Category Archives: Cycling

Bike Fitting

Modern road bicycles have evolved over the years to be as efficient as possible.  Most of the innovation has come as a result of racing. Technology has steadily improved, and the biggest innovations over the last 30 years have been integrated shifters on the bars, and clipless pedals. I think that electronic gearing and carbon fiber frames are the other big changes. As a result of these changes, particularly clipless pedals, riders are connected to their bikes. Because of this, things like seat height, stem length, bar adjustments and cleat placement are vital to ensuring a comfortable, pain free ride.  The way to get these things right is a bike fit.

Before these innovations, bike fitting could be done using the TLAR (That Looks About Right) method.  If the frame didn’t leave you looking stretched out or cramped, and you had sufficient clearance of the top bar and your seat height didn’t cramp your pedaling or completely straighten your leg at the bottom of the pedal stroke, and your seat was in a good position and not pushed too far forward or back, a fit was accomplished. While this is still a starting place, bike fitting has advanced a great deal.

When I was growing up, if we wanted to be connected to the pedals, we used toe clips and straps. These limited foot movement, making your pedaling more efficient, but didn’t entirely prevent foot motion. Platform pedals allowed your feet to find their place even more easily, but they weren’t as efficient as having a good connection to your pedals.  Now, we are connected to the bike with a device like a ski binding, Placement of cleats is a science. If your cleats aren’t placed well, pedaling can become painful. A good fit avoids injury.

I had a fitting last week. It was intended to be sure I ordered the correct frame for my next bike.  I was on a an adjustable “fit bike” which can be configured to any frame size or geometry. The handlebars, shift levers, seat post and seat that I’m going to use were fitted to the fitting bike, as well as the pedals I use.  I wore my normal cycling shoes. The fitting went well, only a few adjustments were needed to make me feel comfortable.  When you know that a good fit will be a matter of very small adjustments when the bike is ready, it really raises your confidence.

Now I have to wait for the frame to arrive. This could take a while. If I can stand the anticipation, I’m certain that I’ll be happy with the bike.  If a good fit is easy to create, then I know that I’ll be comfortable on the new bike, and that is a  big part of the project.

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A passion project

When I take an interest in something, I learn about it.  When I’m fascinated by a topic, I research. I become a student of history simply because there is always a story that goes deeper than what you can see. I also see art in everyday things. I appreciate aesthetics and craftsmanship, and I find beauty in many things. At this point in my life, I have started looking backward as well as forward. I often write about cycling; it’s a passion in my life that has defined my freedom as a child and my healthy lifestyle as an adult. Recently, as a result of my passion and my love of art and history and all that I enjoy about cycling, I have been consumed with a passion project. I’m having a new bicycle built.

The project began before I realized that it was forming.  It started on rainy weekends and quiet evenings when my free time led me to read a book about cycling, or watch a race on television, or search the internet for video and information on random cycling topics. It grew at event rides when talking to other riders. It was fed by childhood memories, by the excitement I shared with others. It found purchase in my mind when reading about restoring bikes, classic bikes, racing and training, and the care I take in cleaning and maintaining my bicycle. It took shape from of an understanding of how I ride, why I ride, and where I ride. What I wanted was a modern classic.

It would have to be a bike to ride every day.  A bike that I can feel comfortable on no matter where I ride. I don’t want something to put on a wall or hang from the ceiling to admire; I wanted to ride it when the road called me. I wanted it to be with me on adventures.

It would also have to be beautiful. It would have to speak to me. It would have to announce itself to others like me. It would have to blend art and history with passion and craftsmanship and joy.

What I wanted was a lugged steel frame. My first bike was steel. My first “racing” bike was steel, and even though I have never been a racer, steel bikes were raced by legends like Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Sean Kelly, Roger De Vlaeminck, Francesco Moser, Johan Museeuw and many others. Steel has history.

Steel also has comfort. Steel is renowned for a ride quality that is unlike any other material. I have a carbon fiber bike and an aluminum bike.  They are fit to me, and fit is a major component of comfort.  Most riders choose carbon or aluminum based on weight, with a secondary consideration of price.  Steel is heaver than carbon and aluminum are. Lighter is an advantage.  Carbon Frames are the flagship of any bike line because of weight and the ability to easily form it into lightweight, compliant and aerodynamic shapes.  It’s made in a mold with layers of carbon fabric and epoxy.  Aluminum is great for riders on a budget. It has the ability to be shaped, and is more comfortable now than the early aluminum bikes were.  Aluminum was once considered a very harsh ride. It isn’t any longer. Excellent bikes are built of these materials.  Then, there is steel.  Steel may be heavy, but it is also elastic; meaning it will return to its original shape when deformed slightly by stress.  It flexes. That is what leads to the forgiving ride quality of steel. It also lasts a very long time if maintained.

