Some Basic Tips For Noobs

I decided not to ride Sunday morning, because it was pouring rain when I woke up. Dumb move. Things were pretty well dried out by 9 a.m., and if I’d been a little more patient, I could have gone. As it was, I did a short ride with my wife, as I mentioned in the last post.

But I wanted to make up for the lost B ride, so I posted that I would go Monday morning, since it was a holiday. We would do the Same Fitzhugh route that the A’s did on Sunday. Three others came out to join me, including Yasmin and Frank, two new B riders who rode with us for the first time last week.

Both of them have recently bought new bikes, and they’re both strong riders who will only get stronger and faster as they keep riding. As we negotiated the rolling hills along Fitzhugh Road, Frank stayed with Buddy, who moved well out in front. Yasmin got ahead of me, and while I had some trouble sticking with her, we were closer together than Buddy and Frank were to us.

At the turnaround, about 16 miles out from the start, Yasmin complained that her saddle was bothering her. She’s a tall woman, and the bike frame she had appeared to be sized for a man. But the saddle was a narrow racing style. I could relate to her distress. I rode a narrow racing saddle for about a year, when I finally ditched it some something wider and more comfortable.

“When you take it back to the shop, ask them to fit you with a wider saddle,” I suggested. Because of women’s wider pelvises, they need wider saddles than men, anyway.

At another rest stop farther on, both Yasmin and Frank expressed concern about their hands. They were getting numb, and they were shaking them out periodically.

In Frank’s case, he was riding with his elbows locked. “One of the guys told me to ride with my elbows bent,” he said. “I’m trying to get used to that.” Bending the elbows takes weight off the hands. The saddle should have been positioned in such a way that the elbows naturally bend when the rider is in his standard riding position. When I had my bike fitting some years ago, the fitter said it’s more common that people have their saddle too far back rather than too far forward. For most people, he said, moving the saddle forward will provide that elbow bend and make for a more comfortable riding position.

Fitters often use KOPS, or Knee Over Pedal Spindle, as a way to determine saddle fore-aft position. But the other day I was re-reading Peter White’s excellent contrarian article about bike fitting, where he pooh-poohs that notion. It’s all about balance, he says, the kind of balance between power and comfort. The article inspired me to do some tweaking on my saddle position.

It turned out that Yasmin was pushing her hands against the brake hoods. While that seems like a normal position for a new rider, it can cause the hands to go numb quickly. I showed them how to position the hands so the pressure is on the outside heels of the hands, not the webbing between the thumb and forefinger. “It usually doesn’t take much of a shift in position to relieve the pressure,” I said.

We wrapped up the ride and went our separate ways. I hope the tips about saddle width, bending the elbows, and hand position will help Frank and Yasmin enjoy their riding. I fully expect it will have negative consequences for me — it’ll just make them stronger riders, and I’ll be left behind again.

Hot Spot Cure

You might recall that several weeks ago I complained about the hot spot I get on the bottom of my left foot after riding for about 30 miles. It really makes longer rides unpleasant, and since I like to do longer rides, it’s a real bummer.

I dug up an old article that said the hot spot is actually caused by a neuroma — a swelling of the nerve between toes. There was even a way to deal with it — things called matatarsal buttons.

Maybe I’m a lousy shopper, but I never found any. (Not that I tried all that hard.) It occurred to me, however, that I could come up with a treatment of my own. So I did.

Ta da! A cotton ball torn in half. I stick half between my two outside toes. It seemed like a stopgap treatment at the time. But it works!

Now, any time I plan to be on the bike for more than an hour, I make sure to rip apart a cotton ball, and stick half between my toes.

I admit, I haven’t really put it to the test on a long ride yet. I have done 36 miles however, and I never had a complaint from the foot. Anecdotally, it works for me.

As usual, it turns out to be a simple solution. I’m irked that when I was last bothered by foot problems — a numb little toe — I spun my wheels trying all sorts of remedies. I even slashed my old biking shoes. Nothing worked.

It’s counterintuitive to think that spreading out your foot will ease a problem that seems to be caused by too-tight shoes. But that’s what it did.

Let me know if you have had foot or toe problems, and have come up with your own solution.

