Friday, October 19, 2012

Performance Enhance Cycling

Lance Armstrong used performance enhancing drugs and hid that fact from authorities (find the report here). He won seven Tour de France races that way. The Tour de France is arguably the most important athletic event in France. Stripped of his titles, Armstrong no longer represents the paragon of American sport, but possibly the best of the worst — the one who was found out.

Its an embarrassment for the country but more importantly, it is an embarrassment for the sport. Its so bad, that not only are sponsors leaving Armstrong and his foundation, but they are also abandoning the sport, generally.

Here is an excellent article from a true Lance Armstrong fan who makes no apologies and draws no conclusions. But his tone demonstrates his extreme disappointment:

We live in a different age, one that may not allow the forgiveness of Lance Armstrong, that may hold him to be the creator rather than the product of the era he reigned over. We might even judge this champion's cheating and lying too vile to permit the remembrance of the part of him that, even now, convinced that he doped to win the Tour, I can't stop being a fan of: the plain fact that he was, as even his bitter enemy Floyd Landis told me when we spoke last year, "a badass on a bike."

I've never been a fan of professional athletics. I think the pros get paid way too much in proportion to their contribution. But I am a cyclist and this is my sport. I want to encourage others to participate — cycling is a great way for people of all fitness levels to get in shape. I want those people to know they can ride a bicycle without doping. I don't want kids risking their health to emulate the great riders.

Thus, I cannot condone doping as a way to enhance athletic performance — as alluring as it is. For greater society, the risks simply outweigh the benefits.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Cornering, the Centerpiece of Cycling

Image from Wikimedia
Riding a bike requires almost equal parts skill and trust. And successful cornering is all about trust. One cannot ride in a straight line forever, though I suppose it is feasible, so inevitably turning is going to come into play. There are at least two kinds of technical turns which cause trepidation and fear among cyclists: turning on a fast descent, and curves from a steep ascent into a steeper grade. They require different technical skills, but the same level of trust.

A. Trust

To succeed, you have about three things to trust: your skills, the road, and your bike. Trust in your skills comes from experience and practice. The more and longer you are on your bike, the more comfortable you will feel on it. Read my prior post on training for an overview. Shifting and braking skills are particularly important in cornering.

Trust in the road comes from knowing the road: where the turns are, the amount and ferocity of traffic, and the likelihood of debris or potholes. You will trust a road better if you've been on it, or if you're on an organized ride where the host has, ostensibly, driven the route and place warning signs for cyclists and drivers.

But, for most, the lack of trust comes from a fear of mechanical failure. So you need to know your bike. You need to make sure the chain is lubed and clean. You need to make sure your tires are properly inflated. You need to make sure you've replaced the consumables on your bike within the manufacturer's wear specifications: chain, tires, chainring and cassette, brake pads, cables.

Again, confidence in your bike comes from experience riding it, but more it comes from knowing how it works (Exploratorium's excellent page on bicycle physics, but a Google for others), and knowing how to repair it. Both of these topics are huge; I'm going to write a non-egghead article on why a bicycle stays upright (teaser answer: we don't know).

But you can start to gain more trust in your bike by working on it:
As you ride, you will gain confidence. It is inevitable.

B. Universal Cornering Skills

Making a turn on a bicycle is easy compared with explaining what you do to make a bicycle turn. Your position, the bicycle's position, and the position of the front wheel all make a difference. In our experiments with bicycles, the Exploratorium staff has discovered that you can initiate a turn to one side by steering to the other side. Motorcycle riders call this "counter-steering," a small jerk on the handlebars in one direction to initiate a turn in the opposite direction. (Emphasis added.)
But these are some tips I've learned over the years:
  • Keep your head up.
  • Look into the corner, not at the ground.
  • Moderate your speed before you enter the turn, not while you're in it.
  • Beware of gravel on the road, but don't freak out about it — Don't slam on your brakes!
  • Brake evenly with both hands, not just one.
  • Lean into the turn, and press on the handle bar with the inside hand (counter steering, this may never need to be a conscious activity, but its important to think of it this way).
  • Keep your inside foot up and your outside foot down (to keep from bashing your pedal into the ground).
  • Avoid riding your brakes to keep them from overheating (thus heating the rim and leading to a popped tube, see the section on Fast Cornering).
All this takes practice — or not. You learn this stuff by feeling it and doing it more than by reading it. But you can visualize yourself on the bike performing all these techniques, and improve in that way. Try it!

C. Fast Cornering

Oh, geez, this is hard! I'm an new rider, and my descent skills are just beginning to bloom. However, one lesson I've learned is that I have to let go — mostly of fear — to get down the hill. The more I ride, the faster I can make it down the hill. And believe it or not, faster is better.

If you ride your brakes to descend slowly, you will wear out the components on your bike faster, make it more likely that you have a catastrophic failure of some key system (most likely the tires), and increase the chances of slipping on gravel or in a pothole. Instead, practice using your brakes sparingly on descents — to moderate your speed when you cannot do so by other means (gently brake, release, gently brake to keep from overheating), and to lower your speed as you enter a turn (keep your head up!!).

