Monday, May 6, 2013

Weapons of Choice: Ultracycling gear recommendations

Check out my new weapon -- weapon of choice.
-Fatboy Slim

On Saturday, I completed a 260-mile brevet with about 18,000 feet of climbing; all told, it took just under 20 hours, making it both the longest one-day ride I've ever done and the one with the most climbing.  I'm putting the story together, but I wanted first to discuss some of the gear I used during the event.  Much of this may also be very useful beyond the ultracycling context.

Garmin's new Edge 810
One thing I've found to be invaluable is Garmin's line of GPS cycling computers with street-level maps.  On some level these are a luxury: it's certainly possible to get by with a cue sheet and simpler device.  But a major part of the game in ultracycling is making things as foolproof as they can be, and the new Garmin Edge 810 offers a number of critical advantages over the traditional cue sheet.  First, it is extremely easy to upload routes and receive prompted turn-by-turn directions.  When backstopped with a cue sheet, this method is pretty much infallible, and I love the "distance to next turn" field, something a cue sheet can't provide.  There's a related, but less-advertised, benefit to riding with a GPS, in that the screen automatically zooms appropriately to your speed.  This means that, when you're bombing down an unfamiliar descent, a split-second glance down will show the shape of the road for the 1/2 mile or so in front of you.  I found this capability gave me considerably more confidence about laying off the brakes and making the most of my momentum.  A related ability is the scrolling elevation profile: when you upload a route, the GPS cross-references the upcoming roads with a topographical map, meaning that you can easily see what the next few miles of road have in store.  If you see that a hill is only a minor blip, there's no reason not to hoof it over with some effort, but a spike going off the top of the screen is very effective in mellowing one out for a few minutes.

The mapping and elevation features aren't unique to the Garmin 810; they're also available on the older, and slightly cheaper, Garmin 800.  But the 810 does add a couple of features that the 800 lacks, in particular the LiveTrack system.  LiveTrack uses Bluetooth to connect the GPS unit with your cell phone, and then leverages the cell's signal to upload coordinates and other information to a realtime tracking website.  You can then email the link to that website to anyone you want, or post it to Facebook; when the recipient clicks the link, he or she will see your current location (refreshed each minute), and also the ground you've covered.  Here's what mine looked like at mile 213 of Saturday's ride:

LiveTrack feature
Because I'd been on the road so long, LiveTrack had broken up my route into 5-mile segments, and it showed where I was down to the minute.  The blue bar at the bottom, labeled "graphs," opens to reveal realtime stats on speed, heart rate, power, cadence, and whatever else you choose.  In the picture below, mine shows a chart of speed imposed on an elevation profile.  (Had I been moving at the time, it also would have showed current speed, etc.)

LiveTrack with performance metrics

LiveTrack is an extremely useful tool not only for long rides like this, where it acts as a safety backstop and lets people check in on you from time to time, but it can also be a killer app for spectators at races.  All you need to do is start the LiveTrack application before the race, start your computer with the Autopause function enabled, and stuff your cellphone somewhere on the bike, perhaps alongside the spare tube.  Email the link to spectators, and they'll be able to tell where you are every minute and be ready when you zip by.  No more missing people as they blow by on the bike, and no standing around unnecessarily.  It's great stuff. In my case, I emailed the link to a few friends and also posted it, just as a precaution.  

I also installed an App on my iPhone that is similarly useful: Find My Friends.  It is a terrific stalking tool that allows anyone you choose to ping your phone's location, which is then superimposed on an extremely detailed street or satellite map.  It appears accurate to within a few meters, and is yet another way for people to find you should the need arise -- valuable peace of mind when you're riding in remote locations after dark.  I also think that Find My Friends could be a very useful tool for anyone sagging a group ride.  You'll never be forced to set off in search of the missing cyclist!  Note that you can turn the app on and off with a tap of a button, so there's no need to worry about privacy unless you want to.

A pretty obvious question: with Find my Friends, is there any need for LiveTrack?  It depends.  Find My Friends shows only a location; it provides no breadcrumb trail or performance metrics.  It also doesn't provide a webpage link that's constantly viewable by anyone -- it requires much more micromanagement.  So LiveTrack does provide additional value, although the two apps are redundant to some extent.

