Climbing, Descending, and Flats TLDR: Pedal

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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.

Image Credit.

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.

Your Bear


Efficient Riding: Cadence and Exhaustion

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iStock_000041000650_FullbOne 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:

  1. When descending, be sure the front gear is in the large chain ring.
  2. 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).
  3. When on flat or rolling hills, use the small front chain ring if you have a headwind (wind hindering your by pushing you backwards).
  4. 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:

  1. Big front chain ring: climbing — Small front, descending.
  2. Large rear cassette: easier — Small rear, more power.
  3. Maintain a cadence which does not exhaust you, but moves you forward at the desired pace.
  4. 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).

Your Bear

Absolute Beginners: Keeping Pace

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So, the weather is finally perfect. The sun is shining, the birds are frolicking, the Bears are donning tutus and glitter. Perhaps tomorrow will be the longest ride you’ve attempted to date. Or, perhaps, it will be a century ride — 100 miles of cycling bliss. For those of us with two speeds (on and off), this can be a recipe for a hard bonk. But however fiercely the sun shines or however steep the hills get, there are techniques to get you through the day. Of the many techniques I’ve blogged about before, maintaining an even, achievable pace is just as important.

Image Credit, Forsetmann's Facebook Page.
Image Credit, Forsetmann’s Facebook Page.

The question is, how do you do that if you’ve never ridden 100 miles? The answer is to pay attention to the warning signs early and learn from past rides. Yes, learn from your mistakes, that’s how its done. And as we all know, that can be difficult for the best of us. So, rather than relying on our massive intellects, the next best thing to do is follow a few easy steps.


Its important to be ready before you get on your bike. If you skip these, then any amount of pacing yourself is not going to keep you from bonking.

  1. Eat. Yes, your brain and your legs both need proper nutrition. Now’s not the time for dieting. Prepare by eating heartily but healthily the day before then have a healthy breakfast (oatmeal, whole grain toast). (Links in these sections lead to more information on the topic.)
  2. Sleep. Be sure you’re properly rested before you begin.
  3. Know your terrain. Review the route sheet the night before, if possible, and identify problem areas. Climbing, descending, navigating lots of curves, or extended flats can all be difficult for some. Listen to the ride leader when he or she explains the route.
  4. Make sure your bike is well tuned. For longer rides, minor annoyances (squeaks and groans) can become frustration inducing monsters.
  5. Be with the group. Don’t do your first epic ride alone. Be with your mates and do your best to keep up with them.
  6. Stretch. I’m terrible at stretching. I never do it. I’m a bad person. Don’t follow suit. Be sure you’re as limber as you can be.


During the ride, nutrition, hydration, and keeping your demons at bay all contribute to a successful ride.

  1. Find ride mates who are at your level and try to stick with them. Conversation and companionship are great motivators. You’ll find you can keep up a better pace if you’re not alone.
  2. Hydrate. Have sips of water, alternating with hydration fluid (fizzy tabs or gatorade) at least every 15 minutes. Do this throughout the ride without fail.
  3. Eat. Make sure you get about 100 to 150 calories every hour or so that you’re riding. Have a good lunch. Some people can eat a lot (me), while some need to keep some in reserve. Either way, have something and bring your leftovers with you to eat at the next rest stop. Remember to keep up your riding hydration and nutrition despite lunch.
  4. Rest. Stop at every assigned rest stop, but not for long. Your body is still burning calories and you have to use the momentum you’ve gotten to get through the day. If you’re longer than 15 minutes at any given rest stop, you’re there too long.
  5. Climbing. If you need, take short breathers BEFORE or AFTER the hills. Avoid stopping mid-climb. It is dangerous to yourself or others to stop on a steep hill. It can be difficult to take off up hill. Your body is probably not getting a really good rest, since you’re thinking about the climb. That being said, if you do have to stop, do it on the least-steep part of the hill, and do it in the shade.
  6. Cramping. You have muscle cramping, you’re likely not eating or drinking enough. Yes. I know you’ve been eating and drinking…


Finally, to get you through the ride, keep up a moderate pace. Don’t pour your energy out at any particular stage. Instead, know your own strengths and use them to best advantage.

