Bike Rollers – Pros and Cons

Guest poster Don Blount rides in bad weather — indoors, on his rollers. He discusses some of their pros and cons.

I feel fortunate to live in a part of the country where outdoor activities can be done year round. I fully appreciate that, having grown up in Philadelphia and living in Denver for several years.

Where I live now in Northern California, the rains have settled in. Other parts of the country are dealing with snow or high winds during winter. Out here we get rain, fog, wind and much lower temperatures. I’ll ride in cold weather. I’ll ride in the dark, in fog and other inclement weather. But I have my limits. And although I’ve gotten caught in the rain, I won’t go out for a ride in the rain. I’m not that hard core, or crazy. But instead of curling up next to the fireplace with a good book or the television, I’ll still ride. Instead of riding outdoors or in a spin class or a stationary trainer, I’ll ride on my bike rollers.

I purchased these rollers in the fall of 2008 for a few reasons: 1) To ride when the weather was too bad to go on the road. 2) To practice technique and handling skills.

I’ll admit that I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. It took me some time to get used to the rollers. I started out riding in a doorway and took my share of tumbles before being able to move to less confined places. One fall caused my wife to come rushing out to the garage to see what the problem was. I fell in the opposite direction what I had to grab onto. It is a sinking feeling to see something that could save you from going down slowly float out of your grasp. Fortunately by the time my wife arrived I was on my feet, with some of my dignity, claiming that nothing had happened. Later I found that I had bent my derailleur hanger.

What I’ve found that makes rollers most awkward (aside from learning to balance) is getting on and off. The rollers elevate you several inches off the ground, so getting on, moreso off, can be challenging because you just have this little skinny rail to balance your foot on. Miss that and whoosh, slipsville. I’m considering building a small platform to solve that problem.

I can now ride with a chair or counter, something that I can use to steady myself, next to me. And  I have gotten proficient enough that I can stand and pedal. I have begun working on clipping in and out of the pedals, although I won’t be doing anything close to what this guy does.

What I like about rollers is that I can still ride without going out in inclement weather. It helps conditioning, technique and handling skills. If your pedal stroke isn’t smooth while riding rollers, you’ll know because you’ll bounce around. Sprints, intervals, cadence work, all can be done on rollers.

What I don’t like about rollers is that they can be incredibly boring. Even wearing headphones and listening to music or watching television. Then again that just provides more incentive to ride outside once the weather calms. And after a few sessions on the rollers I can do that while working on my handling skills, technique and without losing too much conditioning.

Don also points us to this video by cycling coach Marc Evans, who demonstrates how to ride rollers.

When Bikes Hit Bikes

Last summer, I was on a club ride when we approached our turnaround point. We had to get ready to make a left turn into a gas station. We were riding two abreast on the road; I was in front on the right.

The rider next to me was experienced, but unfamiliar with this route.I told him we’d be making a left, and started to ease my bike in that direction.

He didn’t move. I nearly crashed into him. I was looking ahead to the turn, and didn’t see that he wasn’t moving with me. I jerked the handlebar to the right, somehow avoided falling over, and we got to the gas station without a mishap.

I’m thinking about that incident, because I recently came across some data about bike-on-bike crashes.

The Safety Committee of the Twin Cities Bike Club in Minnesota compiles records of crashes involving the club’s members. Each month, they print the crash rundown in their club newsletter. Their January newsletter toted up the crashes for the year: 34. Five of those crashes were bike-on-bike.

We always hear about solo crashes, where bikers lose control and go down, or car-bike crashes, which most often seem to happen when a car turns right in front of a bike. But why would bikes hit other bikes? Isn’t the hazard obvious? Can’t it easily be avoided?

The Twin Cities Bike Club listed causes for four of the five crashes. All were different.

  • Rider failed to signal intention to stop, rider behind hit front rider.
  • Rider turned into another rider riding beside him.
  • Riding in pace line, tire of rear rider touched the one in front.
  • Rider behind looking into rear view mirror ran into a slowing rider in front.

Three of the four somehow involved riders hitting the bike in front of them. All because of different circumstances, but the results were the same — a crash.

So one way to be a safer biker is to pay close attention to the bike in front of you. This is why you always hear warnings against “half-wheeling” in pacelines. That’s when your front wheel overlaps the rear wheel of the rider ahead. I witnessed the results of this when riding my first century. A serious crash on a wide, arrow-straight road.

