Sunday, December 26, 2010

Merry Christmas to Me: A Cyclist's Justification of (Another) New Bike

The last month has been stressful; the end of the semester always is.  For some reason, this year was even worse.  In fact, they have been getting progressively worse.  I think there are multiple factors at play here: 1) as you gain experience, your colleagues become more willing to give you more responsibilities, 2) as you gain experience, you get invited to participate in more things or write more papers, 3) in my case, as you gain more experience, you continue to procrastinate.  I'm not sure which of these factors is the primary culprit, but I do know the latter only compounds the effects of the first two.

The end of the semester always guarantees at least two extra things: writing and grading final exams (which sucks), and putting together final grades for the semester (which sucks2). Through my vast experience (this is my 4th semester), I have developed a strategy to post grades as late as possible to avoid the large number of emails that I get from students asking if there is any way that I can bump their grade up a level (i.e. A- up to an A).  Unfortunately, the rapid adoption of smart phones amongst the general population has made this strategy obsolete.  Students receive information, and send responses, in real time.

This year I received a very entertaining request a mere 3 minutes after posting grades:

"I just figured it was worth asking. Is there anything I could do extra to bump my grade from a C- to a B+. I supposedly graduated this semester, and didn't do too hot in any of my classes and and worried about my semester gpa. And this extra bump could be a huge difference maker."

First, I almost respect the magnitude of the request.  Most students only have the balls to ask for a bump of a single level.  This student was hoping I could somehow increase his grade 5 levels! Second, note that this student was not questioning my calculation of the grade, just that they wanted what they earned increased (considerably). Finally, the emails where the student references their graduation being contingent on the grade they get in my class always get me (by the way, I am not quite sure what supposedly graduating means).  If a student is in the position where a poor grade may prevent them from graduating, it is not that class that got the ball rolling.  There have been other courses where grades were poor; the professors in those courses just had the luxury of assigning those grades earlier in the students' career.

But I digress.

In addition to grades and the extension tour meetings this year, I also agreed to write a paper with a colleague for a conference coming up in February.  And I also had a grant proposal due on December 22nd.  We procrastinated on the paper, as is our wont, but finally got it done just 2 days past the "deadline" (in academia you learn quickly which deadlines are hard and need to be respected, and which deadlines are soft and can be disregarded either temporarily or indefinitely).  The grant proposal was a struggle, as is always the case with federal grants.  The first step in the filtering mechanism is the arduous process of putting the proposal together and actually gettting the online system to accept it.  Even worse, if you actually get the award (a less than 20% chance in most cases), you have to follow their ridiculous reporting and documentation protocols.  But I need to chase dollars to get promoted like everyone else.  So I do these things, and stress over them.  Kind of like buying Christmas presents.

Speaking of that, I hate Christmas shopping.  I like people most of the time, but for some reason the Christmas season brings out the worst in me and, in my opinion, the worst in every other person in the store when I am there.  People are slow and always in my way.  It becomes painfully obvious why the staff at the stores I go to are paid a low, hourly wage.  Parking is impossible. Lines are long.  Basically everything that the Christmas season is supposed to be about. 

What's that you say?  Something about a baby born in a barn to a virgin mother somewhere in the Middle East surrounded by a bunch of dirty camel herders and barn animals to the light of a star? I faintly remember something about that from my childhood, but that story sounds ridiculous!

The point of all this is that, from Dec. 13th through the 22nd, I felt as though I was losing hair at even faster rate than usual.  But I got through it.  As long as you consider a 30 year old having his mother buy about half of his Christmas presents for him as getting through something.

So I decided to buy myself a Christmas present.  Something that noone else would be able to get right, or willing to spend the appropriate amount of money on.  Yes, you guessed it, I bought another bike. 

But Nick, you already bought a mountain bike this year.  And you bought a carbon road bike last year.  And an aluminum road bike the year before that.  How could you possibly need another bike? 

Don't worry, we'll get to all that.  First, let me introduce you to my new friend.  I literally "built" this bike from the bottom up.  OK, the guys at the bike shop technically built it, but I picked out all of the individual pieces.  I started with a Surly frame - the steel Cross-Check to be exact.

For the comonents, I went with the SRAM Apex gruppo (with a small upgrade to SRAM Rival shifters because they are carbon instead of aluminum and look much, much cooler).

