Cycling Gear: Cycling Shorts and Jerseys

Everyone’s seen them – those people on road bikes with the bright, garish jerseys and the skintight black lycra shorts.  Uptight people are offended and bluster about shameless displays of asses and body fat.  Cyclists at crest of US Hill in New MexicoInsecure men make sarcastic homophobic comments.  A lot of people think the cyclists look ridiculous.  A lot of other people just think the cyclists are weird.  A few people realize what’s really going on.  Cycling apparrel is some of the most functionally designed clothing on the planet.  Everything about it is there because it serves a useful purpose and how well it serves that purpose can sometimes mean the difference between an enjoyable and safe ride or a painful and dangerous one.

If you are new to cycling the first thing you need to do when thinking about wearing cycling clothes is forget about what you look like.  Well-designed cycling clothes are skin tight and very few people look good in skin tight clothes.  Your ass is fat, your thighs are fat, your stomach and hips are fat and there’s no hiding any of it in cycling shorts.  Don’t worry about it.  It’s not about how you look, it’s about how you ride.

Cycling shorts aren’t absolutely necessary but they are strongly recommended.  When considering the benefits provided by cycling shorts it’s important to think about what’s going on with your legs, ass and crotch when Women's cycling shorts - picture from coloradocyclist.comyou’re riding.  You spend most of your time on the bike seated on the saddle with your legs pumping up and down.  Every up-and-down motion produces friction and rubbing where your ass, crotch and thighs are in contact with the saddle.  The typical recommendation for road riders is to try and maintain a cadence of 85 to 105 revolutions per minute.  Say you’re a new rider, however and are riding at a cadence of 60.  That means your legs are going up and down 3600 times during an hour of riding.  A tiny amount of rubbing or chafing where your body meets the saddle that would be unnoticeable when repeated one or two hundred times can develop into raw, abraded skin that can range from uncomfortable to very painful after thousands of repetitions.  Keep in mind that 3600 repetitions of the same movment is a conservative estimate.  Two hours on the bike at a cadence of 90 produces 10,800 repetitions.

Cycling shorts are designed to minimize or eliminate chafing and rubbing.  Regular pants and shorts usually have a seam that runs front-to-back through the crotch.  If you ride wearing regular clothing this seam will produce rubbing and chafing and will put extra pressure on sensitve areas in the crotch.  Cycling shorts also have a seam down the center but the rider is protected by padding on the inside of the shorts.  Good cycling shorts will have a padded crotch that is usually supplemented with additional padding on the sit bones (the bones in the pelvis that bear much of the rider’s weight when properly seated on a bicycle saddle).  The padding not only cushions the rider but protects from abrasions caused by the seams in the shorts.

The skin tight fit of the shorts is also designed to eliminate chafing.  Loose fitting shorts can crease or bunch up between the rider and the saddle.  Every tiny crease can produce raw, abraded skin.  Loose shorts or pants will also introduce an additional source of friction and rubbing as the material of the clothing slides and moves between the rider and the saddle.  Bicycle shorts are designed to be skin tight to eliminate these two problems.  They are too tight to crease and bunch up and they are too tight to slide between the rider and the seat. 

Cycling shorts also fill an additional and very important function – they wick moisture away from the skin.  Think about what the environment is like in your crotch while you’re riding.  Hot, wet and dark.  Germs love this environment, they thrive there.  If you ride even semi-regularly it’s virtually impossible to completely avoid some degree of chafing.  Infection can turn a slight abrasion that is no more than a minor, short-lived irritant into a nightmare.  Cycling shorts are the single best thing you can do to prevent this from happening.

Cycling shorts cover a broad price range from the very cheap to the very expensive.  Like all cycling gear, I expect you reach a point of rapidly diminishing returns before you get to the most expensive shorts.  That being said, I wear fairly expensive shorts because I’ve had my crotch torn up by wearing cheap, poorly fitting shorts on a long ride.  That’s a mistake you only make one time.  There’s no particular brand or model that can be recommended to everyone because comfort depends on how the construction of the short matches up with the rider’s anatomy.  Shorts come in men’s and women’s models but some women wear men’s shorts and vice-versa because it’s more comfortable.  It doesn’t matter what the manufacturer calls it, it matters how comfortable you are wearing it.

When you buy shorts, start by following the manufacturer’s recommendations vis-a-vis size and fit.  Remember that a little too tight is better than a little too loose.  You wear cycling shorts without underwear.  In most cases underwear will completely defeat most of the benefits cycling shorts are designed to provide: underwear has abraiding seams, it holds moisture rather than wick it away, and it produces slippage and extra friction between the rider and the saddle.  Even if you wear underwear that you think doesn’t have these problems, don’t wear it with cycling shorts.  Never wear unwashed shorts, there are germs in there just waiting to attack your crotch.  Wash the shorts after every use

Cycling jerseys are not as essential as shorts but they are very useful.  They’re designed to be form fitting for two reasons.  Like shorts, they’re made of a wicking material that draws moisture away from the rider’s Cycling jersey - picture from performancebike.comtorso.  This plays a very important role in keeping the rider cool.  When you exercise you generate heat and the body works hard (and burns calories) to shed this heat in order to keep core body temperature within a safe range.  Sweating is an essential part of this process.  When the sweat evaporates it helps cool the body.  Form fitting clothing that wicks the sweat away from the skin surface facilitates evaporation and hence cooling.  More efficient cooling helps to prevent dehydration from excessive sweating and dehydration can be deadly.  Literally, deadly. 

