Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Pet Peeves of the Day:

"Would you like to keep your fork?" -- "Casual dining" restraunts are pretty terrible. I tend to feel that no one should ever eat at them; I can't call them ridiculous rip-offs, but they charge a pretty high price for very mediocre fare. "Would you like a multimillion dollar advertising campaign with your $12.99 burger, fries, and soda?"

Those ad campaigns must be plenty expensive, because it seems they cannot afford to purchase and clean enough flatware. Health-nut that I am, if roped into dining at a Red Robin or Chili's, I usually make the mistake of ordering a salad before what passes for an entree. And, by salad, I mean a pile of pre-chopped lettuce with some shredded carrots, like what you'd buy in a bag from Safeway. To make it fancy, Red Robin even adds some shredded corn chips to the top of the thing. WOW! Of course, with this salad, I'm required to use my fork, and of course there's only one at the table.

Here's the rub: when the server comes to collect the salad plate, she inevitably asks, "would you like to keep your fork?" What? No, I would like for you to take my now dirty fork and supply me with a shiny clean one! Is that really, really too much to ask these days? I promise, I'm not even going to keep it after the meal. You can have it back. And, if I make the mistake of ordering dessert, I'm going to go out on a limb here and ask for another fork. A clean one. That's right, folks, it could be up to three, three, three forks in the course of a single meal! Can you handle it?

One final thing that makes the tip go out the window: "Would you like more water?" I drank the first one, didn't I? It's water. It comes from the faucet by the soda fountain. In the amount of time it took you to ask me that question, you could have simply refilled it. I recognize that mother earth may be dying a little bit more with that wasted pint of water, but I would still really appreciate it.


Also: Frost. Not just frosty the snowman, but that layer of shiny stuff that appears on the road in the cold of night. I realize I'm being a bit excessive in complaining about a little ice slick, what with Colorado and all, but seriously, this is getting old. In the lovely Cascadia, freezing temperatures during the day are pretty rare, usually limited to one or two odd weeks in the winter, which, I suppose, this is.

But frost makes what would otherwise be a beautiful, sunny day in the upper-30's a really good way for operators of two-wheeled vehicles to get themselves killed. The shadows of corners and bicycle lines and trails and road shoulders stay in bed with the snowman long after the main roads have cleared up. When you're going down a hill at 30 miles an hour, and you can hear the slight rushing noise of your tires cutting through the frost, it's a little disconcerting.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Two pieces of wisdom for the day:

Number one, if you have in front of you a cup of hot coffee, and a glass of water, make absolutely certain which one you've picked up before you decide how much of it to drink.

Number two, if alerting someone of imminent danger, it is better to advise a course of action than to describe the problem. We say "DUCK!" not "Above you!" "Brake now!" is a better idea than "Look out!"

Monday, December 11, 2006

Shower Power : What is it about showers that makes everything better? I'm not one of those obsessive-compulsive bathers, but, because of riding, I end up usually end up taking them twice in a day. Sure, if I KNOW I'm going to go for a ride in a few hours, and that I will need another shower after that, there's no REASON I need to be squeaky clean from 6am until 9am, but it just feels much better somehow. As a fairly environmentally conscious cyclist, sometimes I have a hard time reconciling this with the waste of energy and water it must be, especially since I take mine basically as hot as the dial can go and sometimes for entirely too long. If I don't, somehow I never feel truly awake.

Which reminds me: ALL showers need to have the controls for the temperature and the pressure completely seperate. I even saw a fancy new shower recently that had a temperature knob with a little preset button, so that the temperature would always stay at your favorite comfort zone, and the pressure knob had a little "overload" button that you pushed to turn on a conservation-be-damned stream of massage-pressure water. Fantastic. My shower has none of these things.

However, I'm still at the point at which I feel impressed just that I HAVE a shower, since before this I lived in a 1907 apartment which only had a tub, and my daily shower was conducted with a pitcher in that tub. Yes, really. It wasn't so bad, and it certainly saved water, and time, since the oh-so-comfortable desire to stay in the shower is kind of reduced when there is only the intermittent dumping of hot water over your head. Maybe this makes up for my superfrequent showers these days.


Pet Peeve of the Day: "Great Deals."

With the abundance of free and cheap classifieds, there are a ton of people out there trying to sell their stuff for just AWESOME prices. And by awesome, I mean deals you'd have to be pretty stupid to take. Here's the first rule: If something is out of the box, it's used. If you've had it for one week and just decide you didn't like it, it's used. If it's absolutely and completely perfect and it's in the same condition that it came from the factory, it's STILL USED. Not shrink-wrapped? Not new.

