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Monthly Archives: March 2014

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The Noob’s Guide To Drop Handlebars: Not All Handlebars Are Created Equal

I’ve got experience on three different styles of drop bars – your old-timer standard drop bars, ergonomic and shallow drops.  They are not all created equal.

Before we get into the styles, and differences between them, I want to take a moment to impress upon everyone just how important proper sizing of the bar itself is.  The idea is to choose a bar roughly as wide as your shoulders.  I have the full range. The bar on my 5200 is too wide, the bar on my Venge is just right and my the bar on my SR400 is too narrow.
HandlebarsI can live with the 5200 being a little wide though it feels slightly “off”.  Obviously the Venge’s bar being just right is perfect but the bar on the Cannondale being too narrow presents difficulties because I’m just too jammed up with my arms so close together.  If you’re buying a new bike, be careful to get the right bar width.  If you’re buying a used bike, chances are you’ll simply try to live with what you get.  Just don’t be shy if the bar doesn’t feel right, new bars aren’t all that expensive ($20-$50 if you can install them yourself and wrap the bars).

With sizing out of the way, I want to get into the shape of the bars.  Desired shape will vary from rider to rider based on any number of factors ranging from feel to what you are used to.  Don’t take my final assessment as Gospel, it’s simply what I like.  There is no right or wrong as to your final choice.  As you can see on the Cannondale and Trek, the old style drop bar and the ergonomic version have the drops sloping toward the ground where the compact drop on the Venge levels out to the ground.  The Venge’s drop is, as the name suggests, compact – there’s a lot more drop to the Trek and Cannondale’s bars.  The extra drop is actually an advantage.  Having more drop to the bar means one can have the bar top a little higher, thereby allowing the rider to sit a little more upright while on the hoods or with hands on the bar top.  Then, when it’s time to get into the drops, you can get your head lower and out of the wind.  On the other hand, I like having my bar top and hoods lower so I’m in good shape when I’m riding on the hoods as well.  Also, the final curve of the compact drop, that levels the drop out with the ground, is much more comfortable for me.

For the ergonomic bar, the flat section just below the shifter handle is meant to provide one a flat portion of the bar so one can naturally rest their hands.  While I understand the intent, the flat section has never been that much of a help to me.  I’ve spent hundreds of hours more on the Trek with the ergo bar compared with only 75 hours on the Venge and I still vastly prefer the shallow drops.

Shallow drops, while I’m not suggesting they’re right for everyone, are not only comfortable for an experienced cyclist, they are excellent for the flexibility challenged cyclist as well for obvious reasons.  In the end, the most important aspect of the drops is having your bike set up so you can ride comfortably in them for about an hour holding the proper bend in the elbows.  If your elbows “lock” when you ride, you need to make some changes if you want to get into distance riding as locking anything on your body over a long period of exertion will lead to a lot of unnecessary soreness.

As with everything on a bicycle, if your plans are simply to cruise around the neighborhood for a half-hour at a time, or take a nice little four mile ride to the local market, while fit will be important, being nitpicky about every little detail isn’t as necessary.  If, on the other hand, you plan to ride a bike for your daily fitness and exercise and especially if you plan on riding for extended periods of time (i.e. more than ten or fifteen miles at a pop), the importance of making sure everything fits properly cannot be overstated.  The better your bike is made to fit you, the happier you will be with it.

 

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The Noob’s Guide to Cycling: Want Speed? SLAM THAT STEM!!! To A Degree

What to do, what to do?!

The easiest way to increase your average speed without having to work for it is to lower, or “slam”, your stem – to lower your handlebar so that the drop from your saddle to the top of the handlebar increases.  The day I brought my Trek home, after I had it fitted at the shop, I had a 2-1/2″ drop from the nose of my saddle to the top of my handlebar.  That was my prime road bike from January 2012 through August of 2013 and went through quite the metamorphosis:
Trek 5200The premise is sound:  Lower your stem, improve your profile into the wind and your speed will improve without having to work harder for it.