The second reason jerseys are form fitting is to reduce air resistance.  The faster you go, the greater proportion of the energy you’re expending is being used to overcome air resistance.  Loose fitting clothing increases air resistance and at higher speeds can make cycling much more difficult than it needs to be.

In many ways the most important function served by the jersey is related to safety for cyclists who share the road with cars.  Bright, loud jerseys are designed to attract attention.  Specifically, they’re designed to make the rider easier to see by someone who is driving a car.  Far and away the most important source of danger facing the cyclist who rides with traffic of any kind is that the driver doesn’t see the cyclist.  Jerseys are designed to help overcome this problem.  When choosing a jersey, don’t pick colors or patterns that blend in with your surroundings.  Be loud.  It’s not about how you look, it’s about not being hit by a car.

An undergarment or base layer can be worn under a jersey and often should be if cycling in cool or cold conditions.  The undershirt should be skin tight and made of a wicking material.  Don’t wear a cotton t-shirt under a jersey.  Likewise, sports bras that wick are good, regular bras that don’t wick are not.

It used to be that all cycling jerseys were cut pretty much the same way.  Recently, however, jersey manufacturers have begun producing different jerseys for the American and European markets.  In Europe where cycling is much more popular than it is in the US and many more people both ride and are knowledgeable about cycling, jerseys are cut the way they’ve always been.  For the US market where people tend to be less knowledgeable about cycling, fatter, and more concerned with how they look on the bike, jereseys are often cut more full in the waist.   If the description of the jersey says soomething like “European cut” this is what they’re talking about.

While neither are as essential as a cycling helmet, cycling shorts and jerseys serve very useful and important functions.  Of the two, the shorts are more important for making the ride more comfortable and for keeping you on the bike longer today and making it easier to get back on the bike tomorrow.  They’re not designed to make you look good, they’re designed to make your ride easier, safer and more enjoyable. 

Cycling Gear: Helmets

Should you wear a bicycle helmet when you ride?  Look at the data.  In 2006 The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety published data on cyclists who were killed in traffic accidents from 1994 – 2006.  In 1998, Pretty girl in a cycling helmet98% of the cyclists who were killed were not wearing a helmet; 2004 was the “best” year when the figure was 83%.  The percentage of dead cyclists who were not wearing helmets was 90% or greater for 8 of the 13 years covered in the report.  Not all of these cyclists died as the result of head injuries but the majority of them did.  Cycling deaths due to head injury are typically around 75%.  Would wearing a helmet have prevented most of those deaths?  The most often cited source for the effectiveness of cycling helmets is a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1989 that concludes that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of serious head injury by 85% and serious brain injury by 88%.  There are a lot of ways you can hurt yourself when you have a bike accident.  Are head injuries common?  The US Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a report based on data from 2004 that indicated that the estimated number of head injuries that required emergency room treatment was greater for cycling than for any other sport.  In fact, cycling was estimated to produce more head injuries requiring emergency-room treatment than the next four sports (baseball, football, skateboards and kick scooters) combined.  Should you wear a helmet?  It’s a no-brainer, or rather you’re a no-brainer if you don’t wear one. 

Okay, so if you have any sense at all, you wear a helmet.  What kind of helmet should you buy?  A while back a good friend of mine who rode a Harley Davidson was pissed that the state we lived in had passed a motorcycle helmet law.  Like a lot of motorcyclists he thought helmets were for sissies.  We went to the motorcycle shop and found helmets ranging from $10 to $50 (lol it was a long while back).  He knew nothing about helmets, couldn’t see any difference between the two, and reeking of testosterone-fueled attitude, asked the guy who worked in the shop why he should buy a $50 helmet when there was one for $10 that didn’t look any different.  The guy, who was used to dealing with bikers, gave my friend a dead-eyed stare, let the silence drag out, and said “You got a $10 head?  Wear a $10 helmet.”

Mass-market retailers sell bicycle helmets for less than $20 while the latest professional-level helmet that is virtually identical to the ones riders in this year’s Tour de France are wearing can be had for about $230.  Do you need a $230 helmet for your $230 head?  Actually, no.  Although compliance is voluntary, virtually all helmets sold in the US meet the product safety standards for bicycle helmets established by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1999.  You might want to double check the real cheap helmets sold by places like Wal-Mart but it’s highly likely that any helmet you want to buy will meet these standards.  This means that there is no real difference in protection between a $20 helmet and a $200 helmet.  So, what’s the difference?  The more expensive helmets are made for serious road riders or bike racers.  They weigh less and usually feature much improved air flow through the helmet which can play an important role in allowing the rider to dissipate heat.  Advanced riders will often do high-intensity rides that last for hours.  On a ride like this managing hydration and keeping body core temperature down can be a major problem and the cooling characteristics of helmets that are designed for these types of rides can be a significant factor.  It’s also not uncommon for the more expensive helmets to have more ways to adjust helmet fit and easier ways to adjust fit while you’re riding than the cheaper helmets.

Another factor that plays into the cost of the helmet is style.  Cycling gear is beset with a bad case of “you have to have the latest thing”.  The $230 price tag is for this year’s model, last year’s model costs about $100 less.  Unless you’re a slave to fashion, a top-end cycling helmet can usually be had in the $100 to $150 range. 

