Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Find My Inner Rhythm

Watching re-runs of Lance Armstrong's earlier Tour de France victories, I became mesmerized at his impressive cadence. On one hand there was Lance's legs churning at 105 rpm which effortlessly propelled him up the mountains. On the other was Jan Ullrich who was grinding his way to eternal second place finishes at 70 rpm. That was all the motivation I needed to increase my cadence.

So I set out on my project. I bought my Garmin with cadence sensor, and set out in a low gear. For two months I tried to spin the hell out of my cranks. A funny thing happened. My speed actually dropped, I found myself very tired after rides, and I was now barely able to crawl up hills. At first I chalked this up to the adjustment time needed to increase my cardiovascular endurance. However the symptoms continued. I just couldn't maintain speeds I used to cruise at. Even the mildest of inclines was a challenge. I found myself frustrated and wondering what I was doing wrong.

Last week I rode with a group of experienced riders. I was telling the group leader my goal of increasing my cadence. After a few minutes of warming up, he offered a bit of advice, "Just smooth out your pedal stroke, you don't have to spin out of your shoes to be a good rider. What works for Lance doesn't work for everyone else." What followed was one of the best rides I had in months. After lowering my cadence I felt my heart rate decrease and saw my speed increase. The hills and false flats which were giving me trouble before were easy once again. I was able to have a casual conversation and drink while riding without gasping for air.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious that a high cadence wasn't for me. I've always been more of a sprinter than a marathoner. I should have played to my strengths, namely the strength in my legs. There were other clues as well, but I didn't pay attention to them. I've always had my best success climbing using a lower gear than a higher one and like to stand frequently. Since then I've stuck to my guns and found that a slight drop in cadence, 5 rpm has helped me gain about 1 mph back on my average speed. This isn't to say I've become a complete masher. I try and keep my cadence in the 75-85 rpm range. It might not be the 100+ rpm's I dreamed about, but it's more than enough to strike a balance between my cardiovascular system and leg muscles.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tips for a New Roadie Part 2 - Group Discussion

In the first article in this series, we examined the intricacies of road bike fit. But once you decide on the frame that's tailor made for you, only half the equation is complete. Now you're faced with the daunting task of picking a group set. A bike's group set is the collection of parts that move a bike - shifters, derailleurs, crank, cassette, chain, and brakes. In the aftermarket, these are typically sold as packages called grouppos. There are quite a few models to choose from, and it can be a difficult to find the group set that fits a rider's needs and budget.

It's important to understand the parts of a group set and how they function on a bike so decisions can be made based on a cyclists needs. Shifters are one of the most important aspects of a group. Most modern bikes come with indexed shifters - each shift corresponds to a specific position on the derailleur. On road bikes the shifters are mounted on the drop bars so shifts can be made while your hands are on the "hoods" or in the drops. The rubber hoods which house them also provide a very comfortable hand position while riding. Derailleurs are the components which respond to the shifters and move the chain between sprockets. The cassette is the collection of sprockets on the rear wheel which determine gear ratio. The crank is the set of front sprockets and the arms which are attached to the pedals. The chain connects the crank and cassette and allows pedaling motion of the front crank to turn the cassette and rear wheel. Brakes are there to help you stop.

Shimano's 105 Dual Control Bar Mounted Shifters

There are two brands which dominate the factory bike market - SRAM and Shimano. The two brands both deliver quality groups with models perfect for the newest riders to the best cyclists on the planet. Shimano was the first on the market with indexed shifting and has earned the lion's share of the market. SRAM is a relative newcomer to road bikes, but is quickly eating away at Shimano's piece of the pie thanks to it's light weight, innovative Double Tap shifting, and competitive pricing. Best bet is to try a brand and pick the one whose ergonomics suit you best. Some people prefer Shimano's smooth feeling shifts and two lever mechanism. Others prefer SRAM's double tap shifting and don't mind the slightly noisy reputation SRAM receives. Ride both models, see which one suits you best and then pick the group you need. The Campagnolo faithful are likely shouting at their computers due to my neglect for what may be the most beloved group set of them all. However, since it's hardly ever found on mainstream factory bikes, I will withhold my Campagnolo article until a later date.

Once you've decided what brand fits you, it's time to pick a model. Models typically vary in their weight, material used, and feel. Nevertheless, it can be confusing to know how they're different and what that translates to in the real world. There are so many features, it would be impossible to detail them all in a short post. So here is a very basic primer on what you can expect from the various models.

Shimano Sora is a 9 speed group. It is Shimano's only group set to use a thumb lever for down shifts instead of the Dual Control used in Shimano's other shifters. The thumb shifters can be hard to access from the drops which is a problem many people find. Shifts are typically not as smooth nor as accurate as Shimano's other brands.

