Chainring Shifting Techniques

radioshack_fabian_cancellara_attacks_tour_of_flanders_2013_ronde_van_vlaanderen_2013Many people seem to think that the main reason for having different chainrings on a bike is to provide the rider with two completely different sets of gears. In an earlier article we saw that this is not the case. Most of the gears that are available on one chainring are duplicated or have a very close analog on the next chainring. The main benefit that comes from having different chainrings is that the size of the step up or down from one gear to the next differs on each ring. You get smaller and more refined steps on smaller rings. Understanding how this works can help solve some problems riders may have when shifting between rings.

drive-trainA common gearing setup for a bike with a double chainring pairs 53 and 39 tooth rings on the front derailleur with a 12 – 25 tooth gear cluster or cassette on the rear derailleur. The table below shows the gears that are available for this setup expressed in meters of development (MoD).

Gears for a 53/39 double chainring and a 12 – 25 cassette in meters of development.

12 13 14 15 16 17 19 21 23 25
39 7.0 6.5 6 5.6 5.3 4.9 4.4 4.0 3.7 3.4
53 9.5 8.8 8.2 7.6 7.1 6.7 6.0 5.4 5.0 4.6

Meters of development is way to describe bicycle gears that is more commonly used in Europe than the US. It defines gears in terms of the number of meters the bike moves forward every time the pedals make one complete revolution. For example, when you are on the 53 tooth big ring and the 17 tooth cog on the cassette, the bikes moves 6.7 meters forward every time you turn the pedals through one full revolution. MoD along with other methods of defining bicycle gears is presented in more detail in Gearing Part 1: The Basics. I’m using MoD here because it makes it very easy to understand what happens when you shift gears.

An important thing to notice about the gears shown in the table is that gear changes are nonlinear. This means that shifting up or down by the same number of teeth on the rear cassette does not usually result in the same change in MoD. For example, if you are in the big 53 tooth ring and you shift from the 17 tooth cog to the 16 tooth cog on the cassette you go from a 6.7 to a 7.1 meter gear. A shift of one tooth on the cog produces an increase in difficulty of 0.4 meters for every pedal revolution. If you take one more step and make another 1 tooth shift from the 16 tooth cog to the 15 tooth cog you get an increase of 0.5 meters per pedal revolution. It’s harder going from the 16 tooth gear to the 15 tooth gear than it is going from the 17 tooth gear to the 16 tooth gear even though both shifts are carried out by shifting down 1 tooth on the cassette.

Being aware that gear changes are nonlinear can help provide solutions for some common shifting problems.

Shifting into an easier gear on the cassette while climbing

cassetteFinding the right gear on a climb often involves a series of shifts into easier gears on the cassette until you find one that is comfortable for the gradient. If one of these downshifts is too big, you can spin too freely and lose momentum. A solution is to drop into a smaller ring early in the climb and then drop into progressively easier gears on the cassette as the climb gets harder. The reason this works is that the changes between gears are smaller and more refined on smaller rings. When you drop into an easier gear on the small ring you are not dropping as far as you would from the same position on the big ring. For example, shifting from the 17 to the 19 tooth cog on the cassette when you are in the big 53 tooth ring is a drop of 0.7 meters per pedal revolution. The same shift from the 17 to the 19 tooth cog on the cassette when you are in the small 39 tooth ring is a drop of only 0.5 meters. The more refined steps on the small ring make it less likely you will lose momentum on a climb by downshifting too far.

Shifting between rings while climbing

Wait a minute.  If dropping one gear on the cassette is too big a shift when you’re in the big ring, how can shifting to the smaller ring solve the problem? Look at the table. No matter which gear you’re in on the big ring, shifting to the small ring is a larger drop in MoD than staying in the big ring and dropping down one gear on the cassette. Dropping into the small ring looks like it creates a bigger problem.

The solution is to briefly shift into a higher (harder) gear on the cassette right before dropping to the smaller ring.

mtn climbThere are two circumstances where this technique usually comes into play. The first is the situation described above where you drop to the small ring early in the climb because you know you will handle the climb better with smaller drops in MoD with each shift into an easier gear as the climb progresses. To accomplish this without losing momentum you have to quickly shift up through 2 or 3 cogs on the cassette before dropping to the lower ring. Pulling off this triple (2 shifts up on the cassette + 1 shift down to the small ring) or quadruple (3 shifts up + 1 shift down to the small ring) shift is not easy and is going to take some practice.

The second situation where shifting up into a harder gear on the cassette before shifting down to the small ring comes into play happens when the hill is overwhelming you and you need to get into the small ring to keep your momentum going. In this case you usually only need to do a double shift – shift up one gear on the cassette and then drop to the small ring. This is a good deal easier than the triple or quadruple shifts described above.

climbHow do you do these shifts without losing momentum? The trick is to shift quickly with split-second timing so that you spend very little time in the harder gear. Put a surge of extra power into the pedals as you shift up into the harder gear on the cassette. As soon as the chain catches in the teeth of the gear drop down into the smaller ring. When you get the timing right you will be spending a quarter to a half of a single pedal revolution in the harder gear on a double switch.

Getting the timing right will take some practice. If you stay in the higher gear too long you’re in too big a gear for the gradient and you lose momentum. If you drop into the smaller ring before the rear derailleur shift is complete, you run the risk of dropping the chain and turning a small problem into a big one. The goal is to drop into the smaller ring a split second after the rear derailleur shift into the harder gear is complete.

When to shift into the big ring ring from the small ring

Thus far we have looked at shifting to the small ring from the big ring but there are times when doing the reverse and shifting to the big ring from the small ring can pose its own set of problems. I once fielded a query from a rider who was comfortable riding in the small ring but was starting to ride with stronger cyclists and needed the bigger gears on the big ring in order to keep up. He was shifting up into progressively more difficult gears until he reached the limit on the small ring at which point he shifted up into the big ring. When he got onto the big ring the gear was too hard for him and he had to shift into easier gears at which point he fell behind the people he was riding with.

