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Cycling Faster: Train for Speed on a Slower Steed

I went out for a ride with a few friends on the Venge Saturday morning.  I was taking 3+ mile turns up front at 22 to 24 mph and I could have gone longer.  I felt like a Hundred Dollars.  I felt fast.

Since getting the Trek dialed in I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on it.  A new, cheap mountain bike saddle has made it impossibly comfortable and I love the bike like never before.  It’s a crazy balance, really.  A cheap, semi-squishy saddle isn’t supposed to be that comfortable on a road bike, but it is. Everything I’ve ever read has said a saddle should be as hard as possible to allow for blood flow – the Bontrager saddle on my bike is anything but, and it works.  

I rode that bike for years with a Specialized Romin on the Trek.  The same saddle I have on my Venge, and the ride was a little harsher than that of the Venge:

So that meant it was easier to use the Trek as my rain bike – to use only in the event of a 20% or better chance of rain.  I never much cared for the Trek… maybe three times a summer and a little more often in Spring and Autumn, I’d take it out.

Then I changed everything on the Trek, including the wheels, over a few years:

The wheels are slow when compared with the wheels on the Venge.  The Trek wheels are cheap and heavy.  The Venge wheels are three-quarters of a pound lighter, have aero spokes, and cartridge bearings vs. the old-school cone and race loose bearing hubs of the Trek.  The wheels provide much of the speed disparity between the bikes.

Technology makes up a little more of the disparity.  Fourteen years of technological advances separate the two bikes, a lifetime of advancement, mean the Specialized is stiff where it needs to be (ie. the bottom bracket) and compliant where it matters for absorbing road imperfections.  It was, at the time it was manufactured, the ultimate aero-sprint bike.  The Trek, on the other hand, is a first-generation full carbon fiber frame.  Full carbon frames had only been in production for four years.  1993/1994, frames were lugged – carbon fiber tubes in aluminum or steel lugs.  In other words, there’s a lot of know-how packed into the period between 1993 and 2013.

Finally, aerodynamics make up the rest.  I’d be willing to bet the difference is as much as 10 watts, easy.  

Now, where this gets fun is that I actually find the Trek more enjoyable and comfortable to ride while it’s old-school cool, and beautiful to boot, if a little more work to ride.  I’ve spent a lot of time on the bike this year because it’s so much fun to ride… and that means I’ve become a lot stronger on the Venge.

I’ve trained and become faster simply by riding a slower bike.  If I add up the disadvantages, I can be looking at an extra 20-30 watts, then minus a few for comfort….  Could you use a 10% increase in your power output?

I don’t know any cyclist who would say no to that.  If you want to ride faster, pick up a set of slower, cheaper wheels you can put on your bike or ride a slower bike on everything but the fastest days.  Or, if you want to ride faster on the bike you have, pick up a set of good wheels.  Swap out the good for the bad on those days where you need a little boost.  It works 


Female Dominance in Cycling…

Because, from what I’ve read, this isn’t seen often (I see it all of the time, of course):

Somebody call the UN to let them know all is finally well in the United States of America!  With this out of the way they can work on something serious, like North Korea or Iran.  Phew!

All kidding aside, because c’mon, man… it’s the UN, looking at cycling from my perspective I don’t understand the consternation with the whole “male dominance in cycling” thing.  I do get that the male of the species likes cycling, so there are a lot of us at club rides and such.  I get that, but dominate?  Populate, maybe.  Anyway, I had a little chuckle just before I took that photo because here we are, cruising down the road at 21 mph with my wife and our friend, Diane in the lead with three guys in their draft and we’re just riding.  

While we can’t do much about anyone else’s feelings (nor would we attempt to), in our group you’re judged not by whether you wear drop back bibs, but on the content of your ability to pull through.

And that is as it should be.  

My first-ever technically perftect bicycle photo – and it isn’t even of the GOOD bike

I simply can’t do any better with my limited equipment (a Galaxy S6 and patience):

The wheels are right, the cables are right, the crank is right, chain on the big dog, proper setting on the camera.  Handlebar angle, hoods in perfect perspective alignment, impeccable bar tape, clean tires, tire logos centered on the valve stems… Everything is just right, even decent lighting (though the sun had more to do with that than I did).

Of all of the photo I’ve taken of my bike’s, that one is the first that perfectly follows all of the rules of proper bike photography.

