What Does it Feel Like?

I was enjoying a nice ride around the neighborhood with my wife last weekend. We had gone over to the Veloway and were headed home. I would continue on for another 12 miles or so.

We turned off the main drag onto a residential street with a small hill. I stood on the pedals to get a little more oomph and crested the hill easily. She followed, a bit winded.

“What does it feel like?” she asked.

“What does what feel like?”

“When you stand on the pedals. What does it feel like?”

That caught me by surprise. I wasn’t sure what to say. It made me think about a simple bicycling act I do innumerable times on each ride.

“Well, you feel more power to the pedals,” I answered. “You get up to speed faster.”

“I just did it a little bit, and it felt funny,” she said.

Now, Pat has been riding for about five years. She gets out several times a week, and has done some organized rides, including two 50-milers. In fact, she started riding before I did. When I saw that she could ride 50 miles, I figured I could, too, and that started me in biking.

But she once told me she wouldn’t stand on the pedals. She was afraid it would make her lose her balance. So even when she struggles up hills, she does it seated.

“How do you mean, funny?” I asked.

“It’s like, I have trouble pulling up on the pedal,” she said.

“Oh. Well, when you stand, you don’t pull up on the pedals. You get your power by pushing down.”

“Yeah, but that feels jerky. I push down, but then I have trouble pulling up.”

“No, you don’t pull up,” I said. She was really making me think here. “Let’s say you push down on the right pedal. Once you get to the bottom, then you push down on the left pedal. Don’t worry about pulling up.”

I should have mentioned that that’s why it’s called mashing.

That exchange did me good. It made me think about a simple part of cycling. By forcing me to explain that simple act clearly, it helped me crystalize my thoughts on the matter. Better yet, it indicated that Pat is thinking about getting better on the bike. The weather around here is starting to moderate with the onset of fall. Maybe over the next few weeks, she’ll be tackling hills with me — standing on the pedals.

Falling Into Bad Habits

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a ride in the country on my own. I wasn’t worried about speed, although I maintained a nice average pace. I was just out to enjoy the ride before the day became oppressively hot.

As I rode, I started noticing something about the way I was piloting the bike. I felt like I was mashing the pedals going up hills. Every so often, the gears would crunch when I shifted — and it didn’t matter if I was shifting up or down. Hm, I thought — that’s odd. I haven’t been getting that on the bike lately.

And then it occurred to me: Sure I have. It seems like every ride I’ve done lately has had its share of crunching gears and mashed pedals. I know better. But I’ve let myself lapse into bad habits.

It didn’t used to be this way. I used to regularly do a ride where all I concentrated on was my cycling technique. But I haven’t done that for a while now, and I can tell.

So, what should I be doing?

Well, on the hills,I like to keep up my forward momentum by “pedaling in a circle.” That means applying even pressure to the pedal throughout the stroke. It’s a more efficient, and more powerful, way to ride. I know I’m doing it right when I feel a burn in both my calves and my quadriceps. Maybe that’s why I don’t concentrate on doing it as often as I should. I am pain averse.

But because pedaling in a circle stresses the big leg muscles, it makes you a better rider. You get up the hills a tad quicker, and you have the strength to power through tough spots on rides — even if they’re on the flats.

It’s something I have to remind myself about. I resolved (once again) to pay attention to my pedaling technique and make sure I pedaled in a circle more often.

The shifting thing is an easy fix, too. I knew the problem didn’t lie with my chain. I replaced the chain not too long ago. No, this had to do with something I learned way back when I was young.

Ease up on the pedals when you shift.

It’s tough when you shift while you’re stomping on the pedals. The chain makes a nasty noise as it scrapes across the cogs. When I was a kid and got my first English three-speed “racer” bike, I was told to pedal backwards while shifting gears. I think that was my father’s way of telling me to let up on pedal pressure.

From that point on, I concentrated on each shift. I kicked myself (figuratively) when I forgot to ease up on shifts, and congratulated myself (literally) when I shifted smoothly and noiselessly.

That was two weekends ago.

On today’s ride, there was the “crunch” again. And I caught myself mashing up a short, sharp hill again.

What’s the rule? You have to perform a new action for 21 days straight to break a bad habit?

I think I have several weeks of habit-breaking ahead of me.

Snot Rockets

A couple of weekends ago, I was out on a ride with an old friend. Before we started, she pulled out a bandana and tied it around her handlebars.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

“Oh, I have terrible allergies,” she said. “I have to keep this close so I can blow my nose.”

Yeah, allergies are bad this year. The latest National Allergy Forecast shows medium-high levels across the northern tier of states, and much of the rest of the country has medium levels. So cyclists – and lots of others – might have to contend with runny or clogged noses. That’s tough to do when you’re putting miles behind you.

Gather ’round, noobs. It’s time to learn another new biking skill: the Snot Rocket.

That rather uncouth term describes clearing the nose without using a handkerchief or tissue. It’s fairly simple.