One possible solution is to drop back into an easier gear on the small ring before you shift up to the big ring. This usually doesn’t work because you are likely to lose too much momentum while you are in the easier gear on the small ring.

Gears for a 53/39 double chainring and a 12 – 25 cassette in meters of development

12 13 14 15 16 17 19 21 23 25
39 7.0 6.5 6 5.6 5.3 4.9 4.4 4.0 3.7 3.4
53 9.5 8.8 8.2 7.6 7.1 6.7 6.0 5.4 5.0 4.6
Fleche Wallonne Femmes - 23/04/2014 - Huy/Huy - Marianne VOS

Fleche Wallonne Women – 23/04/2014 – Huy/Huy – Marianne Vos

The solution is to shift over to the big ring earlier rather than waiting until you’ve maxed out the small ring. Take a look at the MoD values in the table and remember that the increase in difficulty as gears get harder is nonlinear. If you wait until you’re in the 13 tooth cog on the small ring to switch over to the big ring you’re getting hit with a MoD increase of 2.3 meters. This is a huge jump in difficulty. If you shift into the big ring while you’re in the 23 tooth cog on the cassette you’re looking at a MoD increase of only 1.3 meters. This is still a big jump but it’s not nearly as difficult as the 2.3 MoD increase you get if you shift near the top of the small ring. Moreover, if you work up to the 13 tooth gear from easier gears on the big ring, the final step from the 14 tooth gear is much easier (a MoD increase of 0.6 meters) than jumping to the big ring 13 from the small ring 13 (a MoD increase of 2.3 meters).

The technique for carrying out the shift into the big ring is similar to the one described for doing a double shift to get from the big ring to the small ring. Put a surge of power into the pedals and then shift up into the big ring. The jump in MoD may be too large to maintain and if it is, you can quickly shift down to an easier gear on the big ring. When carried out correctly, this will put you in a bigger gear than you were in on the small ring without losing momentum.

downhillSwitching to the big ring sooner rather than later can be useful in any situation where you expect to use the high MoD gears on the big ring. For example, when you have a downhill followed by a flat you can often pick up enough speed on the downhill to keep a large gear turning on the big ring when you get to the flat. If you do the descent in the small ring and then try to switch to the big ring when you get to the flat, the increase in MoD may be too much to handle. If you shift into the big ring early in the descent and keep shifting into harder gears as your speed increases on the downhill, you will be flying by the time you reach the bottom and you’ll be able to maintain a bigger gear for a longer time on the flat.

Aerodynamics Part 2: Small Things That Reduce Air Resistance and Drag

PIC372688193Tony Martin won the UCI World Time Trial Championship in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and is the odds on favorite to win it again this year. He is an incredible bike rider and by all accounts an incredibly nice guy; he once caught and passed David Millar in a time trial and apologized to Millar as he went by. The picture is of Martin time trialing in full aerodynamic mode at the 2013 Criterium du Dauphine which is an eight-day race that Martin won on the basis of the insurmountable lead he built by winning the time trial.

If you want to minimize air resistance and drag as much as possible, you ride like Martin rides in a time trial. Unfortunately, this is beyond the reach of many riders for a number of reasons. First, it’s expensive. Between his bike frame, wheel set, skin suit, helmet, etc., Martin is moving well over $10K worth of gear in the photo. Next, an optimized wind tunnelaerodynamic position is difficult to accomplish. Differences in body mass and shape mean that the position that optimizes both aerodynamics and power output is different for every rider. Finding that position takes hours of iterative testing and refinement in a wind tunnel. In addition, a full aerodynamic tuck is difficult to maintain and usually takes many hours of practice to be able to hold for any length of time. Simply strapping a set of aerobars unto your bike isn’t going to do it. Finally, riding in an optimal aerodynamic position is difficult. The position is uncomfortable and the bike is more difficult to control when you’re stretched out on aerobars.

Although going full aero involves a significant investment of time, effort and money, there are a number of simple things you can do that will reduce air resistance and drag that are relatively easy and are either free or cost the price of a new jersey. Taken individually, none of these things will result in a huge reduction in air resistance but small things add up and they can make a noticeable difference over a long ride.

Get Low

The biggest single thing you can do to reduce air resistance without spending any money is to reduce the surface area on the front of your body that is exposed to the wind as you ride forward. It’s easy to do and you don’t need aerobars to do it. Bend at the waist and lean forward. The lower you get the better off you’ll be but almost any degree of forward lean will reduce the area of your torso that is exposed to the wind.

Tour of the Battenkill 2012This is easiest to do if you have road handlebars on your bike. Moving your hands from a position on the flat upper bar on either side of the stem to the brake hoods will bring you down a little bit. Keeping your hands on the hoods and bending your elbows will bring you down more. You can get fairly low with your hands on the brake hoods by bending your elbows to the point where you’re resting your forearms on the handlebars like the rider in the picture. You can usually get even lower by riding with your hands on the drops.

Elbows and Knees

PIC298104874While the exact elbow position for optimal aerodynamic riding depends on the rider’s body size and shape, it’s generally the case that tucking the elbows in is better than bending them out. Many riders, however, tend to bend their elbows out in a variety of circumstances. When you bend at the waist and lean forward to get low, make sure to pull your elbows in rather than bend them out. People also tend to bend their elbows out when they are leaning into a climb, working hard to maintain a strong tempo, gripping the bars tightly, or are just tired. Pay attention to where your elbows are and if they are flaring wide, bring them in.