  1. Maintain a high cadence throughout the ride. Higher cadences mean less muscle strain. Less muscle strain means you can ride longer. (Get a cadence meter.)
  2. Expend your effort on climbs. They’re going to be difficult any way. Let the climbs be where you shine.
  3. Don’t slack on the descents. You can maintain your target heart rate on the descents. But even if you use them to “rest,” don’t just coast down the hills. Which leads me to the general rule…
  4. Pedal. Every foot you’re not pedaling is a waste. A single pedal stroke will get you forward more than if you weren’t pedaling and (if you’re in the right gear) for a tiny fraction of effort. And you can still rest while pedaling.
  5. Keep an even pace on flats/rollers. Try to avoid speeding up then slowing down. Find a groove and stick with it. This is another good reason for a riding partner. The two of you can help keep an even pace.
  6. If you’re feeling rested, that doesn’t mean you need to jet off at full speed. Keep that energy for the hills. (Know yourself. Sometimes its better to get a section over with if a rest stop is coming up.)
  7. Catch yourself before you get exhausted, and rest while cycling. Slow your speed, slow your heart rate while cycling. You’ll save time and effort over stopping to rest.
  8. Consider reducing your pace from the get go. Keep your speed or your heart rate at 90% of your typical ride. (Get a heart rate monitor.)

That’s a lot to digest, but it boils down to pacing yourself, eating enough, and knowing your body and the ride. There are lots of topics in need of expansion here. Please feel free to ask me questions in the comments or on Facebook.

Your Bear

Over the next couple months, I’m going to write a few articles with the lead-in title “Absolute Beginners,” explaining some of the basic principles of cycling. Most of the information is stuff I’ve learned from other cyclists, bike shop mechanics, classes I’ve taken, and Google searches. Please help me out and comment with corrections, additions, or supplements which will help my readers learn about how to operate their bikes! Look for a new series for intermediate cyclists in the summer of 2014.

Absolute Beginners: Shoulder to Shoulder

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One of the safety rules of the AIDS/LifeCycle is to ride as far to the right as is safely possible. Cyclists want that to be a separate, dedicated bike lane which is Maximilian Levy of Germany warms down dumarked, signed, and free from debris. In many cities, you might well get that. But on our increasingly long rides, you won’t get the nice shoulder you want.

For instance, on Day 1, we’ll be riding up 92 from just below San Mateo to Half Moon Bay. The portion of 92 just before Skylawn is a steep, curvy climb with only two lanes of traffic. It has 1000 feet of elevation gain for only about 2 miles of riding. And it is bordered by broken stone from the crumbling hillside. The question is: how do you ride on such a road?

The answer is: by planning ahead.

On many parts of that road, there is a painted line. You’ll be tempted to think, “Hmm, painted line, must be a shoulder on the other side.” But then you look and there’s nothing but a gaping maw full of broken stones. Do not ride in that!. What you have to do is balance your skill level with the terrain, your current state of fatigue, the number of riders on the road, and the amount of traffic on the road. Sometimes that may mean taking the entire lane. Sometimes that may mean riding just on the outside of the white line, in the lane. Sometimes that may mean accepting a lift from a SAG driver. Pay attention to traffic conditions and your own personal skill set.

But one thing you must never do is stop on a steep hill with lots of traffic. Just keep pedaling. If you think you cannot, you must wait to find a safe spot to pull over. It is unsafe for you, drivers, and other riders to unclip because of fatigue or skill-related problems.

As a new cyclist, you may think I’m being harsh. Better that then the alternative in this case.

The takeaway from this is:

  1. Don’t stop pedaling.
  2. A white line is not enough to define a shoulder. Don’t ride in broken rocks or other, similar debris.
  3. Avoid stopping on steep hills at all.
  4. Determine if you need a rest before the climbs.
  5. If you are on a hill which is too challenging for you, wait until there is a wide, visible shoulder before you pull over.
  6. Practice will get you there.
  7. Call out when you’re going to stop in an unusual situation: “STOPPING!” Don’t be shy about repeating it.

