Thursday, March 2, 2017

Riding a Bike: You're Doing It Wrong

Look at some of the recent headlines you'll find in the mainstream cycling magazines and websites:

Why Everyone Should Take a VO2 Max Test

Get The Perfect Pedaling Stroke


Pain Is The Cycling Coach You Didn't Know You Had

Why You Should Invest In A Bike Fit This Season

The Ultimate 30-Minute Get Fast Workout

Breathing For Cyclists

Four Ways Your Tire Pressure Is Wrong

Rookie Cycling Errors That Will Ruin Your Ride

Ten Cycling Accessories That Will Transform Your Ride

Why You Should Throw Your Rim Brakes In The Trash

Honestly, you'd think that riding a bike was some kind of ancient unsolved mystery, and the magazines, blogs, and websites seem determined to convince us that whatever we're doing, we're doing it wrong. We're using the wrong bike. The wrong accessories. The wrong wheels. The wrong tires. The wrong brakes. We're apparently pedaling wrong, and even breathing wrong.

I'm not going to say that there aren't certain skills involved in bicycling that can't be improved upon, but I really wonder how many people learn to improve upon them by reading these "self-help" articles. In fact, the people who are probably the most in need of help are probably those who would never read a cycling magazine or website in the first place. Certainly, riding in traffic requires not only a good bit of skill, but also a fair amount of nerve. Just understanding the rules of the road (and realizing that they apply to us cyclists as well as drivers) is a big part of it. The "nerve" aspect of it isn't something a person gets from reading articles, though. I've found that the people who are most comfortable in traffic are those who have the most experience in dealing with traffic - and those who started sharing the road with cars at a younger age are often more comfortable than those who avoided riding among cars until they were well into adulthood. Riding with a group requires certain skills too, but again, a lot of it comes from riding with groups.

A billion Chinese people can't be wrong.
The "go-fast" workout advice and coaching tips have always struck me as a waste of time, too. I've always gotten the impression that people who take that stuff seriously are still hacks on the bike, and annoying to talk to, much less ride with. They talk in numbers - RPMs, watts, intervals, heart rate, and O² levels. They talk about "spanking" the climbs, and take pictures of themselves at the end of a ride with their bikes held aloft as if they've just done something unique (Dude - you rode your bike, just like millions of other people who don't even own cars). The "victory" pictures get posted to Facebook, because if it's not on social media, it didn't happen.

The post-ride "victory" photo: probably the most valid pro-carbon argument that can be made.
So much easier to hold the bike aloft.
Then there are the articles about how this component or that accessory will change your ride - or even change your life. Electronic shifting. Disc brakes. Smart phone integration. Power meters. Carbon fiber anything. What most of these things have in common is that they almost always require buying a whole new bike (perhaps I should say another whole new bike). The recent article about "Why you should throw your rim brakes in the trash," which appeared in Outside magazine, is pretty much the epitome of why I can't take such magazines seriously. Throw your rim brakes away - which means, by extension, throw your whole bike away too. If it doesn't have disc brakes, it's hopelessly obsolete and worthless, right? Never mind that the vast majority of bikes being ridden today have rim brakes, and somehow their owners are not careening out of control to their doom.

The Outside article cites a head-to-head comparison between a Trek Domane SLR 8 with carbon fiber rims and rim brakes and a Trek Domane SLR 7 with hydraulic disc brakes. Well, right there is a major problem, because rim brakes on carbon fiber rims are probably the worst braking combination a person could devise on a modern bike. And that's the head-to-head comparison model? They might as well have compared it with the braking of rock-hard 1970s-era brake pads on chromed steel rims. In the rain. Carbon fiber rims are probably the best justification for disc brakes on road bikes today. In trying to shave every gram of weight, wheel manufacturers have been pushing carbon fiber rims - but the braking on them is notoriously bad. So disc brakes are the solution to a problem that can largely be avoided by not "upgrading" to carbon rims. Modern dual-pivot brakes paired with high-quality aluminum rims work amazingly well with very little effort. Later generation higher-end single-pivot sidepulls also work great, and in my opinion, have better modulation. It's only a matter of time before disc brakes take over completely - but I'll never buy a bike specifically to get them.

Despite what the articles say, I'm also quite certain that I will not be getting a VO2 Max test this year, (or next year, or any year for that matter), nor would I recommend it for anyone who isn't getting paid by someone to win bike races. If I was making a significant investment in a brand new custom bike, I might opt for a fit session to make sure I get the best bike for my body, but otherwise I'm not going to shell out for one just because someone who doesn't know me thinks I should. Nor do I think a bike accessory has ever transformed my ride, much less my life.

