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.

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