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The Pursuit of Road Bike Perfection; Making Your Road Bike Shift Better and Diagnosing Problems That Can Cause Poor Shifting in Shimano 10 Speed Drivetrains (Tiagra, 105, Ultegra and Dura Ace)

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Most people wouldn’t notice that cable housing sticking out a little farther than the other side… I’m not most people.  It drove me nuts!

I wrote yesterday about fixing the rear derailleur shift cable housing that was installed a bit long at the shop because the mechanic was trying to get my system to shift better than I was able to eek out of it when I upgraded the drivetrain from 105 to Ultegra (both 10 speed).

Now, Shimano’s 10 speed system is notorious for running into shifting problems because the rear derailleur’s spring was a little weak.  Searching the internet for help is a struggle in and of itself because there’s a lot out there, but not much is specific.  I can tell you, based on my experience, they fixed the problem with the 11 speed drivetrain – my wife’s 11 speed operates perfectly – and she’s a little harder on her rig than I am on mine, especially on my Specialized Venge.  That bike has only seen two or three raindrops since I bought it new in ’13 (a bit of an under exaggeration, but not by much – I have a very nice rain bike).

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I ran into trouble when I bought a used Ultegra 10 speed drivetrain from a friend.  I had a tough time getting the shifting dialed in right after the upgrade… and I had a harder time trying to figure out what went wrong.  After an exhaustive search on the internet, I gave up and took it to the shop.

The shifting was much improved after the shop mechanic had his way with it, but it still wasn’t perfect.  He didn’t like it either, but it was the best he could do.  We blamed it on the idea that the shifters were overused rather than just “used”.  The derailleur had to be dialed in within 1/32 of a turn for the rear derailleur to operate smoothly and (more important) quietly.  Specifically, one of the middle gears would click either going up or coming down the cassette (but not both) if the indexing of the rear derailleur was a little off. It shouldn’t be that difficult to get it dialed in and everything I found on the interwebz said the culprit was drag in cable.  I just couldn’t find it.

Fortunately, on more of a vain note, I hated that the rear shift housing stuck out too far from the frame – it didn’t match the cable on the other side.  I left it that way for a full season because I figured it would be better handled over the winter when I had the time to take it to the shop if I messed something up… better to ride the bike when I can ride it, right?

So, after thinking the process through, I went to work as soon as I had some time after the snow flew.

First things first, I wanted to shorten that cable housing, because doing that gets the shift cable out of the way to really look at how the cable could be getting hung up elsewhere.  For that, I had to pull the rear derailleur cable out far enough that it was inside the housing that leads from the down tube to the handlebar and shift lever so I could snip the housing but not the cable.  This is a simple process for externally routed cables.  For internal cables, it’s a bit more of a big deal.  The problem is running the cable back through the frame.  Mechanics use magnets to feed the cable through the frame – this works especially well with the bike right side up on a stand, as gravity helps, but you can run into problems with some bikes because running new cables requires removing the crank.  To avoid issues, I like using cable liner.  With cable liner, I can run new cable in exactly the same place the old one was when I pulled it – and cable liner, for this purpose, is reusable and cheap.  (Jagwire 1.8mm x 30 meters runs about $11 on Amazon – the 1.8 is a little thicker than others but a shifter cable slides through it more smoothly than the thinner options… the only problem is fitting it into some ferrules/end caps).