One of the things we see on the road all the time is parents going for bike rides around the neighborhood with their young children.  The parents are beaming with pride with a “aren’t we a fine family spending quality time with our kids” demeanor.  The kids are always wearing helmets and the parents often are not.  Reminds me of those old cartoons where the parent is standing there with a drink in on hand and a cigarrette in the other yelling at their kids “If I ever catch you using drugs, I’ll beat you within an inch of your life.”  Don’t be a dumbass.  When you insist your kids do one thing while you do the opposite you’re teaching them that (a) you’re a hypocrite and (b) it isn’t really all that important no matter what you say which means that (c) you’re full of shit and they don’t have to listen to you.  You want to impress on your kids how important it is to wear a bike helmet?  Wear one yourself. 

It’s hard to imagine a better example of what’s on the outside of your head giving a good indication of what’s on the inside.  If you don’t have much on the inside, you’re more likely to think helmets look stupid and not wear one.  If you have something on the inside, you’ll understand the overwhelming argument presented by the data in the first paragraph and wear a helmet.

Oh, yeah.  My friend bought the $50 helmet.

 

Hill Climbing 102: Riding Techniques

This is one of a pair of posts designed to help new riders climb.  I looked at pedaling and shifting in Hill Climbing 101.  In this post I’ll examine some riding techniques that can improve your ability to climb hills.  Part of the climb up the Col du Sarenne, the back route up to l'Alpe d'HuezThere are many different approaches to climbing and riders at different stages of development will tackle a climb differently.  A new rider who is desperate to survive to the crest will climb very differently from an experienced racer trying to drop the competition on the steepest part of the climb.  Hill Climbing 101 and 102 are written for the relatively inexperienced cyclist who might benefit from some information about basic climbing techniques.

Drop your heels.  To get a sense of what this feels like, move your leg so that your foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke.  With your foot in this position, keep the ball of your foot motionless on the pedal and tilt your foot so that your heel is lower than your toes.  You’ll feel the stretch in your calf muscles and achilles tendon.  Try and keep your foot in this position all the way around the pedal stroke but especially on the downward push.  Keeping the heels low brings more of the hamstrings (the muscles in the back of the thigh) and glutes (the muscles in the butt) into play.  These are very powerful muscle groups – use them to get you over the hill.  Pedaling with the heels dropped is relatively easy when your feet are attached to the pedals by clipless pedals.  It’s much harder to do, but still possible, if you are using basket-style toeclips or no clips at all.  Many riders tend to point their toes downward which puts less stress on the hams and glutes and more on the quadriceps (the large muscles on the front of the thigh) and calves (frequent calf cramping is a good indication you’re pointing your toes down).  This tendency can be accentuated by the use of toeclips.  If you’re doing this, try to break the habit and drop your heels when you climb. 

Change working muscle groups.  As you labor up the hill the muscles you are using will become exhausted as waste products produced by your straining muscles accumulate faster than they can be carried away in the bloodstream.  It doesn’t take long to clear these waste products if you can make less use of the muscles for a moment.  You can’t coast on a climb, however, because you’ll lose your momentum or come to a dead stop.  The solution is to briefly work different sets of muscles throughout the climb to give particular muscle groups precious time to recover.  There are several ways to do this.  If you typically ride with toes pointed down or feet flat, drop your heels for a bit to bring your hamstrings and glutes more into play and give your quadriceps and calves time to recover.  Likewise, if you usually ride with your heels dropped, raise them so your feet are flat or point your toes down thereby taking the load off the hams and glutes and shifting it onto the quads and calves.  Shift forward and back on the seat.  Sitting on the front of the seat accentuates the quads, sitting on the back accentuates the hams and glutes.  Stand up for a brief interval and then sit back down.  Just before you stand, shift into a bigger gear and then shift back to the smaller gear when you sit down.  You will have more power when you stand and if you stay in the smaller gear you will lose momentum.  Use these techniques for 10 to 30 pedal strokes periodically throughout the climb to buy recovery time.

Remain seated while you climb.  Standing is terrific for short bursts of power or for a change in muscle use (and hence a bit of muscle recovery) on a very long climb.  However, it is less efficient than sitting and will tire you out faster in the long run.  You will be stronger at the end of the ride if you climb sitting at the beginning.  Less efficient to begin with, standing becomes much more inefficient if your technique is not good and good standing technique is much harder than it looks.  Many riders with poor technique weave back and forth across the road when they stand and thrash back and forth, twisting at the hips.  This wastes a lot of energy (which you will wish you had 20 miles further on down the road) and is hard on the lower back possibly leading to back soreness or tightening on long rides.  Experienced riders are likely to disagree with this advice to climb while seated because standing on the climbs is a standard practice among advanced riders.  Having developed the ability to climb efficiently while standing is one of the many skills that separates the advanced rider from the novice.  If you stick with road cycling, you’ll learn to climb in a standing position but when you’re just starting out, I think it’s better to learn to climb efficiently and well while sitting before learning the more difficult skill. 

Keep a loose, relaxed grip on the handlebars.  As you strain up the hill it’s easy to grip the handlebars harder and harder.  White knuckling the handlebars like this can lead to numbness in the hands.  More importantly, the tension in the hands will spread up the arms to the neck, shoulders and chest.  Tightness in the chest will restrict breathing which will reduce oxygen consumption.  Oxygen is essential for both removing waste products and bringing fresh supplies of energy to your working muscles.  Your legs will tire more quickly and you’ll have a harder time finishing the climb if you are not breathing freely.