The Charles River Wheelmen have an excellent article on descents:
.For some, a descent full of twists and turns is nothing short of bliss, while for others it’s pure terror. Wherever you fit in this spectrum, you may find helpful some instruction on how to handle unforeseen problems.
Steep descents can be tricky. Steering will be exaggerated, small turns become more difficult, and your weight is transferred forward. This is a very different experience from riding the flats, and you must know how to counteract these forces. In addition, the road surface conditions play a greater role. At slow speeds, potholes, gravel, spilled oil, and fallen tree limbs are a challenge, but at high speeds such conditions can become a greater threat.
On the topic of cornering in descents, the article continues:
When cornering, lean your bike while keeping your body more upright. Weighting your outer pedal [another way to look at counter steering] and/or pointing your inside knee into the turn can help you maintain proper cornering position. An abrupt steering correction can break the front tire loose, as can the front brake if applied with too much force. Ride within your limits, and adjust your speed based on your line of sight.
And as to braking:
Speed control on descents is essential, which is best accomplished by feathering, or light taps, of the brakes. Stopping distances increase greatly with speed (especially when the rims are wet!). ... The steeper the descent, the less hard you can brake without pitching over the handlebars, so choose a speed that will allow you to stop comfortably if there is an obstacle or hazard just out of sight.
Another problem in descending steeply is that the wheel rims and brake pads may get hot if you apply them too frequently or for too long a time, potentially causing tires and tubes to fail. Use both brakes and short intervals of braking with time in between for the rims to cool.
The article then recommends braking in less steep area rather than on the steepest portions of the hill. Great advise to keep you from doing an endo and will help keep your brakes cooler.

D. Slow Cornering

Equally daunting for some is a slow assent into a steep turn. I'll have to ruminate on this and draft a complete article, but the principles will require, again, practice! The primary tips I have are:
  • Make sure you're in a gear that can accommodate the increased steepness (possibly your lowest gear, or "granny gear").
  • Keep your cadence up (this is the other half of being in the correct gear for the hill) so that you don't burn out your muscles half way through the ascent.
  • Keep your head up and look into the turn.
  • Most importantly: Don't stop pedaling.
Well, that's it for now. Don't hesitate to ask questions or make comments!

Your, Bear.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Be the Cyclist

Proficient cyclists are more than just efficient and athletic, they are safe cyclists (California cycling fatalities have decreased in recent years). Cocky cyclists are hospitalized. I have a right to talk about this topic. Not. As you may have read in other articles, I take safety very seriously. I never ride without my helmet; I always wear gloves; I signal religiously; and I point out obstacles to riders behind me even when they are oblivious. What I do do, though is run red lights and stop signs. Not every one, and only when I deem it to be safe, but under prime circumstances, I won't wait.

I've rationalized this practice. I tell myself that hanging out in an intersection makes me vulnerable and reduces my mobility. California law contradicts this sentiment:
Image credit Threadless Tees
Bicyclists must obey STOP signs and red signal lights. It’s a good idea to stop for yellow lights too–rushing through a yellow light may not leave you enough time to make it across the intersection before the light changes.
California bicycle regulations are available on the DMV website (do a Google search to find your state or country's regulations).

The law specifically provides that, apart from the listed regulations, bicycles are subject to the same laws as motor vehicles under the Vehicle Code. That means cyclists must stop at red lights and stop signs. I begrudgingly agree with that I'm in the wrong with respect to them. (I do take exception to the suggestion that cyclists stop at yellow lights. As a general practice, that is not going to make you friends with surrounding motorists.)

This was all a set up to the point of my article: You got to own your place on the road. Own up to being a cyclist. Encourage others to bicycle.

That was the point of a recent Slate article about the inherent conflict and out-of-proportion fear and loathing drivers have about cyclists:
Every time another bicyclist pulls some dickish stunt, [drivers' negative view of cyclists is reinforced]. The same isn’t true in reverse: The conviction that bicyclists are erratically moving hazards is not diminished by the repeated observance of safe and respectful riding. … [But, once] a person becomes aware of her biases, she is more able to engage rational thought processes to overcome the affect heuristic and dispel her inaccurate conclusions. So, study those stats bike haters!
The unfounded, negative attitude toward cyclists revealed its ugly head a couple months ago when a driver in a fancy convertible pulled up to me and said, "Stay in the bike lane asshole." Being that he was in a car, I should have flashed him my patented smile and given him a thumbs up. I hadn't been doing anything wrong!

It was a narrow two lane road, crowded with parked cars. I was, as is my habit, riding the white line to stay away from opening car doors — a perfectly valid habit under the California code and one that has saved me from collision. But of course, how could I convey that message best in the split second as he passed? "Fuck you, asshole." That pretty much summed up the substance of my comments, even as he slowed down to tell me how I was maligning cyclists in the eyes of motorists.

As if I care. Actually, I'm a motorist too, albeit only rarely. I do care. I don't want to care, but I do and I know I should. Owning my cycling means being safe, obeying the law, and leaving righteous indignation where it belongs — in blog posts infrequently read. As Jim Saksa said in the Slate article I quoted earlier: "So, let me say this to drivers, pedestrians, and my fellow riders alike: I’m sorry. See, aren’t cyclists the nicest, most polite people in the whole world?"