Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever. (Lance Armstrong)
The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first pedal stroke. (Lao Tzu Chain)
How Uncomfortable Is Riding a Road Bike?
Before we begin, I’m going to repeat what I said at the beginning of the Buying a Bike chapter, because it’s a central concern of non-riders: how painful is riding a road bike? I know that before I took the plunge, I stopped people on road bikes and asked them, “How much does it hurt to ride one of those things?” Non-riders know that road riding hurts your back, your butt, your hands, your neck, your feet, your knees, and probably a few other parts. These agonies are things cyclists put up with to go fast, right?
No. Road riding is perfectly comfortable. No back pain. No knee pain. No butt pain. No nothing. It’s all a myth. Pros commonly ride road bikes for 4-6 hours a day, every day, without pain. Racers in RAM (the Race Across America) ride for 24 hours a day for several days in a row, and if they do it right they feel only tiredness. Orthopedists often prescribe cycling for patients with knee pain. If your road bike hurts you, in any way, that’s a problem that needs to be fixed—I’ll help you figure out how, throughout this book.
The most notorious myth is, road riding causes back pain, because you’re bent over like that. Again, no. I suffer from chronic lower back pain. A few times a year, I’m stretched out on the floor unable to move. But on my worst day, if I can manage to get my leg over the top tube, I can ride my bike without discomfort. That’s because bending over only hurts when you have to support that posture with your back muscles. On a bike, you’re supporting yourself with your arms. To prove this, kneel down next to a bed and bend over, laying your chest on the mattress. Isn’t that relaxing? See how that doesn’t hurt your back?
I’m going to assume that you know how to ride a bike to the grocery store, but you’ve never ridden a road bike as a sport or serious recreation. What do you need to know to graduate from one to the other? There’s a lot of ground to cover, so we’ll do it in two parts: this chapter is all you need to know or do as you prepare for your first ride. The Advanced Skills chapter discusses the more advanced riding skills you can get by without on Day 1 but will want to start working on ASAP.
Everything in this chapter is a lot to think about while riding a bike, and, frankly, more is coming. You don’t want to think about all of it all the time or you’ll go nuts. If you want to not think about technique on a social ride, that’s OK. Hey, if you never want to think about these things, that’s OK—you’re allowed to “just ride your bike.” Most people do just that. But I’m frankly coming from another mindset, where you want to do things well, you want to make the riding as rewarding, as effortless, as efficient, as effective, as (dare I say it?) artful as possible. Because it’s fun to do things right and well. It’s what yoga practitioners call being mindful—doing the deed consciously and with an intention of grace. If you’re that sort of person—if you’re the sort of person who, if there’s a better way to pedal, wants to know about it—you’ll want the stuff in this chapter and the next.
This way of thinking may seem strange—after all, it’s just riding a bike. Do I really think about how I’m pedaling when I ride? Yes, on a training ride. The same way a serious baseball player thinks about their swing when they’re in the batting cage.
Do a Basic Bike Fit
Even though the bike is “your size,” we need to do some tweaking before we ride. Your LBS should work with you on most of this.
The saddle should be level to the ground. Ignore anyone or anything that says different. Lay a carpenter’s level along the top to check. To make sure it worked, go for a ride and try sliding forward and aft on the saddle—it shouldn’t feel like you’re going downhill or uphill more in one direction than the other. Tipping a saddle nose down is particularly dire, because it invites back and hip problems.
There are many complex formulae for determining saddle height, and you can google them and use them if you want to. If you want to keep it simple, you want a saddle height that uses all the muscles in your legs. If the saddle is too low, you can’t extend your legs so you lose power, and you put unnecessary strain on your knees—drop your saddle to an absurdly low level and try to ride up a hill to feel this beyond dispute. If the saddle is too high, you’ll have to rock your hips or point your toes to reach the bottom of the pedal stroke, both power-robbing behaviors. You want to use the full stroke of the leg but never quite straighten it, because at that moment you lose power. So we want a pedal-to-saddle distance that, when you’re pedaling with level hips and feet level to the ground, leaves just a slight bend in the knee at the bottom of the stroke.
You can eyeball this (or better yet have a friend eyeball this): sit level on the bike cleated in with your pedal at 6 o’clock and your foot level to the ground and look at your knee—it should be slightly bent but no more. Another test is to assume the same position but lock your knee—your heel should be slightly angled toward the floor.
Most beginning riders want a saddle that’s too low because that’s what they’re used to from townies (it makes it easier to put a foot on the ground), so you can assume you’re one of them and just keep raising your saddle by small increments until something tells you that’s too far—either you want to rock your hips or point your toes, or you just feel a dead spot at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Don’t stop when it feels “high enough”—go to too high, then back off.
