What Is Bicycle School?

What is chess, do you think? Those who play for fun dismiss it as a game. The
ones who devote their lives to it insist that it’s a science. It’s neither. Bobby
Fischer got underneath it like no one before and found at its
center, art.” (Searching for Bobby Fischer)

Most cyclists don’t read how-to books on cycling. Isn’t it obvious how to ride a bike? Cyclists learn by doing, or by reading articles in cycling magazines. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just slow, and limited to what you happen to run across. For instance, I was once doing a ride with the legendary Jacquie Phelan, and she said to me, “Can I give you a tip about climbing?” I said, Heck yeah, and she taught me something invaluable that I’ve never heard anywhere else. If I hadn’t done the ride, I wouldn’t know it.

This book is a collection of thousands of such pieces of information. Phelan’s tip is in the Climbing chapter. Thousands of these tips you may already know. But lots of them you may not.

But isn’t everything in the world in a YouTube video now? Can’t you just google everything? Yes you can, if you know enough to ask the proper questions. But if you don’t know about Phelan’s magic climbing trick, or you don’t know why you shouldn’t add electrolyte supplement powder to your cycling water, or you don’t know why you might want to put neodymium magnets on your pedals, or you don’t know there are two kinds of whey powder and one is better than the other, or you don’t know the way to dry cycling clothes on a bike trip that’s faster than wringing them in a towel, you don’t know to google those issues. I hope there’s a lot in this book that you don’t know you don’t know. And you can’t google “what I don’t know about cycling.”

This book is about cycling generally, but there are some things it isn’t about, because I’m not interested in them or I’m guessing you aren’t:

  1. Racing. Racing is an exotic, arcane activity practiced by obsessive personalities, and is generally beyond our scope. There is a chapter on how to watch a race, but nothing on how to take part in one.
  1. Gravel riding and gravel bikes per se. Although the subjects come up again and again, this isn’t a book about riding on dirt. I still believe the perfect dirt bike is a hard-tail mountain bike.
  1. E-bike specs or componentry, though I discuss their uses, virtues, and weaknesses.
  1. Advanced training. I’ve included a no-nonsense, basic overview of training and nutrition.
  1. Bicycle touring, bike-packing, and all other forms of self-supported bike journeying. I do talk about how to do bike vacations that consist of daily rides with nightly indoor lodging, including cycling in Europe.
  1. Step-by-step instructions on bike repair and maintenance. These things are very hard to explain in words and photos and easy to show in a video, so I will let the videos on YouTube do this for you. I’ll just add tips that the videos tend to omit.
  1. Nerd tech. There’s a level of technical sophistication I don’t go to. I don’t talk about asymmetrical chainstays or sinusoidal wheel rims, for instance, because, though these things are interesting, they aren’t going to be a factor in any bike purchase or bike refit you might be considering. In other words, it’s knowledge you won’t really use. Similarly, I usually don’t tell you the science behind the facts—why whey protein is better for you after a ride than soy protein or what the role of hysteresis in the engineering of bicycle tires is—much as I love that stuff myself.

I try to talk to everyone from the complete beginner looking to buy a bike to the experienced, serious, ride-4,000-miles-a-year, century-doing, Europe-exploring recreational rider. Riders at different levels want to know different things. Beginners don’t much care about how wide their rims are or the niceties of tire inflation; advanced riders care deeply about these things. My approach is to start with the basic stuff and get more sophisticated. My hope is, on any given topic, you can read until the tech level gets beyond what’s useful to you, then quit.

Cycling is in the midst of a technological revolution: we are presently moving from rim brakes to discs, from race geometry to relaxed geometry, from rigidity to plushness or suspension, from quick-release skewers to thru-axles, from tubes to tubeless tires, from pavement to gravel, from double chainrings to single, from cable shifting to electronic, from skinny tires to fat ones. I’ve tried to keep both the old world and the new in mind, and talk as if both worlds are still with us, as indeed they are.

Cycling is a jargon-heavy sport. I’ve made the decision to use the jargon without explanation in most cases and put all explanations in the Cyclist’s Dictionary (in the header above), where I hope all is made clear. Instead of explaining what a “contact patch” is every time I talk about one, I just say “contact patch” and hope you’ll consult the dictionary if you need a translation. If the term that puzzles you isn’t there, please email me and tell me about the omission and I’ll correct it.

To help you find your way around, there are three tools. First, there are two tables of contents—a chapter list in the right margin and a detailed one via the “Table of Contents” link in the header. There’s also a search window on every page. If you want to know what I have to say about compact chainrings or stretching, type “compact chainring” or “stretching” into the search window. It will not show you where in the text the word or phrase occurs; instead, it will give you a list of the chapters where it occurs. Open a chapter and use the search function (<splat f> on my Mac) to find all appearances of the word or phrase in the chapter. Remember, the search function is a moron—it will only find exactly what you type. Sometimes you get better results if you put anything larger than a single word in quotation marks.

For those of you who are in a hurry, Top Tips (in the top menu bar) lists all the advice in Bicycle School that’s vital, rare, odd, or among my personal favorites. You can get a quick sense there of whether Bicycle School has anything to offer you. But I didn’t include the rationale behind the advice—you’ll need to read the chapters for that.

The other side of this opus is Bestrides.org, a ride directory of the West Coast (in the header above as Ride Directory). There you will find descriptions of every ride in California, Oregon, and Washington I consider exceptional—about 120 rides all told. This book tells you how to ride; the other side tells you where.

There are no chat rooms or reader comments at the ends of the chapters, but I would love to hear from you. Just email all thoughts—corrections, additions, whatever—to me directly via the Contact Me link in the header. If your input seems useful I’ll add it to the text (with a thank you to you if you’d like).

All photos in Bicycle School were taken by me, except for Forstemann’s thighs in the Training chapter.

Jay Rawlins
Chico, CA