A pandemic year on the bike

I’m not one for ride-every-day cycling streaks. I’ve done a few that lasted a few months at most — namely, the Freezing Saddles Challenge run by Bike Arlington (Virginia) from Jan. 1 to March 20.

Yet, on Feb. 25th, I completed a year of riding every day outdoors, indoors, or both.

It wasn’t a slog. I never hated getting on the bike. In fact, I found the bike to be a source of comfort — a reliable friend in a sad and tumultuous time.

Cherry blossoms, March 2020, just as the lockdown began.

I had been on an informal streak when things shut down on March 13, 2020 and I just kept going. As of March 22nd, I’m still going.

The pandemic triggered this idea that I could use my bike to fight back, keep going, and stay mentally and physically healthy. That, somehow on the bike, I was able to glide on my own terms through the uncertainty, the sickness and deaths and reckless debate over mask-wearing, and the lack of human contact.

I also came to see my indoor trainer as a totally legitimate form of riding. In the beginning of the lockdown when movement was limited, I used the trainer most days, even if I got outside for a short local ride.

If I include the 3,083 indoor miles* I logged, I set a new personal distance record in 2020 of 11,079 miles. My outdoor miles were in line with a regular year, which was itself a suprise, in that we didn’t ride events or take a long tour, other than a couple of brevets in the fall.

The past year has revealed some new insights about how I approach riding. I found it mattered to me in ways I had not expected as a coping mechanism. I like to say the bike is always there when you need it, and it was.

Here are my top takeaways from the past year.

No travel makes it easier to stay on the bike

We lost our planned summer trip to Barcelona to ride up into the French Pyrenees and see the Tour de France. We also lost our trip to Unbound Gravel race in Kansas (formerly DK 200). Our usual slate of spring brevets was postponed until the fall.

The whole thing was a slow collapse. The lingering hope for a quick end to the pandemic gave way to the realization that Europe wasn’t going to open up anytime soon and nobody was going to host mass-start events.

We didn’t start riding much outdoors until May, as the world settled into social distancing. At first it was all kind of scary.

But — we discovered some silver linings! Running our own program of shorter rides, Mary and I didn’t need rest days from massive randonneuring rides. A steady diet of weekend outings between 70 and 100 miles left us feeling better afterwards and boosted our average speed.

Tooling around Washington on deserted streets and roads. In this case, the Whitehurst Freeway.

Carrying all of our own food led us to eating better, as well. Without chips, french fries and pizza, we got leaner and fitter.

And not using convenience stores let us get creative with our routes. There was something nice about avoiding a busy town we used to include solely to get supplies.

During the weekdays, I rode faux-commutes to maintain an exercise routine before and after another day of work from home. They’ve been mostly rides to get takeout coffee, or an hour on the trainer in the evening — or both.

Mary and I also took better advantage of our local streets, which opened up for us with the vastly reduced number of drivers. I completed the sublime Coffeeneuring Challenge, mostly in D.C., and we rode the choose-your-own-start version of the annual 50 States Ride fundraiser for the Washington Area Bicycle Association, which let us begin close to our home in Anacostia Park.

Fall riding in Washington was pleasant and mostly peaceful.

Gravel equals social distance and a change of pace

Early in the year I set up our aluminum Co-Motion tandem for gravel riding with tubeless tires (650b 47mm WTB Venture) and we actually raced it in February at the Monster Cross gravel/dirt race near Richmond, Va. We had a fun time, didn’t crash, and Mary placed in her age group! Mary wrote up a great recap at her Chasing Mailboxes blog.

Mary and me at Monster Cross. (courtesy Shelly Liebler)

Once we started riding again after the initial lockdown we completed increasingly longer gravel rides in and around Loudon County, Virginia. The maze of gravel roads were perfect for social distancing, well away from the regular routes around Washington.

Discovering new roads in Loudoun and neighboring counties around Middleburg, Va.

Loudon County has a ton of roads that allowed us to tune the distance on the fly, depending on the weather and our legs. We were also able to leave the car and get coffee & treats at Happy Creek Coffee/Haymarket Bikes in The Plains, which maintained takeout service. Nice!

The highlight was a 100-miler I cooked up from The Plains for the virtual #DIYgravel event that gravel racer Ted King set up on May 30 to let people do a virtual DK100 or 200. I posted our progress on our social media and got a lot of kudos, which was fun.

