Tuesday, July 1, 2014

On being slow

Last year, when I rode my bike on the 50-mile-long Pedal to Preserve Farmland Ride, just about everybody passed me.  It wasn't simply the super-fit speedsters in full spandex who left me in the dust; oh, no, it was everyone.   Spherical old guys in floppy green t-shirts -- guys I would have blown by if I'd been running -- they just spun their pedals and rode up the hill away from me.  Gals in halter-tops who sported sandals with no toe clips, they blew by me, too.  The Amish guy on the single speed with a fully loaded milk crate strapped to the back of his bike . . . well, okay, him I passed.  But he wasn't doing the whole ride.

This past year, I did the ride again.  At the end of the ride, I bragged to my friend that no one in sandals passed me this year.  "Umm . . . " she responded, "the ride organizers banned sandals this year."


Well, no spherical guys in floppy t-shirts passed me, either.

But I'm still pretty danged slow.  And, because I am so very very slow compared to other people who ride bikes, I have a lot of time to think about what it means to be slow.  First of all, in the battle for power between fast and slow, slow always wins.   To show what I mean by this, consider this example.
Suppose I struggle up one side of a hill at 10 miles per hour, and I zoom down the other side at 30 miles per hour.  What's my average speed?
You'd think the average speed would be 20 -- after all, 20 is right in the middle of 10 and 30; wouldn't the average speed just be the average of the speeds?  But no; I spend way more time going up the hill than I do going down the hill, and that skews the average.   In fact, I spend three times as long going up the hill as I do going down, because I do the uphill so slowly and the downhill so quickly.  So it turns out my average speed is 15 miles per hour, not 20.  Slow speeds really drag the averages down.

On the other hand, "slow" also gives the best chance for winning the "most improved award".   I'm guessing I might be able to fairly easily average 14 miles per hour for the bike portion of my triathalon.   (For those of you who want to snicker, I'll add that this includes rest stops and such . . . but yes, you're allowed to snicker.  I'm pretty pathetic still.)  At that pace, it'll take me exactly 8 hours to finish the bike leg.  But if I can manage to go just a little faster (15 or 16 miles per hour), then that'll cut my time down by as much as a whole hour.  That's HUGE!

In contrast, my speedy husband is hoping to average 19 mph.   He'll be ready to hop off the bike after a little less than 6 hours.  But for him, getting one or two miles an hour faster would only cut his riding time by a half-hour.  That is, getting better is twice as effective for me as it is for him, because he's already so good.

If you combine these two facts, you realize that for me, the best way to bump down my total IronMan time is to improve the parts I'm slowest at (that is, going up those danged hills).  July is going to see a lot more long rides, and bunch of hill workouts.  Sigh.

The moral of the story:  There are much more general principals at stake; this isn't just about bike riding.  In general, improving the things we're bad at, even a little bit, helps us a lot more than improving the things we're already stellar at.

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