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TECHNICAL NOTE: The century is a bicycle ride of 100 miles in a specified period.


And ten speeds, ten different ways to go up and down, faster, slower, pushing, gliding, working, meshing intricate gears, controlled from a stick shift, that hum in a precision rhyme, shooting me along, up there on the narrow racing seat, almost noiselessly, four feet above the rest of the world, hand brakes jutting out in front of me, like gun levers on an old two winger. The last of the beautiful machines.

Falling Up by Miles Donis.
David McKay Co., 1970


Now and then in want or play I set a definite goal for myself. Normally such goals remain my secret; my successes may be announced after the fact, but most of my failures are known only to me. When I began keeping this diary I planned to publish it only when and if my goal was won. But even at the proper age I was no athlete, thus failure to achieve the goal set forth below will do little damage to my psyche, and secrecy is unnecessary. My goal is quite simple: I want to ride the “century.”


9 June 1976: I read in this month’s Fortune magazine that quite a number of middle-aged men have taken up bicycle riding for exercise. The article says that one of the marks of a competent cyclist is the ability to do the century, a 100-mile ride in 12 hours. For some reason I was immediately struck by the desire to do the century. My son Dave and I have been riding 3-speed “’English racers” for years and this summer have been doing 8-mile to 10-mile rides with some regularity. Last year the hills hurt my knees so much that I was about ready to give up. I assumed that it was a permanent disability, but this year my knees seem not to cause trouble. Bike riding is so much fun that I hate to give it up.

I have been riding occasionally for about 10 years. When we bought a 24 inch bike for our daughter Helen, probably some 17 years ago, I took a short ride – my first in over 20 years. After a few blocks and one small hill, I was gasping for breath and was painfully aware that I was in no condition for bike riding. When eventually we bought 26-inch bikes for Helen and David, I started riding 8 miles or so, now and then. Dave and I took some rides of 20 to 30 miles.

We live close to the Beltsville farm (a Federal Department of Agriculture research farm) which has several miles of relatively sparsely traveled roads that are very nice for bike riding. We have plotted out circuits of 8, 10, 12, and 15 miles through the farm.

This spring Dave fixed up our 3-speed bikes, and we’ve been riding an 8-mile circuit now and then.

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7 August: While browsing in the library today, I looked through The Complete Book of Bicycling by Eugene A. Sloane and was astonished at one statement in the book. The book said that there is as much difference between the high quality 10-speed bikes and the 3-speed bikes as there is between 3-speed bikes and the old balloon tire monstrosities. “Can that possibly be true?” Dave and I asked each other.

11 August: We have read all of the Sloane book and have decided we must find out more about the situation. I found several other books on biking.

Something very discouraging has just come up. One of the books, an English one, says that thousands of men and women, including grandfathers and grandmothers, run the century every year in some location near London. But then the bad news; according to this author the century is 100 miles in 8 hours, not 12. I feel considerably dashed at that. Our normal average on 3-speed bikes is about 10 miles per hour. I was counting on doing 12 mph or so on a 10-speed and resting 3 or 4 hours of the 12. Eight hours sounds impossible to me. This Englishman says that to prevent the century from becoming a competition no one is allowed to report in in less than 7 hours. Well!

14 August: Today I read the article on bikes in the February Consumer Reports. Surprisingly they say there is a lot of difference between the better 10-speed bikes and the poorer ones. I read the article carefully and made a copy of the first page of their ratings. Dave and I went out this morning looking for a bike shop that turned out to be out of business. We then went to a shop even closer to us that carries Proteus bikes which neither of us had ever heard of. We each took a demonstrator out on the street for a trial. I was astonished at the way the bike accelerated on a moderate downslope. We both liked the bikes but were stunned when we were told the price was $275. In the afternoon we went to a bike shop in Bethesda and tried the Fuji model that was rated first in Consumer Reports. It pleased us quite well, but we agreed that it was nowhere near as fine as the Proteus.

