I’ve written several posts on how to climb, how to descend, nutrition and climbing, and related safety issues. Please review them because this post doesn’t discuss the mechanics. Instead, I want to reiterate something I’ve said in many prior posts: to get anywhere on your bike, you have to move your legs. The prior two posts about cadence were leading up to this conclusion: the only way to keep yourself moving forward efficiently is to pedal your bike.
If you’re not pedaling on a climb, you’ll fall over. If you’re not pedaling on a flat, you’ll slow down fast and fall over. “Duh,” you say, “but what about descents? It will be much more efficient for me to use the descent as an opportunity to let my tired legs rest.” The answer is no, you should be pedaling.
There are two issues to unpack from that: (1) You’re too tired, and (2) You haven’t fully grocked the mechanics of moving your bike forward.
If you’re too tired to pedal on a descent, you’re probably working on the challenge of the ride you’re on. That does not meant it is too challenging for you, but it does mean you should consider pacing yourself. Check with your doctor to make sure the exercise you’re planning is right for you. Then read my blog posts on nutrition. 90% of problems like this can be solved by eating and drinking more.
Otherwise, the issue may be a mechanical one. (First, after 5 or so serious rides, are you still in pain or numb in the feet, knees, back, arms, or butt? You likely need a bike fit (remind me to do a post on this issue).) That means you’re not using the lessons in cadence we discussed the last two weeks; review them.
If fitness and mechanics are not the issue, then you just have to trust me on this: on your descents, PEDAL YOUR BIKE. On climbs (obviously). On flats (less obvious than you’d think). On descents. YES, on descents…always pedal.
The reason is simple. So long as your pedal strokes are engaging the wheel, you’re gaining momentum. On a descent, you have a huge advantage: gravity. If you don’t pedal, friction (road and wind) will slow you down. If you do pedal, you can partially or wholly overcome friction. The only real exception is if you’re descending too fast for your skill level, or your speed is so high that even on your hardest gear you’re not adding to momentum
The advantages are huge. Not only will you go faster on the descent you’re on, but you will gain momentum to pull you over the next, inevitable hill. And you’ll exhaust yourself less gaining that momentum to push you over the hill than waiting for the climb to pedal.
So the take away is this: learn to use your gears, use them, and pedal your bike on every inch of every mile that you possibly can.
Last week we talked about the mechanics of cadence: working with your gears to make your legs spin faster (more efficient) or slower (more power). The next questions are: How efficient? How powerful? The answer lies in the balance between muscle power and cardiovascular stamina.
Obviously, when moving your pedals a chain of well-developed muscles will help. Strong arms, a strong core, strong thighs, leading to strong calves are needed to power you up hills, or to speed your descents at a dizzying rate. (“Strong” doesn’t mean “giant,” however. Anyone can cycle and in doing so, will develop stronger and stronger muscles.) So, you may be telling yourself, drop the cadence by increasing my gear ratio to the hardest I can do and still move forward.
The problem with the power-through approach is that muscles get fatigued easily. The science behind muscle fatigue is complicated, but the gist is that your muscles can work under only so much load before running out of fuel and building up too many metabolism byproducts. The less of a load your muscles have, the longer you can go without refueling and rest.
That implies the correct answer is to focus on spin, or higher cadence, over power. Higher cadence requires that you move your legs rapidly around the pedals. (Which is one reason why the “clipless” pedals that you perplexingly “clip” into are so important: they give you power during the entire pedal stroke.) Spinning generally requires less muscle power and so generates less muscle fatigue. That means you can go further longer, though possibly at a slower pace. And that is where the balance comes in; spin at the pace which keeps you moving at your desired rate without exhausting your muscle power.
High cadence requires strong cardiovascular health. That means strong lungs and a strong diaphragm. Getting a large volume of oxygen pumping through your system by increasing lung capacity and throughput. The science may be hard, but this is something anyone who can sit on a bike can accomplish (not sure about the advise to avoid sodium as salt is a requirement for cyclists, I’ll look into it).
The single most important thing you can do to improve your cardiovascular health is to quit smoking.
If you’re embarking on this for the first time, see your doctor for guidelines for improvement. After that, the next steps are to cycle more. Breath deeply. Get your heart rate up. Increase the duration and intensity of your workouts.
The final question for today is what should your cadence be? On a flat road with no head- or tailwinds, presuming you’re in decent shape and have ridden for a while, but haven’t focused on cadence, you might try shooting for between 80 to 90 rpms. Your cadence meter will let you know. Up hills, that will drop to 70 or below. Downhill, it might not raise much, because gravity may overwhelm your efforts. Once you get stronger, you can try for around 100 rpms on the flat. There’s no set rule, and what is a fast cadence for some riders might be slow for another.
This post is for my friend Ty Whitehead. He was seriously injured on a ride this weekend. Please keep him in your thoughts that he recovers quickly and completely.
One of the many new things you may need to relearn about cycling is where your power comes from. Your thighs pump your legs to turn the pedals; your core acts like a wall for the thighs to push against. So at first glance it seems pushing your muscles to the limit is the best way to move those pedals faster. But the food you’ve eaten powers those muscles. So, pushing them too hard will exhaust your energy which will inevitably slow you down. How do you ride, then, without constantly exhausting yourself?
