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Cycle computers and human factors engineering

My two-year-old $49 cycle computer finally bit the dust for good this week -- not just a dead battery (at either end); the transmitter just stopped transmitting to the receiver. When I went to buy a replacement, the selection at my local shop had gone down considerably; I guess the cool kids mostly buy GPS-equipped powerhouses that have more computing power than ran my entire college way back when. I, on the other hand, stuck with the lower-tech solution, and I bought the most expensive cycle computer on offer: the Cateye CC-MC100W Micro Wireless, store price $50.

It does everything you'd expect a cycle computer to do, and the tiny night light would be a nice addition if I ever do more long randonneuring events. But there is, for me, a huge design flaw that left me shouting choice obscenities at the sky during today's ride.

On the CC-MC100W, two buttons are easily accessible to the user while riding. The top button cycles among the various display modes in the small digits (distance, odometer, pace, time, max speed, and so on). The lower button, on the front of the device, turns the computer on or off if auto-on isn't set.

So today, while I'm riding, I want to check my pace for the day so far. With my gloved right hand, I grab the cycle computer and start to press the top button to cycle through the displays. And everything suddenly goes back to zero! I lost my stats on my first 29 miles of riding today.

Why? Pressing both buttons simultaneously -- even for an instant -- is the "reset" command. Did anyone bother to think that a cyclist might naturally grab the front of the computer? Perhaps it's not such a big deal when wearing fingerless cycling gloves, but that really shouldn't be a requirement. And why does the reset happen almost immediately? On my last computer (manufactured by Sigma), the reset sequence took at least five seconds of constant pressure on two buttons, both at the top of the unit and almost impossible to do, accidentally or otherwise, while riding.

Rarely do I see a design flaw this bad in higher-end cycling products. If I hadn't already attached the unit to my bicycle and clipped the twist ties, I'd return it -- but I also don't want to spend another $50 on yet another computer.

Sorry, Cateye, I think you blew it on this one.

Update: Today, on my second ride with the new computer, it registered a maximum speed of 56.3 mph, thanks to interference from some unknown source. With my previous Sigma, in more than 13,000 miles of cycling, never once did interference cause erroneous data. (The worst that ever happened is that the receiver would stop processing for a few seconds, especially near the ferry terminal in Tiburon, but it would catch back up quickly when the link to the transmitter was re-established.) Another black mark for the Cateye.

Building a better route sheet

Again this year, I was honored to be asked by the Seismic Challenge staff to create the route sheets for this year's ride, a 206-mile, two-day route from San Francisco to Livermore to Yountville on Oct. 2-3.

The Seismic Challenge route changes somewhat every year. This time around, part of the route was on streets and highways that I'd never seen, let alone cycled. So although I got a detailed turn-by-turn list from the ride organizers, I realized that I couldn't do a truly effective job of creating a useful route sheet unless I saw the route myself. With that in mind, I packed up the car and headed up to American Canyon for a 40-mile ride to and through Napa and back.

Before leaving, I made a first draft of the route sheet and brought it with me. I carried a red pen in my jersey pocket, and as you can see, I made frequent use of it during the ride. (It's darned near impossible to write neatly with a gloved hand while stopped by the side of the road and using a flimsy map holder as support!) Many of the cautions that we teach in ride leader school were on display:

-- Street signs often are missing, or they don't agree with Google Maps. In Napa, I was particularly surprised at how many street signs were missing within the city limits, as opposed to out in rural nowheresville. Because the Seismic route is marked with route arrows, unsigned streets aren't overly problematic, but if you're making a route sheet for an unmarked route, you need to provide enough visual cues to direct riders through unsigned turns (for example: "first stop sign").

-- Turns that appear to be hard rights or lefts on maps can sometimes be gentle bends, or the other way around. When a cyclist approaches a Y-style intersection, a route sheet says to go "right" is more confusing than one that says to "bear right."

-- Cue sheets automatically generated by some mapping tools, most notably Map My Ride, are notorious for inserting phantom turns that allegedly travel a very short distance before continuing in the desired direction. Other mapping anomalies that can pop up include weird loop-de-loop routings that try to deposit you on the wrong side of a divided highway.

-- Driving a route sometimes yields less satisfactory results than actually riding it. At one entrance to a bike path, there was no curb cut to allow cyclists to ride directly onto the path, forcing a dismount after an especially tricky left turn from a high-speed divided highway. This is the type of thing that cyclists should know about in advance.

-- Another thing that test drivers might not notice as much as test riders is the road condition, especially potholes, bumps, ruts and other obstructions that might affect the side of the road more than the main vehicle lanes. Particularly on descents and other technical parts of a route, it's helpful to warn riders of substandard road conditions.

Many other route sheet designers, particularly in the randonneuring world, include incremental distances on each step of the route sheet. (For example, "At mile 29.0, turn right on Main; continue for 1.5 miles," phrased in a tabular format, of course.) Seismic and ALC don't do this, and that's why you don't see that style here. Incremental distances can be helpful for cyclists whose cycle computers or GPS units don't synchronize exactly with the printed distances, or who detour from the official route and later rejoin it.

One small problem about test-riding a one-way route such as Seismic: Unless you coordinate multiple vehicles and multiple riders, there's often no easy way to get back to your starting point. I solved this by only riding 24 miles of the route in Napa; I was able to chop my return down to only 16 miles by taking a more direct (and stressful) route that certainly wouldn't be appropriate for a large group ride. So, unfortunately, I didn't get to see the very end of the route in Yountville, but a combination of the helpful, detailed instructions from the organizers and careful reading of Google Maps and Street View, and I hope that I've covered all of the main points.