So, I did this to trim the housing, but if you’re looking for drag in your shifting system, do the same thing, just don’t snip the housing.  Shift the bike all the way to the small cog on the cassette.  Take the aluminum cable cap off with a pair of needle-nose pliers.  Make sure there are no frayed hairs on the cable tip (give the cable end a quick twist to seat a frayed end if needed) and thread in your first piece of cable liner that you cut long enough it’ll stick out of each hole in your chain stay over the shift cable.  Once your liner is through the chain stay, pull the cable until it’s hanging down from the bottom bracket cable guide.  Unbolt the cable guide cap and remove the small piece of cable liner (if you have one).  Then thread on another pre-cut piece of cable liner that’s long enough to stick out the hole at the bottom bracket and where the cable enters your down tube.  Once it’s through, take two pieces of electrical tape and tape both ends so the liner won’t fall out on you.  Pull the cable through the cable liner.  With the cable out, roll your shifter hood up from the base to expose the hole for the shift cable.  Push on the cable at the housing end until the head of the cable pokes out of your shifter.  Then, carefully pull on the cable head at the shifter until the end of the cable is at the tip of the housing.  Pull the cable another 3″ so it’s well inside the cable housing.  This will ensure that the cable is well inside the housing so you won’t cut it when you trim the cable housing (unless you just want to install a new cable – in that case, pull it all the way out).  Clip the housing and make sure the hole is round.  Put a housing end cap on it and check to see you got the length right – better to cut off too little and have to trim some off than cut too much and have to replace the housing all the way back to the shifter lever.  Push the cable back through until the head is tucked in its hole in your shifter.  Reroute your cable back through the liner in the down tube and pull the liner when it’s through.  If it’ll fit in your system, run a new piece of cable liner at the cable guide underneath the bottom bracket shell (4″ to 6″ will do).  I don’t like leaving bare cable at the cable guide in an internally routed system (the liner in the cable guide limits dirt and thus, cable rot).  Thread your cable through the chain stay liner and when the cable is through, pull the liner and set the two pieces aside to set in a tool box for future use.  Finally, put your derailleur cable housing loop back together and adjust your index your derailleur.

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Now, to shifting quality.  In my case a few of the housing ends were coated plastic and when I put everything back together, I noticed the ends weren’t playing well with the barrel adjuster and I didn’t like how the cable slid through the plastic ferrules (end caps) – it just felt like there was a little drag on the cable when I pulled it through the housings.  Drag is bad when you’re talking about a Shimano 10 speed drivetrain because the derailleur spring is too weak.  Any drag, and I mean any, in the system and the rear derailleur won’t work quite right.  I switched the plastic end caps out for metal one’s and put everything back together.  That solved my drag problems in the shifting system.  The shifting went from acceptable to excellent, just like that.  It also survived a double check two nights ago, and a triple check last night.  I can’t believe how smoothly the drivetrain is operating… I’m a little giddy to ride it.  It’s the cat’s pajamas once again.  The problem wasn’t the used shift levers, it was a little bit of drag in the system from something that shouldn’t have been a problem.  Once that was remedied, et voilà

These issues of cable drag in the shifting system can be exceedingly difficult to find and diagnose.  This one was for me.  The shifting quality was excellent on the original 105 10 speed system but over time, the original plastic housing caps ended up gumming up the cable operation.  I had myself stuck in a box with this before, but some elapsed time and forethought, and small problems were not only simple to diagnose, they were easy to fix.

In the end, the shift quality is all about drag in the system.  The less drag, the better the bike will shift.  And sometimes the problem can be as small as a little ferrule at the end of a cable housing that’s gumming the system up – even a cap that worked before a cable change.  A poor cable housing cut can be a problem, too.  Dirty housings, too much or the wrong lube in the housings, old shift levers, dirt or grime in the shift levers, dirt in the derailleur itself… all can contribute to drag in the system and poor shift quality.

When you can’t figure out what the hell is going on, let me recommend reworking the housing system from the shift lever to the back of the bike.  Serfas complete shift cable system that works well and is cost-effective.  It comes with everything you’ll need to change your old cables and housings and it comes with metal ferrules (or end caps).  If you want to go a little next level, Jagwire is fantastic and their pro kit will be a great upgrade for all but the highest-end steed.  Better still, if you want a little more flash, go for the Jagwire Road Elite Link Kit.  Of course, if you just want to stick with Shimano, they make a couple of different grades of cables and housing kits.  The standard and Dura Ace kits.  I have it on authority the Dura Ace kit is supreme, though I’ve never used it (I have the Serfas on my Trek 5200 and a hodgepodge of Jagwire on the Venge).

Finally, for cutting cables and housings alike, I like Park Tool’s cable and housing cutter.  It’s an expensive tool, but worth every penny when you get a crisp, clean cut.  Watch the brake cable housings, though.  They don’t cut as well because of their design and you have to round out the hole before firing a cable through.

