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So, the one problem I had with my wife’s gravel bike rebuild is that the medium cage Sora derailleur is on backorder. This is a massive problem for normal folk, but not for me. I’m only rarely normal folk. Or is that… regularly… Meh. I went out to the parts shed, pulled out the old 9 speed Ultegra derailleur out of my old Trek box, and installed that on her bike till the new one comes in. BAM! Drops mic.
One small problem… the B set screw that pulls the pulley wheels away from the cassette teeth. Even after adjusting it, with the B screw all the way in, the pulley teeth were crashing into the cassette on the smallest cog. Which is better than when I first set it up because it was crashing into the biggest and smallest cogs.
I set it so my wife couldn’t use the 32/11 and 47/11 combos and suggested she not use the 11 tooth till her new derailleur came in. Because how in God’s name do you fix that!
Early yesterday morning, I was surfing for B screw setting instructions before work, and I happened on a video that showed a hack to fix a short set screw. He recommended a m4 x 25-mm with a nut to rest on the derailleur hanger. They were relatively cheap, though, so rather than just go for a 24, I picked up a 6, 12, a 20 & a 25, and one nut.
I only needed the m4 x 12. And I didn’t need the nut.
All 18 gears, works beautifully. And a total cost of $3.46. Gotta love it.
There’s No Such Thing As Bad Weather, Just Bad Gear (And Other Nonsense Having to Do With Cycling In Bad Weather)
There is such a thing as bad weather for cycling. Let’s see if you can guess which photos best depict this simple truth:
Friends, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist. When you have snow stuck to your eyebrows, that’s a pretty good indication you’ve just ridden in weather bad for cycling. Let’s say you know someone who’s extra-dim, though. Have them ask anyone who lives in Ireland (or most of the UK for that matter) and they’ll be more than happy to tell you all you need to know. Sadly, in such places, if you want to ride, you’re going to have to come to grips with a popup rain shower. I’d bet my lunch the saying originated either during a Minnesota winter or anywhere in the UK. There once was an All Seasons Cyclist who loved that saying (and did more than his fair share to prove its plausibility). There’s just one problem: real bad weather sucks. All good gear can do is make bad cycling weather suck less.
Let’s just say we’ve got, for comparison’s sake, on one hand, a sunny 80° day with a gentle breeze. On the other, a windy, 34° (1 C) day with a smattering of rain/snow mix. The first example, if you hadn’t guessed yet, is a good day for cycling. The second would be bad. You can’t put enough lipstick on that second pig to make it pretty.
See what I did there? I took a perfect day and compared it with a perfectly lousy day – I took the two extremes as examples to bolster an obvious statement so as to create controversy in the middle by playing the poles. That, my friends, is politics. Let’s look at a simpler scenario. Let’s take out the wind and rain and just go with a chilly night for a ride. I had one just the other night as a matter of fact, that provides an excellent example of how not to dress for the cold.
When I walked my bike out the door at 4:50 pm, it was 54° (12 C). Not exactly balmy, but pretty normal around here for mid-November, average. I rolled out over to Chuck’s house and found myself riding a little faster than I’d planned, to stay warm. I had on arm-warmers, a short sleeved jersey, and a nice long sleeve that I love for 50° rides – it doesn’t block the wind at all, though (thus, the jersey and arm warmers). For below the belt, I went with wool socks, mtb shoes, leg warmers and bibs. Again, normal for 50. I should have been fine and was quite flummoxed as to why I was cold.
In hindsight, once the sun started going down, the temp went with it, and the Weather Channel completely missed this happening. It had us in the upper 40’s till 9pm) but that’s not what we got. It turned cold. By the time I had four miles in it was down to 45° (7 C). Just two miles later, 37° (or 3 C). I was on the bad side of cold most of the ride (though it wasn’t too horrible as long as I didn’t coast much). I didn’t know why I was so cold while I was riding, but now that I can see the temp reading from my Garmin on Strava, it makes all the sense in the world. I should have had a thermal vest on as well, and a second layer down low, with either foot covers or at least toe covers. And that’s exactly where the saying “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear” makes sense.
There’s no question I was underdressed for that ride. In a case like that, the gear selection made for a chilly ride, even if it wasn’t technically my fault. The prognosticator at the Weather Channel wasn’t riding my bike, so “blaming it” on him does about as much good as $#!++!ng in my hand to prove a point. It wasn’t a “bad” ride by any stretch, either, but the right clothing would have made it vastly more enjoyable. And that was my first poorly judged weather scenario of the fall season.
In cases like that, good gear choices can absolutely make or break a ride. Getting closer to the bad pole, though, sucky cycling weather is sucky cycling weather, was ever thus.
