Sunday, September 29, 2013

Absolute Beginners: Pedals and Pedaling

Bicycles typically come with three basic types of pedals, but pedals can always be upgraded or replaced (this is usually the first upgrade most riders make). The types are:

  1. Plain or "Platform" Pedals (figure 1).
  2. Pedals with "toe clips" (figure 3).
  3. Clip-less Pedals (figures 4a–4c).
Figure 1: Platform pedals

Pedals are affixed to a crank on either side of the bike, each arm 180º from the other. The pedals are attached to the crank by a variable length arm; length determined by bike size, rider size and proportions, and type of crank installed. If you ever have a bike fit, the fitter may well replace the crank arms with longer or shorter arms to accommodate your particular mechanics (that will likely require a whole new crank, by the way, because the crank is usually built in to the front chain ring). (Figure 2.)

The pedals are one of three basic interfaces you have with your bike: the handlebars (for stability and control), the saddle (for your butt, but also for stability and control), and the pedals (for power, stability, and also for control). As you can see, all three interfaces provide control over the bike. As the Absolute Beginners series continues, I'll describe how bicycle steering is generated from the pedals and saddle as much as or more than the handlebars.

To generate power and to keep the bike upright, the rider must keep the chainring moving with the chain engaged, thus powering the rear wheel. The rider generates this power by turning the crank by means of the crank arm. In turn, the crank arm is moved by pressure on the pedals with the feet.

And the primary difference between the pedal types is the efficiency with which you move the crank arm by means of your foot: the more affixed your foot is to the pedal, the more power you get for your effort.

Figure 2: Parts of a crank. Image Credit. Click to enlarge.

1. Platform Pedals

When you first purchase your bike, its likely to be equipped with plain pedals. A rider uses platform pedals the old fashioned way: you simply place the balls of your feet on the top of the pedal and push down with the upper foot, allowing the lower foot to rise with the motion of the crank arm.

Plain pedals represent a low-end in a progression of efficiency. When you cycle with only plain pedals, you get power only when your foot is pressing down on the pedal, not during any other part of the stroke. So any effort made to move your other foot (back and forth and up in the circle representing one bicycle pedal stroke) does not go into your forward momentum.

2. Pedals with Toe Clips

"Toe clips" are cages which affix to the pedal. Special pedals are usually required to install the toe clips.
Figure 3: Toe clips. Image Credit.
Pedals with toe clips represent a step up in the progression of efficiency. They provide two main purposes: first, they position your foot roughly in the best position (ball of foot over the pedal), and second, they affix your foot more firmly to the pedal. Thus, you get power from pushing down on the pedal, pulling up on the pedal, and from the forward motion of your foot in the pedal stroke. So, with toe clips, you'll get power on 3/4 of the pedal stroke over the 1/4 with platform pedals only.

Reason tells us that if you pull your foot back during the pedal stroke, you'll pull out of the clip. Usually, your shoes will have some kind of ridges which will keep your foot on the pedal when you pull back. This final 1/4 of the pedal stroke will not provide as good an adherence to the pedal as the other 3/4. Still, this is light years better than the pedal alone.

Toe-clip pedals have several drawbacks. They are heavier than "clipless" pedals. They provide for a LOT of foot movement during the pedal stroke, decreasing efficiency. They are cumbersome to operate. They are harder to get into and out of than "clipless" pedals. And, believe it or not, they are more dangerous to operate than clipless pedals.

If you chose toe clips, remember: you cannot safely ride with your foot on the non-toeclip side! The toe clip may catch on road debris or surface features, and may cause you to crash.

3. Clipless Pedals

Yes, even though you "clip into" them and "clip out" of them, these babies are "clipless." That is because they do away with the toe clips. And these are the most efficient pedals for cycling. Your foot is fully affixed to the pedal, so you are most likely to get full efficiency out of each pedal stroke.

Here are some different types. SPD offer a smaller interface with your shoe, and are often used for mountain biking. SPD SL offers an easier clip along with a nylon cleat and are often used for road biking:

Figure 4a: Shimano SPD Clipless Pedals. Image credit.
Figure 4b: Shimano SPD SL Pedals and Road Bike Shoes. Image credit.

Figure 4c: Shimano SPD SL Cleats. Image credit.
I can't deny it, clipless pedals are intimidating. But they are also awesome. When you get them dialed-in, you and your bike become one. You are the bike. With clipless pedals comes the maximum possible efficiency. You can get power from 100% of the pedal stroke. And you can feel the difference.

Thus, you will see very few road cyclists riding with anything but clipless pedals. As you progress, you'll want to upgrade to clipless pedals for sure. In fact, most dedicated riders will skip toe clips entirely and jump right to clipless pedals.

Once you decide to take the plunge, there are many manufacturers looking for your business: Shimano, Look, Crank Bros, and Speed Play are all more-or-less common brands. Which you choose is a matter of personal choice. Ask other cyclists which they prefer — you will often find near religious adherence to a brand. Here's a useful buying guide.

You need to practice with these. Ask your sales person or training ride leader to demonstrate how to clip in and clip out. You usually get in by aligning the cleat to the edge of the pedal and pressing with the ball of your foot. You usually get out by twisting your foot and stepping off the pedal. Here's a useful video. You can search YouTube for many other similar videos.

This was a lot of information about a seemingly innocuous part of your bike. But pedals are very important and worth the time thinking about them.