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And On the Eighteenth Day He Said, Thou Shalt Tinker with Thy Bike. It’ll Make You Smile. And So I Did.

I had a long day in my car Monday. Eight hours drive time for a meeting that lasted an hour and a half. It was productive and absolutely necessary, so it was good but what a drive!

Thankfully, I left early enough in the morning that I pulled into my driveway before 4pm. I had time to burn before my trainer ride…

The shifting quality of my Venge is and has been less than perfect. Call it very good, but… just a hair off. The rear derailleur had to be dialed in perfectly for the gears to operate quietly. A thirty-second of a turn one way or the other and a one of the middle gears would click either going up or coming down the cassette (but not both). It shouldn’t be that difficult to get it dialed in and I knew what the culprit was (drag in the cable), but I didn’t want to mess with it until the season was over.  The bike was mechanically sound, it just wasn’t perfect.

Also, the housing that comes out of the handlebar and goes into the frame’s down tube was just a touch long so it touched the brake housing. The mechanic at the local shop had tried to improve the shifting quality that I was stumped on and simply cut the cable a touch too long when he installed a new single-piece cable housing in lieu of having an in-line adjuster for the front and rear mechs (an in-line adjuster for the rear mech is redundant and a little useless – for the front derailleur, it’s a necessity in an internally routed cable system).  It had bugged me since I brought it home but not enough to take the system apart to fix it.

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It’s the one on your right – the left cable if you were sitting on the bike.

It was being stumped that had me nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room filled with grannies on rocking chairs to tinker with what worked… even if not perfectly. I couldn’t help but think I was being too picky.

I found three problems. The shop had installed two housing ends that were plastic with a rubberized coating rather than metal. I didn’t like that the cable felt like it was catching a bit and it didn’t play well with the barrel adjuster. I pulled the cable through and trimmed the long housing, added metal ends, and changed the housing assembly going into the derailleur itself. Then, I added a piece of cable liner at the bottom bracket cable guide to match the front cable (I’m sure the mechanic removed the old liner thinking it was binding the shifting but the problem was more in the choice of cable housing ends [aka ferrules].

Then I put everything back together.  The whole operation took 25 minutes from start to fully adjusted and shifting seamlessly (with internal routing – using cable liner as a guide is as good as, or better than magnets).

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I managed to achieve perfect.  I’m stoked how well the bike shifts now.

After tinkering with the Venge, I changed into my cycling kit and hit the trainer for a 45 minute intense workout and followed that with dinner… I fell asleep watching the national championship football game.  It’s very likely I had a smile on my face as I drifted off.

I’ll get into the repair in greater detail for tomorrow’s post because it’s a HUGE issue with a 10 speed drivetrain.

Riding a Bicycle; Eight Signs You May Not Be Doing It Right and What to Look For If You’re Not.

First, this is not going to be some “go out an buy a $10,000 featherweight road bike for your first ride” snob post.  To be fair, I wouldn’t know how to come at it from that angle, as I’ve never owned anything approaching a $10,000 featherweight road bike, myself.

do have a $6,000 featherweight road bike, and it is indubitably sexy.  If you can afford one, I highly recommend picking up one or two.  They’re unquestionably fun.

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Here’s a list of eight things that will help you identify something wrong and what to do to correct each item.

