Shoulder: a storage area beside a public road where the highway
department stores its broken glass and debris. (Cyclist’s dictionary)
I better go home and get my race wheels. (Frazz’s response to a sand-bagger before the weekly group ride)
Before we talk about techniques for coping with specific road conditions, let’s talk about how not to fall in general. I said this in the Advanced Skills chapter, but it bears repeating here: The road obstacle that takes you down is not the rough one, it’s the unexpected one. You didn’t fall because there were railroad tracks, or potholes, or cars; you fell because you didn’t see the railroad tracks or potholes or cars coming and prepare for them. Almost nothing will make you fall if you see it coming and make plans to cope with it. So look ahead of you. And every time you ride over a pothole or stick that startles you, remind yourself, “I didn’t see that coming—my bad.”
Let’s talk about all the special riding conditions you might encounter—gravel, mud, snow, sand, rain, wind, cold, heat, high elevation, traffic, high-crime areas, pacelines, and old age—and the techniques required to cope with them. Everything that follows builds on the techniques discussed in the Your First Ride and Advanced Skills chapters, so please read them first.
Cycling in Gravel (or Mud or Snow or Sand)
Riding in anything soft requires dealing with two problems: the front wheel wandering off line, and the rear wheel losing traction.
Prepare the bike. If you know you’re going to ride in soft stuff a lot, get bigger tires and lower your tire pressure. Get a more upright riding position. Ideally, get a gravel bike.
Unweight the handlebar. Your weight is going to force your front wheel to dig into the muck and make things worse. Let your front wheel float over the surface. Let the wheel go where it wants to. It’s going to wander—don’t fight it. Instead, go with it. It takes some nerve—the natural urge is to tighten up and try to force the wheel back towards center. As you drift to one side or the other, think, “OK, I’m riding over here now.” Don’t give up. The urge, once the front wheel goes off line, is to panic, assume a crash is inevitable, and bail out. Far from it. Hang in there and surprisingly often things will work themselves out.
Minimize torque. Pedal with as little pressure on the pedals as the conditions will allow, with your attention on your rear-wheel traction—try to sense when it’s about to break free, and back off the gas just before it does. This is actually possible. Gearing up one gear more than you would ordinarily use goes against our instincts but it actually helps, by preventing you from pouring torque into the back wheel and breaking your rear tire loose.
Cycling on Gravel-Strewn Pavement
After ice (see below), pavement with loose gravel scattered across it is the most deadly surface you can ride on. You’re riding fast on what seems to be reliable road surface, you start a descent, hit a corner with a little gravel scattered around, and suddenly your tires shoot out from under you. There is nothing to do about this except know the danger, see it coming, slow down, and stay upright to keep your weight over your tire patch.
How much gravel does it take to bring you down? One marble-sized grain, if you hit it wrong and it’s a roller. I hate to tell you to be afraid, but I’ve seen too many riders go down ugly not to.
Cycling in the Rain
Ride cautiously. Road bikes aren’t designed for wet weather. The traction, which is surprisingly good when it’s dry, is often next to nothing when it’s wet. Rim brakes, which are barely adequate dry, are often non-functional when wet. So wet weather is never a time to ride aggressively. Take your time, stay upright in corners, and make all turns gently. Since it is impossible to descent safely at speed in the rain, and crawling down a hill with the brakes on is no fun, I try to never do big descents in the rain.
Avoid paint. Anything painted on the road surface has the potential to be as slick as ice when its wet, so assume it is and stay off it, or baby your way across it if you can’t. In the 2014 Tour de France, on the last stage, the race leader Nibali was riding along a straight, flat road at a recreational pace, taking no risks and in no hurry to get to the finish line, when his front tire touched a painted road marker and went sideways, and the bike flew out from under him.
Double your vigilance during the first rain. All the time it isn’t raining, cars are depositing oil and grease on the road surface. Then it rains, and all that oil and grease comes loose and floats around on the road, reducing the traction, often to literally nothing. In those first hours of rain after a dry spell, no amount of vigilance is too much.
Have rain-appropriate clothing. We talked about this in the Clothing chapter. For some reason, many cyclists refuse to invest in good rain gear beyond the raincoat. Don’t be one of them.
Don’t confuse warmth and dryness. Your goal in rain is to stay dry. Staying warm is rarely the problem, since it usually isn’t all that cold when it’s raining; the problem is overheating. So don’t automatically pile on the layers for a rainy ride.
De-fog your glasses. The worst thing about rain, after the likelihood of a crash, is you can’t see. The rain fogs your glasses or covers them with droplets you can’t see through. The best solution is anti-fog sprays, waxes, and liquids. They put a slick hydrophobic (“water-fearing”) coating on the lens that encourages water to run off and sheet instead of forming droplets. Your glasses get wet but you can still see. These products work well and should be a staple item in your bike support kit. Bike shops rarely stock them, so you may have to order online. Or you can buy glasses with hydrophobic lenses, which shed water.
If you forgot to de-fog and you find your glasses fogging up mid-ride, there are a number of things you can do. Condensation occurs when hot, water-laden breath hits cold surfaces like lenses. So anything that keeps your breath off your lenses will help:
- Exhale downward, away from your glasses.