The answer is cadence. Cadence is the rhythm of your feet as they turn to push the pedals. A good rider will balance cadence power output. Given a flat smooth road and a windless, generally, a very fast cadence (say 120 revolutions per minute) may help to avoid exhaustion, but won’t move your bike very far forward for the effort you’re putting out. A very slow cadence (say 50 rpm) will likely involve pushing hard on the pedals with each downstroke, and pulling up hard on the upstroke — it might move your bike forward faster, but it will definitely exhaust you. (Read my prior article on why higher cadence is better.) The answer is to modulate your cadence based on road conditions and your fitness level. How do you modulate your cadence?
And that answer is effective use of gearing and fitness. The first and easiest step is to learn to use your gears. Assuming you have a road bike with two front cogs (together, “the chainring”) and ten or eleven rear cogs (together “the cassette”) — a very common set — practice using your front gear as a macro adjustment and your rear gear as a micro adjustment:
- When descending, be sure the front gear is in the large chain ring.
- When on flat or rolling hills, use large front chain ring if you have a tailwind (wind aiding you by pushing you in the direction of travel).
- When on flat or rolling hills, use the small front chain ring if you have a headwind (wind hindering your by pushing you backwards).
- When climbing, be sure the front gear is in the small chain ring.
How you do this is dependent on what kind of components your bike has. (See REI’s article explaining gears.) But the front controls on most road bikes are on the left side. Usually, you have to force the derailleur to push the gear UP onto the large ring, so the “faster” gears are achieved with a bit more effort on the gear lever, while to gear DOWN you are releasing the pressure, so the shift is more like a click.
Once you’re in the correct front cog, use the rear cogs to micro adjust your performance. If you find yourself sweating, huffing, and using too much muscle power, you may want to push the rear gear UP into a larger (higher) cog. If you find your legs spinning like mad while all the world passes you, you may want to RAISE the gear by pushing the rear gear DOWN into a smaller cog.
Gaining a basic understanding of the mechanics is important, but the only way to do it is to try it out. (See this article for an explanation of how to shift.) Don’t be shy to play with your gears. Try riding on flats first in the big chain ring (front gear). Then try the same ride later in the small chain ring. Then micro adjust with the rear to keep your legs spinning.
You may notice a subtle difference in how you ride and the difficulty. This is, in part, because there is a big overlap in the “gearing ratio” (see prior link) — some of the same gears are represented by different combinations of chain ring/cassette gearing.
Here’s a quick list of common gear combinations which may help gel the whole thing in your brain:
- The “easiest” gear combination for climbing is the chain is all the way TOWARD the bike (small chain ring, largest cassette cog);
- The “hardest” gear for descending is the chain all the way AWAY FROM the bike (large chain ring, smallest cassette cog).
There are two combinations which you should avoid: largest chain ring and largest cog; smallest chain ring and smallest cog. This is called cross chaining. In these configurations, you put the most stress on the chain. Better components can do this no problem, but if you’re dropping your chain a lot, check to see if you’re doing this.
The takeaways are this:
- Big front chain ring: climbing — Small front, descending.
- Large rear cassette: easier — Small rear, more power.
- Maintain a cadence which does not exhaust you, but moves you forward at the desired pace.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Next week, I’m going to write about fitness and cadence and give you some target cadences which should help with your understanding. Also, you can get a good cadence meter for your bike pretty cheap — apart from your speed, cadence is a good metric to help gauge your cycling (though I’d invest in a heart rate monitor first).
Training ride number 10. You’re out on the road, feeling pretty good. The cause is right, the friends are right, and at mile 2, the pace is right. At some point, you notice the conversation dies down, and the guy who was right front of you is suddenly a couple hundred feet in front. Then you turn a corner, and he’s gone!
You think: he’s my height, age, and build. He was helpful, compared his bike to mine, and he was impressed that they were largely equivalent. As you go through the factors that made you eat his dust, you conclude: It must be me. How do I improve?
Addressing that question has taken years. This blog is full of researched and cited tips on safety, performance, nutrition, hydration, sleep, clothing, and dragons. Please search, browse, and enjoy.
New and experienced riders can feel this way. So, you are not alone. To answer the first part first: it is you. You are the rider who got up at 5 am to make the 7:30 am meet up time. You are the rider who stayed up late cleaning his bike. You are the rider who carved out 7 hours on a Sunday to ride 70 miles. You are the rider committed to schlepping his ass 545 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles. You are already strong.
So the real question is: how could it be that that other guy is so much faster than I am? That question I will try to answer in a short series of posts which will help you to understand issues affecting performance. You’ll be surprised how subtle changes can affect your cycling.
But, if you want to start answering the question, you have to make me two promises. First, try to think: I’ve already won just by getting out of bed and onto my bike. Second, try to minimize comparing your performance to others. These are big asks, so I’m only asking that you try.
All promised? Good.
Here’s an outline of upcoming posts:
- Maintaining a good spin to avoid muscle fatigue.
- Climbing, descending, and flats.
- Eating and drinking for performance.