  • Your butt feels like you’re riding on barbed wire after ten miles.
    • Okay, so this isn’t exactly perfect, because one must get some miles in before one’s heinie stops hurting.  On the other hand, it won’t hurt bad enough that you actually check to see if someone put a piece of barbed wire on your saddle.  If someone did, check your friends – you’re doing something wrong there.  Just a guess, of course.  Otherwise, your saddle is one of these:  Out of position (too high, tilted too far forward or back), or too narrow/wide for your sit bones, or has too much padding.  That’s right, too much padding.  Those big-ass seats, all irony aside, stop blood flow to the nether-regions.  That’s no bueno.
  • Your hands go numb in the driveway.  On your way out.
    • Your hands shouldn’t go numb unless you’re on a very long ride.  Hours long.  If they do, there are a few simple things you can do to correct this.
      • The drop from the nose of the saddle is either too great or too little.
      • The saddle nose is tilted down too far, it’s sliding you into the handlebar.
      • You’re gripping the handlebar too tight.  Think of gripping a baby bird in either hand.  Don’t kill the birds.
      • If the drop from the nose of your saddle to the handlebar is off, you probably need to raise or lower the handlebar.  Lowering the bar may seem odd, but I had to do this myself on my mountain bike to get some of the pressure off my hands.
      • If you’re gripping the handlebar too tight, stop it.
      • In all seriousness, if you’re gripping the handlebar – hoods, bar top or drops – with a decent amount of pressure, you’re definitely doing it wrong.  The idea is to hold on just tight enough that if you hit a bump, you don’t let go.
  • Your neck hurts.
    • Your neck shouldn’t hurt too bad, from looking up the road.  If it does, the problem is related to the drop from the nose of the saddle to the handlebar.  Don’t raise your handlebar quite yet, though.  Do some yoga or stretches or anything to fix your neck first.  Low is fast.  Fast is cool.  Therefore, low is cool.  By default.
    • Riding is cooler than not riding.  If you can’t get your neck comfortable, raise the handlebar.
  • Your knees hurt.
    • Your knees shouldn’t hurt.  There are three things that cause this
      • Your saddle is too high (front of the knees will hurt)
      • Your saddle is too low (back of the knees will hurt)
      • Your cleats are misaligned.  Believe it or not, this is a really big deal.  You can do some damage if this isn’t addressed.  Your local bike shop should have what’s needed to get you sorted out.
  • Your feet hurt.  There are a couple of issues, maybe a few, related to the feet…
    • Your shoes are too small.  This ain’t hockey.  You don’t have to cram your size 11 foot into a size 8.
    • Your shoes are too tight.  One would think, especially for those who clip in, that the shoes should be ratcheted down pretty tightly.  This isn’t the case.  Snug does the job.  Tight increases pressure unnecessarily.
    • Again with the cleat placement – in this case, too far forward or back depending on where the pain is.
  • Your back hurts.
    • Check your bike setup.  Get your bike fitted if you haven’t already.  Doing so is incredibly important.
      • There are quite a few things that could cause this.  Saddle too far back, too far forward, too high, too low… you’d need a shotgun and a lot of hope to hit the answer on this.
  • Your butt hurts, but your saddle is right.
    • You need better shorts.  Click here and learn.  You don’t have to feel the burn.
  • You’re not having any fun.
    • Dude, how can one not have fun riding a bicycle?!  That doesn’t even make sense!
    • Seriously, if you’re not having fun, maybe try a different type of cycling.  Don’t like paved roads?  Try dirt.  Don’t like roads?  Try mountain biking.  It’s supposed to be fun, and a lot of it.

Happy New Year! May This Be a No Resolution Year…

I don’t have any resolutions for the new year, though I do have things I want to do.

I will hope (pray, for those of faith) for another year just like last year. I’ll work hard, play harder, and love like I mean it.

What I won’t do is live as if tomorrow were my last day.  I love that saying, in a sarcastic way.  Let me ask you something; if tomorrow really was your last day on the planet, on the right side of the grass, would you go to work?

I have better things to do on my last day than go to work!  I like my job, even love it, and my coworkers are great, but let’s be realistic, here.  No way I’m working if I know tomorrow’s it.

This year I’ll live like I’ve got five decades left.  I’ll make sure my wife knows, every day, that, for me, the sun rises and sets on her.  I’ll make sure my kids know their dad loves them, and I’ll do everything I can to get them ready for the world.  I’ll go meetings, work the steps and the program.  I’ll go to any length to stay sober today, so I can have a happy and prosperous tomorrow, because with out my recovery my chances at a happy life disappear with a little “poof”.  Definitely not a big “poof”.

I’ll ride my bikes, a lot, and I’ll do it with a smile on my face.  I’ll go on road trips with my wife, kids, and friends.

