Monday, March 29, 2010

A New Saddle and Two Good Brevets

Davis Bike Club 300k, March 20th
San Francisco Randonneurs 400k, March 27th, 2010

For the last seven or more years, I have been using fi'zi:k (excuse the funky spelling) Arione saddles (yes, more than one). They have a longer nose which allows to easily change the fore and aft position and upper body angle while riding, and the narrower sit bone area does not get in the way of pedaling.

I know it's not for everybody; but for me this turned out to be the best saddle choice so far (and I have tried many since the early 60's). I never had any problems with it - other than that the thin cover gets rubbed through every ten thousand miles or so (i.e. too often). Typically, it opens up at the nose, but sometimes also on the side (which then allows me to joke "Wanna see my saddle sore?" and laugh at the bewildered reactions I get). Because Superglue can only go so far, I had to consider buying yet another saddle, this year.

You could say I was too comfortable with my fi'zi:k Ariones, because I suddenly decided to experiment with a new, completely different model, to see what happens. I ordered Tom Milton's An-Atomica, for about the same price as the Arione. Tom rides the SFRandonneurs brevets with us (he has been mentioned here already), and so I would at least get a chance to complain to the designer if the experiment didn't turn out satisfactorily.

After just a little bit of adjustments on a 40-minute ride on Thursday evening, I took it out onto this year's Davis 300k brevet. I certainly should have known better than using a brand new saddle for a 300 km distance; but that's how cocky I felt.

It was the first time I went onto this DBC 300 route, but I knew all the roads from the Davis Double and various other Davis Bike Club brevets. As usual, I took advantage of a fast group (including not one, but two tandems) during the first 30 flat miles; and as usual, I found myself alone as soon as the route entered the hills (the tandems had made a stop in a park just before, and everybody else was way ahead). I was lucky enough to benefit from more drafting a little later in Pope Valley; but the road is not so flat there and I decided to save my legs for the upcoming big climb to the turn-around point at the top of Cobb Mountain instead of struggling to stay with the group.

The Cobb Mountain climb is respectable; it averages nearly 10% for over two miles (the units above are metric again), and the "flatter" portions of, say, 8%, are being compensated by steeper pitches in between. The temperatures stayed cool enough all day long and yet I was sweating profusely and breathing hard while watching the bike computer display slower and slower speeds, down to under 4 mph.

On arriving at the lunch stop control and turn-around point at the top, I was happy of course and didn't feel uncomfortable, just a little "worked up" by the climb, with the voice affected by the hard breathing and the appetite momentarily lacking. But people asked me if I was ill ... ?? No, quite the opposite, I said. After all, seven hours is a good time for me for 150 km and I was perfectly satisfied with it. Now I could still maintain hope for my silent goal of *maybe* finishing in less than 14 hours, if the winds were not too unfavorable on the way back, or if I could find again a tandem or a group of stronger riders to draft.

I did find them (no: they found me), and this certainly made me gain some more time. But not too long later I gave up. The tandem just was too fast on the downhills, and I didn't have a big enough gear to follow them. Also, I got tired from the jostling for the best place to draft and from the heightened concentration which is required when riding tightly in a group; and so I decided to ride the remaining 70 miles alone to the finish. Now I could adjust my pace to what my body wanted, relax and enjoy the scenery, and play the numbers game with average speeds and the anticipated arrival time. The realization that I could arrive in 13h50 (my fastest 300 ever!) made me exuberant and upbeat, and I didn't disguise those feelings when I checked in at the finish. That's when I noticed that the three pages of sign-in sheets (about 70 starters) were nearly full with signatures of people who had finished already, and I said incredulously: "... but nearly everybody arrived before me!" -- "Not everybody" the volunteer said, helpfully.

In the end, it wasn't even so bad, as the graph of the distribution of the finishing times shows. I am not quite where I'll want to be, eventually (in the middle!), but I am calling it a "good brevet" anyway:

And the saddle? you ask. Well, it certainly could have been much worse. It did feel more comfortable in the second half, but not enough to be enthusiastic about it. The fi'zi:k was better in allowing varied positions, like bending forward more deeply when working into a headwind or at higher speeds, and seating more upright for relaxed riding or climbing. And each time I was standing and then got back down into the saddle, I was surprised by how much saddle exactly I suddenly had between my legs - way too much for my taste!

Over the following days, I had time to think about it and to decide that I wanted to give it another try one week later at the San Francisco 400. After all, it is supposed to take more than a day of riding to get used to a new saddle, right?


I didn't feel very well the following Friday afternoon and evening, and I was worried about having caught a cold virus. I felt better on Saturday morning (at 4 a.m.) and drove to the start of the SFR400 at the Golden Gate bridge. This was going to be the first 400 of the season, and I decided to "take it easy," mindful of how tired I had been the day before. While the forecast promised a sunny day, the temperatures in the morning (and later at night) were more than chilly; I was happy I had brought my complete low-temperature equipment - I needed it.

