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How to Look More “Pro” on Your Bike? Let’s Try Something Simple First: Comfortable and Competent

The guys at GCN recently put out a fair video that has to do with fixing four bad habits that detract from one’s “pro” look on a bike.  The video has nothing to do with the simple things that don’t matter, like “buy a better kit”.  The tips in the video are simple, fairly obvious, and definitely wise to correct if you make those mistakes…  Where I’ll diverge a bit is with the whole “pro” thing.

My friends, I’m pushing 50.  Pro would have been long, long ago, had I even been into cycling.  Not to mention, and this is the important part, you say “pro” and a fair group of cyclists get pissy, instantly.  So where they say “pro”, let’s just say “comfortable and competent” and take the stringy upper body and ridiculous lower right out of the equation – because you’re not that anyway.

I can add a little bit to their video, as I had to deal with correcting one or two of those bad habits.  First, was cadence.  Spin too fast for your body to be still and you will look hilarious.  On the other hand, try to push too big a gear at too slow a cadence and you’re going to look off as well (you’re also going to be working a lot harder than you have to – definitely harder than everyone else you’re riding with).  Runners tend to be mashers with a slow cadence, and that’s what I was when I bought my first bike.  On the trainer was where I learned to evolve from masher to cyclist and learning to cruise comfortably at a 90 rpm cadence was one of the best things I did for myself as a cyclist (if you don’t know why a 90 cadence is so important, I do explain that in great detail here).

Second was rocking the bike on a climb.  There is a balance that has to be achieved here.  The idea is, as they say in the video, is to be loose and relaxed.  Too rigid and you waste energy and look like you have a stick where sticks don’t belong.  Too loose and you look exceptionally goofy.  There’s a balance and it’s closer to rigid than loose.

Those out of the way, the important part was how I chose to evolve into a comfortable and competent cyclist… most of my major gains in form were practiced on the trainer.  While the trainer is thought of as horribly boring and terrible, it’s the best thing I’ve found for fixing form problems and locking in good habits.

As for riding in a group, that’ll be for another post – and it’s about that time.  Happy cycling my friends.



It’s Time – Let 2018’s Cycling Season Begin!

2018’s Cycling Season (perhaps I should clarify, outdoor cycling season) is just around the corner.  The weather report is finally coming around.  After more than a foot of snow last weekend we hit 43° (9C) yesterday and it’s raining today with a high expected in the same range.  It should be warm enough to melt most of the snow and the rain will wash off the roads.  We’re looking at temps above freezing for the weekend.  Saturday will be a little tricky, but Sunday looks fantastic.

So with that, I’ll probably head out once it has a chance to warm up on Saturday (it’s going to be a minute, low temp for the morning is shown at about 10° (-12C), and that’s just a bit too cold for my blood.  It’s supposed to warm up to a little better than freezing though, so we’ll see how it goes.

One thing is for certain, my friends and I are ready to get outside.  We’ve had enough of being cooped up.  The trainer’s good for maintaining fitness when it’s nasty outside but it sure does get old by the end of the winter – especially as rough as this one was.

I Ride 120 Miles a Week in the Off-season and I still Have to Pass on a Donut in the Morning

I walk into the gas station for a cup of coffee to sip on for the trip to the office… and there it sits, looming in the corner, whispering sweet nothings at me – it’s the donut display.

Of course it’s not whispering anything to me, the donut display case, because donut display cases don’t whisper.  They don’t talk, they don’t wink, they don’t do anything humans do.  They just sit there and, with those beautiful rolled and deep-fried pieces of sugar-coated chunks of goodness, look good.

The whispering and temptation are all in my melon.

And you’d think, after all of this time, after all of the years, the thousands of posts, millions of words, 45,259 miles, the diets to stay at my riding weight… you’d think it’d get easier, right?

But do you think it’s easier or harder to walk by the donut display in the morning without reaching in and grabbing a cruller after all of that?  At this point, who really cares?  It is what it is.

As I get older, it’s almost comical how much more careful I have to be with my diet – it also doesn’t help that my daughter and I have become Food Network junkies and actually try recipes now…  Eating boring food isn’t such a big deal, but when food becomes vibrant, excellent, even restaurant quality at times… well, pushing away from the table becomes a little trickier – especially when you take into account my ridiculously active lifestyle.

Still, as the saying goes, “you gotta dance with the chick who brung ya” (actually it’s a bit more crass than that, but you get the idea).

Things could be worse, though.  Taken in context, this little problem isn’t even a blip on the screen.  I’ll walk into the gas station this morning, plop my buck on the counter and walk out with my cup of coffee – and maybe I’ll flip the bird to that donut display.  One thing is for certain, I’ll be walking out without a cruller.