Saddle fore and aft position
Maximum power comes when you’re driving straight down onto the pedals, which turns out to mean your knees are directly over the pedals at 3 o’clock. If your saddle is behind or ahead of this spot, you’re making riding harder than it has to be. It’s the difference between lifting twenty pounds that’s positioned directly under you and lifting it when it’s two feet in front of you. This position can’t be eyeballed, so you need a plumb line (ask a friend to assist or lean against a wall). Sitting square on the bike with pedals at 3 and 6 o’clock, drop a plumb line from the little indentation immediately below your forward kneecap down through the pedal. The line should bisect the pedal spindle.
Many racers obsess about this measurement. And there are personal preferences—many riders like their saddles a bit behind this “ideal” position. And of course you move around on the saddle, so the perfect position for sprinting isn’t the perfect position for climbing. I’ve talked to respected wrenches who said, “Put the seat post in the middle of the saddle rails and forget it.” So I think ballpark is OK on this issue. Measure it once to make sure you aren’t way off, then mark the position on your saddle rails with Gorilla tape (saddles have a tendency to work their way back on the saddle rails).
You may well want to raise the height of your handlebars. But don’t do anything unalterable here, because this is one measurement on the bike that is going to change if you’re new to riding—the longer you ride, the lower you’ll want your handlebar to be, unless you have back issues.
Begin by measuring the distance from the top of the saddle to the ground, then the distance from the top of the handlebar to the ground, substract one from the other, and that’s your handlebar drop—the distance your bar sits below your saddle. If you’re old, inflexible, or new to cycling, you’ll want that distance to be small, with the bar about 1” below the saddle. Racers like it large, with the bar as much as a foot below the saddle, because they want to get as low as possible to minimize wind resistance. Everyone else is in between. Start out with your bar high and lower it as you gain confidence and become more aggressive in your riding. But don’t try to replicate the upright position of your townie bike—you want to be bent over some, carrying some weight on your arms.
There are three ways to effectively raise a handlebar. They’re all doable by a handy beginner, but you may want to discuss them with your LBS or have them do it:
- 1. Raise your stem by installing spacers (little rings) under it. The length of the steerer tube limits how much of this you can do, but you can go as far as the steerer tube will let you.
- 2. Swap your stem for one with more rise (upward angle), or, if your stem is installed pointing down (which is quite possible), turn it upside down. See the stem discussion in the Components chapter for details.
- 3. If you have a standard handlebar, swap it for one with a shallow drop (AKA compact shape) where the C of the handlebar curve is shorter top to bottom. This raises your hand position when you’re in the drops.
These three things may not be enough to solve the problem if you need an extremely upright riding position. In that case, you have two options. One is, install a steering tube extender, which effectively makes your steering tube 4-6 inches longer. This is a radical move which will likely expose you to ridicule. The other is, sell the bike and buy one with more relaxed/plush/cush geometry (see “types of bikes” in the Buying a Bike chapter).
Don’t try to bring the handlebar up by lowering the seat—seat height is determined by your leg length and may not be altered for any reason.
Brake lever position
A lot of new bikes are set up so the brake levers are so high on the bar they’re next to unreachable from the drops. If your bike is like that, move the levers down the bar curve until they’re handy. Don’t think, “I can reach them fine from the bar top, and that’s where I spend most of my time, so it’s OK”—any time you’re descending, you’ll be in the drops, and that’s when the brakes are indispensible.
Brake lever reach
If your levers stand too far out from the bar for you to reach them comfortably, you need to reduce the reach. Some brakes have a simple adjustment screw that lets you do this. If yours don’t, you can sometimes get little hard rubber shims that wedge into the top of the bake levers and accomplish the same thing. If neither solution is available to you, you’ll have to buy brakes with reach adjustment—a pricy upgrade, but you really need to be able to reach your brakes. If you can just barely reach them now, you won’t be able to reach them when you ride in winter gloves.
Cockpit size (distance from saddle to handlebar)
We talked about this in Buying a Bike, and ideally you made sure your cockpit fit you then, but it’s such an important part of bike fit we should talk about it again.
Cockpit size isn’t quantifiable. You just have to sit on the bike and judge whether or not you feel too bent over or too extended, or, better yet, have a bike fitter look at you and render an opinion.
If the reach is wrong for you, the only adjustment available to you is stem length, and changing stem length alters handling—a shorter stem means snappier, quicker handling, so if the reach feels too big you can try shorter and shorter stems (a “normal” stem is 100-110 mm) until the handling becomes fidgety. In the other direction, if the cockpit is too small you can go to longer and longer stems until you feel like the bike begins to steer like a truck. Don’t try to adjust reach by moving the saddle fore and aft—it screws up your pedaling, which is more important than reach.
Preparing to Ride
Know what to call yourself. Before we do anything else, let’s get the labeling right. Are you a cyclist, a bike rider, a biker, or what?
- Cyclist: someone who rides a road bike as a sport. The term implies you take your riding seriously, as in “I’m not a cyclist—I just like to ride my bike.”
- Mountain biker: someone who rides a mountain bike—never call a mountain biker a cyclist.
