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

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

Insane in the Membrane: Recovering from Head Injuries

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Minor falls happen and most of the injuries you may get are apparent from the bruised knees and knuckles and ripped garments they leave behind. But there’s one injury you might not even know you have which is far more serious: concussion. When you fall, there’s always a chance that your brain has hit the side of your skull, bruising it. Obviously, we cannot see people’s brains. And it appears impossible to see these bruises even with an MRI or CAT scan. So its important to look for the signs.

CJ and Brendan demonstrating proper helmet fit. (Image Credit, Brendan Patrick.)

First, I know you were wearing your helmet. (If not, read my blog entries on the important of helmets.)

Second, if the helmet is cracked or seriously scratched, it means that you hit your head.

Third, If you face or head is bruised or bleeding, it means you hit your head.

Fourth, if you have any lapse in memory, for however short a time, it means you hit your head. (And if your helmet is cracked or you have injuries to your face or head and can’t remember them, you definitely hit your head.)

Fifth, if you feel disoriented, confused, or just plain weird, you probably hit your head.

You can also test yourself, if you want to purchase expensive software of iPhone apps, or you can and should see your doctor as soon after the incident as possible. If you’re on an organized ride, go to the medical tent at the next rest stop!

This stuff happens to us regular riders and to pros. Here’s professional cyclist Jade Wilcoxson’s description of her crash:

A girl in front of me decided to ride into a space that didn’t exist, then hit a car and ricocheted into the peloton in front of me. I don’t remember the next five minutes. I’d gone down hard and took the brunt of the fall on the back of my head. My helmet did its job and shattered in the process. I can’t imagine what my skull would look like if I didn’t have a helmet on. I suspect it would have been a life-changing (or life-ending) crash.

My mechanic found me and held my bike while I tried to get back on it. I apparently fell down three times in the process, but when director Jack drove up I told him I could still race (adrenaline = bad decision making). He took one look at me and told me to get in the car. I think my eyes may have been pointing in different directions.

(Bicycling Magazine, “To Ride or Not Ride.”)

She goes on to describe her symptoms and how they prevented her form exercise, “I spent the next 48 hours feeling like I was rocking on a small boat….” She tried to get back on her bike, but even moderate exercise left her, “foggy, exhausted, and ready for a two-hour nap.”

Worse than just affecting your workout, exercise after concussion can slow recovery:

[R]esearchers tracked the medical records and activity levels of 95 student athletes … who had suffered concussions in school sports. The students were evaluated using cognitive tests immediately after the concussion and in follow-up visits. The data showed that athletes who engaged in the highest level of activity soon after the initial injury tended to demonstrate the worst neurocognitive scores and slowest reaction times. Students fared better if they didn’t return immediately to their sport but instead simply engaged in normal school and home activities.

(New York Time Sports blog, “Sports Activity after Concussion Slows Recovery.”)

There’s no bandaid you can put on your brain. Recovery takes time and rest. Doctors have developed a recovery plan for after brain injuries:

  1. Become symptom-free at rest;
  2. Become symptom-free with light activity — meaning walking, jogging, or training on a stationary bike;
  3. Become symptom-free with “light practice” — meaning for cyclists, short, flat, semi-strenuous rides;
  4. Become symptom-free during regular practice with no contact or while being “yellow-shirted” — meaning for cyclists, a regular training ride but at a reduced pace;
  5. Become symptom-free during regular practice — meaning a regular training ride at a nearly regular pace;
  6. Become symptom-free while participating in an event — meaning regular riding at full pace.

Once you reach one stage, you get to move on to the next stage. If you fail the next stage, you have to drop back until you’re ready to move on. This process takes 4 to 6 weeks, for most people. See the video, below, for an explanation:

But make sure you’re doing this under the supervision of a doctor. The take away is: give yourself time to recover. Your heath is much more important, and besides, overtraining will only delay your recovery.

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

The Thing About Cycling

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Read my host of entries on why I ride in the AIDS/LifeCycle: the people, community, fighting homophobia and HIV/AIDS fears, and the joy of cycling. Here’s a bit of a primer on the joys of cycling for those who cannot fathom spending a day on a bike.

Waking up for a ride can be hard. Its 6 am. Or its 5 am. Or 4; or even 3 am. Riding a long distance is time consuming. The days grow longer, the weather fairer, and the miles and climbing increase. But with all these increases comes greater strength, more camaraderie as we help each other achieve our goals, and a renewed sense of commitment to cycling and to the charities which will bring about an end to AIDS in our lifetimes.