I won't bore you with the rest of the gory details, but it also includes a Ritchey stem and handlebars, a SRAM seatpost, Cane Creek headset, Avid Shorty 6 cantileveler brakes,and Bontrager Race wheels that I was able to get on closeout.  The bike is all black (with a little white) and looks pretty badass if I do say so myself.

So why in the world did I do this?  What function could this bike possibly serve that my other bikes do not?  That is a good question, and begs an articulate and well thought-out answer.  So let's start from the beginning.

The first road bike I bought was my aluminum Trek 2.1 in 2008.  I bought it as a Valentine's Day gift for myself as I was newly single after almost 5 years and wanted a road bike for RAGBRAI.  This may have been the best or worst decision I have ever made, but I am leaning towards the best.  It has led to a number of things, one of them being the guys at the bike shop knowing me by name and smiling everytime I walk in the door.  This purchase ended up being an epiphany.  I love bikes and love riding them even more.  I am a Trek and Lance Armstrong junkie.  I've ridden this bike more than 6,000 miles since then.  It is now my "trianing" road bike.  A bit heavier than my Madone (which I will get to in a minute), and I am more willing to ride it on rougher, dirtier roads.

The following year I bought my Madone, which may be one of my most prized posessions.  It is basically a Tour de France ready bike, with the carbon frame and components that the pros use.  Is that necessary for someone like me? No.  Does it turn heads (for those who know what to look for)? Yes.  Is it fun to ride? Most certainly yes.  Is it faster than my aluminum road bike? Yes, actually, it is much faster.  So this is my racing bike (where my bike races, until now, have consisted of triathlons).

Early this fall I bought the Gary Fisher Cobia.  A 29er hardtail mountain bike.  This bike wasn't cheap, but it was by no means a ridiculous purchase.  I almost wish I had spent more (in fact, of all of the dollars I have spent on bikes the past 3 years I regret exactly zero of them). It is "entry-level", but it is a very good level to enter at.  I didn't know if I would really like trail riding, but we have a few places within an hour of where I live to ride so I thought I would give it a shot.  It is a totally different workout, and has really helped my legs on the road bikes.  After many Sundays on the trails at Kickapoo, and a painful rib injury, I am hooked and planning trips to Colorado and Utah for some real riding.

Which brings us up to the latest purchase.  This bike is actually pretty versatile.  I built it to be a commuter, but also so I could start "racing" cyclocross. I can mount fenders to it, or a rear rack.  I can put racing slicks or knobby tires on it.  The tire clearance is pretty wide so I can run skinny or fatter tires.  It's a steel frame so I don't have to worry about every little scratch threatening the integrity of the entire frame like with carbon (and from what I am told about cyclocross, those scratches are coming).

So, in summary, each of my bikes have a very specific purpose:
  1. A road trainer
  2. A road racer
  3. A trail rider
  4. A commuter/cyclocross bike
In short, each one of these bikes is completely justified.  It would be tough to do the same for yet another bike.  Unless of course I decide to buy a Time Trial bike, or a singlespeed, or a fixie.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Week

I'm still crunched for time with a Wednesday deadline for semester grades and a large grant proposal (sent off to our grants and contracts office today for internal review - yay!), but wanted to get some thoughts/events from last week down on virtual paper before I started forgetting about them.

The start of our annual weeklong extension meeting tour.  We kicked off in Champaign with our first meeting.  I was there to help setup at 7 am and presented at 11.  We decided to leave for Northern Illinois at 4 pm, so I decided to bring my car home and have the group pick me up there.  Bad decision.  On the way home, as I was driving in the left lane on a west-bound one-way street, the drive next to me in the right lane decided to abrubtly make a left turn.  Into my passenger side door.  No injuries (I know you were worried), but it did result in a pissed off me and a pissed off wife of the driver of the other car.  She showed up with his insurance information, yelled at him, and gave me some very dirty looks.  The police "investigation" found him to be at fault, the officer wrote him a few citations and sent me on my less-than-merry way. 

So we got on the road about 2 hours later than anticipated.

