Cycling And Speed: There’s A Difference Between Knowing There’s A Hill… And Climbing The Hill; Beating The Mental Block To Being Your Best On A Bicycle
Who can forget when Neo just begins to discover he really is “the one“, when Morpheus utters that simple line, “There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path”, in the movie The Matrix (1999 [1999?!])?
So it is with cycling and speed. There’s a difference between knowing fast and cycling fast – actually doing it. The tone of this post should not be taken as one of braggadocio, but of humility. In cycling, the phrase there’s always someone faster was ever thus and shall always be. I am a very small fish in a very big pond… but I’m a small fish who also happens to be decent with a keyboard – and we are a rare breed, indeed.
First, I’m going to be straight up here. If you try to push your limits, you’re going to get dropped every now and again. You’re going to spend some miles crawling back after you’ve popped. How can you learn to pass your limit if you don’t know your limit in the first place?
Next, and this is a big one, you have to shove aside that negative self-talk and doubt bullshit. I know people near as strong as I am but talk themselves into hurting when they’ve got gas left in the tank. They’re miserable and struggling and I’m just cruising along. If ever there was a saying to embrace in cycling, “this too shall pass”. When I’m feeling a haggard, I know it’ll pass and I’ll feel at least a little better before long. There’s an ebb and flow to cycling at higher speeds. Try to concentrate on the flow a lot more than the ebb. In fact, let go of the ebb.
Save your good legs for the big days! If you’re one who lets a lack of confidence gnaw at you, for the love of God and all that is holy, good legs for good days. You don’t go out the day before a big ride and go hard. We mere mortals have to pick our battles. Of course, you don’t take a day off either. The day before a big ride is perfect for an active recovery day. You’ll want to be slow enough that you get a little antsy about whether or not you should be trying a little harder. If ever there was a day to take a few pictures along your route, the day before a big day is it. Chill out and ride on the bar-tops a bit.
Eat, but don’t be all crazy about it. Carb-loading is great and all, but you can only store so much “carb” before it becomes “fat”. An extra slice of pizza? Great. An extra pizza? Not so much. If you feel like crap when you clip in, you’ll be thinking about that extra pizza weighing you down. Cue confidence train wreck and you dropping off the back, dejected. Don’t do that to yourself.
Now, finally, repeat after me: I am a badass. I’m a horse. I am fast. I am strong.
Now get out there and hammer it out.
Road Cycling, Comfort, and the Setup of a Road Bike; A Detailed Overview of the Bike Setup Pitfalls that Effect Comfort
In the photos above, I’m on two entirely different race bikes. On the left, I’m in front of the guy in black and florescent yellow on my secondary “rain” bike, a standard 58 cm frame, in the drops. On the right, I’m at the back in the red and black on my good bike, a compact 56 cm frame, on the hoods. If you use the stack and reach method of measuring a bicycle, where you measure off set objects (a wall or the floor), the setup on both bikes are almost identical (saddle is the same height off the ground, same distance from the wall, handlebar same height off the ground, etc.). There are a couple minor differences, but they don’t effect the ride of either bike.
And it’s taken one hell of an education to get my bikes to where they’re comfortable. With this post, I’m hoping to shorten the time span it takes to accrue the knowledge and simplify the intricacies.
size of bike/frame
I can’t think of much more important than frame size when it comes to the comfort of a bicycle – and a road bike is that much more important because once a cyclist finds out how much fun the speed is, said cyclist will spend a lot of time on said bicycle. With the wrong frame size, compensations must be made in order to get a person on the bike in something that mimics comfort but isn’t quite it. For examples of what not to do, click here. Actually, I’ve got my bikes on there too, as what to do, also. Now, where this gets interesting is when you look at my knowledge, which is exceptional for an avid enthusiast, contrasted with someone who builds/built bike frames for a living. Folks, I know a lot about bikes but I’m an ignoramus next to a frame builder when it comes to knowing the angles and tube lengths, etc., etc. The owner of our local shop put my wife on a 54 cm Alias when I was sure she’d need a 56 (she’s 5’10”). My standard frame race bike is a 58 while my compact frame race bike is a 56. A qualified person will take angles and geometry into account that we mere mortals simply don’t have the equations for. Unless you really know what you’re doing, it might be best to leave frame size to the pros.
saddle fore/aft position
This is an easy one. Keeping in mind that the setup of a time-trial or triathlon bike is different, a standard road bike position is fairly simple. With the crank arms parallel to the ground and you in the proper position on your saddle, the leading edge of your front knee should be directly over the pedal spindle. Use a level or a plumb-bob to line you up. It’s as easy as that.