1. Move your left hand to the top of the bars.

2. Place a finger of your right hand over your right nostril. Try for an air-tight seal.

3. Turn your head. You want to make sure you don’t hit yourself.

4. Check for other cyclists. You really want to make sure you don’t hit them, either.

5. Blow. Hard and short. There should be enough force behind the blow to push the detritus away from your body, so the speed of your bike will carry you past it.

6. Switch hands. Repeat the process on the other side.

7. Clean up. This is where those terry cloth “sweat pads” (yeah, right – we know what they’re really for!) on your gloves come in handy.

It’s not a good idea to let fly if you’re in the middle or front of a group ride. Drop to the back so you don’t accidentally catch other cyclists with your projectile.

My friend has to wait until we stop for a rest before she can undo her bandana and use it. If she learns to blow a snot rocket, she can ride through allergy season breathing deeply.

Relax

When I bought my road bike three years ago, I was getting the cursory fitting common to bike stores. The salesperson doing the fitting stepped back, and with a scowl, said, “Relax! Your shoulders are hunched. Your arms are locked. That’s not the position you want to be in.”

She was right, of course. “Relax” is probably the best advice you’ll ever get about cycling. Not only does it apply to your position on the bike, but just about any other aspect of riding.

Let’s take the basic riding position — the one I was having trouble with in the shop. If a rider adopts that position on a long ride, it’s likely to end badly. Your neck will be sore. So will your arms. You’ll be tiring out your muscles when you don’t have to. Your upper body — neck, shoulders, and arms — don’t move the bike forward, so you want to take them out of the equation. No side-to-side motion. No up and down motion.

This road bike rider has been fitted to ride in a relaxed position.

The relax advice applies to other riding moves, too. You’re climbing a hill? Relax. Be still from the waist up. Cycling coach Andy Applegate says you don’t want even an ounce of unnecessary tension. You want whoever is watching you to be unaware of the effort you’re putting into the climb.

Descending? Relax, too. It’s easy to tense up when the bike points downhill. Sometimes those runs can be pretty scary. Tenseness can affect your ability to control the bike. Drop your shoulders, loosen the death grip on the handlebars, bend your elbows. Tilt your eyes upward to look forward instead of craning your neck.

Here comes a corner. Relax. Coach Carl Cantrell says tensing up causes the bike to pull to the outside. You can lose control, and might have to brake to get control back. And we all know how jumpy a bike feels when you brake in the middle of a turn. Relaxing while cornering should become instinctive, says Cantrell. “It is the single most important thing most people can do to improve their cornering.”

Are you falling? Relax. “As you hit the ground,” said one commenter on a biking forum, “try to stay as loose as possible. If you’re tense or stiff, it’s easier to get hurt.”

Starting that first century? Or a big race? You’re probably tense with anticipation. Relax. Smile to relax your facial muscles. Breathe. Calm yourself by thinking positively. Then maintain that relaxed attitude once the ride begins.

For me, a relaxed position isn’t easy to come by. I catch myself from time to time with hunched up shoulders. But I’m getting better. I remind myself every so often to relax. I shift my riding position. I shake out my shoulders. I shift my hands on the bars.

We recently featured several guest posts on the most important thing the posters learned about biking. I’ll add my two cents to the mix. The Most Important Thing: Relax.

Sizing up wet roads

This post may be coming a few days late — at least in Central Texas. We’ve had nearly a week of heavy rain, courtesy Tropical Storm/Hurricane Alex. For those of us who have to get out on the bike, it means we had to ride in wet conditions.

My wife approaching our neighborhood on a recent wet ride.

My last major crash came because of wet roads. Ever since, I prefer not to ride if it’s raining. But often, I get out out on the road when the rains come. So we might as well learn to deal with them.

It’s a good idea to test the road surface first. We all know (I hope) that roads are slipperiest when the rain has just started, because it brings oil to the surface. After the rain has been around awhile, it washes that oil away.

So, you might want to start your ride in the wet by standing on the pedals to accelerate quickly. If your rear wheel slips, you know the road surface offers less traction. Be careful.  Greg LeMond used to test the surface by taking one foot out of the pedal, and sliding the rear wheel out while stopping to see how much traction the roads would give.

Do your braking well before you enter a turn. Remember that it will take longer to slow down because your brake pads are skimming water from the rims. But don’t brake while turning.

If the road is clear, try to take the turn on a wide arc. That has the effect of straightening the curve. Be smooth about it.

Lots of riders (myself included) try to keep the bike upright, but lean their bodies into the turn. Pro cyclist Davis Phinney says that’s not necessary. Lean both bike and body, he says — just do it gently, and not as far as you usually would.

In fact, slick road tires probably offer more traction than knobby MTB tires, because more tire is in contact with the pavement. However, it is commonly recommended to lower the air pressure in your tires on wet days. I bring mine down about 10 pounds in each tire, and have had good results.

It’s also been my experience that I’m more likely to have punctures in wet conditions, because the road gunk you pick up tends to stick to the tire. So a piece of glass or metal that you might throw off after one revolution in dry conditions might stay on the tire for several rotations — and that increases the likelihood that they will punch through the tread.

