Peeking over the Edge: Training with Power

Like many cyclists, I measure my cycling progression by either one or two metrics: distance and/or speed. I remember when I used do 10 miles per day every day and shoot for 50 miles per week. Seemed like every little rolling hill was a major leg burner and the wind! Oh my gosh, the wind! Going south on 107 was a blast but turning around to face the wind made me wonder if I could ride the distant seven miles back to the car. Well, I did make it back to car and that’s how I continued to measure my progress. Distance was the way to go. Eventually, speed started to creep in my metrics but that was later.

iBike_POWERHOUSE_InsertionMy first foray into something different was with the Powerhouse system from iBike. This was an innovative system to do structured intervals while cycling. A combination of iPhone case and the Powerhouse application that, when combined together along with your bike, would guide you through a fifty-four day plan of intervals and rest days. It would start you out with a fitness test to see where you stood and establish that baseline. Once you completed the fitness test it would then create a custom schedule of intervals for you to follow throughout the week. The application paired up with cycling coach Allen Hunter that guided and encouraged you to keep at it. It’s his formulas and techniques in training that is used to create that personalized training plan for you. How cool is that!

The program was simple, Allen Hunter would pop up and tell you what to expect for that days workout. It had a structure to it: a warm up, a set of intervals and then a cool down. All you had to do was keep up a certain cadence and keep a sliding arrow between the minimum and maximum range for that segment. The intervals varied from day-to-day and they were tough! You had to learn to change gears to keep that sliding arrow where the coach wanted it. Shifting gears up or down depending on the road conditions and winds was the name of the game. It was fun and challenging to go through the entire 54-day program. Throughout the program there were rest days and fitness test days to see where you stood and to make adjustments to the training program. Fun! When you completed the program you simply start over but at a higher fitness level.

The Powerhouse was my first experience with and training with a power meter. Yes, that’s right the Powerhouse system was in fact a power meter with all the numbers stripped out and a simple graphical interface was used instead. No mention of Watts, FTP, NP, VI or some other acronym was ever uttered. Total bliss. The case held the wind port and the sensors needed to measure the forces you were overcoming to pedal. The software on the iPhone used those sensors to compute the power and display it graphically. That sliding arrow represented the power you were exerting while cycling. That fitness test you was doing was the same fitness test you do to get your Functional Threshold Power (FTP).

I did improve. It was easier to ride against the wind, those rolling hills were a lot easier and my average speed improved. I find it interesting how I fall back to the old metrics for measuring improvement, distance and speed. Those are “feel good” metrics that we can easily relate to.

iBike Newton

iBike Newton Power Meter

I now use a Newton Power Meter from iBike. It is just as accurate as any other permanent power meter but the big advantage with the Newton is the price and the fact that you can take it from one bike to another as easily as you could with a Garmin. The Newton has been on my bike for about a year now and just love it. The unit does have a few quirks such as no backlight, no bluetooth and no GPS but makes it up with having a great visible display in bright sunlight, long battery life, wind gauge, temperature and excellent power readings.

I’ve learned to do my fitness test to get my FTP and I’ve become familiar with the average power readings to expect on my rides. It does have Intervals built-in but they are not as easy to follow as the Powerhouse unit. The developers are constantly updating the firmware for the unit to improve and add new features to it. Bug fixes are free as well as minor enhancements. New major features means you will have to fork out some funds to enable it. That’s cool because you pay for what features you want. With the new enhancements I now have access to Nominal Power (NP) and actual power on the same screen. This really helps me pace myself depending on the type of ride I plan on doing. In my case it’s mostly endurance or long rides. No Time Trials for me.

kickerfeatureAs I mentioned before, I’ve set a weekly distance goal of 100 miles. I’ve started out at 50 miles and now it’s 100 but I’ve been thinking of increasing that. That is until I started using my indoor trainer to do some of my intervals. This trainer is not the usual mount bike and ride type of device but instead you can vary the resistance electronically through your PC or iOS device. The resistance is also calibrated and outputted in Watts to you electronic device. In essence I can now do structured power based intervals indoors (while watching tv of course)! Wahoo makes the trainer called Kickr and what a blessing it is. Combine that with the iOS app called iMobileIntervals I can do my rides, post them on Facebook, Strava or TrainingPeaks. Sweet!

Because of the Kickr, I have readjusted my thinking on those 100 miles per week. I used to struggle with deciding on whether I should ride on the Kickr or go cycling outside. I like doing the intervals on the trainer, but yet I’m not reaching my miles per week goal. It took me a while to get over the mindset that the miles HAS to be from cycling outside. That is just not true. Good quality miles on the trainer is just a good as being on the road. This was really hard to wrap my mind around but I’m starting to accept it.

