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The One, Simple Inescapable Truth about Training to Ride Faster on a Bicycle

I can still remember my first ride on my brand new, never been ridden until I rolled it out the door, Specialized Venge.  I had just removed all of the useless weight (reflectors, etc.) and set the saddle for height and fore/aft position and pumped up the tires that still didn’t even have a scuff on them yet (after the photo session, of course – it’s only brand new once).  The moment of truth had arrived…

I donned my finest kit, strapped down my shoes (I had Pearl Izumi Tri shoes at the time), put my helmet on, and rolled out.  I started fairly easy at first, not wanting to wreck the ride by pushing too hard, too fast, and too soon… sounds like a tragic comedy, actually.  Coming up my favorite stretch of road (at the time), I was absolutely flying.  Faster than I’d ever gone on that section of road.  A wry grin stretched across my face as I pushed harder on the pedals.  My first ride on a real, honest to God, super-bike…

And then it hit me.  I had no more excuses.  If, from that moment on, I wasn’t fast, it was the fault of the engine.

It was a sobering reality.  When I set out for my first ride on my brand new super-bike, the last thing I was expecting was an “oh shit” moment, but that’s what I got.

I didn’t know it back then, but I did have a few small excuses left.  The Venge was a bit heavy out of the box and the wheels that came on the bike were cheap junk, but today all of my excuses are out the window – I literally have everything an amateur cycling enthusiast (with a mortgage, a smokin’ hot wife, and two kids) could want in a bike:

As a member of the B Group in our club, having gone from an average on the exact same course, over 30 miles on Tuesday night, from 20-1/2-mph to better than 23-mph (we were toying with 23-1/2 at the end of this season), there is one simple, inescapable truth about riding fast; if you want to get fast, you have to get used to pushing beyond your comfort zone.

I have my limits, of course, and I think that’s a good thing.  I have a solid core of friends I like riding with and I don’t feel it’s necessary to get much faster than they ride.  In the end, it’s all about being happy, anyway.  I had to pay the piper in puke to get here, though.  There are months spent on the trainer, pushing harder gears than most normal folk would bother putting up with.  There are the spring miles used to get ready for our first 100k of the season at the end of April that we like to do at a 20-mph average…  There are entire two or three-hour rides where I’m thinking, “Dude, why do I do this to myself!?”  When I’m down south, on vacation in the mountains and rather than sitting back and relaxing, I’m hammering up the steepest damn hill I know of so I can get back home and be a little stronger on our version of “hills”.

Most people who struggle to ride fast think the folks at the front are up there hammering the group down the road, passing bon-bons back and forth, talking about the latest market changes and the fed’s quarterly plan for the interest rate.  Nope, they’re struggling too, just like everyone else.  Some have just learned to push through it a little better than the average bear.

While all of the trinkets and do-dads are worth a mile an hour (maybe 1-1/2), in the end, what really matters is the engine.  A high-end bike won’t fix low-end legs©.

 

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The Five Road Bike Upgrades You’re not Supposed to Need (One of Which, You Do. Real Bad)

I read a neat little article on Bike Radar that itemized five big road bike upgrades that the author suggests you don’t need.  Folks, I’ve never met an upgrade I didn’t like, but let’s dig into this with a little gusto, eh?

I’ll be frank, Frank.  I agreed with two. A couple were half “needs”.  One, the author is bat-shit crazy.  You need the upgrade, straight up.

First, let’s define “need”, because if you’re talking about needing a $4,000 high-end road bike, nobody “needs” one, but I’ve got $6,000 into mine, and I’d argue, if I didn’t need everything, I’d have put the money in the bank and let it sit there earning… oh… s#!+… what, $0.42 a year?

