What I’m about to lay down in this post is going to be tough to grasp if you are (or think you are) slow. It’s really tough to explain well too… I take pride in being able to take tough cycling concepts for noobs to “get” and explaining them in simple terms but this one has had me stumped for more than a month.
For the last three months, taking slower rides (15-17 mph on average) with my wife, I’ve had to learn how to cycle slower and doing so has presented some interesting challenges. Two weeks into riding a bike, almost from the start, I learned to spin at an 85-100 rpm cadence. I learned as a kid, as most kids do, to mash whatever gear I was in, however once I clipped my shoes into my pedals, which kept my feet square on the pedals, and got some lift on the back stroke (and started talking to the owner of the local bike shop) spinning was possible and began to make sense.
From there cycling was all speed all of the time. My easy efforts were only slightly slower than my hard efforts (only 2 mph slower) so I never had time to really concentrate on what went on at slower speeds. Now, cycling with my wife and trying to match her pace (and even her cadence at times which is slower, 60-70 rpm), my eyes have been opened to a three-dimensional understanding of spinning. All too often we can get stuck in our own little world of “how stuff works”. I have spent quite a bit of time in that boat but re-learning how to ride efficiently with my wife added another dimension to how I look at cycling.
First, because I am comfortable with spinning at a faster tempo (it doesn’t wear me out in the least), I can tell you that two different aspects of speed change with a higher cadence:
A) If you spin in a specific gear at 60-70, if you downshift one gear (easier) and pick up the cadence to 90-100, your speed will increase. Riding like this also, once you get used to it, takes a lot less energy and force on the pedals.
B) Once you become accustomed to that higher cadence, that gear you were cranking in to hit 15 mph at 60 rpm will require less force to pedal at 90 rpm than it did at 60. This means, literally, that you will be able to go faster with less effort – in the exact same gear that used to max you out.
I have found, on several occasions, that I can tax my legs at 16.5 mph if I match my wife’s cadence – and in a gear lower (easier) than I spin easily in on my normal recovery rides. If I downshift and revert back to my normal cadence, I can match her pace but without taxing my legs in the least. That second part though, that’s the tough one to impress upon those who want to get faster. It’s hard to grasp because as a noob, you’re going to think, “how can pushing a gear that I’m already having a tough time pushing for my 16 mph average be easier if I spin faster“?
It absolutely is easier once you get used to the 90 cadence. Noobs and speed challenged cyclists everywhere, know this: Going from a 60-70 cadence to a 90-100 is. free. speed. Kind of. Look at it this way: That gear you’re grinding at 60 rpm, at 90, is as much as 1-1/2 mph faster. That means if your average is 16.5 mph and you bump your cadence up, you’ll be pushing 18 and with less effort than you did that 16.5. It’s the honest to God truth.
Unfortunately, rockin’ a high cadence is not the perfect answer, if it is pretty awesome… Aerodynamics throw a wrench into the works.
Still, more speed is more speed and if you want to be fast, spinning rather than mashing is an easy way to get a good bounce. Don’t take my word for it, try it yourself. Take three weeks to get used to spinning at 90 rpm or better, in one gear easier than you’re used to. After those three weeks, go back to that gear and spin it up to 90 and you’ll see first hand exactly what I’ve been attempting to describe in this post.
I have previously heard spinning described in the realm of lifting weights: If you curled 80 pounds, how many reps could you do? Five, ten, maybe fifteen? Now, if you curled just the bar, how many reps could you do? You could go for probably a half hour and quit out of boredom before your arms gave out. While that principle very much applies to cycling, spinning is much more effective and efficient than the weight lifting analogy.
Spin ladies and gentlemen, and if you don’t know how to, learn to. Buy a cadence computer if you must, or simply count how many times your left (or right) foot bottoms out in ten seconds and multiply by six (or fifteen and multiply by four). I started this on a trainer and checked at different times in my winter workouts so I could be certain that I was holding close to a 90 cadence. After a winter of keeping that tempo on a trainer, I tore it up the next spring. Good luck and happy spinning.
You ever notice how the word “epic” became the word of the day to replace “nice”, “good” or “fun” or even “awesome”?
I have maybe, in my entire cycling history, been on four rides that I would call “awesome” but probably nobody else would… Nor could they be referred to as “epic” by anyone:
My first club ride, which was also my first non-solo ride, in a group of more than 30 cyclists. It was a huge leap going from 16 mile training rides at 20 mph to that, 33 miles at speeds up to 28 on flat roads.
My first ever rides in the mountains. Going from southeastern (flat) Michigan to real mountain roads, being happy with a six minute mile and then breaking the posted 45 mph speed limit on the way back was something I won’t ever forget.