- Exhale forcefully, so your breath is propelled beyond your face.
- Lift your head, so your lenses aren’t leaning over in the path of your rising exhalation.
- Ride faster, to increase air flow over your face and glasses.
You can carry a dedicated lens drying cloth. Cycling clothing is all synthetic, which doesn’t absorb water, so it’s useless here. Make sure the cloth is cotton, so it will absorb, and carry it in a ziplock bag so it stays dry. In constant rain it’s a momentary solution at best.
Get a fender. As bad as the water coming down is, the water coming up from the road is worse. Roostertails will come off the back of both tires. The front one is largely blocked by the down tube, so most riders don’t do anything about it, but the rear one has a clear shot right up your back and into the face of the rider behind you. So you want a temporary fender (see the Accessories chapter).
Bag your tools. Your seat pack is fully exposed to the roostertail, so expect it to get soaked, along with everything in it. Stick the entire contents of the seat pack in a plastic bag so they’re dry when you need them. It’s easier to leave them thus prepped all the time than to bag them every time you fear rain.
Consider puncture protection. To everyone’s surprise, rain causes more flats, not fewer—it doesn’t wash the debris off the road, it washes it onto the road, and wet tires cling to debris so it has more time to work its way into the tread. So it’s a good idea to get tires with protection against flats. This comes in three forms: tires with a Kevlar-type layer under the tread (usually called “endurance” tires or something equally revealing), foam tire inserts, and slime—goo you put inside your tube which seals punctures after they happen (similar to “going tubeless,” discussed in the tire section of Components). All systems work well.
Get bigger tires. The bigger the tire, the bigger the contact patch and the better the traction. Standard road tires are 25 mm wide. Go at least to 28 mm, and consider 32 mm or larger. Before buying anything larger than 25 mm, make sure your frame can accept that size.
Don’t bother with “rain tires.” They have pretty little treads, but on pavement their traction is no better than your “summer” baldies.
Master ratcheting. On rainy days you’re often riding through deep standing water (large puddles, flooded streets), and if you pedal full circles you’ll be submerging your shoes. To avoid this, ratchet: pedal without ever passing your feet through 5-7 o’clock. Pedal down to about 4:30, then backpedal back to 1:30, over and over. It’s slow, but you shouldn’t have to do it very long.
Use winter-weight lube. If you know you’re going to be riding in rain, you can prepare your chain by going over it with a thicker lube. Every LBS stocks it, and chain lube manufacturers are good about labeling their products so it’s easy to spot. You could use it all the time, but it’s thick, so it’s slow and it gathers dirt well.
Dry and lube your bike after the ride. Water isn’t good for bikes, especially drivetrains, so right after the ride wipe your bike down with a towel. Right after a wet ride is in fact the perfect time to do a quick, easy bike cleaning because all the dirt is loose. If you have rim brakes, this is a golden opportunity to clean your brake tracks, because the black residue from the brake pads will be softened up and come off without soap or scrubbing. Dry the chain thoroughly, using a dedicated rag. Let everything dry (I bring the bike into the house), then relube the chain and derailleurs.
Some bikes have holes in the chain stays or seat post that collect rain water. I had a bike that would collect a quart of water on a rainy ride. To find out if you have one of these, pull the seat post and invert the bike to drain it after a rainy ride. If your frame has holes at the ends of the chain stays, standing the bike on its back wheel will do the trick. Some people drill a hole in the bottom of the bottom bracket for drainage, and I’ll let you decide if you want to do that.
If it’s a deluge or you get submerged (like riding through deep puddles), expect your wheel rims to collect water, since spoke holes aren’t water-tight. In that case, you’ll have to remove the tires and tubes and dry out your wheels. If you submerge your bottom bracket, pull the seat post, invert the bike to drain, and let it dry upright.
If you submerge your hubs, your pedals, or anything else with bearings, assume you’re shortening their life.
Get a rain bike. All this suggests that rain is hard on bikes, which is true. So the easiest solution is to have a bike you don’t particularly care about, and ride it in the rain. You’ll need a second bike anyway, to ride when your good bike is in the shop or when you’re heading into a crime-infested area.
Dry your shoes. Unattended, wet shoes stay wet a long time, and you probably only have one pair, so you can’t wait around. Remove the insoles and stuff your shoes with crumpled newspaper. Set them in a warm spot, but don’t place them on a heat source because most shoes use glue, which can be damaged by high heat. If newspaper and waiting doesn’t work, there are electric shoe dryers like Peet’s Shoe Dryer that are said to work well ($50).
Cycling in the Cold
Avoid ice. If the weather is cold and dry, riding conditions are exactly the same as riding in warm weather, with one grim exception: ice. There is no way to ride safely on ice, and the only solution is to avoid it.
You can’t make yourself safe on ice by riding slowly. It’s a common misconception that the impact of a crash is proportional to the speed with which you’re traveling. Not so. The impact of a crash is caused by gravity, and thus is proportional to the distance from you to the ground. When you fall while moving forward, some of that energy is dissipated by sliding/skidding. So riding slow actually means your head will hit the ground harder when you go down. The hardest my head ever hit the pavement was a time I was riding on ice at 5 mph and my wheel went sideways.
