Cycling Nutrition: The Bonk

The information in this post has been moderately revised and combined with information about cramping, dehydration, and electrolyte loss in Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During and After the Ride which can be purchased on Amazon.com.  For information about Nutrition for Cyclists and how it relates to what I’ve posted to Tuned In To Cycling, please check out this post.

So . . . you know that muscles burn glucose for fuel, your body stores enough glucose in the form of glycogen to fuel about 90 minutes of moderate exercise, and you need to ingest carbohydrates to provide more glucose for longer or more strenuous rides.  You know about what to eat and when to eat it to get the carbs you need while you’re on the bike.  But you keep hearing about this “bonk” thing.  You keep hearing you’ll bonk if you don’t get the carbs you need.  What’s this bonk everyone keeps talking about?  Believe me, you don’t want to know.  At least you don’t want to know on the basis of firsthand experience.  Reading about the bonk so you know what it is and how to avoid it is good.  Having a bonk is not good.

Eat before you're hungry

“Bonking” is what cyclists call hypoglycemia which is the medical term for abnormally low levels of blood glucose.  You bonk when you have exhausted your glycogen stores, haven’t ingested enough carbs to produce more blood glucose, and are still riding the bike.  Anyone can bonk if they don’t eat properly on the bike.  Lance Armstrong, who probably knows as much about cycling as anyone on the planet, got wrapped up in the race on a stage in the 2000 Tour de France, forgot to eat, and bonked on the climb up the Col de Joux Plane in the French Alps.  The only reason he didn’t lose the Tour de France that day is because he had an iron will and an inhuman capacity to suffer.  Afterwards he called it the worst day on the bike he’d ever had.

Bonking can be especially deadly for cyclists because your muscles aren’t the only things in your body that burn glucose for fuel.  Your brain burns glucose too.  That means that not having enough glucose in your blood to fuel the system has mental and emotional effects in addition to physical effects.  If blood glucose levels drop too low, the body will act to protect the brain and will begin to shut down the muscles first.  However, the muscles won’t completely shut down before the brain begins to be affected and the mental and emotional consequences of bonking can be more dangerous to the cyclist than the physical consequences.

When you bonk, physical exertion becomes extraordinarily difficult.  Your muscles don’t have the fuel they need to operate effectively and forcing them to work becomes more and more difficult.  You feel extremely weak and lethargic.  You may tremble and shake uncontrollably and sweat profusely.  You feel dizzy and light headed.  Your sense of balance is upset.  You may have heart palpitations.  You will probably feel ravenously hungry.  On the mental and emotional side you will probably feel nervous and anxious.  You may become confused and disoriented.  You will have low emotional control and will become hostile, belligerant and easily irritated.  You may experience overwhelming feelings of being defeated, hopeless and unable to go on.  Your awareness of what’s going on around you will shrink and can arrive at an extreme form of tunnel vision in which the only thing you’re aware of is the spot on the road ahead that you’re staring at.  You may have difficulty speaking.  At the extreme, hypoglycemia can produce seizures and coma.  In a word, it sucks.

What do you do if you bonk?  You need to get your blood glucose levels up and you need to do it quickly.  Ingest simple carbohydrates that can be rapidly processed into blood glucose by the digestive system.  The best source for these kinds of carbs that you’re likely to have with you on the bike is a sports drink like Gatorade.  Other sources of simple carbohydrates include energy gels (make sure you drink plenty of water with these), sugar cubes or sweet candy like gumdrops or jellybeans.  Complex carbohydrates like energy bars will take longer to process into blood glucose and will only provide relief in the longer term.  If you catch the bonk early, you can keep riding while you  refuel.  If you let the bonk go too far, get off the bike until you recover.  You don’t want to be riding when your sense of balance is bad, you’re disoriented and you’re unaware of what’s going on around you.

After you’ve bonked and begun to recover, pay careful attention to what you eat for the rest of the ride and make sure you keep your glucose level up by regularly and frequently taking in fast absorbing carbs.  Sports drinks are very good for this.  Perhaps the hardest part of reacting to a bonk is mental.  You need to try and be aware that you’re not thinking clearly and not being as aware of what’s going on around you as you need to be to ride safely.  Forcibly arouse yourself from your lethargy and pay extra attention to what’s happening around you.  Of course this is easier said than done; it’s not easy to be aware that you’re not thinking clearly when you’re not thinking clearly.

Whether you’ve started to bonk or not, try and get in the habit of monitoring yourself for the early signs of a bonk.  The ride beginning to feel like a chore?  Getting irritable and angry?  Not paying as much attention to what’s happening around you?  If you catch it early and replenish your blood glucose before it gets out of hand, you can usually keep riding safely and effectively.  If you have a regular riding partner whose riding abilities and demeanor on the bike are familiar to you, be aware of their condition as well.  A rider who isn’t thinking clearly is likely to misinterpret or misunderstand what’s happening to them in the early stage of a bonk.  Help them out.  Be aware that you may have to treat them carefully as they may be experiencing increased levels of irritability and hostility combined with decreased emotional control.  If you think you might be bonking, tell your ride partner so they can help you.

