and your smallest gear in back, you are at the maximum of your machine’s capabilities – without the added human power element. This is NOT how you want to climb a mountain, however…unless you are Jan Ullrich! When climbing, most cyclists go through their gears to alleviate the strain on their muscles and sustain the power needed to continue the battle against gravity! Ultimately, I lost that battle up the escarpment and had to – embarrassingly enough – dismount and walk my bike up the last tenth of a mile or so. My legs were not able to spin fast enough to keep the bicycle moving forward and upright. I needed a larger set of gears in back. Upon my return from that trip, I replaced the cassette with an 11-42 cassette with the required long cage derailleur (the gears are bigger so the derailleur also has to be to make the necessary shift). This gave me four gears in back that were larger than the 24 tooth gear originally there. This meant that my cyclocross could literally climb like a mountain goat!

Well, on its own anyway. My wife and children, in preparation for that trip in 2015, bought me a rear rack and set of panniers (bags) to carry my gear with. Unfortunately, the Crux – indeed, NONE of my bikes – didn’t have the eyelets in the dropouts for the rack to attach to. After a bit of research, they found an adapter that would allow the rack to attach to the skewer/quick release. Ahhhhh….sometimes, ignorance is bliss. I certainly didn’t know any better at the time, and neither did they. The problem with such an adapter is that it transfers the weight of the rack and the panniers down to the skewer, which passes through the hub/axle of your wheel. Think about that for a second. If the load is heavy enough, say 20 pounds per bag, that load will cause each end of the skewer to bend down slightly. This, in turn, causes the middle of the skewer to bend UP slightly inside the hub/axle, and acts almost like an emergency brake in a car. Ever try to drive with your emergency brake on? On a bicycle, if the load is light enough, it is not an issue. Unfortunately, I have powerful enough legs that I could compensate and just attributed it to the extra weight on the bike. Until last summer when my mechanic told me the rear wheel on the Crux needed to be replaced immediately. A long discussion followed and led to my discovery that my rack and panniers could no longer be used on the Crux (or any of my bikes) for this journey. Instead, I would need a trailer or bike packing bags (total projected cost of either option would be at least $300) and a new rear wheel (at least $500).

When making plans for the trip I went to revisit these discussions with my mechanic. He floored me by asking a question I hadn’t even considered. (see “Sometimes you just know” from February). He asked why I didn’t just buy a dedicated touring bike. I laughed at first and reminded him that I am a retired teacher, living on a pension, and not yet eligible for Social Security. He stated that there were several used touring bikes on the market because people buy them with the best intentions and never really follow through. The best two he could recommend were the Trek 520 and the Cannondale ST-1000. And so my search began.

The learning curve was steep. As I have learned, a dedicated touring bike not only has eyelets in the dropouts (a part of the frame that the wheels sit in) for attaching racks, but the gearing is vastly different, the brakes allow for wider tires – necessary because larger/high volume tires make it easier to carry the weight and give a “cushier” ride – and the front fork is usually equipped with attachments to allow for a front rack and panniers as well. In most cases, a truly dedicated touring bike will have a triple chain ring up front, and fewer gears in back, but a wider range in size. This allows for a much wider range of shifting capabilities to climb mountains with, as well as generating speed in the flatter portions of a route. Also, and importantly, most touring bikes come equipped with a full set of mud/splash guards to keep the cyclist as dry and comfortable as possible.

Despite my mechanics advice, in early March, there simply weren’t many Trek 520’s or Cannondale ST-1000’s out there. I expanded my search, and found a few different model touring bikes, but they were either the wrong size, or the wrong components. My sister got excited and she assisted me in the search, scouring eBay, Craig’s List, Facebook Marketplace. Finally, I found one. Relatively close to me.

A man had just inherited a 1989 Cannondale ST-1000 from a friend who had recently passed. He was located just 80 miles from my house, so we exchanged a few messages and I went to see the bike. No, Michigan was not yet under quarantine! Man, what a beauty! I could tell that it had been well cared for! The paint was nearly flawless. The components were in excellent condition and high quality. But how did it ride?

Truthfully, I couldn’t tell for sure. The bike had the wrong kind of pedals on it for me…SpeedPlay frogs. This meant my biking shoes could not clip in and felt very uncomfortable pushing the small little circles around. Additionally, the bike felt like it was small. I came back from a trip around the block and we adjusted the seat post up to see if it made any difference. It did, but I still felt like my torso was stretched out a bit and my knees were coming up too high. I really wanted to like this bike. I looked it over. Evaluated everything – how much would be needed to upgrade the saddle, replace the cables (the current ones were in good shape, but cables usually only last 2000 miles, and there was no way I was beginning a cross country trip with used cables!), replace the pedals, etc. The value was still there, but the question of fit was still on my mind. Again, refer to “Sometimes you just know.” I felt an adjustable stem might raise my torso up and make all the difference in the world. An adjustable stem allows you to change the height, reach, and angle of your handlebars in myriads of combinations. I’ve used them before on bikes purchased for my daughters with great success. However, having just written that blog post about fit a few weeks previously, I just didn’t feel comfortable handing over $250 cash for an unknown outcome – especially when I would need an extra $200-250 to make the changes. So I returned home, disappointed, and renewed the search.