Wear cold-weather clothing. Cold-weather riding is mostly about clothing. It’s relatively easy to dress to be warm down to 30 degrees of so—just wear
- A thermal short-sleeve undershirt
- A thermal long-sleeve undershirt
- A winter-weight jersey
- A wind-proof vest
- A wind-proof raincoat (it’s more protection than a windbreaker)
- Glove liners
- Thermal wind-proof gloves
- Fleece-lined tights
- Heavy wool socks
- Wind-proof full-length neoprene booties over your shoes
- A balaclava
- Waterproof overpants
A light-weight wool skullcap
Details on all these are in the Clothing chapter.
Wear all that and you’ll probably be too warm. The trick is to balance the cold outside with the furnace you’ll be producing inside when you’re working on the bike. Ideally, you’ll strike a balance, with your body feeling the chill from the outside and the burn from the inside simultaneously. Dress in layers so you can do a lot of adjusting, and start out feeling a little too cold—it’s the coldest you’ll ever be. “Dress for the second half-hour,” as the saying goes.
A macho tradition in cycling tells us to dress in next to nothing no matter the temperature. Hardmen don’t wear layers. On every early-morning ride I’ve ever done, there have been riders out there in nothing but bibs and jerseys, freezing (and brag/complaining). Don’t do this, because:
- 1. It’s painful to no purpose.
- 2. It’s hard on your joints—your knees especially.
- 3. It saps your energy. Your body needs to maintain its core temperature. If you don’t do it with clothing, it will have to do it internally, by burning fuel—fuel you’d rather be using to turn pedals. So being cold is just as inefficient as doing biceps curls while riding. This is also true of being too hot, by the way.
- 4. In addition to #3, your body does a little survival trick it learned a million years ago when it gets cold: to protect your core organs, it withdraws blood from your extremities. Thus underdressing has the effect of depriving hands and feet of warmth, and your fingers and toes freeze.
So buy the gear and use it.
Have a clothing storage system. If it warms up you’ll need a place to store all the gear you’re taking off. A large seat pack, jersey pockets, and curly laces only go so far—after that you’ll need a backpack, which, if you haven’t ridden with one, isn’t the big burden you think it is.
Don’t stop drinking. A popular adage says, drink as much when it’s cold as when it’s hot. You’re perspiring when it’s cold too—you just can’t feel it, saith the wisdom. This is absurd overkill. I guess the people who say this have never ridden in hot weather. But do drink. In the cold, it’s easy to forget to.
Embrocate for fun. One of the joys of riding in cold weather (and one of the great cycling words) is embrocation. Embrocation is the act of smearing your legs with heating, invigorating balm before a ride to warm them up and protect them from the cold. It’s a mild form of those fiery heat creams people smear on sore muscles. Cycling embrocation feels great. It’s often pleasantly scented, so it works as aromatherapy too. Unfortunately, like heat rubs in general, it probably does no actual good. So go ahead and embrocate if you wish—it won’t hurt, you’ll smell good, the application will act like a mini-massage, and you’ll feel like a pro.
De-fog your glasses. De-fogger (discussed under Rain above) is a must in cold weather.
Cycling in Wind
Nobody likes wind. There are cyclists who love hills, dirt, mud, gravel, and rain, but nobody likes wind. So accept that it pretty much sucks, and minimize the misery.
Ignore your speed and distance. Dwelling on the fact that you’re doing 9 mph is only going to make a sorry situation worse. Don’t try to ride at your usual speed or anything near it—you’ll kill yourself. Similarly, if you ride expecting to rack up your usual mileage you’re setting yourself up for failure. Focus on elapsed time—a hard hour into the wind is as honorable a workout as a hard hour covering twice the distance on a still day.
Start into the wind. Then ride home with the wind behind you. Do the hard, slow stuff first. If you leave the hard stuff till last, you’ll sail along at 25 mph, lulled into a dangerous overconfidence, then turn around and realize you’ve got an insurmountable task getting back.
Dress for wind, not cold. Wind isn’t cold, but it feels that way because it whips your body heat away if you let it (the famous wind chill factor). So if you don’t have wind-proof gear, no amount of clothing will keep you from freezing, and if you do you don’t need to bundle up. Get a wind-proof vest, jacket, and gloves and only add the warming layers you actually need.
Stay in the wind shadow. If you’re riding in a group, take turns getting out of the wind by tucking in behind each other, in the wind shadow of the rider ahead of you. The wind shadow isn’t directly behind that person unless the wind is directly on your nose—it’s 180 degrees from the apparent wind (the natural wind plus the “wind” caused by your forward motion). Which is why pelotons often form echelons. Search around to find where the wind shadow is, even if it means riding side by side.
Rotate often. In a paceline, share the burden by taking frequent, short pulls at the front.
Change directions often. If you’re riding a network of roads, you may have lots of route choices. Since riding into the wind is dispiriting, break up the downer by turning as often as possible.
Move to the center of the lane. If the wind is gusting, it will knock you around the road. Give yourself room to recover by getting away from the lip of the road. Better to frustrate a motorist than to crash.