Look, it’s all “depth” of “need”.  Do I need a top-of-the-line road bike?  Of course I don’t!  To even suggest such a thing is ridiculous.  On the other hand, hey, I worked hard for the money to be able to afford a nice bike (or four err, five… six) – my only vice.  Also, as a recovering alcoholic who was once a scourge on society, having turned my life around and become a productive member of society, I’m perfectly at peace with allowing someone else the burden of guilt over a bicycle (or six).  Finally, if you’re going to ride with the crowd I do, at my age, every little bit of mechanical advantage you can buy will help.

With the cow pucky (guilt) out of the way, let’s look at what Bike Radar says are unnecessary upgrades in their article:

  • Electronic shifting – I know, everyone who has electronic shifting is jumping up and down, going, “But dude, it’s the bees knees, man!”  I know, I’ve got three friends who have it and they all say they’ll never go back to mechanical.  I’ve got another two who ride eTap and they can’t say enough good about it.  One guy has eTap on three of his bikes (one Pinarello F10, a Colnago C60, and… oh, does it matter?).  Point is, I know how great it is.  We’re talking about need, though.  E-shifting comes close, but not quite.
  • Tubular tires.  What you need, if you ride tubs is a crew to feed you new wheels when you flat one of those tubs.  I’m all on board with not needing tubular tires.  Still, I have a couple of friends who ride them…  They are light, I’ll give ’em that.
  • Next up is Disc Brakes, and this is my “half”.  Look, bro, or sis, as the case may be…  Disc brakes are the cat’s pajamas.  Having ridden them on my gravel bike (cable) and my mountain bike (hydraulic), they are almost marvelous enough to be a need.  Need or not, I won’t be buying a new bike without them (I think).  They’re that good.
  • The next ‘half-a-need” is an Aero Frame.  Yeah, you really don’t need one… but the real question is, “would you want to live without one?”  No I would not.  Once you’ve ridden a standard frame enough, you can feel the difference drafting in a pace line, between a standard frame and an aero frame.  It’s a small difference, but there is an unmistakable advantage.  Unmistakable.  Now, to be fair, most cyclists aren’t going to bother training to ride fast enough to get full use out of an aero bike frame.  For those who are willing to ride at a 20+ mph average (34 km/h), that aerodynamic frame moves precariously close to a need.

Now I’m going to break with my protocol, where I try to find common ground with the original author and I’m going to call BS on the last one.

Carbon fiber wheels.

Before and After

A buddy of mine, six or seven years ago, having just bought his first carbon fiber wheelset, called me up to let me know I needed a set of my own.  I didn’t heed his suggestion.  He was right.  Having gone from riding alloy wheels for years, to carbon fiber in the last couple of months, I can state fairly, they’re as close to a need as you get in cycling.  Carbon fiber wheels make a bike better.  If you’ve got a great bike on alloy wheels, carbon fiber wheels will make your bike spectacular.  If you’ve got a good bike, they’ll make it great… etcetera  on down the line.  Now, because my readership is generally exceptionally bike-savvy, you noticed I skipped “top-notch”.  If you’ve got a spectacular bike, you’ll already have carbon fiber wheels on it.

I want to go to what the article says, though, to add a little clarity:

Carbon wheels are AWESOME. Everyone thinks so. They look cool, they sound cool and they’re more aero so you’ll go faster, right?

Well, maybe, but full carbon wheels are incredibly expensive and if your bike has rim brakes, the braking is almost invariably worse than with cheap alloy rims, especially if it’s raining.

If you’re a lighter rider, deep section wheels will make your bike harder to handle because they catch more wind. You could swap back to your regular wheels when the weather’s bad, but don’t forget you’ll have to change brake pads as well because carbon requires special pads.

Does it still seem worth the effort?

Okay, first, everyone “thinking so” about the awesomeness of carbon fiber wheels is useless.  Discard that.  “They look cool” and “sound cool” are equally useless.  Discard that.  “You’ll go faster, right?”  Bingo.  Yes you will.