I printed it, framed it and hung it on the wall of my office the other day (I also digitally removed the 1° of drop in the garage door in the photo that went on the wall – I left it in for this post so something could be wrong with the photo.  I strive for perfection but I handle it horribly when achieved.  Chuckle).

I can die a happy man.  Just not for another 53 years or so.

How to Own a Nice Road Bike on a Budget; the Key is TIME (and Lowered Expectations).

Let’s not be coy; there happens to be a reason the average triathlon participant has a yearly income in excess of $125,000 in the US, and it ain’t because running and swimming are expensive sports.  Sure, a wetsuit will set you back a few hundred bucks and shoes are anything but cheap, but everyone knows the real money is in the bike(s).  Expensive is easy when it comes to cycling.  Plop down a crap-ton of money and ride.  Great if you’ve got $10,000 laying around ($20,000 if you’re married because the spouse has gotta ride too!) but if the sport can seem out of reach to everyone but the very well-off.  It’s not.  Now, the amounts I’m going to cover still won’t be cheap, so if you’re hoping to get into road cycling for a few hundred bucks, you won’t.  You will not.  It cannot be done.  Buy a mountain bike and be happy.  The road clothing alone costs more than the few hundred if you get it on sale.  We can, however, beat $10,000 by a lot.

In this post, I will cover in detail, how I went from this:

To this (in less than $1,500 – it took me $1,750 I think, but I’m pretty picky):

I know, it’s a stretch, but stick with me…

First, buy the bike used – the depreciation isn’t great as bikes tend to hold their value after the initial plunge once they’ve been ridden:  $750 is what I paid for that red beauty above (new, it was over $2,500 – in 1999, that’s about $3,700 today).  Now, don’t do what I did and spend a bunch of money on trinkets for the bike, that’s the first good tip!  Develop a plan and a color scheme and go with it.  Get the bike painted:  $400.  Have a new headset installed while they’re painting the frame because chances are, the old headset is smoked (mine was):  $100 – $150 (ish).  Add a couple of matching bottle cages ($40 total) and you’re well on your way.  Add some new bar tape ($20 – $70 [for leather, like mine]), and a new stem so the bike fits you ($80).  Throw in some new 9 sp. shifters from MicroSHIFT ($75 delivered), $100 for some pedals and all that’s left are wheels.  Mine came from a different bike ($0), a saddle ($25 to $175 [mine was $25]) and a new seat post because I didn’t like how the old one adjusted ($100).  That’s $1,765 total, for a perfectly functional carbon fiber road steed…  Or roughly, a little more than $1,000 less than you’d pay for the new equivalent.

Once the bike is complete, the only thing left is maintenance.  Tires, chains and cassettes, and the better you maintain the bike, the longer those things last.  I clean my chains once every two weeks, whether they need it or not.  I get a full season, 3,500-5,000 miles per bike, on a chain.  Most people only get 1,500 miles out of a chain.

Where we often get into trouble is thinking this through without the added benefit of time.  To buy everything new, you have to plunk down a large amount up front, or worse, finance it… It took me five years to get that bike to the shape it is now.  First was the saddle and bar tape, then I rode it for two years before I did anything else to it.  I changed my pedals to go with some shoes I won, but that wasn’t out of necessity…  Then came the wheels because the original rear wheel blew out at the brake track (literally, the aluminum cracked in several places).  Next up was the seat post, then the stem and handlebar (the bar came from a different bike $0)… Then the paint job and headset… more than a year later the old Ultegra shifters finally gave out and I had to replace them.  After the bike is out of the way, then it’s some cycling-specific clothing, pedals, shoes, and a melon protector and you’re good to go.  Again, not cheap, but not unattainable either.

The important point is, the worst hit I took was the initial $750 for the bike.  After that, it was bits and pieces up until the paint job/headset (which was a fair chunk).  Over the six years I had the bike, we’re looking at an average of only a couple hundred dollars a year and that covers the bike and all of the parts I picked up for it.  In other words, if one has a mind to approach cycling on a budget, it is possible.  I did it.

In conclusion, we have to deal with expectations.  Don’t expect this:


That will run you a pretty penny… [Full Disclosure: technically you’ll need another 499,999 pretty pennies to go with that first one, give or take]

 You do not have to be wealthy to be a cyclist.  Like any other leisure-time sport, it doesn’t hurt to have money, but it’s not a requirement.

