Full Disclaimer: I am not an expert on cycling. I have never raced, mountain biking seems like too much bother and I don’t ride in -40C. Nevertheless, I am passionate about cycling because it has allowed me to see things and meet people in contexts that generally promote conversations, beer drinking and long-term memories (okay, the last two sometimes clash). Before reading on, insert the standard caveats about checking with a physician before starting a physical exercise program. This blog is not intended to replace medical advice. Use at your discretion and always employ common sense.
I like to share this passion and this Spring I am running a how to ride program entitled the Westend Wriders. One individual from the program asked the question about whether she bought the right bike and why she seems to be so slow. I responded in email but to help to thwart the eventual hardening of the brain cells (too much cycling and eventual beer drinking), I thought I would throw the advice out here to for public consumption. If you are a super-duper expert on bikes, feel free to weigh in (but please correct me gentle).
The Three Things to Keeping Up with the Group
Riding with a club gives you a chance to see the super-duper triathlon types and the newbies who simply want to keep up. This advice is more for the newbie in which 40km seems daunting and 80km or more seems impossible. So, to keep up with the group you need to focus on three things: physical conditioning, equipment and technique.
Guess what triathletes, you have this one nailed! In the other corner are folks like me who discovered a winter bulge where one did not exist last fall (or at least I was better at ignoring it). To ride with a group, the better fitness level the better but most people who can walk for a few hours, climb moderate hills, etc. can do well on short to moderate (40-80km’ish) rides. So even if you have mystery winter bulges, carry on to the next two things.
Well Maintained Equipment
To bicycle you need, well, a bicycle. Myself I tend toward the touring hybrid variety as I like to carry stuff in panniers (saddle bags), water bottles accessible while riding and fenders for my commuting bikes. Like anything in life, the more you spend, the better quality you get and the less you will experience in break downs, etc. A reasonable starting price for a new hybrid is about $500 and a good one can be had for the $750-1,000 mark. If you are now experiencing sticker shock, remember how much a golfer pays for a good set of clubs. As for where to buy, MEC is a good starting point or any local bike shops (a plug for my local shop, Crankys in St. Albert). My experience is avoid department stores, chains or anywhere where the mechanic looks like a high school student working part-time.
Alternatively buy a very good used bike. Pay a bit of premium by buying it through a reputable bike shop or a club sponsored bike swap, such as this one – bike swaps.
A word of caution though, bikes are like mushrooms, before you know it your one bike will soon be 2, 3 or more!
Buying the bike is only the beginning, maintaining it is even more important. Bikes are remarkable bits of machinery, they can be forgiving but when the fail – they generally do so as far from home as possible. As a result having some basic knowledge is critical. In particular you should know how to: change both tires (front and back), wash your bike, clean and lubricate a chain and do basic lubrication of the bike. Adjustments, bearings, etc. I leave to my friendly bike shop. If you are like my wife, you can also leave everything to your husband.
Where do you learn these skills, back to joining a club, taking part in a cycling 101 such as the one offered by the Edmonton Bicycle and Touring Club, Westend Wriders and talking to people who pretend they know things about cycling (like me!).
Six Central Techniques
Okay, you are at least minimally fit and you spent your kids college funds on a new bike – now you can keep up, right? Maybe but probably not. Cyclists are generally a lazy lot who like to get places while spending as little energy of their own energy as possible (and looking dazzling in spandex). As a result, the following six techniques are critical.
Technique number one, cycling is about RPMS, not torque. You may have seen the big guy grinding his way up a hill while a petite young lady zips past him. If you have, you have seen the difference between revolutions per minute and torque. When riding, you want to ideally be spinning the pedals at the same cadence (revolutions per minute) and with the same effort (light, think of gently kicking a soccer ball to a 3-year old) whether you are on the flat, the up or the down hill. To do this, you must know how to use your gears so that your cadence and torque can remain consistent.
Technique number two – be kind to your delicate bits. Get a comfortable saddle, riding shorts and then take the time to let your more delicate parts get used to it. ‘Time in saddle’ is something you have to do each and every cycling season.
Technique number three – Learn to post. Post means getting up on the pedals and riding for a distance with your delicates hovering over the instrument of torture. Posting a few times an hour (or thereabouts) allows the blood to flow back to the pelvic floor and other nether-regions (not to be confused with the Netherlands).
Technique number four – pedal baskets or shoes. There is only one point of energy transfer between you and the bike – the pedal. The conventional pedal is a mediocre connection device as most of the force is only spent in the 1 to 5 o’clock position of the down stroke. With baskets, shoes, etc, the energy transfer is possible through the entire rotation. As a bonus, posting is alot easier with your feet attached to the pedals.
Technique number five – jettison weight. I have to admit, I have a hard time with this one as I like to carry tools, extra water, a snack, a second camera, clothing (well you get the idea). Unfortunately every gram of weight has to be paid for by your effort. If you can leave stuff (and winter-bulges) behind.
Technique number six – Hydration and Nutrition. Thanks to Joe who provided the advise below. My own rule of thumb is to only snack on rides (e.g. no big lunches) and lots of fluids. Joe’s advice is even more targeted:
Proper hydration and nutrition come into play long before you get thirsty or hungry. Start when you leave the parking lot and take a sip every 15 minutes, consider a quality sports drink or easily digestible carbs to conserve your glycogen. Do not eat at least 2 hours before the ride starts, since it takes that long to stabilize your blood sugar, otherwise the insulin will rob you of energy at the start.
Ride, Ride and Ride
Finally, like anything else, get out there and ride. Not only will it reduce your winter surprises, give you time in saddle – you will also get to meet interesting people, go places – and hopefully drink some beer.
Thanks to Other Contributors
Garet H, reminding me about the benefits of posting and Greg P. reminding me about my weight (errr, carrying weight) and Joe M. about hydration and nutrition.