The braking does suck, though it’s not all that bad.  I don’t ride the good bike with the carbon wheels in the rain, so that doesn’t matter – if I get caught out with them, I’ll have to be a little more mindful of the stopping distance.  Simple as that.  If you’re a lighter rider, you will get blown around a little more – so you don’t buy 80’s, you go with 38-40mm for the depth of your wheels (not exactly rocket science there).

Now that last point, about swapping brake pads for the alloy and carbon fiber wheels, that gets interesting and the point probably deserves its own post…  If you’re frugal, like me, you just say, “Hey, I’ll just ride the carbon wheels in the nice weather and put the alloy wheels on there if there’s a chance of rain.  I’ll bet I can get away with using the carbon fiber brake pads on my alloy wheels…  Yeah, I’m brilliant.”

You’re a smart cookie.  That’s what I thought, but I know some of my harebrained schemes can be a little… well… harebrained, so I looked it up on the interwebz:

Can you use carbon brake pads on alloy rims?
Yes, it works but alloy pads perform much better on alloy rims and the change from alloy to carbon rims can be dangerous for carbon rims. Any alloy bubble in the carbon pad can destroy a carbon rim in only a few braking intervals.

I didn’t think of that but it makes a hell of a lot of sense.  You may or may not know that it’s common maintenance to clean out your brake pads a time or two every season to make sure you don’t have any small bits of rim-metal stuck in the pads.  Well, if I switch my wheels to use the alloy rims in the rain and I get a bit stuck in the carbon-friendly pads… well, you get the idea.  That’s a fair amount of work to get around – and one missed piece of aluminum in a pad could spell curtains for one of your rims (assuming, of course, you could get another rim).

In that case, no, swapping the wheels is not worth the effort… so you get a rain bike to ride in the rain.  Bingo!  Bob’s your uncle.

Look, we’re going to upgrade our bikes.  It’s what we do.  So the first place I’m going to go will be the wheels.  Nothing will make an instant difference in riding speed and the weight of a bike like a decent set of wheels – and if you’re able to go from alloy to carbon fiber, you’ll get the added benefit of exponentially improved ride quality to boot.

Do I need carbon fiber wheels like I need food?  No, of course not.  But now that I’ve got them, I needed them.  Know what I mean?

Of course you do.

Ican 38mm Carbon Fiber Clincher Wheelset 1,000 Mile Review

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I picked up my Ican 38mm clinchers at the beginning of September and rode them most of that month and a few times this month – when the weather gets cold and the toe covers/over-shoes come out, that bike takes its place in the bike room in the house. I’ve got 1,100 miles and change in September and 600 so far for October, so I’m pretty sure I passed 1,000 miles on them somewhere. The importance isn’t the exact mileage, though, as they’re the same today as the day I took them out of the box… Rock solid, fairly true, fast, and smooth.  On the fairly true part, well, they came out of the box with a minor wobble in the rear wheel – less than a millimeter and it just wasn’t a big enough deal to mess with.  Most people wouldn’t even notice it, I’m just that picky.

Shod with Michelin Pro 4 Service Course 25mm tires (which were an absolute bear to get on the rims – but that has more to do with the tires than the wheels – Specialized Turbo Pro tires are much easier to work with), the wheels are smooth as glass, and we’ve got some pretty rough roads we ride on. It used to be my Trek 5200 was a just a touch more comfortable than the stiff Venge with the rail for a saddle but that’s not the case anymore. With the Ican wheels on there, I have a hard time reaching for the Trek. The ride is exceptional.

With that, 1,000 miles in, I don’t have a bad thing to say about the Ican 38mm carbon fiber wheels.  At $400 they’re a steal.

As a final note, I had a conversation with one of the mechanics at the local bike shop about the wheels, specifically the less expensive Chinese carbon fiber wheels.  It was his opinion that if the company that makes them (Ican, Superteam, etc.) is willing to put their name on the wheels, they’re pretty solid.  It’s when you get into the off-brand wheels that he sees trouble.  As far as Ican goes, I feel like I got away with something every time I ride my bike.  They’re that good.