Shimano Tiagra is another 9 speed group and Shimano's next step up. Its shifters have the dual control levers common to all other Shimano group sets. The smaller lever is used to shift to smaller gears, the larger lever shifts to larger gears. Shifts are smoother and more accurate than Sora and once dialed in is a very useable group set novice riders can grow with. This would be my recommendation as the absolute minimal group set a new rider purchase.

SRAM Rival is one of the most popular group sets on the road. It weighs less than Shimano's Ultegra and is cheaper to boot. New for 2010 it has also incorporated Zero-Loss shifting on the front shifter, so if you move the front shifter, it will switch gears. There is no play in the shifting mechanism. All SRAM models also have a unique feature where the shift lever can be moved closer to the bars to accommodate riders with smaller hands.

Shimano's 105 group set is the first entry into the 10 speed market. The shifters have a noticeably smoother action, it takes less effort to engage shifts and shorter lever throws than Tiagra. The whole group is lighter to boot. Both 105 and Rival are excellent groups for a new rider and my best recommendation. They are affordable enough for riders on a budget but are smooth, light, and accurate enough even for die-hard racers.

Ultegra SL takes the basics from 105 and lightens the package. It is every so slightly smoother than 105. However, the addition of lighter, stronger components makes the overall group set stronger and lighter on the bike.

SRAM Force is basically Rival with the addition of carbon fiber components to decrease weight and increase stiffness. Costing noticeably more than Rival, but lacking the features of Red some question the value of Force over Rival.

Dura-Ace is the apex of Shimano's lineup. Very light weight combined with amazing stiffness in components such as the cranks make it a favorite among pros and elite amateurs. It is the smoothest shifting of perhaps any group set, even under a hard sprint.

SRAM Red is another big step up from Force and Rival. In addition to lighter weight, it also incorporates zero loss shifting in both levers. The rear cassette is precision machined from a single piece of steel and helping smooth out the shifting action.

So once you've picked the group set that's just right for you, beware of some common tricks bike companies like to use to fool customers. Many save money by using generic brakes rather than the branded brakes that belong on the group sets. There is often nothing wrong with these generic brakes, especially when you swap out the pads, but laying down $5000 for a Dura-Ace equipped bike and receiving a set of Tektro brakes can be a bit disheartening. Companies also use upgraded rear derailleurs to try and fool consumers into believing they will see better performance, such as adding a Dura-Ace rear derailleur on an Ultegra equipped bike. While an upgraded rear derailleur can provide better shifting performance, it won't affect feel or performance as well as Dura-Ace shifters.

If you're serious about road biking, I would strongly suggest investing the additional money in a quality group set, at least 105 or Rival. These two groups are a great compromise between performance and expense. They have appreciably smoother performance than cheaper group sets and perform only marginally less smooth than more expensive groups.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Remember to Tune the Engine Not the Car

While browsing Bike Radar last night I found an interesting article about Luke Smith, an English cross country racer who won the 75 km Broadhurst Road Race in Gaborone, Botswana. At face value this doesn't seem like a newsworthy story, until you read that Luke won this road race on his hardtail mountain bike complete with knobby tires...

Luke Smith at the Race. Photo from Bike Radar and ATB Sales

Anyone who has ever ridden a mountain bike and a road bike can attest to the difference between the two. A road bike has no suspension, so every movement of the cyclist leads to forward motion. Even with equivalent gearing, a road bike will always be faster than a mountain bike on the road. So just how did Luke overcome this disadvantage?

After the race he briefly credited his sponsors, but then let the real secret slip out. "The crowd and other riders were shocked that a mountain bike had won a road race, especially as I was on knobbly tyres. When they later asked what was the secret, I replied Whyte – Great British mountain bikes, they can't be beaten! To be honest though, I had really surprised myself." Truth is Luke's bike didn't win the race, Luke did because he was in better shape and a better cyclist than his competitors.

Cycling is a sport defined by minutia. Often this attention to detail gets directed to the bikes themselves. Cyclists are always trying to shave ounces off their bikes or upgrade to the next great part in the pursuit of gaining that extra edge. Group sets costing $2,000 and carbon fiber frames that weigh a mere two pounds are becoming commonplace. There are many times when I browse the internet, trying to pinpoint my next upgrade and plan a way to save the money. At times it can be easy to get dragged into the marketing hype and forget about the most important factor in determining speed - the strength of the cyclist.

While that Dura-Ace gruppo and Zipp tubular wheel set may make your bike two pounds lighter, they are no guarantee that they will make you any faster. Intervals and hill repeats are not always fun. In fact they hurt like hell. The burning seems to start in your lungs and spread like a wildlife throughout your body. But those who use them in their workouts can attest to their effectiveness. There is only one guaranteed way to increase speed - get your butt in the saddle, put in the miles, and suffer. So if you want to ride faster, don't worry about the car and start tuning up the engine.