Knee position is an aerodynamic factor that people sometimes miss because it’s usually not obvious in pictures of riders who are time trialing. Take a look at where your knees are relative to your body while you’re pedaling. If your knees are spread open so that they form a V-shape with your body, your legs are funneling air into your body and increasing the air resistance and drag you have to overcome. Ride with your knees pulled in toward the top tube on your bike. Obviously, you don’t want your knees banging into the top tube but closer to the tube is better than further away. When you do this, don’t accomplish the “knock-kneed” position by flaring your ankles out.

Your Jersey

Wear a tight jersey. If your jersey is loose or baggy, it is catching the wind and increasing air resistance by acting like a sail that is pulling you in the opposite direction. Don’t worry about what you look like. How you look in your exercise clothes may be a big deal for gym bunnies but for riders the big deal is how smart and how well you ride. If you’re overweight, you’re overweight; there are things you can do to change that but wearing a loose jersey isn’t one of them. Don’t worry about it. Ride smart.

???????????????Keep your jersey zipped up. Partially unzipping a jersey allows air to circulate around the upper body to the back where it is trapped by the jersey. It’s like strapping a sail facing the wrong direction on your bike. You would think this would be a no-brainer but you see riders all the time from beginners to pros who have expensive aero gear on their bike and who are trying to go fast with their jersey partially unzipped.


watts and wind resistence_ key pointsThe graph discussed in Aerodynamics Part 1 illustrates that air resistance is negligible when you are going slow but it quickly ramps up with velocity until it becomes the overwhelming force you have to overcome to move your bike forward. While all of the tips and techniques offered in this post have a small effect in reducing air resistance they are all easy to do. They are also either cost-free or cost, at most, the price of a new jersey. Small benefits add up and their combination can make the difference between a ride that is exhausting and a ride that is exhilarating.

Eyeing the Line

corneringWhen you hear cyclists talking about their line they’re often talking about cornering. The line they’re talking about is the best path to ride when going through the corner at speed. While this is a good skill to practice and learn, there are many other situations where paying attention to your line is important. This is especially true for cyclists who are not experienced racers, who may not have given much thought to their line, or who may not be aware of how keeping your eye on the line can make some dangerous situations much safer.

First of all, what are we talking about when we say “eyeing the line’? Your line is simply the path you intend your bike to follow on the road ahead. Eyeing the line means keeping your eyes on this path.

Wait . . what? This is a post telling riders to look where they’re going? Duh! I know it sounds obvious but, if you’re like me, you’re going to be surprised how often you don’t really do it very well once you start paying attention to it.

If you’re eyeing your line the right way, how far ahead of your bike should you be looking? That’s going to depend on how fast you’re going. You should be eyeing your line far enough ahead that you see and have ample time to react to any obstacles that might lie in the road. Usually somewhere between 2 to 5 bike lengths ahead is about right. If you find yourself surprised by road debris that you come upon too fast or you hit potholes that you see too late to avoid, you’ve been staring at a point on the road that is too close to the front of your bike.

So far, all of this is pretty straightforward and is mostly a matter of common sense. Eyeing the line can really make a big difference, however, when you have to negotiate obstacles in your path. This is where keeping your eye on the line can make your ride much safer.

potholesRoad debris like sticks, stones, gravel, and glass and road conditions like potholes, narrow or absent shoulders, drop offs at the edge of the road, and narrow lanes between vehicles or between vehicles and the curb are all potentially dangerous obstacles on a ride. Eyeing the line is the most effective technique cyclists have for getting past these obstacles safely.

The technique is simple enough. See the problem, plan your line past the problem, and keep your eye on the line ahead as you ride past the problem.

Sounds simple but to carry it you have to overcome a natural tendency that can get you into trouble. When approaching an obstacle, people tend to either keep their eyes fixed on the obstacle or keep alternating between looking at their path and looking at the obstacle. You see a pothole and you keep looking at the pothole until you’ve gone past it successfully. You have to ride a narrow lane between vehicles or between vehicles and the curb (see the picture below), one of the vehicles is a van or truck with a rear-view mirror that’s at the same height as your head or shoulder, and you keep looking at the mirror until you get past it.

Space between carsThis is a problem because people normally move in the direction their eyes are looking. When you are on the bike, you will naturally steer in the direction you are looking. This is the reason why many riders tend to drift to the left or right when they look over their left or right shoulder to see what’s behind them.

When you’re on the bike and you approach an obstacle and keep looking at it, you have a tendency to steer your bike right at the obstacle rather than around it. If you look back and forth between your line and the obstacle, you tend to waver back and forth on your bike between riding your line and riding at the obstacle. Sometimes you steer toward the obstacle when you look at it and then overcompensate by turning too far in the opposite direction when you realize you’re heading right at the obstacle.

When any of these problems occur you may also have a tendency to slow down. Now you can find yourself in a situation where you’re veering toward the obstacle, veering away from it, your line is lost, and you’re riding so slowly it’s hard keep the bike balanced. Your bike wavers, the obstacle looms, your heart rate goes up, and you either wobble around the obstacle or have to set your foot on the ground and push past the problem. No fun.

cornerFortunately, it’s easy to solve this problem. You have a lifetime of experience moving through the world around you and this experience has made you an expert at seeing the line that will enable you to safely negotiate obstacles in your path. If you are eyeing the line at the right distance in front of your bike, you will automatically pick out a line that allows you to ride around an obstacle in your path. Trust yourself. See the line, evaluate it, trust in your ability to see a good line, and ride toward the obstacle with your eyes on the line ahead. Give a quick flick of your eyes to the obstacle as you are about to draw even with it to make sure it’s where you think it is and then snap your eyes back to your line ahead. Don’t let your eyes stray back to the obstacle for any length of time.