Riding a bike is a deceptively simple thing -- so simple that people are always eager to overthink it, and to try to get us to do the same. I mean, most of us probably learned how to ride before we got out of the 1st grade, if not sooner. And there's some truth to the old saying that you never forget how. Millions of people enjoy riding on bikes that might be dismissed by some bike snobs as crap, but which get people where they're going cheaply and reliably. Most of us enjoy riding and get a lot out of our time on a bike, whether or not we know our O² levels, our heart rate, or how many watts we're expending. We're happy to use our thumb and forefinger to decide if our tire pressure is "about right" and leave it at that.

Enjoy your ride - don't overthink it. If you're not a danger to yourself and those around you, how "wrong" can you really be?

32 comments:

  1. And this is why i stopped reading Bicycling Magazine decades ago...

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  2. If only all those people in China were still riding bikes. The first time I travelled in China in 1988, there were literally bikes everywhere, and virtually no cars. By the time I last visited, in 1995, they were well on their way to abandoning the bicycle and embracing car culture. From what I know now, cars are everywhere. Alas.

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    1. I have heard/read that that was happening there. Such a shame.

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    2. I was just in Wuxi, a large city near Shanghai, a year ago. There were way more crappy electric scooters than bicycles. There were what we would call bike lanes on all the roads, used 90% by scooters. They cost the equivalent of a few hundred US dollars, can be bought at Carrefour (large supermarket chain) and use a lead acid battery for maybe 20 miles range. I saw new "bicycles" for as cheap as $25 in a different Carrefour. A lot were covered in dust, so they're not selling now that people can afford scooters.

      I bought a Bickerton folding bike from the Trek store when I was over there, and passed most of the scooters even uphill in my top gear of 50 gear inches (16" wheels.)

      Typical scooters parked on the sidewalk:
      https://flic.kr/p/HtN2tb

      Typical scene at intersection (look at all the scooters across the way):
      https://flic.kr/p/GR15XW

      This lady is riding against traffic on a 60+ MPH divided highway. I saw this more than once.

      https://flic.kr/p/SHeYJW

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  3. "Carbon fiber rims are probably the best justification for disc brakes on road bikes today."

    There's another one, from Bike Radar's recent article on tire rolling resistance:

    "Frankly, fat-tire clearance is a more compelling argument to me for road discs than many other oft-cited reasons." By "fat" he means 28 mm, and by "clearance" he means the clearance you get under modern short reach calipers installed on modern carbon fiber racing bikes.

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  4. Honestly, the fit myth and it's ensuing marketing, is what drive me nuts. So many customers call and ask about fitting, and can I do it. "Sure, happy to help, stop in, give me 10 minutes, and you'll be good. *How much is it?* I don't charge for my opinion, just stop on in"....

    Saddle height, set back, and tweak reach and drop with stem bars swaps as needed. I have hundreds of happy cyclists, with a couple hundred still in their pockets, riding with no pain, and a smile on their face.

    Performance follows comfort. Anyone who insists on fitting you into a pretzel position in the name of performance can plant a smooch on my backside!

    Folks have been sold a bill of goods that lasers and gigantic bike shaped thingies in mirrored "studios" are essential to being able to do 50 miles on a weekend with out causing irreparable harm to themselves.

    Kinda like VO2 max tests. Sheldon Brown said it best. "It's not training unless you're being paid, you're just riding your bike".

    Magazines? Cosmopolitan/GQ with pedals is all any of them have been, for a decade or more.I feel bad for all the trees that give up their lives for the printing of such tripe.

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    1. In the past couple of years, i've heard plenty of yammering about bike fitting. People pay hundreds of dollars to have some "expert" in a shop put them on a measuring device. Looks to me like easy money for the shop- the pricey measuring gear is paid off after 5 or 6 fittings, i guess.
      Perhaps the buyer feels justified in meeting the expense -after all, they're about to drop 3k-7K on the latest Wonderbike. (Never mind that the latest trends in bike design call for small-ish, slope-framed plastic bikes with ridiculously long seatposts) All they're really determining seems to be stem length and height.
      The buyer has then become the latest victim to marketing.

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  5. It's obvious to me that those articles are just a way to please advertisers by generating a spending behavior on readers.

    When I ride on Critical Mass once a month, I am amazed by how many riders use bikes that haven't been properly fitted or cared. But if someone is just a recreational/casual rider who uses a bicycle only on weekends or for short distances, then what's the problem?

    I guess those magazines articles are oriented for those who have the need to prove themselves (or their peers) how commited they are to be the very best.Whether that attitude is honest or impossed by others is another matter.