Your Bear

Absolute Beginners: Late-season Training

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Believe it or not, there are only nine more weekends to train for the AIDS/LifeCycle. And while you’ve noticed the rides getting longer, the start-time getting earlier, and your body getting more sore, you may also have noticed that the whole process hasn’t really gotten easier. (You may also have noticed that your thighs aren’t as big as Robert Förstemann’s.) The issue isn’t you, but a matter of training: a once-a-week cycling plan is not enough to ride every one of the 545 miles over seven days. So, here are some ideas to help your training as we enter the height of the season.

robert forstemann3
Robert Förstemann: click for image credit and more photos.
  1. Eat, Drink.  If you dread training, you have low energy, you feel irritable or out of sorts during rides, then you are very likely not eating enough or properly hydrating during rides. If these suggestions do not help, consider a consultation with your doctor or a nutritional consultant. (Click the link to read my articles about nutrition.)
  2. Get your bike fit, new kit, or shoes now. Changing up your kit at the last minute is a recipe for unexpected pains. But it’s not too late to dial in a fit if you’re having numbness, joint or back pain, or other discomforts which affect your ride. (Click the link for references on how bike fits integrate with your ride.)
  3. A century is not required, but you should feel comfortable with 60 miles. In order to be comfortable doing all 545 miles, you don’t necessarily have to complete a century ride before the event. If you can do a 60 mile ride and feel comfortable with your fitness level, then you will probably be able to do all 545 miles. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try a century if the opportunity presents itself. There are lots of organized century rides throughout California. (Click the link for articles on training.)
  4. Back-to-Back rides of at least 30 miles each are essential. Since the ride is 7 consecutive days, you will be much more comfortable if you can regularly do two back-to-back rides. I recommend that every week until the weekend before the ride you try to get in back to back rides. (Click the link for articles on fitness.)
  5. Dawdling at the rest stops is a no-no. Socializing before or during the ride is a vital part of why the AIDS/LifeCycle is such a special event. But keep it to a minimum. Rest for no more than 20 minutes at rest stops. Hanging out for too long will tire you, will make you sweat more, and will make your muscles cramp. Oh, and avoid stopping between rest stops unless it is necessary. (Click link for an article on how to keep up if you’re a slower rider.)
  6. Ride at least 3 days per week. You’ll be riding 7 days in a row. Prepare by riding at least 3 — preferably 4 or 5 minimum — per week. (Click link for articles on creating a training plan.)
  7. Hill climbing is essential. If your goal is to complete all the miles on the ALC, you’ll need to prepare by climbing those hills. Don’t be afraid! We’re right behind you the whole way! And for many of us, climbing it the reason we ride. (Click link for articles on climbing (there’s only one as of the time I’m posting this; I clearly need to write more on the topic.)
  8. Become more comfortable on descents. Steep descents can be scary. Remember to control your speed by applying both brakes evenly, only when you’re not turning, and do not “feather” or “ride” your brakes (which causes overheating). (Click link for article on cornering.)
  9. Set a target return time for all rides. I’ve not written about this, but when you go out, a huge psychological barrier is the sheer swaths of time cycling takes up. If you’re new and somewhat slow, a 60 mile ride (which typically takes me 3.5 to 4 hours) may take you 6 to 8 hours. You have to be prepared for that (and you may want to try to minimize that time with training and preparation). (Click the link for articles on psychology.)
  10. Sleep. Rest. All the training in the world is useless if you don’t rest enough. Be gentle with yourself and take the time you need to sleep. There are tons of studies that tell us: sleep deprivation negatively affects all aspects of our lives. Don’t give in to stress. (Click link for articles about sleep.)

That’s a lot of material for one article! Just remember the basic points: eat, rest, train, and enjoy the process. Some corollaries (and topics for past and future articles): See your doctor if you’re new to cycling or are having unusual chest pains, wheezing, or fatigue. Make sure your bike is in good working condition. Be kind to your Training Ride Leaders; they are novices and volunteers there to help you. And remember: AIDS/LifeCycle is fully supported, so don’t necessarily have to ride every mile, only those miles that you can.

Your Bear

How to Look at Hills

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“…the hill isn’t in the way, it is the way.”

What a wonderful way of looking at climbing. Read more at The author says:

My sister-in-law Christy taming Iron Point! 

Thinking about the mountain’s relentless grade that wants to pull you back down with every pedal stroke towards the top can be discouraging for most but after some time is put into the saddle something changes. Suddenly you find yourself adding that extra few miles to hit a climb or turning back downhill just to hit a section of the climb that you particularly enjoy. 

That moment shift in mentality marks the beginning. The beginning of a time when you actively want to go out and ride these taxing rides that most people wouldn’t dream of. Once you realize that the hill isn’t in the way of your destination but the way you want to go, then you might progress from an average rider to one that will make your cycling buddies groan because you’re taking them up ANOTHER climb.

The way I put this sentiment was: just pedal. Whatever the road brings you, just pedal and you will prevail. Just pedal, because that’s why you’re out there.

Your Bear