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.

Road 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 My 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 road bikes.

Road bikes are designed for speed and efficiency.  No mechanical device ever invented converts energy expended into forward motion as efficiently as road bike.  Indeed, no organism on the planet – not a cheetah at full sprint nor a swimming shark – is as efficient at controlled forward motion as a skilled cyclist on a road bike.  Because it’s your legs that are doing the work, you will come to love the efficiency of a road bike as you fly down the road with the wind in your face and the burn in your legs.

Weight reduction is a driving force behind road bike design.  Compared to all other types of bikes, they have the lightest frames and the lightest wheels.  The main difference between a basic road bike and a racing bike is that everything about the racing bike – the frame, wheels, seat, handlebars, drive train, bottle cages . . . everything – is lighter (and consequently much more expensive).  The focus is on weight because it takes less energy to move a small weight than a large weight.  Put another way, for the same amount of effort expended, you’ll go faster on light bike than a heavy one.  Where the weight really comes into play is on hills where you not only have to push the bike forward, you also must lift the combined weight of the bike and the rider up the hill against the pull of gravity.  Weight is also a factor on flat roads but if you’re riding fast enough a heavier more aerodynamic bicycle can be better than a lighter bike that is less aerodynamic.  If you are a new rider, you’re not going to be able to maintain a speed that is fast enough for the weight vs. aerodynamics issue to matter.  Weight reduction on road bikes can become something of a fetish and it is not uncommon to see guys in the bike shop with more money than sense spending an extra $250 to shave 75 grams off the weight of their handlebars when they’re carrying an extra 10 lbs of fat inside their jerseys.

Road bikes have skinny, smooth tires in order to reduce rolliing resistance which is the friction between the Bontrager wheel.  Picture from velonews.comtire surface and the road.  For the same reason, the tires usually are inflated to very high pressures.  On the down side, reducing rolling resistance with skinnny, smooth, high pressure tires produces a bike that is more subject to losing its grip on the road.  On the up side, these wheels and tires make the bike handle more responsively.  Road bikes handle with a quick and nimble feel in comparison to hybrid or mountain bikes which can feel slow and ponderous.  Keep in mind that what may feel more responsive to one rider may feel twitchier to another.  The bottom line is that on paved surfaces road bikes have to be handled with more care than bikes with fat, knobbly, low pressure tires.

Road bikes also have those distinctive curled under handlebars.  By bringing the rider’s center of gravity forward, they reduce some of the handling problems introduced by the road bike’s skinny, smooth tires.  But that’s not all the handlebars do.  New riders will often take one look at a road bike and say “Being bent over like that looks so uncomfortable, I could never do that.”  Actually, just the opposite is often true; road bikes can be more comfortable than hybrid or mountain bikes especially if you are going to spend more than 30 minutes riding.  Flat handlebars allow basically one position for your hands.  If you are going to spend any time at all on the bike this can lead to numbness in the hands and tightness, stiffness and discomfort in the neck, shoulders and both upper and lower back.  The curved handlebars provide three very different hand positions, on the flat part of the handlebar on either side of the stem, on the brake hoods, and down in the drops.  Take a look at this picture.            A break away in the 2007 Fleche Wallone.  Picture from velonews.com                           

The riders in green at the front and black at the back have their hands on the hoods, the rider in red has his hands on the bar, and the rider in aqua has his hands in the drops.  Switching among these three positions while you ride can be very effective in eliminating all of the problems associated with flat handlebars.  Bending forward also reduces pressure on the lower back in comparison to the more upright position you get with straight handlebars and for this reason can be much more comfortable for people with lower back problems.  Also, pedaling while you are bent over curled handlebars is much more efficient than pedaling in the flat handlebar, straight up position.  This increase in efficiency interacts with the lessened pressure on the lower back so that the curled handlebars can produce more benefits for people with lower back problems the harder they’re working on the bike. 

