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

Pace Yourself

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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!

Image courtesy: Jeff Meyers

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!

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: Stability and Speed

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Even as you progress, fast descents can be as intimidating as epic climbs. But here’s a secret: speed adds stability to your ride. Slow may feel safer, but often it is not in situations requiring upright stability — the acceleration due to gravity from your head to the ground is going to create a similar impact at 3 mph as at 9 mph. That’s why, whenever you make any moves which may affect balance — starting out from 0 mph, drinking from your water bottle, clipping in, making a turn, going over obstacles or slick surfaces, or cornering — you want to be sure you have enough momentum to get you through the transition.

Bicycle_balancingIn fact, bicycles are only laterally stable when moving:

…bikes lack lateral stability when stationary, and under most circumstances can only remain upright when moving forward. (Wikipedia.)

That means if you’re mucking around seeking out your clip or teetering and tottering over a metal grated bridge, but not moving fast enough to maintain lateral stability, you’re going to become unstable. The physics is so complicated that it requires “three-dimensional, multibody dynamic analysis with at least two generalized coordinates to analyze” mathematically. (Citation.) But its the kind of thing we humans can feel intuitively through our sense of balance.

When we’re learning something new, it is natural to take it slow, but when it comes to lateral stability on a bicycle, speed matters. And it is impossible to balance a bicycle without any momentum, but a very skilled rider can generate very small bits of momentum steering to counteract the other forces on the bike and remain upright:

While performing a track stand, the rider can keep the line between the two contact patches under the combined center of mass by steering the front wheel to one side or the other and then moving forward and backward slightly to move the front contact patch from side to side as necessary. Forward motion can be generated simply by pedaling. Backwards motion can be generated the same way on a fixed-gear bicycle. Otherwise, the rider can take advantage of an opportune slope of the pavement or lurch the upper body backwards while the brakes are momentarily engaged. (Citation.)

When you find yourself moving too slowly, your body will use its sense of balance to try to right the bike by using techniques similar to these. For instance, you may feel the front of the bike veer one way or the other and try to counter it by steering in the opposite direction — all too quickly and grossly out of proportion, but often effective at keeping you upright until your body automatically unclips and you save yourself from a fall:

The rider applies torque to the handlebars in order to turn the front wheel and so to control lean and maintain balance. At high speeds, small steering angles quickly move the ground contact points laterally; at low speeds, larger steering angles are required to achieve the same results in the same amount of time. Because of this, it is usually easier to maintain balance at high speeds. Also, self-stability usually only occurs at speeds above some minimum, and so going faster increases the chances that a bike is contributing to its own stability.(Citation, emphasis added.)

This all takes practice, and it certainly is not necessary to know the math or physics. But next time you wobble only to save yourself at the last minute (or don’t quite clip out in time and tumble), know that you can blame physics!

The take-away message here is: practice transitional moves before long rides when you’re tired. If you’re having trouble with your clips, go to the bike shop and ask them to use their trainer. Practice. Ask them to critique your clipping in and out. Them move to a parking lot where you don’t have to worry about traffic, or a flat, low grassy field where you can fall in relative safety. Practice other techniques this way, too, so that you become proficient and don’t hurt yourself out on the road.

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!

Absolute Beginners: User’s Guide to Hydration

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vitaminwater naked cyclist billboard
Image Credit: Daily Billboard.

Drinking from a water bottle doesn’t seem to require much explanation, does it? But drinking while riding puts two important aspects of cycling at odds: hydration and attention.

As a long-distance cyclist, it is vital to learn how to drink from a water bottle without falling, hitting something, or dropping it. And, especially for new cyclists judging distance, timing, the operation of new and confusing equipment (shifters, clipless pedals, steering, etc.) adds to your brain’s new burdens on the bike. So lets get one simple thing down: hydration.

The operation of the bottle itself is fairly straightforward. Clean the bottle before each use. Keep two on your bike on each ride. Fill them with ice on hot days (though it will melt all-too soon). Then fill one with fresh water and one with hydration fluid. Sip from each bottle alternately at least every 15 minutes. Plan on draining both bottles every hour, depending on the weather. (See video A for hydration tips.)

Video A: Hydration Tips.

Start by ensuring you can control the bike. Take your sips on the flattest, straightest stretch of road you can. Be sure you have plenty of space between you and the riders in front and behind, and that there are no obstacles coming up (potholes, stop signs, etc.). Then keep control of the bike by placing your hands on the top of the handlebars or on the hoods — avoid drinking from the drops. Keep your eyes on the road, and reach down, feeling for the bottle. Grasp it toward the middle and firmly and pull it out of the cage. Keep your hand toward the middle of the bottle so you can squeeze it gently. Then place the opening on your lips and tilt the bottle, not your head. (See video B below for a demonstration.)

Video B: Using your water bottle.

Believe it or not, your hand position will be slightly different for the front and back bottles. (I’m going to make some notes on my next ride and fill in how my hands are differently positioned later.)

To put the bottle back, get used to not looking down, but keep your free hand on the top or hood, and your water-bottle hand on the top end of the bottle. Look ahead to make sure there are no obstacles. Reach down and feel with the bottom of the bottle to find the cage and insert it. Jiggle it a bit to make sure its secure. If you need to look down, be careful and look quickly returning your eyes to the road as soon as possible. If you’re not sure, look — a dropped bottle is dangerous to other riders.

