A hilly 200 km brevet in scenic Izu peninsula

Yesterday I cycled 200 km across the mountains of west Izu (Shizuoka prefecture, Japan) on my Bike Friday folding bike. I had resolved do at least one century ride (160+ km) every calendar month of this year, some of them organised events, but most personal rides. BRM309 200 km by AJ NishiTokyo was my first official brevet of the year. I completed it in an official time of 12:58, i.e. just over half an hour under the 13 1/2 hour time limit.

The scenery was beautiful and the weather perfect but the course tough. With a highest point of 450 m, I first found it hard to believe that this course should really have more climbing (3159 m total) than the 300 km Fuji brevet I did last May (2800 m total), but except for the first and last 10% and some short stretches through the towns on the coast, this was a pedal-powered roller coaster! On the smaller roads grades of 8-11 percent were not uncommon.

I loaded the Bike Friday into the Prius the night before (no need to fold the bike or take off the wheels), went to bed at midnight and got up at 04:00. A little after 06:00 I got off Tomei expressway at Numazu and drove near Mishima station, where I found a 1000 yen ($10.50) a day car park. One couple dressed like randonneurs was already setting up their bikes in there.

An hour from home on the expressway it had suddenly struck me I had left my reflective vest at home. No vest, no brevet! But it was already too late to turn back. Fortunately the organisers had some stock and sold me one for 1600 yen ($17). To start with I was wearing new bib shorts and new jerseys (two layers for the morning and evening chill). GS Astuto’s HauteRoute shorts proved exceptionally comfortable, like wearing your best pair of pajamas at home. I sweated a lot, in fact my cheeks were white with salt afterwards, but the shorts and jersey kept me comfortable. The deep pockets safely stored wallet, camera, keys and some food.

There were 60 riders in two blocks of 30, starting at 7:30 and 8:00. They started us in smaller groups. I was wearing my heart rate belt and wanted to aim for a consistent workout throughout the day, but I worked much harder during the first 50 km than I had intended and less hard later on. When you have some other fast guys to follow (which would save you having to navigate) it is tempting to hang on at whatever cost. We headed through town and along a river to the south. After 20 km the route started climbing, peaking at a tunnel about 450 m above sea level, then down to the coast. We made the first 50 km in 2 1/2 hours, putting me more than half an hour ahead of the pace needed for completing in time, and that is what I also finished with.

I glimpsed Mt Fuji across the bay from near Toi.

The coastal road went to Matsuzaki through many tunnels and a couple of climbs. After Matsuzaki we climbed the second highest pass on a small mountain road and it was very pretty. Plum trees (ume) were in bloom everywhere.

PC1 (point de contrôle 1) was at 95 km, almost at the half way point, but there had also been a safety check at the first tunnel (lights!). We were given pastries baked in the shape of bicycle cranks.

From the control point we headed west to the coast, which we mostly stayed on. As mentioned before, the coastal road goes mostly up and down. It only becomes level again at the north west corner of Izu. The top third of the west coast was the hardest part. There were few villages, no shops and it was gradually getting dark. I had somehow expected the second half of the ride to be easier than the first because the maximum elevations were much lower, but it was actually harder. Between Toi and the north coast there were no flat portions in towns between descents and climbs, because there were no towns (or more appropriately, there were no towns there because there was no flat land).

The following was a sign we had to spot and then write down the Kanji characters, as part of a quiz question. As a Kanji-challenged foreigner, I got dispensation to bring back a picture instead:

Izu used to have a lot of terraced rice fields built into the hills because there wasn’t much flat land. Much of these fields now lie fallow or have been turned into sugi tree plantations contributing to the hay fever epidemic in Tokyo.

Mt Fuji at dusk:

I completed!

Having my brevet card checked at the finish:

Garmin Edge 500 on long rides

Since January I’ve been using a Garmin Edge 500 with heart rate monitor strap for logging bike rides. Garmin quotes a battery life of “up to 18 hours”. After this 13 hour bike ride, it showed a remaining battery capacity of 21%. Extrapolating from this, the battery would have lasted about 16 hours in total.

I was not just logging the ride (GPS data) but also using the heart rate strap and had the Garmin track a course with turn-by-turn instructions, which probably draws a bit more power. I had created the course as a TCX file in RideWithGPS while looking at the course as published on http://latlonglab.yahoo.co.jp.