No matter how crazy life is, mine is still really awesome, and being fat would make it suck a whole lot.  It doesn’t get any easier, I just have more to lose…

You don’t need a $5,000 Aero-bike to Lose Weight…

Aero-gut and aero-butt before aero-bike…

It isn’t easy, either.

I could get away with a lot when I was a kid. But that isn’t how it is now, I have to watch what I eat.  And there’s junk food everywhere… and most of it looks good!

I kept a lot of weight off on that Specialized. Same with my 5200…

Nothing compares to my Trek 3700, though. My $150 mountain bike…

I didn’t need a $5,000 bike to lose weight.

I needed a whole pile of want to.

How Do You Determine the Proper Stem Length and the Rise or Drop for Your Road Bike(s): Part Two, Rise/Drop

I’ll dispense with much of the explanation that I covered in part one because, at this point, we’re cooking with gas…

Now we’re going to look at the rise and drop of the stem, and this tends to get political pretty quickly because it involves, for some, ego.  Try to keep an open mind and we’ll roll through this as painlessly as possible.  First, know this:  It’s okay to want to ride upright and to, therefore, have some rise to the stem.  It’s also okay to want to make your bike look like a racecar.  And the important part; you’re probably going to be somewhere in between those.

Too much rise and you may as well be riding a mountain bike.  Too much slam and riding can become uncomfortable – especially if you actually want to see where you’re going.  I’ve been there, tried it, didn’t like it.

The question is, how do we find our lowest point possible?  When we’re looking at riding low and aerodynamically, there’s one problem:  You can’t ride around your gut.  If you’ve got gut, you’re going to need some rise on the bike.  Lose the gut first, then we’re in business.

Once you find your lowest possible point, where riding becomes uncomfortable, add a 5mm spacer under the stem and call it good.  Also, I won’t bother with how you figure out your highest possible point because A) I have no idea how you do that, and B) anyone can put a double stack on a bike – it looks goofy, but being able to ride is more important, and C) at some point, wouldn’t it just be better to ride a recumbent?  I digress…

I’ll start with my Specialized because I have the most photos of that process and it’ll be a little easier to illustrate.  This is really hard to get right (not really), so if you don’t know what you’re doing, pay attention.  Are you ready?  Day one – I’ve already flipped the stem so instead of a 6° rise… well, I have less of a rise:


After you’ve flipped your stem, you take spacers from below the stem and place them atop the stem, thereby lowering the handlebar until you get to the last 5mm spacer under the stem.  As you can see in the photo above, I’ve got 20mm below the stem (that’s (2) 5’s and a 10) .  It is normal for bike shops to put a bunch of spacers below the stem, and it’s not some crazy conspiracy to try to make everyone ride more upright.  You can take fork off, but you can’t put it back on.  Better to have some spacers under the stem and tailor the front end to the rider.  In any event, this is the next in the progression:

I tried the 5mm spacer above the stem first but I only bothered with that for a couple of days.  It wasn’t enough of a change to even feel different so I jumped in and put the 10 and 5mm on top, 5mm below.  Once I got used to that, and after I got a new handlebar and stem (same size and degree as the original stem).  I tried to put that last 5mm spacer above the stem but it was too much.  I had to crane my neck too far to see up the road… I rode like that for a week, just to make sure, but I put 5 back under the stem.  Then I had the stem cut:


That I couldn’t lower the stem more meant I was good with its rise – I didn’t need more drop, more drop would have made the ride worse.  Now let’s say, just for fun, that I could ride comfortably with that last 5mm spacer on top of the stem…  At that point I’d start thinking about getting a 10, 12 or even a 17° stem and flipping it.  As it is, I don’t have to bother.  Well, that’s exactly how it worked with the Trek.  With a 10° stem on there I was more than comfortable and knew I was riding a little higher than I was on the Venge (ride enough miles and you can feel a difference of just a few millimeters).  I struggled with the idea of changing the stem because I was nervous the bike would look stupid with a flat stem or even a negative rise on it.  While researching for another post, I bumped into a photo of someone else’s 5200 with a 17° stem on it and I loved it… I had one ordered a day later and now that I’ve got it installed, I’m considerably happier – it’s so close to the Venge I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell the difference.

Now here’s why I like stems with a steeper rise/drop:  As we get older we’re going to naturally want to raise the handlebar some to combat a lack of flexibility (we’re talking in our 60’s and 70’s)…  With, say, a 17° stem, all you have to do is flip it so you have a rise instead of a drop.  You don’t even have to mess with spacers unless you’re really losing a lot of flexibility.  In short, the stem is an inexpensive way to completely change the ride characteristics of a bike.  You don’t have to trade in your road bike for a hybrid when you hit your seventies anymore… put a decent stem on there and you’ve got years more.  Point is, there are a lot of options available.  All one needs is a plan and to implement it, and as the spacers go, remember:  You can cut fork off, but you can’t put it back on.  Be smart about what you do to your bike.

Happy cycling, my friends.