Steel is making a strong comeback in the cycling community.  A “vintage” cycling community has popped up. “L’ Eroica” or “heroic” cycling events, where old steel masterpieces are ridden, remind us of cycling’s classic roots. I find the Eroica events to be inspiring. They look like fun. However, I’m not going for “vintage”. “Vintage” suggests original.  What I’m going for is more accurately called “Retro” instead, where the look of vintage is blended with the advantages of modern features.

Custom frame builders are keeping steel relevant, too. A frame fit to your body will always be a good ride. If weight is the only factor, steel is at a disadvantage.  If you’re not racing, weight means less, but it can tell on a climb. A rider can get a steel bike to weigh the same as a carbon bike by carrying one water bottle instead of two.  Riders often forget that the difference in weight isn’t a lot. In any case, I don’t think of bike weight as an issue when I’m so large myself!

Apart from getting a custom built bike, there are two other ways to make a purchase.  What most people do is buy a bike offered by a manufacturer.  The manufacturer chooses the parts specification, the customer chooses a size, and the bike is fitted to them.  That is the way most bikes are purchased now. There is an almost infinite variety to choose from. As I mentioned above, you can have a custom bike built.  You choose the builder, get a custom frame built to your measurements and specification, and you choose parts like wheels and drivetrain, and what you get back is unique.  This is expensive, but often the results are extreme works of art.  The third way, the one I’ve chosen, is to get measured carefully for a frame size to order, then choose components and build the bike yourself or have a trusted bike technician do it for you.  This is also expensive, but it can take less time than custom, and the results are also artistic, since many of these steel frames are made by artisans, too.

My choice is a frame by an Italian brand named Wilier. The frame is a Wilier Superleggera. This is a brand that has been building bikes since 1906, and has been raced in the Pro peloton.  They’re known for their copper finishes, like the example below.

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The frame I’m ordering will look like this one, but the wheels and components will be different!

The components I’m choosing? Modern Campagnolo. I’m going to have a quill stem and custom wheels, and components and wheels will be silver.  The bike will be proudly Italian, and because so many Italian brands have remained true to their roots and offer steel frames, there are many excellent choices if you want to indulge in a similar passion project. To name a few:

Colnago Arabesque and Colnago Master: Two beautiful steel offerings from Colnago.  Both have a classic look and a racing heritage. The Master has iconic star shaped tubes and incredible paintwork; the Arabesque has artistic lugs and a similar classic look.

DeRosa Nuevo Classico: This bike deserves the name “New Classic”. It is a thing of beauty with traditional geometry and an excellent finish.

Bianchi Tipo Corsa: This is a frameset from Bianchi – a brand building bikes since 1885, and known for a special color – Celeste.  The Tipo Corsa comes in Celeste. For those who want a bike that pays homage to vintage cycling, Bianchi also makes the Eroica, a different blend of modern and vintage.

Masi Gran Criterium: Masi makes several models of the Gran Criterium from affordable entry level steel bikes to bikes that lean from vintage in style to modern.

There are other brands that offer steel road bikes and frames; too many to list here, but the options speak to the appeal of these steel retro bikes.  There is something to be said for the  latest bike tech.  Aerodynamics, advances in materials and technology have made some wonderful bicycles,  but there will always be room for classic design in the cycling community.  As this passion project proceeds, I’ll add more content.

 

My End of Year Cycling Events

This week I’m working to re-establish my routine.  It’s been a couple of weeks since I last had a full work week – my last two weekends included century rides that I had to travel to.  Usually those events require me to take a day off to travel. Between those vacation days and the Columbus Day federal holiday, I’ve been away from the office a lot. It all comes back, though. The memories of these events make work a little easier, too. It’s easier to be in a good mood after a century ride or two.

The nice part about cycling events is that they’re approachable. I don’t want to give the impression that they’re easy. Centuries are tough and must be taken seriously. You have to train for one. A century isn’t nearly as difficult to do as running a marathon is though. A century is a good challenge, but mere mortals can train well enough in 3-6 months to complete a century, and if you ride regularly in the warm months leading up to September and October when these events are usually held, you can enjoy a century ride every weekend for weeks on end without burning out. Recovery from a century ride doesn’t usually take more than a day or two. I’ve done back-to-back centuries several times (two in the same weekend, one on a Saturday, and the other on Sunday), and that is much more difficult if you want to challenge yourself, but it takes planning. I can be talked into doing back-to-back centuries again, but for now I don’t feel the need to challenge myself in that way. For 2018, I’m out of centuries.  I’ve passed the tests I’ve set for myself. Now is the time to ride for the soul, until the winter chases me indoors. With that in mind, I want to look back over the last two weekends and remember the experience.