The first couple of times you do this you’re likely to have an overwhelming desire to look at the obstacle as you approach it in order to make sure you’re not going to hit it. However, after doing it successfully a few times you will develop trust in yourself to ride past obstacles while eyeing the line and not the obstacle. It’s fairly easy to do, it doesn’t take long to master, and it is a very useful skill to pick up. Once this approach to obstacles has become a habit, you can begin to work on the more difficult skill of looking at something without steering toward it.

Here’s another situation where the same problem occurs. Think about the difficulty new drivers have trying to keep the car moving in a smooth, straight line down the road. They tend to veer back and forth threatening to crash into whatever happens to be on either side of the road.

Eye-tracking studies with new drivers show a fairly consistent pattern. Naïve drivers tend to focus their eyes at a point on the road that is too close to the front of the car and when they notice an obstacle like a vehicle parked on the side of the road, they spend too long looking at it. The result is that they don’t see obstacles until they are close to them, they steer toward the obstacle, overcompensate when turning back toward the center of the road, see the other side of the road as a new obstacle, steer toward it, and weave back and forth down the street. The movement pattern is very similar for cyclists who are not eyeing the line.

Cell Phone BanFinally, another situation where failing to eye the line can have a large impact on cyclists. Eye tracking studies using high-fidelity driving simulators have also been done with experienced drivers talking on cell phones. In almost every case the drivers reported that their driving performance had not been negatively affected while they were talking on the phone. The eye-tracking data said otherwise. When experienced drivers talk on cell phones they revert to driving like naïve drivers. They tend to focus their eyes too close to the front of the car and tend to spend too long looking at obstacles when they see them. In other words, they stop eyeing the line properly. They also take longer to notice obstacles, are slower to react to them, and are more likely to hit them.

Be aware when you’re on the bike. If you see some clown talking on a cell phone while driving, be hyper-aware. They’re a lot less competent and a lot more dangerous than they think they are and you’re the obstacle.

Contador gets caught on a summit finish. What happened?

If you watched Stage 8 of the Vuelta a Espania on Saturday you saw something amazing.  The stage featured a summit finish atop the Collada de la Gallina in Andorra.  Alberto Contador launched a furious attack and opened up a large gap on his GC rivals Valverde, Rodriguez and Froome.  He was on his way to a stage victory that included a time gap over his rivals plus the first-place-finish time bonus.  It didn’t work out that way.  Valverde and Rodriguez caught him in the last 100 meters and Contador finished third.  I can’t remember ever having seen Contador getting caught and passed on a summit finish after he broke away.  What happened?

Only Contador knows the answer to that question but here’s what it looked like to someone watching the race on TV.  In an earlier post on hill climbing techniques I wrote that a goal to strive for when climbing is to maintain a steady effort over the entire climb.  When the gradient steepens, you drop down into a smaller gear; when the gradient relaxes, you gear up into a higher gear.  Shifting into a higher gear on a climb  may seem counter intuitive and mentally it can be hard to do.  This is especially true at  or near the top of the climb when your legs are screaming in agony and your oxygen debt is high.  When the gradient relaxes it brings relief from the suffering and you welcome the relief.

If you watch the video of the last 100 meters of the Collada de la Gallina finish it looks like Contador didn’t shift up into a higher gear when the gradient relaxed near the top of the climb.  He’s spinning like mad when he looks over his shoulder and sees Valverde and Rodriguez closing on him and he’s in too small a gear to generate enough power to accelerate away from his pursuers.  Valverde and Rodriguez are in a bigger gear and have too much speed built up for Contador to match.  It looked like Contador thought he had the stage won (as did everyone watching except Valverde and Rodriguez), accepted the relief when the gradient relaxed, and paid the price.

Contador is much too talented and skilled a rider to either not know how to finish a climb or be incapable of finishing a climb.  I think he just made a mistake.  Did he make the mistake because he hasn’t been riding in competition while he served out his suspension?  I don’t know.  I do know this, though.  If you want to be the rider that maintains a strong and steady effort to the top and over the top of a climb when it counts, you have to ride like that on the climbs when it doesn’t count.

Cycling in Heat and Humidity

More information about hydration can be found in Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During and After the Ride which can be purchased on  For information about the book and how it relates to what I’ve posted to Tuned In To Cycling, please check out this post.

It’s hot. It’s humid. Even worse, it’s hot and humid. How do you handle heat and humidity on a ride? You already know the answer. Hydrate. Is there anything else you can do? Yes, but hydration is far and away the most important thing you need to combat heat and humidity. Understanding how heat and humidity affects you when you’re riding (or engaging in any other kind of exercise) can help you counter their ill effects.

How the body keeps cool

“Normal” body temperature is a slippery concept because many factors such as the time of the day, how temperature is measured, your state of athletic training, and where you are in your menstrual cycle if you are a woman (among other things) affects body temperature. For most cycling purposes, exact measures of normal body temperature along with exact measures of safe increases in body temperature aren’t very useful. You’re not going to know what your body temperature is while you’re riding because you’re not going to be taking rectal temperature measurements while you’re on the bike. Also, it doesn’t really matter what constitutes a “safe” increase in body temperature because you are going to be stressing your body’s ability to maintain that safe level when you ride.

The human body is a homeostatic system. This means it adapts to changing environmental circumstances in order to maintain certain physical and physiological parameters within acceptable boundaries. One of the most important of these parameters is core temperature. Combating heat and humidity is mainly about keeping core temperature down.

Our bicycles are extraordinarily efficient machines. Under optimal circumstances approximately 99% of the energy put into the pedals is transferred into forward motion; only 1% is lost. Unfortunately, our bodies are not nearly as efficient. Approximately 75% of the energy generated by physical activity is lost as heat. The heat generated by our muscles raises body temperature when we exercise. The harder you go, the more heat you make and the more stress you place on your body to shed that heat and keep core temp down.