- Rider: anyone on a bike
- Bike rider: what Brits often call a cyclist
- Biker: member of a motorcycle gang
- Bicyclist: someone on a bicycle when you’re driving by them in a car or passing legislation
- Roadie: an affectionate term used by cyclists to describe a cyclist
Join the club of cyclists. By this I mean more than “join a cycling club” (though I mean that as well). I mean, wear what “real” cyclists wear. Use the jargon. Go to bike races. Get autographs from famous pros. Do group rides, subscribe to cycling magazines, learn a little about bike maintenance, volunteer at your local club’s century. Talk the talk, walk the walk.
The idea comes from Frank Smith, the famous learning theorist, who spent his life studying how people learn and summed it all up in seven words: “We learn by the company we keep.” That means, we start learning how to do X when we say we’re members of the imaginary Club of Those Who Do X. In other words, we start learning to cycle when we stop saying, “I ride a bike” and say, “I’m a cyclist.” We can join any time, from day one—there is no minimum skill level required. The only thing we have to do to join is to tell ourselves we’ve joined.
This is a powerful idea, and it’s true about everything. Children don’t grow up until they choose to join the mythical Club of Grown-Ups. People can write all their lives, but they aren’t writers until they choose to join the mythical Club of Writers. I know you probably can’t do this wholeheartedly if you’re new to cycling—oh, the presumption!—but accept the fact that joining the Club is your goal, and push yourself in that direction always. Buy the bibs or wear the pro team jersey long before you’re comfortable with the idea.
Join an actual cycling club. Obviously, the single most important symbolic act in your becoming a cyclist—even more important than buying your first cycling shorts—is joining a real cycling club. This is something you can and should do today. The more a novice you are, the more you need a club. The benefits are enormous. You’ll gain friends and riding companions, you’ll get to take part in organized rides that will get you out on the bike, introduce you to local routes, and challenge you to go beyond your comfort zone, you’ll gain access to a wealth of knowledge and expertise about cycling, and you’ll possibly get in on inexpensive out-of-town multi-day tours and international tours you’d never dare to do on your own.
Clubs have their own personalities. Some are race-oriented. Some are little more than travel agencies for riders who want to ride in foreign lands. Some have daily rides all year long; others just exist to put on centuries and other formal events. You want one that puts on lots of rides and has an active program for novices: easy rides, short rides, skills classes, a mentor program. Ask around—all riders know the personalities of the local clubs.
Start your ride log. You want to start keeping track of your rides from Day One, because when you start it two years later, like most people do, you will wish you could recover all those unrecorded miles. If you have a Garmin or other electronic ride recorder, your software will keep the log for you. If you don’t, write it down in a little spiral notebook or some such. Recording the details of the ride afterwards is one of the sweet rituals in the sport. I record date, time spent riding, distance, max heart rate, elevation gain, average speed, max speed, number of bikes seen, and number of cars seen if I’m riding a backcountry road, but many riders record much more and you can please yourself, as long as you record the mileage. I like to do this on paper—I’ve had too many computers die without warning and take all their data to the grave with them.
Make a pre-ride checklist. Put in it everything you want to take on a ride or do to prepare for a ride. Consult it before all rides other than neighborhood leg-looseners, and every time you forget something add it to the list until there’s nothing more to add. Include everything, however obvious—I’ve been on bike trips where people forgot shoes, water, gloves, helmets, and skewers. Probably the most-forgotten item on a bike trip is the front wheel, so put that on the list. And remember, the list does you no good if you don’t look at it.
To get you started, here’s a checklist of things you might want to make sure you have in addition to the bike before you head out for a local weekend ride:
- Front wheel
- Water bottle(s)
- Supplements: Energy bar, gel, electrolyte capsules
- Headband or skullcap or both
- Vest or windbreaker or both
- Computer, Garmin, or other recording device
- Heart rate monitor (if it’s more than a stroll)
- Sunblock on your exposed skin
- Cycling glasses
- Cell phone
- Seatpack and contents
In your seatpack (obligatory):
- Spare tube
- Tube patch kit
- Mini-pump or air cartridge with inflator
- Two tire irons
- $20 bill and/or credit card
- multi-tool or Allen wrenches
In your seatpack (nice to have):
- twisty tie
- cable tie
- 2 ft of lightweight wire
- 2 ft of duct tape (rolled around a dowel)
- Kevlar tire boot
- tube valve extender
- bandaid (for saddle sores)
- aspirin or other painkiller
By the way, the Handi-Wipe you keep in your seat pack for six months before you use it will be bone dry when you finally do. All the cleaner is still there—only the water has gone. Just re-wet it from your water bottle and it will be good as new.
Many of these items are discussed in the chapters on clothing and accessories.