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    1. @ Alexander Lopez. I think you've nailed it Alex. Bike magazines are little more than glossy sales brochures. It's all about the dollar bill.

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  6. I ride a steel bike with rim brakes--just like the billion Chinese who can't all be Wong used to do.

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  7. An accessory that I can say changed my cycling is the bike computer. I mostly use simple ones, without even cadence, but just having numbers that can with some validity objectify my ride has modified my cycling behavior. It gives me a way to tell if I rode as much this year as last, and often inspires me to get in another ride, or to go a bit farther. I don't obsess about the numbers, or worry about speed (though sometimes I'll go a bit faster to break some arbitrary value), but I do log my rides, and this let's me know that I typically ride 7k to 10k a year, mostly commuting. I do draw the line with classic and mountain bikes, where a computer would be anachronistic, or easily damaged, and I enjoy the ride just the same. In fact, it can be freeing to not have numbers in my face. I sometimes ride with a friend who doesn't use a cyclecomputer, and he still manages to beat me to the top of every climb, so I get that, too. On the other hand, he'll usually ask me at the end of a long ride how far we went.

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    1. I don't even use a computer anymore. I did a long time ago, and when the batteries died, and I couldn't remember how to re-calibrate it (having lost the instructions), I removed the whole thing. I log my rides, too -- knowing how far it is to work and back, I track my commuting miles the old fashioned way. I mark down the miles in a calendar, and total them up every month.

      I suppose if I grudgingly had to say that any accessory changed my cycling, I would only say that it was getting good headlights and taillights (which are much brighter now than they used to be), which allow me to ride to work year-round -- often before sunrise.

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  8. Agreed. I gave up on a cycle computer long ago. What changed my riding, equipment wise, was realizing I can have generator lights, good fenders, and a small rack and bag in a high performance bike.

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  9. I agree with your sentiment that no accessory changes the cycling experience, but I also agree with you that modern lights did change the way I ride. The same could be said about my ass-saver rear "fender", because I am too vane to ride fendered bike and this kinda lets me have a cake and eat it.

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  10. Let's see... VO2 Max=Margaritas consumed and still able to pedal safely home.
    Victory Bike Hoist... Ain't happening most of my bikes weigh 40+ pounds. Some even go over 50! But they all have fenders, lights racks and baskets. Let's see Joe Wannabe haul home a week's worth of groceries for 4 people and the dog on the CF wonder bike, that probably cost more than I spend in a year on groceries...

    Yes I am a retrogrouch.

    Aaron

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    1. Re: margaritas: at my local Mexican restaurant, it's 2; they make some very strong drinks... but I never leave there unhappy : )

      As for the victory hoist: I can easily lift my heavy bike above my head (albeit, not when loaded with goods in the panniers and/or trailer); I just don't understand the point of it. When I get home, my first thought isn't to lift my bike, except over the threshold; it's to get my groceries inside so that they don't spoil, and to get a beer inside me : )

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  11. I've had a fitting done - more a of an old school fitting without video or much technology. For a hundred bucks, I got my saddle raised and moved forward. I'm not sure it was worth the cost.

    I tend to like more traditional frames, so I've decided the old school fitting methods are as good as any - the frame fits if you can grab a handful of seat post; KOPS; you shouldn't be able to see you front hub when looking down. I set my bikes up up by rules of thumb and a professional fitter only moves my saddle incrementally; in the future I'll just stick to the rules of thumb.

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  12. compact gears, really nice clincher tires, LED lights, and floating cleats have transformed my cycling experience. I've been on the bike 45 years, still have a couple of my old bikes from the 70s, but a couple carbon / DI2 bikes too. It's all good. But a lot of this so-called "innovation" is just driven by marketing departments trying to sell this season's bike by making last season's bike obsolete or out of fashion.

    I wonder how many carbon giants or treks will still be kickin' it in 2030 ? My 74 Masi is still a great ride.

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    1. **Really** nice clinchers! Like the Compass "extra light" models. I'd put these, plus modern sealants, at the top of all of the "innovations" from the past 40 years including all of those below. I ride 175 gram Compass Elk Pass tires in dirt and gravel that are littered with goatheads.

      However, I have to agree that clipless, modern dynos and LED lights, and the best of the modern plastic saddles (I like Flite -- the original ones) have made a very positive difference, as, to a lesser degree, have hidden-cable brake levers and more-than-8 speeds in back (with 10 mismatched but closely spaced HG cogs I get a very nice close-ratio gearset for my "road bike for dirt", though I atone for my sin by using original issue Power Ratchet BES to pull the Dura Ace 740x f and rear derailleurs. (Frankly, using a more modern rd with a lower actuation ratio would work better; the Microshift road rd that burst apart when clogged by a stick was the nicest shifting rd I've used, but you have to admit that the old DA rd is much cooler.)