Okay, now that THAT is settled: A used item's value starts at 2/3 retail price. The basically-untouched kind of item might be worth up to 3/4 price, but typical used condition items are worth perhaps half. Keep in mind that this is the price it actually SELLS for. So many times I see an item that "Retails for $1000, as new, used once, $800!" Look, if one or two clicks to an internet retailer can have it for $750, that's not a bargain. Even if the e-tailer sells it for $850, STILL not a bargain, since there must be a discount factor buying a used item from a private seller to reflect the risk that it might not be as perfect as you say it is.

Of course, there ARE exceptions to the price rule. Price-controlled and supply-controlled items can fetch considerably more than their retail price, and this doesn't count. If you have tickets to the sold-out concert, or special access to NEXT year's gadget before it's come out, or were lucky enough to acquire whatever the hell the random gadget du jour is for the holiday season that some stupid company couldn't build enough of fast of, then go ahead and sell if for what you can get.

Second rule: Add-ons and accessories don't contribute much to the value of the item, if that is the main thing you are buying. If you are selling a game console that was $200 new, and you have 10 games that cost $50 each, you only get to sell the whole deal for perhaps $150, since you have no idea if those are the games the purchaser wants anyhow, plus they ain't as new as they used to be. You don't get to say: "The value of all of this was $700!" The worst of these is modifications to cars. So your Civic has a big old exhaust, fancy rims and tinted windows. So friggin' what? You've actually REDUCED the value of your Civic, buddy, because 90% of Civic buyers just want a car, not your "tricked-out ride."

One last thing with cars: late model, used cars from private parties are "worth" far, far less than their blue book value if you actually want to sell them. That's because the vast majority of car buyers are using loans and credit for their purchase. Since you can't offer financing, the odds of getting $16,000 on a 5-year-old Toyota is pretty slim, even if blue book is eighteen-five . If someone has that kind of cash and wants to buy a car, they are probably going to buy something a lot nicer, and still make payments. I'm sorry for you, since you are caught between the old rock and even older hard place. Your car is too expensive for someone just looking to pick up basic transportation, but too cheap for someone who's in the market to pay cash for a 5-figure item. And, yes, I know the real version of a car dealership will only give you $10,000 in trade and you will be shafted, you should have thought of this before you bought it.

A riposte for buyers: If you are BUYING a car, don't offer another used car in part trade. The seller is looking to get rid of the car because he needs money and wants to be rid of the annoyance of the car. Seriously. This happened to me more than once. This isn't a dealership, folks.

Friday, December 08, 2006

iBike initial review --

You've heard the hate and the love for the new Velocomp iBike Pro. Depending upon who you ask, it's either an easy-to-use powermeter that costs less than half what everything else does, or a neat gadget that's of no use at all for serious training.

So, which is it?

INITIAL SETUP -- As you probably know, the iBike does not actually MEASURE power in the strictest sense -- it's not a dynamometer, but instead the iBike is equipped with an accelerometer, a barometric altimeter, an inclinometer, and a thermometer. It's got a wind gauge, too, which I'm sure has an -ometer in it somewhere, but I don't know what it is. (ANEMOMETER. Thanks Zwane.) You add in the weight of you, your bike, and equipment from your bathroom scale and do a coast-down to approximate the sum of rolling resistance, and off you go into the world of power measuring.

If only it were that easy. The iBike comes with a handlebar mount that includes a wired speed sensor, but mine did not include the bottom half of the clamp. John at Velocomp answered my email within 15 minutes, however, and sent out a replacement that same day, so I was up and running in two more days., or so I thought. Getting the handlebar mount to seat properly was a difficult process. The manual includes several warnings that the mount must be secured very snugly to the handlebar; the phrase "rock solid," is included, in bold, in the instructions. Included were both rubber shims to make the fit snug, and also double-stick tape. At first I tried securing it with the rubber shims, so that it would be fairly easy to swap the iBike from one bike to another, but I found it impossible to make the mount "rock solid" this way. I was afraid of stripping out the two tiny, tiny, screws in the mount if I torqued it down any harder, and then I would be completely out of luck. The plastic clip appears fairly fragile, but so far it has held up fine and Velocomp assure me that it's durable. Velocomp has clearly put a lot of hours and money of engineering work into their product, but the mounting device seems like a bit of an afterthought. If you're familiar with auto mechanics, those screw-down metal-banded hose clamps might work well, for a start.