Suffice it to say, some frickin’ days are meant for Zwift. Or a good movie. And jammies.
I run a Shimano Sora drivetrain on my gravel bike. 2×9 sp., 48/32 up front, 11/32 in the back. I had to compromise buying the bike because I bought one for my wife at the same time. We simply couldn’t justify laying out the cash for two high-end gravel rigs when we really didn’t plan on using them in a manner that would require a high-end steed. That is, until a couple of my friends whom I can normally hang with put a hammering on me on their high-end horses. It was only then I thought, “I should have known better! Why, oh why didn’t I buy a better bike?!”
Whatever, it’s water under the bridge. I have to work a little harder to keep up, it is what it is.
That said, the Sora Drivetrain was a nice surprise. I was expecting something well below the quality of the 105 line on my Trek and the Ultegra on my Venge. The shifting and overall feel of the drivetrain is exceptional. I never thought I’d write that sentence.
It wasn’t all fun and games, however. Since I brought the Diverge home, the front derailleur gave me fits. At first, I thought there was a noise from the chain rubbing the derailleur, both at the big and little gears. Getting the cage to handle all of the gears was not easy – but I always assumed whoever set it up at the shop got the set screws right, and you never touch the set screws so it had to be a barrel adjustment issue, right?
Wrong. I spent the better part of a season (which sounds long, but really isn’t, I only put a few hundred miles on the bike the first year) monkeying with the barrel adjusters hoping I’d be able to luck my way into getting it right. I could get it close, but there was a rub when I trimmed the front cage for the two smallest (hardest) gears, then chain rub on the biggest gear without the trim.
That’s where this gets fun.
I’m going to condense two years of consternation into two paragraphs, but keep in mind, being only a junior bike noise sleuth in good standing, it took a minute to figure all of this out – and it wasn’t until I decided I had to play with the set screws that everything finally came together.
The first problem was that the chain wasn’t rubbing the front derailleur cage in the two smaller gears, with the cage trimmed. It was the crank arm that was hitting the cage when it was trimmed all the way out. The trick, then, was getting the derailleur cage in, toward the chainring, but not too far it that it would rub the chain. As it turned out, there’s a fine line between the two. A very fine line.
How fine? You can’t measure the clearance in millimeters. Tenths of millimeters.
Now, this crank requires a wavy washer, so technically, because the wavy washer is for preload, I could install the washer at the drive side. This would push the chainrings and crank arm to the right and allow a little more clearance for the cage at the crank arm. But, that thinking is a little flawed and, as you can see, I made it work. Barely.
In the first photo, you can see I couldn’t fit more than a business card, folded in half, betwixt the crank arm and derailleur cage. The second photo shows the clearance for the chain. Again, not much… but enough.
When it comes to set screws, I tend to create more trouble than the problem I fix, so rather than mess with this with YouTube videos, which are great, but tend to lack the finer points, I went straight for the Shimano front derailleur installation manual. The manual shows precisely how to install a front derailleur properly – and if you use the full install instructions from the beginning, you don’t have to worry about narrowing down and fixing a flaw, you just set the derailleur up correctly. The instructions start on page 10. I read through them once, then did everything, step-by-step, using the manual as a guide… and a short while later, I had the derailleur set, perfectly. After that it was just a matter of tinkering to get it dialed in so everything worked without rubbing. And Bob literally is my uncle.
And so there it is, the perfect setup on my Specialized Diverge (mine’s the one with the red helmet hanging from the shifter lever.
The main thing I learned through all of that is, the shop’s mechanics aren’t always perfectly right, and I can be if I seek out and follow the proper instructions.
Unless we’re talking about a suspension fork… in that case, it’s going to the shop. That’s a period at the end of that last sentence. Some $#!+ I just don’t need to get into.
I own one of everything when it comes to road bikes; entry-level right up to opulent. Short of top-of-the-line, but I’ve got two girls about to head off to college. $8,000-$12,000 for a bicycle would be stupid on my salary. Besides, what I have is certainly enough bike for my needs – and that’s what’s most important.
I’m going to veer off, though, because this isn’t about a top-end bike. Top-end bikes are exactly what you’d expect shelling out that kind of cash for a machine that doesn’t have a motor. I want to talk about the entry-level steed. Most people, when they start thinking about getting into cycling, look at the upper end of the food-chain and wonder how someone could possibly want to spend $5,000 on a bicycle, let alone double that. They immediately head for the bargain rack and start looking at the alloy entry-level bikes. The Trek Emonda AL, Trek Checkpoint, etc. and the Specialized Allez or Diverge. When you’re looking at a bike ranging from $5,000 to $12,000, $1,000 doesn’t seem all that bad. Hold that thought.