Start a bike maintenance log. You are setting out on a long relationship with your bike, a relationship that will be punctuated by frequent tune-ups, repairs, mechanical modifications, breakages, part replacements, and upgrades. Every time one of these things happens, record the event, the date, and all parts details (dimensions, model numbers, serial numbers, weight) in your log. Include accessories like helmets, shoes, and mini-pumps. I promise you, a hundred times in the next few years you will want to know the exact date when you swapped out that OEM handlebar for the spiffy carbon one, and what the cost, dimensions, and model numbers of both bars were.
Everybody thinks they’ll just remember, but they won’t. I once thought, “I think it’s been about 6 months since I replaced my chain,” so I consulted my log, and found it had been a year and a half (far too long).
You’re saying, “I’m not a tech nerd—why do I care what make and model my bicycle seat is?” But a friend of mine who is as un-nerdy as a rider can be had her bike stolen, and that bike had the only seat she had ever found that didn’t hurt, and now she can’t go buy another one because she doesn’t know the make and model.
Even if you don’t want the information, others will. When my cycling shoes fell apart unexpectedly, the first questions the manufacturer asked were, When did you buy them?, and what’s the model number and size? Since I had the answers to those questions in my maintenance log, they replaced the shoes for free and without fuss.
Christen your maintenance log by entering everything you know about your current bike: make, model number, size, serial number, weight, date of purchase, and all similar information on all components. If you don’t know, say, the model number of your OEM wheels, this is a good time to learn—call the shop where you bought it and find out.
Why record the weight of everything? Because, even if you aren’t a weight weenie, you’re going to have to replace things when they wear out, and it’s nice to know if you’re adding or losing weight when you do. If the new handlebar your Local Bike Shop is suggesting as a replacement for your cracked OEM bar is 80 g. heavier, that’s worth knowing.
Inflate your tires. Air up your tires before every ride (or, if you ride every day, every other ride) to full riding pressure. Make it a habit. Bike tires aren’t like car tires—they leak air, up to 10 psi a day. Riding on underinflated tires invites pinch flats, hastens tire wear, and adds to rolling resistance (makes you work harder). Riding on overinflated tires gives you an unforgiving, jarring ride and also adds to rolling resistance. Don’t squeeze the tire to see if it needs air—underinflated tires still feel hard to the touch.
So what’s the right tire pressure? There are two responses: 1) for those who just want an answer, 90 psi—now skip the rest of this section; 2) for those who want to get into the minutiae, read on.
Tire pressure has become a battleground in recent years. Back in the old days it seemed intuitively obvious that harder was faster, so we used to jack up our tires to 120 psi. My current old-school tires say they should be inflated to a minimum of 110 psi. But it turns out we were wrong.
There are two ways to think about tire pressure. One says: Speed is determined by rolling resistance—the inherent friction holding back the bike as it tries to roll down the road—and RR actually goes up when the tire gets too hard. So hard is bad. There’s a scientific explanation but it’s complicated. But there’s a downward limit to tire pressure. If the tire gets too soft, RR goes back up and you get pinch flats—you ride over a pothole, the impact smashes the tire and tube against the rim, and the rim actually punctures the tube. So we need enough air to not pinch flat, but low enough pressure that we get low rolling resistance. Which turns out in a 25 mm tire to be about 85-90 lbs, your generic go-to road riding tire pressure.
The second way to think about tire pressure says: When you ride over a bump, the bike is forced up in the air and comes back down. That upward motion is energy, and it’s energy taken out of the energy propelling you forward. Ride over a series of such bumps, like a series of grooves or ridges placed in the pavement to warn you of a coming corner, and, as your teeth are being jarred out of your head, you can feel the bike slow way down, the pedaling get much harder, and the power being sucked out of your legs. Also, any time your tires are not in firm contact with the road, they can’t drive you forward—they need traction to do that. That’s why automobile drag racers use huge, soft tires with sticky rubber.
So anything that prevents you from bouncing—anything that keeps you attached to the road—makes you faster. Softer tires soak up bounces. So logically you want a tire pressure just soft enough to keep you from bouncing. On a smooth surface, like an indoor velodrome track, racers still use pressures as high as 220 lbs, because they know a bounce is not going to happen. In cyclocross races, where the riders are riding on dirt and over rough stuff, tire pressures of 25 lbs are common. And mountain bike trials riders, who are riding over logs and boulders, often use 10-20 lbs. Now you know what tire pressure to use: the highest pressure that doesn’t make you bounce. Of course it won’t feel like bouncing, because the bounces are tiny—it will feel like chattering, what cyclists call road buzz. If your tires chatter, lower your tire pressure. But not much past 85 psi, or you’ll pinch flat.
Tire pressure is inversely related to tire size. The bigger the air chamber, the less pressure you need to keep from pinch flatting (because the tube has more distance to travel before it impacts the rim). The differences are startling. If a 23 mm tire needs 90 psi, a 40 mm tire needs 35 psi and a 4-inch tire (on a Fat Bike) needs 5 psi.
Add some air if you’re a clydesdale, and run a few pounds more in the rear tire than in the front tire, because it bears the bulk of your weight.