Now my routine consists of intervals on the Kickr and longer rides outdoors where I focus on the target Nominal Power (NP) and reducing my Variability Index (VI) by pacing myself at the target power level. I don’t worry about speed or the wind. That will be taken care of as I get fitter and stronger. So far the results has been amazing. With the right pacing (even with the wind on my back) I can do the long rides without being burnt out although I do have to mindful of the 100+ F weather that we get around here in the Rio Grande Valley.

I’ve started brushing up on training with power and I got two books to help me on that aspect. Training and Racing with a Power Meter by Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan and the other book is The Power Meter Handbook: A User’s Guide for Cyclists and Triathletes by Joe Friel. I’ve read the Joe Friel book and I need to go back and reread it again for better absorption.  The Huner Allen book is there waiting for me to graduate to that level of understanding. Both books are great and highly recommend either one to anyone. I am definitely a beginner in this and have a lot to learn but I feel like I’m peeking over a tall fence and I can see the what’s on the other side, training with a power meter and I like it.

Share your experience with your early years of using a power meter. I’d love to hear from you.

Exploring the Rio Grande Valley on a Bike

Cycling this year has been different for me. Aside from the usual bike routes, I have started to venture out and explore the Valley on my bike. It started when I passed up a road that I’ve never been on that was going through resurfacing. Passing it several times on my outings I always wondered where it led to. I knew it was in the general vicinity of a 900 year old tree but I never knew exactly where it was. It wasn’t until one day, when I was doing my usual route, that I noticed that the road was finished and open to traffic. On the way back I decided to make that turn and go look for that old tree. It was then that I began exploring the Rio Grande Valley on my bike.

So far it has been fun riding places to check things out. Sometimes I go by myself and other times I create an event on Facebook and invite others to join me. Many cyclists go out riding for either speed or distance. They get their workout in and hang up the bike until next time. Others ride the same route over and over until there is a rut on the road. Don’t get me wrong I’m just as guilty, but lately I want to explore other routes. I check the Strava Heat Maps and look to see where people are riding. I look for those lesser known routes that I can go out and see for myself, what is out there?

So far I’ve gone to see a 900+ year old Montezuma Bald Cypress tree that I heard about through the grapevine. Some of my friends have been to it, but I have never made the trip to view it with my own two eyes. I was stuck in that rut like the majority of people here and couldn’t see myself going there. The tree tends to catch on fire with visits and then things settle down and it goes back into obscurity until the next discovery by a new batch of cyclists. Currently, I’m the new batch. I shout its praises and take who ever wants to see it.

Next came the old town of Penitas. It’s a little further down the road on Abrams past the tree. Penitas is one of those little towns that if you blinked you passed it. That’s the bad thing about driving, you tend to pass things up. This is an old town that has survived the ages. Settled in 1520 it is the oldest city in the United States. Penitas is Spanish for “small stones”. There is a lot of history there of exploration and colonization from Spain.

Abrams road is a fantastic newly resurfaced road with shoulders that turns into old military road and parallels the expressway (or should I say the expressway parallels military road since military road was there first). This is perfect for cyclists traveling in that area as it’s a good way to travel from town to town without getting on the expressway. You really get to see more of the countryside on this route. Lots of farms and wildlife preserves with small communities dotting the route. Following this route will take you to Abrams, Penitas, and La Joya. Shortly after La Joya the road turns into a caliche (dirt) road to Sullivan City.

Recently, a fellow cyclist and good friend made a trip to see the Los Ebanos Ferry (south of Sullivan City). What’s so great about a ferry you ask? Well it’s the only hand drawn ferry between Mexico and the United States. That’s right, hand drawn or pulled. There is a rope that is anchored on the US side to a huge Ebony tree and stretches across the Rio Grande River over to Mexico. The ferry operators use that rope to pull, by hand, the barge across the river. As a result, only three vehicles and foot traffic can cross at any given time. My friend, Letty and her riding partner are like me, explorers. They took the off beaten path and went exploring the area for new sights and sounds.

I thought that was a neat place to go check out. Although Letty didn’t get to see the Ferry, that didn’t stop us from creating an event and rounding up some cycling friends to make our own trip. It was a good 40+ mile round trip with excellent weather. What a site to see that old barge in operation. Not only did we get to see it we also took a ride on it! Two dollars later we were on it on our way to Mexico!

Once on the other side we were not sure what to do. Turn around and take the ferry back or press on to the town nearby for some tacos. After talking to the Mexican officials we decided to press on. We rode on over to the nearby town and although we didn’t find any tacos we did find some pastry treats. On our way back to the ferry we did stop at a street vendor and got our tacos from them. Great homemade food.