Keep your momentum as long as you can.  On short or rolling hills keeping momentum is often the difference between an easy climb and a hard one.  If you are approaching a hill from a flat road, build up some speed on the flat so you hit the bottom of the hill moving fast.  Maintain a constant effort when you hit the hill.  As the gradient steals your momentum, downshit to easier gears to keep your momentum going as long as you can.  You will quickly learn to recognize the point on a climb when your forward momentum dies and the climb turns into a pure grunt and you’ll want to prevent that from happening for as long as possible.  If you are riding a series of rolling hills, make use of the preceding downhill to build momentum for the next uphill.  Don’t coast on the downhills.  This will come naturally if you are trying to maintain a constant effort (see Hill Climbing 101) as you will be gearing up and accelerating throughout the downhill.  If you want to put out extra effort, squeeze out every last bit of speed you can on the downhill where it’s relatively easy so you don’t have to work so hard on the following uphill.  As your skills increase you will find that you can fly over hills that once gave you trouble by building the speed you need at the base of the hill and by conserving momentum through the climb by downshifting at just the right moment.

Ride with rhythm.  Many climbs are too long or too steep to be conquered with momentum.  When you’re on one of these, try and find a rhythm that you can ride at comfortably.  Essentially this means finding a cadence that feels right and then using your gears to maintain that cadence as the gradient fluctuates over the course of the climb (see the sections on cadence and maintaining a steady effort in Hill Climbing 101).  The right cadence will feel like a natural, comfortable rhythm.  Shift into a bigger gear when the gradient relaxes and into a smaller gear when the hill steepens to maintain that rhythm.  Don’t worry about what other riders are doing, find your rhythm and stick with it. 

Don’t coast after the crest.  There are going to be times when you crest a hill in agony.  Your legs are screaming for relief, you are in oxygen debt and panting uncontrollably,  and all you want ot do is make it stop.  You’re over the top and now gravity is your friend as it carries you down the other side.  You can coast for a minute; it’s your reward.  Don’t do it.  Keep your legs turning and shift into a higher gear so that you’re getting some resistance from the pedals.  The terrible burning feeling in your legs is produced by the buildup of waste products in the muscles you just overworked.  If you coast and stop using the muscles, those waste products just sit there causing you pain.  If you continue to use the muscles, gently in comparison with what you just did while climbing, the contraction of the muscles will squeeze the waste products out into the bloodstream where they can be carried away.  If you keep pedaling, the pain ends sooner.

Practice on every hill.   It doesn’t matter how long or short the hill is or how large or small the gradient is.  You can always find something to practice and it’s easier to be successful on the small hills than the big ones.  Use every hill as an opportunity to get better.  Success on the small hills today will lead to success on the big ones tomorrow.

Never quit on a hill.  Never.    I don’t really know if this is sound advice or not.  It makes sense and it works for me but anecdotal evidence like this is never worth much.  Here’s the advice anyway.  You’re going to suffer on climbs.  Maybe you went too fast on the early part of the climb and went into the red zone, maybe you blew a shift and killed your momentum, maybe you just don’t have enough left at the end of a long ride to take the climb in stride.  Whatever the cause, you are going to suffer.  The temptation to give up on the climb will be overwhelming.  Don’t do it, fight to the end, pay the price.  Suffer.  A lot of learning to climb is about training the body but some of it is about training the mind.  To be the kind of rider who doesn’t quit, you have to practice not quitting.  If you’re a road rider for any length of time, sooner or later someone is going to challenge you on a climb.  If their skill and fitness levels are so far beyond yours that it is no contest, they’re a jackass who has no business challenging you in the first place.  Ignore them.  However, if the riders are close in skill and fitness it usually comes down to heart and will.  Who will endure the greatest amount of suffering and not break.  If you have refused to quit on every hill in the past, you know that no matter how bad it gets, you’ve been through it before.  You didn’t quit then, so don’t quit now.  Believe me, the first time some guy challenges you on a hill and you break him and drop him in the last 100 meters of the climb it will all have been worth it.

Hill Climbing 101: Pedaling and Shifting

Hills are the bane and the salvation of the road cyclist.  They’re hard, sometimes agonizingly hard, and yet without them road cycling would be unbearably boring.  I’ve had the good fortune to have ridden some of the Laura rounding turn 12 on l'Alpe d'Huezgreat Tour de France climbs in the French Alps like l’Alpe d’Huez and the Col du Galibier.  I’ve also ridden 30 miles of prairie road that was dead flat and straight as an arrow.  If given the choice, I’d ride the climbs every time.  Climbs are the yardsticks by which experienced cyclists measure themselves while new riders often look on them with fear and loathing.

This is one of a pair of posts designed to help new riders climb.  I’ll look at some riding techniques in Hill Climbing 102.  In this post I’ll examine pedaling and shifting.  There are many different approaches to climbing and riders at different stages of development will tackle a climb differently.  A new rider who is desperate to survive to the crest will climb very differently from an experienced racer trying to drop the competition on the steepest part of the climb.  Hill Climbing 101 and 102 are written for the relatively inexperienced cyclist who might benefit from some information about basic climbing techniques.