Do not over-inflate your tires on the theory that air is lost when you remove the pump from the tube valve. Indeed, you do hear a rush of escaping air, but all that air is coming out of the pump, not the tire.
Don’t determine your tire pressure by ride feel. Over-inflated tires feel “fast,” because for some reason the human brain translates road buzz into speed. When you first experiment with lower pressures, the bike feels a little dead, and you’ll think you’re slow, but you aren’t.
A floor pump is a poor way to check air pressure, because the gauges on tire pumps are notoriously unreliable, and because every time you put a pump on a tire, you have to take a lot of air out of the tire to fill the pump and activate the gauge. I encourage you to buy a digital air pressure gauge (about $20). Most riders consider it a frill, but I think it’s a necessity.
Adjust your helmet. Most children, commuters, and cruisers wear their helmets in a way that gives them no protection at all in the advent of a crash—loosely strapped and tilted back on the head. To avoid that, set the helmet level on your head, which means low over the eyes, almost resting on your glasses. You should be able to see the edge of the helmet if you look up. Tighten the chin strap until it’s next to uncomfortable. It’s tight enough when it cuts into your throat a little if you yawn or stick two fingers inside it. Tighten the size adjuster at the back of helmet as snugly as is comfortable. Don’t worry if it feels a mite constricting at first—after 10 minutes you’ll forget the helmet is there.
This is one area where you shouldn’t imitate pro riders. Pros hate helmets (and actually threatened to go on strike when first required to wear them), and they often wear them with the chin strap loose.
How to Sit on a Bike
Relax everything in your body except your leg muscles.
Let your shoulders droop. If you have trouble telling whether your shoulders are relaxed not, stick out your elbows—you should feel your shoulders drop into the desired position.
Neither arch nor sway your back.
Keep your elbows a bit bent.
Keep a loose but firm grip on the handlebar—firm enough to stay in control if you hit an unexpected pothole but loose enough so you aren’t tiring out your hands. It’s a bit of a paradox but becomes second nature with practice.
Sit lightly on the saddle. Again, it’s a bit of a mystery at first. To get a sense of what you’re striving for, consciously sit heavily on the saddle, then ride with your butt half lifted off it. Then settle for something between the two extremes.
Keep your hips level side to side. This is something you can’t see, so ask a friend to look at you while you sit on the bike with your pedals at 3 and 9 o-clock.
Keep your upper body still. Don’t rock your hips. Don’t sway side to side. Don’t pull on the handlebar with your arms. Only your legs work.
Don’t be glued to the saddle. Slide forward onto the rivet (the nose), move back, stand up. It keeps you from getting stiff and helps you learn to move with the bike.
Keep some weight on your hands but not a lot. Leaning hard on the bar is tiring. You should be able, without moving, to lift your hands an inch above the bar without causing anything other than a tightening of your core muscles.
Move your hands around as you ride. The road handlebar is designed to offer you lots of hand positions. Use them all, as a way of keeping your hands, arms, body, and mind fresh. Still, there are norms: Ride with your hands on the tops (the flat part) to rest or poke along; ride with your hands in the drops to descend or sprint; and ride with your hands just behind the hoods (the rubber shifter covers) at all other times.
Basic Bike Riding Skills
Riding is a technical sport, which means you use a lot of technique when you do it. When people say, “It’s like riding a bicycle,” they mean it’s nearly natural, done unconsciously, and once learned it’s effortless. But we’re not talking about “riding a bicycle”—we’re talking about “cycling.” It’s the difference between sitting on a dock with a line hanging in the water and fly fishing. This chapter will cover technique you need on your first ride. The next chapter will cover more advanced lessons.
What are the drops for?
The first question a beginner has, even before they get on a bike, is, why do the handlebars curve down like that? The drops do four things: increase your power (you get more force on the pedals when you’re bent over), improve braking and handling, make you more aero, and let you stretch out your back. So expect to be in the drops in the following situations:
- When you’re descending any pitch that feels noticeably like a descent—because you can brake better and control the bike better
- When you’re sprinting—because it makes you more powerful and more aero
- When you’re riding over something that threatens your control, like railroad tracks
- When your back gets stiff and you want a different position for a moment
This means that if you’re doing an easy flat ride you may never touch them. But one thing you may not do is decide the drops are awkward and therefore you won’t ever use them. Descending at speed or riding over obstacles out of the drops is life-threatening, because you can’t steer and you can’t brake.
There are 7 things you need to be able to do when you ride out of the driveway: clip in, clip out, start, stop, brake, shift, and turn. (You also need to pedal, but pedaling is subtle and therefore will have to wait until the next chapter.)
Using Clipless Pedals
Your new bike may come with platform pedals. If so, as soon as you can, replace them with clipless pedals (oddly named, since you “clip in” with them, but they superseded the “toe clip,” so it makes a kind of sense if you think of them as “toe-clip-less pedals”). For some riders, this takes years. Don’t be one of them. This you need. For reasons, look at the Pedaling section of the Advanced Skills chapter.