There are three basic types of road bike that the new rider may wish to consider, the basic road bike, a racing bike, or a touring bike.  As noted above, racing bikes are basic road bikes with better frames and better gear.  The geometry of a racing bike (the lengths and angles of the tubes that make up the frame of the bike and determine the position the rider is in while riding) is likely to be a little more agressive (head lower, ass higher, and body more stretched out) than a basic road bike as well.  For this reason a basic road bike may feel a bit more comfortable for the new rider.  Basic road bikes are built to go fast, racing bikes are built to go faster.  Touring bikes look like road bikes but they are designed for the rider who wants to travel from place to place on his bike while carrying all his stuff with him in panniers (packs which are carried on a frame over the rear wheel).  Touring bikes emphasize comfort after long hours in the saddle over speed.  The tend to be heavier with a more relaxed geometry and a longer wheel base which helps soak up the bumps in the road. 

Road bikes have the significant disadvantage that they’re expensive.  Entry level road bikes from reliable manufacturers start around $900 but the next level up at $1200 may be a better purchase.  Bike shop managers who I trust without reservation tell me that more often than not the $900 models end up parked in the garage when the buyer’s initial burst of enthusiasm wanes or come back to the shop when the new cyclist realizes the $1200 model better suits their needs after they’ve had a month or two of experience on the bike.  The $1200 models also have a much better resale value if you come to realize you made a mistake.  $1200 is more than many people will want to spend at a point in time when they don’t know if they’re really going to get into cycling or if a road bike is what they really want.  If you’re unsure if a road bike is the right kind of bike for you, renting a road bike for a day or a weekend is strongly recommended.  If you know you want a road bike but $1200 is out of the question, a used bike from a reputable bike shop may be the answer.

Road bikes are designed to be ridden on a paved surface.  On dirt, sand, mud, grass, and heavily graveled roads they range from bad to impossible.  They’re also not designed to be ridden over curbs.  If you want to bang up and down curbs or ride in the woods, the fields or on graveled paths, a road bike isn’t going to work.

If your primary interest in riding a bike is fitness, strength, endurance and athleticism, a road bike is the bike for you.  You can lose weight riding any kind of bike, but if you want to use the bike to lose a significant amount of weight and keep that weight off, you’re going to have to make riding a regular part of your life and a road bike would be ideal.  If you’ve been kicking around on your hybrid and the idea of doing one of your local century rides (an organized bike ride of 100 miles) is becoming more and more intriguing, it sounds like there’s a road bike in your future.

What Kind Of Cyclist Do You Want To Be?

The quick hot fire of initial enthusiasm can be easily doused.  However, if that fire is laid properly it can ignite into the powerful and long burning flame of passion.  My wife and I are avid and experienced road cyclists.  Many times we have seen people decide to start cycling with great enthusiasm and little knowledge of bikes or riding beyond what they remember from childhood.  With great intentions and expectations they Laura and I with a tour group atop Hoosier Pass in Colorado on a trip from Albuquerque to Denverrush out and buy a bike that more or less suits their cycling visions only to find that their initial enthusiasm is quickly dulled.  The bike ends up out on the balcony or in the garage gathering dust, the flame of passion extinguished before it ever had a chance to take hold.  As often as not the reasons lie in the would-be cyclist not thinking clearly about what kind of bike rider they would likely be and buying the wrong kind of bike as a result.  Riding a bike that is not suited to the type of cycling you’re doing is taking the fast lane to unhappiness and discomfort on the bike.  It turns an activity that can be a joy into something that is no fun at all.  This is the first in a series of posts designed to help the beginning cyclist roll out with their foot on the right pedal.

When you go to buy your first bike you’re often hit with a barrage of questions.  What kind of riding do you do? Racing, recreational, off-road?  What kind of bike do you want?  A road bike, a hybrid, a mountain bike?  What kind of frame do you want?  Carbon fiber, steel, aluminum, titanium, composit?  You don’t know the answer to any of these questions.  You don’t even know what half the choices you’re being offered mean.  Where do you start when you don’t know anything?