In fact, it was a bike-on-bike crash that got me wearing a bike helmet. In the 1980s, my wife and I would take our bikes out on the local hike & bike paths in city parks. In one case, the path came down from a bridge over a creek, and merged with the path that ran along the creek. A rider coming down the hill couldn’t hold a tight line, and hit my wife head-on. She had cuts and bruises, some road rash, but was more frightened at the collision itself than the consequences. We went to the closest bike shop and bought helmets right away.

The bike club’s safety column concluded that most accidents — bike-on-bike or otherwise — are caused by inattentiveness.  It urges all bikers to take a Traffic Skills 101 course, which teaches defensive biking techniques.

And here’s something very timely: The League of American Bicyclists is partnering with the city of Houston to offer the classroom part of Traffic Skills 101 online, at bikeed.org. Registration is free. It’ll take about four hours to complete it, but you can take as many or as few modules at a time as you want. There’s a quiz after each module. Once you’ve completed the online part, you’re eligible to take the on-the-road portion. I signed up for the online course tonight, even though I’ve already passed Traffic Skills 101. We can all use a refresher.

Share the Road…You $%&@%!!

Guest poster Jeff Hemmel blows off a little steam.

Normally I’d be grabbing a little post-ride snack right about now, maybe doing a little stretching. But instead I’m venting, taking out my frustrations on the only thing in sight – my computer.

What’s my problem? The idiot in the white car, that’s my problem. Namely, the idiot who felt the need to stay behind me, while I literally hugged the edge of the road climbing a drawbridge, then for some reason chose to pull alongside me and abruptly lay on the horn. Not a toot-toot, mind you, we’re talking a prolonged blare. I knew the car was there, of course, but the unexpectedness — and the sheer loudness — of the horn startled me.

Me, a guy on a bike, with a cement wall to my right, traffic on my left, already battling 25 mph winds, doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

Apparently the guy in the white car was no rocket scientist, so let me give him a little education. Startling a person on a bike isn’t the smartest move you’ll make in life. When startled, most people react with a jerk. (Yes, that term refers to you as well, but I’m referring to a sudden movement in this context). Maybe you liked how I wobbled, and how I had a brief moment of panic. But what if I had gone down? Trust me, moron, my body and bike are no match for your several thousand pound automobile and the surrounding concrete. Maybe you thought it was funny, or that you were making a point for motorists everywhere. But what you were really doing was endangering someone’s life, a move that would have far-reaching effects for both of us.

More to the point, I was in the right, you (substitute name for your favorite feminine hygiene product here). I was staying as far to the right as possible, riding straight and predictable. You had room to pass me, believe it or not, and even more room if you consider that no cars were in the oncoming lane at the moment. But evidently you were just annoyed that a guy on a bike was apparently holding you up.

Obviously I’m preaching to the choir here, but maybe we need to remind our non-riding friends of the law. I’ve got a few who have actually told me how annoyed they are at us bikers on that very same bridge. They seem to think they are in the right, but that’s not always the case.

Here in Florida, state law says you must ride as far to the right as practicable, not as far to the right as possible. That means I’m perfectly entitled to “maintain no less than 2 feet of clearance from the edge of usable pavement to have room to maneuver around obstructions.” Should you, White Car Person, feel the lane is too narrow for both of us to share safely, you need to realize it is me who is entitled to the lane, not you.

Should you feel the need to pass me, and I perfectly understand if you do, you also need to realize that under Florida law, you’re required to give me three feet of clearance. That means you wait until you have a clear road, then you go out and around me. I’ll double check, but I don’t think blaring your horn is part of the deal. Other states with Three Foot laws are Arkansas, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Illinois, Tennessee, Minnesota, Utah, Wisconsin, Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado, Louisiana, and Maine. (Sorry all you Texans, apparently you don’t have one…yet.)

Bike Noob note: That’s right, the Texas Legislature passed a three-foot law last summer, but the governor vetoed it.

After our little altercation I did all the wrong things, of course. I called you some very interesting names, then tried to channel Fabian Cancellera so that I could catch you at the next traffic light. That’s not a good idea according to most experts. Had I caught you hopefully I would have calmly explained my side of the situation to help you see things differently, not, shall we say, tooted my own horn.