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15 August: Today we went to a Schwinn shop that advertised Raleigh bikes to check Consumer Reports on a high rated Raleigh, but it turned out the store no longer carried Raleigh bikes. In the discussion about Fuji and Consumer’s ratings, the salesman said they had a new Schwinn type, a Super LeTour 12.2, that was better than the Fuji at the same price (about $220). We tried the bike and liked it very much; enough to buy it, probably. But I suggested we go back to Proteus and try those while our memory of the Le Tour was fresh. When we mounted the Proteus bikes, we both knew before we got out of the parking lot that we much preferred them to the Schwinn.

It is almost impossible to believe that the quality of a bicycle is so obvious, but it is. Consumers Union said their tests confirmed riders’ judgments.

We ordered Proteus bikes, a 22-inch frame for me and a 24-inch frame for David. We are supposed to pick them up in four days.

Proteus builds the frames from Reynolds 531 double-butted steel tubing and assembles the bikes from the many components available, Swiss brakes, French pedals, Japanese hubs, English saddles, etc.

For bike buffs only: The chosen components include a Sun Tour free-wheel (14, 17, 20, 24, 28 teeth), Sun Tour VG-T Lux derailleur, Sugino Maxy 5 bottom bracket and chain wheels (36 and 52 teeth, 40 and 52 for Dave), Weinmann center pull brakes, Sanshin Sunshine hubs, Fiamme rims, IRC high-pressure (90 psi) tires, Brooks B-17 saddle, Sake SR stem and SR randonneur hande bars, and Lyotard pedals. All are good but comparatively inexpensive components. Only the dropouts are Campagnolo.

16 August: I returned from work to find Dave cursing and gnashing his teeth because the shop has postponed delivery on his bike by ten days.

19 August: I picked up my bike today. I rode it home, about 5 miles. It feels entirely different from riding my old 3-speed bike.

23 August: Dave is beside himself about not having his new bike. For the first time in several years I can keep up with him, he on his 3-speed and I on my new bike. Today, we rode about 20 miles.

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26 August: The breaking in of a saddle on a good bike is one of those experiences so horrible that it is dismissed immediately afterward by the conscious mind, and the lesson learned seems never to be clearly passed on. The good bikes have leather seats, Brooks or similar, about as hard as the soles of a new pair of shoes. One hour of riding on such a seat is certain to make one so sore that sitting on anything is painful. If the saddle were solid rock it could not be harder.

Bike books casually tell you not to take long trips until the saddle has been broken in by at least 500 miles of use. The same books will assure you that the saddle will be very comfortable once broken in. But there’s no real indication of how painful this process is. For example, Dave and I got very sore from merely trying out bikes at stores. We surely did not ride an hour in all. One book baldly claims that a good saddle should, like a good pair of shoes, be comfortable from the beginning.

Sloane’s book, the 1974 edition, says one should soak the saddle in neatsfoot oil and beat it with a baseball bat. Still. the problem seems largely ignored.

After a week of torture, the iron maiden couldn’t be much worse. I finally found a hardware store that carried neatsfoot oil. I removed the saddle and applied oil copiously to both the top and the underside. The oil would disappear into the leather within minutes so I applied more and more. After about four ounces had been used, the leather seemed to be saturated but still felt rock hard. I re-installed the saddle on the bike and beat the saddle with a baseball bat until my arm was tired. After a rest I beat it some more for a total of at least an hour. At the end of this treatment, the saddle was springy and pliable and, once my own seat recovered from extreme soreness, very comfortable. I believe it would have required 10,000 miles of riding to do such breaking in.

Of course all this should be done at the factory where the saddles are made. (They cost $25 or more.) Schwinn says the saddles on their 10-speed bikes have been broken in by machine. I don’t know how effectively.

If you are ever faced (?) with this problem, do not hesitate. Saturate the leather in neatsfoot oil and beat the hell out of it for an hour. Of course, this is for leather only. I read that nylon and plastic saddles can never be broken in.

21 September: I am somewhat concerned that my legs stay a bit sore. Especially just above the knee toward the inside of my leg there is a muscle that is very sore. Massaging with a vibrator helps considerably, but I would have thought that with riding so much (I must have averaged 10 miles per day for the past month) my muscles would have adjusted to the strain. I’m beginning to suspect that 55-year old muscles are not as good as they once were.