The saddle width can be an enormous issue that, if too wide, can lead to severe pain. Look at me. Severe. Said pain will radiate all the way down into the hamstrings and you’ll think something else is the problem. It happened to me. Whether or not you’ve had problems, I can’t recommend getting measured enough. It’s a really big deal.
With the fore/aft position squared away, we’re going to dial in the saddle height. This shouldn’t blow up anyone’s skirt, but saddle height matters. Too high and you’ll feel like you’ve got a saddle stuck in your butt. Too low and your power output will suffer. Also, as a rule of thumb, if the front/top of your knee(s) hurt, lower the saddle. If the back/bottom of your knee(s) hurt, raise it. With your bike on a trainer, put your heels on the pedals. Your legs should straighten out – perfectly straight – without rocking your hips. Micro-adjust from there (and re-check the fore/aft position).
crank arm length
Short crank arms aren’t a pain/comfort issue as much as long crank arms are. Long cranks are a huge problem if your legs are too short. I’m 6′ and I could take a 175 or a 172.5 – I go with the shorter. My wife is a 170, she’s 5’10” but has shorter legs. I have a friend, Jason, who just found out that, at 5’7″, he’s a 170 and that 172.5’s are painful. Suffering through short cranks isn’t such a big deal, you simply spin more and don’t get as much leverage on the pedals. Too long is a huge problem and, if left unchanged, can lead to severe knee problems.
If your cockpit is too short, you end up jammed and can’t breath right. Too long and you’ll ride in weird positions because reaching for the hoods or drops isn’t comfortable. If you prefer to ride hands on bar top rather than hoods, you’ve got a problem. The problems poor cockpit sizing can cause are almost too numerous to list. Numb hands, sore shoulders, sore neck, sore ass… sore just about anything else.
width of handlebar
Now this one might be a bit of a surprise. Handlebar width, typically 42-mm for a male, 40-mm for a female, is one of those issues that won’t appear to be a big deal until you ride a bike that has your proper handlebar. I rode, comfortably, a 44 for years before settling into a 42 and heaven on a bicycle. Riding on a bar that’s too wide or slim didn’t present any pain problems, but the proper width sure felt better.
reach and drop of handlebar
The reach and/or drop of the handlebar can be a factor if the cockpit isn’t quite set up properly. Case in point; my gravel bike. I bought a 56 cm Specialized Diverge because my Venge is a 56. What I didn’t know is that the gravel bikes have a relaxed setup to them so I didn’t have the same reach on both bikes. The Diverge was more upright. I put on a longer stem but it’ wasn’t quite long enough (though that was by design – I didn’t want to ride so low I’d have a tough time seeing and dodging potholes). Then, out of the blue, I decided to buy a Bontrager aero handlebar for my rain bike. That meant the standard bar I had on the Trek could be swapped for the compact bar that came on the gravel bike. Just like that, my cockpit issues were fixed. Switching from a compact to a standard bar made my gravel bike a lot more enjoyable to ride.
location of hoods/levers on handlebar
Now this one’s a little on the tricky side. To be “stylish”, the hoods should be parallel to the ground. Sometimes this simply won’t work as you end up putting too much weight on your hands. If your hands go numb, or you have other problems, you might want to try raising or lowering your hoods relative to the handlebar. I raised my hoods on my Trek a bit and the bike went from “meh” to “spectacular” just like that.
In that last item about the location of the hoods, equally important is the rotation of the handlebar relative to the ground. Basically, you want the drop portion of the bar close to or maybe not quite level to the ground. You don’t want the bar rotated enough that the bar ends are pointing up to the rear of the bike – you’ll be overcompensating for another problem by doing this. Fix the other issue rather than rotating the bar too far forward (see above and below).
pedals, shoes and cleats
The cleat setup on a shoe is so vastly important it’s hard to understate just how meticulous the setup process is and its value to creating a comfortable ride. Eventually, with enough miles on the saddle, you might become good enough to work on your cleat position (I do), but the best answer to cleat and pedal setup is to use ISSI cleats which are compatible with Look Keo pedals and cleats. The ISSI cleats are two-piece, so one piece can be removed at a time, insuring exact placement ever time you change your cleats. For my initial setup, when I buy a new pair of shoes, I always have the owner of our local bike shop set mine.
