Saturday, May 23, 2009

Focusing on cadence

When I started riding on my commuter bike, I left the shifting on the toughest gear combo possible with the thought that it would be most efficient for me and that I'd build better fitness (muscles!). When I bought the road bike, I thought I would be leaving the bike in a tough gearing most of the time as well, except when climbing of course.

Well, apparently tough gearing is not so smart and high cadence (pedal revolution rate) is a key for efficiency. This is not as easy as it sounds for me though since I'm used to feeling more resistance on the pedals. I figure since I'm practically learning to pedal all over again, I would be sure to take high cadence as a goal during my training rides.

I'm far from the expert, but my reading has suggested that somewhere between 85 and 105rpm is the sweet spot for efficient road riding, unlike our rider above. I think this varies from person to person, but the gist is that the low resistance will better tune your riding muscles during the initial periods as well as bring your body to a "peak" for riding.

Now, during my Monday and Wednesday training rides, I shift to my smaller chainring and push up the RPMs, focusing on pedaling technique. For a while, I started bouncing on the saddle, and I initially thought this was a question of saddle position. Instead, with a tip from another local rider, he suggested I focus on completely lifting my weight off of the pedal on the upstroke. What a difference! Instead of thinking about pulling up the pedal, simply focusing on removing the weight from the pedal makes for a big change.

I now have a cadence monitor, but I tried to count revolutions per second to give me an idea of RPM. 1 revolution per second, I was doing 60 RPM. 2 revolutions per second would be 120 RPM. So I would aim somewhere in between to reach that 85-105 RPM range, something like 3 revolutions per 2 seconds.

What do you think? How big of a role does cadence have in your training?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Learning to pedal

Among many roadies, you'll hear talk of power, bike stiffness, and efficiency. A lot of the different industries design their products and compete with efficiency as the main goal, comfort usually coming second. But beyond product, there is a lot of talk about the more efficient pedal stroke as a fundamental.

Personally, I had no idea there was so much that could be involved with what I perceived to be the simple act of pedaling my bicycle. I knew that one of the purposes and advantages of being clipped into your pedals was so that you could pull up on the pedals and maintain consistent contact. It barely starts there though... I'm just learning to pedal :)

There are two main points that feel strange to me that I'm currently practicing with my training rides. The first is the purposeful use of my ankle to appropriately angle my foot. I consciously think about how I point my toes to maximize the use of the force I'm putting on the crank arm. Going back to the days of high-school physics, the more perpendicular the pushing or pulling force is to the crank arm, the more efficient the pedaling. Any parallel force is wasted. Obviously, I can't always apply a 100% perpendicular force, but I try my best to think about the angle of my foot so that I can maximize my efficiency.

The second point is about more consciously using my hamstring, especially to pull the pedals. I don't remember exactly where I read or heard this, but it has been helpful for me: when you're at the bottom of the stroke, pull your leg and foot backward as if you were wiping dog-poo off your shoe on the grass. This made it very easy for me to translate the motion onto the bike, and this, in-turn, helps minimize that "dead spot" in the stroke where your downward push on the pedals would be 100% parallel to the cranks, and thus wasted.

In some of my morning training, I'm doing my best to ride with these two points in mind as I shape my pedaling technique and style, by it is far from second-nature. There are many different pedaling styles though that I am not even aware of though... to the readers, what are your pedaling-points?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Endless cleat positioning

Before I really knew the world I entered when I bought my road bike, I had simple mountain biking shoes with the tiny SPD cleat. These cleats actually went into a hybrid platform/MTB pedal and I never really thought anything else of it. My knees didn't hurt, the fit of the bike felt fine. There were a couple of limitations though. The shoe could become stuck or unclipped when applying a lot of power, such as in a sprint. Also, the pedal and cleat didn't cover much surface area, so I was subject to hot spots depending on the pressure to the pedal.

After some research, I decided that road pedals, with their wider platform, would be the way to go to maximize my efficiency. For Christmas, my wife gave me some Ultegra SPD-SL pedals, and I followed that up with the purchase of Specialized BG Comp Road shoes and attached the Shimano cleats.

Immediately, on my first ride, I felt a few things off. On both of my feet, I felt like I was pushing with my toes, and with my left foot, I had not compensated enough for how my feet point naturally inward, yup I'm pigeon toed. I made an quick adjustment to both cleats. My right cleat and foot felt perfect, but the left one continued to be a problem.

My left inner knee would feel a strain on pedaling, or I'd feel like I was pushing too much with my toes. With every adjustment I made, it was either one or the other, I can't get rid of both symptoms.

I ran across this great article that talks about knee pain. For my case, it suggested allowing my feet to point further inward and move the cleat outside so that my leg would be closer to the frame; both changes minimizing the stress on my medial collateral ligament. Check out this knee diagram to complement the previous link with tips to address knee pain.

I'm still not there though. On the radar are for me to investigate some of Specialized's "footbeds" and shims to help align my left leg and foot. I may need to make some saddle adjustments. My last resort, which actually would be great, would be to invest in a full bike fit to increase my comfort and performance. For now, it's a consistent game of little adjustments before, during, and after rides. I don't regret moving to the road-style pedal and cleats, but I do wish the fit were easier. How do you deal with fit problems when it comes to the cleat?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Before and After - part 1: flip the stem

When I shopped for my road bike, it was the first time I was riding with a dropped handle bars; by body, especially my back and my neck, was not used to the extended more aerodynamic position.  In an effort to reassure me of the fit and close the sale, the shop said it could raise the bars some to allow for a more relaxed position.  

