Cycling and Weight Loss Part 1: Riding the Bike to Lose Weight

A champion

A champion

This is the first of a series of posts about riding the bike to lose weight.  Throughout this discussion of losing weight it’s important to keep in mind that eating has many consequences for health, athletic performance and weight gain or loss. We’ll start by focusing purely on weight loss but it is very important to keep in mind that the “best” diet for losing weight is unlikely to be the “best” diet for maintaining your health or a high level of athletic performance.

A lot of people aren’t going to like these posts.  I noted in a recent post that Americans spend about $50,000 on diet industry products and services every 80 seconds, 24/7/365. If you work for 50 years and average $50K a year, Americans spend more on diet stuff in an hour and 10 minutes than you will make in your entire life. 24/7/365.  The people who are spending that money and the people who are raking in the cash from all that stuff are going to be especially unhappy with these posts.  Why?  Because if you’re riding your bike to lose weight, most of that stuff is a waste of time and money.

Many people get into riding the bike as a way to lose weight and others who are interested in the health benefits of riding have weight loss as a secondary goal.  This is a good idea because riding the bike can be a great way to lose weight.

Shoes on scaleThere are a couple of ways to go about this.  One approach is to focus your attention on losing weight.  You buy diet books and scour the internet for info about losing weight.  You pay careful attention to things like how many calories there are per serving size.  You count calories for each meal and snack. You weigh yourself obsessively.  You may fork out money for the advice of a licensed nutritionist.  If you are especially gullible you buy a magic bracelet.

This approach to losing weight is often accompanied by the view that riding the bike is a type of exercise that is going to be used as a weight loss procedure.  Exercise is onerous but you have to do it.  People with this attitude will often want to maximize their weight loss for every minute they have to spend on the bike.  They’ll want to know things like what’s the smallest amount of time they’ll have to spend on the bike to burn X number of calories, what’s the absolute minimum they have to eat on the bike to get through a longer ride and exactly when they should eat in order to survive the ride on this absolute minimum.  They’re always worrying about numbers.  They’re not having much fun.

Happy cyclist_cropHere’s a second approach losing weight on the bike.  Forget about losing weight.  Forget about measuring this and calculating that, about eating so much of this kind of food and so much of that kind of food, about magic bracelets and paying for the advice of licensed nutritionists.   Forget about all of it.  Instead, enjoy riding your bike, ride frequently and consistently, and keep trying to get better at it.  That’s really all you need to do.  You will almost certainly lose weight.

The basic story is very simple.  Your body needs energy to function.  That energy is measured in calories.  The type of calorie that is used when talking about weight loss and nutrition is sometimes called a large calorie or a kilocalorie. One kilocalorie is the amount of energy that is needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius.

If you are alive, you are burning calories. Calories are burned when you sleep, when you think, when you go through your normal daily activities and when you ride.  The fuel that provides these calories is glucose.  The glucose is derived either from carbohydrates, proteins or fats that are being broken down in the digestive system from food you have recently eaten or from reserves stored in the body.   If there is not enough glucose in the blood stream to fuel ongoing activity, the system starts breaking down stored reserves to get the glucose it needs.  When stored fat is broken down, people start losing the kind of weight they want to lose.

calorie-balanceLosing or gaining weight depends on the balance between the calories you burn and the calories you ingest during the day.  If the calories you ingest are less than the calories you burn, you will lose weight because the system will turn to its stored energy reserves (which include stored fat) to get the energy it needs.  If the input calories are more than the output calories, you will gain weight because the excess calories will usually be stored as fat.  If input and output are about the same, your weight will be stable.  Thinking only in terms of weight loss (and not health or performance), it doesn’t matter if the calories being burned are coming from carbs, proteins, or fats.  A calorie is a calorie. That’s almost all you really need to know.

Almost but not quite.  There’s one important modifying factor to consider that we’ll look at in more detail in the next two posts in this series.  In order to take this modifying factor into account when you’re riding your bike, you need to try to get better every time you ride.  Every time out try to get a little stronger, go a little faster, ride a little longer.  That’s really all you need to do.

Riding like this will result in weight loss for the simple reason that in most cases when you add the calories you burn during the ride to the calories you burn during the rest of the day the total calories burned is greater than the calories you take in by eating.  If you burn more calories than you take in, you will lose weight.  Simple. And you don’t need to support the diet industry with your hard-earned cash to do it.

People who take the first approach try maximize weight loss by obsessing over how many calories, what kind of calories, when you eat those calories, and all the rest of it.  People who take the second approach try to maximize the enjoyment they get from riding the bike.  They work on spending more time on the bike doing the things they enjoy about riding the bike. When you engage in exercise or athletic activity you’ll burn the calories whether you enjoy what you’re doing or hate it, whether you’re thinking about losing weight or thinking about whatever you think about when you’re having fun.  So, why not give your attention to enjoying yourself and having fun rather than on how much you’ll weigh the next time you get on the scale?

food-nutriiton-bannerWhen you focus on riding the bike because you enjoy it rather than riding the bike as a weight loss procedure all of the questions about calories and weight loss turn into questions about how to be a better rider.  Getting better on the bike usually means increasing your strength and endurance so you can ride harder, longer or faster.  Eating isn’t about minimizing calories anymore, it’s about supporting performance.  As your performance increases and you ride harder, longer or faster, you burn more calories whether you’re trying to lose weight or trying to be a better cyclist.  If you ride hard enough and often enough, you can eat whatever you want because no matter how many calories there are in what you eat, you’ll burn more on the bike and lose weight.

If you don’t really enjoy riding the bike, find another type of exercise that you do enjoy.  If you enjoy something, you’ll want to do it; if you want to do it, you’ll find a way to do it; if you do it, you’ll burn the calories and lose the weight.  Find something energetic that you enjoy, do it frequently and consistently and always try to get better at it and the weight will come off.  It won’t happen overnight, it won’t happen fast, you’ll hit plateaus, but if you keep striving to ride harder, faster, stronger, longer, you will lose weight.

Once you’ve started to lose weight there’s another factor you have to consider which we take a look at in the next post in this series.

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                           

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.