Numb toe update — the new shoes worked

Long-time readers will remember about a year ago I used to regularly carp about a problem with my feet. Specifically, my left foot. More specifically, the little toe on my left foot. It would go numb after riding much more than an hour, and bother me for the rest of my ride.

I tried a number of ways to deal with it, including fastening my shoe straps as loose as possible, adding arches of various sizes and shapes, and even cutting a gash along the side of the shoe. Nothing worked.

I finally concluded the problem was not with my foot, but with the shoe. They were cheap Chinese-made shoes that I bought when I first took up biking. Fine for rides of an hour or less, I just couldn’t keep wearing them on the distances I wanted to ride.

My wife came to rescue, when she bought me some new shoes for Christmas. They’re by Specialized, and are one of their premium models with a rock-hard carbon sole. I exchanged them for a larger size, figuring that since feet swell with exercise, a larger shoe would minimize the toe numbness.

Well, after nine months of experience in the new shoes, I can report that they work. I haven’t had a numb toe since I first put them on.

Wouldn’t a larger pair of the old brand have done the same thing? I can’t say for sure, but I know those shoes don’t come with carbon soles — just nylon. So there’s going to be some flex in the sole, and that could lead to the same problem. More likely, it would lead to a hot spot on the foot. Either way, the old adage rings true once again: You get what you pay for. When it comes to my feet, I’ll pay the price to keep them comfortable.

Those new shoes are working out

It’s been a month now since getting my new cycling shoes, and they seem to be providing the relief my chronic numb toe needs. I can think of two reasons for the improvement: the shoes are a size larger than the ones I’d previously used, so there’s less squeezing of the foot when they swell with exercise, and they have a more adjustable strap system.

They use a rachet tightening strap at the top. I’ve been finding through trial and error that while it’s tempting to snug down that strap, it’s probably not the best idea. On a recent ride, the foot was bothering me when I stopped for a rest, and I found that the strap was just a little too tight. It seemed fine when I started out. Loosening it a couple of clicks did the trick.

I’ve concluded that the problem is with my left foot itself.  There must be something in its physiology that makes it a little different from the right foot.  It may be something that I have to live with.  However, it’s not giving me anywhere near the bother it used to with the old shoes, and for 90 percent of my riding, my foot is now fine.  So the shoes are working, and it looks like I won’t have to resort to any cockamamie solutions like slashing the mesh upper to ease the pressure on the foot.

My numb toe posts have gotten a lot of traffic over the past few months, continue to do so.  I don’t have any revelations that will help with the problem. For me, it turned out to be the shoes. So, I guess the only real advice I can give is: Don’t skimp. Buy one of the top name brands. Do your research. Road Bike Review is a good place to visit, and Performance Bike customers can leave reviews for each piece of equipment that outfit sells. Yes, they’re only anecdotal reviews, but taken as a whole, you can get a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Latest numb toe remedy — new shoes!

After my experiences with numb toes on rides this year, I finally came to the conclusion that the only way to deal with the problem was to get new shoes. I must have dropped some well-placed hints, because under the Christmas tree this year, there they were!

shoesThey’re the Road Comp model by Specialized. Mrs. Noob has worn Specialized shoes for two years, and loves them. I’ve also heard good things about the brand from other bikers. Yes, I know everyone lusts after Sidis, but they’re a little too pricey. And these weren’t cheap.

Santa must have thought you wear the same size for biking as for your everyday street shoes, because he brought size 42.5 (9 1/2 US). They were a tight fit. My feet tend to swell during exercise, and I always buy sport shoes a size larger than my street shoes. My LBS happily made the exchange for size 44, and while I was in there, they even mounted the new cleats.

One of the main features I was looking for in a new shoe was a carbon sole. I figured the stiffness of carbon would help control the numb toe problem. These soles are as hard as rock.

I’ve worn them on two rides since Christmas. The leather tongue is a little long, and hits my instep right where it curves up into the shin. I think that will work itself out with a little more riding. They’re snug without being tight, because of that ratcheting fastener for the top strap. I like Specialized’s Body Geometry line of equipment anyway — they seem to pay attention to our anatomical needs.

