These days, you see bicycles everywhere, perhaps because more and more people have figured out that biking is a fun way to get where you want to go, save gas and make both the world and yourself a little healthier. Basic biking is easy and fun.
I must admit that, despite the doping scandals, I enjoy watching some of the Tour de France every July. Most of these athletes are honest, hard-working, superbly-trained professionals and it’s a pleasure to watch that kind of dedication and athleticism in action. Most of us will never ride at anywhere near the level of the professionals in the Tour de France. Most of us will never even enter a bike race. But everyone who gets on a bike can learn at least a little bit from what the pros teach.
Take the matter of the bikes themselves. Not everyone is going to spend thousands of dollars on a bike—which is not an unreasonable price for the custom-fitted, cutting-edge, hand-crafted technology in the bikes on Le Tour.
But we can take some tips from the pros. Number one is to make sure your bike fits you (or it will give you fits . . .).
Seriously, if you are going to get on any bike and ride it any distance, make sure, at the very least, that the seat is at the right height for you. Your leg should be almost straight when the pedal is at the bottom of its orbit. Too often, I see people pedaling with the bike seat way too low, which is both inefficient and uncomfortable, and potentially damaging to your knees.
Pick a bike with the frame the right size for you. Too big or too small forces you into an uncomfortable and often, unsafe riding position, and can make for dangerous handling characteristics. If you’ve got a bike you like, take it to a good bike shop for a complete fitting. The improved ride will be worth it.
If you are in the market for a new bike, go to a bike specialty shop and get fitted before you even start looking at bikes themselves. That way, you’ll know what frame size you are looking for. Most good bike shops will measure you so that you know what will fit; they’ll charge somewhere in the $30-50 range for the work (more if they have a more sophisticated setup). It’s well worth the price to be sure you’re getting the right bike!
On the subject of new bikes, I’m a firm believer in riding the best bikes you can afford to ride. It’s been my experience that clunker bikes discourage riding for most people. A bike that’s too heavy, too hard to pedal, steer and shift can turn anyone into a non-cyclist in a hurry. Tip: Get the right frame, as a lot of the other parts can be upgraded, but you won’t be able to change the frame!
On the other hand, if you can’t afford the newest and best, there are lots of good used bikes available at very reasonable prices. I’ve bought my last three bikes used, never regretted it. The last bike I purchased new is 20 years old and in need of replacement. Now that my kids are out of college, that may happen. Ask your local dealer, as they may have something available, or know a customer of theirs who is thinking of selling.
Another lesson from the Tour: Maintain your bike. While you’re at the bike shop, pay for a tune up and see if they’ll let you watch. Or take a class in basic bike maintenance. Learning to clean, lube and make basic adjustments on your bike not only saves you money, it makes riding more efficient and fun. A great website for advice is Park Tools; they make more cycling-specific tools that the pros use than anyone, and you can learn a lot from reading what they have to say. While you’re at it, ask your local shop if they give classes in on-the-road repair; knowing how to change a tire or adjust a derailleur can save your ride!
Finally, when you watch the Tour, you learn to make safety a priority. These guys always wear helmets in case of a crash, and have to learn bike handling skills to negotiate the roads at high speeds in the crowded Peloton. Considering how much traffic there is on the roads and bike trails, and the obstacles you can encounter on a mountain bike trail, we need to learn the same skills and take the same precautions.
Biking is fun, it’s great exercise, and it saves fossil fuel. Everyone should do a little more.
EFFICIENT BIKING: PEDAL METTLE; SHIFTY SHIFTING
If you get a chance, watch a bike race on TV or better yet, in person at a local club event. The racers have to be efficient or they lose the race.
Every racer is wearing bike shoes with cleats that clip to their pedals. Why? Because it allows more efficient pedaling. If you’re biking any distance at all get pedals and shoes that lock together. It’s also a lot safer than the old toe straps; your feet unclip in crashes rather than staying stuck to the bike.
Locking your foot to the pedal lets you establish a comfortable cadence (how fast your legs turn the pedals). Instead of just pushing down on one side of the pedals, you push down with one foot and pull back and up with the other. The pedal rotation is smoother and you can pedal faster, more comfortably. Try pedaling a bike with only one leg without the new pedals, and then with them; you’ll notice the difference immediately.
Learning to maintain a comfortable cadence is one of the hallmarks of a good biker. And learning to shift properly so you can maintain that cadence is part of the process.
Watch a biker riding up a hill. If their pedaling slows down and they are pushing hard on the pedals, causing the bike to rock back and forth unsteadily, it’s a sign that they haven’t learned how to use their gears correctly. Most bikes these days have either three chainrings in front and seven, eight or nine in the rear for a total of 21, 24, or 27 speeds, or better still, a “compact” double in the front with 10 gears in the back. Those gears are there for a purpose and learning to use them means you can travel farther, have more fun, with less effort.
Your goal in shifting is to maintain the same pedaling cadence almost all the time. Start on a flat with your gears in the smallest ring in the front and the largest in the rear; it’ll be way too easy to pedal, so immediately start shifting until it feels moderately hard. Practice moving up and down through the gears at different speeds until shifting becomes second nature. Then take to the hills and learn to anticipate changes so you shift up or down as necessary to comfortably maintain your pedaling cadence.
Too high a gear will force you to slow down, too low and you’ll be chasing your pedals. Just right and you can pedal far and fast.
When you master being in the right gear for your speed and the slope, hills are still a challenge, but one you can often master. And if you watch those pro riders in the Tour de France this summer, you’ll understand better what they’re doing…and learn from them!