How Do You Determine the Proper Stem Length and the Rise or Drop for Your Road Bike(s): Part One, Length.

I was called a geek/nerd for my post yesterday by a commenter.  Folks, if the $#!+ fits, wear it…  And that’s comfy as my bath robe.  I am an unapologetic bike geek, and I can do better than yesterday’s post.  

The stem is an often looked at as an afterthought.  Something that simply comes on the bike to hold the handlebar – and most never know that there exists a greater purpose.  The stem is really the key to fitting the cockpit of the bike to the cyclist.  In terms of dinner, most people look at the stem as the bottom bun of the perfect barbecue bacon burger with onion straws and queso (try it, it’s freaking awesome, just wait till you’re in-season – you can thank me later).  My friends, the stem is the bacon.  If it isn’t right, the bike may never really feel right.  Getting the stem correct is pretty important, especially if one doesn’t know what one is doing, in terms of ride comfort and enjoyment.

I watched a video yesterday from GCN in which the presenter asked the pros how they determined their stem length.  There were guys who had stems ranging from 120mm all the way up to 150mm in length and the common rise was between -10 & -17° but some went wild with a -25° (a little too much for my tastes).  What was most interesting (perhaps jaw dropping) was the response from Adam Blythe, who says he’s never had a bike fit but he knows he wants a stem between 120 and 140mm based on feel.

But… but… HOW?  Oh no, that just won’t do for one of us mere mortals!  It may work for Adam, he’s a pro and he’s got a team that’ll hook him up with whatever he wants.  We’re not as lucky, so I’ve got the technical aspects for you and I’m geeky enough to know how to use that information.  I’ve got, what, four road bikes now, if you take the tandem into account, five if you count my Cannondale (we count that as my wife’s nowadays).

I’ve got a -6° x 100mm FSA stem on the Venge, a -17° x 90mm Bontrager stem on the 5200, a -12° x 130mm Origin 8 stem on the tandem, and a -12° x 110mm Specialized stem on the Diverge (gravel bike).  The difference between a 17° rise and a -17° rise is just flipping the stem upside down.

So how did I determine the stem lengths I needed?  I’ve got four different road bikes and four different stem lengths – and only the Venge has a stem that matches the original that came on the bike.  Now pay attention, because this is important, the distance from the tip of the saddle to the center of the handlebar on three of those bikes is exactly 22-1/2″ (57.15cm).  The gravel bike is at 22″ (55.8cm) and I did that on purpose.  I was planning on putting a 120 on there but opted for the 110 so I could sit a little more upright when I rode on dirt roads.  Less stretch = more upright.

Here’s how this all works…  First, when you’re a geek like I happen to be, you only need one bike fitting.  You take the numbers from the initial fit and transfer them to subsequent bikes after you watch how the numbers are gathered and come together to determine what to adjust.  My fulcrum bike, the bike which all others in the stable are built around, is the Specialized.  That bike came with a Specialized 100mm stem, I simply picked up an FSA stem to replace it for weight and looks.  The fit that I had done on that bike was extensive.  So, I had my foundation and I rode it… a lot.


From my bike fit in 2013…

Without getting too technical, over the course of ten or fifteen thousand miles, my body became used to that position.  A few minor tweaks here or there is all that was done to the bike after that fitting.  I began transferring numbers to the Trek, which needed a bit of work from its original pieces and parts:


If memory serves, the original stem that came on the 5200 was 100mm but it put me in a terrible position.  The original stem was discarded before the bike even came home with me and swapped for the one above…  As I grew more comfortable on the Specialized, I was able to stretch out more on the Trek.  I transferred the reach (22-1/2″) from the Venge to the Trek.  That required new quill stem adapter, a 90mm stem, and I had a 10° stem, flipped, on there for years.  It was only recently I decided to go with the negative rise and put a flipped 17 on it:

A few years ago, we bought the Co-Motion tandem.  I knew nothing about tandems back then, and ours was converted from a flat-bar hybrid to the awesome road steed it is now, so there were a lot of numbers to take into account:


Because of my lack of knowledge with that style of bike, and because it was new, I took my Venge to the shop and let them match up the tandem captain position as best they could given the wildly different geometries.  In order to get the reach right, the bike needed a whopper of a 130mm stem.