And I’ll take whatever God puts in front of me, usually with a smile on my face, because the whole goal really isn’t doing what I want, it’s doing what God wants me to do.  That’s the reason for the happiness and joy in my life.

It’s not always what seems to be the easy path.  Often, it looks like the harder one to choose; the less fun… until I look back and I realize that was the only way I could have gone to remain content.

Live well, my friends.  Work hard.  Play harder.  Love like you mean it.

And ride a bike, because bikes are cool.

The Road Bike Fit Conundrum; Reach and Cockpit Issues

A while back, I wrote about upgrading the handlebar on my Trek 5200 to upgrade my gravel bike.  I like to call that a win-win.

I completed the bar switch on the gravel bike after a couple of years of consternation over whether or not to even bother.  The difference in going from a compact drop bar to a standard (Tarmac bend) drop was exactly what I needed, though… The extra reach (a full inch, or 2.5 cm) stretched me out which made the bike much more enjoyable to ride, and a little less “twitchy” on rough roads.

The cycling world decided a while ago that gravel/touring/adventure bikes would get either compact drop bars or those crazy, flared out (hideous) touring bars. Compact is the short way of saying shallow drop, short reach.

I liked my Specialized Diverge A1 Sport when I brought it home, but I hated the bar.  After setting the bike up how I thought it should be set up – a 10 mm shorter stem, so I’d sit up a little straighter to see potholes a little better, I found myself hunching to ride in the drops because they were too close to my knees.  My elbows got in the way, too.  It wasn’t horrible, but when you’ve already got two road bikes that fit you like a $80 pair of Rapha cycling gloves, even a little bit “off” feels like a lot.

The reach on the bar that came on the gravel bike sucked, and the drop wasn’t much better. I didn’t mess with it though, because, truth be told, I really don’t ride the bike all that much and I didn’t know if I wanted to put the money into a new bar.

This year I decided I’d do something about it, finally.

Rather than mess with a specialty bar, I kept the same stem (again, 10 mm short – it’s a 100 mm stem, so I’m slightly more upright for pothole avoidance) but put the standard Specialized Tarmac Bend handlebar on it that came off of my 5200.  This gave me a full inch (25-ish mm) more reach for riding on the hoods and in the drops.

The whole change, including bar tape, took less than an hour.

I took the bike out a while back and decided to try for a dirt segment that I held sixth place in.  I knocked a minute off my previous best time on that segment; 9:42 down to 8:38 for the 2.92 mile stretch and 4th place on the segment.  A little bit of stretch was the difference between 18-1/2-mph and 20-1/2, both hard efforts.

The Delicate Balance between properly stretched and too stretched…

There exists a delicate balance when it comes to cockpit stretch.  At first, it’s going to be about what you’re used to.  My wife rides a Specialized Alias, a road bike setup with aerobars, and the geometry of a triathlon bike.  For that bike, the seat post angle is a lot more upright than that of a standard road bike.  This is done to get one’s elbows comfortably down to the aerobars and it engages the quads more in the pedal stroke, saving the hamstrings for running.  The steep seat tube angle also makes for a tight cockpit.  I’ve ridden my wife’s bike a few times to locate creaks and ticks and I don’t know how she rides like that, but she loves the bike.  What I’m getting at is, even if your setup is a little off, you’ll tend to get used to what you’ve got.

However, when you’ve got a road bike setup, there are little tells that you might have a problem.

If you’re more comfortable riding in the drops than with your hands on the hoods, you’ve got problems.  The goal for the drops is to be able to ride in them for an hour, not all day.  That’s likely going to be too little stretch (or possibly a handlebar that’s too high).  You ride down in the drops for that extra reach because it stretches you out and helps you to breathe.  In the case of my gravel bike, because I already had two perfect-fitting road bikes, I could feel a massive difference in how I felt on the gravel bike.  If you’re not that fortunate, a decent bike fitter will see that your handlebar is too close immediately, where you might not “feel it”.