Road bike stem BEFORE on Twitpic
At that point, I had no idea how into riding I would be, and much less that I'd begin training for racing.  This slightly less aero-dynamic change was probably unnecessary for me, but I wanted to ease my way into the sport.  Among some of my longer rides with more experienced cyclists, they suggested that I was "ready" to flip the stem.  I had no idea what they meant, but they explained that, as long as I was still comfortable, allowing the handle bars to go lower would not only make me more aerodynamic, but also increase my handling of the bike.  The increased handling is what really made me think about this more since I was afraid of losing control of the bike on fast descents.

I started reading into this and I'd see online forum discussions talk about this as if it were a question of religion.  What I have noticed is that ultimately, the racer tends to have the stem pointed down, it does increase handling, and it does make you more aerodynamically.  However, none of this should be at the cost of comfort for fear of back or neck pain.

Road bike stem AFTER... yeah!  We're going faster this year! on Twitpic
I decided to flip the stem myself (I'm a little afraid of some repairs, I don't want to break the bike)!  I referred to this how-to post to guide me through the process, and it ended up being a success.  The key is making sure you have correctly adjusted the headset.  I've now ridden the entire 2009 season so far with flipped stem, and I have no discomfort in my neck or back, and it certainly is good to feel the wind go by a little faster in the drops.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Allez means GO!

Here is the machine that carries me through the many miles of pavement in Northern California, a 2008 Specialized Allez Elite Compact, 56cm:

My revamped 2008 Specialized Allez Elite

The bike is a race geometry aluminum frame with a carbon fork/steerer and carbon seat-stays.  There are "Zertz inserts" in the seat-stays and fork to help dampen vibration, soften the ride, and increase comfort.  The components are a Shimano Tiagra/105 mix; the rear derailleur is where the 105 comes in (and I honestly think that Tiagra is far underrated).  The drive-train is composed of 50x34T chainrings and a SRAM 11-28t cassette, a perfect compact combination for the flats and the climbs.

This is a great road bike, but I also added my share of upgrades to personalize it.  I swapped the brake pads for Kool-Stop Salmons, an incredible and necessary change from the stock pads.  I now use Michelin Krylion Carbon tires, I find them to be a perfect balance of race-performance and durability.  These tires are wrapped around my new Mavic Ksyrium Elite wheels for added stiffness and reduced weight.  Lastly, thanks to my lovely wife, I have Ultegra SPD-SL pedals.

2008 Specialized Allez Elite CompactThis is actually a big change from the stock appearance of the bike, as seen to the right in one of my first pictures of the bike, before I really knew what I was getting myself into.  The stem is pointed to the sky, the wheels are the stock Jalco/Specialized blend, and my pedal choice was odd with a platform + SPD hybrid that used mountain-biking cleats.  The bike rode VERY well like that, but hopefully my newer additions and changes will carry me farther and faster!

Friday, April 17, 2009

The 100 mile training plan, part 1

I'm reading Joe Friel's The Cyclist's Training Bible, and one of the first things he mentions is that it is important to train with a plan. Last year, my first year with my road bike, I certainly was more just learning about the roadie scene and getting used to clipping in and out. This year though, I certainly want to be more focused (but have even more fun).

The book mentions that that a lot of riders simply go out on their bikes and sort of take on what they feel like or confront while out on the roads. I certainly was following this pattern, but, as the weather is warming up, I have my first plan, I call it my "100 mile training plan, part 1":
  • Monday AM: 1.5 hours on flat bike trail, 20-25 miles
  • Wednesday AM: 1.5 hours on flat bike trail, 20-25 miles
  • Saturday: 50-60 miles, varied flats and climbs
The idea is that I ride about 100 miles per week, which is a major improvement for me from last year when I used to only ride the weekends. My hope is that, after taking almost the entire winter off (I had no trainer nor any cold-weather clothes), slowly my body will accustom itself to the bike again and the muscles will begin coming up to form. Plenty of rest is built-in to the plan to prevent any injury.

Next month, part 2 of the 100 mile training plan, I want to start including interval training/sprints during the shorter workouts. I will gauge how I'm feeling then with regard to training frequency, but for now it's a start and I'm happy! Any readers have similar training plans? How have your progressed your training over the course of a season?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Early test of will

first frost by placid casual, protected by creative commons license
One of the reasons I enjoy cycling is that I can always push myself to improve: go faster, go farther, climb higher, and ultimately ride more.  To start preparing for regional races, I'm in the early stages of my initial training plan, and this involves riding in the morning before work.

I don't know about you, but riding in the morning is a major challenge for me, and a true test of my will to improve.  If I had to wake up by myself to ride, I think it'd be near impossible, but luckily I like waking up with my wife as her job starts much earlier than mine.  I wake up somewhere around 6am.  While she prepares, I have time to make coffee and start collecting my things for a ride.  My goal is to be out the door by 7am and then back home by 8:30am.

This morning, the temperature was in the 40s F when I left, another challenge when you're riding in material as thin as underwear, and the bed is cozy and warm.  Maybe eventually I'll accumulate some of the fancier jackets to keep warm.  Once I'm moving, the ride feels fine, and it's a good 1.5 hour ride; nevertheless, the cold bites at the beginning.  

Eventually, here in Northern California, the morning temperatures will be in the upper 50s F and the morning rides will be even easier, but for now, it's an early test to keep to a training plan.