Don’t speed up for safety. Some riders, on the theory that forward momentum increases stability (which is true), try to combat wind by going faster on descents. I don’t recommend it. Your stability might increase, but your reaction time goes down.
Get off the bike. To a certain point, getting knocked around can be a kind of game, but there comes a point where you’re truly at risk. I’ve seen crosswinds pick up riders and carry them off their bikes. And even if you’re not getting knocked over, you may well be being pushed left into overtaking traffic or right into unpaved shoulders and ditches. At that point, the wise rider gets off their bike and rides another day. If you feel like a wimp, know that in the 2015 running of Gent-Wevelgem, a major European road race, 160 of the 200 pros who entered stepped off their bikes because the wind was unsafe. If you’re at the top of a descent and don’t have the choice to not ride, take it slow down the hill.
Cycling in Heat
Get acclimatized. (Or “acclimated”—the words are synonyms.) Your body actually learns to tolerate heat. The first hot ride of the year, you die—you can’t sweat, you’re dizzy, you’re close to passing out—and it’s probably 80 degrees. You think, How will I ever ride when it’s 100? The answer is, you’ll acclimatize. You can let it happen naturally, or you can force it: just spend 20 minutes a day in a sauna or steam room for a week.
Stay cool. This is more than just a matter of comfort. Heat, like cold, threatens to upset your body’s internal temperature, and your body can’t let that happen, so it works to prevent it. That work is energy you’d rather put into making the bike go fast. Stay cool by following three rules:
1. Cover up. Obviously you want clothing that’s as light and breathable as possible. But don’t assume that bare equals cool. Sometimes a light layer (a light skullcap, like a Buff, or sunscreen arm warmers) keeps you cooler than skin, by keeping the sun off you—especially if you follow Rule 2:
2. Stay wet. It’s so obvious we tend not to do it. Douse yourself with water, especially your head. Clothing helps here, because you’ll stay wet longer in wet clothing than in wet skin. Try not to soak your shorts—riding in a wet chamois is unpleasant.
The effect of a good dousing is miraculous. If you doubt, ride up a hill of a hot day until you’re dizzy and gasping. Dump a bottle of cold water over your head. Witness the amazing recovery.
There are two drawbacks to self-dousing: 1) you use up a lot of water, so you either need to carry lots of water or you need refills along the route. And 2) if you do it habitually, you won’t acclimatize—your body never adjusts. A good plan is to do daily training rides without dousing, to acclimatize, then douse on exceptionally hard rides, competitions, and other special rides.
3. Drink cold water. Fill your water bottles with ice. Use insulated bottles. Fill them 1/3 full and freeze them overnight. Some people fear that filling your stomach with icy water when you’re hot is bad for you. It isn’t.
Keep the sweat out of your eyes. You’ll need some form of head rag—either a lightweight skullcap (like the Buff) or a headband. Don’t be satisfied with a basic cotton athletic band. Several companies make dedicated cyclists’ sweat-controlling bands that work well. Halo seems to be the leader in the field, but Sweathogs and GUTR are also good. On hot days I carry two, one to wear while the other is wrapped around my handlebar drying out.
Plan your water supply. The conventional water allotment on a very hot ride is a bottle an hour. If you do a 7-hour ride, that’s 7 water bottles—more than anyone can carry. You can realistically carry three, two in water bottle cages and one in a pocket. If you need more, you’ll have to do 1 of 4 things:
1. Refill at fast food restaurants, small grocery stores, and cafés. Almost always, the staff is understanding and happy to help.
2. Wear a hydration pack—a bladder in a backpack. It’s an every-day item for a mountain biker, but for roadies it’s just for the long haul without roadside resources.
3. Cache water along the route on the way out, if it’s an out-and-back route.
4. Knock on doors. It’s a cycling tradition: “Hi, I’m biking through your beautiful country and I’m running low on water. Could I fill up at your tap?” Tell them how far you’re riding that day—they’ll be amazed.
How much water consumption is enough?
1. Drink as much as you can without feeling uncomfortable.
2. Don’t wait to drink until you feel thirsty.
3. Aim for a bottle an hour in very hot weather.
4. Don’t go overboard. We used to think that it was impossible to overdo water consumption, but that proved to be false (google hyponatremia). If you’re feeling sloshed, back off.
Use electrolytes. You may not be thirsty for water. Our brains tell us to drink water when we’re thirsty, because it doesn’t know better, but often what we really need are electrolytes, the chemicals in the water that keep our muscles firing. So, on any long ride, take electrolyte supplements. The more you’re sweating, the more supplements you should take, and take more if you find yourself thirsty despite drinking water. I use electrolytes on all rides longer than an hour, because it can’t hurt and it’s cheap insurance.
Electrolytes are not salt. We’re all told that we sweat out salt and therefore need to replace it. And salt is necessary for life. But Americans have up to 10 times the recommended level of salt in their bodies, so it’s almost impossible to run low on salt on a ride. Make sure your electrolyte replacement is high in potassium and magnesium.
Keep your electrolytes and your water supply separate—that is, use electrolyte capsules, not powders. If you mix an electrolyte powder in your water bottle, you can’t separate drinking and supplementation, and that’s bad, for three reasons:
1) If you suddenly cramp, you’ll want to pound electrolytes, which would necessitate drinking two bottles of water all at once.
