I spent last Sunday as a cycling cheerleader, hitting four different spots along Vancouver’s marathon route to shout inspiring things to my boyfriend as he pounded out 42km in the blazing sun.
The odometer on my bike reported that my cheer tour totalled around 26km (more than the 18km required by my training schedule), but my body is telling me it was longer. My thumbs – of all things – are killing me, which is making me think my bike doesn’t fit me right, a distinct ache in my lower back has me paranoid about my form, and I’ve never been so thankful for resurfaced pavement in my life – the jarring rumbles of uneven road made my bones feel like they were rattling. Oh, and I realized that I have an illogical fear of my bike falling apart.
I’m not sure I have the nerves for long distance bike rides.
However, as an MEC staff member, I have an arsenal of seasoned cycling pros and bike gurus to help guide my skeptical self through the initial growing pains of transitioning from a commuter to a cyclist in training. Following my Sunday long ride, I spoke with Tim McDermott, MEC Bike Product Manager, who gave me some insight into road bikes, talked me through how to fit a bike, and provided me with a simple maintenance checklist that should prevent my bike from breaking (included below as a pdf).
So first things first in my conversation with Tim: where did this whole road biking phenomenon come from? When I was out riding on Sunday, I felt like I’d stumbled upon some sort of underground community. There were heaps of riders out and about, some with team jerseys and clipless pedals, and others rolling along with a baby trailer in tow.
“The Lance syndrome – the visibility that Lance Armstrong’s *ahem* performance in the Tour de France brought to road biking – has really opened up the sport,” Tim explains to me. “Instead of there just being one style of road bike that a competitive racer might ride, there are now tons of styles, designed with recreation and comfort in mind, to appeal to riders’ different end uses and interests.”
So what does either end of the spectrum look like? “The MEC Nineteen Seventy-One Bicycle is a good example of an urban cross-style bike – it’s good for commuting, some light trail, and maybe some weekend touring. Then there’s a more competitive style of road bike, something like the MEC Col Ltd. or Ghost Race Lector 7000. This is a lighter bike with more performance oriented features like a shorter head tube and sharper angles for a more aggressive stance.”
Having bought my bike before learning these sorts of things, I’m fairly certain I’m on a more race-oriented bike, despite me using it primarily for commuting up until a week ago. Is this why my bones are constantly rattling? Would a more versatile road bike eat up more of that impact?
“Shock absorption has more to do with what your bike is made of,” says Tim. ”A material like carbon fibre soaks up a lot of shock, so if your forks or seat post are carbon fibre, it’ll help absorb some of the impact. And if you were to take a spin on a carbon fibre bike, it would feel like a completely different ride. So much of the impact is absorbed by the frame – you’ll notice the difference right away and will want to spend a lot more time on your bike.”
Yep, that sounds good. I’d like one of those. “However,” Tim continues, snapping me out of carbon fibre-filled dreams, “that’s also the difference between a $1000 bike and a $2000 one.” … Mmm. Okay, good point. In that case, I’d like one of those someday.
But in the meantime, while I have this bike, how do I know that I actually picked the right size and that everything is fitting right?
Tim tells me, “Comfort will be a big part of it. But in terms of things you can actually measure, there are four things to look for when sizing up the fit of your bike.”
- Reach: You don’t want to feel like you really have to reach for your handlebars. The reach should feel natural, not like your shoulders are up around your ears or that your elbows are locked out from having your arms fully extended. For safety and comfort, you want your elbows soft and your shoulders relaxed when you’re riding. (Coincidently, this is where my thumb pain comes from. When I get tired, I lock my elbows, which takes all the give out of my joints and puts all the pressure squarely on my thumb pads. Mental note: soft elbows).
- Deflection: You want about a 10-degree bend in your knee when you’re sitting in the saddle with your leg fully extended, foot on the pedal.
- Clearance: Depending on the style of bike, you’ll want between 2.5–7.5cm of clearance over the top tube.
- Height: The difference in height between the seat and handlebars totally depends on personal preference and how upright you want to be sitting. But keep in mind that after an hour of riding, your bum might be really sore if all of your weight is centred squarely on your seat.
All of that checks out with my bike – we’re a fit(!) – but then where did the lower back pain come from? Am I just sitting wrong? “Your weight distribution should be about 60/40: 60% on your seat, 40% on your handlebars,” says Tim.
And suddenly, I know where this is going. “So if you’re getting lower back pain, it probably has more to do with your core strength and its ability to stabilize and support you when you’re in the saddle.” This is now the second time I’ve been inadvertently told that my core strength is abysmal. A few weeks ago my physio reasoned that part of my ankle trouble is caused by my “powerhouse” not being strong enough to hold my hips in place. Sigh. I get it. I’ll go to a Pilates class.
The silver lining in all of this is that it turns out the likelihood of my bike falling part is basically nil if I pay even an ounce of attention to it now and then. While I feel relieved to know that my bike’s fate isn’t completely out of my hands, I definitely need to get better about incorporating Tim’s at-home maintenance checklist into my regular riding routine. If you’re like me and need a reminder about maintenance, print out the checklist below and post it near your bike. The checklist tells you what to to before every ride, every few rides, and every couple of weeks.
And if, in spite of all of the maintenance you’ve been doing, life just happens and you end up getting a flat, then having a basic tool kit with you can be the difference between getting back on the road in minutes or being stranded for hours. I’m not going to get into how to change a flat here, but MEC has a Bike Tire Repair page with videos and info to get you through it dedicated to getting you through it.
Tim’s minimum bike tool kit includes:
- Tire pump or a CO2 cartridge (and always take a couple cartridges because one always seems to blow off in your hand)
- Spare inner tube (a new one)
- Tire levers
- Multi-tool (Try to strike a balance between portability and usability; just because it has a ton of components doesn’t mean it’s super functional. If it seems like it would be tricky to use, it likely will be.)
All in all, I’m feeling more confident as I head into my weekend long ride. I know my bike and I are a fit, I’m going chant “keep your elbows bent” throughout my ride, and my core and I have a date with a Pilates DVD I tracked down at the bookstore. Admittedly, my least favourite part of my week is the fast ride, so if anyone has any tips on how to make flying along at a breathless speed more enjoyable, let me know.
Until next Friday!