There are two main ways the human body sheds heat. When the temperature of the body is higher than the temperature of the surrounding environment heat is shed through conduction and radiation. Here’s how this works for the cyclist. Your working muscles generate a lot of heat. Much of this heat is transferred to the blood which carries it away from the working muscles. When blood temperature reaches a particular threshold, vasodilation (expansion of the blood vessels at the surface of the body) occurs which brings a larger proportion of the blood into close contact with the surface of the body where it can shed its heat to the surrounding environment. When you stand close to a person who has been exercising hard you can feel the heat coming off their body. That’s heat that has been shed through conduction and radiation.

Conduction and radiation can only reduce body heat if the surrounding environment is at a lower temperature than the body. If air temperature is higher than body temperature, the body takes on heat from the environment. If you are riding on a hot day, conduction and radiation aren’t going to be nearly sufficient to shed the heat you’re generating.

The second way the body sheds heat is through evaporative cooling. When core temp rises to a critical threshold, the sweat glands are triggered and sweat is produced on the surface of the skin. The sweat evaporates and the evaporation cools the body. Under most circumstances, and especially when it is hot outside, evaporative cooling is the main way the cyclist sheds heat.

How increased core temp can hurt you

When you exercise your core temp rises. When core temp rises you sweat. When you sweat you lose fluid. If you lose enough fluid you become dehydrated. Dehydration and overhydration are important issues for the cyclist that are taken up in the post Dehydration and Over Hydration (Hyponatremia) for the Cyclist.

Even low levels of dehydration can affect performance. Loss of 2% body weight through fluid loss has measurable negative effects on athletic performance. Holding fluid loss constant, the negative effects increase the longer you ride or the hotter it is when you ride. As fluid loss increases beyond 2% body weight., the negative effects of dehydration increases rapidly and markedly.  This is the good news.

The bad news is that loss of body fluids can produce severe dehydration and heatstroke. The symptoms include headache, nausea and vomiting, sweating stops or is severely reduced, very rapid breathing and heart rate, confusion, delirium, loss of consciousness, death. Heatstroke is a life threatening medical emergency. In a lifetime of athletic activity that has produced broken bones, snapped tendons, knocked out teeth, severe lacerations and several surgeries, the one time I suffered serious heatstroke (while running in competition) was – easily, hands down, no contest, and by far – the worst physical experience of my athletic life. You don’t want to go there, it’s terrible.

How all of this affects the cyclist

Heat is bad. As the air temperature rises, the difference between body and air temperature decreases which weakens or eliminates conduction and radiation as methods of shedding heat.

Humidity is worse. Evaporative cooling is the primary way humans shed heat and it becomes even more important when exercise is producing a lot of excess heat. Humidity is an index of the amount of water vapor in the air; the higher the humidity, the more the air is saturated with water. The more the air is saturated with water, the less water it can take on which means that sweat is less likely to evaporate. The body continues to produce sweat so that evaporative cooling can bring body temperature down, but the sweat rolls off the skin rather than evaporating and cooling the body.

The air flow produced by moving on the bike can be a help here. When you stand still and sweat the air around you becomes saturated and sweating produces less evaporative cooling. When you’re rolling on the bike, the air around you is constantly being refreshed with air that is less saturated.

Heat combined with humidity is the worst of all. High heat coupled with high humidity sabotages both of the body’s mechanisms for shedding heat. The high air temperature reduces or eliminates conduction and radiation and the high humidity reduces evaporative cooling.

What can you do about it?

First and foremost – HYDRATE. Drinking water won’t cool you directly but it will replace the fluid you’re losing to sweat. This is critical for avoiding dehydration and heatstroke. Don’t screw around with this. Heatstroke can kill you.

How much should you drink? It depends on how much fluid you are losing to sweat and this will vary as a function of many factors such as how hot it is and how hard you’re working. Don’t use feeling thirsty as an indicator of whether or not you need to drink. The body is relatively slow to send thirst and hunger signals. You will usually have lost 1% to 2% of your body weight in fluid loss before you get the thirsty signal. By that time you’re already losing the battle of shedding excess body heat. A common mantra for cyclists is “Drink before you’re thirsty.” It’s great advice. Drink small amounts often rather than large amounts less frequently.

It’s possible to overhydrate which can lead to a condition called hyponatremia where there are abnormally low levels of sodium in the body (the excess water dilutes the sodium). This can also be life threatening although it rarely is. When hydrating your goal is to continually replace the fluid you lose through sweating without going to extremes with either too much water or not enough. For the cyclist riding in heat and humidity it’s better to err on the side of limiting dehydration as opposed to limiting hyponatremia. Don’t prepare for riding by drinking liters of water beforehand and be sensible on the bike. A future post will look at hyponatremia in more detail.

Wear the right clothing. No clothing at all would be optimal but sunburn, chafing from the bicycle seat and indecency laws make that impractical.  If you’re not going to go nude, you want form fitting clothing that wicks moisture. Loose clothing traps air between the cloth and your skin which acts as insulation and reduces evaporative cooling. Wicking material moves the sweat from your skin to the air where it can evaporate and cool you. Cycling clothing has both of these properties so if you wear tight fitting cycling shorts and jerseys, you’re good. If you ride in a loose fitting cotton shirt, you’re asking for trouble when it’s hot and humid.

If you’re not racing, consider ramping down your work level on hot and humid days. If you ride at a slower pace, your leg muscles aren’t working as hard and are producing less excess heat.

If you have enough water, pour it on yourself. Evaporating sweat and water both produce evaporative cooling. Remember, though, that the water will do more to help you when it’s inside your body than when it’s on the outside. Don’t become dehydrated because you poured your water over your head.