After a frustrating time with the rubber shims, I resorted to the double-stick tape. 3M, I love you. I don't know how you invent this stuff, but the sticky pads made things secure in a hurry. Velocomp adds that using the sticky pads is the preferred method of attachment. The problem is, now the iBike mount is firmly affixed to the handlebar of my winter training bike. I'd have to plunk down another $50 to put it on my main road bike, or deal with ungluing the thing and sourcing some more sticky pads. The next part of the setup is a "tilt" test, whereby you mark two spots on the ground, hold your bike upright, hit "calibrate," rotate the bike 180 degrees, and hit calibrate again. The idea is it uses the two data points to figure out how far off level you've mounted it so that it can properly calculate the hill slope, and, thus, power. They say that the tilt test should be exactly accurate, or at least within 0.2%, but the first iBike unit supplied me was 1.5% out of calibration. In other words, no matter how many times I did the tilt test, the iBike was convinced I was on a 1.5% hill. If that doesn't foul up your power numbers, I don't know what will. Another email to John, another 15-minute response, and a new iBike unit was in the mail to me. Thankfully, they did not wait to receive the defective unit I returned to them before sending me a new one, so I was back in business two days later. The new unit was accurate within less than 0.1%, so it appears that my initial unit just had a glitch.

EXTERIOR, CONTROLS -- The controls of the iBike were clearly inspired by the Apple iPod, and I'm sure they're trying to borrow a bit of that ubiquitous device's fame with their "i-" name. Each of four sides of a circular perimeter changes what you're looking at on the 3-line display, and the center button functions either as a "back" button, or to cycle between the two main screens. It's pretty intuitive to anyone used to most modern gadgets. The LCD quality itself is disappointing, though, especially coming from Garmin's excellent Edge. The Edge feels smooth and refined, and feels like a tiny laptop computer. With its cheap white plastic, the iBike feels decidedly like a pocket calculator. A nice plus is that Velocomp opted for a replaceable CR2302 battery, rather than a rechargeable proprietary lithium like the Garmin. If you've ever used an Edge, the battery was probably one of your biggest complaints; you could MAYBE get 6 hours out of a full charge, and if you forgot to charge your Garmin before you hit the road in the morning, or left the thing on, you were out of luck for that ride. I can't tell you how many times that happened to me. You can also ask the ibike what the current voltage of the battery is, as in 2.88 volts, rather than just a little icon of a battery filled with a bar. Velocomp says the battery will last 25 to 50 hours, but they are cheap and available at any grocery store.

IN USE -- After that ordeal, I finally got a chance to RIDE the iBike. In operation, the unit is surprisingly simple. The coastdown test is straightforward and needs to be repeated only if you change something dramatic about your bike. It automatically starts recording, automatically stores trip files, and works fairly simply. Power is recorded at 1-second intervals -- ride harder, watts go up. Ride easy, watts go down. Coast, and the watts drift down to zero, though not instantaneously. From a 300 watt effort, it takes a few seconds for the ibike read 0. My iBike is not equipped with a cadence sensor, and I really, really hope that ones that are so equipped understand that when cadence equals zero, watts must equal zero. It's especially important for reasons I'll detail below. EDIT -- Velocomp has confirmed that, with the cadence sensor, wattage will be forced to zero when you're not pedalling. If you're going to buy an iBike, just don't buy it without cadence. You'll save yourself a lot of frustration.

Early complaints I heard about the iBike were that it did not measure sudden accelerations well, and that rough pavement disrupted its reporting considerably. The firmware has received a lot of attention since then, and I've had no problems in this department. Moderate chip-seal with occasional bad patches did not cause the iBike to falter, and while a section of gravel road obviously underreported the wattage, due to resistance changes, it continued to read steadily. Clearly this isn't a device for mountain biking or Paris-Roubaix type terrain, but beyond that I think you'll be okay. Even a short spurt of acceleration causes the wattage to spike as you'd expect; stomp on the pedals to get over a short rise and you'll quickly see 600 watts.

This is my first daily-use powermeter, and I'm happy to have it along for my rides. It's both rewarding and punishing to train with power; there are sections of my daily loop that often make me feel like a chump for going so slowly, and so it's nice to see that it's actually a brief section of 8% grade, and that I'm churning plenty of watts over it. The punishing part comes from the fact that there is no hiding place from power. Oh, sure, you THINK you're going quick, you're ticking along at 22 miles an hour, but the iBike will tell you, so sorry, charlie, but there is a tailwind and a 1/2% downgrade, you're only pushing 125 watts.