My first sub five hour century (4:36) and having done the first 58 miles at a 23-1/2 mph average on open roads, obeying stop signs and lights.
My solo 200km ride at the Pere-Marquette rail trail. Awesome simply because I was still very much a noob and I swallowed my fear and muscled out 125 miles in the middle of nowhere, with no help and more than 100 miles from home.
Then there was today’s 100 km with six of my best cycling buds… It was, absolutely not epic. Not even close. We did it in maybe 3:10 and just had a really fun time. I didn’t leave any of the contents of my stomach on the road but we weren’t watching paint dry either. It was simply a great, fun, social ride. I absolutely loved it. 100km on a banana, one full water bottle and a half a bottle of Perpetuem laced H2O.
While I do love the speed, I’m coming to really enjoy the nice, steady friendly “not epically filled with epic epicness suffer-fests”.
What a fun time those are. 184 miles for the week, and more calories burned than you can shake a stick at. Life, and balance, is good. Cycle well my friends.
Coming to the conclusion that it’s time to get fit is not easy. Most people who face the decision know it’s a pretty big commitment. Whether you commit to cycling, running, swimming or shedding the extra pounds in the gym, you know it’s going to take some cash and time. It’s going to hurt and it most certainly won’t be fun… Then there’s the diet! Oh, dear God, it’s going to be salads and veggies and no more bacon! So we make the decision to keep getting fatter because once thought through, we simply enjoy eating too much (and too much). I was at this crossroads, many years ago.
Fortunately at that time I had one really great asset working for me: I was (and remain today) a recovering drunk. I’ve been recovering for half of my life: 21-1/2 years sober, 43 years old.
Now, I couldn’t blame anyone for looking at those years, doing some quick math to figure out I quit some time between my 21st and 23rd birthday. Let me make it easy, four months after my 22nd. Knowing that, you might believe that I didn’t drink enough to know, couldn’t drink enough in that short time to know I was a drunk to begin with. Or, you correctly assume (it won’t make you or me an ass in this case, I assure you) that I drank so much in a short period of time that I had nowhere left to turn. So how could that be an asset? Recovery from alcoholism is a really cool thing. I had to put into it only what I put into drinking. So I was a two-fisted drinker, with the case in-between my legs – I gave drinking everything I had so that’s how, once the decision was made, I approached recovery.
Most people, when they’re faced with choosing whether to quit or not, dabble around the edges: “Well, I’ll read the book and work some steps but I’m not going to get a sponsor”. “I’ll work most of the steps but that fourth and fifth are for the birds, I’m not doing that”! “Well, I’ll go to meetings and I’ll quit drinking but I need my medical marijuana”. “Those sober people are nuts and talk like they’re part of a cult, I’ll just stop drinking on my own”. Folks, this is why only 3% of people who try actually make it five years or more without a drink. I didn’t just dabble around the edge, I didn’t make up little rules about what I would or would not do to stay sober… I found myself floating on a 2’x2′ raft in the middle of the lake so I stripped down to my boxers and jumped the fuck in the lake and swam to shore! I did it all, to the best of my ability, and it paid off. I have been enjoying the fruit of the decision for more than two decades now. I know freedom, happiness and a new peace.
When it came to getting physically active again (I went through a five year period where I became friends with the couch), when I found myself 45 pounds heavier than when I started my little couch experience, once I knew that I was in real trouble – immediately after making a decision to “just get fat” rather than get off the couch, I found myself on a 4×4 raft in the middle of a different lake. A little more room to move around on and in a different lake, but trying to sleep on that thing was no fun. Again, I jumped in the lake and got my butt to swimming.
Oh, there were choices: Do I go hippie and try a vegetarian diet (oh, hell no), do I run or ride a bike (run – I couldn’t afford a nice bike at the time and I had quite a few friends who ran), do I quit soda (no)… I suppose one could say that I didn’t really go all in because I didn’t go tree-huggin’ hippie vegetarian or give up soda right from the word go, but I didn’t think that I’d have to. I have skinny genes so I figured if I just added running three days a week, the weight would burn off. It did to a point but after a while I decided that four two-liter bottles of Coke in a week was probably making the whole weight loss thing a little more difficult so I broomed that. The vegetarian thing? I’d sooner stop eating altogether, that’ll never happen. Running? Well I haven’t given up on it completely but I’ve been at this sobriety thing long enough that I now make a decent enough living to thoroughly enjoy cycling so I don’t need running like I used to (and I enjoy cycling a lot more than I ever did running). The point is, when I started running, I got into it. I ran three or four days a week and didn’t stop until well after I was ready to replace it with cycling. It took a while to learn that the whole “gene” thing works a lot better when you’re 20 than 40.