Most of the time bonking happens when you’ve ridden for a long time and haven’t been eating properly.  However, a bonk can also happen in unexpected circumstances.  Laura and I once rode in a week-long cycling tour through the Rocky Mountains in the Glacier National Park area in Montana and Canada.  We approached this tour as a cycling vacation rather than a training opportunity and rode at a much slower pace than we usually do.  We also stopped and had lunch mid-ride with other riders on the tour which was something we had never done before.  The lunches were great with good company and good food but we had no experience in how to incorporate eating a meal like this into a long ride.  The first time we had lunch mid-ride I completely screwed it up.  We continued riding after lunch and when we were about 20 miles from finishing I began to experience the early stages of a bonk.  What had happened?  I hadn’t pigged out at lunch but even a small lunch was much more than I would typically eat during a ride.  My stomach was full and the idea of eating either didn’t occur to me or, if it did, it wasn’t attractive.  Although my stomach was full, it was full of mostly protein and fat which could not be broken down fast enough to provide the energy I needed to finish the ride.  I was getting very little glucose from the food I’d eaten and my glycogen stores were exhausted so I started to bonk and didn’t recognize it for what it was.  Those last 20 miles were miserable; the temperature had dropped, we were riding directly into a strong headwind, and I was completely demoralized and shivering uncontrollably by the time we reached the lodge where we were scheduled to stay the night.  Fortunately, the lodge had an enormous fire roaring in the center of the main area with a bench-like hearth running around it on all four sides.  While we waited for the van to arrive with our luggage, I sat huddled by the fire in a private little world of misery slowly recovering and getting warm.  The lesson I learned?  You can bonk on a full stomach if your stomach’s full of the wrong things.

As unpleasant and dangerous as bonking can be, the good news is that it’s easily avoided.  Start your clock as soon as you get on the bike and eat regularly and properly throughout the ride and you’ll never have to experience a bonk.  Eat before you’re hungry, eat before you bonk.

Cycling Nutrition: Eating on the Bike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cycling Nutrition: The Basics – Glucose, Glycogen and Carbohydrates

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

While proper nutrition is one of the most important factors affecting long-distance cycling on a day-in, day-out basis, there is so much misinformation out there that knowing what to eat and when to eat it can be Burning glucosedifficult.  Part of the reason for this is that it’s early days yet for nutrition science; much remains to be learned and nutritional theories are often revised as new information becomes available.  Another reason is that the subject of sports nutrition is confused in the minds of many with the subject of dieting.  Unfortunately, dieting in the US is a multimillion dollar industry that is fat with fads and outright foolishness.  Finally, many cyclists seem to have a deep emotional commitment to their cycling-related eating habits and resist change.  In these Cycling Nutrition posts I’ll try to present nutritional information that is based on research found in peer-reviewed scientific journals on nutrition and cycling and endurance sports in general.  In this post we look at the basics of how muscles are fueled that underlie every discussion of nutrition for cyclists. In other posts we examine eating during a ride, eating after the ride, and bonking.

Muscles burn glucose for energy.  The longer you ride or the faster you ride, the more glucose your muscles need for fuel.  When you get on the bike and start pedaling, the demand for glucose for your leg muscles increases and a signal goes out to the body to start supplying the glucose you need.

Glycogen and glucose

Where does the glucose come from?  The body doesn’t store raw glucose.  Instead, it makes glucose from other substances.  Glucose can be derived from breaking down stored fat and protein.  Subcutaneous fat (the excess fat stored under the skin) is an especially good energy source because fat contains roughly twice the number of calories as either protein or carbohydrate.  This means you get more fuel in the form of blood glucose from breaking down a gram of fat than from a gram of either protein or carbohydrate.  Indeed, breaking down stored fat to increase the level of blood glucose is the reason why exercise leads to weight loss.  The problem with relying on breaking down fat to produce glucose is that the process is relatively slow and energy intensive.  Metabolizing (breaking down) fat can be a useful long term source of energy but it is too slow and inefficient to support immediate and short term demands for glucose to fuel ongoing athletic activity.

In order to have fast access to glucose when needed, excess glucose in the blood is stored in a form known as glycogen.  Glycogen can be quickly broken down to supply glucose as needed.  The main storage locations for glycogen in the body are the muscles and the liver.  Liver glycogen is volatile in the sense that it doesn’t last long.  This is because liver glycogen serves as an energy source for the entire body.  When liver glycogen is metabolized the glucose that is produced enters the blood stream and can be used any place in the body where it’s needed.  If you go to bed with with liver glycogen stored at maximum capacity, a large proportion of it will be gone when when you wake up because it was used to fuel the body’s needs while you slept.

Muscle glycogen is more stable in the sense that once stored it remains in place much longer.  This is because muscle glycogen does not enter the bloodstream.  The glycogen stored in an individual muscle can only provide glucose for that muscle.

So, you’re pedaling along burning glucose derived from glycogen stored in your liver and your cycling muscles and everything’s just peachy.  Until you run out of stored glycogen.  The body can store enough glycogen to support approximately 90 minutes of moderate intensity exercise.  What happens when that glycogen is used up?  Where do your muscles get the glucose they need to keep working?  Some of it can come from fat that has been slowly breaking down while you’ve been riding but that won’t be enough to supply your needs.  Once you’ve exhausted your glycogen stores, most of the glucose you need is going to come from what you’ve been eating and drinking during the ride.  This is where carbohydrates enter the picture.

Basic nutrition for any endurance sport such as cycling is primarily about carbohydrates for the simple reason that carbs can be broken down to supply glucose much more quickly and efficiently than either fats or proteans.  While you’re on the bike you need a steady supply of carbs to both fuel ongoing activity and stretch the time before your stored glycogen is completely exhausted.  When you’re off the bike you need carbs to replace the glycogen you burned during the ride you just finished.  For anyone engaged in an athletic activity that lasts for 90 minutes or more, carbs are what basic nutrition is all about.

 

 

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.