My speed is improving. I average about 13.5 mph for short trips up to 15 miles and about 11 for longer rides of 25 miles.

My endurance has improved but still leaves a lot to be desired. I tire at about 25 miles, and more than that without some rest becomes painful. I could do 25 miles in the morning and 25 in the afternoon without great strain, but that’s a long way from century performance.

My longest continuous trip is still a 43-mile one that almost clobbered me. Dave was exhausted too.

The new bike continues to give me pleasure. I can only surmise that it must be something of the feeling a musician has when he plays an exceptionally fine instrument. In fact, the bike vibrates like a taut piano string as it rolls over a slightly rough surface.

An unexpected benefit: I have lost an inch of waist line in the month I’ve had the bike.

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27 September: My speed seems to have topped out at 13 mph for short trips of 10 to 15 miles and 11 to 12 mph for runs of 30 miles. Saturday, Dave and I rode 28 miles at a speed of 13.4 (including a 5-minute stop to watch some skeet shooting) and yesterday we rode non stop for 30 miles at 13 mph. Dave could easily average 15; he is continually stopping or dawdling to wait for me. I must get to a consistent 15 mph before the century even looks possible. At least the 8-hour one.

My endurance is not much better, either. I’m tired after 30 miles, and I don’t believe I could do another 30 after an hour’s rest. I don’t believe that Dave would last a century, either.

My muscle soreness continues to improve, but I’m somewhat concerned that it does not disappear. I’m sure I have ridden well over 500 miles during the last 5 weeks, but some soreness persists.

Our bikes are geared from 100 to 35 for mine and 39 for Dave’s (we have different inner chain wheels), and I have been thinking of changing the free-wheel for an even lower gear, but as my knees improve, perhaps lower gears won’t be necessary.

The gear nomenclature is curious: Multiply the diameter of the bike wheel in inches by the number of teeth in the chain wheel (where the pedals are) and divide by the number of teeth in the free wheel (cog wheel that drives the back wheel of the bike). If the resulting gear (it is in inches) were multiplied by pi, the result would be the distance traveled by the bike in one revolution of the pedals. It would seem logical to include pi in the calculation, but it’s not done. In Europe the gear is calculated in meters and does contain the factor pi.

Riding opportunities on work days are becoming more limited as the length of the day decreases. I don’t intend to do any night riding. Also, cold weather is coming soon. All my hard-to-build-up conditioning will melt away and next spring I’ll have to start from scratch. It doesn’t look likely I’ll ever come close to the century.

I do not despair because bike riding is great fun, and if I never get any faster or gain more endurance, the pleasure is still there.

29 September: I did a little research at the Walden Bookstore at lunchtime and found two definitions of a century:

100 miles in 10 hours – Bicycling by George S. Fichter and Keith Kingbay, Golden Press.
100 miles in 12 hours – Biking for Fun and Fitness by Janet Nelson, Award Books.

From notices appearing in Bicycling! magazine I gather there is also a metric century, but I cannot find its definition. It must be 100 kilometers, but in what time?

I know Dave is right; the century is undoubtedly 100 miles in 8 hours, but if I can’t do that one, maybe I can do another century. One of the management tricks I’ve learned over the years is that if any ambiguity exists you should not try to have it clarified until you really have to. Often there will come a time when your interpretation of the ambiguity will be to your advantage.

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4 October: It has been rainy for a week. Yesterday we got in a 22-mile trip between showers. We averaged 12.2 mph. But hills that seemed difficult to me are now easier. And my legs are not sore after yesterday’s ride in spite of the several day lay off. I’m thinking of buying rollers to try to keep in shape during the winter.

7 October: The shorter days are rushing my evening rides. Dave and I usually make our 12-mile circuit just before dinner. I seem to be stuck at 13 mph.

8 October: Dave and I have managed to take our 12-mile ride before dinner every day this week. It takes 55 minutes. In spite of traffic, lights, and wind; the time hardly varies. That’s but little over 13 mph. And with rather hard pedaling on my part, too.

15 October: Yesterday Dave and I went on our longest ride to date, 62 miles. We had had for some weeks a notion of riding to Triadelphia Reservoir. Yesterday we started at 8 am, after a heavy breakfast. The temperature was 54 with a prediction of 70; we wore the lightest clothing we could stand at the beginning. It was very comfortable riding, and we made 13 miles in the first hour, but then we started a struggle with a head wind, a steady 15 mph wind with an occasional strong gust, and for the next 12 miles it was very difficult going. The hills around the reservoir are numerous, long, and steep. We arrived at the dam by 10:30 and after resting, rode to another spot on the reservoir about 6 miles further away where we stayed 15 minutes or so before starting home.

The books say that one should replace used calories with small frequent feedings when riding, so we tried this.

I made some gorp (a mixture of raisins, candy, and nuts) to my own recipe. I used 2 pounds of corn candy, which was on sale, 2 pounds of raisins, and 1 pound of peanuts. This was mixed thoroughly and packed into plastic bags by a cupful per bag. We took about two thirds of this with us and consumed half of what we took. That is, we ate 12/3 pounds of gorp. Normally I eat no candy for months at a time, but I had no trouble eating my share.

When we turned toward home, we had, for most of the trip, a good tail wind and in stretches of several miles rode easily at high speed.

Wind is much more formidable than hills in riding. If there is a strong wind, it seems to be always in your face or enough in front of you to impede your progress. Unlike a hill, it is relentless. It robs you of easy pedaling on the level, steals your rest in the downhill runs, and makes the hill climbing tougher. It is very, very seldom that you can get a tailwind. When it does happen, the hills flatten out and the level ground and the down slopes are marvelous and the ride is sheer joy.

We were quite tired when we got home and had difficulty staying awake for the Kansas City-New York final playoff baseball game last night.

I expected to wake up sore and stiff this morning but did not. My shoulder muscles are a bit sore but my legs are fine. Maybe I have that problem licked.

On our trip we spent 7 hours doing 62 miles. That was the total time including 4 rest-and-gorp-eating stops.

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18 October: Rain yesterday; logged 150 miles this week.

28 October: We intended to ride to Chesapeake Beach and back (75 miles) on 24 October and, in fact, were within minutes of starting when the rain began. It rained for two days and then turned cold so that we’ve not ridden a mile this week. It seems to me that now I’ve gotten to the state that my legs are no longer sore, I’m going to be forced to lay off for the winter and have the same trouble next spring.

29 November: The change to standard time has destroyed my daily riding because it is dark before I get home. But I still have been able to get in quite a lot of riding on weekends, holidays, and days off. In the last five days, leave plus Thanksgiving holiday, we have ridden 150 miles. Saturday, 27 November, it was hot riding. The temperature was an intemperate 67.

My longest break in riding since getting the bike was 8 days in early November when Leah and I were in San Diego.

We seem to have lost speed. It may be the result of longer rides, or because we always seem to be fighting a head wind lately. Our average is now about 11 mph for 25 to 45 miles.

6 December: We are still riding 60 to 100 miles per week in spite of some very cold weather. I have found that at 30° to 40° in still air one can ride for at least two hours, if one has good gloves and heavy socks, without freezing. I took a two hour ride at 25° and became so cold that my fingers and toes hurt when they warmed up in the house after the ride. Toes are the real problem. Once they get cold they do not recover. There is some charm to riding on cold, crisp days. It may be that we’ll be able to ride year around. We’ll see. Of course, winter has not even started yet. It’s usually January and February that are the boogers.

13 December: We are still riding 60 to 100 miles each week. Yesterday the temperature was 40 or so with no wind but damp and foggy. Our ride of 25 miles was comfortable. Wind is the big factor. We can ride in comfort at 30° to 35° if there is little wind. At 25° it is too cold even if the air is still. I wear three-piece gloves – knit gloves with plastic gloves over them and leather gloves over all. It works fairly well. We wear two pairs of socks with a plastic bag between the socks, that helps.

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26 December: We rode 10 miles through melting snow. The temperature was 35° and we were warm enough, but the fenderless wheels threw ice water to streak our backs and soak our butts.