While we’re talking about bike things for Christmas, I also got that seat post-mounted dual water bottle cage I posted about last week, a pair of yellow biking socks (“Because you don’t have any socks that match your yellow jersey.”), and a new long sleeve jersey. So it was a good biking Christmas for me.

The title of this post might be a bit misleading. Whether these shoes will fix the numb toe thing is still undetermined. Both my rides in the new shoes were fairly short — 15 and 17 miles — and I really didn’t get a sense of how the toe is behaving. I’ll have to report back on that in a future post.

Some new numb foot advice

Something is going on out there with all sorts of riders, and it’s not good. It has to do with foot numbness. I’ve noticed that some of my more recent posts aren’t getting as much readership as I thought they would, but some older posts I’ve done dealing with my numb toe problem continue to get readers on a daily basis.

So what’s up? Are we a community of sore-footed cyclists?

I’m at the point where I have decided to tolerate my numb toe situation. I like to stop for a break every hour or so — maybe a little longer — and when I do, my numb toe problem solves itself. Even when I was smarting the other day after my crash, and my toe was screaming at me in agony, when the group stopped for a break and I walked for a few minutes, the problem was gone (of course, I was so sore in other places that I really didn’t stop to think about my feet until later, when I realized the toe had stopped burning).

Here’s a little something that might help some folks out there. It’s an article from Road Bike Rider, a web site I visit on at least a weekly basis. They’ve got several ideas about foot pain — they call it “hot foot” — and they invite bloggers to reprint their article. So here it is:

How to Solve Painful ‘Hot Foot’

By Fred Matheny for http://www.RoadBikeRider.com

In cycling, it’s known as “hot foot” — a burning pain in the ball of the foot, perhaps radiating toward the toes. Severe cases feel like some sadistic demon is applying a blowtorch.

Hot foot occurs most often on long rides. It may develop sooner or more intensely on hilly courses because climbs cause greater pedaling pressure. The pain results when nerves are squeezed between the heads of each foot’s five long metatarsal bones. These heads are in the wide part of the foot (the “ball”) just behind the toes.

My worst case of hot foot occurred on a 3,400-mile, 24-day transcontinental ride. With an average distance of 140 miles per day, no rest days and more than 100,000 feet of vertical gain, my dogs were smoking by the third week.

My RBR partner, Ed Pavelka, remembers being in agony near the end of one 225-mile ride early in his long-distance career. It was his first experience with hot foot, and the problem plagued him that season until he changed to larger shoes. Feet always swell on long rides (more so in hot weather), causing pressure inside shoes that normally fit fine.

“Hot foot” is actually a misnomer. It’s not heat but rather pressure on nerves that causes the burning sensation. You’ll sometimes see riders squirting water on their pups in a vain attempt to put out the fire.

Besides tight shoes, another risk factor is small pedals, especially if you have large feet. Small pedal surfaces concentrate pressure on the ball of the foot instead of spreading it the way a larger pedal will. If your cycling shoes have flexible soles like most mountain bike shoes, they’ll be less able to diffuse pressure.

Before Ed figured out his shoe-size problem, he tried to solve the pain with cortisone injections. That’s an unnecessary extreme in most cases — and it’s not fun to have a doctor stick a needle between your toes. Here are several better solutions.

  • Adjust shoe straps. It’s the top strap nearest your ankle that stops your feet from slopping around in your shoes. Tighten it as much as necessary, but keep the strap nearest your toes loose for maximum room.

  • Use thinner insoles and/or socks. This will give your feet more room to swell without restriction, especially helpful if your shoes are borderline snug.

  • Re-focus the pressure. Many riders solve hot foot by moving their cleats to the rear by as much as 8 mm. Long-distance enthusiast may go back as far as the cleat slots allow. They might even drill new rearward holes. After using this remedy, lower your saddle by the same amount if you moved your cleats backward 2-4 mm. If more than 4 mm, lower the saddle about half the amount. So, if your cleats go back 1 cm, put the saddle down 5 mm.

  • Add metatarsal buttons. These foam domes are placed on insoles (or are built into them) just behind the ball of the foot. They spread the metatarsal bones so the nerves running between them aren’t pinched by pressure or swelling. You can find these products in the foot-care section of drug stores.