Friday, August 14, 2009

First Flat Ever

There are certain rites of passage road bikers go through - the clipless pedal fall, long ride bonk, and mid-ride flat are all challenges road bikers universally seem to experience. While I have overcome the first two, I have been lucky enough to go over eight and a half months without having a flat. Until today.

I began with the goal of completing a 40 mph training ride. I typically ride on a 4 mile long two lane road that dead ends. So the out and back is just under 8 miles. The road has the advantage of having a nice steep hill just before the turnaround, and a long false flat on the return trip. The road surface is smooth tarmac, has very little traffic, and is a mecca for cyclists in the afternoons. Ironically, adjacent to this road is a bike path that goes along a fairly busy highway. The bike path is in terrible shape, is interrupted by traffic lights, and is riddled with road debris. Pieces of truck tire, shattered glass, and metal debris are all over the bike lane. The city never cleans it. I've purposely avoided this path for those reasons. Today however, I decided to add some flavor to my usual routine and use the bike path after my first lap. After 2 miles of dodging potholes and glass I decided to turn around and resume my usual route doing laps on the road.

I got back on my comfortable smooth tarmac and settled back into a good rhythm but the damage was done. Two miles later, I got a pulsing sensation from my front tire, almost as if I was going over a bunch of tiny speed bumps. I looked down and saw the contact patch on my front tire expanding by the second. I slowed to a stop, and removed the front tire. I never found the offending piece of debris, but the tire was free of any sharp objects. Thankfully I had all the tools required and in a few minutes my flat was fixed and I was back on the road.

My ride was in the morning, there were hardly any other cyclists out, and I was 2 miles away from my car without a cell phone or anyone who knew where I was. Had things not went well, it would have been a very long walk back to the car in bare feet since cycling shoes are worthless for walking. Looking back on the situation know, I was very lucky I had everything I needed and more importantly had practiced changing a flat before I got to this point.

One of my favorite videos on how to change a flat.

If you haven't purchased them already, be sure you have a spare tube, hand pump or CO2, and tire levers. Carry them with you every time you ride. Most important of all if you haven't changed a flat yet, practice in the comfort of your driveway so you'll be proficient at it when you're out on the road.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tips for a New Roadie Part 1 - Get Fit

When I first got into cycling, I knew nothing about the sport. Doubles, triples, group sets, geometries, they were all greek to me. So I did what I usually do - closed my eyes and dove right in. I picked a 52 cm Specialized Allez Elite as my first bike based mostly on the deal I got. I ended up with an aluminum frame, Tiagra shifters, and a compact crank that fit like a dream. Little did I know I had blindly chosen an excellent starter bike.

I was lucky. Many others aren't. Online bike forums are filled with people questioning the fit of a new road bike or wondering why their hands go numb on long rides. I've been inspired to start up a series of articles dedicated to helping a new roadie get started cycling on the right foot. In this first part, I'd like to break down the most important question a beginning cyclist should be able to answer before they walk into a bike store - how should I get fit.

Most people refer to getting fit as throwing a bike on a trainer, pedaling, and having a shop attendant adjust saddle height and stem angle until the pedal stroke is smooth. I would rather refer to this process as "fine tuning fit." All the components on a bike are adjustable except one - the frame. Handlebars can be exchanged, a shorter stem can be added, a longer crank arm can be used. The one part of a bike you're stuck with is the frame. Pick the wrong one and all the component swaps in the world won't make it fit.

The first ingredient in a good fit is understanding the terminology. A bike's geometry is comprised of the lengths of the tubes on a bike frame and the angles they create. These tubes and angles dictate the position a rider assumes and the fit a rider can achieve. Basically road bikes break into two groups, compact and traditional. Compact frames have a sloping top tube that creates a lower center of gravity and a shorter wheelbase. Compact frames are known for their handling ability while cornering. Traditional frames have a flat top tube and a longer wheelbase making them more stable and in some cases more comfortable.
The Basics of a Bike's Geometry

Now that you know a little about geometry forget it. Because most manufacturers measure their angles and lengths differently, geometry numbers don't translate well from one company to another. The first thing a prospective rider should do is pick whether they want their bike to have a more aggressive and aerodynamic riding position or a more upright one that's more comfortable. The geometry of a competitive road bike (Specialized Tarmac, Giant TCR, Cannondale CAAD9) puts the rider in a lower riding position. It's a faster and more powerful position, but it takes some flexibility to maintain it comfortably for a longer period of time. Endurance frames (Specialized Roubaix, Giant Defy, Cannondale Synapse) have a taller head tube and more upright riding position which can be more comfortable over longer distances or rougher roads.