Cycling with Cars: Riding Defensively

Many new cyclists or cyclists who are thinking about using their bike to commute to work are anxious about riding in the road with traffic.  It’s not as scary as it looks and in many circumstances riding with cars is actually safer than riding in segregated bicycle lanes or what are euphimistically called “bicycle paths”.  If you’re going to be at all serious about road cycling or are going to commute to work you are going to have to share the road with cars.  How to ride a bike in traffic can be a controversial topic that generates discussions informed by passionately held ideologies and beliefs.  The advice and opinions expressed here are based on many years and tens of thousands of miles spent sharing the road with cars.  I ride with cars every day and I don’t want to be killed, maimed or seriously injured on the bike.  These are some of the ways I’ve found to most effectively accomplish those things.  Keep in mind that there are no hard and fast rules about riding in traffic.  You have to evaluate and adapt to each situation separately.  Riding safely with cars involves riding defensively and riding the line, among other things.

Riding defensively boils down to always being aware of where the cars are and what they’re doing, and knowing about, and being on the lookout for, the situations that most frequently lead to collisions between cyclists and motorized vehicles.  If you hit a car or a car hits you, you’re going to lose almost every time.  It doesn’t matter who was right and who was wrong and it doesn’t matter how much of a hardass cyclist you think you are.  What matters is physics.  Cars have a lot of mass and you don’t.  That gives slow moving cars a lot more momentum than fast moving bicycles and that means the cyclist loses.  Don’t want to get hit?  Recognize the circumstances in which cars hit bikes and avoid them.  Ride defensively.

Intersections.  Intersections of any kind – cross streets, side streets, traffic lights, parking lot entrances and exits, driveways and so on – can be dangerous for cyclists and an entire post could be devoted to them. 

Here I’ll only discuss one particular type of collision that can occur in an intersection; the car makes a right hand turn and hits the cyclist who is riding through the intersection on the right hand side of the road.  This is widely thought to be the most common way a car hits a cyclist in urban settings.  Washington DC, where I live, was reminded of this several days ago when a young woman commuting to work on her bike was hit and killed by a garbage truck turning right.  Drivers may be looking for pedestrians in a crosswalk when they turn right at an intersection but they usually aren’t looking for something going as fast as a bicycle moving past them on the right.  Whenever you are in a situation where a driver may turn right, watch for it.  What do you watch for? 

Directional signals.  Always look for a car’s flashing directional signals – never trust what you see.  Drivers will often turn without using their directional signal.  This can be expecially dangerous when they turn right.  Less frequently, drivers will signal a turn and then not make it.  You can sometimes read a right hand turn that is not signaled from the car’s front wheels.  Drivers who are stopped at an intersection and plan to turn right will sometimes turn the steering wheel while stopped to prepare for the turn.  Be aware of vehicles that swing left before they turn right.  A slight jog to the left can indicate the vehicle is going to turn right. SUV drivers tend to drive like this.  Always be wary and alert at any kind of intersection and never take a car’s movement path for granted.

Parked cars.  I mentioned this problem in the post about riding the line.  When you are passing cars parked along the side of the street, always try and see if there is someone inside the car.  If there is, approach the car with care because they may open the roadside door suddenly to get out of the car.  People in cars look for oncoming cars but they almost almost never look for cyclists before they open the door.  Sometimes they open it just as you go by and knock you over out into the roadway; sometimes the door opens a split second before you arrive and you smash into it and catapult over the handlebars. 

Some people recommend that you ride far enough out in the traffic lane so that opened doors won’t touch you.  However, this can be impractical if there is a lot of traffic, especially fast-moving traffic, on the road.  You can ride close to the parked cars without hindering traffic as long as you’re vigilant and careful.  If you see someone in a car, slow down as you approach.  This gives you more time to see whether they look like they’re preparing to exit the car or just sitting there waiting.  It also gives the person in the car more time to see you.  If their window is open, call out that a bike is approaching.  If there is someone riding behind you, call out “Person in parked car” so the other cyclist knows to be careful.

Underestimating your speed.  If you are riding fast, drivers will consistently underestimate your speed.  The faster you’re going, the more of a problem this can be.  I’ve seen this happen time and time again.  A driver is pulling out of a side street, they see you coming, they start to pull out anyway and then jam on the brakes in a panic when they realize you’re right on top of them. 

This happens so frequently because of the way people identify objects in the environment.  We take in information from the world around us and use bits and pieces of it to identify objects like “car”, “tree”, “guy on a bike”.  We then fill in the bits and pieces with what we already know about these objects based on our past experience.  For example, when you see a car you process just enough to identify it as a car and then use what you already know about cars to formulate a prediction about what it’s going to do next.  It may turn right, it’s unlikely to jump up on it’s hind wheels and salute as you ride by.  People see you riding, identify it as “a person on a bike” and predict your speed based on what they know about bike riders.  If you’re going fast, most of the driver’s experience has been with slower moving bike riders.  Based on their prior knowledge and experience they are likely to underestimate your speed. 

Underestimating your speed can be a problem in two situations.  The first is any time a car is going to pull across your line of movement either by coming out of a side street, driveway or parking lot entrance or by turning left across oncoming traffic.  The second is when you’re going straight on a road that has a right hand turn lane leading to an access ramp to a cross street.  You are riding the line separating the through road from the turn lane because you’re going straight.  Some idiot is afraid to pass you on the right in the turn lane and decides to pass you on the left in the through street and then cut in front of you onto the ramp.  You’re going faster than they think and they make a screaming high speed turn in front of you or jam on the brakes in a panic stop when they realize they’re not going to make it.

Learn to recognize the circumstanes where underestimating your speed can be a problem and be alert.

Evaluate, predict, plan, adapt and execute.  When you’re approaching an intersection or any circumstance that might pose a problem for a cyclist such as a car parked on the side of the road, road debris or potholes that you must navigate around, or loss of the shoulder as the road narrows to go over a bridge examine the upcoming situation.  Are there any moving vehicles around?  Where are they?  How fast are they going?  What are the potential dangers for a cyclist?