2) If the temperature rises, you may want to double or triple your electrolyte intake without increasing your water intake that much.
3) On multi-bottle rides you’ll have to carry back-up powder and remix every time your fill your water bottles. With capsules there’s no mixing.
If you find yourself insatiably thirsty hours after a ride, you didn’t drink enough or supplement with electrolytes enough on the ride. Make a note to up your intake of both next time.
Recognize the symptoms of heat exhaustion: they include dizziness, weakness, clumsiness, and confusion, all of which are difficult to tell from normal late-ride exhaustion. But luckily there is one give-away: accelerated heart rate. If you’re cruising along on a hot day at what would normally be a 130-pbm heart rate pace and you suddenly see 190 on your HRM, you’re heat exhausted. Get off the bike, get as cool as you can, keep yourself wet, push cold fluids, and send someone for the car and ice. Do not try to ride through it—it’s courting a coma.
Cycling at Elevation
At high elevation, you’re breathing air with less oxygen, the stuff that resupplies your energy. So you feel weaker. The higher the elevation, the more extreme the effect. Some riders start feeling oxygen deprived around 7,000 ft. Almost everyone feels it dramatically at 10,000 ft. The solution to the problem is unexciting:
Go slower. Accept the reality that your muscles won’t recover as quickly as you expect, and slow the pace accordingly. Your muscles are still there, and they are as strong as ever—they’re just being fed more slowly. Don’t fight it—don’t panic, despise yourself, or wonder what’s wrong.
Acclimatize (eventually). Everybody who plans to ride in Colorado hopes to go out two days early and get their body adjusted to the thin air. It won’t happen. You will eventually acclimatize, but it will take at least two weeks. When I went to Colorado, I didn’t feel normal until Week 4.
The only way around this is an oxygen tent. Pros training for high-elevation races sleep in tents with artificially oxygen-deprived air at night. I hear it’s hell on your sex life.
Cycling in Traffic
Cars aren’t your biggest danger. Obviously cars can kill you, but cars aren’t the most common cause of serious cycling accidents. I personally know only one rider who was run down by a car. I know lots of riders who have crashed by running into road imperfections or other cyclists. One hit ice, one hit a rock in the road, one slid out on gravel on a corner, one went down on railroad tracks, one hit debris at a road construction site, one hit a cable stretched across the road, and many ran into the cyclist in front of them. Put your attention where the danger lies.
Cars are deer. Cyclists waste a lot of energy raging at motorists. Second in the list of favorite topics in cycling chatrooms (after doping) is “Why do motorists hate us so much?” This attitude is pointless, but also based on a fiction: they don’t hate us, they just don’t know we’re there. (Please don’t tell me about the guy who tried to run you off the road—they’re one in 10,000.) So let’s get a healthy attitude:
Cars are deer. When you ride, there may be deer. They aren’t out to ruin your day. They don’t know you’re alive. They just go about their business. They may jump in front of you. It’s possible you’ll die if they do. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t change the deer. You don’t blame the deer. You are responsible for avoiding the deer.
Just replace “deer” with “cars” and you’ve got it. No cyclist ever came back from a ride raging at the deer for not respecting their rights. No cyclist ever said, “And then the deer turned RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME! What were they thinking?!” Assume all cars don’t know you exist. Act accordingly. Your blood pressure will thank you, and you’ll live longer.
Many riders do everything they can to be visible: florescent jerseys, pennants on mini flagpoles, reflectors, flashing lights. These are all good things, but at the end of the day cars are deer, they can’t see you, and you are responsible for avoiding them.
Announce your presence. It is a psychological fact that humans don’t see the unusual, a principle called The Invisible Gorilla. You are the oddity on the road. Motorists see cars well, from practice, but they don’t see you. So make your presence known (in a friendly way). Ride in the middle of the lane, then pull over ostentatiously to let them pass (the logic of this is spelled out in the Advanced Skills chapter). Wave them on around blind corners when it’s safe. Smile, wave, and mime an exaggerated “Thank you!” when they don’t pull out in front of you—especially if they never saw you.
Acknowledge their existence. The most unbearable thing to a human is to be invisible. If a parent pretends that a child isn’t there, the child will do anything, including setting fire to the house, to prove they are. Refusing to acknowledge someone’s existence is torture. Yet cyclists ride along in their elite little bubble, oblivious to everything but their heart rate. They roll down the road, 2 and 3 abreast, chatting and blocking car traffic, or running stop signs, or cutting in front of cars, all the while ignoring the motorists around them. I know why we do it. I know they do something similar to us. It doesn’t matter. Want to heal the hostilities between cars and bikes?—then let motorists know you see them. I try to give a little wave to every car I pass on quiet back roads—just a minimal “I see you.” The karmic reward for that tiny effort is huge.
By the same logic, use hand signals to telegraph turns, even at stop signs, even when you know you’re not in danger. It’s a way of advertising to cars that you’re working within the System. The signal for a right turn, by the way, is your right arm held straight out, not the automobile signal of a bent left arm.