Twin Lights

The Twin Lights century is held at the New Jersey shore. It doesn’t have much in the way of climbs, but most of the climbing it offers happens near the end of the ride.  It leaves from a park by a ferry terminal near Sandy Hook and heads south along the shore through communities that include mansions built as getaway homes for rich residents of New York City. Then it heads inland through parkland at the edge of an area called the pine barrens. It goes north into some low hills before dropping down to the start again. There is a climb at mile 99 that challenged a lot of riders. It’s a cruel place to put a climb, but it was part of the ride’s charm. Twin Lights is a scenic ride that was well marked and had good support.

I chose to ride Twin Lights with my nephew. He has gotten into racing criteriums over the last two years, and he wanted to ride an event with me.  Since he doesn’t live too far from the ride, it seemed ideal. The weather was excellent that day, and we were both excited to get started.  As we arrived, they started the ride – they didn’t have a “show and go” start. That meant I didn’t find a que sheet before we got started.  The good news was that we didn’t need a que sheet. The route was well marked with large magenta arrows affixed to utility poles, trees and road signs along the route. Even when there weren’t other riders to follow, I found the signs easy to find and I never felt worried that I was off course.

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Twin Lights – My nephew and I, less than 25 miles to the finish!

This ride showed me the difference between recreational riders like myself, and racers like my nephew. He’s a very strong rider, but he hadn’t been training too much in the weeks before Twin Lights, and that meant he felt fresh while not necessarily being at his best. Every event ride includes some strong riders who have goals related to how fast they’ll ride. Griff was excited at the start, and we fell in with some fast riders. He got in with them because he loves to compete and he’s fast.  I was there because I wanted to keep him in sight. That meant the first 35-40 miles went by at a pace that worried me. I won’t say I wasn’t enjoying myself. (I was.) I just didn’t think I could keep up that kind of pace for very long, and by the second rest stop I was worried that I’d burn out by the end of the ride. I explained my fears to my nephew and I think he understood. After all, I’m middle aged, to use a friendly euphemism. However, about 5 miles from the second rest stop, Griff started to cramp up.  Two things came into play here.  The first is that the average Criterium doesn’t go for more than an hour. His longest ride to date was 72 miles, and while his best efforts are very fast, riding for speed and riding for endurance are two very different things. The second thing was that by his own admission he hadn’t been on the bike much recently. Going out too fast was something that I expected. Starting to slow down was also something that I expected. I just expected that the one slowing down would be me. I went immediately into caring uncle mode. I wanted to make sure he got the rest and water and food needed to avoid the dreaded “bonk”, where your body shuts down on you. We continued at a more sensible century pace, and while the climbs were hard on him, Griff was tough as nails.

There is no such thing as an “easy” century. I found that Twin Lights presented its bill for having me flying along roads near the beach with a tailwind by making us climb more in the final third of the ride. Some of the faster riders were also riding shorter routes, and Twin Lights offered rides of 75, 50, 30 and even a 15 mile option in addition to the century. Griff and I stayed together.  At the 77 mile rest stop, they had pie. I like pie. It helped make Twin Lights memorable.  The climb at mile 99 found me passing a lot of other riders (I think the pie energized me), and in a burst of adrenaline, Griff found my wheel by the top. We cruised to the finish of his first century. It was a special thing. I was proud to ride with my nephew on his first century.

The Seagull Century

My first century ride was the Seagull Century in 2006. I remember it well. Even though century rides have become almost routine for me, that first century means something.  I ride the Seagull every year.  It’s normally my last event of the year, and it’s always memorable. I like the day before, going to the campus for packet pick-up and shopping at the vendors in the gym. I like going to dinner with friends the night before. I like hanging out in their beer garden after the ride, and of course, I like the century. It’s one of the biggest cycling events in the country. This year over 5000 riders were there. In the past, there have been as many as 8000 riders. That means you have a lot of other riders to watch out for, but it also makes the ride interesting for the sheer volume of riders spinning along with you.

We had a small group this year. John, Carol, Tom and I. Tom R wasn’t going to ride the entire century, but he grew up on Maryland’s eastern shore, so the Seagull is his home event. He hadn’t done much riding this year, but he wanted to get out on the course and enjoy it.

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The Seagull Century – At the first rest stop.