Cadence.  Cadence refers to how fast your feet go around on the pedals and it lies at the heart of cycling whether on hills or flats.  Most cycling computers measure cadence in revolutions per minute (rpm) although cyclists will often speak of cadences of 90 or 100 and leave out the “rpm”.  There are two basic approaches to cadence:  Spinning and mashing.  Spinning means pedaling in a small (easy) gear at a high cadence while mashing is pedaling in a big (hard) gear at lower cadence.  In very rough terms, spinning will generally build cardiovascular fitness and endurance while mashing will build strength and bulk.  Mashing is also more likely to produce muscle and joint (especially knee) injuries.  As a very general strategy, spinning is usually better than mashing although there are so many different kinds of riders and different kinds of road conditions that there will be many exceptions to this general rule.  The typical recommendation is to spin at cadences of 85 to 105.  This may be a difficult cadence for new riders to maintain but it is good to practice until you can comfortably ride in this range.   When climbing, it is best to spin at a high cadence in a small gear.  Many times you may find yourself climbing in your smallest gear so you can’t shift into an easier gear and spin at a higher cadence.  However, as your fitness improves or the gradient of the hill lessens you can begin to ride in bigger gears.  When this happens, work on achieving a higher cadence on the climbs before you work on climbing in a bigger gear.

Maintaining a steady effort.  If there were one bit of advice that I would hold out as the holy grail of long-distance riding technique, this is it.  The idea is to put forth the same amount of effort consistently throughout the ride.  One way to do this is to maintain a steady cadence.  You adjust for changes in gradient, road conditions, wind, fatigue, etcetera by changing gears and keeping your legs going around at the same rate.  This means that going downhill you gear up into bigger gears and accelerate; going uphill you gear down into smaller gears and decelerate.  Many riders try to maintain a constant speed rather than a constant effort going uphill.  They tend to exhaust themselves on the steeper parts of the hill and then lose momentum on the flatter parts of the hill.  On many hills the gradient will become a bit less steep for the last section before the crest.  The rider who is focused on speed will ramp down their effort as the climb becomes less difficult.  When they back off the effort they often back off too far, lose momentum, slow down and find it difficult to switch from slowing down to speeding up while they’re still climbing.   The rider who is focused on maintaining a constant effort will kick into a higher gear when the gradient eases up and fly over the crest.

Pedaling in a circle.  Once when riding in the Washington DC AidsRide (340 miles in 4 days to raise money to help those suffering from HIV/AIDS) I was riding alongside some inexperienced riders giving them help and encouragement as they climbed a long hill and I suggested they pedal in circle.  As he struggled to keep going, one of riders looked at me like I’d lost my mind and said “Isn’t that what we’re doing?”  Surprisingly, the answer was “no”; his feet were going around in a circle but like most inexperienced cyclists he wasn’t applying force to the pedals all the way around the circle.  As much as you can, try and exert force all the way around the pedaling arc, not just on the downward push.  Push down, pull back at the bottom, lift up and pull through at the top.  This is not as easy as it sounds and it is a skill that takes a long time to master.  However, climbing is difficult enough without trying to do it with only part of your available muscle power.  You’ve got a whole leg and 360 degrees of arc to move it through.  Use the whole thing.  Pedaling in a circle is impossible if your feet are not connected to the pedals.  It’s much harder to do with basket-style toe clips because when you pull back at the bottom of the pedal stroke, you pull your foot off the pedal.  You really need clipless pedals to take full advantage of pedaling in a circle.

Gear shifting.  This is perhaps the most difficult hill-climbing skill to develop.  When there is load on the chain, such as when you’re climbing a hill, downshifting to an easier gear puts more strain on the chain and the shifting mechanism than shifting up to a harder gear.  You’ll often need to downshift to an easier gear during a climb but if you don’t do it soon enough, there may be so much stress on the chain that you can’t make the shift and then you’re stopped dead in a gear that’s too big to get up the hill.  On the other hand, if you downshift too soon, you lose your momentum which can turn an easy climb into a hard one in the blink of an eye.  You can feel this happen if you downshift to an easier gear and suddenly your feet are spinning on the pedals and meeting very little resistance.  It’s all about timing.  The trick is to relax your pedal stroke for a brief instant and shift into the easier gear a split second before you have to so that you can put forth the same effort throughout the climb.  The only way to get good at this is to practice.  There’s nothing like a perfect climb where each shift comes smoothly at precisely the right moment and you feel like you’ve just flown over the hill as if it wasn’t there.

Climbing is hard but learning to climb is worth it.  During the AidsRide I rode up and down that hill I mentioned earlier several times helping riders make it to the top.  The hill was the longest on the entire 340 mile ride and many of the new riders had been dreading it since the ride began.  I began riding with one woman at the bottom of the climb who was very much overweight and out of shape.  Like maybe 100 lbs overweight.  In addition, she was riding a hybid rather than a road bike which was making the climb a good deal more difficult for her.  About a quarter of the way up, she knew she wasn’t going to make it.  I talked to her about the hill climbing techniques discussed here and in Hill Climbing 102 and encouraged her to keep going.  Another 10 feet, just make it another 10 feet.  She was in agony.  Just 10 more feet.  The hill had such a fearsome reputation that a good number of people had stopped to stand along the road and cheer the riders on as they struggled up the climb.  Someone had parked a van with a sound system in the back near the top of the hill and Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive”  was booming out.  We’re halfway up and the woman was going so slowly that I don’t know how she remained upright on the bike; I had to keep looping around in small circles next to her in order to move fast enough not to lose my balance.  She knew she wasn’t going to make it but she refused to give up until she absolutely couldn’t give it one more pedal stroke.  Just 10 more feet.  Tears of pain and effort were streaming down her face.  About 30 feet from the top of the hill amidst the music and the cheers of the onlookers she realized she was going to make it, that she was going to succeed at something that just moments before she believed was impossible.  The look that came over her face at that instant was so beautiful and so pure that it made every moment I had suffered building the climbing strength that allowed me to ride with her that day worth it.  It was the kind of thing you never forget.  Hills will do that for you.

