Cyclists, if you can't get in shape, tune up your riding

05/10/2012 12:00 AM

02/26/2013 8:24 PM

Let's assume you're behind in your training, that spring sprung on you before you knew it and you're not as trim and fit as you had hoped.

On your bike, you're dragging. Hey, it happens.

All is not lost. There are ways to ride better and faster without necessarily being any fitter.

That's right. While there are no shortcuts to success as a cyclist, there are ways to use your smarts to gain miles per hour and endurance until your legs and lungs round themselves into shape. That goes for pros and new riders alike.

Power output on a bike is measured in watts – like a light bulb. Every little tweak and adjustment you can muster will add up to a few watts here and there – faster without being fitter.

In honor of May being bike month in Sacramento, we offer some tips.

They're focused on road bike riding, but many can be applied to any kind of cycling.

You and your bike have to fit

A proper-fitting bike may be much more complex than you think.

A professional bicycle fitting costs $100 and up, and involves numerous measurements – saddle height, reach to the handlebars, the "drop" from the saddle to the bars, the for and aft positions of the saddle so the knees are positioned for the right balance of speed, power and efficiency.

Steve Rex, owner of Rex Cycles on E Street in midtown Sacramento and a nationally respected custom bike builder, said, "The people who come to me want to be more comfortable for longer periods, so they can ride faster for a longer distance."

It's about balancing the variable.

You can lower your bar height and raise your saddle to be more aerodynamic, encouraging the torso to be lower, but there is a point of diminishing returns where the power output is compromised and the pedal stroke becomes choppy.

Adrian Moore, owner of the high-end bike shop on J Street called Ikon Cycles, said that at least half the cyclists who come in for fittings end up with significant adjustments to their bikes.

"The big thing keeping people from being better riders is that they are really uncomfortable," Moore said.

You against the wind

Forget all you've heard about pricey aero wheels and frames designed to slice through the wind. Rex said the aero effect only kicks in at about 25 mph and above.

Guess what the biggest aerodynamic drag on your bike is? You.

Once your bike fits, you must ride in a position that allows you to lessen the wind resistance on your body. Basically, you do it by keeping your torso tucked forward without impeding your pedaling power.

"If you can change the shape of your body so the wind passes over you better, you've done more than any bike can do" to cheat the wind, Moore said.

Less is more

In cycling, your legs move like crazy, but that's the extent of it. The most efficient riders move little else. Their heads don't bounce, their hips don't sway, their shoulders don't bob.

You are looking for a quiet upper body without being rigid.

To check your position, glance at your shadow occasionally while riding. Also, have a friend trail behind and shoot some video.


Why do pro cyclists ride in a line? Because they know that the person up front is working up to 20 percent harder. That's the beauty of drafting, and it's a key part of cycling whether you're in a pro race or you simply want to speed up a weekend ride.

Get some friends and take turns leading and following. Take a "pull" at the front for, say 30 to 60 seconds, then gently pull to the side and move to the back of the pace line, allowing subsequent riders to take their pulls. Keep the pace the same. Working this way can mean the difference between riding, say, 20 mph alone and 24 mph in a pace line with the same effort.

Clean your bike

Dirty bikes are slower bikes. Clean and lubricate your chain regularly. Check the pulleys on the rear derailleur. Moore said dirty ones can slow you down.

Same with the bearings in the hubs of your wheels. They should be repacked or replaced when worn. If you ride often, that could mean annually.

He recommends an annual overhaul of the entire bike and its components to clean up the gunk, replace worn or underperforming parts and make adjustments to the drivetrain. This is for serious cyclists with seriously high-end bikes. The process takes six to eight hours of shop time and costs $250.

Choose tires wisely

The right tires with the right air pressure can make you faster.

Common sense suggests you want a skinny tire (the standard road tire is 23 millimeters wide) pumped up as high as possible.

Yet, Lennard Zinn, the well-known technical guru at Velo magazine, has long maintained that wider tires – 25 mm – inflated less will roll faster.

Rex has ridden 25 mm tires for years and swears by them. While many tire companies suggest inflating to a maximum of 120 pounds per square inch or more, Rex inflates his front tire to 90 psi and his rear to 95.

"It's more comfortable, there's no loss of speed and they corner better," he said.

Moore said lower psi helps tires roll over imperfections on roads more efficiently and, thus, faster. The superior handling of 25 mm tires is most noticeable, he said, during high-speed descents.

Give in to your sweet tooth

Riding your bike may be the only time when it's perfectly OK to eat sweets.

Gabe Mirkin, a retired physician and amateur cyclist who writes an online health bulletin (subscribe at, wrote in one of his missives, "If you want to compete in sports that last more than 45 minutes, you will probably be faster and have greater endurance if you take in sugar while you exercise. When muscles contract, they remove sugar so rapidly from the bloodstream that you do not get a high rise in blood sugar."

It doesn't have to be a fancy energy gel or sports drink, either.

Clean up your pedal stroke

How you pedal affects how fast you go. That may seem obvious, but there is plenty of confusion about what that means. The best riders have the most efficient pedaling actions. Slower riders are choppier, and they have measurable "dead spots" at certain points as the pedals turn.

When monitored on computers, data suggest that even the best pros cannot pull their leg up fast enough (after the pedal reaches the bottom of the stroke) and that this part of the rotation actually impedes the revolution of the pedals.

A faster, more fluid cadence in an easier gear is generally more efficient than a slower, more labored cadence in a larger gear (you'll need an inexpensive cadence meter with your bike computer). The standard is seen as 90 revolutions per minute.

How can you clean up your stroke? Jeff Broker, a biomechanics professor at the University of Colorado who has studied pedaling efficiency, said a good drill is to ride occasionally at an ultra-high cadence – about 115 rpm. This drill will reveal your pedaling shortcomings and force your legs to smooth out your pedaling.

Conclusion: If you put some or all of these elements into your bike rides, you will be putting out significantly more watts, which translates into going faster and farther.

To go beyond that and reach even higher speeds?

Sorry, you'll actually have to get in better shape for that.


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