As always, the crowd was difficult to navigate at the start, and the difference in speed and approach between fast riders, slow riders and beginners made it important to pay attention and ride smart. It was damp this year. The air was heavy, and in places it was a heavy drizzle, but by the time we reached the water stop at 40 miles, the rain was done with us. There were a lot of flat tires.  Carol had two flats on the ride. There was a bad crash that John had seen; I rode past it because there were plenty of people there to help. John pulled out to join me. For a while on the first half of the ride I was with John, but for much of the ride I was on my own.

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Seagull Century – John and I at Assateague Island rest stop. 

I rode consistently, and my average speed kept going up throughout the ride. At the end, there was pie and ice cream as a reward, and as always there was the beer garden, where you can reconnect with your friends, drink a well-deserved brew, and watch other riders come in while you discuss the experience.

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Seagull Century – Post ride pie!

By the time I was done the weather had improved, and all the smiles on all the riders felt like another reward for a great ride and another great season.

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Seagull Century – After the ride, relaxing in the Beer Garden.

Now it’s time to ride for the soul. It’s the time of year when you start your rides a little later, and don’t go quite as far. It’s cooler, but your fitness is still good. The season is changing and there isn’t any pressure of upcoming events to plan for and train for. This is the time of the year when the scenery matters the most to you. The company you keep as you ride sustains you. It isn’t a matter of pushing yourself. It’s a matter of letting the simple joy of cycling carry you along. This “soul riding” is the way I remind myself that riding my bike has been a lifelong source of joy and peace. It is a reward at the end of a season of cycling that sustains me over the winter until I can comfortably get back on the roads and renew my love of cycling once again.

The Maine Lighthouse Ride

Every year since 2015, I’ve made it a point to get out of the Washington DC area to ride a century and get away from my normal routine. I found the Lighthouse ride by chance in 2015, and convinced my friend Ron to join me on an adventure trip to Portland Maine for the ride.  What we found has been an enjoyable event that we have shared with friends. This year, we brought in our friend John from Fredericksburg, Virginia.

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Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse, South Portland Maine.

Since we first discovered the ride, we’ve explored Portland and Casco Bay. The trip to Portland allows me to do things like visit the LL Bean Campus in Freeport.

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Beside the enormous boot at the L.L. Bean Campus in Freeport, Maine.

As a result of going on this ride I’ve had the chance to shop at the home of L.L. Bean and I’ve gotten some very good items there. This year, we stopped in at the Portland Head lighthouse, and toured the museum.

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Standing beside an enormous Fresnel Lens at Portland Head Lighthouse. 

I’ve always enjoyed touring Portland.  It’s a small city with a lot going for it.  Every year that I’ve ridden the Lighthouse ride, I’ve enjoyed the weather and the change of scenery that this opportunity presents us.

As always, the focus of the trip is the ride.  It starts on the Campus of Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, within sight of the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse. In all, if the weather is good, on the 100 mile tour you’ll see 9 lighthouses.

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John, Ron and I at the start of the Lighthouse Ride. 

The day was hazy and cool, but there was no rain in the forecast, and we were ready to start riding at 7AM.  The early portion of the ride is on a narrow multi-use path leading south away from the campus. The organizers try to get riders going in small groups to prevent congestion on the path, but riders should prepare to deal with slower traffic, and the start of the ride is often slow going, so it pays to be patient. Despite being at the front when the organizers started us, we found ourselves behind a group of “Team in Training” charity riders. These riders raise money for Leukemia research, and they set a goal to ride an event like the Lighthouse Ride as a goal to ride and raise money.  While I’m told they have training rides and some instruction, if your event includes charity riders it’s best to watch out for them. There is an art to cycling and how to ride in events with large numbers of riders (In this case, 2000 participants), and charity riders don’t know it.  They became a rolling roadblock at a surprisingly slow speed, less than 10 miles per hour.  Since we were on a narrow course, a lot of riders were stacked up behind them. They weren’t aware of what they were doing. They were staying together, which simply made it impossible to get around them.  Ron got us next to them at a controlled crossing, and we got ahead of them when we got the chance to cross.  It was a great move on our part. We were  still going fairly slowly, at approximately 15 mph, which was still safe but much less of a problem for other riders.  In fact, when the ride got to the open roads and sent us out toward the Scarborough marshes, the rolling roadblock behind us meant that when we looked back, there were no other riders visible – at least a quarter of a mile gap between us and the team in training riders. That gap put us well ahead of most of the riders for much of the day.  The frustration of the riders stacked up behind them must have been very high. I’ll say this for charity riders – they’re doing a wonderful thing. However, the people who train and lead these riders need to teach them how to ride at events. It isn’t just a matter of turning the cranks. It’s being aware of other riders and traffic and conditions that would make these charity riders both safer and more considerate of their fellow event riders.  If you’re a charity rider, be aware not only of the road conditions, but other riders.  Ride safely and don’t block the road. This is all too common at events where Team in Training riders are present. Learn group ride rules. If you’re riding among charity riders – make them aware of you and what you’re doing, but expect the unexpected.  I have seen them stop suddenly, ride 4 across the road, and even turn their bikes perpendicular to oncoming riders near rest stops – essentially blocking the road.  They are NOT taught that these things are dangerous.  We moved on to the Scarborough marshes with very few riders around us.