Another treat down Abrams/Military road is over in La Joya that I never knew existed is Rancho El Charco. El Charco is a 150 acre ranch / event center that has picnic tables along Walter Lake, a Restaurant, three swimming holes and many different exotic animals. Some people have heard of it before and other cyclists have not. After another event was created on Facebook, we had a ride over there to celebrate the end of summer. We did pick up some new cyclists for the ride and lost others due to other last-minute conflicts.

Going further West there are places that I’d like to cycle to such as Rio Grande City, Roma and Falcon State Park. These could be day or over night trips. Rio Grande City has the Fort Ringgold history while Roma was a steamboat port of trade. Who knows. I might find other places to check out while I’m there.

Going East towards Brownsville has many other destinations to visit. Numerous state parks, old towns, farms, civil war sites and battle fields during the Mexican-American war. In fact, it was my cycling friend, Letty, that has opened my eyes to the eastern part of the Rio Grande Valley. She has cycled that area before and has posted a lot of pictures from her cycling travels. These are sites that you have probably passed by in your car and didn’t even notice. On bike, you have the time to notice things you swear were not there when you drove. That is the beauty of cycling, discovering things you missed while zipping by in your car.

So, yes, the Valley does offer a lot to explore by biking. The terrain is relatively flat with good roads to travel on. The weather can be pleasant during the Spring and Fall seasons. Very doable during the mild winter months. the Summer months can be a scorcher with 100+ degree (Fahrenheit) during the day, but if you travel in the early mornings you will be fine. You are limited to going West, North and East due to the proximity to the border with Mexico but that offers a lot of farm-to-market roads to choose from. There is plenty to see, you just need to conquer your fears or perceptions of traveling on those roads or locals.

Los Ebanos Ferry tour

The PosseSeveral weeks ago a friend of mine, Letty, rode her bike to go see the Los Ebanos ferry. Although she couldn’t see it due to customs blocking the view it did spark something in me. I want to go and see it myself. After talking about it we decided that we would go one weekend and cross over to Mexico for a taco and a Coke. Well, one-thing led to another and we decided to open it up and make it a public event and invited our Facebook friends to join us.

What all the commotion over a ferry ride? A little background on it. The Los Ebanos Ferry is the only hand-pulled ferry on the Rio Grande River between Mexico and the US. The barge has been operational since the 1950’s and it is anchored to a large ebony tree. Since the ferry is hand-pulled, only three cars can cross at a time. Three cars and foot traffic that is. Here is what the Historical Marker at the site says (note, you can no longer go up and read the marker):

This is an ancient ford. The first recorded usage was by Spanish explorers and colonists under Jose de Escandon in the 1740’s on the Rio Grande.  A salt trail led from here to El Sal del Rey (40 mi. NE).  The ford was used by Mexican War troops, 1846, by  Texas Rangers chasing cattle rustlers, 1874, by smugglers in many eras, especially during the American prohibition years, 1920’s and 30’s.  The ferry and inspection station were established in 1950.  Named for the ebony trees here, this is known as the only government licensed, hand-pulled ferry on any boundary of the United States.

This ferry has been in our back yard ever since we have lived here and we have never seen it before. We have a nice route that we can bicycle out to it and make it a nice 40 mile ride. So why not go and spend a half day with friends on an adventure to the ferry and for those that can, take a ferry ride crossing the Rio Grande River over to Mexico.

With invitations sent on Facebook, we collared 11 riders for the event including someone to SAG the ride. Great! Riders of all skill ranges joined Letty and I for the tour that day.

On the RoadThe ride started at 6:30 am to avoid the heat and have a pleasant day cycling. The route took us West of Mission along Business 83 where we eventually turned on Abrams Road. Abrams road goes for about 2-3 miles before curving to the right and becomes old military road. Abrams and Old Military road as been recently resurfaced with smooth asphalt and shoulders on each side which makes a really nice ride out in the country with ranch and farm land to provide the scenery.

Along this route is the 900 Year Old Tree. We decided to visit the tree on the way back as a treat for those that have never seen it.

Pumped Up!Onwards we pressed until we reached our rest stop at the back-end of Walter Lake. Walter Lake is a private lake in La Joya that is enclosed in a gated community. There is no way in unless you are visiting someone there. You really can’t see the lake from the road either, but at this stop you can. You have to climb to the top of canal inlet, that feeds water to the lake, to get a view of it at a distance. Why is this lake private? I wish I knew. Seems like a waste of recreational resource for the Valley.

After this stop, we pressed on until old military road ends (turns into a dirt road) and we have to detour through La Joya to get to the express way. The express way is not all that bad with it wide shoulders. I did spot a Wildlife Management track of land that was actually open to the public. I’ll have to go back and check it out at a later time.