Preparing for the ride can also feel like a lonesome burden. Grumbling, your pets and husband(s) still slumbering peacefully, you have to don a thin layer of spandex which seems a bit insufficient to hide your shame, down as much coffee as possible, and hope you’ve consumed enough carbs for the day’s journey. But you do it anyway because you remember the last time when you reached your goals or you didn’t quite make it up that hill, or you saw a new rider full of pride because she finally got out of the house and made it to the top of a great climb.

[Click for image credit.]
Chris Horner being cheered by cyclists and fans. [Click for image credit.]
Then there’s the unfortunate drive to the meet up point. I try to ride to the meet up point whenever possible. But usually, especially when I’m riding far away or when the miles increase, driving is the only option. But even driving can become a joy when you get to commute with your friends. The secret here is planning and communication. Make sure you’re connected to your mates on Facebook, Twitter, or by text. Asking will doubtless get you a ride. And that’s always more fun.

Finally at the meet up point. It seems too cold to be wearing so little. Everything is a blur because there wasn’t time for enough coffee. But everyone else — though complaining about aches and pains and lack of sleep — is smiling broadly and looks happy to see you. When the Training Ride Leader comes around and asks how you’re training is going, you’ll find you have a lot to talk about and an interested ear. When you start to stretch, you realize that all those days of early mornings are paying off. The pains seem as phantom as the twilight which is rapidly giving way to blue skies (unless your ride starts out in San Francisco, in which case you’ll have to wait an hour or so for the blue to emerge from the grey).

The ride begins and you feel like a little kid again. Can you feel the giddy anticipation? The TRL warned you about the climbing, the warm weather, the bumpy roads, the cow manure, or the wind. But instead of feeling trepidatious, all you can muster is a thrill of anticipation like a kid on Christmas. The knowledge that you will be with your friends, being encouraged, doing something you used to watch others do from your speeding car window. This is the thing about cycling.

Challenges arise, but you face them. The hill was twice as steep as you were warned. The wind made the whole ride feel like a climb. The sun beat down with a furor. But you did it. You watched your Garmin register increasing cumulative miles: 12, 23, 37, 52, 63.4. Somehow, using your muscle power alone. somehow you became the athlete you always knew you could be. No, the ride wasn’t easy. The challenges were difficult. And some of them you might not quite have achieved. But in the end, you rode those miles. Pride swells inside. Something its nearly impossible to make others understand.

Back at the starting point, you start to think about home. All life’s cares were erased for that one instant. From the other side, it seemed like the ride would take forever. But now, the ride seemed all too short. You remember that tomorrow’s Monday, that you have dinner plans with your wife, and that your dog misses you with a passion. You hug your riding mates and promise to see them the following week for the even-harder ride (could it be a century?).

And you know, however hard it is to get up that day, you’re going to do it. Riding has entered your blood. You are the rider.

Your Bear

Absolute Beginners: Mid-season Training

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Sagan winning Tour of Oman. (Image Credit.)

Believe it or not, but there are only 14 more training weekends before the AIDS/LifeCycle! That means its time to stretch the creaks out, clean and lube your bike, and hit the road. If you’ve been neglecting your training up to now, no worries. There’s still plenty of time to be fit and ready for the ride.

I’ve made 32 posts about training. The important ones to absorb at this stage are:

I’m not a professional, but these articles all contain my observations about what makes for a successful training season with citations to authority where it was available. In a nutshell, here is what you need to remember:
  1. Hydrate. On a 30+ mile ride, make sure you’re draining both water bottles.
  2. Eat. You need to be fueled up before, during, and after your rides.
  3. Train. Time on the bike is probably the only thing which will improve your riding.
  4. Work your way up to 60 miles. If you can do this, you can ride the ALC.
  5. Work your way up to back-to-back days of 30+ miles each. Ditto.
  6. Rest at stops, but don’t dwaddle. You get sore; you get hungry; you get irritable.
  7. Ride with mates. Sometimes you’ll need to ride alone, but friends make the ride rock.
  8. Be safe. Listen to the safety speech and follow the rules on every ride.
  9. Dress in layers and in bike clothing. Street clothes are not up to the task, are bulky, and detract from your ride.
  10. Keep your bike in good working order. Get a bike fit! Bring your bike into the shop or learn how to clean and maintain it.
But above all: ASK your Training Ride Leader if you have any questions. If you’ve not already done so, see your doctor if you are embarking on this from level 0.
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!