Road surface makes a difference. Concrete is better than asphalt. Chip seal is pretty good, because the rough surface gives the tires something to grab. Old asphalt is better than new asphalt. When I crashed, I was turning from an older chip sealed road onto a recently-asphalted residential street. Water collected on the surface of the new asphalt. When my tire hit the new stuff, it slid out from under me.

Be wary of metal surfaces like manhole covers, or flat metal sheets in road repair areas. They’re as slick as ice. So too, for the raised paint that marks traffic lanes. Two riders in the Tour de France prologue were knocked out of the Tour because they hit those raised traffic lines.

Riding in the wet may not be the pleasantest way to spend time on the bike, but it doesn’t have to be a ride-stopper, either. For me, the biggest problem riding in the rain isn’t the road surface, but keeping my glasses clear. Any ideas to help with that?

The “Technique” Ride

I was chatting with a friend about biking the other day, and he asked what rides I’d done lately.

“Well, yesterday I did the ‘technique’ ride,” I said.

He looked confused, and asked what I meant. I told him that once a week, I do a ride where I don’t worry about speed, or training, or endurance, but instead I try to improve my technique on the bike.

Lately, I’ve been concentrating on three things: cadence, pedaling in a circle, and cornering.

I used to work exclusively on cadence. When I ride the Veloway, I try to keep it at 90 rpm or above. That might mean I’m using some fairly easy gears on some stretches of the route, but that doesn’t matter. I’ve found that getting used to pedaling in a high cadence makes me faster, improves my endurance, and makes it easier for me to draw on my reserves if I’m starting to flag on a long ride. But recently, I’ve caught myself ignoring cadence, and mashing the pedals. I’ve gotten a little slower. So it’s time to get it back. Most of the time, I maintain my 90 cadence in the small ring. I can do it in some of the easier gears on the big ring, but by using the small ring, I don’t worry about my speed — just cranking those pedals fast enough.

When climbing hills, or pushing to catch up to the pack on the flat, I always try to remember to pull up on the pedals. That uses the big thigh muscles to generate power. But two summers ago, I discovered that pedaling in a circle accomplishes the same thing, and the process is much smoother. But it’s really easy to forget that, or to get lazy, and the next thing you know, you find yourself mashing down on the pedals, instead of applying power on the upstroke. So during the “technique” ride, I constantly check that I’m pedaling in a circle.

Then there’s cornering. There’s no real secret to this. But over the past year, after a few crashes, I found myself entering corners with a lot less bravura than I used to. I noticed that I was paying too much attention to the road immediately ahead of myself when coming into a turn, and that resulted in a turn at a slower speed, and maybe some issues with holding my line.

But a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me: I haven’t been using the proper technique to corner my bike. Remember, the bike will go where you look, so it’s always a good idea to look well ahead, and even around the corner. Taking my eyes off the road right in front of my front wheel makes a marked difference in how well I get through the turn. Remembering to jam my outside foot down on its pedal, and point the inside knee into the turn, adds more stability to the bike. I’m liking my rediscovered confidence in corners.

These are fundamental skills for me. But how much time do gifted athletes spend on the fundamentals of their sport? Yeah. By concentrating on these three things once a week, I find that they’ll be there when I need them on my other rides.

Getting better at climbing

When we did our city tour two weekends ago, one of the highlights was Mt. Bonnell. I’d never climbed it before, and I was looking forward to it, for some reason. I guess I had an unrealistic idea of my climbing ability.

Going through neighborhoods on the way there, we came upon a short, steep hill on a residential street. I downhifted to a low gear, but was up out of the saddle, standing on the pedals, struggling to mash the pedals down and keep the wheels turning. I could have gone down two more gears, but because the bike was straining already, I figured I’d lose all my momentum if I tried a downshift, so I kept grinding away. The bottom bracket made a creaky noise I’d never heard before. As long as I could make the bike protest, I thought, I had enough left in me to get up the hill.

And I did. Man, that was a tough one, and with car traffic coming from behind, I had no choice but to go straight up the road — no chance to zig-zag up the hill.

On Mt. Bonnell itself, we had a challenging grade to a right-hand bend, and then the grade steepened. I pulled into a driveway, did a loop, then shot back onto the street with some forward momentum. That momentum carried me, oh, maybe 10 yards or so. This time, I shifted down all the way into the granny gear. I was still tired from the earlier hill, but there was no traffic this time, and I used the width of the street to zig-zag my way up. It seemed like it would take forever, but I finally made it to the top.

An experienced biker riding with us guessed the grade was between 16-20 percent. I decided I wouldn’t be in a hurry to tackle it again (you might recall that I made a wrong turn, and we wound up climbing Bonnell again from the other side — but we walked our bikes this time, too pooped).

My conclusion is that I don’t do enough challenging hills as part of my regular rides. I’ve got some routes that include hills, but nothing like Bonnell. So I suppose I was just undertrained for it.

But if I have to mash pedals in the granny gear time after time, I’m not sure I want to get much better at hills.

What do you suggest for a noob to become at least a little more adept at climbing?