My wife and I decided to buy gravel bikes a while back and that presented me with an interesting problem; I knew about the differences between a $3,000 gravel bike and a $1,000 bike and I wanted the $3,000 steed. The problem was, $2,000 was doable. $6,000, not so much and I had to buy two. We went with entry-level rigs:
Mine, on the left with Shimano Sora components, has been fantastic. I had to do a lot to dial it in because the person who built it at the shop didn’t have the attention to detail I do, but with the time I put into it, it’s quite excellent and trustworthy – if heavy.
Then there’s my wife’s. Better paint job, but with Shimano Claris from 2016/17, one level of components below mine. We’ve had the crankset warrantied twice and I just ordered a Shimano Sora drivetrain because I’m so sick of dealing with Shimano Claris I could scream. Now, to be fair, the Claris setup on my wife’s bike is the previous generation. I’ve heard from a few friends who have the new generation (2018 and newer), that it’s much more reliable. Those bottom-of-the-line components, while they’re meant to work, often leave a lot to be desired if know how good “good” is supposed to be.
So let’s get down to where the rubber meets the road, to what really matters. What will dictate your purchase is your intended riding style. If you’re going to putter around, smelling the fresh air and enjoying being outside, an entry level bike is all you’ll ever need. With a little bit of training and effort, you’ll be cranking out the big miles in no time. I’d go with Shimano Sora or better, which will add some cost to that entry-level steed, but it’s well worth the nominal upcharge. Also, while we’re at it, if we’re going for the easy riding entry-level bike, I’d go with a gravel bike over an alloy road bike. The gravel bikes are versatile and spectacular. Especially if you buy a second set of wheels (preferably lighter and more aerodynamic) for road use so you can put knobby tires on the original set of wheels and road tires on the lightweight wheels for road use. Then you’ll have all of your bases covered.
On the other hand, if you’re picturing yourself rocketing down the road with a gaggle of friends, hands in the drops, banking into corners… well, that entry-level bike simply isn’t going to cut it.
It’s not to say one can’t keep up with the fast kids on an entry-level bike, because it is possible. The problem is the rider has to be in tip-top shape in order to make up for the wattage required to make an entry-level bike do what a high-end bike does naturally. People in cycling talk about “free speed” a lot. Think of this as “expensive speed”. “Expensive speed” is just like it sounds, and it is fantastic. Having a fast and light bike won’t improve one’s fitness, but it does more with one’s fitness than an entry-level bike will. Therefore, if you’re on an entry-level bike trying to box with the top-end bike crowd, you’ll have to work a lot harder to keep up with them. It can be done, but it sucks.
For instance, using my 24 pound gravel bike as an example, with friends I can hang easily with on equally matched road bikes, I struggle to keep up with the same people who ride advanced gravel bikes (one friend’s is six pounds lighter, another is five…). I can do it, but it ain’t easy. There’s more to it than that – tires, tire pressure, gearing choices, etc., but this paints a fair picture. Put simply, the faster one plans on riding, the more the bike matters.
That’s not the end of the story, though.
If the best you can afford is an entry-level bike and you discover that you too would like to go fast, there’s light at the end of the tunnel and it isn’t a train (or the A Group with headlights). Your salvation is upgrades. Being fair, it’s rare to be able to afford a $7,000 bicycle. That’s a lot of cash. However, if you wanted to do it like I did, it’s a little more expensive in the long run but you get the benefit of spreading the cost out over time. Upgrade your way out of your entry-level bike.
Wheels, wheels, wheels…
There is no better way to make an entry-level bike faster than by upgrading the wheels. You’ll lose upwards of a pound (or more) and improve your aerodynamics in one upgrade. I went from 23-mm alloy wheels, to 38-mm carbon fiber, to 50-mm carbon fiber wheels. The original wheels that came on the bike were around 2,000 grams. The 50-mm wheels are 1,470 – I dropped more than a pound on the wheels and they’re vastly more aerodynamic at the same time. Even the 38’s were a huge improvement over the 23-mm alloy wheels. If you’re on a budget, as I was, I recommend Ican wheels. They’re fantastic, reliable and affordable.
Next would be drivetrain upgrades. Going from, say, Shimano Sora to Ultegra will mean more gears and a significant drop in weight as well as a decent performance improvement. Don’t forget, when you upgrade the shifters and derailleur(s), adding gears, you’ll also have to change out the chainrings, cassette and chain. Choose wisely because this isn’t a cheap upgrade.
Finally, for pure weight gains we can upgrade the crankset. Cranks, especially on the low end, are notoriously heavy and typically require a lot of maintenance. Changing the crankset out for something higher on the food chain can save considerable weight. I dropped almost three-quarters of a pound upgrading from an FSA crank to S-Works.