All too often, I hear people dabble around the edges of the raft: Oh, it’ll hurt (of course it will but only until your body gets used to the activity, and eventually you’ll learn to love the pain and realize it actually hurts a lot less than the couch did). I have bad knees (so ride a bike or rollerblade). I don’t have the time (keep getting fatter, you’ll have the time when you’re recovering from your joint replacements, or worse, when you’re dead)…etc.
Do yourself a favor, get down to your boxers (and/or underpants and wonder bra), quit dipping your toes in the water, and jump in the freaking lake. The water’s cold at first but you’ll get used to it – and it’s really quite nice after a minute.
Every pure cyclist needs one of those days…
You’re stressed out, being pulled in six different directions. You’re busy. There are worse problems to have and you’re keeping it positive, but still…
You pull into the driveway and you realize you’re dog tired. Your legs are still smoked from one of your best efforts since you started buckling your cycling shoes (or twisting the bolo) but today is supposed to be a hard effort.
You slowly suit up, considering a nap instead. Shoes ratcheted snug. Tires pumped, water bottle filled and caged. Helmet, glasses, gloves. You’re out the door before the committee in your mind can convince you to sit down on the couch. Maybe just ride easy today.
Odd… You realize the temperature is absolutely perfect.
You clip into your pedals. They seem hard to turn over. You take a quick glance and realize you’re in your 22 mph gear so maybe you were meant to push it today…
Before you know it you’re shooting down the road and you realize you can’t tell where the wind is coming from. Strange, that.
You can feel you’re body push against the air, sure enough, but you can’t get a direction on the wind – it’s definitely not in your face. Then you see some cottonwood fluff and it’s blowing your way. Fair enough.
Your legs are making perfect revolutions, knees up and down making your legs the pistons. You realize that maybe bicycles were the inspiration for the combustion engine. You see the same American Flag that always tells you which way the wind is blowing hanging limp on the flag pole. A light puff barely moves it…
You’re cruising down the road, down in the drops and it hits you that the motorists are being really awesome today. Plenty of room, man, it’s nice.
You can’t figure out where the energy came from but you’re just hammering…and the cottonwood is still blowing your way.
Down around your favorite corner, you hit it faster than ever, pushing on that outside pedal as hard as you can, leaning into the corner low and fast…and the bike complies as if you were in a roller coaster car. You head through town and the cottonwood, defying weather and physics, is still blowing your way.
You hum down the road, smiling because out of nowhere, you’re on and you know it…
Only five miles to go, you’re on the home stretch and you feel that gentle push of the breeze at your back – there it is, you say to no one…
No need to change gears now, you can’t believe how fast you’re going and how easy it feels… “My God, I love riding a bike”, you think…
A mile from the house and you’re done. You’re out of gas and you smile knowing you left everything, all of that crap, on the road…heck, what was it you were fretting before you got on the bike anyway? You look down at your cassette and see your chain…
You weren’t in the 22 mph gear. You’re in the 23-1/2 mile an hour gear.
You just rode that whole circuit one gear harder than you normally do for a hard workout. And then it hits you: the cottonwood was always blowing your way because you were pushing it. You were the wind.
Every cyclist needs a day when the cottonwood always blows your way.
The question, “How rigorous is a 10 mph (16 km/h) bike ride?” popped up on my stats page the other day so I thought I’d take a minute to answer it honestly but put in proper context, because in this case, context is everything.
10 mph is rigorous on many dedicated mountain biking trails, depending on the difficulty. I’m in fantastic shape and I can think of two trails right off the top of my head, that if I can average 10 mph on I’m covered in sweat, head to the tips of my toes. On the other hand, 10 mph on a dedicated race bike on the road is hardly enough to raise the pulse.
I think too often the question is not “is x mph good”, the question is how fast do I have to go to call it a workout – and this is a very difficult question to answer… Honestly. Actually, it’s probably harder to hear the honest answer, so let’s tap-dance around this one more time.
First we have to look at what a person is riding. Leisure bike, beach cruiser or mountain bike? Those are the slowest bikes. Then you’ve got the hybrids followed by the road and time trial bikes.