When I first brought the bike home, I knew nothing about  the intricacies of cycling – all I knew was that the pro who set up my bike knew a lot more about it than I did.  Still, it didn’t take long before I started tinkering with the bike’s setup – but just the stuff that I figured wouldn’t hurt too much.  There were a couple of factors at work in my decision to tinker:  First (and least important), I had a bit of Lance Armstrong Syndrome:  When in doubt, look like Lance – that included making my setup look like his.  Second, was a real desire to ride as fast as I could so I could fit in with the group I had been invited to ride with, as comfortably as possible.   Finally, riding with only a 2-1/2″ drop simply felt weird – almost like I was riding my mountain bike.  I felt like I was too upright.

I decided on a gradual approach to lowering my stem, figuring if I went a little bit at a time I could get used to the changes easier than if I went whole hog, all at once.  That worked well and within three months I had the stem down as low as it could go.  Then I picked up my Venge last August.  Fortunately I didn’t have to start the process all over again – and because I bought a 56 cm frame (the Trek is a 58), I actually started out with 1/4″ more drop than the best I could do on the Trek.  Toward the end of last season I started swapping spacers, lowering the bar on that bike as well:
Venge
I went into the shop last Friday and discussed the change with Matt (the pro who set me up to begin with) and he warned me about going much further because I could end up with diminishing returns…  Too low and you end up throwing off the delicate balance between comfort, speed and flexibility.  Now, I’m still in a position on that bike where I can comfortably reach everything while maintaining the proper arm bend, get good power to the pedals and feel excellent – in other words, at least for now, I’m heeding Matt’s warning…  Not necessarily because I trust him on blind faith either – I actually know what too far is:
Cannondale
The Cannondale is simply too much drop for me.  The interesting thing with the 6″ is that I actually can get that famed flat-back’ed position, but it’s uncomfortable as all get-out riding like that.  I have to work on keeping my arms bent as my natural reflex is to ride with my arms straight to keep that balance I wrote about earlier (back to front, not side to side).  And therein lies the rub – there is a such thing as too much and no amount of desire to have it the other way can change that without a lot of extra work.  Six inches of drop is my diminishing return.

Now, if you’re a noob and have a desire to try this, there are a few things to consider.  First is weight – I don’t have a six-pack, but I don’t have much of a gut either – maybe 1/4 – 1/2″.  If you have a bit of a belly, you can’t bend around that – at the very least it’ll mess up your breathing.  The gut’s gotta go first, though don’t be afraid to tinker – you never know, your stem might be too high to start as most shops trend that way for “comfort’s” sake.  Second, a great deal of care should be used when removing threadless stems to move the spacers.  Put everything back together too loosely or too tightly and you’ll damage your bike’s steering mechanism or worse, it could lead to a crash.  Replacing everything must be done correctly (use the Bike Repair App if necessary).  Finally, you have to make sure you’re not too low to ride comfortably in the drops too.

UPDATE:  I wrote a second post on this subject that goes into depth, looking at the type of handlebars, the style of frame and the size of the bike in relation to slamming the stem.  I also get into a decent marker to start at.

Even A Blind Squirrel Gets A Nut…

Such a simple little saying. I’ve used it myself, dozens of times because it sounds funny. Till you meet someone who happens to be blind and you decide to befriend that someone.

I’ve said it so many times, without thinking, that I almost carted it out last night talking to that friend. He joined my daughters and I for dinner. I caught myself just before I dropped it – to him no less.

Now, I’m not going on some silly crusade to inspire a few hundred people to ban the phrase for a few weeks because A) That would be a waste of time, energy and intelligence and B) I don’t plan on refraining from using the phrase again myself… My friend taught me something about being handicapped last night though (other than parking up front is kinda cool when you have a real reason to).

I would like to introduce everyone to a good friend of mine, his name is Jamie:

20140322-030426.jpg
That is a picture of my blind friend playing a video game. We laughed our asses off as he crashed into walls while I tried to shout out directions over the speakers mounted in the seat back. Here’s another photo:
>

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Now please keep in mind… Playing this game was his idea, because he thought it would be funny. Here’s one last photo:

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Yeah, look passed the bikini-clad chick… Third place. I’ll be damned.

The point I’m making is counter that of “ban a phrase” because someone might be blind. I just want to share what Jamie showed me last night:

Limitations are for those who lack vision, not sight.

Oh, and just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, he played the game again – and took third (of eight). Again. Maybe it’s just time to revise the saying.

You’ll see more of Jamie in the near future.