To put a nice, big bow on this post, entry-level road bikes have their place, there’s no doubt. Depending on what you want out of cycling, there’s no need to blow thousands of Dollars on a bicycle if you’re just looking to explore the countryside at a leisurely pace. Don’t get me wrong, they’re very nice, but they’re not a necessity. Also, if your budget prohibits a high-end bike, you can always buy the best you can afford and upgrade as you can afford it.
The main rule has always been, ride hard. The rest tends to work itself out in the wash.
One final note, going back to my entry-level gravel bike… Other than swapping saddles with the saddle I had on my tandem and swapping the shallow drop bar for a classic drop bar I had in the spare part shed, I haven’t upgraded a thing on the bike that would make it “faster”. I didn’t buy the bike to ride fast, so I haven’t bothered with upgrades. An entry-level bike has its place in the stable, even for the avid enthusiast.
A cycling buddy, Jonathan, sent out a text to our group the other day recommending we try The Black Bibs for reasonably priced trainer shorts. I’ve already got a drawer full of trainer bibs, but I’m always on the lookout for a decently priced pair of bibs.
I’ve been a fan of Funkier for a few years now, but they can leave a hot spot in a really bad place if you’re not careful – and I definitely won’t wear them on rides longer than, say, 40 miles. They’re for weekday rides so I can save my nice (expensive) bibs for the long days in the saddle without wearing them out. After all, I pay more for one pair of bibs than most would want to spend on a bicycle, I want them to last.
So, that brings me to the aforementioned Black Bibs. The slogan is “No Labels, No BS, Undeniably Affordable”.
Yep, no labels, check. No BS, Check. There’s no question, at $40 for their bottom tier bibs, they’re affordable. So, check.
The ordering process is simple. Delivery, at least to my house, was swift. My pair arrived the day it dawned on me I should track the shipment to see where it was. It was in my mailbox. Now, I picked up that bottom tier pair to try out. Why? I don’t know, possibly to be a crank when they didn’t live up to my high expectations… political season is in full-swing and the politicians have gotten everyone so riled up, cats and dogs are sitting back slack-jawed at the carnage. Hey, honesty is the best policy, and if I’m anything, I’m capable of being honest.
Wednesday night was my first ride in The Black Bibs… erm… bibs, and I picked a doozy of a night. My buddy and I went from a lazy, fun evening ride, to a full-on hammer-fest in 23-miles.
First impressions were a little tricky. The bibs are slippy on the saddle out of the package, so it was difficult to keep my keister in its happy spot on the saddle – I slid all over the place. Also, the chamois is rather thick, so it feels a little unsettling on the heinie at first. One really nice attribute is the leg hem – there’s no grippy on the hem so those who hate the grip will LOVE these shorts – and my leg warmers were still where I’d put them at the end of the ride, too.
About 15 miles into the ride, the slippery nature against my Bontrager Montrose Pro saddle relaxed and I was able to sit on the saddle without it feeling like it was a contoured sheet of ice. After that, the bibs went away entirely. And that’s exactly what I want in a pair of bibs. I want to not think about them. At all. Until the next time I put them on.
The chamois was acceptable and would be alright on a long-ish ride. I loved the lack of grip at the leg hem, but probably my favorite was the shoulder straps. I have pecs… not big one’s, mind you, but they’re there. And because I have pecs, there are rubbed raw nipple issues with some shoulder straps. Not with The Black Bibs. Normally I have to pay north of $100 for a pair of bibs that won’t rub my nips raw. $40 is unheard of unless they’re on sale, marked down from $100+.
Much more research will be necessary, and I’ll have to get a pair of the $65 high-end bibs, now. So far, though, I was thoroughly impressed with the pair I bought.
For sizing, I bought a Large, which is par for the course. I used to be a medium before I learned how to eat for my mileage, but those days are long gone. I’m 6′ tall and between 170 and 175 pounds (depending on whether we’re before or after November/December family get-togethers and dinners). Interestingly, the sizing charts go by loose measurements and are worthless. If you keep scrolling down, you’ll see a chart that goes by weight/height and that had me pegged at the tall/heavy end of a Large. They fit excellently.
All year long, from riding on the trainer starting New Year’s Day to get into spring fit and strong, to the first thaw in early spring and all through summer and into fall, we grind and hammer to be tip of the sword fast.
There are recovery rides, of course, but at least four days a week it’s hammer down.
Then comes autumn proper. Cold morning temps near freezing, cloudy skies, and nature’s fireworks display. 23-mph on a road bike is double-cold, so we’ve taken to gravel bikes and easy rides on dirt roads.