The test will come in early October when this year's intrepid group of Seismic riders sets out on their journey to raise much-needed funds for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Here's to all of them; one of these years (2011?), I might join you officially.

Ride to eat to ride to eat

Two years ago, I bought a heart-rate monitor on closeout from Woot. (And from that link, I see that they later offered it for even $5 less than I paid for it. Sigh.) Because I found it too awkward and complicated to use while in motion, it went into the random-crap drawer shortly thereafter. But I brought it out of cold storage today because I tackled a new challenge for me: climbing Eureka Canyon Road (pictured) from Corralitos in coastal Santa Cruz County. This 41-mile route had about 4,100 feet of climbing ... or about an even 100 on my difficulty scale, about as challenging a ride per mile as I ever attempt.

I've recently been curious about how many calories I really burn while riding. I've typically used the ballpark figure of 60 calories per mile (humans of lesser bulk than I will consume far fewer), but I figured this ride would test that limit. And based on the numbers, it certainly did.

Given my age, gender, and weight, this HRM claimed that I burned a whopping 3,687 calories on this ride, or just about 90 calories per mile. And that's an average, which includes the corresponding 4,100 feet of descending as well. Of the total calories, only about 600 were burned on the descent from the summit back into Soquel, mostly due to a couple of annoying little hills on the way back down.

How does that compare to online calorie calculators? I get anywhere from about 2,800 to 3,300 calories from the various websites. These, however, base their calculations only on speed and not difficulty of terrain. So even though my reported number seems a little high, I'm somewhat confident that it's a reasonable number given the nasty climbing.

But this raises all sorts of nutrition issues. Replacing 3,687 calories while riding, or even soon thereafter, just isn't practical or healthy. Before the ride, I had a bagel; while riding, I had another bagel, a bottle of electrolyte drink, a bottle of Odwalla, and a bag of Sport Beans -- for a total of about 1,000 to 1,100 calories.

Now for those of us trying to lose weight (and that includes me), this sounds like a good thing indeed -- a 2,500-calorie deficit is about seven-tenths of a pound right there, just on one ride! (Recall that 3,500 calories equals one pound.) But my experience has been otherwise.

It's hardly a secret that, during the five years I've done AIDS/LifeCycle, I've not lost any weight. In fact, I've gained 30 pounds. (That would be 40 pounds, except that I've managed to lose 10 this year somehow.) And while it would be nice to pretend that all the weight is in leg muscles, that wouldn't fool anybody. For all of the good things that have happened to me through ALC, this is my biggest disappointment, especially since I wasn't exactly svelte in 2005 to begin with.

And while my off-the-bike food habits aren't the best in the world, it's not like I'm eating too much. In fact, I've suspected for quite some time that I often eat too little, sending my body into a starvation response that hangs on to every last globule of fat as if it were golden. According to The Cyclist's Food Guide (2005), I currently need 2,860 calories a day just to break even on a no-cycling day. That's a lot of Subway foot-longs. Add another 3,687 calories from a ride of just 3.5 hours, and we're getting into a third trip through the buffet line. And something like my recently-completed 300-kilometer ride might have consumed as many as 12,000 additional calories (and, for me, perhaps even more) in just one day! That is more than 35 Lean Cuisine barbecue chicken microwave pizzas!

But then the math gets slightly more complicated. The daily baseline -- 2,860 calories for me -- allegedly doesn't include cycling. But in the 300k, I was riding for more than 17 hours, or the better part of a day. Do the cycling calories add to the baseline, even though I basically did nothing but cycle for the whole day? Or do I need to reduce the baseline to reflect just the seven hours that I wasn't on the bike? I've tried to find places online where nutritionists talk about things like this, but I've come up empty. It's a big deal, too -- because an extra 2,000 calories or so per cycling day can certainly add up to extra pounds in no time at all.

Randonneurs and other very-long-distance cyclists need to develop a nutrition strategy that works for them, and everyone seems to have their own. I found this long discussion at the New Jersey Randonneurs website in which several riders share their secrets. On AIDS/LifeCycle, we're fortunate that our meals are prepared specifically to meet our extreme caloric and nutritional needs, but even there, it's important to find something that works and then stick with it -- experimenting while on the ride in June merely invites stomach distress.

I keep experimenting. Some things that I've found to work well for me: Odwalla strawberry-banana smoothies (or the fresh-made version from Starbucks), bagels, a Subway meatball sandwich, and the occasional deli-style turkey sandwich. Spicy foods don't do it for me -- no burritos or kung pao chicken while riding. I've never experimented with the "athlete's" high-calorie liquid meals (such as Spiz); perhaps it's just another part of refusing to declare myself a "serious" cyclist. Post-ride pizza and pasta seem to work well (much love for Mi Amore in Lompoc), but never in the middle of a riding day.

All that said, however, I'm obviously still not there, or else I wouldn't still be packing these 30 extra pounds that make me sad. I suspect a sports nutritionist could have a field day with me, but the cost for those I've seen is beyond my budget (particularly in this uncertain economy) ... and I'd probably be an ornery and difficult customer anyway! I've attended the ALC nutrition workshops, and I have all the books here as well (and I've actually read them), so I have the basic tools and knowledge. It just hasn't worked for me.

In a future post: How these nutritional considerations tie into one's mood while riding. If you've seen me get grumpy on the streets of Santa Cruz (as I was yet again at the end of today's ride), you'll know what I'm talking about.