The Scarborough Marshes are a feature of this ride that you have to cover twice. The ride  crosses a causeway of compacted sand and gravel that isn’t difficult to manage on road bike tires if you ride carefully at a slower pace. It’s also good to be sure your tires are in good condition before the ride. Some riders will get flats on the crossing, and volunteers are available at the end of the crossing to assist riders who need help. Pay attention to the water level of the marshes as you cross.  Since the marshes are tidal,  when you come back over them, they’ll probably look much different the second time though. After the marshes, you’ll ride to the first stop at Old Orchard Beach, about 17 miles into the ride.

The ride continues to Kennebunkport by inland roads. While autumn hasn’t really started, you’ll see early flashes of fall color.  The second rest stop is outside Kennebunkport at the Kennebunkport Bicycle Company. The building is a work of art in the medium of shingles! The town itself is the southernmost point on the ride, even though it isn’t quite the halfway point. On the way north, the course follows the coastline, meandering through inlets and coastal features.  Ron stopped in Kennebunkport to get aa souvenir shirt for his wife (It seems to be a habit…).  He made it a quick stop though, and we moved along smoothly on our way north.

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Myself, Ron and John at the second rest stop. The features in the upper floor of the building are made by the artistic use of different sized shingles. 

The trip north from Kennebunkport is a feast for the eyes. The coast of Maine is a beautiful place. The ride takes you past amazing water views, lighthouses, mansions, and harbors. The roadsides near the water grow shrub roses – a variety of Rugosa for the botanists among you – and the bushes are full of blooms and clusters of rose hips.  Between boats, beaches, parks, and all the coastline features in addition to the lighthouses, this is among the more scenic rides you could try.  The trip north crosses the marshes again and sends you east toward Cape Elizabeth. We started to encounter riders who had chosen to ride the metric century (with a later start time) in the last 20 miles of our century.  The final miles of any century are always difficult. We were drawn by the beer garden at the finish, and some rolling terrain lay between us and the finish. We were passing riders steadily. During my turn to pull our line, I passed a rider who would sprint past us on the downhill, only to have us pass him on the following climb. It was getting tiresome until we had a longer climb where we left him well behind us. I seldom look forward to tougher climbs, but this was an exception!

Two miles from the finish, at Fort Williams Park, is the jewel of the ride – Portland Head Lighthouse. We had visited on the day before for a tour, but it’s always a welcome sight.

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Standing in front of Portland Head Lighthouse, the final lighthouse on the tour. 

The final two miles back from Portland Head Lighthouse to the start are always enjoyable in anticipation of the treats at the finish.  One of the sponsors is Shipyard Brewing, which provides a variety of ales to celebrate a successful ride.  We took advantage of their hospitality.  It’s a wonderful way to cap off a great ride!  That evening I got a lobster dinner – an appropriate finish to another successful ride and another fun vacation.

A comparison of Bicycle Gearing

Road cyclists have a lot of choices to make with our equipment. In general, our choices can be as individual as we are. I have more than one road bike. This works well when one is in the shop; I always have a bike to ride. Three days ago, I took my bikes into the shop. The one I normally ride needed service, and the other needed some fit upgrades. The  bike I usually ride stayed at the shop, and the backup bike has gearing better suited to climbing, so I had a great opportunity to see how different gearing feels.

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My Orbea Onix. This bike has a compact double chainring, and a relatively tall cassette on the back. That makes it a good bike to use when I have to ride up difficult climbs.

My primary bike is a Cannondale CAAD 12, with Mid Compact (52 tooth outer and 36 tooth inner) Chainrings, and the gearing in back is an 11-28 cassette with 11 cogs. My backup bike is an Orbea Onix, with a Compact (50 tooth outer and 34 tooth inner) in front and 12-30 10 speed cassette in back. I had the fit metrics on the Orbea matched to the CAAD 12. It gave me a chance to feel what it’s like to ride a familiar course on a bike that was set up for climbing.

I tried a ride that had climbs that would require me to use the small chainring. I had weather to stay ahead of, so I set out heading uphill from home on familiar roads at a strong pace.