How to Create a Route Sheet

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Leading a ride can be fun, but if group members become separated, it can be daunting for the ride leader and scary for new riders. Thus printed instructions — “route sheets” — are vital to keep everyone on track to finish safely and on time. This is generally not something you can do at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of your ride. Prepare the route sheet ahead of time to avoid mistakes.

A. Information Required for a Route Sheet

Route sheets usually contain the following information (see my blog post about reading route sheets for details):

  • Starting and ending points. An address an parking instructions may be useful, if you can get the route sheet to your riders in advance.
  • List of roads and bike paths. Knowing how the route will proceed before you start generating the sheet will help you avoid making decisions on the fly. 
  • Left turn, right turn, or crossing. With each road, you should note whether the turn is right (“R”), left (“L”), or crossing (“X”) where appropriate.
  • Cumulative mileage. This information will help riders get back on track if they become lost and will help you create the route sheet.
That’s all you’ll get from the automatic cue sheet generator, described below. The following additional information will be especially helpful for new riders, long or complex routes, or routes which go through uninhabited locations:
  • Regroup, water, and lunch stops. Plan these out and make sure everyone knows where to get water. You ride could be ruined by one person who runs out of water on a hot day.
  • Cautions about the roadway, traffic conditions, or special instructions. Sometimes it is best to walk your bike. Sometimes a road will change names. Sometimes the police are checking to see if cyclists stop at stop signs. Note these things concisely and in the entry for the turn they are most likely to affect.
  • Telephone numbers for the training ride leaders. Remind your riders to call if they bail out on the ride, get into trouble, or jet on ahead too far.

Unless there’s a special reason for it, don’t include a printed map. These often too small or undetailed to be useful. Instead, provide riders with the route information to use on their GPS devices.

C. Trace the Route in a Map Application

Using Ride with GPS, you can (1) start with an existing route, or start with a blank map. In both cases, you open the route for editing, create “control points,” and generate a “cue sheet.” Watch these videos for detailed tutorials.

Creating a cue sheet from an existing ride’s data.
Creating a cue sheet from scratch (see also their “advanced video).

I’m a novice at this, so please leave any pointers in the comments.

Figure 1: Auto-generated cue sheet.

At this point, you can just print out Ride with GPS’s cue sheets. But if you want to give riders the additional information to help them get through the ride, you’re best off converting the route sheet to a Word table.

B. Route Sheets in Word

So, here is a route sheet I found on Ride with GPS. (See Figure 1.) Looks like a great ride out of Martinez, over the Benecia Bridge, and then on the San Francisco Bay Trail. Follow the link to see the route.

But as you can see, the auto-generated route has at least five problems:

  1. It gives multiple directions for the same turn (see highlights for 1st Street).
  2. It requires two pages for all directions. One page is confusing enough.
  3. Turns onto bike trails are not explained. Often, especially in rural areas, such turns are not obvious. (See highlight for the trail.)
  4. It doesn’t tell you if Hale Ranch turns into Busch Drive or is a different road. This can be difficult if there are choices at that point. (See highlight.)
  5. It doesn’t tell you where to get water, food, or where to rest or regroup.
Figure 2: Route sheet edited with Word
Each of these problems can be solved by converting the sheet to a Word table. You can: make duplicative entries into one, compress the description cell, add notes for confusing turns, road name changes, or rest stops, add color to aid quick comprehension; and create columns to get it all onto one sheet.
Here’s my route sheet for a similar ride. (See Figure 2.) It eliminates redundancies, explains confusing turns, and guides riders to rest stops and food.
I use red to indicate rest stops and blue to indicate important instructions. How complicated your instructions are depends on your ridership. Novice riders may need more instruction to get out of confusing jams if they get lost. Experienced riders will appreciate clear and simple turn instructions with little fanfare.
Finally, the ALC has an excellent route sheet library for Bay Area rides (and beyond). Their route sheets don’t provide much detail, but eliminate confusing redundancy and get the rides onto one page. (See Figure 3.)
Figure 3: Official ALC Training Ride Route Sheet
Your Bear