We talk about the year gone by and crack good-natured jokes about the year’s miscues and bonks, and we spin the cranks. The pace is relaxed and fun – a bunch of old kids out on their toys. Fall is our time to stop and smell the dirt. To enjoy the gains we worked for all year long, to laugh and to ride with friends.
We’ve all heard or read “in these trying times” or “to save lives” so many times, they’re likely a trigger for most (I’m real close with “to save lives” myself), riding the back roads with friends “in these trying times” is the safest way I know to enjoy time together with others. While some of us like to act like hermit crabs, we all need friend time.
And so it was, Saturday and Sunday. We rode slow and had a lot of laughs. We watched the colors change right in front of us. And, just for a few hours each day, things were normal again. And it was good.
A Noob’s Guide to Saddles and Saddle Width: Conclusions on a Decade-Long Experiment. Saddle Width is the Key to Happiness
I’ve written about bike saddles before. I currently own four bikes (five if I count our tandem). I’ve been through a bit of N-1, but for good causes. My old Cannondale will go with my daughter to college once I convert it to modern shifting this winter and I gave my old Trek 3700 mountain bike to a co-worker at the beginning of his career whose big box bike had completely broken down. For those five bikes I currently own… counting… nine saddles. I’ve got everything. 155-mm, 143-mm, 138-mm and even a 128-mm. I’ve got thinly padded saddles and thickly padded saddles, flat saddles and contoured saddles, cutouts, no cutouts and yuge cutouts… steel rails, titanium rails, and carbon rails.
In the following post, I’ll detail what I’ve learned over many years of saddle sores, hamstring pain so bad I was hobbled, squirming on my saddle on anything more than a 40-mile ride, and finally, saddle nirvana and actually feeling a saddle sore go away, as I rode, after switching the saddle on my most prized race bike.
I was measured for saddle width in the late fall of 2012 for the first time. Till then, I’d ridden on anything I could get my hands on, not knowing the difference, and certainly not understanding why the saddles I did choose hurt so bad. My first problem, one that many noobs have, was the padding paradox:
In road cycling more is less and less is more, was ever thus – comfortable. In mountain biking, gravel biking, and tandem riding, a little padding goes helps me go a long way.
The key is picking the right contouring and setting the saddle in the proper position on the bike, including height, fore/aft, and tilt. My road saddles are 36-3/8″ off the pedal spindle, 22-5/8″ from the handlebar center, contoured, and 3° nose down. The gravel, mountain and tandem bicycles take a page from that setup, but the nose down angle and distance from the handlebar changes for each bike. From my aforementioned prized race bike to my gravel bike, to my mountain bike. On all of my bikes, the biggest difference is the saddle’s width.
The type of cycling and how upright I will ride determines the width of the saddle. I found this out on my own, too. When I was first measured, I took it that the measurement would be the end all, be all. 143-mm was my saddle width. All of the saddles I bought, till last year, were purchased with that measurement. Everything was a 143.
Last year, Trek had a beautiful, light carbon fiber saddle for sale. It was a 138 Montrose Pro. I dropped more than 100 grams from the old saddle and to my surprise, for the first time since I started purchasing saddles for bicycles, I experienced what it feels like for a saddle to disappear under me.
This year, the Montrose Pro was even more steeply discounted so, in the middle of a saddle sore outbreak, I bought another, though this one was a 128-mm, and I put that saddle on my Specialized Venge. I thought, “if the 138 feels better than my 143-mm Specialized Romin, maybe that 128 will be even better“…
With the purchase of that 128-mm Montrose, my three dimensional education in saddles began to crystalize. I was afraid when I hit the “purchase” button on Trek’s website with that saddle. I was worried the saddle would be too narrow and thus, painful. How mistaken I was.
When I was measured and it was determined my width would be a 143, I was measured sitting upright with my knees only slightly raised from 90°. That’s not how I ride, though, sitting upright. I ride road bikes in a very aggressive posture for a 50-year-old man:
I knew enough that I needed a contoured saddle to be comfortable. I’m not incredibly flexible and all the research in the last decade or more says that flexible people ride flat saddles while we flex-challenged ride a contoured saddle. Fine with me. However, what isn’t discussed, or is commonly left out, is how the support bones that are ridden on change as the drop from the saddle nose to the handlebar increases.
Put simply, as we rotate our hips forward to lower our shoulders, the support bones narrow. Thus, I’m infinitely comfortable on a 143 on my tandem, mountain bike, and gravel bike – the ride is much more upright. On my road bikes, both of which feature large drops from the saddle to the handlebar, that same 143 will give me saddle sores because of excessive rubbing at the crook of my leg and hip. I don’t get that with the 138 or the 128.