There are multiple kinds of water bottle and hydration systems to choose from, from freebies you’ll get at cycling events, to insulated bottles which are still very cheap (About $14 on Amazon), to elaborate and expensive back packs designed to hold a day’s worth of water. The insulated bottles may keep your iced water cold for an extra 20 minutes. Choose the largest bottles you can fit on your bike (two 24 oz bottles are perfect for a 1–2 hour ride).

I do not recommend hydration packs for new cyclists — at least if there are planned water stops on a route — the extra weight and bulkiness may be counterproductive. Plus having that extra storage space encourages cyclists to bring unnecessary things along for the ride. Bring as little with you as possible! I have a fairly large hydration pack which I use for the training rides I lead. That way, I can refill my rider’s water bottles in an emergency.

In your hydration bottle, put an electrolyte supplement. Gatorade and its ilk work well, but may be too sugary for some. Plus they get sticky and unpleasant when warm. Alternatively, there are a number of low-calories, non-sticky hydration tablets. They have the added advantage that you can bring extras with you when only water is available on a route. I tend to use Nuun tablets which provide enough electrolytes but never get sticky. Which ever you choose, be sure that your electrolyte bottle is not placed directly over your chain ring!

Speaking of placement of water bottles, there are multiple possible cage locations. Usually, you’ll see the cages inside the bike’s frame that is a good, non-obtrusive place for them. On smaller bikes, there’s not enough room for two 24 oz bottles in the frame — consider using one 12 oz bottle and one 24 oz bottle instead. There are also mounts for water bottle cages behind the seat and on the handlebars. I’ve never used these locations, but they seem obtrusive and difficult to manage. Use extra care if you select one of these.

That was a lot of text for something which seems so obvious. But by thinking about these things, they become easier to do. And you’ll be drinking a lot on your rides!

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!

Absolute Beginners: Fortune Favors the Prepared

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A bicycle helmet saved my life.

This helmet:

Figure A: This is the Helmet

I was doing my ordinary ride: Bear’s house to the Nimbus Fish Hatchery on the American River Bike Trail. Usually that ride is 2 hours and 33 miles. On Friday, it turned into a 12 mile one-way ride. You can click the link or the web widget, below. The route ends, essentially, where I crashed.

Actually, I’m totally guessing that I crashed, because I don’t remember the 5 minutes before the route ends, or the 10 minutes following. I can only surmise that I crashed because my face was battered and bloody:

Figure B: My Bloody Face

The next thing I remember is hearing someone telling me that I couldn’t get back on my bike. I can’t see the person in my remembering, but I can hear him. The next thing I remember after that was being helped to a nearby road by two nice guys who ended up being paramedics (not there on official business but getting in some exercise). They wisely asked me to sit and call Davey to come get me. Davey came and took me home.

Here, I’d like to give a serious shout out to the two fine gentlemen who assisted me. At the time, I didn’t have the capacity to get their names, but one of them named Conner wisely took my number. I know he’s gonna read this, so: THANK YOU CONNER! Its the spirit of sportsmanship that keeps my faith in humanity alive!

Now the question is: what happened? Well, looking at the map, I know I was in the midst of a turn on a bend in the trail — a turn I’ve taken many times in the past. I was going about 15 miles per hour on a turn I usually take at around 17. It had just rained, so the roadway appeared damp, but not wet. It was about 54º F, so it couldn’t have been icy.

Still, somehow I managed to end up on my face, needing assistance.

The more I think about it, the more the pattern of damage leads me to the conclusion that my wheels slipped out from under me because of slick conditions. My face was damaged on the side I would have been leaning. The chain of events I surmise are as follows:

  1. I entered the turn without braking and steering appropriately (thrusting out with the outside leg) as I usually do. (Evidence: my habit.)
  2. My wheels hydroplaned on the newly-wet surface. (Evidence: my observation and the recent rainfall.)
  3. I tumbled forward onto the pavement and hit the corner of my helmet hard. (Evidence: The helmet was damaged in only one spot. (See Figure A, green circle.))
  4. The helmet bore the brunt of the impact, even though the styrofoam doesn’t appear deformed. (Evidence: the helmet must have hit first as it is the only damage showing slide marks; the contusion under the helmet is the least of the wounds, and was nearly healed the day after the accident. (See Figure B, green circle.))
  5. I slide forward onto my face after the helmet did its job. (Evidence: the wear marks on the helmet show sliding, but my face doesn’t show slide marks.)
  6. My bike fell away in the opposite direction and landed with little slide. (Evidence: the bike showed only very minor damage to the right shifter.)

Had I not been wearing a helmet, I surely would have had a much more traumatic blow to the head. The moral of the story is: WEAR YOUR HELMET! I’ve blogged about this before: helmets save lives!

I’m not going to proselytize but if I see you riding without your helmet on, I’m going to point at you and laugh. So be prepared.

If you found this article useful, please consider a donation of $5 or more to my AIDS/LifeCycle ride. Click “DONATE,” above.

Your Bear

PS: should look at the end of the ride, you can see where I impact…my speed goes from 15 mph to 9:

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!