The first difference that I noticed was my pedaling cadence had to change. I had to spin faster to hold the same speed I normally do. That isn’t necessarily a problem. Every rider has their own preferred cadence. Some will prefer turning the cranks at a higher cadence, some slower.  I do most of my riding in the big chainring, and while the difference between 52 teeth and 50 teeth isn’t much, you can clearly feel the difference. I compensated for this by shifting down to smaller gears on the cassette in back.

The next difference I felt was acceleration. I’m a big rider, and I apply a lot of power in my riding style. The difference in acceleration out of a corner or up a short grade is noticeable between a 52 tooth chainring and a 50 tooth chainring.  The top end speed on the 50 is clearly less.  Cruising at speed with a 52 tooth chainring feels different to me; I prefer it.

On some climbs where I usually shift down to the small ring on the primary bike, I rode in the 50 tooth chainring on the backup bike.  Since the rear cassette is also taller (the biggest gear at the back is 30 as opposed to 28) the difference was enough to make the climbs feel different. It’s hard to explain how those small changes make you feel; but on one particular climb, I was cross chained on the 50-30 combination for perhaps 300 yards on a hill where I might have used my small ring on my primary bike, and I felt that the compact chainring had the advantage on that section.

There was one climb in particular that I was looking forward to.  It’s a relatively long climb with steep sections, and I can climb it just fine in the tallest gear combination on my primary bike (36-28). I knew that having the lower gear ratio of 34-30 would make that climb easier. When I climbed it in the 34-30 combination, it didn’t wear on my legs as much, and I was moving more slowly. The cadence I kept was comfortable and the climb felt easier.

To me, gearing differences speak to riding style. Most of the riding that I do isn’t on steep climbs. I’m strong enough to ride rolling terrain and even some hard climbs with a Mid compact (52-36) in front and an 11-28 cassette in back. Having the compact (50-34) chainrings and taller cassette options in back is useful for managing long or challenging climbs.  It will certainly give you some peace of mind if you’re not a confident climber. When I know that I’ll be on long or challenging climbs, that tall gearing feels good.  For the bulk of my riding, my primary bike’s gear setup is an excellent combination. Some riders worry more about the steep climbs than the majority of their riding.  For them, compact gearing is probably a better choice.

If you’re new to road cycling and you’re buying your first real road bicycle, I’d say go for the compact gearing.  Those tall gears won’t make a big difference to you on the flat terrain you’ll ride most of the time, but they’re useful when you’re tired or find yourself on a hard climb. You will become accustomed to the setup you choose. I don’t recommend triple chainrings, because they can be tricky to adjust and keep in alignment. It’s a rare rider who actually NEEDS a triple.  I had a triple on my first road bike I bought years ago, and the smallest chainring was almost never needed. Unless you live in the mountains, a compact double is an excellent choice.

If you have some riding experience, ride often with others, and know your style, you may find that a Mid Compact gearing setup is a great fit for the way you ride.  Very often, gearing is a matter of confidence.  I found that making a comparison of the two gearing setups was very useful.  I think that when I get my primary bike back, I’ll still use the backup bike occasionally and keep in touch with the differences. Since the fit for both bikes is now identical, I’ll keep the backup bike prepared for rides that include tougher climbs when a mechanical advantage on the climbs is a good idea!

 

 

The Heat is On

The end of May is a time of transition. The cold air that had been clinging to the Mid Atlantic region has finally been forced to leave, hordes of people are starting to make their annual migration to the beaches, and cyclists are stowing warm jackets, tights, arm and leg warmers and shoe covers until winter comes back.  Heat and humidity is already making an appearance. I’ve already ridden my first century ride this year, The Six Pillars Century in early May.  My body is accustomed to pedaling, but now it has to get accustomed to heat. A recent ride to North Beach on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay was a challenge in hot, humid weather that I had not adapted to.

North Beach

At North Beach, in the heat of the day. My “Certified Beer Tester” jersey gets a lot of positive comments from other riders. 

Recreational cyclists come in all shapes and sizes. They all have a mindset that allows them to enjoy hours at a time in the saddle. Each has a measure of endurance, grace, efficiency, speed and power. My body was built for work, not speed. I am large and heavy by the reckoning of the sport; my riding style is not based on grace and efficiency, but on power and pacing. I am not built for climbing hills, but I feel great pride every time I hear other riders say “you climb well for a big guy”. It takes me a couple of miles to warm up, particularly in cooler weather, but I can ride consistently, at least until fatigue starts to wear me down and my technique falters.  As a result, I’m often told that I’m a very good rider to draft behind. This makes sense. I may not have top end speed, but I have power, and my size creates a very useful wind shadow. If I had a dollar for every time I was told that I am good to draft behind, I would be a rich man. Of course, the drawback of size is that I’m susceptible to overheating.  I’ve learned that for me, hydration is vital to hot weather ride survival.