Next, I’ll tackle clothing…  Now THAT’S a tricky topic.  Stay tuned.

The Delicate Balance between Speed, Pain and Comfort in Road Cycling

A fast, stout bike can make a fast paced ride seem reasonable.  They simply lack a little in comfort.

This is FAST.  When you push on the pedals, it goes and you feel it.

A comfortable road bike, well those make a reasonable pace feel wonderful, though they are a bit more work.

This is comfortable.  You wouldn’t know it’s slower unless you were able to ride a fast bike to compare/contrast but it’s a little harder to make it go fast.

While DALMAC (our four day ride covering 380-ish miles) is grueling, there wasn’t a day that I pulled into camp feeling toasted – but the pace wasn’t so outrageous that I’d have needed the faster bike either.

Both bikes have an aggressive set-up though,  because while I may be a avid cycling enthusiast, I definitely wanted to look the part.  Call it naïve exuberance.  When I bought my first real bike, the Trek above (though in much worse shape back then), it came set up closer to a leisure rider than I liked.  The bars were raised to a point where there was only a 2-1/2″ drop from the saddle to the handlebar.  Today, the drop is more than 4″.  I started messing with the shop supplied set-up only a week or two after bringing the bike home – it didn’t look anything like it does now.

There was one simple driving force:  I will make my bike look as “pro” as I reasonably can and I will get used to that.  That’s exactly what I did and so it has been for the last five years (and 38,000 miles, give or take).  My bikes, as shown above, are as close to perfect as I can get a bike to fit me but I do believe my determination to make that set-up work had a bit to play in the orchestra.

Where this gets interesting is when we throw my wife’s bike and experience into the mix.  When I bought her bike I specifically requested that the stem be flipped upside down, like my bikes:

My wife rode in that fairly aggressive position for two years but was never really comfortable.  We came to find out the biggest problem was that she had been riding on a saddle that was too wide for her sit bones.  When we fixed the saddle, it wasn’t the end I expected.  My wife liked the saddle change but still felt just a bit off…  She took the bike in for a second fitting and Matt (the owner of the shop) threw the kitchen sink at it, changing the saddle height, the level on the saddle… he even flipped the stem which raised the bar an inch-and-a-half:

The result of the new fitting was nothing short of stunning.  The day after all of those changes, my wife accompanied us on a 68 mile ride on some fairly hilly terrain.  She finished the ride tired, but with a smile on her face.  The next day she went out for another 35 with my buddy, Mike.  She rode Monday and again on Tuesday without a major complaint.

I have always been about small moves, so it was a real shock that all of those big moves paid off for my wife.

So back to the small moves.  This is my Trek a few weeks ago:

This is my ride today:

Notice the nose of the saddle.  It’s down a millimeter or two because it was putting pressure where pressure doesn’t belong.  I also felt like I was sitting a little too upright on the bike so I rotated the drop bar down.  That increased my reach slightly and lowered the hoods a bit so I’ll cut into the wind a little better when I’m riding on the hoods (something I felt I needed on that bike).

My first ride with the new set-up felt awesome.  Still, I have a record of what I did in the event I have to put it back if I end up not liking it or it causes some unforeseeable pain.

That last point is key.  When I went to pick my wife up at the shop, after her fitting, Matt handed me a sheet of paper with the old measurements and the new.  This way, if the new set-up proved awkward, we could change everything back.  I’d never done such a thing (because I’m either very sure of what I need/want or I’m very ignorant – I’m leaning toward the former but that might be a little optimistic…).

In any event, if you know your way around a bike set-up and can translate what you feel in the saddle into moving components around (that I can do), small moves and keeping track of them is the way to go.  If, however, you’re like my wife and don’t, do not collect $200, do not pass Go, head straight to your local shop and get your bike squared away.

Finally, my best efforts weren’t enough to help my wife.  God knows, I tried, but to no avail.  It bums me out that I couldn’t figure everything out for her, but the changes were too big for my minimal experience.  There is a very thin line between comfort and pain on even the squishiest of racing road bikes and I don’t recommend trying to straddle it.

Balance yes, straddle no.

I can still crank out a 20 on the old Trek…

Well, close to it.  Monday….

Chuck and I split at 4:55pm on the nose – he had a meeting to get to for robotics so there was no small talk.  It was all go from the second we pulled out of the driveway.  The weather was perfect again.  Sunny, warm, with barely a breeze.