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Check them out here:  Ican

A Prayer Answered on an Otherwise Gloomy Day…

The Weather Channel had forecast rain over the weekend, while Dark Sky said overcast, but only a slim chance of rain.

The Weather Channel appeared to be wrong and we rolled out at 7:30am Saturday. I chose the Trek due to the chance of rain, but opted to go with my best set of wheels as they roll a fair bit faster. It was the first time I was able to use my Trek for the intended purpose I used to justify upgrading the bike’s drivetrain in the first place; to make swapping wheelsets betwixt the two bikes as simple as possible.

The wheel-swap took seconds and two turns of the rear derailleur’s barrel adjuster. It worked perfectly.

My buddy, Phill was the only one to show, and my wife was riding, so it was just the three of us.

Our ride was fantastic… I’m trying to think of the phraseology to describe it… It was slow-ish, but enjoyably slow. Simply put… it was fun. We pulled into the driveway with 42-1/2 miles in 2:22:21, an 18mph average.

The joy I get from spending time with my wife on two wheels is as good as it gets.

As for the prayer answered, I commented on a post early yesterday morning. The blogger is a preacher and his devotional for the day really hit home for me, so I let him know that in my comment. In his reply, he added, “I pray you are able to get in a couple good rides this weekend.” 42 miles without a drop and the forecast had called for rain just a few hours earlier… I’d say it worked. Couple that with the enjoyment factor, and it’s enough to make a fella smile.

For a capper to the morning I took my father-in-law to the newly renovated bike shop so he could see how far it had come…. I also took the pedals and bottle cages off the Trek and slid it into the car. While my dad was looking around I took the Trek out and wheeled it to the back of the shop where I used their scale to learn its official weight* with the good (read that, light) wheels.

My buddy, Mike was being pretty cocky, suggesting I’d wasted my time (and money) upgrading the bikes. He said, “Look, when you get down to 18 pounds, let me know”.

18.45 pounds (8.37 kg). And yes, I let him know. Pre-upgrade, the official weight was just over 19 pounds. So, for less than $300, the Venge dropped from 15.9 pounds to 15.5 and the Trek dropped from 19.1 pounds to 18.5… my friends, that’s the cheapest half-pound I’ve ever cut from a bike, and I cut it from two.

*Official weight of a bike: The proper way to weigh a bike is without the cages, pedals, saddle bag, light, etc. attached to the bike. While we all ride with those things, especially the pedals and bottle cages, they don’t count against the weight of the bike – pedal weights vary… some are heavier than others. Obviously, water bottle cages vary as well… with those things removed, everything is apples to apples.

Cycling and Diagnosing a Minor Ticking Sound… It could be a Wheel-y Big Pain in the Keister, or not. Diagnosing Clicking Spokes that Sound like a Derailleur Problem.

Diagnosing small ticks and noises that a bicycle makes (but shouldn’t) can be easy… Sounds like it comes from the bottom bracket, it’s random in that it doesn’t happen at exactly the same place in the pedal stroke every time around… Dirt in the crank. Take it apart, clean it up, lube the parts, put it back together, Bob’s your uncle.

Then there are the tougher ones… Fairly random, loud click, usually under pressure when pedaling hard. Gets worse over time… You’ve taken the time to check all usual suspect bolts are properly tightened. Check the seat post. Loosen the collar bolt, raise and lower the saddle a few times (be sure to mark the post with a piece of electrical tape or a marker so you can replace the post where it was), take it out and clean it. Replace it, maybe using some carbon paste if necessary… creak’s gone. I had that one happen to me – took two days to nail it down on the Venge and it drove me NUTS.

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Then you’ve got the chain ring bolts, headset, rear derailleur hanger bolt, seat collar bolt(s), front derailleur bolt and stem bolts… even a bad quick release or the cassette lock nut. Every once in a while I’ll run into something that takes a “shotgun approach”. Do a bunch of stuff and hope one of them does the trick.