Should you stop at stop signs? This is a matter of on-going debate among cyclists. As a way of showing motorists we’re all in this together, it’s a good thing to do. Cyclists running stop signs is #1 on the list of Reasons Why They Hate Us. But it’s antipathetic to the spirit of cycling, which is all about flow, and it’s illogical, since stop signs were invented to keep big, heavy, dangerous, relatively unstoppable things called cars from wreaking havoc—your light, maneuverable bike isn’t a danger. I’ll let you and your conscience sort it out.
Know the six basic car dangers:
1) The right hook: a car passing you on your left makes a sudden right turn in front of you.
2) The pull-out: a car stops at a stop sign on your right, then, not seeing you, pulls out in front of you.
3) Getting doored: a driver parks and opens their door in your path.
4) The over-taking car. Compared to the other three dangers, being run down from behind is relatively rare. Protect yourself from it by “taking over the road”—staying well out into the lane where they can’t think they can squeeze by you, then moving out of their way.
5) You. The big danger from behind is caused by you, when you decide to turn around for some reason and make a sudden left directly into the path of the overtaking car. This danger has increased with electric cars and cars generally getting quieter. To prevent this, train yourself to never move left without a careful look first.
6) The second car. You hear a car approaching from the rear, you pull over, it passes you, so you relax and swing back out into the road a little, right into the path of the car behind, which you couldn’t hear. Always remember that cars bunch up on roads, because faster cars get held up behind slower cars, so any time a car passes you there’s a high probability that there will be more than one.
Treat all of these dangers like you would a nasty pothole or any other road hazard: you’re responsible for knowing it could happen, being on guard against it, seeing it coming, and initiating early evasive action. I remember a time a friend and I were riding along in the bike lane and a car was waiting to pull out on our right. As we approached, I said, “She doesn’t see us.” My friend said, “She doesn’t see us.” When she pulled out directly in our path, we were both well prepared to stop. That’s how it’s done.
Protect your tires. Where there are cars, there is debris on the road. The heavier the traffic, the more likely the flat. Take precautionary measures: clean your tires often (see the Advanced Skills chapter), and consider installing flat-resistant tires or slime.
Know how to trip the light sensors. More and more, traffic lights are triggered by sensors in the pavement. If the sensor doesn’t know you’re there, the light never changes. Sensors once registered weight, so we cyclists were out of luck. Now they register metal profile. So you want to make the metal you’re carrying have as large a profile as possible, and this you do by leaning the bike over so your metal wheel rims or metal frame are seen by the sensor in profile instead of on edge. It works, unless your frame and wheels are carbon, in which case you need to attach small neodymium magnets to your pedal spindles. These magnets are the size of baby aspirin tablets, weigh nothing, stick like mad, and are highly visible to metal sensors.
Make yourself visible. The main way to do this is with lights, which we talked about in the Accessories chapter. If you’re going to ride at night you’ll want big, bold lights—a steady light looking ahead, so you can see where you’re going, and a strobe on the back, so cars behind you can see it. Many urban riders ride with strobes on their backsides always, even in the day, as a matter of course.
There is reflective cycling clothing, to make you more visible in car headlights at night, and they help, but good bike lights are many times more effective and I’d put my money on them.
There are hi-viz materials designed to make you more visible during the day, but I wouldn’t bet my life on them. Cars are deer.
Cycling in a High-Crime Area
Bike theft and theft of accessories are facts of life in any city. Protecting yourself comes down to common sense leavened with paranoia.
1. If you’re going to leave your bike unattended, carry a lock. Any cable lock can be cut easily, so carry a U lock or something equivalent if you’re leaving the bike for longer than a minute or two. Lock the front wheel to the frame or remove it. Remove everything that can be easily removed—computer, seat pack, seat/seat post if you’re cautious (you’ll need a quick-release seat post clamp for this).
2. Don’t leave your bike unattended. Take it into shops (most shops will understand). At the coffee shop, park it where you can see it. If you’re in a group, designate a watcher.
3. Practice parking methods at coffee-shop stops that slow down thieves. Cross-chain the gears. Loosen the front quick-release. Hook your helmet straps through the bike frames. Lock bikes together.
4. Carry a mini-lock for the two-minute shop stop. It isn’t intended to stop a prepared thief; it merely discourages the spontaneous joy rider. I make my own: go to the hardware store and buy a small padlock and length of stainless steel cable. Have the store install loops in the cable via swedging (aka swaging). The whole thing will cost about $5, and if you get a lightweight cable you can easily make it long enough to lock a bike, wheels installed, to a huge tree trunk without incurring noticeable weight.
5. Leave the good bike at home. Most cyclists just don’t ride their good bike on errands—they have a townie which they bought for $50 and which can be stolen without heartbreak.
6. Make sure your homeowner’s insurance covers your bike.
Some cyclists find the thought of having their bike stolen, or having to protect it from theft, so dispiriting that they resist buying a high-end bike. I do understand, but to these people I say: imagine you’re dead and entering Heaven and St. Peter says, “I see you never bought that high-end bike you always wanted.” And you reply, “I prefer to think of it as ‘I never had my bike stolen.’” To me that seems a poor way to live a life, and I hope it does to you too.