Renting a Bike

If you are new to cycling and unsure about whether you want to buy a road bike, a mountain bike or a hybrid, one of the best things you can do is rent a bike and spend some time riding it.  A good entry level bike can be expensive and you don’t want to spend the money only to discover you bought the wrong kind of bike after you’ve ridden it once or twice.  Almost all good bike shops have a collection of used bikes for sale and many of these shops will rent them out for a day or a weekend.

Renting a bike has a number of advantages.  Many places that sell bikes will alow you to take them for a ten minute test ride around the parking lot.  It’s a good idea to do this because sometimes you can ride a bike for a few hundred meters and know immediately that something about it is just right or just wrong.  However, the parking lot test ride can be misleading as well.  Any number of things can go unnoticed or feel fine after ten minutes that can develop into major problems after an hour or more of riding.  Likewise, things like your position on the bike can feel uncomfortable and awkward during the first ten minutes but can feel exactly right after you’ve had more time to relax and grow comfortable on the bike.  Time on the bike is especially important for the new bike rider who may not know what to look for or what aspects of the ride to be sensitive to during an initial ten minute ride.

If you are going to ride your bike regularly, the two most important things you’ll have going for you are your bike and your bike shop.  For many reasons, establishing a good relationship with a good shop is the most important thing you can do after buying the right bike, and renting a bike is an excellent way to evaluate a bike shop for a new rider who may be unfamiliar with the world of cycling.  When you go to the shop, explain to them that you’re seriously thinking about buying a new bike, you’re unsure about what kind of bike you want, and you’d like to rent a bike to try it out.  You can get useful information about how good the shop is by paying attention to what happens next.  If they measure you for frame size, get you a bike, and send you on your way, then they’re probably not the shop where you want to buy your bike.  Picking out the proper frame size is just the beginning of getting the bike ready for you to ride.  They should also take the time to fit you to the bike by adjusting things like the seat height and angle, and the handlebar height, angle and distance among other things.  Riding a poorly fit bike can result in discomfort, pain, injury and a bad cycling experience.  They understand this in a good bike shop and they also understand that a customer who enjoys themselves riding a properly fit rental bike is more likely to purchase a bike of their own. 

Renting a bike can also have the virtue of spreading out the initial cost of getting into cycling over several days or weeks.  It’s very common for new cyclists to have put all of their thought and maybe all of their money into the bike they buy.  They make the decision, get the bike, are happy, excited and possibly broke, and then comes the question, “Okay, now what gear do you need?  Helmet?  Shorts?  Jersey?  Shoes? Water bottles?   Frame pump? . . . ”  This is almost always a bummer.  Although it doesn’t end up costing any less in the long run, the buzz kill can be muted if you’ve already bought things like your helmet in order to ride the rental bike.  it’s a small thing but it helps.

Taking a rented bike on an extended ride is just about the best thing a new rider can do to help them decide what type of bike they want to buy.  It not only can help you find the right kind of bike, it can help you find the right bike shop which is almost as important.  If you are at all unsure about whether a road bike, a hybrid, or a mountain bike is right for you, renting before you buy is highly recommended.

Hybrid Bikes

This is one of a series of posts designed to help people who are new to cycling get started.  In earlier posts I recommended that you buy your bike from a good bike shop and suggested you think about how you’d like Mongoose Crossway 450to use your bike before deciding what kind of bike to buy.  The kind of bike you ride and the kind of riding you want to do are so closely related that I recommend you take a look at “What Kind Of Cyclist Do You Want To Be?” before reading this post if you haven’t done so already.

The first and probably most important decision a new rider has to make is what kind of bike to buy.  Choose the right kind of bike at the beginning and you may be opening a whole new world that will give you years, maybe a lifetime, of enjoyment.  Choose the wrong kind of bike and you may have just bought an expensive garage ornament.  There are so many different types of bicycles out there and so many variants on each of those different types that it would take a book to cover them all.  It would also be useless information for many new riders because most of the variants are designed to fit a highly specific need or small niche in the cycling market.  Most new riders will be faced with choosing some type of road bike, mountain bike or hybrid.  If you are at all unsure about which type of bike is right for you, renting a bike for a day’s or weekend’s worth of riding is highly recommended.  This post takes a more detailed look at hybrid bikes.

Hybrid bikes fill the gap between the heavy, rugged mountain bikes and the light, swift road bikes.  That’s a wide gap and by combining different road and mountain bike features you can find a hybrid to fill just about any slot in it.  They’re the swiss army knives of cycling. 