Your Bear

By the way: Over the next couple months, I'm going to write a few articles with the lead-in title "Absolute Beginners," explaining some of the basic principles of cycling. Most of the information is stuff I've learned from other cyclists, bike shop mechanics, classes I've taken, and Google searches. Please help me out and comment with corrections, additions, or supplements which will help my readers learn about how to operate their bikes!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Letter to New Riders

I just typed up a letter to a new rider, and I thought it might be useful for other AIDS/LifeCycle Training Ride Leaders. So I'm reprinting it here:

I'm glad you're coming on your first training ride with us. You've come to the right place. We're here to help you get up to speed on the task at hand — learning the cycling skills you'll need to complete your first AIDS/LifeCycle. 
I cannot tell a lie: you're essentially starting out at sea-level, and you have to climb a huge mountain to achieve your goal: 7 days of cycling an average of 6 hours per day, for a total of 545 miles. But with training and some healthy tips and tricks, you can do it. (Here's my summary of a good training plan: 
The things you need, include: a basic understanding of your bike, an understanding of your body's nutritional needs during a ride, and time in the saddle actually riding. 
Image Credit: The Fixed Gear.
(1) Understanding your Bike: 
Sounds like you can start, stop, and steer your bike, so you've taken the first step toward understanding how to operate your bike. As you attend more and more training rides, the Training Ride Leaders (TRLs) will be able to help you improve how you ride (for instance, teaching you how to steer, use your brakes and gears, and when and how to clean your bike). Please ask questions. 
(Here are a few posts on skills: I have to write a post about basic skills, I think!) 
(2) Nutrition: 
You'll learn your body's athletic nutritional needs over time. But, I can tell you that just before, during, and after training rides is not the time for a weight-loss diet. Your body needs calories, carbs, sugars, and salt to put out the athletic effort needed to finish a long ride. To that end, be sure you have a healthy meal the night before your first training ride, eat breakfast and don't skimp on the carbs. 
Make sure you have two water bottles on your first ride: one with water, and one with an electrolyte supplement. TRLs will have some spare supplements, probably, and on our nice-and-easy 20 mile ride, you shouldn't have a problem if you forget the electrolytes. 
(Take a look at my blog entry on eating: (then click the label "nutrition" for more on the topic).) 
(3) Training and Time: 
Know that training for the ALC is a time commitment. At the beginning of your training (now) a couple hours per week on casual rides will suffice. However, by around the beginning of May, a good, achievable average might be about 8 to 12 hours or more per week of concentrated riding (including hills, longer rides (up to 60 miles or more), and back-to-back days of riding). There is much more to this than I can write in a short paragraph, but without this time commitment, completing the long ride can be difficult. What this means in practice is that coming to our training rides is a great start, but you'll also have to train on your own some times. 
(Why ride long distance? Here's my reasoning: 
All this being said, I want to repeat: YOU CAN DO IT. The AIDS/LifeCycle is like no other experience. From the time of your first training ride, you'll be surrounded by people who want you to succeed. The event itself is fully supported from Day 0 to Day 7. As you do the ride, you'll notice marked support cars, vans, and motorcycles driving by you. The drivers have one goal: your safety. So, even if you find yourself lacking in one area, you know you'll always make it back to camp safe and sound — having ridden every mile, or every mile that you can! 
I'm looking forward to meeting you. Don't forget to RSVP to Saturday's ride on the website: Also, don't forget to join our Facebook page for more encouragement. tips and tricks, and to meet other riders and roadies (
Please feel free to use this letter as is or modified.

Your Bear

Monday, September 23, 2013

Nutrition: Its not Magic

Image taken from Tumblr.
Nutrition is one of the primary factors in fun and successful endurance bike rides. Cyclists need to maximize efficiency and reduce fatigue, but also often want to get in many of the other health benefits associated with sport (weight loss, etc.). One thing that no one needs in their diet is magic. And today's magical topic is vitamins.

There is plenty of evidence that vitamins are important for health. For instance, they aid in metabolizing our food — without them, the body cannot absorb nutrients (hence diseases like scurvy and rickets). That fact has led many to grant them divine powers of healing. But the fact is: too many vitamins (through non-medically supervised supplementation) can cause disease and disorder.

That was the finding of two studies reported on in the New York Times:
In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1994, 29,000 Finnish men, all smokers, had been given daily vitamin E, beta carotene, both or a placebo. The study found that those who had taken beta carotene for five to eight years were more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease. 
Two years later the same journal published another study on vitamin supplements. In it, 18,000 people who were at an increased risk of lung cancer because of asbestos exposure or smoking received a combination of vitamin A and beta carotene, or a placebo. Investigators stopped the study when they found that the risk of death from lung cancer for those who took the vitamins was 46 percent higher.
Offit, "Don't Take your Vitamins," New York Times (June 2013).

The craze in vitamin supplementation ostensibly started in the '70s when Linus Pauling decided to wander out of his field of expertise and advocate for high-dose vitamin C supplementation. However, his ideas were proven wrong, but not until millions were wasted on unnecessary vitamins.

The conclusion here is: get the facts about supplements before you take them. Don't self-medicate and don't break the bank. Eat a well-balanced diet, high in protein, full of fresh vegetables and fruit, and a decreasing amount of fat and sugar. Get enough calories for the amount you exercise. And visit your physician regularly for checkups and for diagnoses and treatment of unexplained conditions.

Your Bear