Riding in a Paceline
Many fast-paced club rides are done in pacelines, where you ride in a single file with a wheel right in front of you and a wheel right behind you. The point is to maximize the drafting effect. When you’re riding alone, almost all of your energy is going into overcoming wind resistance. If there’s a rider directly in front of you, you can draft (ride in their wind shadow) and save yourself up to 40% of that energy. Because the rider in front of the paceline must ride in the wind, they’re working a lot harder than anyone else, so riders rotate (take turns riding at the front): each rider breaks the wind for a while, then they peel off and drift back by riding a bit more slowly than the paceline until it has passed them, at which point they tuck in behind the wheel of the last rider. Sometimes riders ride two abreast (a double paceline), in which case the two lead riders peel off in different directions and drift back on opposite sides of the paceline.
The etiquette of the paceline is complex and best learned by taking part, watching, and asking questions. But here are some basics:
Ask about the tempo of the paceline before the ride starts. Paceline rides may have a designated speed of 17 or one of 30. If the pace is too fast for you, you are welcome to sit in as long as possible, then fall off the back. Remember, since everyone in the paceline is drafting except the lead rider, you in a paceline will be faster than you riding alone. If you can maintain 17 mph alone with an effort, you can stay in a paceline at 22 mph.
Stay directly behind the rider in front of you. To do otherwise is to lose the aero advantage of the paceline and to lose it for those behind you. If the wind is strongly from the side, the group may decide to form echelons, but don’t do it on your own.
Ride as close to the wheel in front of you as your skill level and that of the other rider allow. The experienced riders will ride inches behind the wheel in front of them. Getting that close pays big dividends—the aero effect riding 6 inches behind the wheel in front of you is much greater than the aero effect riding 18 inches behind the wheel in front of you. But that dividend isn’t worth crashing over. If you’re unpracticed, give yourself a 2-3-foot cushion. Move closer as your skills improve. Never overlap the wheel in front of you, which is inviting a crash.
The practiced riders will converse. Don’t do the same until you’re experienced. Until then, focus on what’s going on around you. Stay alert.
Drop back a couple of feet for safety if you find yourself riding behind someone who is unsteady or not paying attention. I never get close to anyone who seems more interested in their conversation than in their riding, and I never get close behind anyone I don’t know. Who can say what their skill level is?
Maintain the pace. Ride exactly as fast as the bikes around you.
When it’s your turn to pull (ride at the front), do exactly what you’ve seen the other leaders do and at the same speed. Stay at the front no longer than you are comfortable—you are under no obligation to stay up there for a given time, however long others stay there. And you don’t have to pull at all—it’s permissible to sit on at the back and not rotate through if you’re struggling with the pace. Tell the other riders you’re not pulling.
Pacelines try to avoid speeding up or slowing down, so watch for places where this tends to happen and help to stop it. Especially in corners, where it’s natural to slow, you may have to stand and sprint briefly to maintain spacing.
Share information. Riders in a paceline can’t see what’s coming, so the leaders send back information. This is usually in the form of hand signals but may be spoken messages. Common spoken messages are “Car up!”, “Car back!”, “Gravel,” “Riders up!”, “Slowing!”, “All clear” (at intersections) and “Walkers.” If you’re at the back, say to the rider who has come off the front and is drifting back alongside the pack “I’m last” as they pass you.
Basic hand signals are:
- Pointing (usually to the ground or the edge of the road)—“There’s an obstacle here.”
- Pointing and shaking the hand or finger— “Notice this.”
- Holding your right arm across your back with your first finger extended— “There’s something blocking our path ahead—move to the left.”
- Putting an arm straight down with palm towards the rider behind and the fingers spread—“Slowing.”
If someone sends you a message, pass it back by doing the same.
Be smooth. Do nothing sudden or extreme. The curse of the paceline is the rider who is unpredictable. If you must slow down, do it gradually and no more than necessary. Speed up the same way. Be careful about standing or sitting up, since they both alter your speed. If you must make a sudden move, swerve outside the paceline so the rider behind you doesn’t have to deal with you. Save eating, drinking, or anything else that upsets your rhythm and alters your speed for when you’re drifting or at the back.
Do not half-wheel. When you’re riding in a double paceline, with a rider next to you, stay exactly beside them. There is a strong psychological urge to be slightly ahead, because it quiets the fear that you’re going to be outridden. So you creep forward a few inches. This is half-wheeling. It feels like a comfortable place to you, but it’s an uncomfortable place for your partner, who constantly feels like they’re falling behind, so they speed up, which forces everyone to speed up, and pretty soon the entire paceline is above the agreed-upon tempo and everyone is scrambling to not be dropped. “Half-wheeling” is also used to mean riding with your front wheel slightly overlapping the rear wheel of the rider in front of you. Don’t do that either.
Resist the temptation to sandbag (warn the others about how slow you’re going to be). Don’t go on about how you rode hard yesterday, your legs feel like noodles, you’ve been fighting some bug recently and have been dead on the bike, or you just had open-heart surgery the week before. It’s a natural impulse, especially if you’re worried you’re in over your head. But it doesn’t have the effect you think it has—it just pisses people off when you stay with them.