I was thankful for the lack of wind, too.  We hit 20 mph in the first quarter of a mile and we didn’t see anything that slow (excepting intersections) till we were ten miles into the ride.  Even when we stopped for intersections, we were on the gas immediately as soon as traffic cleared.

We cut a mile off the 17.6 mile route at the beginning to get Chuck to his meeting so I had to figure out how to get that mile back… whilst, and at the same time, taking two-mile pulls at 22-24 mph.  They got shorter after twelve miles.

The surprising thing to me was how well Chuck and I worked together.  We ride together quite a bit lately, but the teamwork was impressive.  No surges, nothing but smooth, fast transitions.  20+ mph around corners where possible, then back on the gas.  Two small hills, 19.5 to 20 on the way up, 24 on the way back down.

18.65 miles in 56 minutes and a little change.

What d’ya know, the old bird’s still got it.  Wait!  Crap.  This is the old bird:

On the bike.  Crap.  Meh, still got it, and I’m not old for at least 24 more years

The Great Bicycle Helmet Debate:  To Wear a Helmet or to Not…

The human head is said to have the same consistency as a watermelon when it hits the pavement…

That is a photo of my friend’s helmet.  While we were riding at what they consider a leisurely pace up to Otter Lake, the A guys were doing their weekly Saturday hammerfest to the west of us.  Their ride is one of those where they will tell you ahead of time, “Don’t show up hungover and bring your good legs”.
The man who normally wears that helmet is a better, faster cyclist than I am.  Hell, he’s better and faster than you too.

The point is, the guy knows how to ride, and well.

On that Saturday ride, there was a slight surge coming up to a stop sign, followed by a slowdown.  One of the front guys slowed a little faster than the rest of the group anticipated which brought the group together too quickly.  One of the guys darted left to miss a wheel and hooked my friend’s front wheel.  My friend went down, hard.  He broke his hip, which really sucks.  On the other hand….

Zoom in.  On the other hand, his wife won’t have to change his diaper for the rest of his life because his brain isn’t mush because he was wearing that helmet.  No brain injury was found after a CAT scan.

If you pay attention to the great helmet debate, you will be inundated with faulty arguments masquerading as reasons to avoid helmets, about torsional impacts and blaming the helmet for making injuries worse from the “helmets are unnecessary” side.  Most of these arguments will be made from a theoretical point of view by engineers and/or mathematicians and/or the ignorant masses who follow them.  They’ll even say wearing a helmet causes more accidents or increases their severity because if people didn’t wear helmets, they’d ride more like sissies (the old “remove airbags and weld a 4″ knife blade to the steering wheel to improve driving skills” argument).

I suggest speaking to someone a little more “hands on” than a theoretical mathematician.  Try a Sheriff’s deputy, a firefighter, EMS technician or, if you need some letters before or after a person’s name, a doctor – preferably a neurologist.  Each and every one, without fail (especially those relegated to the scraping of brains from the road after accidents) will recommend you wear a bicycle helmet.

As to the whole torsional argument, if you look at that first photo, you can see the skid mark in the helmet.  My friend had no neck injury.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t instances where a helmet would add to an injury – there certainly are those rare cases, but it’s like the great seatbelt debate.  For every one instance wearing a seatbelt caused harm, there are hundreds where having one on saved the motorist (or where not wearing one killed the motorist).  For every one instance where a helmet added to the severity of a bike accident, there are hundreds where the helmet saved the wearer from a catatonic state, diapers, and drooling on themselves for the next decade while their body rotted inside out – and it literally doesn’t matter how slow you’re going.

My friend’s season is done, not life as he knows it.  He’ll spend the next several months recovering, but he will be back.  There’s no doubt, if he hadn’t been wearing that melon armor, he’d be looking at a much longer recovery period… or worse.

To wrap this post up, I do want to make one thing clear:  I do not advocate for government bureaucracies making a bunch of rules and regulations regarding how bicycles are ridden and whether or not helmets are worn….  Bicycle helmets, like motorcycle helmets, should be the choice of the rider – in every case.

I just happen to be a person who won’t leave home without his melon protector.  Ever.  Not wearing one is too stupid for me to even grasp.  I would be without three friends if we weren’t so adamant about always wearing them.  Three of my friends, dead or drooling.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is no debate.