With the 128 Montrose on my race bike and a 138 on my rain bike, I literally rode a saddle sore away. I ride every day, saddle sore or no, and while the first day was painful, after I got the 128 correctly adjusted, the pain faded until the sore went completely away.
On the other hand, with the road season over, we’re riding on gravel roads now. My gravel bike has a slightly more upright, less aggressive setup, and that exact same 143-mm Specialized Romin that gave me saddle sores on my Venge feels like butter on the gravel bike. As my hips rotate back to sit up a little, the distance between the support bones increases and that 143 fits as it was measured way back when.
If this seems like a lot to keep straight, you aren’t wrong. Most people won’t go to the length I do to get right on their bike(s). Most people don’t ride like I do, though. When you’re in the saddle almost every day, you want the experience to be as pain-free as is possible.
So, to wrap this post up, let’s look at some key saddle features and getting a saddle properly set:
- Flat or contoured? Flat for flexible, contoured otherwise.
- Padding: More is not always the answer. I like to go for as little padding as is possible for how I’m riding.
- Width: Having to do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I’d go with the upright measurement, knees slightly raised from 90°. That’s the width for my mountain, gravel, and tandem which are more upright. Then, decrease width for more aggressive postures on the road bikes.
- Saddle height: General saddle height is dialed in first – heels on the pedals (bike on a trainer or supporting yourself in a doorway indoors or in the garage), pedal backwards. Legs straighten without rocking at the bottom of the pedal stroke.
- Fore/Aft next: After a short warm-up on that trainer, find your “happy place” on your saddle and pedal for a few minutes. Stop with your crank arms parallel to the ground and run a 4′ level from the front of your kneecap to the ground, touching the front of the crank arm. The level’s plumb bubble should be between the lines, adjust fore/aft till it is as close as possible. You can also use a plumb bob, but that goes from just below the kneecap to the center of the pedal spindle. Same measurement, different method of getting it.
- Adjust down-angle of the saddle to suit, so you’re riding on your support bones (not necessarily the sit bones, mind you).
- Dial in final saddle height.
Bob’s your uncle.
I started cycling like many. Mountain biking, then a road bike, then a real road bike, then a real road bike, upgrades, wheels, saddles… ah, road bikes. Or, as I like to refer to them, toys. For adults.
My entrée into road cycling was like akin to Christian Bale’s Ken Miles at the Dearborn test track after the engineers cram “the beast” into a GT40 prototype in Ford Vs. Ferrari… That was me, cycling in a group the first time. “Oh! I’ll have some more of that my girl!”
I felt like I was in the Tour de France. For all of eight miles, when I was promptly dropped as the group surged beyond 28-mph. I wasn’t the first to drop that night and I definitely wasn’t the last, so I chased a guy down who dropped a quarter-mile after I did. Being lost as lost gets, he helped my get back to the parking lot. We rode together every week after that and ended up becoming a very good friend.
I’ve learned a lot since that night.
So that leads to my first tip, a favorite from that little blast from my past:
Don’t be the first to drop in a club ride. Especially if you don’t know where you are!
All kidding aside, getting into group cycling isn’t easy, especially when the group you run into is fast. Everything happens so quickly, one little mistake can be disastrous. So here are a few advanced tips to work for as you progress:
- Don’t ever be late. 10 minutes early is on time. Most groups will leave without you if you make it a habit of being late.
- When we first start out, we tend to concentrate a lot on the wheel ahead of us. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at first, but the focus is too narrow. The goal should be to become spatially aware of your surroundings so you can look beyond the front of the group to see what’s coming long before it gets there. See, concentrating on the wheel in front of you at 40 feet per second is too late for you to react. You want to expand that range of vision so you can also see what the front of the group is doing. You’ll want to learn to know exactly where the wheel in front of you is while you’re looking up the road. It’s not easy and don’t force it, just make it a goal to get to that point.
- Get low when the going gets windy. Sitting upright in anything but a dead-on headwind will have you working almost as hard as the person driving the group if you don’t have enough space for an echelon. You can cheat this a little by riding in the drops and getting a little lower to fit in the draft.
- If you’re a “masher”, learn how to spin, too. Mashing the pedals takes a lot of effort, maybe 20% more than spinning. You have to work a lot harder to be a masher, so take a winter on the trainer and learn how to spin. It’ll help when you’re in a group that’s a little stronger than you are. Look at the difference this way; how many one-arm curls can you do with a 30 pound weight? 10? 20? That’s mashing. How many curls can you do with a 2 pound weight? You can go all day. That’s spinning – and at the same time, you’ll be able to accelerate a lot quicker when you’re spinning – to an extent.