Hybrid bikes typically feature frames that are lighter than a mountain bike but heavier than a road bike.  Handlebars are usually flat like a mountain bike and the rider sits in much more of an upright position than on a road bike.  They have the larger wheels of the road bike, but the wheels are heavier and more solidly constructed than a set of race wheels.  Tires are typically a compromise between the narrow, smooth high pressure tire of the road bike and the fat, wide, markedly knobbed tire of the mountain bike.

It’s difficult to characterize the “typical” hybrid because they run the entire gamut from the pure mountain to the pure road bike.  At the mountain end of the continuum, a hybrid will be up to the task of riding on well maintained gravel bike paths and beginning-level non-technical trails.  At the road bike end of the continuum a hybrid may be suitable for medium length fitness and endurance rides on paved roads.  However, because the bikes are all called “hybrids” doesn’t mean that any one of them can do all these things equally well.  Road-oriented hybrids will be good at road-style riding and poor at cross-country style riding and vice-versa, the mountain-oriented hybrid will not do very well over long distances on a paved surface.

The wide range of bikes that fall in the hybrid category can pose a problem for a new rider who may have a hard time telling a road-oriented hybrid from a middle-of-the-road hybrid from a mountain-oriented hybrid.  In addition, it’s probably the case that most of the crappy bikes sold by mass-market retailers that are cheap in terms of intial cost and expensive in terms of what you get for your money are properly categorized as hybrid bikes no matter what the retailers call them.  For these reasons it’s a good idea for riders who may be interested in a hybrid to buy their bike from a bike shop where they can get good advice about what kind of hybrid to buy.

One of the strengths of a hybrid bike is its initial cost.  Good entry level hybrids start at around $300, the least expensive entry point of the road, mountain, hybrid bike triumvirate.  Another strength is their versatility.  A middle-of-the-road hybrid can be riden on undemanding unpaved surfaces better than a pure road bike and can be ridden for fairly short periods of time on paved surfaces better than a pure mountain bike.   Hybrids are good for light recreational riding, zipping down to the store, or going for a ride through the neighborhood with the kids.  Perhaps most importantly, a hybrid gets a new rider out on the bike so he can discover for himself what kind of cyclist he wants to be.

The major drawback of a hybrid bike is the flip side of it’s major strength.  Its versatility insures that it doesn’t really do anything well.  When compared to a road bike, the increase in weight, the increase in tire width and tread, and the upright riding position combine to make riding any kind of distance more difficult than it ought to be.  In addition, the hybrid bike’s flat handlebars put severe limits on where you can put your hands which can lead to numbness in the hands and stiffness and discomfort in the neck, shoulders and back on longer rides.  This can be especially problematic for riders with carpel tunnel syndrome.  When compared to a mountain bike, the decrease in weight and sturdiness combined with the decrease in tire width and tread put limits on where the hybrid can go off-road and make the bike more prone to breaking down when you come upon obstacles that are beyond the capabilities of your bike.  When the riding gets serious, hybrids get left out off the road and left behind on the road.

A hybrid can be an ideal choice for the new rider who isn’t sure what kind of riding he wants to do.  The fitness benefits of road riding and the idea of spending wonderful days going for long bike rides in beautiful weather make a road bike sound appealing but the excitment and challenge of off-road riding also sounds appealing.  You’re not ready to commit to one or the other.  What do you do?  One solution is buy a hybrid and do the dialed back versions of each and see which you like the best.  Riders who are thinking about cycling as a fairly low stress form of leisure activity that also has some health benefits are likely to be attracted to hybrids as well.  A lot of people buy a hybrid as their first bike, discover they really enjoy some aspect of cyclng, and then move beyond the hybrid to a mountain or road bike as their interest and fitness levels increase.  As long as you understand that it is often a temporary first solution, a hybrid bike may be just the bike you need.

Mountain Bikes

This is one of a series of posts designed to help people who are new to cycling get started.  In earlier posts I recommended that you buy your bike from a good bike shop and suggested you think about how you’d like GT Marathon - dual suspension mountain biketo use your bike before deciding what kind of bike to buy.  The kind of bike you ride and the kind of riding you want to do are so closely related that I recommend you take a look at “What Kind Of Cyclist Do You Want To Be?” before reading this post if you haven’t done so already.

The first and probably most important decision a new rider has to make is what kind of bike to buy.  Choose the right kind of bike at the beginning and you may be opening a whole new world that will give you years, maybe a lifetime, of enjoyment.  Choose the wrong kind of bike and you may have just bought an expensive garage ornament.  There are so many different types of bicycles out there and so many variants on each of those different types that it would take a book to cover them all.  It would also be useless information for many new riders because most of the variants are designed to fit a highly specific need or small niche in the cycling market.  Most new riders will be faced with choosing some type of road bike, mountain bike or hybrid.  If you are at all unsure about which type of bike is right for you, renting a bike for a day’s or weekend’s worth of riding is highly recommended.  This post takes a more detailed look at mountain bikes.

Mountain bikes are built to go where no bike has gone before, or at least where no road bike has gone before.  They’re the all-terrain vehicles of the bicycle world and are sometimes called all-terrain bikes.  In many respects, they are the exact opposite of the road bike.  Where road bikes are light and sleek, mountain bikes are heavy and rugged.  Road riders think about how to attack the next section of road to maintain their current speed or go faster; mountain bike riders think about how to handle the next two or three obstacles in front of them.  Ride a high-end racing bike on a rough, off-road trek and the racing bike would probably break down and leave you walking long before you reached the end of the ride.  Take a mountain bike on a 100 mile bike ride on paved roads and it wouldn’t fall apart but it would be so slow, cumbersome and exhausting to ride you’d wish it would break down so you could end a horrible experience.