We rolled out Sunday morning with a small but lively group with a goal of just 45 miles at an easy, fun pace.
Yet another Sunday Funday on the tandem, my wife and I lighting up the front. We kept the pace steady, around 20-mph, the first 13 miles but Diane and my wife both had to stop to use a port-john before we got to town so three single started rolling a few minutes before we took off out of the school parking lot. We took it easy starting out but I fell into chase down mode and we took to reeling my friends in. After a nasty (but shallow and short) incline that my wife hammered up, we started putting down the serious watts. We had a sprint coming up in a few miles and it’s perfect for a tandem. We pulled around the lead group with about a mile to go and kept ratcheting the pace up to be discouraging to anyone wanting to come around. It didn’t work.
We pounded down the hill, shifting as we went until we settled into a good gear. The other tandem had come around as well as three of the single bikes and we were two lengths behind. Once everyone cleared us I figured my wife would ease up but she wanted the City Limits sign. She was laying out some power, so I gave it everything I had. In the stretch to the sign, we overtook all three single bikes at 34-mph and pulled along side the second tandem… but we needed another ten seconds. The got us at the line by a half-length. It was a good effort.
After a short stop at our normal gas station, we rolled out into the morning sun. It was starting to warm up but we had virtually no wind. The rest of the ride, up until about 43 miles when both our butts had had enough, was fantastic and we ended up pulling into the driveway with 45 miles and some change at 18.6-mph. That was speedy for a Sunday Funday on the tandem. And all was well.
I went out with a couple of friends and helped one of ours clear out some big items out of his garage. It was well over 90° and the sun was hammering us, but it was worth helping a friend out. We ended up working from noon till 3:30 or so. It was some hard work but we all felt pretty good about helping a friend out. After showering up, we had a fantastic dinner (grilled chicken and sweet potatoes along with a salad). I put on Aquaman after and drifted off sometime in the special features and slept like a baby through the night.
We’re still muddling our way through COVIDcation, but I can’t complain. It was a fantastic weekend of family, friends, sun, swimming, food and fun… and that most important aspect we celebrated the day before; Freedom.
It was going to be a hot one. We all knew it. 94° (34 C), sunny, barely a breeze and 64-ish miles. Where can I sign up for that! Actually, I’m completely acclimated to the heat now, so I was good to go. I readied my ’99 Trek 5200 because, ‘Merica (the bike was literally made in the USA – not “assembled”, not “designed”… actually made in the US). I’d prepped my bike and loaded Jess’s on the car rack. I wanted the extra miles and my wife was pretty sure I was crazy.
It took me a minute to get rolling, but once the legs warmed up from the previous day’s 19.7-mph 100k, after about a mile, I was able to pick the pace up considerably and tore off down the road. I wanted to start the actual 100 k with an average above where we’d likely end up so I didn’t taint the overall average with a slow warm-up. I arrived at the school parking lot with a 19.6-mph average and a smile on my face. I was ready to go.
The roll-out was slow and enjoyable and we increased pace to 20-mph within a quarter-mile or so, once everyone caught up. The route isn’t quite “pancake” flat, but it’s close (1,000 feet [300-ish meters] of up in 69 miles). Conditions were pretty close to perfect with no wind, a little cloud cover and temps in the low 70’s (22 C). “Fun” doesn’t quite do it justice. Perfect is pretty good, though.
We had a fantastic group and this was more a parade lap than an attempt at a speed record. There were conversations through the whole double pace-line with friends catching up with each other.
This year’s Firecracker 100 was why I ride a bike in the first place.
We picked up Matt about 14 miles in and Greg, a tremendous A Group cyclist, caught up us about 20-ish miles in. Greg is the rare A rider who could walk away from us at any point during a ride but can adjust his pace and power to ride with us like he’s one of the gang. I can do this with the B Group, but I’m only an A- anyway – and I’d struggle to do the same with a C Group.