In any case, 16 hours is enough for a 200 km brevet with its 13 1/2 hour time limit, but not enough for a 300 km brevet with its 20 hour limit, unless you are a really fast cyclist and/or the course is extremely flat. For my 300 km brevet I am planning to use my Garmin Edge 500 power hack, a special USB cable that allows me to charge the device while logging and navigating.

Garmin Edge USB power hack

I use a Garmin Edge 500 for recording most of my bicycle rides (I do at least one ride of 160 km or more per month on my Bike Friday Pocket Rocket). One problem with the Garmin is that some of my rides will take longer than the Garmin’s battery will last, but if you try to use an external power source to top up the charge, it will instantly end the recording. Here is my working solution:

Garmin quotes “up to 18 hours” of battery life, but last May I did a 300 km brevet with a 20 hour time limit. There are also 400 and 600 km brevets with 27 and 40 hour time limits (I am not thinking about 1200 km events yet!). While the Garmin has a USB port that it can be charged from using a cable, it won’t normally operate as a GPS unit while connected to a USB power source. Any GPS recording under way will instantly be terminated when you plug in the cable. So what can you do about that?

I searched a bit on Google and found that when you plug a USB cable into the socket at the back of the Garmin, it tests pin X on the USB mini connector. On normal cables (including the one that comes bundled with the Garmin Edge 500) that pin is left disconnected. Unless it finds it tied to ground (GND) as you supply external power to the Garmin, it will switch into a passive storage device mode. In that mode it provides read/write access to a PC via the USB port with all GPS functionality and user interface disabled. The screen will display only the brand name and it won’t respond to any buttons being pressed. If pin X is tied to GND, it will operate normally.

This behaviour mirrors the way pin X works on smart phones that support the USB “On The Go” (OTG) specification. USB OTG allows smart phones to drive certain peripherals such as memory card readers, in the same way a PC can drive those peripherals. Normally when a smart phone is connected to a USB port, it acts as a passive storage device to which a PC can upload MP3 files or from which it can download photographs (JPEG files). With an OTG cable, the phone remains the active end. Pin X is the magic key that tells the phone which way to behave, active or passive. It all depends on whether the USB plug is an OTG plug or a regular one.

My cheap low-tech solution was to buy a USB mini OTG adapter (480 yen – about US$5) on Amazon. This has a USB mini plug with pin X wired to GND on one end and a female USB-A connector (like a USB socket on a PC) on the other. To get power into this I cut the USB A plugs off two old peripherals (such as an old USB mouse), stripped off the ends of the wires in the cable and connected black to black (GND), red to red (+5V). This was not too hard even for my soldering skills. A bit of insulating tape and voila! We have a new male-to-male cable that can draw power from any USB power source and feed it into the female end of the OTG adapter. When I plugged it all together, I could run the Garmin in GPS mode while running on external power from my USB battery.

Lawyer Note: Do not use a male-to-male cable or OTG adapter for any other purpose. Do NOT connect the male-to-male cable to two PCs. Do NOT connect the OTG adapter between a phone and a power source. Only ever connect the cable to the OTG adapter. Only ever connect the OTG adapter to the Garmin. I won’t be responsible for bad wiring mistakes or other stupid mistakes. Don’t sue me if your Garmin or house goes up in smoke!

Here is the photographic evidence that it all works for me:

You can find USB Mini OTG adapters and USB Mini OTG cables on DealExtreme (dx.com). They also have USB-A male-to-male cables and adapters, so you don’t have to make your own as I did (though it’s not difficult if you have at least very basic soldering skills). Any combination of a USB Mini OTG cable or adapter and a USB-A male-to-male cable or adapter should work.

Garmin Edge 500 with Heart Rate and Cadence

I’ve had my first week with my new Garmin Edge 500 with cadence sensor and premium heart rate monitor strap, so it’s time for a review. I bought it on Wiggle for about JPY 24,500 ($274).

Around the time I bought the Garmin Edge 500, the new Edge 510 came out. It adds a touch screen, wireless connectivity to a smartphone and various nifty new features, but is also more expensive, so I went for the existing 500.