Day 2 of the meetings which means that my presentation was more polished and I wasn't quite sick of it yet.  Good deal for the day 2 attendees.  First real extension meal of the trip - meat, potatoes, gravy, vegetables in a pool of glorious butter. The University vehicle we took did not start in the morning.  We called AAA assuming it was the battery.  They determined it was a bad starter.  So we stayed a few extra hours after the meeting waiting for that to be replaced, and ended up getting on the road to Western IL a few hours later than expected.  Dinner at a steakhouse called "The Packinghouse."  Not very many diet- or heart-friendly items on that menu.  60 minutes on the hotel treadmill following dinner to try and combat the damage done during the day.

The final for my undergraduate course was Tuesday evening.  Luckily the course TA was able to proctor it.  Beyond a few student emails pleading their cases for passing grades in the course, the exam seemed to go fine.

Day 3 of the meetings, 3rd time giving my presentation and starting to get sick of it.  More food, followed by more driving back to Champaign for the evening.  Wednesday was fairly uneventful, which was welcome after the previous two days.

Bad weather and day 4 of the meetings in Central IL.  Despite the weather we had probably the biggest crowd of the week.  Literally standing room only, followed by yet another lunch fit for someone who had been doing manual labor all morning (but not fit for someone who had spent the morning working on his laptop, drinking coffee, and presenting for 30 minutes). We got back to Champaign fairly early and I was able to make the training session at the bike shop.  We did the CTS Climbing II video (which happens to be on my Amazon wish list).  It made me want to puke, but was a lot of fun and also made me sweat off what I am assuming was close to 5 lbs.  I literally left a puddle on the showroom floor.

The 5th and final meeting in our series was held in Southern IL.  The rest of the group headed out Thursday evening, but I chose to drive my (damaged) car down that morning and return early so I could make it back for the final exam for my graduate course in the afternoon.  My presentation this day went surprisingly well.  It was fresh enough (I changed some numbers for Southern IL, which is much different than the rest of the state) and I was practiced enough by then to do a really good job (if I do say so myself).  I made it back with an hour to spare for the exam, gave the final, and then proceeded to head out with friends for a much needed dinner with a heavy focus on the adult beverages.

Christmas shopping the weekend before Christmas is a bad idea.  What you think will take 3 hours total will take closer to 5 and you won't even take care of everything on your list.  I ended up just quitting out of frustration.  The housekeeper showed up on Saturday, which was good as I was having a Christmas party on Sunday with coworkers and friends (some were both).  She found it odd when I came home from shopping and changed into bike gear (not in front of her).  Apparently she is not used to seeing people in thermal tights going out for a bike ride in 20 degree weather, but I needed it.  Then I spent my Saturday evening grading and finishing up some things on a grant proposal.

I had planned to do my first cyclocross race today in Bloomington, IL but decided to just go for a ride in town and get some much needed work done prior to the party.  The party included a lot of food and a white elephant gift exchange.  A few people forgot to bring gifts, which I anticipated, so I wrapped up a few extras:
  1. Two slightly used bike tires (more than 3,000 miles on them and they were paper thin).  The person who chose this gift was sure it was a hula hoop.  They were disappointed.
  2. A cycling grab bag complete with two platform pedals off an old mountain bike, two tubes with holes (they could be patched), a package of ShotBlocks, a reflector off one of my bikes (have to take those off to save the much needed weight, who cares about safety?), and some used cycling gloves that were all kinds of grossness from a full season of sweaty riding.
  3. A paperback copy of an old Rush Limbaugh book.
Overall it was a very fun and entertaining evening.

The Aftermath
So the week included a lot of travel, a lot of food, and not a whole lot of exercise (although I did make the time I had count).  Much to my surprise, the weekend ended with some more actual weight loss.  As of Sunday afternoon (before the party), I was actually down 10.2 lbs since the start of December.  This should mean that I successfully qualified for Fatty's 10 lbs by Christmas Challenge.  But there was a lot of good food at my house on Sunday night. I was too scared to step on the scale today.  So tonight I am going to spend some time on the treadmill while watching the start of the now infamous Bears-Vikings game being played at TCF field in the cold and snow.  I will weigh in tomorrow and see how much damage was done on Sunday and what I need to do before Thursday to say I officially hit the 10 lb. goal.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Cupcakes

Classes wrapped up here on campus this Wednesday, "Reading Day" was yesterday (although I don't think most of the students do much reading), and finals begin today.  It's been a long semester - as they always are - and you never know exactly how things went from the students' perspectives.  The semesters where I thought I have done the best resulted in some of my lower evaluation scores and vice versa.  But this semester I am hopeful for, nay expecting good evaluations.  At least from my undergrads.  Lemme esplain.