Mophie Juicepack Powerstation Duo
If there's a downside to this reliance on technology, it's that one needs to power the various devices.  The Garmin 810 has a battery life about 15 hours, which is more than plenty for most purposes.  But it wasn't going to be enough for this ride, and the 15-hour figure itself is wildly optimistic in that LiveTrack's bluetooth connection with the cell phone drains battery life like wildfire, and using the backlight at night is also a massive burden.  So I needed a way to recharge both the iPhone and the Garmin on the fly, and the perfect solution was a gadget I'd picked up to recharge my iPad on an overseas flight: the Mophie Juicepack Powerstation Duo.  This thing is amazing: it's compact, has two USB ports that allow the recharging of multiple devices at once (including rechargeable lights), and its massive 6000 mAh capacity is more than enough to get through the day.  By way of comparison, an iPhone 5 battery is rated at 1440 mAh, and the Garmin Edge 810 is 1100 mAh.  The Juicepack can recharge both devices twice-over, with room to spare.  It's an outstanding insurance policy.  If you bring a wall-to-USB plug to recharge the Juicepack during stops, you can probably keep riding close to indefinitely.
Exposure Joystick mk7

Next up on the new-gadget train was a new helmet light: the Exposure Light Joystick mk7.  This is by far the most elegant light I've ever used, and any lights I get in the future will be from Exposure -- it was that impressive.  These lights aren't cheap, but when you're riding fast on dark roads at night, the reassurance is invaluable.  The Joystick has an integrated, rechargeable battery, and puts out a maximum 400 lumens despite having a weight of only 87 grams (about 1/5 pound).  Even on the lowest power setting -- which lasts a whopping 10 hours -- it's more than bright enough to light the way on most roads.  The small touches are great as well: the light simply clips on and off, so that you don't need to have it weighing down your head all day (not that it weighs much), and it has a "smart port" in the back that, in addition to recharging the light, doubles as a power source for various accessories, such as a flashing rear red light that attaches to the back of the joystick, or a backup battery that piggybacks on top of it.  As a year-round bike commuter, I've become firmly convinced that helmet mounted lights are the way to go if you don't mind a bit of weight on the head: having the light go where you're looking is crucial.  Oh yeah: the Mophie Juicepack can recharge this, too: its battery capacity is 2900 mAh.

Rounding out the new equipment purchases for this ride is... a handlebar bag.  I'd long held out against using these despite their popularity among randonneurs, as I knew them to be about as aerodynamic as a barn door, they aren't light, and they don't exactly scream performance.  Having said that, after this ride, I'm kind of in love with mine.  I opted for the Arkel Small Handlebar Bag.  It's waterproof, holds a cue sheet and cell phone right in front of you, and allows easy in-ride access to pretty much anything you could want: food, chamois cream, batteries, sunscreen, control card, or whatever.  The weight is noticeable, but when the rides get this long, for me it stops being about speed and starts being about ensuring that my nutrition is on track, I don't lose my control card (as happened last June), that the cue sheet is readily at hand, and so forth.  I'm a fan.

A rear bag is also very valuable, especially when the temperature's expected to vary widely during the ride.  It's great to have a place to stash jackets, arm/leg warmers, gloves, caps, and that sort of thing.  My choice is again by Arkel: the Tailrider Trunk Bag.  It's compact, waterproof, sturdy, and expands to hold an amazing amount of stuff.  There's a convenient loop on the back onto which one can clip a couple of lights, it's easy to remove and carry, and in general it's a great piece of kit.

Of course, one also needs a rack to hold it.  Topeak makes a common one, but I didn't care for it when I tried it: the single-beam clamp mechanism causes it to sway intolerably.  I'm a much bigger fan of Arkel's own Randonneur rack, which clamps to the seat rails as well as the seat post.  The whole system looks like this:

Arkel rack and tailrider bag
Finally, although I've mentioned them before, I've come to think that two pieces of equipment are indispensable for all-day rides.  First, I've become a huge believer in tubeless road tires.  I've now been riding my Hutchinsons for about 1.5 years, and they're about ready to be changed.  In that time, I've had exactly zero flats.  Equally important, tubeless tires can and should be run at about 90 psi, as opposed to 100-110 psi for regular road tires, and that lower pressure makes all the difference in soaking up road imperfections and smoothing out the ride.  It feels like a Cadillac rolling down the road.  And, with the imminent release of Hutchinson's Secteur 28 tubeless tire, which is 28 mm wide, the ride will be all the better.

Arm coolers in action at Mountains of Misery
Second, I think anyone who's not riding in arm coolers is missing out.  I use the Zoots, which provide warmth when it's chilly and reflect the sun when it's hot.  UV ray protection aside, it's amazing how much less tired you'll be at the end of a long, hot afternoon when you're not getting baked, and they keep the skin cooler as well.  No need to take them off: just put them on and forget they're there until you're done with the ride.

Next up: the epic ride itself!