Traditionally a paceline ride contains an informal sprint to a town border sign or similar landmark. Take part if you wish; get out of the sprinters’ way if you don’t.
Some pacelines stop if someone has a flat, some don’t. Ask at the beginning if there are regroups and do what others do.
Be supportive and grateful. Always say “Thanks for the ride” to as many riders as you can afterwards and thank the ride organizer if there is one. If you leave the ride before the end, shout, “Good ride! Thanks, guys!” as you leave. Occasionally say “Nice pull” to the rider who just got off the front.
Cycling After 60
Being 60 years old isn’t like sand—you don’t run into patches of it on a ride, then leave it behind. But, like sand, it takes a different sort of technique and a different way of thinking. I’m 73 (in 2020), so what follows isn’t book learning.
How old is old? That obviously depends on your body. Science says you begin decaying as early as age 40. For some people, what follows is relevant when you’re 50. For me, it didn’t hit hard until 70.
Prep your bike. Your body is losing muscle mass and flexibility. Give it a break by 1) raising your handlebar, 2) getting lower gearing, 3) getting bigger tires and lowering your tire pressure, and 4) perhaps changing bikes, to something longer, more compliant, with more relaxed geometry, perhaps even something with suspension.
The logical end-point of such thinking is an e-bike. We will all end up on one—it’s only a question of when. Luckily we’ve lived long enough that e-bikes now have looks and handling that are nearly indistinguishable from road bikes. The only downsides are weight, price, and limited battery range. Tech will continue to make progress on all three issues.
Change your expectations. Accept reality. An aging body loses muscle mass, flexibility, and top-end heart rate with each passing year. There is nothing you can do about this. Training harder is fine, and you’re welcome to do it, but don’t expect it to overcome age’s losses, because it won’t. People who say “Age is just a number” aren’t athletes.
So it comes down to this: are you going to hate yourself and the world because your times up the annual hill climb are getting slower, or are you going to realize that climbing the hill at 5 mph is really just about as fun as climbing it at 7 mph, riding in the granny gear is really just about as much fun as riding in the 34-25, and riding the moderate hill can be as beautiful and inspiring as riding the 18% pitch? I ride very differently than I did 10 years ago—I stop to take pictures frequently now, for instance, which I never used to do—and it’s a different but not necessarily inferior experience. Maybe better. I encourage you to embrace that attitude, and stop comparing your current speeds and times with old ones.
This is harder than it sounds, because we all have a definition of ourselves in our head: “I’m me because I can do X.” X may be do the Saturday crossword puzzle without using the dictionary. It may be be attractive to the opposite sex. If you’re a cyclist, you’re you because you can do a century in under 6 hours or climb 6000 ft in a day. Until you can’t. Then you either decide you’re no longer you, or you get a new definition of yourself.
It’s harder to ride with others. The slower you get, the harder it is to ride in the local pacelines. In my town, the local fun rides begin around 20 mph, and I’m not able to do that kind of pace for very long. So you end up riding alone, with friends your own age, or on “social” group rides. It’s the hardest part of being old for me.
Keep your heart rate down. There is growing evidence that very high heart rates are bad for an aging heart. It’s a new way of thinking, because until age, high HR’s are a badge of honor and a training goal. Exactly at what bpm you start doing damage is uncertain (there are books on the aging athlete’s heart if you want to get deep into this), but I no longer let myself ride at above 140 bpm except for the rare short, intense training interval.
Hoard your matches. Your strength is limited, and the price of great efforts is higher. So make intelligent decisions about how hard you want to go and when.
Recover more and longer. When I was younger, a recovery day meant riding at an easy pace for a couple of hours, and on a bike vacation I could easily ride every day if I didn’t exhaust myself on any one ride. Now “recovery” is more typically being off the bike—often lying on the couch. At home I rarely ride on back-to-back days, and I know if I do a really hard ride I won’t be riding for a couple of days. This means I have to change how I ride on vacation—dole out the exertion more carefully, schedule in more sight-seeing/shopping days.
This is especially true when it comes to sickness or injury. You can’t ride through such things the way you once could. Don’t try.
Play it safe. When you were young, being injured meant riding sore for a few days. Then it meant being laid up for a few days. Now it might mean never riding again, or never walking again, or dying. I hate to tell anyone to not take a risk, but at a certain age you can’t afford serious injury. I have an aged friend who fell off his bike, and his doctor told him if he fell again his arm would hang uselessly from his shoulder from then on.
Get a bone scan. Much of our increased frailty comes down to brittle bones (osteoporosis). Find out how brittle yours are by getting a bone scan, aka DEXA scan. It will tell you how cautious you need to be, and whether you need to take measures. You might think you don’t have to worry, because you’re an athlete, but cycling doesn’t help prevent osteoporosis—ours isn’t an impact sport. You should have been a mountain biker.
There are drugs and exercises that help osteoporosis. The current thinking is, Calcium supplements don’t, by the way.
As with most physical problems, it’s easier to prevent osteoporosis than make it go away once you’ve got it. So start working on the project now, before it’s a problem. Intentionally ride rough pavement now and then, for instance.