The clipless pedal is the bane of beginning cyclists. Every rider has had the experience of coming to a stop, being unable to clip out, and tipping ignominiously over. Traditionally this is done during a group ride so you have an audience.
Practice will bring mastery, but there are some tricks that will make the learning curve less painful:
1. If your cleats or pedals allow you to adjust the stiffness of the entrance/exit, set them at the loosest possible setting.
2. Sit on the bike in a doorway and hold onto the door jamb. Practice clipping in and out a few dozen times.
3. Notice how the mechanism works. Don’t just stab blindly or rip your shoe out of the cleat by brute force—understand the design and work with it. Do you clip in by stepping straight down, or by sliding your foot forward? Do you have to flip the pedal over with your foot to get to the entry? Most pedals release when you twist your heel outward, not pull it upward. Most cleats release much more easily at 6 o’clock in the pedal stroke than at 3 o’clock and won’t release at all at noon.
4. For your first ten-plus rides, make a habit of clipping out and clipping back in every five minutes or so, when you don’t need to. Every time you realize you haven’t clipped out in a while, do it.
5. Clip out long before you need to. Notice approaching stops and clip out in preparation.
6. When you tip over, remind yourself everyone does it and it’s a rite of passage—now you’re a cyclist.
Starting and stopping are the times when you’re most likely to fall over, so it’s worth your time to learn to do them right.
To start, stand with your weak foot on the ground, your butt on the saddle (you’ll have to lean the bike), and your power foot clipped in (if your cleat allows it). Put the pedal at 3 o’clock, parallel to the ground, gather your center of gravity into your chest, and mentally prepare to find your balance. Don’t push off with the ground foot—cleats aren’t intended to provide traction and you’re just inviting an awkward slip. Push down hard on the pedal. Assume that your first stab at cleating in with the other foot will fail and you’ll have to either maintain your balance while you make a second try, return your free foot to the ground, or do 1 or 2 awkward un-clipped-in pedal strokes while you fish for the stubborn pedal. Be mentally prepared for all three possibilities.
There is a great urge to turn the front wheel dramatically when you take off, thus carving a sharp turn. Resist this urge. If you turn the wheel, three bad things can happen: 1. You crash into a rider next to you or get hit by the car passing you. 2. You get an overlap between your tire and your toe, thus turning your shoe into a brake and bringing you to a jarring, sudden stop. 3. You turn the wheel so sharply that it becomes a brake to your forward momentum (you’re actually trying to shove the wheel sideways down the road) and you sail over the handlebar.
If you fall, you want to make sure you fall toward your unclipped-in foot so you can catch yourself. So mentally prepare yourself to fall that way, favoring that side slightly with your balance.
Starting on a steep climb has its own challenges. The road’s pitch will rob you of all momentum instantly, so either a) be ready to do a track stand while you find your other cleat, or (more easily) b) move to the shoulder and start at a diagonal across the road, thus lessening the incline and lengthening your coast. Choose an angle that is slightly uphill, 3% or so—don’t head directly across the road, because if you do you will have to make an immediate and extremely tight 90-degree turn uphill at slow speed, which is an invitation to crashing.
The principles of stopping are similar to the principles of starting. Realize the chance of falling is great and prepare yourself accordingly. Get your center of balance up into your chest. Clip out one foot early. Common sense says to get the bike vertical so it doesn’t want to tip over, but common sense is wrong, because if it’s straight up you have a 50/50 chance of falling to the clipped-in side, which will send you to the ground. Instead, keep your body upright but lean the bike slightly toward the free foot, and as you stop let the bike fall toward it.
As you prepare to stop, shift to the gear you’re going to want when you start up again. This is especially important if you’re stopping right before a climb. It’s common, but unpleasant, to descend in a big gear, stop at the bottom of the hill, start up the next roller, and discover you’re stuck in that big gear you now don’t want.
If you have rim brakes:
Start braking early. Rim brakes are ineffective compared to almost any other brake in our culture—car brakes, Bendix brakes, mountain bike brakes. So you have to learn to expect it. Rim brakes won’t stop you; they’ll only slow you down gradually.
Brake with two fingers, from the drops. It’s possible to brake from the top of the bar and with one finger, but you can’t get much power that way (unless you’re King Kong), so it’s only good for slowing gradually on the level. Braking on a descent or braking in a hurry requires more force—you’ll have to get into the drops and get two fingers on each brake lever. So you need to learn to get into the drops at a moment’s notice, which requires practice. Braking with two fingers means you give up some of your grasp on the bar, so you’re in danger of losing your grip entirely if you hit a major jolt. There is no solution to the problem—it’s a trade-off.
Be cautious in the rain. Rim brakes work poorly when wet, if they work at all. All you can do about this is accept it, ride cautiously in wet weather, and start braking early. Remember, braking generates heat, and heat dries, so given time the wet rim will dry out and start grabbing again.