Sizing is typically referred to by one measurement - the length of the seat tube. The "size" of a bike is the distance from the top of the seat tube to the middle of the bottom bracket. So a "52" has a seat tube that extends 52 cm from the middle of the bottom bracket to the top. However, this is only one number and perhaps not even the most important according to some experts. Equally important is the length of the top tube. This dictates the distance a rider will have to reach to comfortably hold the handlebars. For women or shorter riders this is a key measurement to pay attention to. The only way to decide on the frame that fits you is to try them out.

Many shops these days are equipped with fancy computers that can measure a rider's vital statistics and spit out a "perfect" frame size. These systems are a great starting point, but don't be fooled into thinking this is definitely the best size for you. Try out a variety of frames and sizes to see what fits you best while riding. Very often what's supposed to be the perfect size on paper doesn't translate that way in real life. The most important factor in fit is how a rider feels on a bike and only a rider can determine that. That's why long test rides are so important. Many people can compensate and feel comfortable with a poor fit on a short ride. However, the longer a ride is, the more obvious and exaggerated any flaws in a bike's fit can be.

So with that said, it's very important to try out bikes. When I say try a bike out, I don't mean two laps around the parking lot. Would you buy a car only test driving it around the dealership? The same should be true for a road bike. A good bike store should have models for you to try for extended periods of time. Some even allow customers to leave a deposit and borrow a demo model for a weekend so they can take a long ride. The longer you can test a bike, the better you will know how it will fit you. A 5 mile ride is different from a 40 mile ride. And a 40 mile ride is nothing compared to a 100 miler. Be realistic about your riding plans, and try out your bike accordingly.

The bottom line - if you want a good fit, test as many models and sizes for as long as you can. Eventually you'll find a bike that feels just right. It's almost as if the bike whispers, "I'm the one." You feel relaxed, comfortable, and the riding position feels just right. Then and only then is it time to jump on a trainer and get your perfectly fitted frame dialed in.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

All About Performance

Saw this posted over at Bike Forums. MC SpandX does a great job poking fun at hipsters and roadies alike.

Whether you think he's funny or a complete loon, I think he deserves a round of applause for incorporating Eddie Merckx into a rap!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Many people flock to cycling as a refuge from higher impact physical activities such as running and walking. The New York Times published an interesting article on its Well Blog about the potential negative influence cycling can have on bone density. The gist of the article is that in elite amateur and professional cyclists, there appears to be a strong correlation between the time spent on the bike and a decrease in bone density. Over time, bones adapt to become stronger and more dense in people who perform higher impact activities such as running. Cycling, on the other hand, is so low impact and burns so many calories, it appears that it may be fueling pedal strokes at the expense of bone density. Translating the technical jargon, lowering bone density basically means you're on the road to osteoporosis.

Tempering this somber information is the fact that this phenomena has been mostly observed in elite and professional cyclists. The article does a good job emphasizing that the sample was skewed towards athletes who are on their bikes every day logging hundreds of miles a week. Because of this, the information from the study may not necessarily translate over to the average cyclist who pursues riding as a hobby. Although this may be a skewed sample, the results are something everyone should pay attention to - too much of a good thing can be bad for you.

It's quite common for athletes to begin cycling as a way to continue working out after knee or hip injuries hindered running. I wonder how many would ever have guessed that cycling could potentially have this sort of effect on the strength of their bones?

This story emphasizes the importance of a diversity in an overall workout plan. Even one light jog a week combined with a strength training program can help promote and maintain bone density, not to mention the benefits for overall leg and body strength. Taking this idea a step further, another often neglected aspect of overall health is proper diet. Many adults fail to consume enough calcium, so a daily multi-vitamin or calcium supplement for dedicated cyclists may be a tremendous benefit.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Brave to the End

If you're on the internet, no doubt you've read and laughed at something written by Elden Nelson, better known as Fat Cyclist or simply "Fatty." His blog is a model of how every blog should be written. It's entertaining, well versed, and most of all honest. Regular readers will know that his blog began as a diary of his cycling exploits. However, when his wife Susan was diagnosed with terminal cancer, it was transformed into something much more important - a real life glimpse into why the fight against cancer is so important. Unfortunately, I read earlier tonight that Susan's battle with cancer had finally come to an end. Yet, it came as little surprise to find that she battled the disease all the way.

Fat Cyclist has written so much over the past four years. The very public battle he faced coming to terms with his wife's illness was difficult to read at times. However, the triumphs he achieved were unparalleled. Through his blog, Elden has raised over $500,000 for the Lance Armstrong foundation. More importantly Susan, he, and his family have become a shining example of the bravery and resilience displayed by the people who fight this disease. Keep the Nelson's in your thoughts during this difficult time. Though it may be difficult now, in time the Nelson family should find comfort in the fact that Susan's spirit and determination will find a way to bring an end to cancer through the well crafted words of her husband.