For the gravel bike, I wanted to be able to keep my head up and eyes forward a little easier so I could see potholes in the dirt roads, so when I brought the bike home and started setting it up, I set the saddle where it needed to be, took all of the spacers from beneath the stem that I could, and installed them over the stem (lowering the bar)…  Then I measured out 22-1/2″ to get my 120mm stem length, then subtracted 10mm to bring the bar a little closer so I’d sit up:


Here’s where this gets technical….  Many cyclists make the mistake of trying to move the one thing that can be moved to make the stem work – the saddle.  Unfortunately, that’s all wrong.  We rarely, if ever, change the reach by moving the saddle.  Once you get that saddle locked into your power position (where the front of the leading kneecap is directly over the pedal axle when the crank arms are parallel to the ground) and the height is set, the saddle position doesn’t change to fix reach issues.  You change the reach by changing the stem, which is why I have four bikes with four different stem lengths…  I’ve got four bikes with four varying geometries and the goal is to get each cockpit to feel like the other, as much as possible.  We do all of this at the stem…

Set the saddle where it needs to be, then measure from the nose of the saddle to the center of the handlebar of your most comfortable bike (or the one you had fitted to you, ideally), and that’ll get you close.  There are variances to be dealt with, of course.  Different saddles, different handlebars, etc… but when you’re dealing with different geometries and different bikes, you end up getting the bikes as close to your “A” bike as possible.  It’s rarely, if ever, a perfect fit going from one bike to another, especially when the geometries of the frames change.  Close is usually good enough, just as long as it is, indeed, close.

So that deals with stem length.  I’ll get into the rise or drop tomorrow.

Part Two is here

Cycling, Aerodynamics, and Going to Any (Comfortable) Length to Slam the Stem; The Negative Rise Stem

I do not subscribe to the common notion that a road bike rides more comfortably if the set-up is more “upright”, where the saddle is only an inch or two above the handlebars.  In fact, I find that idea to be utter poppycock.  I have a bad back, and I ride an exceptionally aggressive set-up.  Not only has it not hurt, I believe it’s helped

Sometimes getting a bike right can take some time. This wasn’t the case for my Specialized… The Trek, though, well that was a different story.

The Venge (56cm frame) was easy, 6°, 100mm stem, flip it, upgrade parts to within an inch of its life… done:



The bike is one size smaller than a normal fitting would recommend so getting the saddle high and the bar low was easy, especially when adding the racing geometry of the bike to the equation.

My Trek, on the other hand, has always been trickier.  The Trek is old-school technology from the late ’90’s and it’s the proper size (58cm frame).  The quill stem severely limits the ability to drop the handlebars – you can’t just swap spacers from below the stem to above.  I went with an adapter that allows me to use a threadless stem on the bike and that’s expanded my options considerably.  This is a photo of the bike as it was last week, with a 90 mm, 10° rise stem:


That worked for a while but the bike felt off compared against my Venge.  There was just a bit more drop to the Venge that made it a little more comfortable and faster to ride (I like an aggressive ride – not too aggressive, mind you, but aggressive nonetheless).  To combat that a little bit, I rotated the handlebar down which increased the reach just a little bit and lowered the hoods… and that’s how I rode the bike for the last few years.

Then, two weeks ago I saw a photo of someone else’s 5200 while researching another post:

treksterv2013(right).jpgNow, that setup includes a new fork and steering assembly and I’m not going to that length on my 5200, but I really liked the look of that stem – and that got me thinking about what I could do to get the Trek a little closer to my Specialized…

I started kicking around options.  I knew I wanted a negative rise (hefty rise to the stem, then flip it upside down so the handlebar is actually lowered) but I didn’t want to change the distance from the tip of the saddle to the center of the handlebar (currently 22-1/2″ or 54.6cm) which is the same on both road bikes.  I knew I had a 90mm stem with a 10° rise, flipped (the info is normally stamped or painted somewhere on the stem), so I decided on a 17° 90mm.  I considered, for a moment, going with a 25° stem but concluded that would simply be too much drop for comfort (and that it might look a little goofy – if you know me, you know that how it “looks” is almost important as how it feels).

Then it came down to whose stem to put on the bike.  I knew I wanted to stick to the blacked out theme, and, well I’ll just skip to it – I went with “sanctity of the brand” and put a Bontrager stem on it.  I took my first ride on it yesterday, on the trainer of course, we’re currently getting snow dumped on us… and…  Awesome.  I’d be willing to guess I’ve got at least an inch more drop and it feels a lot better.  I had to adjust the saddle, of course, to drop the nose in order to balance out the saddle, but it only took seconds to get that done and feeling excellent… et voilà.

As a side note, no, my bike did not undergo a “pink” explosion.  That’s the fault of the camera and flash.  It’s still red.

Finally we get to the aerodynamics of the whole thing.  Look, some people will try to convince you there’s no difference riding a couple inches lower on the front of the bike, that it’s all about the comfort, blah, blah, blah.  There’s a lot of truth to that.  When you hit, like 75*.  In the mean time, dude, low and mean.  Because it’s fast.


*Before you bother sharing your disdain for that remark in the comments, bro, it was a joke and everyone else gets it except you.  Of course there are medical issues, and the most important thing is riding however we can, but that wouldn’t have been near as funny.  So please, relax.

**Sorry, really.  I was watching Scrubs and I get a little carried away when Perry gets cranked up.  Seriously.