I switched to the Garmin after more than a year and over 8,000 km of GPS logging using Android phones, mostly my Google Nexus S. Here are my first impressions (the cadence sensor in the bundled set is installed on my son’s bike for use with his 500, so it’s not part of this review):

  1. I really love being able to use a heart rate strap and it’s nice to be able to see the HR figure without having to push a button (daylight permitting). I can ride at a consistent effort level, avoiding both effort too light to build stamina and extreme effort that would lead to premature exhaustion. If money were no object, a power meter would work best (which the Garmin supports). A heart rate monitor is an inexpensive alternative that works for most cyclists wanting to improve their performance.
  2. Because of its barometric altimeter the elevation totals are much more meaningful on the Garmin than on the GPS-only phone, where they may be exaggerated by a factor of 2 to 3. Current altitude data on the Android is OK, but small variations add up too much and grades on climbs and descents may be overestimated.
  3. I love the 90 degree turn quick attach / quick release of the Garmin. It feels both secure and convenient. It is more confidence inspiring than the Minoura iH-100-S phone holder for my Android, which is generally reliable, but not 100% bulletproof. Even after using a bumper for the phone, which has improved the grip of the holder, I’ve had a few instances where on bumpy roads only the USB cable attached to the phone saved my day. I would never entrust my $300 phone to the Minoura without some kind of backup method of attachment, while I feel safe about the Garmin’s mode of attachment.
  4. Importing the rides into Strava or Garmin Connect after the ride is really easy. I just connect the Garmin to the USB cable of the PC and click “upload” on the website in the browser and the browser plugin finds the fresh tracks and uploads them. Assigning a name is marginally easier with a real keyboard than a soft keyboard on the Android Strava app. With the smartphone I could also upload rides while I’m on the road, but why do that if I’ll still add more kilometres until I get back home? That would only be a benefit on a multi day tour without laptop.
  5. One drawback of the Garmin is lack of direct Linux support. My son runs Ubuntu on his laptop, while Garmin only officially supports Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X, so he asked me to upload his activities on one of my PCs. There’s a workable solution though. When you connect the Garmin to a USB port on an Ubuntu machine, it gets mounted as a removable volume named “GARMIN”. In there is a folder called Garmin, with another folder Activities inside which contains all logged rides as .fit files. Copy those to your hard disk and then upload them manually from a browser (Strava supports .gpx, .tcx, .json, and .fit files).
  6. When leaving the house, both the Garmin and the Android take a short while to lock onto the satellites and the Android seems to have something of an edge (excuse the pun) over the Garmin, which does seem to take its time. Maybe that’s because the Android pull pull satellite position data off the web, while the Garmin can only use whatever data it captured before. In one unscientific test, I took my Android and my Garmin outside in the morning. The Android had a satellite lock in 15 seconds while the Garmin took a more leisurely 44 seconds. This is a minor issue to me compared to the next one, GPS precision.
  7. While I have seen better GPS results on some rides from the Garmin than the Android, switching from the latter to the former has not been a dramatic improvement. I think their results are still in the same class, i.e. far from perfect, especially in built-up areas. Neither is like my car GPS, which is pretty solid. Both my son and I have been riding on Strava segments in Tokyo, expecting to be ranked but found the segment didn’t show up because the plotted route was slightly off to the side, so the segment start or end didn’t match up.
  8. Having temperature data on the Garmin is nice, but not really important to me. Unlike heart rate and cadence it’s not feedback that you can use instantly in how you cycle. Your body is a temperature sensor anyway and how you dress is at least as important as the absolute temperature.
  9. The Garmin 500 battery is supposed to last “up to 18 hours”, which would cover me on everything but 300 km and longer brevets, but on any significant rides I tend to take my Android phone, which I use for Google Maps, e-mail, SMS and yes, even the occasional phone call. Using an external 8,000 mAh battery for the Android, battery life has not really been an issue. The same battery will charge either device (one at a time), provided I take both a mini and micro USB cable with me.

Summary

If my Android had an ANT+ chip or supported BTLE (BT 4.0) for using a heart rate monitor as well as a barometric altimeter, then it would still be my first choice for logging bike rides. Given the limitations of my phone and the reasonable price of the Garmin Edge 500 I am very happy with my purchase.