- Don’t overlap wheels, even in an echelon, until you know how to overlap wheels. If your front wheel touches or rubs the wheel in front of you, someone’s rear wheel, you’re the one who goes down – and usually very quickly. The theory is simple. A rear wheel is fixed and has most of the rider’s weight on it. A front wheel is not fixed and doesn’t have as much weight on it. It’s much less stable. The front wheel twists, and bam. You’re down.
- Look at me now. This is important. Don’t ever stop pedaling when you’re at the front of the group unless you signal a slowdown first. With your hand down, make a stop signal and say loudly, “Slowing”. Don’t EVER stop pedaling when you’re at the front.
- Smooth and predictable is the order of the day when you’re in a group. This is not easy at 30-mph (50-km/h), but it is what you must be at all times. When you’re hurtling down the road at that speed, you’re in the same space the person in front was just at in less than two-tenths of a second. Blink. That fast. You must, except when you’re the last bike in the line, be smooth and predictable.
- DO NOT ACCELERATE OFF THE FRONT OF THE GROUP after the person in front of you flicks off. The others behind you are not thinking, “Wow, that fella is strong!” No, they’re thinking, “Where does that twatwaffle think he’s/she’s going?” Don’t be a twatwaffle. See also, smooth and predictable. If you can go faster, accelerate smoothly and predictably over the course of a quarter-mile.
- Don’t take someone explaining ground rules to you personally. Group cycling is all about self-preservation. If you’re new to a group, they want to make sure they can trust you… and if you make a mistake, they’ll have a desire for you to not make that mistake again.
- No aero bars in the bunch. You’re not good enough to use them in a group. Stop. You’re not. Those who actually are good enough to use them in the pack know nobody is good enough to use them in the pack. At the front, meaning first bike, or off the back and to the side only. You’re too far from the brakes and your arms are too narrow for decent control of the handlebar. If you truly believe you’re good enough, it’s likely because you’re a boob. And you’re wrong. And colossally arrogant.
- Start with a slower group for your first rides until you learn the ropes and how they feel when your back is up against them. Put your ego aside for a few weeks, there will be plenty of time to show everyone else how strong you are… after you know what you’re doing. For a better workout with a slower group, pull at the front longer.
- We have five different classes of rider on our big club ride. Find out where you fit by talking with others. We gladly help noobs find the right group to ride with before the big ride. We want for you to be happy with the group you’re with. It’s in our best interest for you to come back and ride again. Groups rely on new blood to remain viable.
- Always remain teachable. Those who know everything tend to be a bore.
I rode with Mrs. Bgddy last evening. Just an easy jaunt around the block, and oh my, was it fun. We laughed, raced for a few City Limits signs, and generally talked about stuff.
I was about 🤏 that close to taking the 5200 out but it was sunny and fair at 55° with barely a breeze. I had to take the Venge for one last hurrah. I’m not going to kid myself here, the days left this year that I’ll be willing to take the Venge out are numbered. Even if it’s sunny and dry enough, the Venge is a 45° and rising bike (7 C) because anything below that and I need toe or foot covers to withstand the cold, and that means I have to take the Trek because the short axle on the Venge’s pedals won’t allow for foot covers. There are worse problems to have. Add to that, the upcoming time change and weekday rides in the sun are out – and the aero drop bar on the Venge won’t allow for a light mount…
So there we were, rolling along my usual route in perfect tranquility, slow and steady after Tuesday night’s hammerfest… I’m on my race bike, cruising at 16-mph with my wife, thinking back over this most peculiar cycling season.
After thinking I’d struggle to hit my 6,000 mile outdoor goal in March, I blew by it more than a month ago. I’m currently sitting on 7,300 and change. I’ve been fortunate enough to make some excellent upgrades to my road bikes – lightweight carbon fiber wheelsets for both bikes, new pedals for both bikes, a much needed new saddle for the Venge… new chainrings on the Venge to make it a 50/34 like the Trek. It’s been a great year for the bikes I’ve got.
The speed has been surprising this year as well. I’ve broken all but my previous longer distance speed records (50 km, 50-mile, 100km and 100-mile, all from the same ride in 2013), including my best hour distance of 24.4 miles (39 km & change) on my 50th birthday.
My weight is excellent as well. I’m probably a few pounds heavier than I’d prefer, but I’m right where my wife and doctor like me. I’m no mountain goat, but I’m not chubby by any means, either. The weight was a real wildcard for me this year. I really have to learn how to control my eating over the winter so I don’t have to go into the spring feeling like the blob.