Sadly, the ride wasn’t without its complications. My wife had a shifter cable break right in the middle of a climb so her rear derailleur dropped to her highest gear in the middle of a climb. It was a mess. We ended up looping the cable back through the lock bolt, then looping the extra cable around the derailleur to keep it from sucking into the wheel to give her a more suitable middle gear and she headed for home with Mike, Joe and Matt.
Then the pace picked up.
The last 25 miles were pretty much about as fun as I can remember having on a bicycle. There wasn’t much talking because, speed, but that’s right where I like it. Just fast enough I’m wondering if I’ll be able to take a decent turn and just slow enough I end up at the front for two or three miles.
We pulled into the parking lot with 64-ish miles (69-ish for me). It was smiles and “socially distanced” “almost hi-fives” all around. There’s no question it was a hot one, but it was a heck of a start to our 4th of July celebrations. I was grateful for being me all day long.
It’s Sunday Funday today, so 40-ish miles on the tandem and hopefully some easier miles. More on my wife’s shifter later. It’s a mess – like, “new shifter” mess. I’ve got her gravel bike set up for the road for now.
Strava Hits A Bottom of the Ninth, Two-Out, GRANDSLAM with Turn-By-Turn Route Importing… It’s As Easy As Starring a Route.
I finally started paying for Strava over the last set of changes to their free service. Who can afford to offer their service for free? I’d never be so generous (unless you happen to be an addict or alcoholic who has a desire to quit, then I’m “shirt off my back” generous – I’ve given my only bike to a guy who needed one to get to work).
I’m glad I’ve got access to the full line of services. One upgrade they just came up with changed their relationship with Garmin forever. It once was, if you wanted to import a route into your Garmin Edge 520 Plus (or better)… well, you’d be better off using Ride With GPS. You’d export your file to the desktop of your computer, hook up your Garmin with a USB cable and transfer that file to the proper folder. It was fast and fairly simple if you knew what you were doing – and if you had a laptop.
You still need the laptop if you’re on the free Strava service (you can’t create a route through the app unless you’re a paying member) and a computer even helps speed things up if you’re a paying member.
Bring up a ride that you want to make into a route. Click the triple dot then select “create route”. Edit the route if you wish, name the route, and save the route. Then click on “Dashboard” and select my routes. Make sure the new route is “starred”. You’re done. The next time your Garmin hooks up to your phone, the route will automatically download to your Garmin.
Like I said, homerun. Granny tater in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and a full count.
Now you can do more of this:
And less tinkering on a stinkin’ computer.
Happy Freedom Day, America. Though Her Citizens Have Their Flaws, Freedom For All Was Always the Point
The best of America is the freedom of her citizens. The beauty of its constitution and bill of rights is what makes it all work – and it’s what politicians fight tooth an nail to ignore and misrepresent, for one simple reason: they want us angry and divided so we’ll vote.
I won’t be commenting anymore on that. I will on what is great about America.
In the United States, we are one of the only countries in the World whose rights aren’t handed down from the government. We, unlike anywhere else on earth, are born with our rights or they are a natural part of taking the oath of Citizenship. It obviously took politicians a while to figure that simple truth out, but it did happen.
Other countries hand down citizens’ rights from on high and what is given, can be taken away. Not so in the United States of America and this presents a problem for politicians.
In this country, our rights come from God. We are born free and it’s the government’s job to protect that freedom. The angst in Washington DC is that political elites think of themselves as better than that.
If your politicians are not doing their job protecting your freedom, throw the bums out. More important, if your politician likes to interject themselves between you and your freedom, claiming without them you can’t truly be free, don’t let them run a lemonade stand. If you’re American, you were born with your rights. If you’re an immigrant, you granted yourself your own rights the minute you took the oath of Citizenship. They weren’t handed down to you, they’re yours. Don’t ever let a politician come between you and your freedom. Once you let that happen, they can take it away.
Happy Freedom Day America… and the same to all her citizens. All of them.
To be clear, there are a few levels of “had it” when we are talking about headsets.
We have everything from “completely pooched” to “clean it, lube it and put it back together”.
I’ve had the range.