There are several styles of mountain biking such as downhill (being carried to the top of a steep mountain descent and then riding down on your bike) or dirt jumping (riding a dirt course with ramps constructed for jumping) but most new riders with mountain bikes will be engaged in cross-country biking.  Cross country can range from riding on fairly sedate, well maintained, gravelled bike paths, to tackling trails of varying degrees of technical difficulty designed for cross country riders, to striking out across pathless terrain.  Rougher riding conditions demand bikes that are better made and more durable, and hence more expensive.

Mountain bikes are built to withstand the punishment of riding in harsh terrain.  They have small, heavy, reinforced frames that are designed to withstand riding over logs and boulders, and crashing down to earth after the bike and rider have launched into the air.  Wheels are usually smaller and heavier than typical road wheels.  Knobbed mountain bike tire.  Picture from BlueSkyCycling.comMountain bike tires are wide with knobbled tread patterns that are designed to gain traction in mud, sand, leaves and water.  Handlebars are usually flat or gently rising and the rider sits in much more of an upright position than on a road bike.  Many mountain bikes use some type of disc brake rather than the caliper brakes commonly seen on road bikes.  Caliper brakes grip the wheel rim to slow the bike down.  They don’t work very well on mountain bikes because the rims are often wet or muddy.  Disc brakes provide much better stopping power in wet conditions but they are heavy.  All of these design differences contribute to making the mountain bike durable and stable when ridden over very rough terrain.

 As with any kind of bike there are many varieties of mountain bike.  A decision the new rider will have to make at the outset is what type of suspension, if any, they want on their bike.  A rigid bike has no suspension.  It’s lighter than a mountain bike with suspension and easier to ride uphill.  It also provides a much rougher ride because more of the vibration from every rock, root and hole you hit is transferred to the rider’s body.  They are also harder to handle because anything hit with the front wheel tends to knock the steering out of the rider’s control.  A hardtail has suspension on the front wheel but not the rear.  The suspension adds weight to the bike which makes it harder to ride uphill.  However, it also soaks up vibration from the front half of the bike and greatly lessens the chance that hitting a rock or other obstruction will cause the rider to lose control of the bike.  Full suspension bikes have suspension on both wheels.  They are the heaviest of the three but they also provide the most comfortable ride over rough terrain.  The bike pictured at the beginning of this post is a full suspension bike.  All else being equal, rigid bikes are the least expensive while full suspension bikes cost the most.

A good entry level mountain bike costs about $500 which is much less expensive than an entry level road bike.  The rugged look and riding style associated with mountain bikes is appealing to many young males and bike manufacturers take advantage of this to sell bikes that they call mountain bikes and are made to look like mountain bikes but are basically cheap knock offs that sell in the $300 range or less.  At the $300 price point many of these bikes will hold up if you take care to maneuver around every rock and log in your path instead of riding over them.  As the price drops, so does the quality of the bike. 

If you are thinking about buying a mountain bike several additional costs need to be considered.  Because mountain bikes get hard use in rough terrain they break down more often.  Flexing their egos, mountain bikers will sometimes say that if you don’t break something on your bike every week, you’re not riding hard enough.  For a new rider this is silly, but you can expect a higher incidence of repair for off-road and trail riding which means both greater expense and more time when the bike is unavailable to you because it’s in the shop waiting for parts or repairs.  The higher maintainence needs of mountain bikes make establishing a good relationship with a bike shop especially important for mountain bike riders.

Another cost you may have to take into account is some kind of rack on your car to transport the bike.  A mountain bike ride almost always involves a trip by car to and from the trail head where the bike ride starts.  Some SUVs, vans or jeeps will allow you to throw the bike in the back and drive it to the trail head.  If you don’t have a vehicle like this, you’ll need a bike rack.

The biggest drawback to mountain bikes is their limited range of use.  They are wonderful for cross country riding and just about useless for riding on paved surfaces.  Their weight and fat knobbed tires make them very slow.  Any kind of suspension makes the problem worse because the suspension not only soaks up that bumps of off-road riding it also soaks up the energy and power the rider is trying to put into the crank to make the bike move forward.  The rider’s upright position on a mountain bike is also very inefficient when riding over a smooth paved surface.  You need to generate more power because your bike is very heavy with tires that are slowing you down, you have a harder time generating that power because of the position you’re in on the bike, and a good percentage of the power you do generate is soaked up by the bike’s suspension.  Riding a mountain bike up any kind of decent hill on a paved road can be a nightmare.

Cross country riding can be challenging and exhilarating.  You have to control a bike that sometimes feels like a live thing that’s trying to get away.  You have to think fast about how to solve the problems presented by the many obstacles that are coming your way.  Do you go over the rock or around it?  Can you get over those roots and if you do, will they slow you down so much you won’t be able to get up the hill just beyond them?  Can you build up enough speed to get through that muddy patch?  For breakneck, throw-caution-to-the-winds excitement there’s not much that can beat a balls out ride down a steep forested slope.  If this kind of riding appeals to you, you’re probablyy looking at buying a mountain bike.