After a week, I called my mechanic again and informed him. He agreed that he was certain the issue was the stem. The bike had been going through my mind somewhat similar to when I had first met my wife! Constantly thinking…imagining…

I finally pulled the trigger. My sister picked up the bike because she was visiting her grandchildren just a few miles away that day. Meantime, I purchased a new stem with a longer neck and shorter reach, as well as new pedals, bar tape, hoods, chain, and had my mechanic install them all along with new cables. Dropped the bike off on a Wednesday. On Friday, our governor announced a quarantine would take effect the following Monday. My mechanic labored all weekend to get the bike to me without violating the executive order.

By the way, as a former nurse, may I say that I have no problem with the social distancing, quarantining, etc., that states are adopting. We have taken similar measures as a society before. Here in MI, as of today, we now have 2800 deaths and 35000 cases. This is much higher than the 2% death rate our orangutan in chief is pushing on the masses as a justification for reopening businesses. However, in an economy where you are shutting down public transport, why would you classify local bike shops as non-essential? To me this is the most idiotic thing our governor has done!

Regardless, I have the bike in my possession. All of my other bikes were named after our dogs. I have enough bikes now that every dog we owned as a married couple has been accounted for. This bike, however, is different. It rides like a BMW SUV. It takes bumps and rough patches incredibly well. It has a drive train – 50-44-28 up front, and 13-15-18-21-25-30-34 in back – that allows me to attack climbs like a warrior! So I christened the newest addition to my stable for the warrior I always admired – as did my wife as she watched the Starz series loosely based on his (love) life – Spartacus!

Spartacus comes in at 28.6 pounds without my loaded panniers, Kaddy Racks, lights, and my fat butt! I have since taken him out on nearly 1000 miles of rides, the first 600 of which were with the panniers loaded with the tools, clothes, spare parts, tubes, tires, first aid kit, grooming accessories, charging equipment, etc., that I would be taking this summer. I placed my tent and gear shed on the top of the rack. All told, this added an extra 40 pounds to the bike, and made it more like a Sherman Tank than a bicycle. I have 700x32c tires on it and it took me awhile to find my optimum touring speed. I was never going to challenge the pro tour, but on my road bikes I could comfortably average 19-22 mph for a metric century (100k or 62 miles). Not on Spartacus. At best I was averaging 14.9 mph loaded, but was finishing these metric centuries breathless and worn out. I have settled on an average speed of about 13.8 mph, which allows me to enjoy the ride and still get a metric in comfortably in under five hours total time with rest stops, water breaks, food breaks, etc.

Why is a metric such a big deal? Because to make it on my route from June 1st to watch the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean on her birthday, I have to AVERAGE just about a metric century every day. Obviously, there are days in the Great Plains where I have seen the elevation profile on these maps that reads like a table top, so I can crank out between 80 and 100 miles in the course of a day easily. I would like to be able to take at least one rest day every week. I turned 60 years old yesterday. I’m not young anymore! We won’t even discuss those 8000 feet climbs in Glacier National Park!

So, today, here I sit. Unable to do the tour this summer and thus am failing to keep that promise to her. I am, however, at 3100 miles for the year, I’ve completed 24 metric centuries so far this year – enough to extend that STRAVA challenge streak to 24 months, and have set PR’s for total mileage in a month for February, March, AND April (already).

Tomorrow would have been our 37th anniversary. I will apologize to her for letting her down (as if she doesn’t already know), but promise to make it up…next year. Spartacus will take the oath with me!

http://www.adventurecycling.org

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richardtirith4919

Forced into retirement at the age of 55 because I was foolish enough to finish a PhD program in an era of teacher bashing and budget cutting, I turned to cycling full time. Until my wife passed away in 2018 from a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Now I navigate the highways of the US on my bikes in search of a good Brew, good times with our grandsons, and in memory of her.

8 thoughts on “BikeTrek III – The Search for Spartacus!”

  1. How old are the wheels? Please don’t say they’re original. Unless you buy a new set of wheels or respoke the old ones, plan on breaking a LOT of spokes on a cross-country loaded tour. And most of them will be rear, drive-side spokes, so be prepared to take that freehub off and and on a lot. It gives you a great opportunity to get to know the local mosquitos. I would also take a really good look at the braking surfaces – the rims could be mighty thin after 30 years. I had my 1989 wheels rebuilt. The hubs were still in great shape, so I had a local shop lace those hubs into new rims. (Hey, at least bike shops are essential here. On the other hand, I’m not. I just found out I’ll be furloughed ⅓ of my hours for the next 8 weeks. We still haven’t gotten the expected surge and the hospital has been running at about ½ capacity. We brought in a bunch of outpatient therapists for orientation and now, not only do they not need them, they don’t need us – so just when they plan to restart elective surgeries, they’re furloughing us to save money.)

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  2. Hey!
    You have no idea how inspiring your riding is to others and frankly, intimidating. I go 10 miles and I’m done for days (granted arthritis plays into that heavily). I wish you knew though…anyway, you are not failing her or letting her down. The governor’s orders and frankly the country being all but shut down is beyond your control. Had that not been the case I have legitimately zero question you’d have ridden this quest with complete success and named it for her. It would have been Angie’s ride. And she’d have been singing in your ear and SAGing through your mind’s eye the entire way proud of all you have done. You two have seen many setbacks in your life and those were out of your control as well. I have confidence you’ll make this ride when it’s allowed. And she will be with you then… so much love to you today tomorrow (especially) and always.
    💜 your niece

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