After a few mile we make our turn towards the border and to Sullivan City and finally Los Ebanos. Los Ebanos is a small community with many streets that zig-zag around. Luckily Letty has been here before and she guided us to the border crossing.

The Border Crossing

Was I ever surprised when we got the border crossing. I envisioned a small shack next to the river with a lone border custom’s official. Was I ever wrong. There is a complete border crossing with buildings, lanes, custom officials and a long line of cars waiting to cross!

Waiting in LineDown the Ramp

Not knowing what to do we pulled up behind the cars like everyone else and started to wait. A woman in the Jeep in front of us asked if we were going to cross and after learning that we were she said that we didn’t have to wait but to cut to the front and cross as if we were pedestrians. What a time saver that was. She got the award for the Best Tip of the Day!

After moving to the front of the line a few members of the group opted not to cross because they didn’t have any form of ID with them. The rest of us had either their passports or drivers license. The plan was to cross on the ferry and turn around and cross
back. For $2 that seemed like a good plan.

After walking down tFerry Viewhe embankment we had to wait until they loaded up the three vehicles first then the pedestrians (and our bikes) could board. The ride was smooth as several men pulled the ferry across using the rope that stretches across the river. A sudden jolt was the signal that we made it across. The ferry crew were very friendly and wished us well as we departed.

Once on the other side we had to decide what we were going to do. Do we turn around and hop on the ferry the next interval or do we press on to the small town in Mexico. Not sure what to do, two members of the group went up to the Mexican customs personnel and asked some questions. A few minutes later they arrived back and told us that we are okay to proceed with no issues. With big smiles on our faces we hopped on our bikes and gave our best “Gracias” as we rode on through.

Cycling in Mexico

Cycling in Mexico

The road in Mexico was like any other road here in the US. Small country road that passed by farm lands and at some points you could see the river as it winds it way westward.

The town of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz is a small community with a population of roughly 15k. It was a quiet Saturday morning when we rolled in with a few residents peeking out the doors to see what was happening. Within two blocks we arrived at a large plaza with a gazebo at the center. The place was deserted except for a few people at a church in the corner. We were in the mood for taco’s and after surveying the area we found a little store that we could check out.

Store in MexicoMexican TreatsBingo! No tacos but the owner had treats called Gansito El Pastelito. It’s a chocolate covered pastry with a fruit filling in the shape of Twinkies. Best of all they are cold! Not bad for 50 cents. After downing our treats, chatting and the photo sessions it was time to head back.

When we arrived at the border crossing on the Mexican side we were still in need of tacos for fuel for the ride back. The vendor that was selling tacos was still there so we paid him and his family a visit to load up on tacos for us and for those that didn’t cross. Four potato tacos for $2 and another $2 for large water bottles hit the spot just right.

At this point we waited for the ferry to come back to Mexico bring its load of three vehicles and anyone walking. By the time it unloaded we noticed that one of the vehicles was the same Jeep that told us to cut in line when we first arrived! Wow, it took that long or her to finally make it across the river.

On the US side we had to go through Customs and present our Passports or any other form of ID that we had. Even though most of us didn’t have passports they still let us through with just a Drivers License. It did take longer to clear us and they did give us pamphlets on how to apply for a passport and sent us on our way.

Past Custom we met up with the SAG and the two others that didn’t cross and shared the tacos with them and exchanged stories of what we saw and did in Mexico. It was exciting to see that everyone was having a good time on this tour.

The Ride Back

Our journey back is the same route we took getting out there. The wind was in our face and that slowed down the pace for everyone along with the heat of the sun. The group  was starting to splinter so I stayed back with the slower group and caught up at the rest stop under a tree.

900+ Year Old TreeThe 900 year old tree was close by and I was looking for the entrance to the levee to head over to it. After finding the right ramp we road a little ways on dirt road to find he right Border Gate. When someone see the tree for the first you can see the “Wow” factor on their face. It never fails to impress them on the sheer size, age and the fact that the tree is still alive! I would guess that it takes 6-7 people holding hands to form a ring around the trunk of the tree.

The ride home was hot, windy and slow going but we arrived at the end, everyone had a smile on their face with excitement in the air for the next ride. As far as I can tell, mission accomplished.

One thing to note about the ride over to the ferry. This being along the border with Mexico we saw a lot of Border Patrol, DPS (State Police) and some county Sheriff patrol vehicles along with an occasional helicopter and the Border Patrol Blimp in Penitas. Couldn’t have been safer on the road with the large presence.

The Valley has a lot to offer especially on a bike. Many cyclists do the club rides, going on the same routes, ride-after-ride and never venture out of their comfort zone. This one ride encompassed two or three attractions in a different part of the valley that they have never ridden before and hopefully will encourage them to continue to explore the Valley on a bicycle.

Picture Gallery

For fun I created a small video of the ride.