Of course, I couldn’t ultimately match your speed, and the light wasn’t in my favor. But I did enjoy you checking your rearview mirror when you realized I could actually climb a bridge a little faster than you thought…

Old Lessons, Learned Anew

A very tough club ride today. Tough for me, anyway. The A group was going on a “reverse” dam loop, which would take them through some hilly neighborhoods. After last weekend’s short ride, where I did well on some hills, I figured it would be fun for the B’s to follow the A’s for part of their route, but turnaround early for a 33-mile ride. Seemed great in theory, but when we got out on the road, the going was tough. I relearned some old lessons today:

The Wind is Not Your Friend

Lots of riders would disagree. Treat the wind like hills, they’d say. Then you can get a hill workout even on the flats. Nuh-uh, not today. The wind was blowing briskly from the west-northwest, and was forecast to pick up throughout the morning. Temp was 52℉ (11℃), but most of us dressed for colder conditions.

About six miles into the ride, we’re on Barton Creek Blvd., a wide, smooth road running through a ritzy neighborhood. The road rises, falls, twists and turns over the hilly terrain. We had been riding against the wind up to this point, which was hard enough, but now the wind got stronger — 25 mph, gusting to 36, according to various weather sites after the fact. The wind grabbed the front wheel, and if you weren’t fully concentrating, could easily have knocked the bike over. As it was, it was hard to hold the line through the curves. An aero position didn’t seem to help much, and I rode the brakes through a particularly fast downhill section.

Later in the ride, I was on the shoulder of an expressway, crossing a bridge over a wooded valley. The wind grabbed the bike, and pushed it into the traffic lane — this on a road where the speed limit is 65 mph, and never observed. Yipes! I must have avoided being hit by a car, because I’m here writing this.

To get better on hills — ride hills!

Last week, we rode a somewhat hilly route. It was shorter than usual, because we had new riders along who weren’t ready for the grades. I felt good — I even attacked a hill that had given me trouble in the past.

So when planning the ride for today, I thought hills would be a nice addition. I started second guessing myself once I hit Barton Creek Blvd., because the A peloton was nowhere in sight. They do hilly routes all the time. But I made good progress against the wind, except for the aforementioned gust problems. At the end of the boulevard is “Hail Mary Hill.” It curves up toward a stoplight at a major highway, and we all stop to rest in a church parking lot. (The church is a Presbyterian church, and Presbyterians don’t say Hail Marys — but I get a kick out of the name coined by one of our club members, so I’m sticking with it. If you want to discuss the finer points of theology, I’m sure there are other blogs for that.)

Anyhow, halfway up the hill, I knew I was in trouble. I was in my 34 x 28 granny gear, trying to turn the pedals easily and “walk” the bike up the steep incline. I did it last summer, but today it felt as though my heart would explode right out of my chest. I think I had the strength in my thighs to keep going, but I had to stop. I walked the bike the rest of the way up.

Disheartening, because I know I can climb this thing. But I haven’t done it since September, and I haven’t been working hill repeats into my regular weekday rides during the winter months. That may have to  change. I was able to climb this same hill in September because I had done more rides with decent hills in them.

The quickest way to lighten your bike is to lighten yourself

I said I would get serious about losing weight this year. I’ve dropped three pounds since New Year’s Day, but that can be made up just by drinking lots of water. I think one of the reasons I had trouble on Hail Mary Hill is that I’m about 10 pounds heavier than I was in September.

It’s my usual winter weight gain, but it’s gotta stop. My wife is a fan of the Weight Watchers points system, and today we’ll be charting how many points I’ve been accounting for with my eating habits, and how they’ll have to change to get me to where I want to be. Meanwhile, every time I encounter a hill, I’ll envision myself climbing it with a bag of charcoal strapped around my waist. If I can lose the bag of charcoal, I should be in good shape. Stay tuned.

What time do your weekday rides start?

Here’s a question from Bike Noob reader Ramon H. in the Rio Grande Valley of far south Texas:

Lighting the way before dawn.*

Currently, we have a small group that rides on Tuesday and Thursday at 5:15 a.m.  We ride for about 1.5 hours and we get back to our homes about 7 a.m. with plenty of time to get ready for work and go in at 8 a.m.  I thought that was plenty early, but now some other folks really want to ride with us.  However, they are asking us to move our ride to start at 4:30 a.m.  That got me thinking, at what time do your readers do their weekday rides and why?  I can start it off by saying that I love the morning rides because it gives me lots of energy for the work day ahead.  Also, it just fits better in my schedule.

Ramon, I haven’t bought a really good light to do a recreational or training ride in the early morning dark, so I’ll have to defer to Bike Noob’s loyal readers. Does your club do really early morning rides on weekdays? Do you as an individual get up well before dawn to work in a ride before going to work? We know commuters do this all the time, but getting up that early for fun strikes me as odd (although I used to jog before dawn, back when I jogged).

Feel free to weigh in on this. Is 4:30 a.m. too early on a weekday?