There's a "sub-trip" feature (they don't call it "interval") that's really nice to have; you can flag any number of "sub-trips" within a given ride, whether it's your favorite road or riding to and from a group ride. The instruction manual is a little confusing about this feature, and mostly seems to say "trip" about 50 times, but once you try it it makes a lot of sense. Whoever built this thing was a tech geek, and once you think like a geek everything is easy. I wish you could customize the display, though. You get 3 lines, like a Powertap, but nothing as cool as the Garmin Edge's 2 fully cusomizable screens, each with 1 to 8 automatically resized lines. In the two main modes, the top line displays either hill slope or speed, the middle line either watts or miles, and the bottom either calories (or cadence if so equipped) or travel time. There is a nifty feature where the iBike automatically changes the top line to show hill grade if the slope exceeds 2%, but, guy's, there's plenty of room. Can't I have both, so I can know I'm going 15 mph up a 10% grade? (Okay, okay, I lied.)

POST USE -- The iBike's included software is pretty basic. It works, but doesn't provide a lot of information. Velocomp is straightforward about this, since it bundles a demo version of Cyclingpeaks's WKO+ software with your iBike. Cyclingpeaks is really, really good software. It's the example all other power-training software should live by. A slightly annoying feature of setting up the iBike on the computer is that, despite taking a USB PORT, it's really using your PC's COM ports, and I got frustrated that I couldn't connect to my unit for a moment until I went into my computer's properties and found that the sucker had actually installed onto COM4. For the computer-unsavvy, this could be confusing; it would be nice if the software could autodetect. On 1-second recording, the iBike's memory can store about 10 hours of data, so you can get in a couple of rides without uploading if you like.

GLITCHES, IMPROVEMENTS, PROBLEMS -- It's not fair to the iBike to leave off with its problems, I know, but that's what I'm about to do. It seems to work really well in most situations, as far as training goes. For racing, the jury is still out. Velocomp says the wattage remains accurate within a peloton, and while I confirm that wattage does go down at a given speed when in the draft of another rider, I don't know how accurate it would be in a full peloton. Furthermore, the aerodynamic drag variations in the differences between the "hoods" and "drops" positions might skew the power data down too much. In training, you can stay in the hoods 95% of the time, or you can know which position to stay in for an interval, but in a race the conditions sort of dictate what you’ll need to do.

Two things that hurt the iBike in daily use: First of all, watts are overreported when you go up a steep hill out of the saddle. The motion of swaying the bike side to side is picked up by the iBike as part of the rise of the hill, I think, because it overestimates the hill’s slope. The error seems to be about 1-3% of slope, depending upon how severely you are rocking your bike. One particular area climb, that I know is about 12%, was reading 15% as I labored up it at full steam, and up the iBike reported I was pushing a Lance-caliber 475 watts. Talk about artificial ego inflation! I’m not sure what Velocomp could DO about this, so I think that, like the non-function of the iBike on indoor trainers, we’ll just have to live with it.

The other issue is correctable, and seriously annoying. When coasting on a descent, the iBike often reports wattage. Sometimes, this can be a LOT of wattage. The problem, again, comes from the coastdown. I do the coastdown in the hoods, and of course resistance is somewhat less in the drops, and somewhat less than THAT in the “downhill skier” descending position. Since resistance increases exponentially with respect to speed, the difference in resistance between the positions becomes more and more important. When I would power over the top of a hill, then tuck into a descending position, the watts sometimes don’t go down at all! Obviously, when analyzing the data, you can see that you’re going downhill and know that’s not accurate, but the average wattage and total kilojoules of the ride will be thrown off. That’s just not okay. Could they at least build something into it to where if the road’s slope was less than -6%, that wattage was forced to 0? It might not be entirely accurate but it would be better than this. EDIT: I’m told that, indeed, the cadence unit fixes this problem, and forces watts to zero when not pedalling. They just shouldn’t sell it any other way.

CONCLUSION – The iBike has significant limitations with respect to true power meters, but it costs less than half what they do, and its operation is simple and straightforward. It is a first-generation device, and clearly will have its teething issues, but with downloadable firmware updates and attentive customer support from Velocomp, it’s willing to work with you, if you’re willing to work with it.

Its price is fairly similar to a top-end Polar heartrate monitor that can download to your computer. Ibike might have some variation in different positions, etc, but attempting to use heart rate-based training zones is far worse. Save yourself a lot of frustration: buy the unit with cadence, and attach it to your handlebar using the adhesive pads. Now, if Velocomp could come up with a better mounting system, I'd be happier, but I'll let you know if mine stands the test of time.

Is it a "useful training tool" or just a "nifty toy?" I'm really not sure. I'm going to have to use it side-by-side with a power tap, take it in some different situations, and really get some use of it before I decide.

My conclusion on the iBike, a followup to the initial review, can be found here.