So let’s get into this. A quill stem, threaded headset will act a little differently from a threadless setup when it goes bad. Know this right off the bat. Typical enemies of the headset are wet weather, the dreaded turbo (indoor) trainer – especially if you use a trainer thong that covers the headset/stem and leave it there after you’re done riding. All of that salt and sweat gets sucked right into the fork and bearings. If you’ve read more than one or two posts, you know how meticulous I am about maintaining my bikes. This is my fork after a few years on the trainer without taking the headset apart to clean everything up… you know what, it’s too gross. I’m not going to post it. It’s terrible. There was rust and salty crust everywhere. And the funny thing is, Chris King components are so good, the headset wasn’t acting up in any way whatsoever.
Now, had I left that go a little longer, the bearings would have worn out. Once the bearings start going you’ll feel a catch in the steering. Shortly after that you’ll notice some play in the headset. You’ll try to tighten it up to take the play out but when you tighten it up the “catch” worsens. It’s at this point the lack of maintenance will start causing “speed wobbles”. Bombing down a hill at 40+ mph, the bike will start to shimmy and it will scare the ever-loving $#!+ out of you. Well, sparky, it’s time for a new headset if you’re still alive.
Point is, and I should know better by now, clean the headset whether it needs it or not once a year. Two or three (or more) times if you’re riding in wet or dusty conditions. And if you’re leaving your bike on the trainer, take your sweaty stuff off the headset after your ride. You don’t want to see what sweat does to aluminum races on a full carbon fork.
That’s a worse case scenario, though. What about something a little less “terrible”?
It just so happens, my Venge was in need of some service… yesterday. This bike sees zero trainer time, rare, if ever, dusty conditions, or even rain. It’s been through just a few light rains that I got caught out in, one damp morning on DALMAC that was fairly epic during a 100-miler and one three minute downpour when the rain hit me on the final mile sprint to my house trying to beat it… in the seven years I’ve owned the bike. I still clean and lube the headset at the end of a season whether it needs it or not.
So I’d just recently (the day before yesterday) developed this weird knock when I went over a fairly large bump or crack in the asphalt. It sounded like it was the sealed cartridge bearing clunking in the frame. I could have tightened everything up and made it go away, but I could have done some damage over time (press fit headset bearings aren’t exactly cheap – nor is a cracked frame from overtightening the bearings to get rid of a clunk). There was no “play” in the headset, either. I could be going 30-mph and hit the brakes and it’d slow down just like it should. The old “brake and rock” technique to check to make sure the headset is tight? Just as it should be. The light coating of lube had simply worn out.
That evening I pulled everything apart, cleaned everything meticulously, checked the bearings (they operated perfectly, as good as new, no slop, no binding points or catches). I lubed the bearings and put it back together and took it for a test ride. And just like that, twenty minutes is all it took, my bike is back to normal and quiet again.
To put a bow on this post, maintaining the headset is just as important as the bottom bracket bearings. If you don’t know what you’re doing, the boys on GCN have video guides to help you or you can take your bike to the local shop if you’re not mechanically inclined. The headset is what allows the bike to steer. It should be tended to at least once a year – more if you ride in conditions that warrant it. The last thing you want failing catastrophically when you’re bombing down a hill at top speed is the steering. Catastrophic is the right word. If it needs special care, as mine did, your bike will tell you what it needs if you know what you’re listening for. If you don’t, when your bike starts making weird clunks or noises, that’s bad. They should be quiet when properly maintained. Even old bikes. Take it to the shop and let them sort it out.
A Reasoned Look at Why Cycling Clubs Shouldn’t Rely On the Fast Members to Show Slower New Riders the Ropes.
I have to be a little careful how I broach this subject, but it’s an important one that just popped up in the real world so I just thought I’d write about my experience so that I might help others avoid a pitfall or two.
A few Tuesday nights ago we had about twelve B riders and a tandem and maybe eight A riders show up for a group ride (actually, I think they’re calling us the A & A- Groups now) for what used to be a club ride. The club has decided not to sanction rides for the time being, so people are simply showing up to ride. We had one, lone D rider show up that night and as I wrote in my post about it, I gave up my ride with the A- Group and showed him around the course. He struggled mightily to stay in my draft while I was sitting up pedaling easy, my hands on the bar tops into a 15-mph headwind. He dropped several times and I’d look back to see him 200 yards off my wheel so I’d have to wait till he caught up…
Another club member, after I put out a group-wide ABP for C, D, & E riders, sarcastically (and quite ignorantly and shittily, I might add) pointed out that we A & B riders should happily drop our ride to show these slower riders around until more of the C, D, & E group riders decide to show up.