  • Switch to larger pedals, for the reason mentioned above.

  • Buy new shoes. Look for a model with a wider-and-higher toe box, a stiffer sole and an anatomical footbed with a metatarsal button. One model that meets these specs is the Specialized BG, with versions for road and off-road.

  • Purchase custom orthotics. These plastic footbeds are supplied by podiatrists or sports medicine clinics. Among their biomechanical benefits are built-in metatarsal buttons. Be certain the practitioner understands you’re a cyclist, because orthotics for runners are not what you need. Cycling is a forefoot activity, not a heel-strike activity.

For more information on hot foot, orthotics and other foot-related issues, see “Andy Pruitt’s Medical Guide for Cyclists,” available as an eBook in the online eBookstore at RoadBikeRider.com.

Receive a FREE copy of the eBook “29 Pro Cycling Secrets for Roadies” by subscribing to the RoadBikeRider Newsletter at http://www.RoadBikeRider.com. No cost or obligation!

I’ll be interested in hearing if these suggestions help any. I’ve been kicking around several ideas, such as wider shoes, switching to touring style pedals with a wider base and SPD-compatible mountain bike shoes. Let me know what works for you.

The training is paying off

Decided to skip the regular club ride this morning — they were taking a route that didn’t appeal to me. Instead, I struck out on my own, combining parts of a couple of routes we’ve taken in the past into a longish ride. I wanted to see if I could handle it by myself, and if I had the staying power I needed.

The ride took me south of Austin to Kyle, Texas. After a boring first seven miles on city streets, the rider picks up some country roads. It’s interesting how fast the landscape changes from suburban to rural. You know you’re in the country when you ride by a ranch and find Texas longhorn cattle grazing close to the road. Lots of ranchers keep them because of their heritage — these are the cattle the cowboys drove north to the railheads in Kansas and elsewhere, before the railroads came to Texas. Their meat is tough and stringy — wouldn’t pass muster in today’s supermarket meat sections.

After a turn through Buda, Texas the route picks up two busier roads, but ones with generous shoulders. They lead to Kyle, another small town that is rapidly growing into a bedroom community for Austin and San Marcos. Kyle is a great place to take a break, because of the Lucky Cup, an independent coffee house.

My trusty steed parked at the Lucky Cup. The coffee shop is marked by the door and windows on the left side of the building. Its signage is obscured by the shadows.

I bought a Gatorade and refilled my water bottle here. A patio in the shade (from where the picture was shot) has tables and chairs for relaxing. The owners of the shop appreciate that bikers have discovered the place, and are happy to accommodate their needs.

Instead of turning back to Austin here, as I’ve done before, I continued into downtown Kyle, about two miles away. Let’s just say it’s a small business district, about two blocks long. Prominent among the shops is another spot we might consider stopping on future trips down here:

“Life Is Short — Eat More Pie” is the Texas Pie Company’s slogan.

The rest of the ride went through new housing developments, cotton fields that appeared to be recently harvested, poorer neighborhoods of run-down manufactured houses, and back to Austin. Central Texas has had a very dry couple of months, and I was pleased to be spattered by a few raindrops. This is a pretty dry place throughout the year. Newcomers to the area find it surprisingly green, but then are surprised to find that even though it’s not a desert, cacti abound.

Clumps of prickly pear cactus along the Old San Antonio Road.

So, how did the ride go? It turned out to be a little shorter than I had expected. I guess I didn’t travel far enough east to add on some miles. The bike shifted more smoothly today than yesterday, but will still go into the shop for a tuneup this week.  I had no bonking problems — not even a hint, so I guess I’ve finally figured out what works for me on trips of this length. I’m pulling better on hills, applying the power longer, not tiring as fast. That toe is still a bother, but pulling up on the pedal helps, and when I stop to take a break every hour or so, I shake it out so it’ll be okay for another hour.

I finished 50.2 miles with an average speed of 15 miles per hour — right where I hoped I’d be. I didn’t have to charge off to bed for a nap, as I usually do after a ride this long.  The century is two weeks away.  I think I’m going to be ready.