Serendipitously, Tom Milton showed up at my side during the first hour in darkness from Sausalito to Mill Valley and I had the opportunity to describe my experience with the new saddle. He recommended to tension it some more (based on my experience with leather saddles in days of yore, I had been very cautious with tensioning) and to slide it back in the rails. I hadn't thought of it, but now it made sense. When I switched the saddles, I had measured the position of the saddle nose; but the fi'zi:k has a longer nose, and so the An-Atomica needs to be further back. Also, tensioning the leather will make the saddle longer and straighter and remind me better of the previous seat. Unfortunately I waited with the adjustment until past the halfway point in Hopland (km 214); I could have saved myself some discomfort by doing it earlier. As soon as I left Hopland, I knew that with the correct adjustment my new saddle was preferable to the Arione, and that I was now well equipped for the longer distances to come. Thanks, Tom!

This is the outbound route; the return trip goes more directly from Healdsburg to Petaluma via Santa Rosa. Total elevation gain is around 7500' on the way up and less than 4000' on the way back.

So, why was this another "good brevet"?

First, the scenery: we went through some of northern California's finest, in springtime: birds, wildflowers, vineyards, cows (yes, I like them, too: the cheese, you know!).

Veronica at the top of Wilson Hill. Photo by Greg M.

Happy cows thinking of cheese. Photo by Roland B.

Mountain House Road - a dream!

Of course, in order to get there, we had to pass by the Bodega Country Store control where I took a picture of the grown-up Pippi Longstocking (also known as Veronica):

From there, we had to pass over Joy Road. Ever since I encountered it three years ago for the first time in the uphill direction, I felt more than a little intimidated by it:

At that time, I had "decided" to walk a bit of the 18% section. This time, I made it to the top without walking - progress!

But, even though there was some progress, it was not nearly enough: I got passed by many people who had stayed longer at the controls; they expected me to join them and ride with them. But their rhythm was too far above mine and I had to excuse myself and continue at my own pace. Some time in the future, maybe ...
And so, the 214 km to Hopland took me around eleven hours - too much if I wanted to arrive in less than 21 hours, because there would be headwind on the way back, and the last 70 km after Petaluma included some major climbing again, not to speak of the slowdown due to the distance. I made an effort to keep the stop in Hopland short, but was disillusioned about my abilities when I set out for the remaining 186 km.

Veronica and Chuck had left the control shortly before myself, but had the same doubt about the turn onto East Side Road as I did three years ago, and so I could catch up. I knew Chuck from October 2008 when we crewed for a two-man team at the 508 - a very good experience. Chuck is himself a solo-508 finisher; he is able to ride into a headwind much faster than I could ride in the opposite direction with the wind in my back. And I knew Veronica as a strong rider ever since I met her at the Santa Cruz Randonneurs 600k brevet in 2006. I could only hope to hang on to their rear wheels as long as the terrain was flat enough. It never occurred to me that I might be able to stay with them to the finish.

So, here comes the second reason why this was a "good brevet": Veronica, Chuck and I finished together, barely a minute past 3 a.m. (or: in 21 hours)! Agreed, I had to dig deep for this to happen. Never ever did I storm up the Red Hill after Petaluma so fast, always staying in the middle chainring, close to breathlessness! Chuck showed his strength in front, and Veronica stayed behind me even when I temporarily lost touch with Chuck, so I didn't feel discouraged by being dropped and instead sprinted back to catch him, repeatedly. The situation (and the cold temperatures) reminded me of the second night at the Endless Mountains, when I discovered for the first time that I could ride hard on a long distance without "blowing up."

I was still cautious and doubtful because I knew well all the remaining climbs to the finish, and I remembered all too well the many times when I crawled after a long day with juiceless, painful legs over the Corte Madera ascent and from Sausalito up to the bridge. But - not this time!

Of course, I am paying the price for that extravaganza now, as I am writing this: the muscle soreness is quite lively and much stronger than it has been in a long time. But it's a sweet price to pay: I am thrilled to finally have evidence that I am progressing in my apprenticeship. At least, I am getting better in the second half of long distances. And that's what matters to me.


  1. Avec tout ce que tu fais, ce serait vraiment injuste que tu ne progresses pas!!! Bravo Joseph, récupère bien, et bonne continuation dans ton nouveau fauteuil!

  2. Joseph, I was also initially very happy with the Selle An-Atomica when I tried it a couple of years ago -- so much so that I bought a second so that I didn't have to switch it between bikes.

    Like you, I found that increasing the tension a bit made it more comfortable. However, for me, the good tension point was a bit more than the leather could handle, so it would continue to slowly stretch and I would have to regularly adjust the screw to return the tension to the good level for me.

    Unfortunately, that screw only goes so far, and then the saddle is expired.

    They offer a recovering service, but I believe it's about $75 or so. At the rate I was stretching them, it would mean I'd have to pay for several recoverings per year.

    I've lost a good deal of weight since first trying the An-Atomica, so I may give it one more try; I might be "gentler" on it now.

    I'll be curious to learn how well it holds up for you in the long run!