Every Memorial Day weekend, my local cycling club has a ride in Southern Maryland called “Train to Chesapeake”.  It goes to North Beach on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, south of Annapolis, with distances from 47 to 61 miles. We’ve had a wet spring, but until now the heat hasn’t been oppressive. On this ride, particularly in the early afternoon, the heat and humidity arrived with a vengeance. I knew that the heat was coming. Even in the relative cool of the early miles, I was drinking often.  The fist rest stop was 24 miles into the ride, and we got there just as I emptied my second water bottle. With temperatures building into the 90’s, and the humidity soaring, I was concerned about how I would feel by the time I finished the ride. Between various route alterations, I was going to ride more than the short route, but less than the long route.  This was partly by plan.  My friends had decided to do a little route modification to suit the hot conditions and various schedules. I didn’t really care about the distance. One of the issues with drinking on a long ride that makes summer riding difficult is water temperature.  Even insulated bottles can get warm. The warmer the liquid, the less likely it is that you will want to drink it.  If you know that you’ll ride in the heat, ice is your friend. Insulated bottles with ice in them are the best way to keep you hydrated. By early afternoon, with the heat and humidity wearing on me, I had to force myself to reach for a drink, because I didn’t have ice.  This particular ride is rolling, with a lot of short, punchy climbs.  I LOVE rolling rides. I can take advantage of my cycling strengths in rolling terrain. However, the highest place we rode to on that ride is the start/finish, so the final miles are full of short, punchy climbs, and when you’re hot, they can be pure torture. I had been riding well in the morning, and by the time we got to North Beach, I was still strong, but that is the lowest point in the ride, and in the hottest and most humid part of the day, we had to climb back to the ride start. With beer waiting at the end for incentive, I managed the climbs in the last few miles, though by that time I felt like I was melting in the heat and humidity.  All of us earned our post-ride refreshments!

When the heat is on, it’s always a good idea to stay aware of your hydration. Drink when you see others drink. Drink even if you’re not thirsty.  If you get thirsty and you’re moving, you’re already getting dehydrated. I also like to stop more often when the heat is on. Be reminded that rest stops that last too long will only make matters worse, and 10 minutes should be enough to refill your bottles, get a snack, and be prepared to start again.  Many riders want shorter stops than that! When fall arrives and the weather moderates a little, you can take longer stops, but in the heat, long stops don’t help.  If you bonk in the heat, the only thing to do is get out of the heat as soon as you can, and hydrate. That is the exception to the rule. One more rule for hot weather riding – never forget your SUNSCREEN!

 

 

 

 

Limits

Gearing


Gears.  Eventually, we all wish we had at least one more…

Spring is a time of both optimism and realism for the cyclist. The weather improves, and so does your conditioning if you ride enough, but every ride is a struggle with your limits. Last weekend, at the end of a cool, damp and disappointing month of March, I set out to test my limits and get a feel for how much I needed to work on before I could comfortably ride a flat century in May.

Part of what gets me on the roads is joy and anticipation. What also gets me on the road is worry and determination. Sensible riders train. Sensible riders plan. Sensible riders are aware of their limits. Every spring I set out to find mine. I’m not entirely sensible.

Some things are predictable when you break out of your winter patterns and get outside. Your first obstacle is not your legs, but your lungs. They’re a limit, because if you’re like me and your indoor workouts aren’t much more than basic muscle maintenance, pulling in big gasps of cold air is a shock to the system. You’re not used to it, but you can’t avoid it. Climbs end in gasping and puffing, and the only cure is to keep moving. I ride short rides after work to get my system warmed up and working, so the lungs have expanded their limits recently.

Your second obstacle is the one you expect. Your muscles are not ready. Climbs hurt, short distances feel long, and you wonder why the fitness you were trying to hold on to during indoor workouts managed to escape you. Part of this comes from being limited by your clothing. Tights, arm and leg warmers, base layers, jackets, heavy gloves, shoe covers, and any combination of heavy, constricting things you wear to keep the cold out limit you in a way you never expect. It makes an unexpected warm day when you can shed layers feel like a reward.

Your equipment feels like a limit when you’re not in form. Every spring I get a full mechanical check. New cables, chain and anything else I need. Sadly, doing so eliminates a very useful excuse for not riding well – the bike already had a tune up, so the limit is me. I just keep the cranks turning and push against those limits.

Saturday’s ride was hard to dress for. It was 40 degrees when I set out, and closer to 60 degrees when I finished. I did okay – I was slightly cold on the way out, and slightly warm on the way back, but I didn’t suffer too much for the temperature.  The distance was 54 miles. Good for this time of year. The course was hilly, which was a challenge. I worried about it, which was normal.