Specialized Venge Comp/Elite – Don’t Believe the Hype: It’s NOT Too Stiff

If you find yourself shopping for a bike and become smitten with the Specialized Venge, one of the likely things you’ll hear at the bike shop is that it’s too stiff.  Visit the message boards and you may read a lot of comments that suggest it’s too stiff as well.  In fact, a guy just left a comment on my 700 mile review of my Venge that he was told the same thing after owning one when he wanted to pick up the new 2014 Elite.  The shop he was at told him he should be looking at a Roubaix or a Trek Madone instead (he’s a mileage cyclist like me – the shops almost always push the Domane* (Trek) or Roubaix (Spec.) for we long-range fellows).  One of the younger guys at our local shop made the same suggestion in passing when I was looking to buy mine but the owner dismissed that adding that he thought I’d be perfectly happy with the bike.  The owner was right.

Now THAT'S a bike!

Now THAT’S a bike!

I’m telling you right now, don’t believe the hype.  The Venge, at least the Comp or Elite, is not too stiff.  It’s not near as unforgiving as my Trek 5200 – and the geometry is so utterly spot on, I simply can’t speak highly enough about it without coming off like some kind of Kool-Aid drinking dope – it’s that nice of a ride.

Now, I am going to go off on something of a tangent at this point because I’ve read (and heard, from no one with authority) about a hypothesis that looks at the different frame grades:  The S-Works frame and the standard frame are made with different grades of carbon (11R for the S-Works and 10R for the standard frames).  The higher grade carbon fiber in the S-Works frame is said to make the frame stiffer, so my understanding is that the reputation for being stiff could come from the S-Works’ frame, while people who actually own the standard Venge frames are quite pleased.  This would explain a lot but the hypothesis isn’t without its flaws.  Either way, I’m going to try to get an answer from Specialized and I’ll amend this post if I get anywhere…
IMG_3046

I own the 2013 Venge Comp and in my review I recommended upgrading the wheels.  I still stand by that recommendation – I have a smoother, faster ride and knocked off almost a full pound (0.95 to be exact) for less than $400 with a pair of Vuelta Corsa SLR’s by switching them.  I don’t know about the 2014 Elite’s Fulcrum s5 wheels – I don’t know how they ride or how heavy they are so if you pick up the ’14 Elite, do your research.

The Venge is awesome, and all kinds of comfy for a race bike.  I’ve ridden somewhere near a dozen centuries in the last two years on my 5200 and the Venge is much better as far as comfort goes. Now this is an incredibly important distinction to understand:  The Venge is Specialized’s Flagship race bike.  It’s not supposed to be one of those squishy endurance bikes in the first place – but that said, I believe Specialized managed to come up with the perfect balance between comfort and speed.
IMG_4006

At a little more than $3,000, if you’re willing to sink that kind of cash into a bike, you probably already love cycling and know at least a fair bit about the sport.  If you’re relatively new and/or haven’t learned all that much about cycling, look at the two profile photos of my bike, you’ll notice the plane of the saddle is quite a bit higher than the plane of the handlebar – this is more of a racing position.  Having the saddle up that high gets my head out of the breeze and reduces my profile – my body, when I’m riding, doesn’t so much resemble a big sail as it would if I were sitting upright.  The trade-off is that this position is said to be less comfortable than having the saddle and handlebar closer to the same plane.  My experience suggests otherwise (less pressure on the lower back) but I’m no pro so I have no problem deferring to better judgment.  The importance here is that I knew what I wanted and what I was buying so my expectations were that I would be getting a stout bicycle to begin with – that’s what I wanted.   Imagine how happily surprised I was when I found out the bike was vastly more comfortable to ride than I’d expected.

To wrap this post up, of my three road bikes, my Venge is, by far, the most comfortable.  Short 25 mile ride, full century, it doesn’t matter.  Just know that the Venge is a race bike first.

*Trek Domane:  If you notice, I made a switcheroo earlier…  I was talking about a guy who was shopping for a Venge and wrote that his local shop recommended a Madone or a Roubaix instead.  This seems odd to me because the Madone is Trek’s race bike while the Domane is Trek’s “endurance” bike.  Both the Roubaix and the Domane have special features built into the frame that offer a little more forgiveness on rougher roads than the race bikes.  You lose a little power transfer to the crank but they definitely absorb road imperfections better.

Uh Oh, Guess What Day It Is, Guess What Day It Is…

VENGE DAY, Woot Woot!!!

Weather’s finally nice enough and we just got through two straight days of rain so the roads were clear enough to take the Venge out for my regular Friday ride (I couldn’t take looking at it just sitting in the corner of my bedroom any longer anyway).  My first ride of the year on it.

With the SSE wind my 23.5 mile route was perfect, most of the worst of the wind in the first 7 miles, the next ten were all with a helping wind.  At 39 degrees, the temperature wasn’t great but the sun was out in all of its glory…and I was on the VENGE!  What day is it?  Venge Day!  Woot Woot!

No bike rides itself, but I’m here to tell you, that’s one heck of a smooth, fantastic ride…

Now THAT'S a bike!

Now THAT’S a bike!

Yes indeed...  That's ice in the background behind the bridge.  That's a corn field.

Yes indeed… That’s ice in the background behind the bridge. That’s a corn field.

I know, it's facing the wrong way - gimme a break, I was hungry!

I know, it’s facing the wrong way – gimme a break, I was hungry!

IMG_4001

Notice the Tool Keg in the back bottle cage? I’m so glad I got rid of the saddle bag on that bike!

 

 

 

Fantastic Springtime Tip for Increasing Cycling Speed Average (If you don’t have a mountain in your back yard)

I’ve gotten a few comments on my Noob’s Guide to a 23 mph average post that made an addendum a bit of a necessity and considering that I’ve already added to that post three times, I figured I’d just write a new one to cover the one thing that absolutely transformed my summer cycling performance and enjoyment – and is exceptionally simple.  Before we get going, I wrote simple, not easy, for a reason.  Easy, this is not.

Increasing your average speed, for anyone who has ever tried, isn’t easy – especially going from 18-19 mph to 20-21 mph (solo, relatively flat roads).  There are two aspects to doing so that are absolutely crucial; the ability to get used to being uncomfortable (or to work harder) and leg strength.

The best thing I’ve found for both that translates to big gains on the flats is climbing mountain roads.  If, however, you don’t have a mountain road that you can climb off of your driveway, I have developed a way to cheat that training on relatively flat roads.  We’ve got a couple of decent climbs in my neck of the woods (though I have to ride 20 miles to get there) but if I don’t have a few hours to get there, climb the hills a few times and ride back, there are steps I can take to get a fantastic workout in on my normal 20 mile daily ride that pays huge dividends within a few weeks.  Do this correctly and you will improve your overall speed (average), your ability to climb tougher hills and your overall fitness.

First, this assumes you are indeed already a cyclist – that you ride your bike frequently already so we don’t have to get into the whole “check with your doctor so you don’t croak” thing.  If this is not the case, if you’re not already in shape, consult with your doctor, your nurse, your nanny, local government official, Obamacare Death Panel Advisor™ or priest before attempting physical exertion that might cause you to croak – because this simple tip will challenge you…

Do this once or twice a week:  On an otherwise normal training ride, take a few minutes to warm up till you’re at your normal cruising speed, then every time you approach an incline, rather than downshift to an easier gear, up shift one or two gears, and attack that hill (out of the saddle) until you pass the crest of the hill.  Then soft-pedal (maintaining your speed) to catch your breath on the way down the back side.  If I don’t have a back side of the hill to go down, sad to say, you’re bummin’.  No rest for you, downshift to your cruising gear and maintain your speed (this is how I do it at least).  The idea is to attack every single incline on your normal training route – even if you have two in a row (I have several of these and they suck).  You want to pick up speed going up the hill rather than slow down.  Basically, it’s an interval on top of a climb.

This simple tip is so awesome, I’d be amazed if you didn’t see tangible results in as little as two or three weeks.

Happy cycling, and good luck.  This one isn’t for the weak-willed, this one hurts.

Oh, I almost forgot…  We’ll call them Hill Sprints.

A Temporary Slow Down is on the Horizon

To all of my ether friends, I’m in the middle of something pretty big so while the posts probably won’t slow too much, my ability to get around to reading your posts might have to take a back seat for a minute. I just opened a new company today, something that’s been in the works for over a year now. I can’t really write about it yet because I’m dealing with Trademarks, a new website, domain name (just secured today) and a bunch of other stuff – in addition to being (thankfully) busy at my day job as well.

It’s going to be an interesting summer to say the least.

I promise, as soon as everything is done, legal and protected you will be the first to read about it.