100 miles later, back at The Plains, Va.

We knocked off a number of just-us rides over the summer, including our annual 160-mile single day roundtrip to Shepherdstown, W. Va. A highlight was in August when we dusted off old routes in the Shenandoah Valley for day rides during a two-weeks-at-home vacation.

In the fall we rode three 200K brevets when COVID-safe events were again allowed, along with an impromptu decision to ride an organized 400K brevet in October. Interestingly we had a great result, matching our previous best time for the distance. Those gravel rides and trainer hours must have paid off.

Routine was a comfort

With working from home, I didn’t want to give up my commuting rides. They help me focus for the day and unwind after. Fortunately one of my favorite coffee shops, Swing’s Coffee Roasters, kept their roastery open for takeout in the Del Ray neighborhood in Alexandria, Va. The distance is 16 miles roundtrip, perfect for an outing before work with a few minutes to sit outside and sip a latte and munch a scone.

Going there also helped me change my grocery shopping approach. Our large nearby grocery stores felt busy and scary to visit. I knew of a small Harris Teeter on the way to Swing’s, in Crystal City, and started stopping there.

Thanksgiving Day groceries being hauled back from Alexandria to our home in Southwest Washington. Bike is the Velo Orange Campeur, trailer is an older version Burley Nomad.

My rarely-used Burley cargo trailer became a trusty helper for a weekly outing to the store, usually before work when the store is practically empty. Going to the store less often led to fewer purchases of junky stuff (other than ice cream) and more ingredients for cooking things I would normally get at restaurants — such as lasagna. Plus, tugging a loaded trailer for the six miles home is a good workout.

A bike left on the trainer gets a lot of use

Before the pandemic I set up an old road bike (not kidding, a 1987 Bianchi) on my smart trainer in the spare room/office, which I pointed toward the windows to offer some visual relief and let in cold winter air. I was using it a couple of times a week with Zwift before the pandemic.

Lots of Zwift this last year.

During the early lockdown days the trainer and Zwift became my substitute for long outdoor rides and an easy way to get in an after-work ride. I found virtual group rides of 100 miles hosted by the BMTR Fundo group and started riding them on the weekends. I also found groups that hold spirited weeknight rides, namely, the USMES and HERD events.

Those offered a break from endless days working at home and I got hooked on the social aspect. It was somewhat cool that the group ride featured riders from multiple continents.

With none of the distractions and interruptions of road and trail riding, I got stronger and leaner from the trainer rides, which was a great side benefit. And I got in touch with a lot of music, using the time to check out artists promoted on my music sites. I finally understood the value of a good streaming service (in my case, Amazon Prime music), which let me follow my heart’s desire in new and old music.

As of now I’m a level 34 Zwifter and indoor riding is going to remain a big part of my fitness program, even when the pandemic ends.

Outdoors is possible through the winter.

I kept up my weekday rides all winter. Plus, we managed to maintain a COVID-safe weekly Friday Coffee Club meetup at Peregrine Espresso at Eastern Market with a couple of stalwarts, Steve and Pancho, and occasional guests.

Steve, me, Pancho and Mary on March 19, the last day of winter coffee club. Not quite social distancing, but only for a moment.

Some weeks it was cold enough that we barely sat long enough to say hello and drink our coffees. After a couple of frigid Fridays I started bringing an extra coat and bubble wrap for sitting on cold chairs (it helps). But we still showed up for the mutual check-ins, which was just lovely.

What’s next?

We’ve yet to begin planning this year. The randonneuring brevets are underway this spring but I’m still wary of changing our approach until the COVID-19 infection rate in the Washington metro area really falls to zero. I expect more of our own rides and a few brevets where we can drive to the start and come home afterwards, meaning no hotel nights. I’ll keep logging Zwift miles. And Mary will keep up her running miles when she’s not on the bike.

Mary and I have a good template going. It will be fantastic to begin booking trips again, but until then, we’ll try to stay calm, enjoy the spring weather on local roads, and keep looking forward.

*Regarding my indoor miles, I log them on my Garmin head unit which is calibrated to a virtual wheel size and typically run fewer than what Zwift reports. The Garmin miles feel closer to what I’d normally log for a given effort.

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