My goals were to work my legs and to ride smart. The first goal was easy. Finishing the ride would work me enough. The second was the real challenge. In this case, riding smart is pushing my limits without crashing into those limits and breaking down or bonking.

Oddly, I felt better than I expected to feel. I lacked long rides, but I got more out of repeated shorter rides during the week than I expected. Since I was an unofficial ride leader (assisting my friend Ron, who helpfully volunteered me for the job) and since I know the route, I spent much of the ride at or near the front of the group. After one pleasant descent, I knew I was facing a long climb. At the base, I shifted into the small ring in front and set up a good cadence, knowing that I had at least 3 or 4 taller cogs on my cassette to use if necessary. I only hoped that I wouldn’t use them all. At the top, about a mile later, I hadn’t used my tallest gear and nobody had passed or dropped me. In fact, as we waited for stragglers, including ride leaders, I was complemented on keeping a steady pace. For a blissful moment, I was a climber. It let me forget for just a moment that “real” climbers are usually about 6 inches shorter than I am, and weigh between 50 and 70 pounds less than I do. I am the cycling equivalent of a gorilla. I rely on power to cope with the disadvantages of my size. Starting out in the small ring and working at a strong, steady cadence was smart riding.

Later in the ride we bypassed the Adams Morgan neighborhood in the District of Columbia to try a path made from a cut off section of road.  It was much steeper than anywhere else on that ride, and it was long enough to hurt. I started cranking up the hill slowly with everyone else. At some point we have all done what I did next. I engaged the right-hand shift lever only to be thwarted by the upper limit screw of my rear derailleur. I was out of mechanical help. I had hit a limit, and I had to suffer on my own. Suffering ensued, but I persevered. I think everyone suffered on that climb, but that is the nature of cycling and hills.

Now I’ll take a brief detour into the wonderful topic of gearing. My friend Carol, who doesn’t have a self-deluded bone in her body, insists that if you buy those gears, you should use them all. It helps you ride smart. My own point of view is that there are a lot of options, and whatever you choose to use should be based on both your wants and the style of riding you do. I also have some personal demons. I’ll get to them in a moment.  I have one bike with compact fifty tooth outer and 34 tooth inner (50-34) chainrings, but the bike I ride most has mid-range chainrings (52-36). I am not a racer, so I don’t want to handicap myself by using standard (53-39) chainrings, but I like to ride fast on occasion. The personal demons I mentioned absolutely refuse to allow me to ride on triple chainrings. I did ride them at one time, but the tallest gear ratios ended up being quite lonely and seldom used, and mechanically, a double setup makes more sense for me. That and the snobbery my personal demons insist upon make my gear choices a little smaller than they could be. My cassette is 11-speed, with cogs ranging from eleven to twenty-eight teeth (11-28).  I could probably use a taller gear or two, but when I got the bike, I didn’t have a taller cassette option. When I get another bike, I will probably buy a taller cassette, perhaps an 11-34, because like most people, I always want to have a taller gear to go to, but I’ll keep the 52-36 chainrings, because they feel right. I don’t spend a lot of time in my tallest cogs on the cassette and the small ring in front, but that choice is determined by every individual’s limits. Many of those limits are as much psychological as physical. I can push a 36-28 combination on the climbs that I ride. Short steep climbs are always hard. I like the challenge. Some climbs make me long for a 36-34, or even a 34-34 to keep my aging legs engaged. However, most of my riding is done in the big chainring and the middle of the cassette, and sacrificing gears in that spot to get easier climbing would also be an adjustment. Psychological limits will determine that choice. I may look for a taller cassette, such as an 11-30 an 11-32 before I get another bike, but I want that decision to be practical. I’m able to ride well with that 11-28 for now.

By the time I finished the ride, my legs were tired.  I expected that. After some well-deserved beer and some good conversation at ride’s end, I went home feeling tired, with my limits slightly expanded, and my mind eased somewhat. My recovery ride the following day was just as important as pushing my limits on Saturday. I had to keep the legs moving and expand those limits if I wanted to reach my goals. An easy ride after a hard day will get your legs used to the work they need to do. Recovery isn’t just rest, it is also being smart in your training.

Every rider has had what I’ve heard described as a “Martha Reeves moment”. Those moments are named after the classic Motown song by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, where you have nowhere to run to, and nowhere to hide. You just suffer a little and hope that you don’t crash hard into your limits. Martha Reeves speaks to me a lot when I’m riding. I can’t run, and I can’t hide. I can persevere though, and usually I do. The key is to know where my limits are. The goal is to expand them.