Becoming a More Nuanced Cyclist
Did you know that the bicycle is the most efficient form of human transportation, including walking? In terms of the power it takes to move a person from point A to point B, nothing is more dialed-in than a bike. However, one can still be inefficient while riding their bike. Here are some techniques and tips for maximizing your efficiency on the bike, which will make you faster and have more endurance!
1. Mashers and Spinners
Cadence is a term describing how fast or slow you pedal. It is defined in RPMs: how many times your leg goes through a pedal revolution in a minute. Why is this important? Cadence is about the amount of effort that’s required to ride at a certain speed. If you pedal at too hard of a gear your legs move too slowly, and then you are making yourself do more work than necessary over a certain distance. Conversely, if you ride in a gear too easy for the terrain, you will use a bunch of energy going nowhere fast. Ideally, you are riding in a gear that allows you to pedal a cadence between 80-100 RPMS. You won’t be able to stay in this range if you are in a very steep up or downhill, and that’s okay. Almost all bike computers can tell you your cadence. But if you’re a retro-grouch, analog-type or just really like counting, then you can count how many times your right leg goes around a full revolution in a minute (or in 30 seconds and double it) to get to your cadence. There are one-legged pedaling and high cadence drills online to help you focus in on this area. Eventually, you will get the feel of efficient cadence without thinking about it.
Riders are sometimes called mashers or spinners, depending on their tendency to pedal too hard or too easy. A masher is someone who is in a gear too hard for optimal pedaling efficiency, and a spinner is a, well, you get it. Ultimately, everyone has a natural cadence that feels best to them. Being aware of where you land on this spectrum will allow you to make some changes so you can go further with less effort. Think steady continuity.
2. Shifty times
Another step to becoming more efficient is anticipating what gear you need by looking ahead. What happens when the road goes up? Keep some momentum and shift once you have started climbing but not before. Shifting too early will make you lose momentum. Conversely, if you wait too long to shift, your chain will be under a heavy load and the shifting will be clunky, and might even damage the drivetrain. When the road levels off and you are about to bomb downhill, shift as you crest so you can start pedaling with some force. When the road levels off again, you don't want to be in too easy of a gear - that will cause you to bob all over the place, pedaling out of control. Think fluid inertia.
3. Quiet time
Start to notice how your upper body behaves when you ride, particularly when you are tired or climbing. Ideally, your upper body language is quiet and there is no excessive movement from your head, neck, shoulders, or torso. Too much movement here is a waste of energy but also signals general core instability and weakness. That back pain you feel when you’ve been climbing? It’s a sign of core weakness. Time to get back to core exercises 3 times a week. Observe how much tension you hold in your hands on the bars or whether your arms are locked straight. This is fatiguing and unsafe. Practice using different hand positions to ease up the tension and death grip on the bars. Think supple and strong.
Have you ever had a professional bike fit? It may seem indulgent, but can pay off immensely.
The three contact points on the bike are all variable and impact your riding efficiency and comfort. If you are not in the market for this now, or are still under COVID lockdown, you can do some of your own fitting. Saddle height and position is a relatively easy place to start. Your saddle height should be measured with one leg dropped down into the 6 o'clock position in the pedal stroke. At this point your knee should have a 25-30 degree bend. Have someone take a picture of it or use a mirror. Be sure to be wearing your normal riding clothes and shoes. Additionally, how far forward or back your saddle sits, and whether it is tipped up or down can impact your efficiency. The other contact points (your hand and feet) are better left to have a professional help you find the optimal position.
5. Free speed
Make sure you have enough air in your tires. But not too much. If you have too little air, you risk pinch flats if you run tubes and you lose speed when the tires are too squishy. If you have too much air, you end up with a rougher ride, which will beat you up more over longer rides. Figure out what the right pressure is based on your body weight and your tire width and check this frequently. Tires naturally lose air over time. I check mine every ride, which is not that obsessive. Don’t go a week without checking your tire pressure. Buy a floor pump to make this part of your life easier.