After our final lecture on Wednesday, I had two things happen to me that have never happened before.

1. A student brought me cupcakes.
2. Another student asked to take a picture with me.

The cupcakes don't really jive with my current attempt to become skinny and faster, but I ate one anyway and gave the rest to some of our great support staff.  So not only did this student give me cupcakes, she also scored me some brownie points with the people who can make your life very easy, or very hard.

The picture was with an international student who told me I was the best professor she had during her semester here in the U.S. There was no alcohol in the picture, and I am confident it will not end up on facebook.

Neither student was in any position to need to suck up to me; both are getting excellent grades already.  So I feel like both were being genuine.

A few other things have happened this week that make me think the semester went well.  I had students voluntarily send me things like funny finance/econ youtube clips for the course blog (yes, there are videos which are related to finance/econ while also being funny).  I had a student stop by my office to tell me how much he liked the class and offer to help TA it next fall - for FREE (his offer was likely not totally altruistic, I'm sure a letter of recommendation would be part of the deal).

I'm sure I will get my evaluations back in January only to find out that my course and I are not as popular as I might like to think, but until then I am going to feel good about my teaching this semester.

Monday, December 6, 2010

You Can Call Me IronNick

It snowed here on Thursday night.  Supposedly we got 10 inches, but I would  call it more like 6.  And it has been cold.  This all translated into zero outdoor biking or running this weekend.  I did an interval video on Saturday, and another 60 minutes on the trainer yesterday, but it isn't the same.  It was cold out, there was snow on the ground, and all I wanted to do was lay on the couch and have someone feed me mashed potatoes.

So I decided to sign up for a half-ironman triathlon in August.  1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and a 13.1 mile run for a total of 70.3 self-powered miles. I don't really have a hard time goal, I just want to finish without needing medical attention.  That's not completely true. I would like to finish in under 6 hours. The swim and the bike I am not worried about.  I swim that distance twice each week now, and the bike is a reasonable distance.  It is that pesky running part that gets me.  My attempt at a half marathon this past summer was pathetic.  Anyway, this should get me off the couch this winter.  I don't like to be humiliated, especially in public while wearing lycra.

Upon completion of this race I may legally change my name to IronNick. I will also answer to Dr. IronNick.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fatty's 10 lbs by Christmas Challenge

On Monday, the author of the fatcyclist blog threw down a challenge to his readers: Lose 10 lbs by Christmas.  I have accepted this challenge.

Elden, or Fatty, is offering up some fantastic, cycling related prizes for those participants who are successful. This schwag ranges from jerseys and water bottles to various items signed by pro racers.  There are just two problems.

1. Close to 1,000 people signed up for this contest.  His readership is much larger than mine.
2. I have a week of extension meetings coming up the week of December 13th.

The first issue is not really an issue at all.  Losing the 10 lbs would be prize enough.  Plus, he is giving away so much stuff that the odds of winning are probably still pretty good.

The second issue is what I am concerned about.  Extension meetings involve a lot of farmers and a lunch following the presentations and Q&A session.  These lunches are not what you would call light.  There will be a lot of meat and potatoes. And gravy. And dessert.  There may be some vegetables, but they will almost certainly be covered in butter.

One of the guys who has "toured" with us in the past for these meetings is a vegetarian.  I jokingly said one day that he would probably be limited to dinner rolls at lunch because even the vegetables would somehow incorporate meat.  Everyone thought this was funny. Until they brought out the green beans, which were covered in butter. And crumbled bacon.

The other problem is that we will be on the road for short two-day stints at the beginning and end of this week.  Hotel fitness centers vary widely and I don't get very excited about running outside when it is cold and snowing.

As of this morning I was already down 3 lbs since Monday thanks to some brutal sessions on the treadmill and the trainer already this week. Another session of intervals on the trainer will happen tonight. On a related note, I tried on the only size L jersey I own this morning and decided I would no longer be embarrassed to wear it in public. And let me point out that cycling jerseys, and apparel in general, are the one type of clothing in this great country of ours which has not resorted to vanity sizing. So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

Hopefully I can lose 10 lbs or more before the meetings, and then be able to make up any travel-related setbacks the week right before Christmas. Mom giving me a package of buttery party mix is not helping either...