Based on your examination of the current situation, predict what the circumstances will be when you arrive at the problem point.  Where will the cars be?  What will they be doing?  Might the car in front of you turn right?  Does that guy who wants to pull out of the parking lot look like he’s underestimating your speed?

Use your prediction to formulate a plan of what you will do when you arrive at the problem point.  Should you slow down to hit the intersection after the only car you can see has gone through it?  Speed up to get there safely before the car arrives?  If you speed up or slow down are you going to be in trouble if the guy makes an unsignaled right turn?

Constantly reevaluate your plan as you approach the problem point and adapt it to changing circumstances.  Vehicles moving faster or slower than you first thought?  Pedestrians or cars appear that you didn’t see before? 

When you hit the problem point, execute the plan.  Getting to the problem point and then dithering about what you should do can be dangerous because any cars or pedestrians in the area may have been formulating their own plans and when you do something unexpected at the last instant because you lost confidence it can mess everybody up and lead to accidents.

Use your ears. In order to ride defensively you need to be aware of what’s going on around you.  You can see what’s in front of you.  You can see what’s behind you as well if you turn around and look.  However,
Dumb Ass

I'm a Dumb Ass

looking behind you and continuing to ride a straight, sure line takes practice and you can’t be looking behind you all the time.  Make use of all the information available to you, both visual and auditory.  Listen for cars or bikes coming up behind you.  Learn to estimate their speed from their sound.  Know when they are going to pass.  Never wear earbuds and listen to your iPod on your bike like the guy in the picture on the left who not only has earbuds but special shields to block out external noise so he can hear his iPod better.  Wearing earbuds on a bike is like having “I’m a dumb ass” tattooed on your forehead.

Know your route.  Whether commuting or training, most riders ride the same route time and time again.  Learn your route.  Know where the danger points lie and be prepared for them.  Learn where the bad sections of pavement are that narrow your options of where on the road you can ride.  If you go through an intersection with traffic lights, learn the signal pattern so you can accurately predict what state the light will be in when you arrive.  Is it a smart light that responds to waiting traffic?  Learn the typical taffic patterns at an intersection.  Are right hand turns frequent or unlikely?  The more you know about your route, the better your chances of accurately predicting what will happen when you arrive at the danger points.

Aggression, timidity and defensive riding.  Riding defensively doesn’t mean you can’t ride aggressively.  The agressive rider who thinks everybody is looking out for him and he always has the right of way is a danger to himself and everyone around him.  The cyclist who rides hard and fast is often easy for drivers to predict and if she rides defensively as well, she’ll avoid potentially deadly situations.

Likewise, riding defensively doesn’t mean you should be a timid rider.  Accurately predicting what the situation will be when you arrive on your bike is an important part of riding defensively.  Just as you are predicting where the cars are going to be when you get there, they are predicting where you are going to be. Timid, frightened riders who lack confidence are more likely to do unexpected things, are more difficult to predict, and often make their ride more dangerous than it needs to be.  Be aware, don’t be scared.

Riding defensively is all about learning to recognize the circumstances that pose a danger to the cyclist and learning to predict when those circumstanes might occur in order to minimize the danger as much as possible.  You can recognize a potentially dangerous situation 1000 times and nothing bad happens.  It’s easy to lose focus, to lose awareness, to take it for granted.  Bad idea because the 1001st time might be the one that saves your life.

Cycling Nutrition: Eating on the Bike

The information in this post has been revised and enhanced in Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During and After the Ride which can be purchased on  The enhancements include increased attention given to how fats are processed during the ride, an easy-to-calculate metric for evaluating whether different foods are likely to make for good on-the-bike eating, and an extended section on keeping hydrated during the ride. For information about Nutrition for Cyclists and how it relates to what I’ve posted to Tuned In To Cycling, please check out this post.

I’m continually amazed at the things I see cyclists eat during and after rides but am never surprised to see the effects ranging from loss of energy, through loss of concentration leading to mistakes and sometimes Juan Antonio Flecha grabbing a musette bag of food during the 2007 Tour de France - piscture from daylife.cominjury, to a full-fledged bonk.  The basic roles played by glycogen storage, blood glucose and the extraction of glucose from ingested carbohydrates are well understood as is what you need to do to avoid nutrition-based problems while you’re riding.  That doesn’t stop riders from falling prey to these problems all of the time, however.  Sometimes cyclist’s ideas about nutrition are based more on currently popular nutritional fads than sound knowledge.  Sometimes riders have an emotional commitment to eating particular foods and don’t want to change.  And sometimes you know what to do but you just can’t bring yourself to do it.  Whatever the reason, ignoring basic endurance nutrition almost always means trouble.

As detailed in another post, muscles burn glucose for fuel and the body stores glucose in the form of glycogen which can be broken down into useable glucose when working muscles need an increased fuel supply.  The body can store enough glycogen to support approximately 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise.  If you are going to ride more than 90 minutes, or if you are going to experience periods of high intensity riding, such as strenuous hill climbing, on a ride of less than 90 minutes, you are going to need to get glucose to fuel your muscles from food you ingest during the ride.

What kind of food should you eat?  The answer is well known and well supported by decades of research into endurance athletics.  Carbohydrates.  Why carbohydrates?  Primarily because their chemical structure is such that they can be broken down quickly and efficiently into useable glucose.   Glucose can be derived from fats and proteins as well as carbs and fats might seem to be an especially good source of energy because fats have roughly twice the number of calories as carbs or proteins.  The problem with both fats and proteins is that the process of breaking them down to extract useable glucose takes a long time and is inefficient.  You have to burn more energy to extract glucose from fats than you do to extract it from carbs.  In fact, fat metabolism (the process of breaking the fat down) requires carbohydrate that could have been more efficiently burned for glucose if wasn’t used to break down the fat.  Moreover, and possibly of more importance to you while you’re on the bike, it takes a fairly long time to extract glucose from fat or protein.  If you eat fat or protein loaded food during a ride, the ride may well be over by the time the fats and proteins have been processed to the point where you can get energy from them.  In the meantime, all the energy used in breaking down the fats hasn’t been available for powering the muscles.  Carbs, on the other hand, can be broken down quickly and efficiently to provide the glucose needed to keep going on the bike.  They are absolutely essential for the long-distance cyclist.