The key is to listen carefully and to regularly tighten suspect bolts (seat collar, stem, etc.) and to revisit when necessary – and definitely don’t forget the chain ring bolts… and isolate whatever part is causing the trouble. Oh, and one last thing – even after you’ve impeccably looked after your bike, know things will happen, it’s what bikes do. With my seat post story earlier, I have a regular maintenance schedule for the Venge where I check the tight on the main culprit bolts once a week. It takes about 35 seconds. I’d just gone through the ritual before we left for a road trip to Kentucky for the Horsey Hundred. About halfway through the century my bike started creaking. First under pressure, only when pedaling hard up a hill. We were in Kentucky, mind you, there are a few hills on the route. I went so far as to put little pieces of paper between each of the spokes where they crossed because I thought maybe the sound was coming from the wheel… I did this in the middle of the hundred. I was literally thinking about throwing my $5,000 race bike into the ditch and walking away (thankfully the thought passed).

When that didn’t fix the creak, upon getting back to the hotel room with my wife, I checked all of the culprit bolts again. All of them, including the derailleur hanger bolt. Everything was properly snug. Out of exasperation, I loosened the seat post collar and moved the seat post up and down several times before clamping it back down. The bike was silent thereafter.

Now that brings me to an interesting one… What if it’s the wheel?

Over time, the spokes can “find a home” where they cross. If you pinch them, they’ll click and you’ll feel where the spokes ground a little groove in each other when they load and unload under your weight while riding. It’ll happen over five or six years (maybe sooner if you’re heavier – I’m 175 pounds and this took five years of hard miles on the Trek’s wheels – but keep in mind, I ride two bikes throughout the season – the Trek gets the ugly, wet miles).

Let’s start with what it sounds like. It’ll almost sound like you’re half-shifted in the rear cassette only there won’t be much of a rhythm to it… If you’re half-shifted (either you’ve limp-shifted or your derailleur needs a quarter-twist on the barrel adjuster, in whichever direction you’re shifting is slow, up or down the cassette) it’s a constant “tick-tick-tick-tick” as you pedal. On the other hand, if it’s your spokes, it’ll be more random but you’ll definitely get a sense of a rhythm – “tick, tick… tick, tick, tick… tick, tick…” The “ticks” will sound like they’re coming from the cassette almost and they’ll sound similar but the spoke problem won’t be quite as loud.

There are a couple of ways to treat this.

First, check the rear derailleur indexing. With the bike upside down and whilst advancing the pedals, turn the barrel adjuster one way until you get a clicking sound, then turn it the other way until you get a clicking sound. Then turn it halfway in between and check the shifting to make sure it’s spot on. Make minor adjustments as necessary. Truthfully, this shouldn’t be necessary. If it’s your derailleur that’s out, when you advance the pedals with the bike upside down (or on a stand), you’ll hear the clicking. If it’s the spokes, you won’t – you need the wheel to load and unload to get the clicks. Still best to be sure.

Simplest, and least painful, is to rub some heavy lube in between the spokes where they cross. This should help and may even fix the problem so you won’t have to do anything else.

Next, if that doesn’t work, is to take a thin file and pinch the spokes together so you can access the groove. Simply file the groove out with a couple of light passes with the file. Then lube the spokes and you should be good. Now, notice I didn’t write, “file the hell out of the spokes”? You want to be gentle here so you don’t compromise the integrity of the spoke.

Finally, if that doesn’t work, have the wheel relaced.

The easiest way I know to isolate the problem, so you know what you’ve got, is to use a spare wheel. I have a separate rear wheel for the Trek so I don’t use a good wheel on my trainer over the winter. If the problem is indeed the wheel, you can use a different wheel to check it. The click will obviously go away with a different wheel on the bike. Another way is to put pieces of paper between the spokes to isolate them, as I described earlier: