Thursday, September 7, 2017

History of Western Wheel Works on Impossible Engineering!

Last summer through the wonders of social media I was contacted by a UK-based production company that makes the Discovery Science Channel program Impossible Engineering. They were working on a new episode focused on all the engineering advances incorporated into the new Tesla factory and they needed a bicycle historian!

Why you ask? Because technologies developed by bicycle manufactures in the later 19th century have shaped a surprising number of industries. All of the early automobiles were heavily reliant on bicycle technologies. A short list includes: seamless steel tubing, ball bearings, differential steering, pneumatic tires, wire spoked wheels, and industrial stamping. It's the last one of those that Impossible Engineering was interested in. The Tesla factory uses massive stamping machines that shape push out car body panels every few seconds. Bicycle factories didn't invent machine stamping, but Chicago's Western Wheel Works was the first to take the technology and scale it up to create a competitive edge.

This images comes from an 1897 Western Wheel Works catalog.

Prior to parts being stamped the main parts of a bicycle frame were all forged or drop forged (which increased the strength). Forging is a labor-intensive and wasteful process. Stamping was quick and cheap by comparison and it produced reasonably strong bicycle components. Western Wheel Works became the largest bicycle producer in the country by the later 1890's partially by adopting and perfecting stamping before everyone else. By 1899 they were churning out 160,000 bicycles per from the largest bicycle factory in the world (375,000 square feet, 1,500 employees). After the big bicycle bust of 1900 the WWW factory eventually became the Dr. Scholl's factory. Today parts of it still exist as the upscale Cobbler's Square Lofts on 1350 N. Wells St. in Chicago.

One of my all-time favorite bicycle images is this Crescent (made by Western Wheel Works) poster made in 1901 by artist Frederick Winthrop Ramsdell.

Here's the excerpt from the full episode where I talk about Western Wheel Works:

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Cycling 400 miles on the Natchez Trace

As a historian I had some vague recollection of the origins of the Natchez Trace which I was able to bring into focus with a bit of research. The Trace follows a natural geologic ridgeline from Nashville, TN to Natchez, MS. Native Americans (the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes in particular) originally established the trace for easier north-south travel. In 1801, the Army began widening and improving the trail, eventually making it traversable by wagon. It still took 3 weeks by wagon to cover the length of the Trace. In 1809, 3 years after the completion of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Meriwether Lewis was traveling on part of the Trace on a trip to Washington, D.C. He met an untimely end near the northern terminus of Trace either by suicide or murder. The true cause of his death will probably never be established definitively.

As a cyclist I knew precisely nothing about the potential of the Trace for bicycle training and touring. Today the Natchez Trace is designated an All-American Road and is maintained by the National Park Service. The full route was not completed until 2005. Commercial traffic is prohibited and a limited number of access points keep overall traffic low- particularly in the more remote sections. General lack of winter road damage means impeccable surfaces for riding.  Better yet, there are no stop signs along the length of the Trace, making it perfect for long, steady days in the saddle. There isn't even any development allowed right along the trace: no gas stations, no homes, just a couple of basic Park Service waysides. In short: a cycling nirvana (as long as it isn't midsummer).

Most of the pavement looked like this!

In January my Endurance Company team announced a training trip along the length of the Trace coordinated with my friend and top long-course triathlete, Andrew Starykowicz who on the comeback trail after serious injuries resulting from being hit by a car last fall. Fortunately a portion of the trip fell over my spring break from Illinois Wesleyan University. Having done a previous training trip to the Appalachian mountains with Andrew I had a pretty good idea what I was getting into. I've been struggling with a strange -and as of yet- undiagnosed medical issue where I start gagging during hard exercise.  This caused me to do very little in the way of training during the fall and early winter. Fortunately I can still exercise as long as the effort remains low to moderate.  In short, I was in need of a swift kick in the low-volume training butt.

Starky reached out to some of his cycling friends which included current and former pro triathletes, older guys with lots of experience and few up and comers. I can't say enough good things about this group.  When people get really fatigued after multiple 100 mile days your true colors start to show through and this group remained great to ride with (even when we had 9 of us plus all of gear and bikes in a 12 passenger van).

Two-tiers of bikes that we couldn't fit inside!

For me the riding shook out this way: 100 miles, 160 miles, 75 miles, 56 miles. The great majority of this riding was just quality, steady-state riding. On day one I rode half of one of Andrew's pyramid intervals. Even drafting 3 people back it was a challenge. There were also a few ill-advised state line sprints along the way! The 160 mile day is my personal longest by far.  I've occasionally done rides in the 120 mile range as over-distance Ironman training. 160 was a long day, but we rode very conservatively and had multiple van re-fueling stops built in. I was able to ride 400 miles without a gagging episode, but my low back was giving me some issues. To avoid a spasm where I couldn't ride at all I rode 1/2 a day and took a turn driving the van to the northern end of the Trace. The pace for my group over the four days was right around 20 mph. The northern part of the trace has nice, long climbs, but nothing steep.

So why subject your body to this sort of shock and awe training block- especially early in the season? Almost everyone on this trip was a parent. Parenting comes first almost all of the time. A training trip like this flips those priorities where all you need to accomplish in a given day is the miles to get to the next town. From a physiology standpoint you can make a good argument for doing two really big days back to back. At that point recovery is needed to reap the benefits of the stimulus of all that riding. A casual 75 miles felt easy, but was still a far cry from real recovery. Probably the reason most coaches prescribe overdistance training for long course triathletes is just the psychology of having gone further- or in this case, much further than race distance. I had done no rides yet this year over 75 miles, but since that was our "easy" day after 160 miles it seemed easy in comparison. Lastly, I am a fan of sport-specific blocks sprinkled throughout the training cycle. If you want (or need) to see gains in a single sport one of the best ways to do that is to incorporate sport-specific 7-10 day blocks.

The big takeaway here for me was the amazing potential of the Natchez Trace for this type of training (touring too). Since it is straight with milemarkers it is easy to accommodate multiple paces. My season remains up in the air until I get this gagging issue ironed out. My goal now is to be healthy soon enough to put in the training necessary to be competitive at the 70.3 World Championships in September.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

New Partnership with Endurance Company!

Greetings bloggy world, it's been awhile! I've got some news for ya that deserves a better platform than a long-winded Facebook post. Starting this year I am entering into a new partnership with Endurance Company. Endurance Company is a multisport coaching business started by my friend, Joe Company, in 2010.  Up until about a year ago Endurance Company was based in Missouri and I only had vague awareness that the business was doing well as I would see ECo jerseys at races around the Midwest. Recently Joe has relocated to Bloomington. We partnered on a weekend camp last year and a few other local tri things. This year I plan to be much more involved with ECo.  I've already begun attending some of the local Team ECo workouts and plan to assist with camps, clinics and mentoring of ECo athletes. I will also be racing on the newly-formed ECo Elite race team and getting workouts from Joe.

Me, Joe, Ryan Giuliano and Andrew Starykowicz at the Central IL Multisport Expo

I'm excited about this opportunity for a number of reasons. First off, I believe it will be easy to work with Joe since we approaching training and coaching in a similar manner. Both of us are very evidence-driven and highly reliant on leveraging science for performance. Joe has a doctorate in biomedical science and a master’s degree in exercise physiology. While this is clearly not as good as a degree in Library Science, I still allow him to talk to me. ;) From 2003-2007 Joe raced as a professional triathlete. My own 3-year stint as a pro wrapped up at the end of the 2015 season. I knew Joe and I had raced a few times at the old Tri-Shark triathlon (our local sprint race). I just hit up and found that we actually had quite a few head-to-head races over the years. This is what I found:






IM Florida








Spirit of Racine 70.3




Steelhead 70.3








Evergreen Oly



As you can see, there was quite a bit of back and forth here! Thus far no pics of me passing Joe mid-race have been unearthed, but there will be major prizes (read expired gels) for whomever locates one! You don't need to ask around much to find out that not all professional triathletes make good coaches. Some do, some don't. A long racing career with some level of success is one positive indicator of a good coach. Background and devotion to continuing education is another. Longevity of a coaching company is probably one of the best indicators. People that don't take coaching seriously or just don't have the aptitude don't survive for too many years. I just went through the tedious (and expensive) process to renew my own USAT Coaching certificate. It is a pain, but it forces me to do 15 hours of continuing education every 2 years and I always learn something in that process.

On top of all this, Endurance Company is also partnering with my favorite LBS, Bloomington Cycle and Fitness. I have raced CX, gravel, and MTB for BCF for many years now. They are also the presenting sponsor for my Miller Chill cyclocross race. BCF is moving into an awesome new facility this spring and ECo will share office space with them as well as run some of the workouts in the new bike studio.

Bring it 2017, let's see what you got!

The BCF Crew plus the ECo crew at the groundbreaking for the new shop!