Watch for heat build-up on long descents. Rim brakes generate a lot of heat, which can warp your rims or cause your tires to leave the rims on long, steep descents. There is no easy fix here. You can try to brake in spurts—on, off, on, off—or you can stop to feel your rims for heat with your hand and let them cool when they get really hot.
Whether you have rim or disc brakes:
Brake mainly with the front brake. Common sense says, if you brake with the front brake the rest of the bike will keep going and you’ll do an endo over the handlebar; if you brake with the back brake you’re throwing out an anchor behind you and you’re safe. Common sense is wrong. About 75% of your braking force is in your front brake (basically because your momentum is headed into the front brake, not away from it), so if you try to do the bulk of the braking with the back brake the only thing that happens is you’re throwing away most of your braking power. Apply pressure to both brakes, but more to the front—if you don’t strangle the front brake you’ll be fine. If you’re making a panic stop and are worried about going over the handlebars, move your weight back behind the saddle.
Understand how gears work. Your rear cassette and front chain ring together act exactly like your car’s transmission, except instead of meshing a large cog and a small one, you’re connecting the two cogs via a chain. The transmission principle is about ratios: if you turn a big cog and transfer that motion to a cog half the size, the turning speed doubles. The bigger the difference in the two sizes, the higher the ratio and the greater the difference in speed. So your legs turn the big cog in front slowly, which connects to the little cog in back, which turns fast and you go fast. When you shift, you change the ratio: making the ratio smaller makes pedaling easier; making it larger makes pedaling harder. The derailleur physically moves the chain sideways so it’s no longer lined up behind one gear and is now lined up behind the one beside it.
The concept is simple, but the terminology is confusing. In the chain ring, a larger gear makes you go faster, so it’s called a “bigger” or “higher” gear, and we talk about going “up” a gear or “gearing up.” So far, so good. But in the rear, a larger gear makes you go slower, so we call it a “smaller” or “lower” gear and we call it going “down” a gear or “gearing down.” Just remember: any shift that makes you go faster is going “up” to a “bigger” gear, whatever the physical dimensions of the cog. “Bigger” always means “harder/faster.”
Your gear (as in, “I was pushing a very big gear”) is the relationship between your front cog (on your chainring) and your rear cog (on your cassette), and is usually written as two numbers, like “53/11” (said “fifty-three eleven”), which means you’re riding in a 53-tooth cog in the front and an 11-tooth cog in the back. Since what matters is the ratio 53 divided by 11, and ratios are hard to compute in your head (quick, which is higher, 53/25 or 43/18 and by how much?), a clearer way of talking about gearing is gear inches, which gives you a single number which is proportional to how far the bike travels with a single pedal rotation—the further the travel, the higher the gear. To calculate gear inches, apply this formula:
- Gear Inches = Number of Teeth on the Front Ring / Number of Teeth on the Rear Cog x Diameter of the Wheels
A very big gear is around 124 inches, a very small one around 28. If you google gear inches, you’ll get charts converting any chainring/cassette cog combo to inches.
Whether you use ratios or inches, there’s some serious math involved, and riders usually just use words: big gear, granny gear, almost in my granny, etc. I’ve never heard a rider talk about gear inches, and I mention it only because you’ll run across it in magazine articles.
Since gears are ratios, there is a lot of overlap between the two chain rings—most of the gears on the big chain ring are duplicated on the small one, or nearly duplicated. The only gears not duplicated by the other chain ring are probably the two most extreme—the biggest two on the big ring and the smallest two on the small ring. So don’t figure to shift down through the cassette gears on the big ring, then go to the small chain ring and expect all the gears to be smaller still.
Shifting the chain ring makes a gearing difference that’s roughly equal to 2.5 shifts on the cassette, which turns out to be a handy thing to know when you’re riding rolling terrain and wondering if you want to shift in front or in the rear.
Shift all the time. Shifting a derailleur is one of the sweet pleasures of riding a bicycle, and you want to immediately begin to overcome any hesitation you have about doing it. From your first day, shift constantly. Shift for the fun of it, even when you don’t need to. Shift to explore how smaller and bigger gears feel. Shift every time the road goes up or down. Shift to vary the nature of the workload. Shift until there is absolutely no reluctance to shift. Do this with the front shifter too, since that’s where most people feel the least confident.
Soft-pedal while shifting. Shifting requires moving the chain from one cog to another, and there is a moment when the chain is on the move and isn’t attached to either cog. If you lean hard on the pedals at that transitional moment, the chain will damage itself and the cogs it’s between. At the other extreme, if the chain isn’t moving the chain can’t change cogs, so you have to pedal. The solution to the conundrum is soft pedaling (AKA ghost pedaling), a light-pressure turning of the cranks—enough to move the chain but not enough to damage the cogs. It’s exactly what you do when you have the bike in a bike stand and you’re turning the cranks by hand. You know you did it right if the chain moves quietly and sweetly from gear to gear.