Where do you get the carbs you need during a long ride?  Some high-carb foods like pasta and rice are impractical to eat during a ride; you need high carb, low fat foods that you can easily carry with you on the Raisin - good source of carbs and easy to eat on the bike - picture from azarsahand.combike.  Good on-the-bike foods include dried fruit like raisins or dates, bagels, and low fat bite-sized cookies.  Energy bars are a terrific source of carbs.  For example, a single Powerbar has 45 grams of carbohydrate and only 2 grams of fat.  There are also energy gels made specifically for endurance athletes such as Power Gel or Goo that have very high doses of carbs.  If you eat high density carb supplements like energy bars or gel, make sure to drink plenty of water with them or they will sit like sludge in your stomach and you won’t get the quick transfer of carbs into blood glucose you need.  Another excellent source of carbs are sports drinks like Gatorade.  These drinks are usually loaded with carbohydrates and although they are marketed as important sources of electrolytes, the carbs they supply are probably of much more importance for the endurance cyclist.

When do you eat?  A common cycling mantra is “Eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty”.  This is excellent advice.  By the time the body reacts to low levels of fuel or fluid and sends hunger and thirst signals it’s too late.  Rather than stopping and eating a large amount of food (such as lunch) mid ride, nibble high carb foods frequently throughout the ride.  This not only provides immediate glucose, it can help protect the body’s glycogen stores; if the muscles are burning glucose from the low-fat fig newton you just ate, they’re not burning your stored glycogen.   Try to ingest some carbohydrates every 30 minutes or so.  Start eating during your first hour on the bike.  The sooner you begin drawing needed energy from food intake the longer you can keep a reserve of stored glycogen.

How do you carry the food?  Eating on the bike isn’t easy, especially in the first hour when you probably won’t feel hungry.  Stopping to eat makes eating even more of a hassle which makes it more likely you’ll skip it.  Bad idea.  When pros like the rider in the picture at the top of this post ride in a race, they have feed zones where they pick up a musette bag filled with enough food to get them through the next segment of the race.  You won’t have this luxury so you’ll have to carry nibble food in a fanny pack or your rear jersey pockets and learn to eat while you ride.  Because I don’t like to hassle with getting food out of wrappers or putting uneaten food away while I’m riding, I usually bring bite-sized foods with me on the bike.  If I have something larger like a Powerbar, I cut it up into bite-sized pieces before the ride.  To get at food easily I put it in a baggie and then roll the baggie up without sealing it.  When it’s time for food, I simply unroll the baggie, reach in and pull out something to eat.  No fuss, no muss and no garbage like food wrappers to put away when I’m done.  It takes a surprising amount of practice to get in the habit of eating regularly on the bike.  Practicing eating may sound like a crazy idea but it’s very easy to forget and run into trouble later.  Note the time your ride starts and make yourself nibble some food every 30 minutes.

What’s the best kind of food to eat on the bike?  Disciplining yourself to eat by the clock on the bike is difficult.  It can be a hassle to get out the food, riding with food in your mouth can be unpleasant, and sometimes eating can be the last thing you feel like doing.  For all of these reasons one of the most important considerations when deciding what kind of food you should bring with you on the bike is whether or not you’ll actually eat it when the time comes.  Having some kind of goo, gel or energy bar with you that is marketed as “scientifically proven” to be the optimal energy source for the endurance athlete and is endorsed by famous cyclists is useless if you won’t eat it because you think the stuff tastes like shit or feels disgusting in your mouth.  It’s easy to find an excuse not to eat when you’re on the bike.  Bring food that is mainly carbs but bring food you like.  It’s better to get a little fat with your carbs by eating a low-fat bite sized cookie than getting no carbs at all because the thought of a mouthful of Goo makes you want to puke.  Experiment with different foods to find a combination that is high in carbs and low in fats and proteins that you will eat while you’re on the bike.

Can I have too many carbs?  If you’re going to be ingesting large amounts of carbohydrate during the course of a ride, you should be aware that high concentrations of carbohydrate in the stomach can cause gastrointestinal distress such as nausea.  The more you rely on dense carb sources like gels and energy bars, the more you’re likely to run into this problem.  If you listen to live broadcasts from multi-day stage races like the Tour de France you will frequently hear reports of professional riders that are having gastrointestional problems during the race.  Individuals vary widely in their sensitivity to carbohydrate concentration so you will have to experiment to find your limits.  If you’re feeling nauseous, drink water to reduce the concentration of carbohydrate in your stomach and lengthen your feed time until you feel better.

What happens if I don’t eat?  Ingesting carbs while you’re cycling isn’t always easy and it it isn’t always fun but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to have the energy you need to finish your ride.  Failing to take in the carbs you need can lead to pronounced losses of energy and strength, reduced awareness of what’s going on around you, and increased irritability and hostility, all combined with the feeling that finishing the ride is an unbearable and impossible task.  In other words, you could bonk.  Not eating can turn a pleasant ride into an unpleasant one or a challenging ride into a nightmare.  Eat before you’re hungry and continue eating throughout the ride.

The ride’s over, now what?  If your’re going to ride for two or more days in a row, what you eat iimediately after a ride is as important as what you eat during the ride.  Find out about post-ride recovery here.