Road Bike Post #1

Posted in Uncategorized by antisociology on December 28, 2008

A few friends have recently asked me about cycling. What makes a commuter bike different from a race bike? Why drop bars? What gears should I use? Taken as a whole, this can all be overwhelming, especially on top of thousand dollar “entry level” road bikes and “fit sessions” costing hundreds of dollars.   There are, of course, lots of opinions about cycling. I am in no sense the most knowledgeable person. So, take what I say with a grain of salt.

Let’s start with the various types of bikes and what they’re used for. Isn’t a bike a bike? While it’s true that there are physical differences and common themes (mountain bikes have suspension, hybrids have flat bars, road bikes have drop bars), I prefer to differentiate bikes by how they support the rider. A cyclist riding for hours on the road needs a different position (and therefore bike) than someone bombing down a mountainside trail.

Road racing bikes are what I know best and am most comfortable with. They are all I’ve been riding for the past four years (three years?). Whenever I try and use my road bikes for something else other than spirited long distance riding, it just becomes painfully obvious that they were made for something else. In the end, it all comes down to position.

What’s a proper road bike position, and why is it the right one for going long (but probably not epically long) distances fast? I am talking about rides that go from 1.5 hours to a few hours, but probably less than a full day (6-8 hours) in the saddle. The effort is akin to what a long-distance runner might put out in a long, fast training run. Something starting easy, and maybe working down to, say, marathon race pace. Slower than a tempo run, faster than a jog. Here’s what I recommend for those sorts of efforts:

  1. leaned over from the waist
  2. arms slightly extended
  3. elbows bent
  4. head up
  5. saddle high enough to make full use of the leg’s range of motion without rocking the hips
  6. back neutral to very slightly bowed upwards

This sort of position distributes weight between the hands, butt, and feet. It seems counter-intuitive and odd at first, but once you try it and a few other positions while trying to keep the same effort, it becomes more natural. Beginning riders might confuse discomfort and the newness of it all for bad fit or bad position. While it might be those things, it might also just be unfamiliarity. My advice is to just try different positions at various effort levels. Get comfortable being on the bike (if you haven’t ridden regularly for some time), then figure out what your effort limits are (i.e., what’s hard and what’s easy), and then practice practice practice good form.

The road race position I described above has other benefits. It is more aerodynamic. When you sit bolt upright, your torso catches a lot of air. Leaning forward reduces the amount of area you present to the wind. IIRC, leaning forward also allows your body to more effectively engage the glute muscles. Finally, the position balances your body over the middle of the bike for better handling and climbing.

Now, it does take some practice and maybe a bit of fitness to become comfortable with such a position. Perhaps your flexibility could use some work, or neglected core muscles need to be bolstered. Maybe it just feels plain funny. In the end, though, I think the rewards are well worth it. Like running, working on your stride, turnover, core strength, and flexibility pay dividends. You might be slower for a few weeks or months, but you’ll come out faster on the other side.

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