*Photo from Beginning Bicycle Commuting blog.

The Thule Echelon/Thule Crossroad Rack Review

Guest poster Jeff Hemmel fills our winter days with thoughts of warmer climes — and taking our bikes along. Here’s his take on a Thule rooftop rack system.

Like a lot of people, I occasionally take a bike on vacation. Other years my Giant Sedona DX typically came along for the ride, but lately I’ve spent a lot more time on my Trek road bike, so when out latest trip drew near, it was the Trek that got invited to the dance. (Sorry, Sedona, but it really meant nothing, and I swear I was thinking about you the whole time. Honest.)

Problem is, my trusty hitch-mount bike rack didn’t really fit a road bike’s contours — and cables — too well. On top of that, we were also considering taking our smaller car, one without a receiver hitch. Enter the subject of this review, the Thule Echelon fork-mount bike carrier.

Or rather, the Thule Crossroad rack system and the Thule Echelon bike rack review. Huh? You see, today a lot of cars (okay, a lot of cars of the sport wagon/SUV variety) come with lengthwise factory rails, but no widthwise crossbars, leaving it up to the consumer to add the rack portion of the equation. In other words, before I could rack, I had to rail.

I’ve had good luck with Thule equipment in the past, so I chose their Crossroad system. Setup proved pretty simple. A polyethylene-covered, galvanized steel Thule load bar slides through a pair of the Crossroad’s feet, and then the assembly can be placed atop the factory rails. Thule accommodates a wide variety of rail styles by relying on a flexible, rubber-coated steel band to actually secure the foot to the rail. To fasten, pass the free end under the rail, hook it in the appropriate slot on the foot, then simply tighten things up. The outer cap of the footpad includes the necessary Allen key, and also serves as a handy knob to tighten things down. As you tighten the strap around the factory rails, the mechanism simultaneously locks the load bar in place, no tools required. Once I had the front half installed, I repeated it on the back.

Hints? Do a basic line-up beforehand. At the rubber-coated base of each footpad is a small arrow. Try to line it up with the center of the factory rail to best spread the load. I would also suggest upgrading to the locks Thule offers, both to keep your rack secure, but also to just make sure no one pops off an end cap and leaves you without your tightening tool, or a loose cap ends up along the side of the highway. Single-key lock packs come in multiples of two. Plan ahead to cover all four feet, as well as whatever carriers you choose to install afterward.

With the basic Crossroad system installed, next came the Echelon. A square bracket and two bolts lock the front of the carrier to the forward load bar, and the rear is attached to the aft bar with a simple backing plate, bolts, and screw knobs. That’s really all there was to it. Loading the bike is just a matter of positioning the rear wheel in the carrier tray, slipping the front fork’s dropouts onto the front skewer, and clamping everything in place.

I preferred the Echelon’s front clamp to cheaper alternatives for multiple reasons. For one, the cover/cam lever secures the fork in one simple motion. For another, a large adjustment knob makes for quick adjustments while securing and releasing. Loading a bike takes under a minute. At highway speeds, the rack proved surprisingly solid, although I’d again upgrade to a lock on the clamp just for peace of mind, not only to keep the bike in place, but also to keep the bolts inaccessible for any really determined thieves.

The complete Thule 450 Crossroad system, with a pair of 50” load bars, runs $240; the Echelon bike carrier $150. You can see how your own vehicle measures up at thuleracks.com.

When Should Cleats Be Replaced?

When riding earlier this week, I had a heckuva time trying to engage my cleats. Usually, I can click in without looking, but on this particular ride I missed the pedal every time. That’s especially bothersome when trying to cross a busy intersection, even when the cross traffic is stopped by a red light. When I got home, I took a look at my cleats:

Yipes! The right one, especially, the one I use to click in almost exclusively, seems to be beyond worn. No wonder I couldn’t get the cleat to engage the pedal. It’s a far cry from what they looked like when they were new:

Then, I joined our regular Sunday morning club ride today. About halfway through the ride, I realized I was having no trouble getting the cleat to click into the pedal. I was — still am — baffled. Why did it give me such trouble four days ago, but not today?

And just when should cleats be replaced?

I know from experience that they should be. The cleat I had in my previous shoes wore this badly, and once it came right out of the pedal at a bad time — when I was applying power to climb a hill. In fact, that happened more than once, and the second time I crashed because I lost control of the bike.

So I’m going to get a new set of cleats ASAP. As I said, they’re obviously way past replacement time. But just when are cleats worn badly enough to merit replacement? Are there things to look for that serve as replacement clues?