Next is weight. If you’re overweight by 100 pounds or more, I’m sure 10 mph, even on paved roads, could be considered rigorous. The trick is it shouldn’t be rigorous for long. Once you shed some of that weight by eating less and cycling more, your speed will increase. The idea is to get a good sweat on and to always remember: Stagnation is just as good as moving backwards. I started out, humorously enough, at the exact same weight I am today (only with MUCH smaller legs and more gut), pushing 15 mph on a mountain bike that was way too small for me. For a week or two that was about the best I could do, but then something miraculous happened: That four miles wasn’t the same workout it had been just two weeks earlier. I was becoming fitter. I added on a couple of miles to my route and started throwing in a ten-mile ride on Saturday. A few weeks later and I was up to eight to ten miles a day and a 21 miler on Saturday. A month after that and I was up to ten a day and a 30 miler on the weekend. Then I bought a road bike and my distances a pace jumped again. 13 miles a day and a 40 miler on the weekend. I bumped my mileage again: 16 on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 35 on Tuesday, 70-120 miles over the weekend (Saturday and Sunday)… You get the picture.
SO, ask me the same question and substitute 15 mph instead: How rigorous is a 15 mph bike ride? Three years ago it was exceptionally rigorous. Today I can ride 16.5 mph without my pulse rising above 80 beats per minute (that’s slightly above the average resting heart rate by the way). I’ll hardly break a sweat unless we’re talking about temps over, say 83 degrees. The question relies on how many miles someone has on that saddle or how fit one is.
With that out of the way, here’s what we’re really trying to get at, and let’s take speed out of it for a second – here’s the context: Does a bike ride meet my standard for “rigorous”?
The whole discussion is designed to fail from the beginning – asking anyone “how rigorous” a ride might be is to ask a person to make a judgment. When that answer doesn’t meet another’s standards, that person accuses the other of being judgmental, humorously enough. And around we go.
So, would I consider a 10 mph bike ride rigorous, for me? Never. Nor would I consider taking the dog for a walk rigorous.
The answer that everyone wants to hear is this: Whatever the best you can do is, that’s rigorous. This way someone who goes for a three-mile walk and takes an hour and a half to do it can feel just as happy as someone who runs that 5k in 22 minutes. Well I can tell you very easily which one is rigorous and which one isn’t. In fact, as a nod to the absurdity of the discussion, rigorous isn’t even the right word (leave it to Government Standards to pick a word that would lead to confusion and argument). Vigorous is the right word.
Rigorous: “adhering strictly or inflexibly to a belief” or “extremely thorough, exhaustive, or accurate”
Vigorous: Strong, Forceful, Strenuous.
Now, is walking the dog “strong, forceful or strenuous? How about a nice little 10 mile an hour ride around the block? Probably not, if you’re honest. Now, are one of those be the best someone can do at a given time? Absolutely. For example – and let me use something closer to home, I write quite a bit about my Tuesday night ride. I ride with several guys who are a lot faster than I am. I can go out for a 35 mile bike ride and average 20 mph, completing the ride in an hour and 45 minutes. To me, that’s rigorous. To one of the guys on Tuesday night, that’s hardly enough to get excited about. I am honest though, so I can say that a 20 mph workout is vigorous (and rigorous) even though, for a small percentage of the population, that equates to little more than a walk in the park.
Vigorous is not a nice bike ride in the park. Vigorous is a workout and I’m not about to try to pontificate from on high about what anyone should consider a workout. I know what a workout is for me and you know what a workout is for you. The question is really whether a person has the capacity to be honest with themselves about what is vigorous or not. That is the question. Once we’ve determined what is vigorous, if we’re not there we set that as the goal and work toward it.
Next up, and just for fun, let’s discuss why your definition of vigorous is wrong. That should be a hoot.
A fellow cyclist, whose mother died from Alzheimer’s recently, followed my blog this morning so I’m reblogging this post in the hope that many of you, my friends, will support him…
Well it’s day 2 and other than my butt being sore I feel pretty good. Actually it’s not so much my butt that’s sore it’s more right dead between my legs. Not in the center but on each side. That has me thinking of perhaps a custom fitted seat for my next purchase.
I don’t think that my bike will see any riding today. I am supposed to speak at my mother’s funeral tomorrow so I am spending some time preparing for that. Also visitation at the funeral home is today. I was with my mother when she passed and today will be the first time that I’ve seen her since then. I will miss her greatly. While the disease devastated her mind and body on most days mom still recognized us. She got to where she could not talk and form words and she had trouble finding you with…
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I’ve learned a lot about how to ride a bike in the last three years. How to hold a line, to keep the speed consistent when I’m pulling (no matter what unless I signal a slowdown first)… Heck, I learned that platform pedals aren’t the only kind of pedal out there. Seriously. I learned about integrated shifters, VO2 max(es), why Gatorade does what Gatorade does, how nutrition works… I learned about hype, carbon fiber, aluminum and steel. I learned about aero bikes, race bikes, time trial bikes, mountain bikes, hybrids, beach cruisers and leisure bikes – and how to tune them all. In the process of learning to ride a bike, I learned how to ride one fast (or at least most people’s approximation of fast).
For quite a while I had no idea that I was fast, I just pushed on the pedals as fast as I could and called that good. One thing I did know was that I’d get faster and ride farther as I got stronger. I’d been running regularly (3-4 times a week) for a decade or so at that time but even so, I knew the use of muscles in cycling was entirely different so I figured there would be a little bit of a building curve. What surprised me was just how quickly I progressed. What I figured would take months took weeks. In part, it was fairly obvious that the fact that I was already in pretty good shape (8 minute miles or slightly better over 7 miles) helped, but the rest of the equation that actually helped was that I got into cycling completely ignorant of the sport. To say I didn’t know my butt from a hole in the ground would be quite apt and because of that ignorance, I didn’t have any predetermined limits. Before I knew it I was holding a 20 mile an hour average on my own.
Then I started talking to the owner of the local shop and he urged me to ride with the “advanced” group on Tuesday nights. I practiced skills I thought would benefit me (and the group), such as riding in a straight line (try riding on the white line on the side of the road for ten or twenty miles…it’s not as easy as it might sound) and paying better attention to my surroundings. I searched out tips and videos online as well. Then I was ready, and I was taught what real speed was. I ride, still, every Tuesday with age group triathletes, State time trialists and cat’s 3-5 racers (well, at least I ride with them for about 20-23 miles, when they turn it into a race once we hit the hills, I’m smoked). My first day I lasted eight miles and I was entirely wiped out. The next week I made it twelve. Today, depending on conditions, I can hang on regularly up to 23 miles. Last night was much the same – only faster. We were up almost two miles an hour over our normal pace and my legs finally started to protest (this was entering the hilly section, where the pace really gets hectic).
Having everything that I could possibly need to cycle as fast as possible, equipment wise (actually I was on my Trek last night, but it’s still a great race bike, if it’s old). I’ve got the aero bike, the shorts, the $300 shoes, the bladed wheels, the helmet, the skin-tight jersey – I have it all. And while some of that stuff matters, a properly fitted bike, tight fitting cycling clothing, properly fitted shoes and correctly installed cleats, what I lack is that drive to push my body passed the point where I get nervous about my ticker. Once my heart races so fast, I simply quit. This isn’t an excuse and even if I were trying to use one, it wouldn’t be good enough – I’ve talked to my doctor at length about the strength and cleanliness of my pumper and it’s all good, all clear… What this is happens to be is a lack of desire to push beyond a certain degree of “uncomfortable”. There are no excuses for that, it just is what it is and I have to accept it or push beyond it if I want to get any faster.
It’s not about the bike, I went just as far and even faster than normal last night on my 15 year-old bike as I do on my six month-old aero race bike. Fifteen years worth of better technology, the Venge is three pounds lighter than the Trek, and I can still ride it just as fast (if a little less comfortably). What I learned about cycling fast is that it’s all about the will to suffer. Everyone who is willing to ride a bike for a decent length of time has some but what really separates the fast from the slow is a willingness to be uncomfortable. Without that, you plateau and stay where you are (if you’re lucky). What I’ve learned about cycling fast is that I’ve simply got more of that than the average cyclist and less than the average cyclist who races. The thought I’ve been grappling with is whether I really want to hurt as much as it will take to get to the next level or not. I’ve learned that the way to “get faster”, for the lack of a better similitude, is to “shit or get off the pot”.
PS: This is not a “power” thing. I am strong. I have excellent power to the pedal and I can out-sprint a lot of guys… What I don’t have is the ability to apply enough of that power for a length of time to keep up with the group. This is a conditioning thing.
UPDATE: Shawn from First Time Triathlete gave me a simple tip that I can use, down in the comments section: “We have a Tuesday Night World Championship ride here. I did it for years, and got way stronger. The best way to get fast is to ride with faster people. turn off your brain, and just hold on. Then when you think you can’t hold on anymore, push for another few minutes.”
It’s that last part: “…when you think you can’t hold on anymore, push for another few minutes”. I don’t do that. I go until I’m cooked and I know it, then I quietly drop off the back. It’s worth a shot. The mind trick involved here is that “few minutes”. If I can put that simple time stamp on it, rather than look at the next ten miles… Who knows. I’ll write about that next Tuesday (I’m even putting a reminder in my phone so I don’t forget).