Possible toe solution

OK, several posts ago I hinted that my doctor may have come up with a solution to my numb toe problem.  At my recent physical examination, I described what was happening — numbness after a certain time on the bike.  Turns out, the problem is not in my toe after all, but in my foot.

The doc says a nerve running along the side of the foot is being compressed by the shoe.  That’s what leads to the numbness in the toe.  The way to fix it, he said, is to apply a corn patch to the side of the foot, back from the toe.  Putting pressure there will ease the pressure on the toe, and should alleviate the numbness.

Interesting idea.  I haven’t tried it yet.

Why?  Because lately, the toe hasn’t been bothering me as much.  After my ham-handed homemade remedy of a few weeks ago, the numbness has flared up only a couple times.  I’ll still get it, but it’s not the bother it was, and it doesn’t happen on every ride.

In fact, on my ride this evening, the numbness started, but I discovered it was because the tongue of the shoe had wrinkled a bit, and was putting pressure on the toe.  Once I stopped riding and took off the shoe to fix the problem, the numbness disappeared.

So, I guess I have a new remedy in my back pocket, should I ever need it.  Besides, the doc isn’t making any promises.

“If it works, I get the credit,” he said.  “If it doesn’t, it was just another one of your hairbrained schemes.”

Sometimes home remedies work — sometimes not

It looks like the cut on the shoe helped the toe numbness — but just a bit. I got the tingling sensation at about mile 24 of today’s ride. I’ve got some additional treatments for the shoe lined up, but whatever I do, it’s going to ruin the shoe in the long run. So I expect that new shoes are in my future at some point. And they’ll have to be wides. By the way, do most bike shoes come in widths? Or do only a few companies make different widths? I really haven’t paid much attention to the different makes and models out there.

Autumn is trying to sneak up on central Texas. The official overnight low was 72°F (22°C), but it felt like the 60s when we started the ride. That made for great riding conditions, and the ride itself was very encouraging. It was the Fitzhugh Road route again — one I enjoy, but one I have had trouble with in the past because of its rolling hills. I had hoped several B riders would join up, so we could ride the rollers without trying to match the pace of the A riders.

But I was the only B to show up today. I told the ride leader I would turn around at Ranch Road 12, where the group takes a break. They continue on for another 10 miles or so.

Son of a gun, when we got out to Fitzhugh Road, I was still in the middle of the pack. The hill routes I have been riding recently must be working. I was mentally patting myself on the back for the next couple miles, when suddenly I looked up — and I was alone.

I don’t know when they kicked it up a notch, but evidently I didn’t get the message. Lucky for me, the ride leader considers it his job to be the “sweep,” and he was off the back of the pack, too. We rode the several miles to Ranch Road 12 together.

The group takes a break at Ranch Road 12. This was where I turned around.

The ride back was routine — heavier traffic on Fitzhugh this morning than usual — and when I got to the corner of U.S. 290 and Fitzhugh I noticed the numb toe thing. A short walk around the convenience store parking lot, a brief break to drain my water bottle, and off for home.

Totals: 33.5 miles, 15.1 mph avg speed. Next week is the metric century warmup for the century ride in October.

Numb toe home remedy

That numb toe problem of mine is back again — in fact, it has been for awhile. Very bothersome on last weekend’s long ride, but I feel the numbness even on rides of 12 miles or so.

It bugged me again this evening after about 15 miles, so when I got home, I decided to do something drastic: I took an old filet knife and slashed the side of the shoe where the little toe presses against it. Not a big slash — maybe a half inch.

I made the cut along the yellow line.

It seems the little toe on my left foot is shaped differently than the little toe on my right foot, and it sticks out sideways just a bit more. So I think the shoe has been putting pressure on the toe, which causes the numbness (Yes, I make sure the bottom strap on the shoe is fastened loosely. The only one I keep snug is the top one, so I can pull up on the pedals).

To those who had offered ideas about handling the problem, many thanks. Most didn’t work in my case. Some offered a temporary solution. Moving the cleat back helped some, but didn’t solve it.

So, I’ve got another longish ride coming up Sunday. Will Bike Noob’s toe go numb again? Or did the slasher get the job done? I’ll be sure to let you know.