- Keeping your bike clean.
- Working through your doubts and fears.
- Riding in poor weather.
- Setting a workable training schedule.
I will commit to writing one entry a week. That brings us up to about mid-April. Please message me and let me know what additional topics you’d like to talk about. And comment, below!
It’s cold. It’s wet. You don’t want to get out of bed. Your bicycle looms large in your mind as a device of torture. And you have this nagging feeling in the back of your mind that you should be riding. The question is how do you get yourself out of bed? This series of posts will help answer that question.
You won’t do the work if you don’t know what work you have to do. So the first step toward motivating yourself is making a goal.
So, what are you looking to do? Ride in an epic ride like the AIDS/LifeCycle? That is a laudable goal and one that is achievable for every reader. I’ve ridden in the ALC four times, and have ridden with men and women; all races, ethnicities, and religions; gay, straight, and bi; trans and cis; late-teens to 80+; and muscle-bound gods and big bears. If they all did it, you can to.
The next question is how did they do it? They did it by keeping their goal in mind throughout the process. The “process” being finding a way to take their probably-not-ready for 545 miles bodies and slowly turning them into aerobic athletes.
So, today’s post is short. Get out your favorite calendar — be it fuzzy “hang in there” kittens, Bears with Bare Chests, or on a tablet — and mark the following on it:
There are 27 weekends from now until June 4, 2017. You have plenty of time, but only if you’re prepared. The next step is planning out your training schedule. (Hint: start right now by marking off all weekends you cannot ride.)
Next week: Making a plan.
I wanted to write a post about using cycling to quell your sense of loss and frustration in this troubling time. But that post is not in me. But like I’m going to, just do it. Get on your bike and train. You know you should. You know it will help. Trust that and go for it.
I also wanted to write a post about hope. That post is not in me, either. The Orange One has promised to eviscerate our rights, and there is no evidence that was just campaign rhetoric. He appears to be filling his cabinet with the hate-mongers who were disgraced 20 or 30 years ago.
One thing I do know, is there is no way we’re going back into the closet. Too many have fought this battle before us for us to concede or to backpedal. We can and must find a way to continue our forward movement.
I don’t know what that way is, but I can tell you it will involve all our participation in progressive civic groups such as the AIDS/LifeCycle. Places where we can set our differences aside and focus on our goal: social justice, quelling the tyranny of the majority, and making people’s lives better.
I do know one thing. We must fight. The battle is going to come to a head — I pray that is a battle of wits and words, not of might. Will the ignorant and bigoted win out? Only our actions will tell.
I also know that our fight will only work if we stand up for EVERYONE being oppressed. Transgender. Black. Arab. Jew. Asian. Latino. Gay. Lesbian. Bisexual. Disabled. Women. Undocumented. The Educated. Those exercising freedom of speech.
If you see an injustice report it. Take names. Jot down addresses. Photograph or video the incident. Tell the police. Tell the media. Tell Facebook and Twitter. HELP your fellow men and women. Intercede to the extent you are able.
If you see an attack, call 911 immediately. Keep emergency numbers on your phone. Yes, it appears it may have come to this.
One thing I think may be missing from the current reports on social media is that most people who voted for the Orange One were misinformed. I don’t think they understand the implications. Be compassionate. It hurts. Its against your better judgment. But, just like coming out, it is a painful but necessary step toward a pluralistic but peaceful society.
United we stand.
Want to up your miles in preparation for the big ride? Look no further than your daily commute! Why put carbon into the atmosphere when you can burn off some fat and be ready for that box of donuts the staff bought for you? Get out of your car and onto your bike.
But even more important, cycling to work forces you to slow down and appreciate your surroundings. There is wildlife in most urban settings, and when you get off the freeway, you can see it sometimes. If you cycle long enough, you get to watch your neighbor’s morning routines. Instead of getting to work peeved that someone cut you off, you can get to work relaxed and happy.
Every ride is a different adventure. Sometimes I get to see wild turkeys, deer, snakes, coyotes, foxes, quail, and tons of squirrels and hares. The turkeys have their seasons. About now the toms are looking to mate, and they display their amazing tail plumage. Later, the hens will emerge with a bunch of babies. The babies grow up through the spring and summer. And I get to see that all.
Plus, you get to look bad-ass to the other cyclists who pass you by. “Hey, I see that guy out here every day, he must be dedicated.” And then there are the shirtless joggers. WOOF!
You may be thinking, “but Bear, I barely get to work on time as it is!” But I think you should run the numbers. My commute to work is about 13 miles. When there is no traffic, it usually takes me about 15 minutes. When there is ordinary traffic, it takes me about 30 minutes. And when the traffic is exceptional, it can take up to 50 minutes. Traffic is exceptional about ⅓ of the time. So, on a given week, my average commute is 31 minutes one way.
To ride those same 13 miles on my bike takes me about 40 minutes one way. So for only 20 extra minutes each day (not counting prep time), I get to burn about 1,000 calories.
The big down side is that I get to work sweaty and there’s no showers. But a bit of odor I can deal with. My increasing waist size, I cannot!
So, consider riding to work and making your mornings an adventure.