Good bikes are such beautiful machines that I understand why people buy hubs that cost $50 or more. It’s just that the bike is so good that you don’t mind the expense even though, strictly speaking, a cheaper component would have done as well. In Decline of Pleasure Kerr notes that we tend to buy cheaper things when “it’s just for pleasure.” Part of our “utility training” he says. I’ve observed that this does not seem to hold for bikes or cameras. Both of these machines seem to be fully appreciated by their owners as beautifully functional devices, and no expense is too great. I have no difficulty in thinking of them as “jewelry that works” as Dave calls them.

13 January 1977: No weekend has passed that we have not ridden. Last Saturday we rode 10 miles at 22° and almost froze. On Sunday the temperature was 30°, and we rode 20 miles with no difficulty except cold feet for the last 5 or 6 miles.

Sunday, we bought training rollers for indoor riding. The training rollers consist of parallel I-beams about 5 inches high and 4 feet long supporting 3 rollers about 16 inches long and 4½ inches in diameter. The rear bike wheel rests on two rollers and the front wheel rests on one roller that is driven by a belt from one of the rear rollers. The rear rollers are, of course, driven by the rear wheel of the bike. Thus both wheels of the bike turn, making it possible to balance and to steer to keep in the middle of the rollers. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s simply a treadmill for bicycles, if that’s not a contradiction in terms.

There’s nothing to hold the bike up or balance it in any way. It took Dave and me about an hour each to learn to ride on the rollers. It’s trickier than it looks. We practiced in a hallway where we could reach either wall if a spill was imminent. The resistance of the rollers is, of course, constant and 10 miles on them seems much more tiring than a real ride of 20 miles.

We could get no sensible notion, before buying rollers, whether we could learn to ride on them or whether they would offer enough resistance to be good exercise. So we bought them and hoped, and for once it worked out well since both doubts were favorably resolved.

15 January: Perhaps the rollers will help me to improve my cadence. I am now using a metronome and synchronizing my pedaling to 63 revolutions per minute. This is 13 mph in the 70-inch gear that I’ve been using when riding on the rollers. I should explain that an efficient bike rider is supposed to pedal at a constant cadence and change gears and therefore speed as the terrain changes. I don’t know why this should be so, and I am making little, or no, progress in that direction.

17 January: The temperature was -8° this morning, the lowest in many years. No outside riding this week. I have been working out 10 miles per day on the rollers. I am now riding at a cadence of 72 revolutions per minute which is equivalent to 15 mph.

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22 January: Riding on rollers has become a terrible bore. It reduces a bike to the unpleasant status of an exercise machine. One needs to ride 45 minutes or so to be worth doing it, and it does quickly get monotonous. The metronome helped at first, but that soon palled. Now we watch TV while pedaling. Unfortunately there is little on TV that is worth such close attention.

I have never been able to make myself do routine exercises. The major blessing of bike riding is that one gets the benefits of an aerobic exercise while enjoying oneself. Still I hope to dredge up enough willpower to force myself to use the rollers enough to stay in some kind of reasonable shape until the weather breaks.

24 January: We are having our coldest winter in decades. Snow has been on the ground with the temperature almost constantly below freezing since 9 January.

25 January: Dave just showed me a bicycling article he intends to publish in his Offshoot for February. I didn’t tell him that I’m keeping this diary.

14 February: For the first time in a month we were able to ride. Saturday and Sunday highs were in the mid-fifties.

17 February: The National Weather Service has declared the winter of 1977 to be “the coldest since the founding of the Republic.” So much for getting a notion of how much winter riding one can expect to do.

Dave read somewhere that one can expect improvement in speed and stamina for at least three years after starting serious riding. So, other things being equal, I should expect much more improvement. Ah, but of course there’s the rub. I started a mite late, so the outcome is seriously in doubt. So far my only real improvement is in endurance. At about 11 mph I can ride 45 to 50 miles, and maybe quite a bit more, without overtiring. The century? It’s obviously out of sight. But we’ll see.

The six months covered herein are counted from the time I got my new bike. This saga may be continued at some indefinite date.


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Handset in Deepdene with Glamour Medium display type and a Gallia initial. Published by Jake Warner and 475 copies were printed by him on a 10×15 C & P press at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.

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