In the end, the best part of the cycling year was riding with friends. While everyone else has been limiting contact, our tight-knit group, for the most part, didn’t miss much of a beat. We didn’t have any sanctioned or supported events, but we managed without just fine. While everyone else has been shut down to most contact outside their immediate family, other than April when we were all riding solo, we’ve had fantastic group rides all season long. Sure, there were those who thought it inappropriate – such as the sad folk who would drive around their convertible with a mask on, or walk alone outdoors, 100’s of feet from another human with a mask on – but those (scientifically challenged) few simply stayed away. Not one case was spread among us, and we were still able to enjoy that all-important friendly human connection that many of us need to be happy, even if there was no physical contact in the form of actual hi-five’s or handshakes.
In many ways, because I relied so much on my wife and cycling friends to stay grounded, this cycling season was better than most. Cycling didn’t just keep me fit, healthy and happy, it filled a hole that the virus stole from most, and for that I am grateful.
I readied my Venge for what was likely it’s final evening in the sun for the year. This year’s upgrades were a new saddle and a set of sweet Ican Fast & Light 50 wheels (50-mm, carbon fiber, 25-mm wide, 1,470 grams for the set, very fast, amazing value) capped that bike off – it’s perfect. Mechanically, at seven years old, it’s the best I’ve ever had it.
I was on my way to the church early enough I’d get a decent warm-up in. It was chilly, just 50° (10 C) with a mild, single-digit breeze out of the east. The good thing about an east breeze is there’s technically only eight miles of straight headwind out of 28 miles and some change. The bad is that most of that is at the end. We rolled out for the warm-up at 4:57 with the main event due to start at 5:30. With limited time, we headed west for a couple of miles then turned around to head straight back. I was caught in the wrong gear on the turnaround and almost thought about staying in the back for the headwind but that seemed a twatwaffle thing to do, so I took my lumps. The headwind was surprisingly heavy. Of course, with Pickett up front next to me, we were heading up a slight incline at 20-mph into that breeze. Who does that on the warm-up?! I flicked off the front after a mile and went back to hide.
The main event started out pretty quick, A’s & B’s rolling out together. Our first tailwind mile was at around 25-mph, I was up front with Dave. The next three, heading north, were no problem with the mild crosswind at 23 to 24-mph. I took the next mile with Dave, again. We had a tailwind mile and took it between 25 & 26. No problem. Then Shipman road, and we had a quartering tailwind and some help for once (normally we’re dead into a headwind on that road). The pace was being held between 25 & 28-mph (41 to 45 km/h) and toward the end of the stretch I started running out of “want to”. After a pull up front during which I burned too many matches, I slipped off the back figuring I’d just take a shortcut. I’d have eight miles dead into a headwind, alone.
I kept my pace steady, between 21 & 24-mph and caught my breath. The group wasn’t pulling away from me as fast as I figured they would. They stopped for traffic at a crazy five-way intersection and I had a decision to make; relax and let them go, or pedal a little harder and catch up… if traffic held them long enough. I decided to give it some effort to see if I could get back on. As I closed it looked as though there were no cars holding them up – quite a few were looking back at me. They waited. That doesn’t happen too often, my friends and as I closed the gap, I have to admit, I felt like a Hundred Dollars.
The next six miles were pretty brutal in the hills but I managed to hold on. I took my lumps up front but tried to keep my turns short so I didn’t fall off the back again. I hate having to do that, but my legs were fighting me a little bit. The temp had dropped down to the low 40’s and I just don’t do well in the cold – never have. I stuck with it, though, and up the main hill before the B’s and A’s separate, I was still in contact with the tandems and a few others.
Four of the A’s continued on for the long route while two tandems, a couple of A’s, and four or five B’s waited for Clark to catch up at the regroup point. He’d fallen off in the hills (which was easy to do with a headwind). He was about a minute back and once he caught up (and his breath), we rolled out for the eight mile home stretch.
The remainder of the ride was more my pace. Single-file pace-line and in the low 20’s in the head wind, mid-20’s with a crosswind, with a nice buildup in the last mile. I was second bike behind Mike & Diane’s tandem coming in the last mile and they were absolutely taking it to the barn, dead into the headwind. I couldn’t believe how long they stayed up front but they just kept going. Approaching the sprint point, after hiding most of the ride, I decided not to go for the sprint. My legs were suckin’ anyway, and Mike & Diane earned the sign season’s final.
We hammered across the City Limits at 29-mph into the wind, just shy of 50-km/h.
And that was that. I stopped my Garmin and recued another workout for the cooldown mile back to the parking lot. I ended up with a 22.1-mph average because I fell off the back for that mile or two but the group finished with a 22.4 – fantastic for one of the last TNIL’s of the year. It was hi-fives and laughs all the way back to the parking lot.
It’s a rare day I struggle like that. We all have them, I suppose. Thankfully, I’ve got some great friends who got me through it.