      Also: modern minipumps: if you can't stick a HPx under your top tube, one of the many Lezynes will work almost as well and tuck away nicely in your Banana Bag.

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  13. Professional Fitting - what a reeking pile of dung. My one and only "fitting" was by a frame builer (a damn good one named Bill Boston, who actually cared about such things!) forty years ago. It consisted of my sitting on the bike I owned then, discussing how I rode, making notes and adjustments. A month later I became the owner of the best-fitting, most comfortable bike I'll ever own. I still ride it and plan to do so until I physically cannot.
    The other thing I remember from that long-ago fitting conversation, was Bill's scathing contempt for cycling magazines and the advice they pedalled (pun intended). So I guess its just a new version of the same old marketing-department drivel, lapped up by yet another generation of pretentious racer wannabbees. What it comes down to is this: steel is real, and carbon is what I burn in my stove.

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  14. I think bicycling magazine has had only about 15 or so articles they re-do all the time for the last few decades. Velo-Snooze isn't much better these days. a good bike is one that is being ridden. Unlike some wines, saving one in a cellar will not make it ride better years from now.

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  15. Kind of ironic you telling the "go-fast hacks" they are cycling wrong.

    As for the marketing, how is it any different from back in the day? Is SLX better than SL? Are Campagnolo side pull better than center pull? Six speeds that much better than five? Should I put a cabbage leaf between my cap and head on hot days? The only difference is that as time moved on, competition to sell stuff has gotten more intense, increasing the BS factor.

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  16. I wanna hear more on this cabbage leaf thing, please?

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    1. I don't know about cabbage, but chamois instead. In very hot days, what some motorcyclist do is to use a moist chamois (like the ones used for cleaning cars) around the neck. Since the neck is very sensitive to temperature being fresh there feels better, especially is you need a to use a full helmet.

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  17. The cabbage leaf is a time honored training method from the C.O.N.I. manual. I'm as likely to do that as I am going to get my VO2 max tested.

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  18. Every business relies to some degree on trying to convince its customers that whatever they have, they need something better instead. Bikes, cars, clothes, whatever. Publications that depend on advertising revenue are part of this process. The definitive treatise on this topic is "The Sneetches" by Dr. Seuss. Of course, there are real improvements, but it can be hard to distinguish them from hype. Cycling is hardly the worst in this respect; there is an entire industry devoted to convincing women that however they look, it's not OK, and they'd better buy something to fix it, the sooner the better.

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  19. These articles are why I don't subscribe to the mainstream cycling publications. I don't need any tests or numbers to know how I ride. I presently subscribe to Momentum Mag, which is a much better fit for my tastes, and am considering a Bicycle Quarterly subscription; all of the other rags with their VO2 this and watts that can go pound sand.

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  20. The addition of teaching "Designed obsolescence" as a legitimate college level course for engineering students, to me, is the breaking point from what used to be, and what we have now.

    Sure, marketing exists, but it used to inspire one to reach higher to obtain something you didn't have. Now, it's a vicious cycle of what you have isn't good enough, oh, you have it, well, it's still not as cool as this......

    Remember when "durable goods" was a concept in the stock market. Goods designed to last a lengthy period of time.

    That I can spend $1500 for a cheap fridge, that may last 5 years, disgusts me, so I hang onto the 20+ year old (when I bought my house 20 years ago) one that came with the house.

    Sure, it might cost me a little more to run each month, but I'll be damned if I'll fill the landfill with a dead fridge every 5 or so years, just so I can have some energy efficiency, and provide some CEO with a multi million dollar a year paycheck.....

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    1. Fridge in my house is going on 35 years; It hums wonderfully.

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  21. "One of the main functions of disc brakes is to solve the problems of the carbon wheels manufacturers. Solve problems of the wheels is not my job." - Dario Pegoretti

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  22. Because you can use it while riding any bike, I think the greatest improvement to cycling since the rear derailleur is Ride Wih GPS. Finding new routes, especially off road, opens a whole new world. I'm currently planning a 300 mile trip home from Vermont and used it to plot a multi day fun fest of road, dirt and trail, when I would otherwise rely on dead reckoning and a Citgo map.

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  23. About a decade ago when I was about to replace my 4th set of brifters so I could continue my pursuit of speed at all costs - I had an the epiphany that there must be a better way. I started a journey to steel frames, bar-end shifters and 36 spoke wheels with fat tires, 47c, I slowed down and haven't looked back

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