Shift before you need to. When you start up the steep pitch and suddenly realize you need a much lower gear, you’re too late. Almost any shift done under load at the last second will go badly. To prevent this, look ahead, realize what gear you’re going to want in 3 seconds, and get into it before you need it. This is especially true when going to a larger rear cog in the rear (easier pedaling), since then the chain must be lifted as well as moved over—in shifting to a smaller cog the chain is literally falling, so it has gravity helping it.
There are three situations where you can be sure you’ll need this skill: 1) when you hit a sudden steep pitch after some fast riding—you go from 17 mph to 5 mph and will need to shift down on both derailleurs instantly, while shifting the rear cassette through 7 or more gears; and 2) when you stop on a hill and restart—you’ll need a lower gear (if you have one) to accelerate uphill to cruising speed from a dead stop; and 3) when you come to a stop sign or red light on the flats—you’ll need a lower gear to start from a dead stop.
Choose the right gear. You’ve got 20-24 gears—use them all. Never assume the gear you’ve been using is the right gear for now—keep trying higher and lower gears to see if you like them better, or just to give your body a different sort of workload. Any time the pitch or road surface changes, assume you’ll need a different gear.
Some riders are peculiarly reluctant to do this, and a lot of them are pros. They crank along in one gear forever, uphill and down, as a matter of pride, as if they’re being charged money for each gear change. I’ve even met riders who boasted that they never used their granny gear, so they always knew they had it “in reserve.” This is madness, except as a training technique. You paid for those gears—use them all. Tell yourself you want to spread around the wear on the cassette.
There is no formula to determine which gear is the right one. If you go out and just ride, some gears will be so big you can’t turn the cranks without great effort and some so small you’re spinning and can’t catch up to the pedals, but between those extremes there will be a range of perhaps 4 gears that seem pushable. Try them all, for three reasons:
1. The bigger the gear the more you’re using your muscles and the less you’re using your cardio-vascular system, and vice versa, so moving around from gear to gear will vary the way you’re taxing your body and prolong your endurance.
2. The gear that’s working OK isn’t necessarily the best gear—often going up a gear will make you faster without necessarily taxing you more, and often climbing in a smaller gear will extend your endurance.
3. Everyone is a spinner (one who likes small gears and a high cadence) or a masher (one who likes big gears and a slow cadence), and, whichever you are, you need to push yourself toward the one you don’t do naturally, by the basic training principle of “Train your weaknesses.”
A lower gear is easier, right? Yes and no. Yes, it’s easier to turn the pedals over, but a lower gear can actually make you work harder, in two ways:
- If the gear gets too low, you start to spin, and spinning with little resistance from the pedals is exhausting.
- A lower gear means you go slower, and slower means a) less momentum (so you have to do more of the work) and b) more elapsed time, so instead of climbing for 30 minutes you’re climbing for an hour.
So it’s always a matter of finding the ideal middle ground between spinning and mashing.
Opt for spinning. In general, use a gear that lets you turn the pedals over quickly. Most people feel comfortable turning about 65-70 rpm, but you’re using your energy most efficiently at 80-90 rpm, so push yourself to use the lower gear, especially climbing. A bike computer that records cadence helps here, but you can do it with any timer just by counting your pedal strokes—20 pedal rotations in 15 seconds = 80 rpm.
Avoid cross-chaining. For each chain ring, there is only one cassette cog that is directly behind it. For all other gears, the chain has to deflect (run left or right as it exits the chain ring). In most gears this is not a problem, but if you run in the cog farthest across from the chain ring (the big chain ring and the biggest cog, or the small chain ring and the smallest cog), the chain has to deflect massively. It’s called cross-chaining, and it’s hard on the chain, it’s hard on the cogs’ teeth, and often the derailleur cage can’t get out of the way of the chain and there’s an annoying clatter. The solution is to not cross-chain. You never need the cross-chained gear anyway, because you get the same gear ratio by going to the other chain ring and the cassette’s midrange.
That cross-chain clatter can occur in mild cases of chain deflection, and for this your front shifter may have provided you with a trim. It’s a half-shift that doesn’t change gears but moves the front derailleur cage over a smidge. Many riders ride for years without knowing it’s there. See if you have one—just move the shifter lever halfway and see if you get a click and a quieter chain. SRAM derailleurs after 2014 have a “yaw” feature that prevents deflection clatter and makes the trim unnecessary.
On slow rides you can turn a road bike the way you turn a tricycle, by turning the handlebar, but as soon as you pick up speed you need another technique. We’ll talk about this at length in the Descending chapter, but here’s a quick summary:
- Lean the bike towards the turn.
- Get off the saddle a little.
- Stand on the outside pedal.
- Push down on the inside end of the handlebar and lift up on the outside end.
- Simultaneously, push forward on the inside end of the handlebar.
- Don’t crouch or lean your body into the turn—stay upright and vertical.
See the Descending chapter for why these methods work.