If you are thinking about getting a bike but don’t know much about bikes or cycling it makes sense to go to a place that sells bikes and ask questions to get the information you need.  This works really well if you happen to go to a place where they know a lot about bikes, will take the time to answer your questions, and won’t try and sell you something just to make the sale.  I think it’s a good idea to spend some time thinking about how you’d like to ride your bike before you buy anything and before you go to a place where someone might take advantage of your enthusiasm and ignorance to sell you something that doesn’t suit your needs.  Think about what it is about riding a bike that intrigues you or appeals to you while keeping an open mind about what kind of bike you would like to have.  People who are new to cycling sometimes make the mistake of being committed to buying a bike that looks a certain way or is associated with a particular image of the cyclist they find appealing when in fact that type of bike is all wrong for the type of riding they want to do. 

What do you want to do on your bike?  Win the Tour de France?  Careen down forested mountain slopes catching big air over small cliffs?  Toodle around the neighborhood with your baby in a carrier on the back?  Tour around the country with a tent and some camping gear?  Commute to work?  Get in shape?  All these things?  If you’re thinking about riding where there’s no pavement and maybe even no path, if you want to ride through woods and fields and streams without being limited by having to go where the roads go, then some type of mountain bike is probably what you want.  If light recreational riding around the neighborhood or on the local bike paths intrigues you, or if you want to commute to work or use your bike for basic transportation, then you should probably be considering some type of hybrid (a hybrid combines some of the characteristics of road and mountain bikes).  Depending on the condition you’re in now, any kind of riding will help get you in shape but if getting in shape or using the bike as an exercise or athletic outlet is what you find appealing, or if you are enthralled with a vision of yourself using a bike instead of an RV to travel and see the world, then you’re probably going to be looking at some kind of road bike.

Did you have a bike as a kid?  Did you like it?  What did you like about it?  Did you like to go fast?  Feel the wind in your face?  Think about a road bike.  Did you like being able to get around town on your bike?  Like the way the bike expanded the range of places you could go and people you could see?  Think about a hybrid.  Did you like being able to cut across the fields, the parks, the neighboors yard, go through the woods, ride in the streams?  Sounds like you’re a mountain bike kind of person.

How athletic have you been throughout your life?  Be honest with yourself about this.  Most people who decide to take up cycling want to lose weight or get in shape.  Any kind of cycling can help but real conditioning or real weight loss takes exertion and effort.  If you realistically calibrate your expectations and desires to the kind of riding you are most likely to do and keep doing, that effort can also be a lot of fun.  Have you enjoyed playing sports at different times in your life?  Do you find yourself going through periods of time, maybe months or years long, when you’re regularly engaged in physical or athletic activity like running or regular gym workouts and periods when you get almost no exercise?  Have you always shied away from physical exertion?  Are you out of shape or never been in shape?  Road and mountain biking tend to provide the most exercise, the types of riding best suited to a hybrid the least.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t get as intense a workout as you might want on a hybrid, you can.  However, a hybrid is not as well suited for exercise and conditioning as the other types of bikes.  If you think you are likely to really get into the bike for exercise, weight loss and cardiovascular conditioning, you’re probably going to end up on a road bike.

Don’t be concerned if your answers to some of these questions point to one type of bike and your answers to others point to a different kind of bike.  The goal here is to get you thinking along certain lines and to help you begin to think about different kinds of bikes in terms of what kind of cycling you’d like to do.  At the extremes a specific kind of bike is the one you will need.  You have to have a mountain bike if you are going to go all-out cross country where there are no roads and no bike paths; you want to have a road bike if you are going to ride really fast or ride for long distances; you really want a hybrid if you are going to commute long distances to work come rain or shine, winter and summer.  But you’re not at the extremes, you’re just starting out.  Any kind of bike can be used in many ways.  At this point you want to start thinking about the kind of bike that is going to be best suited to the way you want to ride. 

What kind of cyclist would you like to be?  You can be any kind you want.