I have always recommend getting a bike fit to the rider by a professional because being a little tight in the cockpit is hard to tell by feel for a newer riders, and as I wrote above, just an additional reach of an inch can mean great increases in speed. If you want to tinker with the setup after that, by all means, have at it.  Get the pro fit done first, though.

On the other hand, if you find yourself riding with your hands on the bar top rather than on the hoods “because it’s simply more comfortable, you’ve got too much reach.  On modern road bikes, this simply means you need a different stem.  If that stretch is just a little too much (not enough to keep you on the bar top), you can also add a 5 mm spacer below the stem to bring the drop up a bit.

Two different bikes, almost the same setup.  The two bikes are actually a lot closer today after some tinkering on the Trek (left).

12 Photos of Christmas, Saving the Best…

For Christmas Day, there could only be one photo that makes my Christmas, Christmas.

The sun rises and sets on my wife, and I make sure she knows it. Last week, a few days after our company end-of-year party, the office manager stopped me on my way out the door for home. She said, “You know, I’m a people watcher, and I couldn’t help but notice at the party, how much you love your wife. It was special.”

Our marriage was fought and worked for, like anything else good in life. I wake up daily, knowing that out of all the billions of people on this planet, I am with the one for me.  She puts that smile on my face, every day. Good times and noodle salad, indeed.

Merry Christmas, my friends.

Road Bike Setup, Fitting, and Aging; How to Deal with Flexibility Issues as We Age

I was a late bloomer cyclist, picking the sport up at 41 after it became apparent I was too cool to ride a bike the day after getting my driver license at 16-years-old.  Sad, really, but at least I’m riding now.  Getting to the point, once I realized how much fun cycling was, I wanted to get into the “sporty” side of it.  Light, sleek bikes, flashy setups with the saddle several inches above the handlebar… it seemed like an “elegant” sport to use to keep fit.

For those who want to get into this side of cycling, there are a few hurdles.  First is weight.  A spare tire can’t be cycled around – we have to lose it before the front end of the bike can be lowered.  We’ve gotta ride the gut off, first.  Second is the local bike shop’s setup of the bike (or the previous owner’s setup if buying used).  The tendency with fitting a person on a bike is to “get you in a comfortable position”.  Riding with the handlebars dropped in the front, with the saddle high, isn’t exactly comfortable… at first.  Once you’re used to it, that’s another story, In my case, I started with the shop setup, then started lowering the bar as I got comfortable with riding.  I didn’t have any weight constraints.  The others can be overcome with a little knowledge.  How to swap spacers from below the handlebar to above, etc.

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For most of my 40’s, I’ve tinkered with my setup on two, now three, road bikes until they were each as low as they could be at the front while still allowing me to ride comfortably.  To be honest, I’m a little sad that I’ve found my limit on all three of my road bikes.

This all started back when I brought home my Trek 5200 that the shop had set up with the handlebar only a couple of inches lower than the saddle.  Within weeks I was lowering the handlebar, a little bit at a time, till I got to about four inches.  Then, my Specialized Venge in 2013, at the end of the season.  I had a Body Geometry fitting done on the bike – the only thing they did was lower the saddle two millimeters.  I’d set the bike up myself, correctly, with that small exception.  Once the Venge was set, I shifted my attention to the Trek.  I tried to match that to the Venge as closely as I could.  Here are four photos that illustrate the changes over time:

5200 Trek-Stem

In the last photo, bottom right, you can see the nose of the saddle on the left, and the huge increase in drop from the photo just left of that.  The changes to the Venge were subtler, but substantial at the same time:

2013 Specialized Venge

The drop from the saddle to the handlebar on my 5200, after the last adjustment, was so profound I actually had to put a spacer below the stem to raise it up 5 mm so I could ride it comfortably in the drops.  The key is to know my limits… but to know them, I had to find them first, then back it off a bit.

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Sadly, age is finally catching up to me as I near 50.  I’m still quite flexible, and the bikes as the setups are now are comfortable and fast.  I just can’t go any lower unless I get into drastic remedies to improve my flexibility.  I won’t say never, but it won’t happen any time soon.  I’m content to leave well enough alone at this point.