Ah, that Kumbaya world where cats and rats play together in harmony. It’d be great, wouldn’t it? Except that shit never actually works.
Here’s what really happens when that is tried.
A guy like me sacrifices his fastest, favorite ride of the week to show the newcomer the ropes. Said newcomer struggles to keep up with what is an easy, even boring pace for the seasoned A/B rider. The new rider becomes disheartened when they struggle while they’re watching said A/B rider glide along without a care in the world on the bar tops and into the wind whilst newcomer is down in the drops, pushing with all their might, with their tongue dangling precariously close to their spokes.
Said newcomer will rarely come back because they can’t relate to anyone. Worse, they won’t be able to see a clear path to get from where they’re at to where the faster rider is at so they can ride with actual people. Who wants to feel like their best effort isn’t close to good enough every time they show up? Who wants to ride regularly with a group vastly faster than their best effort can hope to keep up with?
Only your true cycling nuts will put up with that for any length of time. That’d be me, and I’m telling you now, I’m few and far between.
Where this goes haywire is when slower riders mistakenly believe faster riders, in order to shepherd along slower riders, have a dial that they can simply turn to slow that pace down. That’s not quite how it works.
In order to get my wife into cycling and into good enough shape to ride with my friends, I’d go out for a 40 to 65-mile ride with my friends. When I got home, my wife would suit up and we’d ride together for another 20-30 more miles. I was already smoked so I couldn’t have torn off all over God’s green earth if I wanted to. My wife was able to build her fitness up to a point where now she can keep up with my friends and I. The key was getting me to a point I was too tired to get antsy about the slow pace… and I am married to the woman I did that for.
The whole point is this: Slow people mistakenly think fast people should be able to ride with slower folk but the reality is, we can’t. Or I should say, we can’t anymore than those same slower folk can lead out the A Group. I’d buy tickets to see the attempt. Sure, every now and again we can throw out a nice recovery ride pace. My easiest active recovery ride, or should I say my slowest, this year is 16.5-mph. That’s faster than many cyclists’ best effort.
Over time, slower cyclists can gain considerable speed with some effort and a lot of want to… but in a day you can’t make a Thoroughbred stallion trot anymore than you can make a Tennessee Walking Horse a racer.
UPDATE: You might view my points in this post as “arrogant”. If you scroll down to the comments section, you’ll see a friend of mine suggested exactly that – and you would have a point. On the other hand, consider that it’s far more arrogant to expect others to give up their evening ride to cover for you… just sayin’ – that arrogant charge is commonly used one way, but I won’t accept the premise of that argument.
I couldn’t have written my fitness and mileage for the 2020 season any better – everything else, well that’s a different story! I started off slow, but I picked up steam with the lock down and COVIDcation 2020.
April – Full COVIDcation, didn’t work a day: 1,062 miles.
May – Back to work, but fantastic weather meant: 1,060 miles.
June – More fantastic weather, but busy! Still: 1,058 miles.
At least it’s consistent!
I dropped 10 pounds in April. Another three in May and another couple in June. Best part is it’s been fairly easy. I haven’t much changed what I’ve been eating, though I have changed how much. The truth is, I got used to eating just a little too much. And, if I’m being honest, enjoying eating just a little too much (there are two possible meanings in that simple sentence. Yes, to both). I’ve simply had to stop it and, with an ideal increase in mileage, the weight’s come off.
The way I see it, I’ve got about ten to go over the next three months. If I can do that, I’ll be right where I want to be going into winter… the only trick being watching what the hell I’m eating over winter. Typically, that’s not gone so well.
The so called Secondrate Cyclist, a longtime blog friend of mine from the UK from all the way back to my beginning in blogging, had a crash. An epic, horrific, very bad, terrible crash.
The link above is to his newest post but there are two that precede it. The first, after his last post in October of last year about his ride with Jens Voigt, is (here).
He’s an excellent writer, far better than I, so please, pay him a visit and follow his journey back. It won’t be a short one.